Poet of the flames

Meet Nidaa Khoury, a writer who expresses the voice of women.

nidaa khoury 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nidaa khoury 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Israeli Arab poet Nidaa Khoury, the opening lines of her poem "My Town" could well describe her village today, but the words were written in 1993. Things have never been easy in Khoury's village, Fassouta, a Melkite Catholic enclave of 3,000 people located just six kilometers from the Lebanese border. But with war blazing literally overhead, it's worse than usual. "You can't live in Fassouta right now," Khoury told Metro last week. "Survive, maybe, but not live. It's just not possible." Even survival isn't guaranteed. "Rockets are shot overhead, day and night. They land all over," she said. "From the North, Hizbullah fires rockets; and on the south, Israel has tanks lined up because it's a strategic location. Sometimes the Katyushas blow up in the village itself, but even when they hit a distance away, the land shakes. You can't sleep. The only food is what the people had in their homes. It's very bad." Does the community have bomb shelters? "Only a few, not nearly enough. So the parents put the children in the shelters, and they themselves stay outside." A few weeks ago Khoury reached the end of her tolerance. As a renowned poet with seven books in print and two more to be published this winter, she was one of the few Fassouta villagers who had options. For the past several years, Khoury has taught graduate and undergraduate classes at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), so she fled the North and moved into a small apartment in Beersheba, even though the fall term doesn't begin until October. "It's safer here," she said, but she was consumed with worry and guilt over those she left behind. "My husband stayed. He has work, wanted to protect our home, and has a sister and other family who needed him. My youngest son, who just graduated high school, stayed to be with his father. So now I'm safer here, but I can hardly bear the worry and separation from my family. I'm very afraid." Khoury's mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's, lives in a care facility in a nearby village. "It's a terrible worry. We don't know what she comprehends, but the ground shakes all the time. She must notice that." Three nieces and nephews joined Khoury in Beersheba. "My brother has four month-old twins and a two year-old daughter. The two year-old was so terrified, she hid all day under a chair. So now they're here with me, too. We have a full house." To describe Nidaa Khoury as a "survivor" would be an understatement. More than survive, she has prevailed. Born in 1959 into the very traditional atmosphere of a Christian Arab village, she dropped out of school to marry at 16. She had three children before she was 19. It was as a married woman with little kids that she began her formal education. In her Arabic poetry, Khoury works through her pain and despair, much of which is as contemporary as yesterday with its imagery of war and death. "I was just a child when I wrote my first poem," she said. "It was about a soldier who died on the border, alone, without his mother or sister or wife there to comfort him as he died. Even when I was very small, I was preoccupied with the meaning of existence, life and death." Her early efforts were not appreciated. "My teacher looked at that poem, crumpled the paper up and threw it down. 'Leave that alone,' he told me. 'You have exams to prepare for.' It meant nothing to him. Later I studied at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Nazareth for a couple of years, which took my soul to another place. It was there I began thinking about a woman's role in the world. The nuns were very spiritual, but the paradox for me was to see if I could find a balance between their lives of prayer and devotion and another way of life that acknowledged the needs of the body." Girls in a traditional Arab village aren't encouraged to consider such things. "I'd be home with my children, looking out the window at girls going to school. I longed for more education, more books to read, more ideas to consider. No one in my family or village could understand that. 'Why is a woman with a husband and a home doing this? Why does she need to study?' But there was a fire in my heart, something within me. I felt as though something must be changed, and I had to search for it myself." Khoury began with self-study. On her own, she studied for, and passed, her matriculation exams. Then she went to work in a bank. "For 10 years, I saved every shekel. I'd write and write, sometimes even when I was working. I published five books of poetry. Sometimes I'd sent poems to a newspaper and was encouraged when they were printed. Once I was able to travel to Europe, where I met many Arabs who encouraged me even more, so I gained strength to try even harder. I decided to enroll at the University of Haifa - which again caused quite an uproar. My mother thought I was crazy to leave a well-paying job." She began studying Arabic and Middle Eastern studies but soon switched. "All Middle East studies focus on the past, on history. I'm interested in the future, so I chose philosophy and comparative literature. I wanted keys to learn how other people in the world think." It took Khoury seven years to graduate with a BA and a master's degree. With those credentials, she moved into a more public life, teaching creative writing in the town of Tarshiha and working for the Association of Forty, a human rights organization pressing for full acceptance of unrecognized Arab villages in Israel. She went on to form the Path to Peace NGO and became a member of the General Union of Arab Authors in Israel. Eventually a desire for balance brought her south. "I needed open space in my life. I came to BGU for a seminar and discovered that I loved the desert. Being here suits my personal balance: to come from the very far north to the south. The university also appeals to me because they seek balance by educating so many Arab and Beduin students. The interaction in the classroom is ideal. Both students and teachers are seeking their own truth, so I find myself learning, as well as teaching." Khoury teaches several classes in the Department of Hebrew Literature in creative writing and creative thought, as well as a popular comparative literature class. "We put Hebrew and Arabic literature side by side and compare them, to see where cultural views coincide and where they differ." Through all this, the poetry flowed. "My earliest poems focused on love; but what interests me recently is spirituality and women's role in society. In general, I'm disturbed by the way society treats women. In my own village, the ideal woman is one who is beautiful, quiet and in the home. But I saw the beauty of a woman's soul, too. Women must have a voice. We, too, have souls that need to reach out in this life. Women are needed to bring balance into the world - to make our own unique contribution." Khoury characterizes her life as an endless search for truth and balance. "In everything I've done, I've sought those two things - truth and its opposite, a balance between male and female. In my upcoming book Communion and Redemption, I explore the relationship between liquid and solid in the Catholic sacrament of Communion. I'm always looking for that median between the thing and its opposite. If we want to reach that greatness in life, we must always go with the opposite of ourselves," she says. How would that apply to her war-torn home of Fassouta? Khoury sighs. "There will have to be a major realignment of thinking in the Middle East. We must all focus on human life, the value of human life, allowing each individual to reach his or her full potential. Do I have hope? Well, I explore that idea in my book Post Monotheism, but in general I think you can say that I have hope in little things, in little pleasures. Not big ones, not in the near future."