Meet Arab-American Poet Naomi Shihab Nye

By: Donovan Burba,
English Content Editor
الشاعرة الأمريكية من أصل فلسطيني نعومي شهاب ناي والهوية العربية

Each month in 2021, we’ll highlight an Arab-American person or topic of interest, to mark the Qatar-US Year of Culture 2021. Keep an eye on our blog, as well as on the Library’s Events page, to learn more about our celebration of this rich and historical relationship.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and American mother, poet Naomi Shihab Nye split her childhood between Texas and Palestine. As a result, her poetry incorporates Middle Eastern, American, Mexican-American and Native American themes. She has published more than 20 volumes of poetry, including numerous books of children’s poetry.

Of her work, Nye has said, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.”

Among the many awards Nye has received are the  Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Book Critics Circle, numerous Pushcart Prizes and two Arab American Book Awards for her children’s books. Her book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, a collection of poems about Arab and American identity and understanding published after the September 11 attacks, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Library’s main collection and Children’s and Young Adults’ Library has numerous volumes by Nye, including poems, short stories, essays and novels; you can find the full list here

Below is an excerpt from Nye’s poem “Blood,” which explores topics such as Arab identity and the Palestinian struggle:

“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 like snakes.
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.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Blood” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. 

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