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Volume 49, Number 1January/February 1998

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Sitti at Her Side

Written by Pat McDonnell Twair
Photographed by Michael Nye

April will be a big month for Naomi Shihab Nye. Her anthology of contemporary Middle Eastern poetry and art, The Space Between Our Footsteps, will be published by Simon and Schuster; a book of her own poems, Fuel, will be released by BOA Editions, Ltd. and The Way It Is, a book of poems by her friend and mentor, the late William Stafford, for which she wrote the introduction, is also slated for publication.

The Space Between Our Footsteps, Nye explains, is the first such anthology accessible to teenage readers. "I checked in high-school libraries throughout the country, and with the exception of my own anthology of international poets, This Same Sky, there was no book containing the works of Middle Eastern poets," she says.

The 40 color paintings and other art in the book were selected from thousands of submissions by Arab-American and Middle Eastern artists. "My editor called me in San Antonio and told me to come to New York and start making selections," she recalls. "It was amazing when I entered a conference room and found stacks of boxes. It was difficult to choose from such outstanding original work."

Alert and energetic, Nye makes it clear she prefers simple food, natural wood, hand-woven fabric and lived-in dwellings. She and her husband, Michael, live with their 10-year-old son, Madison White Cloud, in a small 1906 frame house in a Mexican-American neighborhood near the Guadalupe River in San Antonio, Texas. Nye's father, Aziz Shihab, worked for years as a writer at the San Antonio Express News. "I love the oldness and the quirkiness," she says of the city where she also graduated from Trinity University. "It's rich with mixed voices and stories and interwoven lives. We're connected to time down here."

Nye's father came to the United States at 18, and soon settled in St. Louis and married Nye's mother, Miriam Naomi Allwart Shihab, an artist of Swiss-German descent. Both parents encouraged Nye's writing from an early age, and at seven Nye published her first poem. "Now I always tell kids, 'You can do it too! How can anybody publish it if you don't send it out? Get your envelopes ready!'"

In 1966, when Nye was 14, her family moved to her father's native village of Sinjil in the West Bank. From there, he commuted to Jerusalem, where he edited The Jerusalem Times, which appeared daily in English and Arabic.

Though Nye recalls often being overwhelmed by culture shock, her yearlong stay was powerfully formative. In Sinjil, Nye met Sitti Khadra, her paternal grandmother, whose influences now ripple throughout Nye's work. Sitti Khadra was 78 when Nye arrived, and until her death at age 106 she and Nye shared a close relationship. (Sitti is a commonly used affectionate name for a grandmother.)

"My Sitti Khadra and I bonded at first sight," Nye remembers. "I think we recognized that we had the same kind of humor. It was a wordless humor that worked even better than language for us. Though I studied Arabic there, though I know many words and understand much when other people are talking, my Sitti and I communicated in a sort of familial pidgin: gestures, bouquets of disconnected words. My father and miscellaneous cousins served as translators, but we really didn't need them." The sign language, shared laughter and tears were "quite melodious."

Their ties deepened that year when Nye came down with a severe fever that baffled physicians. On the fourth day, Sitti arrived at the house, angry that she hadn't been notified earlier. She prayed over her granddaughter, whose body lay outlined with a hundred silver straight pins. Nye recovered quickly, and she recalls sitting up in bed and demanding hummus. While some in the family reasoned that her fever had merely run its natural course, Nye credits the healing to Sitti.

Years later, on one of Nye's many family visits to Sinjil, Sitti Khadra sat in front of Michael's camera for several portraits. One became the cover of Nye's Words Under the Words. The title poem of the book reads:

My grandmother's hands recognize grapes, the damp shine of a goat's new skin.

When I was sick they followed me, I woke from the long fever to find them covering my head like cool prayers.

My grandmother's days are made of bread, a round pat-pat and the slow baking.

She waits by the oven watching a strange car circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son lost to America.

