I am about 10 years old and Helen, my babysitter, is telling me about a trip she has just taken to visit her hometown. While she was home, she went to see a historic site she had wanted to see for years. The place had intense value for her, and the guide was stumbling over his words. She tapped him on the shoulder — she leans forward to tap me on the shoulder as she tells the story, and I am laughing, sharing the joke.
She said to him, “Hey, a’tini hubiz.”
And the guide said “how could you let me struggle with the English,” she says, imitating his voice for me in its dramatic and amused indignation as he launched into her own language — and now she and I are both laughing even harder.
She had just told the boy showing her the sites of Bethlehem that she speaks fluent Arabic. She was born in Jordan, and as a fervent Baptist she felt a close tie to the land around Galilea. What she said to the young man that day, when she got his attention, was “May I have some bread.” And I understand the joke she is telling me in those two words, because she taught me how to say them when I was three.
I can say “may I have some milk,” too — a’tini halib— and count to 10. I know only a little, but it was enough then to understand and share in her laughter.
Some of the joke we shared that day was pleasure in a word game, and some was the absurdity of asking for bread on a sandy hilltop. Some too was her excitement in coming to a place that spoke to her faith so strongly, and some maybe her pleasure in speaking the language of her childhood. But I know now why I can still hear the voice of the boy in Jerusalem so clearly. She put a hand on his shoulder and said you can talk to me. And he stretched out in relief, waving his hands and saying in a rush all that he had not been able to say.
If I knew his name, and the Arabic that Helen knows, I’d like to send him an email. I could ask him to tell me about his home town, if he were willing to talk with me, about his family, his work, the stories he tells visitors, how it feels to walk through places where people lived 2000 years ago, or what music he listens to on summer nights. While I’m trying to learn the Arabic for summer night, though, I will talk to people in the Berkshires.
Eight years ago, Gwendolyn VanSant, executive director of Multicultural Bridge, and longtime journalist Roberta McCulloch-Dews and I began a new series of stories.
Gwendolyn has a genius for knowing people. Roberta has a genius for putting people at ease. And I love to hear people talk. So in my time as editor of Berkshires Week at the Eagle we started On the Bridge as a place for people of all backgrounds to tell their own stories.
Berkshires Week was a weekly magazine with a round of things to go out and see and do. I thought of it as a friendly hand to pull a tired reader out of a deep arm chair on a cold night and into a room full of people and music, spice and spontaneous warmth.
Now I think of this website in the same way, and I want to reach out as widely as I can; you may have seen concerts here with musicians from around the world and artists telling the stories of new immigrants — black families who have lived here through 20 generations talking about their communities and families, their deep history here and the people and work they love — the Berkshire Stonewall Coalition, Argentine choreographers and local restaurants hosting Chinese New Year celebations …
But there are so many stories. People across the community are making gospel concerts and pupusas, step dance choreography and meditation sanctuaries.
In the week this series first began, an internationally acclaimed Kenyan poet, Shailja Patel, was hosting an evening of spoken word at MCLA and giving a reading at Williams College. Now, as I am bringing these columns together here, MCLA is welcoming Vietnamese-American artist Trinh Mai to talk virtually from her studio on the West Coast about the work she exhibits across the country.
And now I have begun know the Arabic for a summer night. At least I have studied enough very beginning Arabic to understand a few more words. The night is al-lil, if you transcribe the sound into English letters instead of Arabic script, and summer as-saif. I want to learn more. And I still hope to find new people who will talk with me on warm evenings and share a few moments of their lives with me.
This column first ran in Berkshires Week on February 23, 2012, in my time as editor there. My thanks to editor Kevin Moran.