I spotted them on my second lap around the park on a recent spring-like afternoon. A group of women in headscarves is somewhat of an unusual occurrence, though we live close to the University of Arkansas, which has its own share of international students and professors.
I caught the lilt of Arabic as I pushed the jogging stroller ahead of me. Once you’ve learned something of the language, there’s no mistaking it.
Where were they from? Had the executive order on immigrants affected them? Were they worried about their families, their futures, and how those around them now looked at them? Or were these thoughts far from their minds as they enjoyed the sunshine on this beautiful day?
These thoughts flitted through my mind as I continued my jog. When I finished, I took my daughter to the baby swings. I pushed and talked to her and watched the table of women in scarves who sat just in my line of sight. Should I approach them? I had only spoken Arabic a handful of times since I left Yemen ten years ago. I knew it would be a rough go.
After a few minutes, the small girl with them ran to the swings, followed by one of the women. She lifted the girl into the swing and started pushing. I summoned my courage.
“Men fein anti?” Where are you from?
She looked at me with some surprise and perhaps a little caution. “Iraq,” she answered, pronouncing the name not with the harsh American K sound, but with the Arabic qah, the one that lands deep in the throat and lends a certain pop to its words.
“Do you speak Arabic?” she asked.
“A little,” I admitted. She asked where I was from.
“Here,” I answered. Then I explained how I’d lived in Yemen three years, how I taught English there and learned Arabic, and that I hadn’t spoken it much since then. I struggled through the conversation, the words slow in coming. She shook her head a couple of times as she tried to understand. I repeated and tried to understand her accent, so different from the Yemeni ones I’d grown accustomed to.
“Sorry,” I apologized in English. “It’s been so long since I spoke Arabic.”
She shook her head. “La atakelum ingleezi.” She didn’t speak English. We pushed silently for a moment and I thought of all the things I wanted to say to this woman and couldn’t.
‘I’m sorry for the ban on immigration. I don’ t know if it affects you, but I’m sure it affects someone you know and possibly love.’
‘We don’t all agree on this immigration ban. I don’t want you to judge me by the country I was born in, and I won’t do the same to you.’
‘You’re welcome here. You’re welcome to be in this park with me, swinging your child while I swing mine. I want an America where we can do this.’
These are the words I want to say, but the language barrier is too great, the distance between two strangers too difficult.
It’s time to go. I lift my daughter out of the swing. The woman smiles at me.
“Ahlan wasahlan,” she says.
It means welcome, but it carries with it the centuries of hospitality Arabs are famous for when they welcome others into their homes, their lives, their countries. It’s the perfect phrase, and she found it. I nod and repeat the phrase back.
You are welcome here.
I leave the park filled with sunshine and children playing and this woman pushing her young daughter on a swing.
I leave the rest of the words unspoken between us.