Behind the counter at the newsagent, Jamal looked a little worse for wear: ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ he said, explaining that the start of Ramadan always tended to knock his body rhythms for six. He’d got to bed late after evening prayers, and couldn’t sleep. Knowing he would have to be up at 3am to eat before morning prayers, he’d finally abandoned all thought of sleep. We went on to have an interesting conversation.
Jamal is a scouser whose Yemeni father would once deliver the newspaper right to our door. He says he’s grateful that his mixed ancestry has gifted him with two countries where he feels at home. He says he’s travelled to many countries and what he has found is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. He says all of us, whatever our faith – Muslim or Jew, Christian or Hindu – are taught by our religion that it is right to feed a stranger or look out for a neighbour. But now he is troubled: his Yemeni homeland is being torn apart in a war between Sunni and Shi’ite. His Muslim identity is being fractured. And anyway, there is more to him than just being Muslim. He is English and proud of it; he is Yemeni and proud of that too; he is Liverpudlian and proud of it; he is European and proud of that too. He is moved to tears by the Manchester bombing – but also by the ISIS bomb that killed 15 and wounded dozens last night as Muslim families in Baghdad broke their Ramadan fast at an ice cream shop.
I said to Jamal, ‘That reminds me of something I read by a Palestinian American poet. I will bring it to you.’ ‘Gate A-4’ is by Naomi Shihab Nye who was born in 1952, in St. Louis, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her BA in English and World Religions from Trinity University.
Through her poetry, Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, Nye has said that, for her, ‘the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.’ About her work, the poet William Stafford has said, ‘her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.’
After the World Trade Centre attacks on 9-11, Nye became an active voice for Arab-Americans, speaking out against both terrorism and prejudice. The lack of understanding between Americans and Arabs led her to collect poems she had written which dealt with the Middle East and her experiences as an Arab-American into one volume. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002) received praise for the timeliness of its message. ‘Gate A-4’ is from that collection.
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal,
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.
Well – one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew – however poorly used –
She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her – Southwest.
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 about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies – little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts – out of 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 traveller from Argentina, the traveller from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same
And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers –
Non-alcoholic – and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American – ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade 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 travelling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate – once the crying of confusion stopped
– has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.
Each morning at the newsagent’s I chat with Jamal amid the morning bustle – kids on their way to school, men and women work-bound, each person a reflection of the many colours and flavours of this vibrant community. And I think, ‘This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.’
These images, by Phil Maxwell, a photographer from Whitechapel, east London, captured on a Black Lives Matter protest in Liverpool in 2016, reveal just a few of those colours and flavours. Not everything is lost.