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Mideast Pact Adds Meaning to Tonight's 'Voices' Program

September 11, 1993|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before news broke this week of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye had planned to read a new work tonight at 7:30 at Santa Monica's Midnight Special Bookstore as part of the Los Angeles Festival. She has never read it in public before. And now she believes that work is particularly timely.

"It's a sort of prose-poem piece about my 105-year-old grandmother, who lives in the West Bank," Nye said in a telephone interview Friday from her home in San Antonio (she flies in today for the reading, which is part of the festival's "Women's Voices" series). "She has had many near-death experiences over the past few years, because of her age. And she came the closest she has ever come to death this past spring. But then she revived, and is doing fine.

"She ends up being, for me, a metaphor for the land and the people--being so close to gone, but with the ability to come back. I have a strong hope."

Nye's choice of the poem is not this evening's only timely coincidence--Nye will read her works along with Israeli writer Shirley Kaufman, as part of the festival's ongoing effort to bridge the gaps between disparate cultures. Nye said that while her planned program of readings will not change, her comments to the audience may reflect the new developments in the Middle East.

"I think this is great luck," said Nye, the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother. "It's a really nice, serendipitous connection of time. . . . I'm very grateful and glad that the festival would think of coupling us in that way, because . . . the most important thing is any kind of mutuality. It's not enough to just speak to your own little group. This is not like addressing a group at a Palestinian university; to me, it is bigger and more important in terms of today's world experience to cross over any bridge, anything that people might perceive to be a gulf. You find out that it really isn't."

On Friday morning, Kaufman was watching the Israeli-Palestinian story unfold on CNN when she was reached by phone at her downtown hotel room; she turned down the sound to discuss her feelings about the reading and its sudden new significance. Kaufman, raised in San Francisco, has spent 20 years living in Israel.

"I think it is just the dream of centuries that we can finally begin to think about living together in peace with people who have sworn to destroy us from the moment we begin to settle in Israel," Kaufman said.

"As the struggle went on, both sides have suffered intensely, and, increasingly, and it has become quite intolerable, with accusations and distortions of the truth and increasing violence. Probably the degree of suffering as much as anything else has brought our two peoples to somehow realize we've got to find a way to start over."

Kaufman said that the coming together of the two cultures under the umbrella of the festival's "Women's Voices" series also carries a special meaning. "There have been meetings all through the intifada (uprising) between Israeli and Palestinian women," she said.

"(Many) peace movements have been started by women; many women have been meeting quietly, in each other's homes, to talk about peace for a long time. So I welcome the chance. Poetry tries to make other people understand the depth of the problem, both of the suffering and of the hope."

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