September, Ramadan, and a Half-and-Half Poem
September arrived this week, and my children are now back in school. Here in the Washington area, as well as in New York, the uncanny blue skies of September take on an eerie video quality as we all remember that morning of September 11th, 2001. I had just dropped my daughter at the elementary-school bus stop, and I held my son’s little hand as we walked home. A neighbor in the street told me the first tower had been hit, and to go home and turn on the television. I watched as the second tower crumpled, and then turned it off, trying to guard my preschooler from the traumatic images, while frantically attempting to make contact with all of our New York family members. By the time my daughter got home from school, one of her classmates had lost his mother as a plane hit the Pentagon. And all of us were in shock.
This year, 9/11 arrives in the midst of the Jewish High Holidays, and alongside the Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. I am a very lucky Jew who happened to have a positive and formative experience in a Muslim country. Thinking back on the joyous Eids I celebrated with friends and neighbors while living in the democratic West African country of Senegal, it is painful to try to imagine the fear and depression associated with being Muslim in America at this moment.
For solace, I turned this week to a fellow interfaith child, great American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. I discovered Nye in a PBS poetry series hosted by Bill Moyers, which I used in class when I was teaching high school English in Brazil. Daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye published an entire book of poetry in response to 9/11, with the evocative title 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. The book was chosen as a National Book Award finalist. One of the poems, entitled “Half-and-Half” begins like this:
You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian
on the first feast day after Ramadan.
So, half-and-half and half-and-half.
He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,
chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love
anyone else. Says he.
With the repetition of the phrase half-and-half, Nye caresses and owns the words used by others to belittle and condemn our interfaithness. “Says he.” Harrumph. In the wake of 9/11, Nye has written extensively in prose as well as poetry about her response as an Arab-American, and about her love for her Muslim grandmother and extended family in Palestine. Nye acknowledges her own mixed roots, but is driven to write primarly about her Palestinian family, to stand up for them in times of duress. I understand this–many of us who are interfaith Jewish children choose to stand with the Jews when we feel the Jews need us most.
As September 11th approaches, anger and pain stalk us all. We must all take a deep breath, read poetry (Nye’s suggestion), look into the eyes of the people in our communities. We must all understand that our lives are connected across political and religious boundaries now. Those of us who embody the liminal, who bridge cultures, have a duty to seek each other out, to affirm that interfaith love exists and that interfaith children are a sign of hope. One stanza of Nye’s poem “Half-and-Half” ends with these words: “…I press my lips to every exception.” On September 11th, I will press my lips to my own two children, exceptional embodiments of the love that can exist between people of different religions, even in a troubled world. As part of my resolutions for the Jewish New Year, I vow to seek out the other exceptions in our midst–religious, racial, linguistic, all of them–to explore what we have in common.