I’ve finally finished packing for our trip to England…or dear Old Blighty, as an English friend called it. (Where does that come from, I wonder?) Anyway, our journey begins tomorrow morning, and I thought I’d hastily patch in a Saturday poem. I was thinking of a poem about travel, or in particular, about flying, and I know of at least one (Passengers by Billy Collins) that captures the sense of vulnerability and strangeness of it, the momentousness beneath the mundane. But I didn’t really want to dwell on those aspects of air travel, particularly not with all this end-of-world chatter that’s been on the airwaves lately. (Cornelia: “Maybe that’s why your tickets were so cheap?”) No, I decided instead to turn to my friend Naomi and present an uplifting (no pun intended) story-poem about an experience she had in – of all places – an airport terminal. There’s a lot of wisdom here, and a lot of hope. Let us go forth in this spirit…shall we? As Naomi says, “Not everything is lost.”
Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal by Naomi Shihab Nye
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?
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 cancelled 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 questions. 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 traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo; we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers 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 traveling 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.