BOA Editions, Ltd, 2019
Author of and contributor to dozens of volumes ranging from fiction to children’s books and anthologies, Naomi Shihab Nye was recently named as The Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate for 2019-2021. Her background as a Palestinian American who grew up in Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas gives her an intensely empathetic vantage point through which she sees the trauma and bravery of the Palestinian people, as expressed vividly, and passionately, in her latest book The Tiny Journalist, which was written in honor of Janna Jihad Ayyad and her cousin Ahed Tamimi, one of the most recognizable faces of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.
If we are fortunate enough to live in circumstances where turning away is an option, too often this is precisely what we do. The Tiny Journalist is a plea to do the opposite, to look and consider what it is to be Palestinian, to be effectively stateless, and to be “Scattered around the world like pollen”. Despite their being almost absurdly outmatched by the intersecting power structures of Israel and America, Palestinians endure. A collection of eighty poems split into two sections, The Tiny Journalist is a testament to this endurance.
Now thirteen, Ayyad, who began recording protests with her mother’s iPhone at the age of seven and posting the footage on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, has been called by some the world’s youngest journalist. The word tiny, though diminutive, expresses Nye’s reverence for the capacity of one so young to affect change, at the same time that she laments Ayyad’s loss of innocence resulting from her precocious citizen journalism in the book’s opening poem “Morning Song”:
The tiny journalist
will tell us what she sees.
Document the moves, the dust,
soldiers blocking the road.
Yes, she knows how to take a picture
with her phone. Holds it high
like a balloon. Yes, she would
prefer to dance and play,
would prefer the world
to be pink. It is her job to say
what she sees, what is happening.
From her vantage point everything
is huge—but don’t look down on her.
She’s bigger than you are.
For many adults, children needn’t be taken seriously, yet we ignore the young at our peril: it’s they who are inheriting the earth, and their voices are perhaps the most important of all. Beyond the credentials of the professional adult journalist whose positions might be quashed by gatekeeper media, through the ubiquity of social media, the tiny journalist may bear witness and speak on behalf of her generation. As Ayyad says, “Journalism is my only weapon to show the world what the children are going through in Palestine.” It seems Nye’s intent in The Tiny Journalist is to use the power of poetry to amplify the vitality of the young defending the young, namely, to bring the bravery of Ayyad’s message to the widest possible audience, including children.
As we discover in the author’s note, The Tiny Journalist is written in a mix of voices: Ayyad’s, Nye’s father, who was himself a Palestinian refugee and journalist, and her own memories of and reflections upon Palestine. Since this spectrum of voices makes it hard at times to place the speaker(s) of the poems, the voices are reminiscent in some ways of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms; fraught with contradictions he couldn’t resolve, Pessoa found himself writing in distinct voices through which he could express disparate viewpoints.
Like Pessoa, whose heteronymic voices ranged from work of a more critical nature to piercingly simple, plain work, Nye’s poems fluctuate from powerfully direct statements that appear to have been written in her own voice to pieces that could have been written for children, echoes of which we can glean in the passage above from “Morning Song”. This is also discernible in both the title of “Exotic Animals, Books for Children,” and in the speaker’s shift in tone, which muses on the fact that “Armadillo means / ‘little armored one.’ / Some of us become this to survive in our own countries.” It’s as if Nye is speaking to Ayyad as the child she is, noting that Ayyad must have the necessary armor to live under occupation, just as Nye must have armor as an American who’s lived through the dark times of the post-9/11 years and is still navigating ongoing waves of anti-Muslim sentiment, which are by no means limited to Israel. Perhaps part of these arguably heteronymic vocal shifts result from Nye’s identifying as a “wandering poet,” although she remains a Texas-based poet whose local reference to the armadillo conflates Texan fauna with Middle Eastern politics, employing this metaphor as a vehicle of transcontinental and multi-generational solidarity.
In the poem “Janna,” the voice shifts from a kind of narratorial one to lines that are likely a dramatized version of Ayyad’s voice. The poem starts with these lines:
At 7, making videos.
At 10, raising the truth flag.
At 11, raising it higher,
traveling to South Africa,
keffiyah knotted on shoulders,
interviews in airports,
Please could you tell us . . .
