I thought pain had no tongue.

From one of my absolute favorites, the Palestinian-American poet and writer Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-), on a day when I, too, feel sadly estranged from my mother tongue.


(Jordan, 1992)

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,
wells up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed.”

Outside, the snow had 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

it’s 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 Easter, 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.