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Poem: And That Mysterious Word Holy

From our poet of the month, Naomi Shihab Nye

Tanks at sunrise


“What does that say about holy? / How much power it doesn’t have— / Thou shalt not kill crumpled under our feet.”

And That Mysterious Word Holy 

You might as well take a rotten lemon,
squeeze it in your hand.
Let the juice trickle down your wrist and arm,
sharp bite of acidity prickling your
scratches and scars and say,
I bow down to you.
When the almond tree erupts into
blossom without help from any people—
I bow down. Here we are in the land
of sacred story, chant, shrines,
altars and grottoes, parables,
and soldiers in camouflage are carrying guns.
What does that say about holy?
How much power it doesn’t have—
Thou shalt not kill crumpled under our feet.
Whose religion would you follow?
And why do they wear camouflage?
We can still see them.
Who are they hiding from?
The guns are bigger than we are.
The tanks are bigger than shrines.
Tear gas canisters, grenade casings
littering graves of our ancestors in the cemetery.
I bow down. You bow to the big shining platter
everyone eats off together. Sit in a circle
for your holy rice. Speak after me.
Holy eggplant, my best angel.

Listen to Naomi read And That Mysterious Word Holy:

Naomi Shihab Nye shared her insight with Spirituality & Health:

Of course it has always struck anyone who gives it a thought such an irony that “The Holy Land” should be fraught with so much murderous inequity, murder itself, injustice, cruelty, theft, imprisonment without any honorable procedures or ethical protocols being acknowledged.

As a teenager living there with a Muslim family, attending first a Quaker School and then an Armenian Orthodox School, singing in a community choir in many sacred spaces, walking the Via Dolorosa on a daily basis to get to school from Damascus Gate, I meditated on this. Holy? How holy? How could you ascribe to any religion at all and put up with this horror show? 

From a distance for all these years now, the elements seem underscored—intensified—exactly as shocking as they did 50 years ago. We might all do well to be deeply grateful to every person of any religious background who has struggled long and hard for honest cooperation. 

I am forever indebted to the Christian brother who founded the village of Neve Shalom, Wahat Al-Salaam, which could have been a model for better behavior but so far, has not been, on a wide-enough scale. 

I am doubly disgusted with American evangelicals who, for their own financial gain or prominence, keep raving on about the end of the world, as if encouraging it—and claiming the purity and piety of Israel, for this sake alone. So they might convert the Jews to Christianity when the world ends—or some such hogwash. I was a religion major in college so I might meditate further on such oddities. And find the goodness in every tradition.

Shihab Nye on the story behind The Tiny Journalist:

(Janna Jihad Ayyad is a Palestinian youth activist and amateur journalist who began posting videos when she was seven years old.)   

“When I heard about Janna Jihad Ayyad I became fascinated by her. I heard this child, was posting videos of what was going on in her village, which is very close to the village my Palestianian grandmother ended up in. The Tiny Journalist came out of a merging of perspectives with a cross-generational story of what is going on in Palestine. 

I tried not to write in her voice. In these poems, it’s my voice, or perhaps the collective voice, since I do Skype video calls with many children in Gaza. 

In our current, crazy times, more people need to speak out about facts and stories that they know. That’s one thing I’ve always been fascinated by in different spiritual traditions. What are the stories behind the belief? What are the stories that were told to encourage people to follow this path?”

“And That Mysterious Word Holy” from The Tiny Journalist. © 2019 by Naomi Shihab Nye. BOA Editions, Ltd.,

Read more about Naomi's life of poetry in our re/VIEW featured in the S&H November/December issue.

Read more poems:

Wilder's no. 112

Tyler Knott Gregson's take an ache, make it sing 

Deborah Anne Quibell's A Thousand Ways 

Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye is the author and/or editor of more than thirty volumes of poetry. She has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow and a Witter Bynner Fellow. Her numerous awards include a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award from BOA, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Patterson Poetry Prize, and four Pushcart Prizes. In May 2019 she was named the 2019–2021 Young People's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. For more information about Naomi Shihab Nye, visit

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