Arabic

- 1952-
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.

More by Naomi Shihab Nye

Streets

A man leaves the world
and the streets he lived on
grow a little shorter.

One more window dark
in this city, the figs on his branches
will soften for birds.

If we stand quietly enough evenings
there grows a whole company of us
standing quietly together.
overhead loud grackles are claiming their trees  
and the sky which sews and sews, tirelessly sewing,
drops her purple hem.
Each thing in its time, in its place,
it would be nice to think the same about people.

Some people do. They sleep completely,
waking refreshed. Others live in two worlds,
the lost and remembered.
They sleep twice, once for the one who is gone,
once for themselves. They dream thickly,
dream double, they wake from a dream
into another one, they walk the short streets
calling out names, and then they answer.

Two Countries

Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a 
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.

Skin had hope, that's what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers--silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin's secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.

Making a Fist

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

"How do you know if you are going to die?"
I begged my mother. 
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
"When you can no longer make a fist."

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.