We begin ‘On the Bridge'

Thursday February 23, 2012

I am 10 years old and Helen, my babysitter, is telling me about her trip to visit her hometown. While she was home, she went to see a historic site not far away. 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, "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. What she said, 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.

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. 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 been halting and unable to say.

If I knew his name, and the Arabic that Helen knows, I'd send him an email. I could ask him to tell me what it is like to grow up speaking Arabic in Bethlehem, or what music he listens to on summer nights. Until I learn the Arabic for "summer night," though, I will talk to people in the Berkshires.

Gwendolyn VanSant, executive director of Multicultural Bridge, and longtime journalist Roberta McCulloch-Dews and I are beginning a new column and blog.

Gwendolyn has a genius for knowing people. Roberta has a genius for putting people at ease. And I love to hear people talk. So we are starting "On the Bridge" as a place for people of all backgrounds to tell stories.

Berkshires Week gives a round of things to go out and see and do. It's here 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. I will always reach out as widely as I can; you have seen here concerts to benefit new immigrants, black families who have lived here through 20 generations and owe their freedom to Elizabeth Freeman, Berkshire Stonewall Coalition, Taiwanese choreographers and local restaurants hosting Chinese New Year for children. ...

But there are so many stories. People across the community are making gospel concerts and pupusas, step dancing and meditation sanctuaries.

This is Black History Month. And this week, internationally acclaimed Kenyan poet Shailja Patel will host an evening of spoken word at MCLA and give a reading at Williams.

While we are honoring her in this section, we want to honor our own Berkshire poets. So we begin this column with a poem by Paul Miranda. Thank you, Paul.


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