What Do YOU Think?
According to her agency's blurb, "Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” She has spent 33 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio.
Naomi is not just a Texas treasure, she is a global citizen. Here is a recent piece from her recent travels.
Stan, a native of Soweto township in Johannesburg, South Africa, drove me to the Lion Park beyond the sprawling city. Beside the road, trains of women in intensely-hued skirts walked a path between billowing grasses. “Where are they going?” I asked. Stan said, “To work.” The Lion Park is fenced-in, so one could hardly call it “wild” but it was the best chance I had to see animals during my week there.
Inside the Lion Park, Stan told me his favorite viewing tactic. “You stop where there is nothing happening – no zebra, no lion – and you stare. Any people in cars behind you stop and stare too. If you wait long enough, something amazing usually comes into view.” We stopped. The Japanese tourists in a van behind us craned their necks to see we were looking at. Then an impressive white lion strutted out from behind a bush to drink from a puddle.
“See!” said Stan proudly. “That’s all it takes, patience!”
It’s the sort of old-fashioned word that can bring a lump into the throat, some days. Many of us miss “patience” in the speedy culture of our times. It’s a simple word, like “bridge” or “cooperate” or “dialogue.”
Traveling out of the country for work during the last school year – to South Africa, Egypt, England, and Canada, I found myself asking one question in the most neutral tone I could muster –- “What do you think of the war in Iraq?” I asked it to bellboys, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and students, usually before we had spoken about anything else. I copied their comments in a notebook.
Not one person refused to answer. Some offered single words. “Disaster.” Or “Catastrophe.” Others cursed. No one said, “Brilliant idea.” A British waiter said, “What do you think I think? Idiocy!” English citizens incorporated the word “bloody” into their replies, and more than once, added, “literally.” They claimed to hate their own country’s involvement and were ready for Blair to be replaced.
Stan, the driver who believed in patience, shook his head sadly when I asked him. “I just don’t like fighting. More sad results will come than good.”
Nelson, a popular South African guide who teased that he is just one of the many great Nelsons, said, “Who can accept creating violence in a country not even your own? Violence breeds violence. Look at all the refugees. What if South Africans decided to conduct a war in Algeria, because we didn’t approve of something there? What would people say? If one person dies, that’s too many. I was listening to the radio, another car bomb exploded – 80 dead. What’s the total head count now? How does your government sleep at night? I don’t know how this terrible situation will be healed. But it’s not looking better.”
He got so upset sharing his opinions, he asked to change topics. “Let’s talk about a happier subject that begins with O. Obama or Oprah. Could Obama really win? Is Oprah really influential?”
American teachers abroad frequently mention that our government’s current policies are placing them in elevated jeopardy. “Just because we’re American, we may be seen as symbols of arrogant power – we’re much more scared than we used to be.”
An elderly gentleman in Johannesburg replied simply, “We are shocked you allowed the war in Iraq to happen.” His single line seemed ironic, in a country recently fractured with racial injustice and currently swirling with crime.
The idea that U.S. citizens are letting the war in Iraq happen without stopping it is one that comes up often. Yet what country has not seen horrible things happen that regular citizens were unable to stop?
When a drunken Irishman grabbed me by the shoulder of my coat in Aldeburgh, an English town beside the North Sea, asking roughly, “Are you the Texan?” I replied, “Uh -- I am a traveler.” He said, “I think you’re the Texan. And you need to stop that damn war, you hear me? It’s destabilizing the world!”
Americans like to travel. We want people to welcome us, as we enjoy welcoming them to our city and country. Has our collective reputation now entered the edgiest time of recent history? The desk clerk at the Nile Hilton advised me to tell people in Cairo I was from Kuwait instead of Texas.
In Egypt, I realized it was much harder than it used to be to get a group of Muslim women one doesn’t know – on a subway car, for example– to smile. It used to be easy. These days, one bumbling Westerner, unused to the system or curious about the odd multi-colored hatpins (for headscarves) being sold by a little boy in the “women’s car”– no longer raises a ripple of welcoming goodwill.
The faces turn away.
This was probably the saddest thing I encountered.
I asked Mohammed, housekeeper on my floor at the hotel, who secretly kept supplementing my stock of bottled waters for free, what he thought about the war and he said, “It makes me cry.”
Members of the American University in Cairo community gathered for a cocktail dinner in a lovely apartment. Not a single one had anything good to say about the war in Iraq. A few said, “It’s about Palestine.” Or “It’s about Israel.” Many said, “It’s about oil.” One asked, “If Egypt does not approve of American leaders, we could invade, topple them and fight in your streets, and people would find it appropriate?”
A professor’s son named Tareq, a recent AIDS project worker in Africa, himself a PhD, urged immediate total pullout of the American forces in Iraq. I countered, “But Americans fear this will lead to more chaos.” He snickered. “Could there be more? Give me a break. If the Americans get out of there, neighboring countries will be obliged to help out more and the tone of terror will diminish.”
I said, “But Americans say, Al-Qaeda will gain power in Iraq if they pull out.” Tareq said, “Al-Qaeda is working undercover, attracting orphans and disenfranchised desperate people whose towns have been ruined and families murdered. They have more friends every day. Al-Qaeda is fortified by the American presence in Iraq -- common sense would tell you that.”
A woman from Ghana, my seatmate on the plane home, said, “My family in Africa is scared that I live in the United States. They advise me to live in Australia.”
Democracy means freedom of speech, for one thing, and most of us could stand a little more speech among adversaries. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, says, “As a matter of principle, all conflicts should be resolved through diplomatic means in a peaceful way. Sometimes diplomacy has not worked, but still, this is the only way and the best way to address differences of opinion.”
What is there to lose?
Perhaps the most haunting remark collected on my travels this year popped out in a cozy café in Toronto, where two young Canadian editors for a big publishing house chatted about books and politics. “Frankly,” said one, “we hate to admit this…
but we’re rather enjoying watching the downfall of your country.”
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