I imagine it is a question we should, collectively and individually, ask ourselves, perhaps much more frequently than we already do: what kind of world do we want to live in?
What kind of world do we want for our children, or for future generations? Or even for ourselves…not just for now, but even when we are too old or too infirm to play an active role in society’s future direction?
For me, the answer to the question is deceptively simple: I want to live in what Palestinian-American poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye described as a “shared world” in her 2008 prose “Gate A-4.” It is a world where everyone, consciously or otherwise, recognizes the inherent state of interconnectedness that binds us. It is a place where our actions are guided by the understanding that when one of us hurts, we are all affected…where we are all our proverbial brother’s — and the literal stranger’s — keeper.
In “Gate A-4,” Nye describes a situation at an airport that my experience tells me is quite common — a passenger who doesn’t speak everyone else’s language is unable to effectively communicate his or her concern about something upsetting. Through a gesture of simple kindness, Nye describes how the upset passenger’s grief and a stranger’s intercession transformed into a gift that revealed the beauty, simplicity and sheer power of interconnectedness.
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.
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.”
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.
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 California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
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 women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Copyright © 2008 by Naomi Shihab Nye.