There’s a clear shift from the narratorial reporting on Ayyad’s background above to the first person lines below:
We are made of bone and flesh and story
but they poke their big guns
into our faces
and our front doors
and our living rooms
The handling of this passing from a narratorial voice to a dramatic one is not always consistently arresting. It hardly matters, though, if the lines quoted immediately above are in Nye’s voice or Ayyad’s. We get the idea, and there’s considerable power in how this scene evokes the intrusions of state control breaching the threshold of the home, of guns staging the story of Palestinian bodies.
In “ISRAELIS LET BULLDOZERS GRIND TO HALT,” Nye also appears to be speaking in her own voice when she writes
I am mad about language
masking the wound
Among these fluctuations in voice, what is ostensibly Nye’s own voice often has greater lyrical force. These lines are haunting:
As if the bulldozers had their own lives
and were just being bulldozers
on their own time
no people involved
Years ago, when teaching English in Taiwan, I had a roommate from Chicago, a quiet, thoughtful guy. We talked a lot about politics, as it was the time of George Bush’s controversial rise to power, 9/11, and so on. When I left Taiwan, I never saw him again, but later learned he’d joined a pro-Palestinian group called International Solidarity Movement. With a cohort of several other activists, acting as a human shield trying to protect Palestinian homes from being demolished, my former roommate was present in 2003 when the American activist Rachel Corrie was run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer. In the face of such raw, brutal power, what can words do? The Tiny Journalist compels us to recognize that though they require courage, words do indeed have power.
Nye’s poems tell us nobody can completely take people’s power from them if they have the tenacity to endure, as the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who was accused of support for a terrorist organization and sentenced to five months in prison for publishing a poem called "Qawim ya sha’abi, qawimhum," (Resist my people, resist them). Nye is often at her best rhetorically when her lines are simple and spare, as in this brief poem for Tatour, quoted in full below:
Dareen Said Resist
And went to jail.
We were asking, What?
You beat us with butts of guns
tear-gas our grandmas,
and you can’t take
Under the heading “Poetry is Not a Crime,” the website of the Jewish Group for Peace houses an extraordinary petition, a list of hundreds of writers, artists, and intellectuals such as Claudia Rankine and Naomi Klein who rallied behind Tatour’s right to use the written word to voice dissent. The petition appears below another poem by Naomi Shihab Nye written on Tatour’s behalf, positioning Nye as a major poetic voice arguing for a radical increase in empathy towards Palestinians.
About the need for greater empathy in light of Israel’s human rights abuses, it’s relevant that the current administration’s first Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, once said the following:
If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote—apartheid. . . That didn't work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.
Employing her father’s voice, in “My Immigrant Dad, On Voting,” Nye writes
Jimmy Carter was the only one I trusted
He saw us as human beings
He wasn’t afraid to say Apartheid which of course
it was and always has been
He got in trouble for being honest
I wrote him a letter
Said he was the best president I ever had
In the face of what major mainstream officials regard as apartheid, The Tiny Journalist is a book about power, colonization, and injustice, but also the power of imagination in the face of unremitting force, as expressed memorably in these lines from “Positivism”: “This was our superpower, retaining imagination / in worst days”.
It is a book that asks how Palestinians can lead normal lives in the face of injustice, and about how the poetic imagination seeks the creation of a new normal amidst the barrage of assymmetic power. “Separation Wall” is replete with pathos, as Nye appears to consult memories of her grandmother:
I ask my grandmother if there was ever a time
she felt like a normal person every day,
not in danger, and she thinks for as long
as it takes a sun to set and says, Yes.
I always feel like a normal person.
They just don’t see me as one.
In “Losing As its Own Flower,” Nye writes “We lost our rhythm of regular living”. Amidst the syncopations of conflict, diaspora, and exile, Palestinians endure, but are never able to live consistently regular lives. In one of the more remarkable poems in the collection, “America Gives Israel Ten Million Dollars a Day,” the speaker reflects “But some people do not want Palestinians to ‘lead normal lives’ ”. The last few stanzas of the poem are particularly powerful, and worth quoting here in full:
I asked a rabbi demonstrating against us
if his people could imagine our sorrows.
