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Saturday, December 24, 2011

WORDS SHINING IN THE NIGHT




Words Shining in the Night 
By Kathryn Stripling Byer 



Nothing brings our language into brighter focus than religious holidays. As we gather to 
hear the words of this holiday season, we have lately become more aware of how those 
words can both bind us together and push us apart. Just last Christmas, there was an 
uproar over greeters at various stores using Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, 
as if the former somehow diminished the latter. Yet, many Americans do not celebrate a 
traditional Christmas and many others do not celebrate it at all. Some, like certain Native 
American tribes, never have, welcoming the solstice instead with their age-old earth- 
based rituals. 

So, what to do in our increasingly pluralistic society, where Latino, Arabic, African, and 
Asian voices are joining our own? Can we agree at least on the meaning of this yearly 
turning, that it pulls us back into the light, if we let it? And that the light can bring us 
together, if we let it?  

Perhaps learning some new words for light would be a good place to start. Tara, for 
example. We English speakers think of Ireland and Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation. But the 
word is also Urdu/Hindi for star, descended from the Sanskrit for “shining.” And this 
time of year the star shining in the night carries special significance. In Spanish it is the 
beautiful word estrella, and in French, etoile. The German star rings in the season as 
stern, whose light cuts through the darkness and leads the way to revelation. In Arabic, 
the haunting word shihab means flame. How can we deny this light shining in the 
darkness, regardless of which word a culture uses to say it? We all light our candles this 
time of year and watch the flames dance in the night. 

I like the word shihab because it is the given name of a poet I admire, Naomi Shihab 
Nye, American-born daughter of a Palestinian journalist and an American Montessori 
teacher. For years she has worked to bridge cultural and religious differences, to heal the 
divide that keeps us from being able to communicate with one another. Her voice shines 
like a candle flame in this season’s dark night of suffering and war. 

Her poem “Red Brocade,” begins: The Arabs used to say,/When a stranger appears at 
your door,/feed him for three days/before asking who he is,/where he’s come from, 
/where he’s headed./That way he’ll have strength/enough to answer./Or, by then you’ll be 
/such good friends/you don’t care. 

Let’s go back to that, she pleads in the line that follows. No matter the language used, this 
time of year we call out to light, not only to the flame of the sun returning to our 
hemisphere, but also to the light of understanding. This season challenges us to believe 
that our words for that light matter. Call it luz, lumiere, shihab, or tara, it means the same 
thing: the realization that we are called by the light to live together in peace. 

from Language Matters, NC Arts Council Site

3 comments:

Vicki Lane said...

A beautiful, thoughtful post. All the blessings of the Light to you and yours, Kay.

nene said...

Wonderful discourse.

I like 'shalib' and 'estrella' but otherwise, Feliz Navidad.

Nancy Simpson said...

Kay, This is a most meaningful message for me on this dark day, as I seek "Light," as I continue in my life on the first day of 2012.

I'm sending best wishes to you for a 'Happy New year."

Must tell you also, Naomi "Light" Nye has long been one of my favorite poets. I was lucky to meet her and hear her read her poems. She was wearing purple shoes.