"A true Arab knows how to catch
a fly in his hands,"
my father would say. And he'd prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.
In the spring our palms peeled.
True Arabs believed watermelon
could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.
Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn't have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
"Shihab" "shooting star"
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, "When we die, we give it back?"
He said that's what a true Arab would say.
Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck
on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.
I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?
I break this toast for the ghost
of bread in Lebanon.
The split stone, the toppled doorway.
Someone's kettle has been crushed.
Someone's sister has a gash
above her right eye.
And now our tea has trouble being sweet.
A strawberry softens, turns musty,
overnight each apple grows a bruise.
I tie both shoes on Lebanon's feet.
All day the sky in Texas which has seen
no rain since June
is raining Lebanese mountains, Lebanese trees.
What if the air grew damp with
the names of mothers?
The clear-belled voices of first-graders
pinned to the map of Lebanon like a shield?
When I visited the camp of the opposition
near the lonely Golan, looking northward toward
Syria and Lebanon, a vine was springing pinkly
from a tin can
and a woman with generous hips like my mother's
said "Follow me."
Someone was there.
Someone not there now
In the wrong place
with a small moon-shaped scar on his left cheek
and a boy by the hand.
Who had just drunk water, sharing the glass.
Who had not thought about it deeply
though they might have, had they known.
Someone grown and someone not-grown.
Who thought they had different amounts
of time left.
This guessing game ends with our hands in the air,
One who was there is not there, for no reason.
Two who were there.
It was almost too big to see.
Our friend from Turkey says language is so delicate
he likens it to a darling.
We will take this word in our arms.
It will be small and breathing.
We will not wish to scare it.
Pressing lips to the edge of each syllable.
Nothing else will save us now.
The above is excerpted from 19 VARIETIES OF GAZELLE by Naomi Shihab Nye. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.