Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


Arabic

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.

Credit


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.

Author


Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit.

Date Published: 1994-01-01

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/arabic