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.