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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Bridging generations: acclaimed writer Naomi Shihab Nye celebrates the unbreakable bonds of far-flung family

Nye's new chldren's book The Turtle of Oman explores enduring themes of homeland, family and separation.
The award-winning writer Naomi Shihab Nye. Courtesy Micahd via Wikimedia Commons
The award-winning writer Naomi Shihab Nye. Courtesy Micahd via Wikimedia Commons
After Naomi Shihab Nye's Palestinian father died, it brought to the surface many cherished memories. One of the happiest was the close relationship that her son and father enjoyed - full of stories, wisdom and encouragement.

The Turtle of Oman [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk] is Nye's response to this experience.

It tells the story of Aref, who, before moving from Oman to the United States, must say goodbye to everything and everyone he loves, including his beloved grandfather, Siddi.

They then both go on a series of adventures during Aref's final week in Oman, rather than pack for the boy's journey.

It is a children's novel that explores the unique relationship between elder and child and examines the enduring themes of homeland, family and separation.

"As a child I would juggle the letters of different names and Naomi turned into Omani. I wrote the first draft of the book before ever visiting the country," says Nye.

The book went through 13 drafts and was completed after a trip to Oman. "After being there a week, I was supposed to leave for Mumbai but the airport insisted my visa had expired and wouldn't let me out. So I got to stay in Muscat for many more days; attend the Muscat Festival; attend a film festival; and go to the desert camp described in the book. What a wonderful place to get stuck. I fell in love with Oman. And I have always been fascinated by all kinds of turtles. Oman is a real paradise for turtles. But if you read the book, you find out who the true turtle is."

Nye's connections to the Middle East run deep and it was a visit to her grandmother in Jerusalem that proved to be life changing.

"My grandmother was born in the 19th century and lived into the last decade of the 20th. She was 106 when she died. For me, she represented deep time.

"She had a great sense of humour. She wasn't bitter, although she had lost her Jerusalem home to Israel in 1948," says Nye, 62.

"To meet her when I was a freshman in high school, and my family lived in Jerusalem for a year, gave me a sense of a much deeper connection on the planet, not only to so many other people - all my Palestinian relatives, living in the West Bank and elsewhere - but also to bigger time."

With such a powerful affiliation to the region, the situation in Gaza must be of deep concern?

"I feel terrible about it. What the Palestinian Gazans are experiencing is disgusting and outrageous - no civilised people should feel otherwise. Of course it would help if Hamas stopped sending out any rockets but this is not the real source of the problem. Treat people in a terrible way long enough and they will act desperate because they are," says Nye.

"We want the people of Gaza to have equal rights and safety. They should not be held in a prison. It is a horrific situation. I cannot believe the cruelty devastating schools, hospitals, communities but most importantly, families. Many people I know of all different backgrounds are extremely upset."

Nye's mother is American and while she calls the Texas city of San Antonio home, she has taught writing and worked in schools all over the world. She is also the author of the widely praised Habibi: A Novel, also set in the Middle East, was a finalist for the US's National Book Award and won the 2013 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature.

"I try to write poems and stories that encourage peaceful attitudes. At times like this we feel like complete failures. But what else can we do? Writing is a lifetime of devotion - speaking up for people and places we care about.

"I care about the whole Middle East and feel very lucky to be connected to it through my father. I have also worked in schools in Abu Dhabi and love visiting Dubai. You are very lucky to be right next door to Oman and they are lucky to be next door to you."

. The Turtle of Oman comes out on August 26.

John Dennehy is the deputy editor of The Review.

jdennehy@thenational.ae