On the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving in Big Bend National Park, the poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye dropped off a signed copy of “The Turtle of Oman,” her recently published novel, for my daughters.
Touched by this unexpected gift, I packed the book for our trip with the rest of our camping gear.
Would my kids like this?
My nine year-old wanted magic in her literature.
She has reread the seven “Harry Potters“ so many times the binding glue has cracked on most of them and whole chapter-chunks of the books’ spines have split away.
To satisfy her appetite for magic, we’ve read her “The Hobbit,” and we’re halfway through Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” series.
I did not know how she would take to the slower magic of a boy’s relationship with his grandfather and the growing heartache of saying goodbye to home, however.
Reading about Oman in Big Bend National Park
I began reading “The Turtle of Oman” out loud to my 4-year-old and 9-year-old while driving through the mountains-of-the-moon landscape of Big Bend. We drove and then hiked past water, mountains, and desert.
The story followed Aref Al-Amri, an Omani boy who procrastinated before a move from the capital city of Muscat in Oman to Ann Arbor, Mich., and through list-making and serendipitous adventures with his grandfather, Sidi.
Although we don’t learn his precise age, Aref is also 9 years old in my mind.
He played with Legos, competed in a youth soccer league, and studied in two languages – English and Arabic.
I was struck at just how familiar Aref’s boyhood world would be to American children like my daughters. The familiarity stemmed not just from the Legos and the soccer but from his struggle with saying goodbye to a place he loved.
Nye captured and helped us meditate on the boy’s emotional journey.
Mountains, deserts, stones
The farther we drove and the more I read, the more familiar Oman seemed. I paused between chapters to gaze out of our car window.
We learn that Omanis revere the Hajar, or “Stone,” Mountains from Muscat. Have you seen pictures of these mountains? I swear I saw them in Big Bend.
As Aref and Sidi traveled by Jeep into the shifting sands of the Omani desert for an overnight adventure, we sped through parched desert ourselves.
Sidi and Aref watched Bedouin camel caravans on the edge of the sandy horizon just as we scanned the distant mesas from our campsite for imaginary Comanches, hidden just over the cliff border with Mexico.
Nye’s poetic eye lingered on a stone discovered by Sidi with three circular lines like map-route tracings. On our hike in Tuff Canyon, my 4-year-old stooped to grasp and inspect volcanic rocks, pockmarked and rust-colored.
During dinner at Chisos Basin lodge in the middle of Big Bend, we learned that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on the planet, reaching maximum speeds of 220 miles per hour. Peregrine falcons kill prey instantly upon impact. Importantly, a few pairs of peregrine falcons nest in Big Bend near the Rio Grande River.
In the novel’s most thrilling scene, a falcon trainer in the desert fitted Aref with the leather armband needed to launch into the air and receive back a trained peregrine falcon. Sidi held his breath as the predator turned precise aerial acrobatics at shocking speed. When the falcon landed cleanly on Aref’s arm, Sidi breathed again.
Later, Sidi urged Aref to breathe for another reason.
Sidi kept sniffing and urging Aref to smell the air and breathe deeply. ‘That way, your body will carry the desert back to the city,” he said. Aref gulped and held his breath.
When they turned around and started walking back to the Night of A Thousand Stars desert camp, Aref stared at the whole picture before them – small tents, purple pom-pom doorways, brown stucco bathroom, painted green stools, metal tables, and one tired, sleeping falcon. Everything glistened like an oasis in the sun. He ran circles around Sidi, saying “I love this place! I think it might be my favorite place!”
“You will be like my falcon,” Sidi answered. “You will fly away and come back. Just as he did.” That was beautiful.
The stars at night
At night at Big Bend, snug in our sleeping bags, crowded into our tent, my girls asked me to read aloud more chapters about the Omani boy, Aref.
At least once every night out in Big Bend, I left our tent to breathe deeply, look up at the bedazzled black, and silently recite Emerson:
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”
When Aref and Sidi left their desert encampment, Sidi showed his playful side again:
As they were passing under the arched Night of A Thousand Stars sign at the camp gateway, Aref asked, “So, Sidi, did you see a thousand stars last night?”
“Ah, now you remember to ask,” Sidi answered. “No, I only saw 999. So we will have to keep our eyes open for that last one. What about you?’
Aref just laughed.
Not the coming-to-America story we expected
This crescent-moon of a novel waxed nostalgic as Aref’s departure approached. We expected a typical novel’s narrative arc. We expected to learn about the cultural adventures of an Omani boy arriving in Ann Arbor, Mich. Instead, two-thirds of the way through the novel, we realized the now-full moon had begun to wane again. In fact, he wouldn’t arrive in Ann Arbor before the novel’s ending.
Aref was our window into understanding Oman, not America. An Omani boy learning about Michigan is not part of Nye’s plan. “The Turtle of Oman” did not conform.
Nye’s reason for that
Aref’s story offered something rarer, something different. Could American children connect with the magic of a childhood in Oman?
I thought about Nye’s plan and “A-4,” a short story of Nye’s I recently read that went viral on Facebook. In it, she comforted a Palestinian woman in distress at the Albuquerque airport over a missed airline connection. She found the woman in full Palestinian traditional garb, crumpled on the floor crying.
The ‘other’ becomes familiar
We’ve watched the news enough to react to a wailing Palestinian woman with some anxiety.
As Nye gently wrote in “A-4,” she hesitated before getting involved because, “Well – one pauses these days.”
In “A-4,” however, crying turned to laughter, handholding, and hours of shared happiness in the airline terminal. Nye offered a few words in Arabic and received a gift of powdered sugar-dusted cookies. She marveled at the experience, the common humanity.
The other passengers at the gate soon dropped their normal defenses as well, allowing the shared cookies’ powdered sugar, a kind of peace dust, to coat their laps.
“A-4” hits people somewhere between recognition – we’ve had this surprise connection to strangers when our defenses suddenly drop – and longing – we wish this could happen more often.
I think Nye shared a wish for our children with “The Turtle of Oman” that she stated most clearly in “A-4?:
“…I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate – once the crying of confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
Could we find our common humanity if we immersed ourselves in another culture? And if not all of us, could our children?
What if we watched a peregrine falcon in flight over the desert, together?
My 9-year-old finished the final third of the book on her own during the drive home from Big Bend, too wrapped up in the story to wait for me to read it to her.
The slow magic of this book, with its vivid colors and poet’s eye for detail, worked on her.
Book Review of “The Turtle of Oman,” by Campbell Taylor
I am a 9-year-old, and I loved reading “The Turtle of Oman” with my dad.
I think it is a very good book because it states the exact feelings of Aref (the main character) and what he thinks about moving to Michigan. For example, he is worried that he will not have very many friends in Michigan because he is new there and it is not helping that his cousins are taking his room while he is gone for three years. If I had to move to Michigan for three years I would probably be excited for a new place but also sad to leave my friends, just like Aref.
The author talks a lot about the reasons why Aref does not want to go. Some of the reasons he does not want to move include sites, friends, and his grandfather, Sidi. Aref really is sad about leaving his grandfather because they would always have good times together, like camping out at Thousand Stars Camp.
The author also adds some Arabic words and scraps of information. One Arabic word I found that interested me was fil-fil, which means pepper. It also interested me to know that green turtles can have up to nine minutes between heartbeats.
Over all I really liked “The Turtle of Oman.”