Nye's first venture out of poetry and into fiction came last October, when Simon and Schuster released her autobiographical novel for young readers, Habibi, which is Arabic for "dear one" or "my dear." It tells the story of Liyana, a 14-year-old who moves from the United States to Jerusalem. "I rewrote it six times," Nye confesses. "As a poet, I don't worry about a plot, I just look at life around me. For this, I had to have action and tension."

Publishers Weekly gave Habibi a starred review, American Bookseller named it a "pick of the list" and Booklist wrote that it "breaks new ground in young adult fiction." New England poet Philip Booth has written that Nye "is in every human sense aware of, and in contact with, the material poverty and the spirited humanity that her poems genuinely embrace."

Such praise is coming Nye's way with increasing frequency. Last September, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1995, Sitti's Secrets, whose main character is based on Sitti Khadra, received the Jane Addams Children's Book Award. In 1988, the Academy of American Poets gave Nye the I.B. Lavan Award for her third anthology, I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You. She has received three Pushcart Prizes and two poetry prizes from the Texas Institute of Letters. She has appeared on the PBS television specials "The Language of Life with Bill Moyers" and "The United States of Poetry."

At the same time Habibi was published, the Magik Children's Theater of San Antonio performed "Benito's Dream Bottle," an operetta adapted for the stage from Nye's children's book of the same title. This was a special family occasion, she explains, because the story was one Madison began telling when he was two or three years old.

"He would tell us in the mornings that he had had such a wonderful dream but now it was 'in the bottle,'" says Nye. "'What bottle?' we would ask. He would reply, 'The dream bottle,' as if he assumed everyone had a 'dream bottle.'"

The story is of a boy, Benito, and his grandmother, who has lost her ability to dream. So Benito surveys the neighborhood and asks who dreams: Cats? Trees? Eventually he fills his bottle with the things he loves. When he gives it to his grandmother, she finds her dreams again.

Where does Nye get all the ideas that fuel this imaginative productivity? Her answer comes with characteristic enthusiasm. "Where do you not?"

Pat Twair is a free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles and specializes in Arab-American topics.

Photographer Michael Nye is 'Naomi Shihab Nye's husband. He specializes in portraits, and has exhibited recently in both San Antonio and Riyadh.

 A Naomi Shihab Nye Bibliography


Fuel. BOA Editions, Ltd., forthcoming April 1998, ISBN 1-880238-63-2, $12.50 pb.

Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Eighth Mountain Press/Far Corner Books, 1995, ISBN 0-933377-29-0, $13.95 pb.

Red Suitcase: Poems. BOA Editions, Ltd., 1994, ISBN 1-880238-15-2, $12.50 pb.

Anthologies and Edited Collections

The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East. Simon & Schuster, forthcoming April 1998, ISBN 0-689-81233-7, $19.95 hb.

I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You: A Book of Her Poems & His Poems Collected in Paris. Edited with Paul B. Janeczko. Simon & Schuster, 1996, ISBN 0-689-80518-7, $17.00 hb.

The Tree is Older Than You Are: A Bilingual Gathering of Poems and Stories from Mexico. Simon & Schuster, 1995, ISBN 0-689-802978, $19.95 hb; $12.00 pb forthcoming April 1998.

This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World. Simon & Schuster, 1992, ISBN 0-027-68440-7, $17.00 hb; 0-689-80630-2, $8.99 pb.


Never in a Hurry: Essays on People and Places. University of South Carolina Press, 1996, ISBN 1-57003-082-0, $16.95 pb.

Books for Children

Habibi: A Novel. Simon & Schuster, 1997, ISBN 0-689-80149-1, $16.00 hb.

Lullaby Raft. Illustrated by Vivienne Flesher. Simon & Schuster, 1997,0-689-80521-7, $16.00 hb.

Benito's Dream Bottle. Illustrated by Yu Cha Pak. Simon & Schuster, 1995, ISBN 0-027-68467-9, $15.00 hb.

Sitti's Secrets. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Four Winds, 1994, ISBN 0-02-768460-1, $15.00 hb; 0-689-81706-1, $5.99 pb.

This article appeared on pages 38-41 of the January/February 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1998 images.