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Guidelines

If they ask you what you are,
say Arab. If they flinch, don't react,
just remember your great-aunt's eyes.

If they ask you where you come from,
say Toledo. Detroit. Mission Viejo.
Fall Springs. Topeka. If they seem confused,

help them locate these places on a map,
then inquire casually, Where are you from?
Have you been here long? Do you like this country?

If they ask you what you eat,
don't dissemble. If garlic is your secret friend,
admit it. Likewise, crab cakes.

If they say you're not American,
don't pull out your personal,
wallet-sized flag. Instead, recall

the Bill of Rights. Mention the Constitution.
Wear democracy like a favorite garment:
comfortable, intimate.

If they wave newspapers in your face and shout,
stay calm. Remember everything they never learned.
Offer to take them to the library.

If they ask you if you're white, say it depends.
Say no. Say maybe. If appropriate, inquire,
Have you always been white, or is it recent?

If you take to the streets in protest,
link hands with whomever is beside you. 
Keep your eyes on the colonizer's maps, 

geography's twisted strands, the many colors
of struggle. No matter how far you've come, remember:
the starting line is always closer than you think.

If they ask how long you plan to stay, say forever.
Console them if they seem upset. Say, don't worry,
you'll get used to it. Say, we live here. How about you?

—Lisa Suhair Majaj

Naomi Shihab Nye reads Lisa Suhair Majaj’s “Guidelines”

Transcription of Commentary

This is Naomi Shihab Nye and I’m reading a poem by Lisa Suhair Majaj called “Guidelines.”

“Keep your eyes on the colonizer’s maps”—“Guidelines” by Lisa Suhair Majaj, an Arab-American poet who currently lives in Cyprus with her husband and two children, is one of my favorite poems about identity. This poem is included in Lisa’s book Geographies of Light published by Del Sol Press, Washington DC in 2009. Her title has bearing here too. Lisa’s poem sheds a clear, compelling light on the sometimes thorny terrain of immigration, identity and belonging, and it does this in an imaginative, comfortable tone which includes us all in the conversation. “Guidelines” functions through a series of simple, potent questions and comments: advice to the listener as it were, arranged in three-line stanzas. It’s friendly. It doesn’t get irritated even when pressed. It reminds me of the power of language to ease situations of potential conflict. Instead of backfiring with fury, the poem gently engages and expands. Its playfulness and nuanced possibility ending with that most gracious turnaround—“How about you?”—suggests the peculiar curiosity of this issue. Who does belong? Does everyone belong? Do we have to do something special to belong? Do people who look like you belong a little bit more?

I like the openhearted tone of “Guidelines.” Nobody could say they don’t understand this poem. Yet it’s clever and surprising, as well as revealing and wise. Walking in Claremont, California the other day, I saw a handwritten sign on a wall: NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL. Because I live in a Texas city with a high majority of Latino residents and an ongoing conversation about citizenship and human rights, this sign caught me up. I had never seen the truth stated so simply before. It made me think of what Lisa’s poem “Guidelines” is saying. I think about the people who first lived on all our lands here in the United States and the indignities they have had to face being so often neglected in the presumptions of belonging. I think of my Palestinian refugee father and his lives in both countries—Palestine and the United States—always wanting to belong, always seeking connection.

Lisa Suhair Majaj and I happen to share exactly the same heritage, Palestinian fathers and Midwestern German-American mothers, but this is not the reason I like her poem. Her poem speaks for all of us: for bullied middle schoolers and outsider teens, for anyone who ever feels marginalized, for oddballs and wallflowers and hermits and eccentrics and, well, maybe that person who lives right next door to you. How are they doing?

“Guidelines” by Lisa Suhair Majaj from Geographies of Light.

Web del Sol Association, 2009.

Reprinted by permission of author.

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Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye

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Naomi Shihab Nye (1952- ) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and educated at Trinity University in San Antonio. The daughter of a Palestinian refugee and an American, Shihab Nye spent part of her childhood in Jerusalem. The author of numerous poetry collections, children's books, and essays, her many awards include the Witter Bynner Fellowship (2000) and four Pushcart prizes. Photo credit: Chehalis Hegner

Learn more about Naomi Shihab Nye at The Poetry Foundation

Lisa Suhair Majaj

Lisa Suhair Majaj

Lisa Suhair Majaj (1960-) is a Palestinian-American poet who was born in Iowa and raised in Jordan. Educated at the American University of Beirut and the University of Michigan, Majaj currently resides in Cyprus. Her essays and poems have been published widely, and her poetry collection The Geographies of Light (2008) won the Del Sol Press Poetry Prize.