Could they just hold their own thoughts for a moment
and imagine what we feel like?
He was quiet, staring at me.
I made a rabbi quiet.
Could he imagine the pain of Ahmed Dawabsha,
only survivor of his family terribly burned
when the settlers threw a Molotov cocktail into
his house? No more mother, father, baby brother,
Ahmed, once the most beautiful little boy you can imagine,
Ahmed, now alone with sorrow and scars and pain,
wrapping his wounds. And this is what
the rabbi said: I don’t know. I don’t know
if we can imagine it.
And that is the problem.
Not just in Israel and Palestine, but everywhere, including the emotional arcs of our private lives, so much of our failed capacity for peace, what we could build together as the real, the normal, the true, is contingent on a failure of imagination. So it stands to reason that our potential salvation lies in our capacity to imagine one another, or even to say we don’t know, and to begin to imagine, from there.
In “Regret,” we read “This is normal here, the fathers say / grenades exploding / tourists stepping carefully over the grenades”. What does the word normal mean when the abnormal is normalized? When there’s one set of norms for some, and another set of norms for others, such as the Palestinians, who are fundamentally othered into a permanent state of emergency, expressed so incisively in the spare last five lines of “Regret”:
tear gas billowing down our streets
We are so tired
This poem asks us how anyone could enjoy the usual things of life, how people can work and breathe to a regular rhythm of living, when exhausted by the poisonous cloud of regret in a perpetual state of emergency.
The Tiny Journalist is a book about the power of imagination, but also paradoxically about the perceived powerlessness of imagination against realpolitik, for to stand up to Israel is also to stand up to its mighty partner, America, millions of whose citizens pay for / subsidize Palestinian subjugation through taxation without understanding how or why. Nye’s poetics are deployed in service of making the reader feel the bite, the gnawing violence of day-to-day life for Palestinians, for whom justice is too often arbitrary. At times, the aesthetic cohesion of the book becomes secondary to its ethical arguments, a quandary that some artists deal with by retreating to irony, distance, and abstraction, and ignoring politics altogether. Nye’s ethically ambitious but overtly political risk-taking has led to perceptible minor flaws in the book. Nevertheless, the call to invest our moral imagination in the Palestinians’ experience as well as the witnesses who’ve experienced the Palestinians’ situation firsthand is profound, as in “Harvest,” which tells of a visit to Palestine by a group of American doctors:
The doctors say they are shocked to see.
We don’t know what it would feel like,
not having guns pointed at us. Guns
have been pointed at us all our lives.
America don’t act surprised, you bought them!
This is a recurrent argument: the reader must first imagine, and second, the reader can act simply by asking if it’s justifiable that their tax dollars are directly implicated in the persistence of this distant conflict, albeit one that is traumatic for Palestinians and Israelis alike. One thing’s for certain: what we accept as irreconcilable conflict is more likely to be moderated by the imagination than by politics as usual, especially if the usual politics serve the atrophying of a people through piecemeal colonization at gunpoint.
The book sets itself what many would take to be a seemingly impossible task: to induce people unfamiliar firsthand with Palestinian suffering to see and even to feel their plight. The Tiny Journalist is a necessary book, for in spite of the daunting nature of this task, to seek it is to embrace hope, to forge a visionary bridge between America and Palestine. So how prescient it was that in the book’s penultimate poem, Nye quotes W.S. Merwin, who passed so recently, “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree”. Perhaps hope is a delusion, but it is, in its bittersweetness, the best tool we have to keep living, to keep faith in our common humanity, and this is why we need the young, why we need tiny journalists, so we can see what they see, and hear the ethical force of their words.
Mark Grenon's poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Arc, The Antigonish Review, carte blanche (Pushcart-nominated poem), Debutantes/Debbie, filling Station, the Hamilton Review of Books, Matrix, the Ottawa Arts Review, PRISM international, The Puritan, and Vallum. His collaborative video poetry has been screened at the Visible Verse Festival, the Rendez-vous cinéma québécois, the anti-Matter Film Festival, and the SIMULTAN Festival in Romania. Originally from Ottawa, he's taught ESL in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, and Chile, and lives in Montréal.