A Conversation with Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye
This is the world I want to live in.
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
I’m rereading the beginning of this poem now, and I know how it ends—and I realize this is the moment that sets the story of the poem in motion. The speaker goes against hesitation—against the small fear—the pause—because of the way things are “these days.”
It reminds me of that moment in Opening the Door of Mercy—that question that arises:
But when someone approaches, I have to decide:
Is my own safety always
the most important consideration?
Must I fear all whom I don’t know?
Do I help or not?
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
Nye’s father is Palestinian—so there’s a familiarity to the older woman—her dress—her language. But for the flight agent the difference is more severe—and alienating—and the wailing heightens it—fear is rising, I suspect. We all do this. I do this. A disturbance in the smooth ordinary hum of things—an interruption—can frighten me—or at least throw me (which is based in some fear?)
I dream that I’m trying to buy a bus ticket. I need to get home. This goes on for a while. Finally, I find a Greyhound counter—but the woman behind the counter seems disoriented—she’s crying—something has happened. I try to summon patience—a measure of compassion for her sorrow—to let her talk—draw her out—and this lasts a minute—maybe—but then I myself am wailing: where can I get a bus ticket?
Sometimes safety is not the only issue—also efficiency—and just getting what I want—say the comfort of my own home.
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
I would like to become this kind of person—the one who makes the call—who stays as long as it takes—who forgets about trying to get home—who makes a woman in crisis a priority.
Perhaps I could start in dreams—the woman at the bus counter. I could listen longer—at least. Maybe 5 minutes or even 10 minutes, instead of just the one. Maybe that would be—could be—a kind of practice.
I could listen to my students more thoughtfully–and longer.
And then see what could happen.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
This is what could happen—the sweetness of those cookies. It might not happen—of course. But it could happen—even in the absence of cookies a sweetness could arise. Fear could shift to laughter. And the women at the gate—perhaps they too were afraid and disturbed, some of them, pulling their children in close—but something shifted—and then they were not.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition.
Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other
An airport is one of those transition places—like a bus station—we’re between places (though perhaps still rooted)—and something new can happen—a shift—the circle of our ordinary concerns can widen. A gate can open and the circle widen.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Poem found at poets.org from Honeybee by Naomi Shihab Nye (my line breaks may be off)
Opening the Door of Mercy piece is from NPR with a piece about it here.
Photo from Dirt Simple