The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”
Something to do with the back of the head,
an Arab carries sorrow in the back of the head,
that only language cracks, the thrum of stones
weeping, grating hinge on an old metal gate.
“Once you know,” he whispered, “you can
     enter the room
whenever you need to. Music you heard
     from a distance,
the slapped drum of a stranger’s wedding,
well up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed.”
Outside, the snow has finally stopped.
In a land where snow rarely falls,
we had felt our days grow white and still.
I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging
its rich threads without understanding
how to weave the rug…I have no gift.
The sound, but not the sense.
I kept looking over his shoulder for someone else
to talk to, recalling my dying friend
     who only scrawled
I can’t write. What good would any grammar
     have been
to her then? I touched his arm, held it hard,
which sometimes you don’t do in the Middle East,
and said, I’ll work on it, feeling sad
for his good strict heart, but later in the slick street
hailed a taxi by shouting Pain! and it stopped
in every language and opened its doors.
 
Naomi Shihab Nye, "Arabic" from Red Suitcase. Copyright © 1994 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

Poems by This Author

Alive by Naomi Shihab Nye
Dear Abby, wrote someone from Oregon
Blood by Naomi Shihab Nye
Burning the Old Year by Naomi Shihab Nye
Letters swallow themselves in seconds
Daily by Naomi Shihab Nye
These shriveled seeds we plant
Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye
The river is famous to the fish
Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye
Even at this late date, sometimes I have to look up
Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
Haunted by Naomi Shihab Nye
We are looking for your laugh.
How Palestinians Keep Warm by Naomi Shihab Nye
Choose one word and say it over
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
Lying While Birdwatching by Naomi Shihab Nye
Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye
For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
Many Asked Me Not to Forget Them by Naomi Shihab Nye
Where do you keep all these people?
Negotiations with a Volcano by Naomi Shihab Nye
We will call you "Agua" like the rivers and cool jugs
San Antonio by Naomi Shihab Nye
Tonight I lingered over your name,
Shoulders by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man crosses the street in rain
Snow by Naomi Shihab Nye
Once with my scarf knotted over my mouth
Streets by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man leaves the world
The Man Whose Voice Has Been Taken From His Throat by Naomi Shihab Nye
remains all supple hands and gesture
The Rider by Naomi Shihab Nye
A boy told me
The Traveling Onion by Naomi Shihab Nye
When I think how far the onion has traveled
The Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye
My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes
Two Countries by Naomi Shihab Nye
Skin remembers how long the years grow
Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wedding Cake by Naomi Shihab Nye
Once on a plane


Further Reading

Poems about Ancestors
Ancestors
by Cesare Pavese
At the Public Market Museum: Charleston, South Carolina
by Jane Kenyon
Deer Dancer
by Joy Harjo
How I Got That Name
by Marilyn Chin
How Palestinians Keep Warm
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Ladders
by Elizabeth Alexander
Many Asked Me Not to Forget Them
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Nunaqtigiit
(people related through common possession of territory)

by Joan Kane
On the Gallows Once
by Kofi Awoonor
On this Very Street in Belgrade
by Charles Simic
Passing
by Carl Phillips
Post-Dissertation-Intervention (i.)
by Ronaldo Wilson
Prayer for My Unborn Niece or Nephew
by Ross Gay
Snow
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Teach me I am forgotten by the dead
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
by Jack Gilbert
The Multitude
by Ellen Hinsey
What I Am
by Terrance Hayes