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Monday, May 20, 2024

Alumni Poet Searches for God in Middle East

Author: Laura Rockefeller

After garnering the Watson Prize, Stephanie Seldana '99 traveled through Middle East in search of God in a region that many faiths hold holy.

She explored all the traditions which have their roots in that part of the world, which is sometimes labeled "the Holy Land," in the hopes that one or all of them could aid in her search.

She found herself immersed in the places that she had heard described in the Bible, but was shocked to discover that these familiar sounding places had physically changed beyond recognition.

In her April 16 lecture "Journey and Poems Around the Middle East" she discussed her travels and what she described as "the loss of innocence" that they led to.

As part of her Watson research, Seldana traveled to Israel late in 1999 during what she called "one of the most tumultuous periods in Middle Eastern history."

Despite the unsettling political situation, she felt that the environment in the Middle East was more conducive to her development as a poet than the surroundings she had left in the United States. "There's a lot more quiet space to be with your thoughts there," she explained. "Poetry became a physical part of me."

She felt that the poetic tradition was a more accepted part of the culture, "not a separate thing like it is here." She was encouraged in her work by almost everyone with whom she discussed her aspirations.

The poems that she read during the course of her talk were in some ways a product of the political and religious strife in the Middle East in that they were inspired by many of the incongruities she found in the region.

She discovered that her writing process and her poetry became more and more a part of her daily life. As she took long walks to explore this new and strange country, she often found herself going over the poems she was writing in her head.

She explained that it was this extra time for personal contemplation and repetition that allowed her to memorize most of the poems she read at the lecture, which she did without a book in front of her. Instead of reading from notes, she stepped away from the podium to recite her work. As she became increasingly comfortable speaking to her audience directly, she invested more and more emotion in the performance of her poetry.

Recalling her travels throughout Israel, Seldana explained that one of the most profound shocks to her was that, "Shootings have a bad habit of taking place in the holiest places." Every day she saw violence inextricably connected to three religions that, at their heart, all basically teach peace and love for one's fellow man.

On Sept. 9 Seldana arrived in Lebanon to begin her work as a journalist for The Daily Star. Her first story was on the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

As well as being something that was "unbelievably tragic and violent," she felt that covering the attacks was an experience that aided her writing. She explained that through the reactions and support of those around her, she "learned the poetry of compassion."

When she embarked on her quest to the Middle East, Seldana had taken the Bible with her. It served as a guide, the fundamental story through which she had been introduced to God.

She offered her own opinions on the violence in the Middle East since the late 1990s, noting that "today, the story of God is at war." Although she describes herself as "a poet, not a biblical scholar," she wanted to search out the places where the historical events in the Bible may have taken place in order to make sense of the way that people could take creeds of love and turn them into actions of hate.

She explained, "I'm not here to talk about war or a loss of God. I'm here to talk about the Bible, which contains real places where real people live."

The more she followed and tried to understand the history, the more she came to believe that world of the Bible no longer exists.

Reconciling the land that the Bible had led her to expect and the land that she found proved impossible. To her, "The Bible and what's going on in the Middle East are two totally separate things."

She explained that her Middle East experiences continue to be a period of growth, both spiritually and artistically.