Naomi Shihab Nye

Arabic by Naomi Shihab Nye

‘Arabic’, a thoughtful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye appears in Red Suitcase: Poems (1994). This poem features a speaker’s forgetfulness concerning her mother tongue (Arabic) and culture.

‘Arabic’ is a piercing poem about the fissure between a speaker and her roots. She hails from the Middle East. After settling in America, she grew forgetful of her own culture and most importantly her mother tongue Arabic. This poem is based on a conversation between two Arabs, one deeply attached to his roots and another flung far from her core. The pain of separation is featured in Nye’s poem.

Arabic by Naomi Shihab Nye


‘Arabic’ by Naomi Shihab Nye describes a conversation between two speakers, one an Arabic and another an immigrant who has forgotten her mother tongue.

The first few lines present a speaker who asks the other one to speak in Arabic in order to understand the deeper emotions such as pain, happiness, and bliss. He reminds him of the sound the language carries. Besides, its roots resonate with the oriental sounds of the Middle East. Nye’s speaker is at the brink of losing touch with Arabic. She has the sound but not the sense or sensibility. So, she tries to escape the other one in order to get rid of the pain he causes to her heart. Finally, she does so by taking a taxi.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-11

The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling

to say, “Until you speak Arabic,


whenever you need to. Music you heard

     from a distance,

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ‘Arabic’ begins with a conversation between two Arabs, both immigrated from the Middle East. The first speaker is well-versed in Arabic. He has not forgotten his roots or the language that breathed life into his soul after his birth. He tells the poetic persona gravely that she cannot understand the pain unless she learns to speak Arabic again.

According to her, an Arab contains the deepest emotions such as sorrow in the back of the head. Only their language can crack that spot and ease those emotions freely into speech. Jn the next line, Nye uses auditory imagery in order to convey the sound of grief in her language. The thrumming sound of stones resonates with their weeping and the pain is comparable to the screeching sound of a grating hinge of an old metal gate.

The acquaintance of the speaker informs her that after learning the language again she can enter his room and crack a warm conversation with him. He does not feel unwelcoming but the forgetfulness of her own roots is the cause of his grief.

Lines 12-23

the slapped drum of a stranger’s wedding,

well up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand


how to weave the rug…I have no gift. 

The sound, but not the sense.

Then he goes on to tell Nye’s speaker about the music that she heard in her own land. He tells her to imagine the slapping of drums that can be heard at a stranger’s wedding in their country. In the end, he dejectedly says that she is changed as these sounds seem alien to her now.

In the next tercet, Nye creates a contrast between the external weather and the speaker’s internal ambiance. The snow has stopped outside yet in a foreign land her heart has grown old and still. It stopped asserting her true identity. Here, growing old is compared to the detachment of a person from his roots.

Furthermore, the speaker thinks that the concept of pain has no tongue. In every language, the term conveys a similar meaning though it sounds different. But, she feels ashamed to forget her origin. She is on the brink of losing touch with her Arabic identity.

The terms of her mother tongue are like “rich threads” that she cannot join to form a rug. She has no special gift to recall the way she spoke before. Through the accent is still there in her voice, she somehow lost the touch of sensibility of that language.

Lines 24-34

I kept looking over his shoulder for someone else

to talk to, recalling my dying friend


hailed a taxi by shouting Pain! and it stopped

in every language and opened its doors.

In the last few lines, the speaker is seen to be finding another of her friends. She finds another person to talk to as the conversation between her and the Arab is growing intensely sad. What she can recall, is the memory of an old, dying friend. She could only utter her inability to write in that language. In her case, grammar gas has been of no use.

Later, she touches his arm to express her sadness and grips it hard. It is not a customary behavior accepted back in her country. Somehow, she feels sad for her incapacity and tells him that she would work on it.

Then she goes to find a taxi to return to her home. All she can say is the term “Pain”. Even hearing this inappropriate word, a taxi halts and its door opens. In this way, the poet depicts the universality of the emotion of pain in the last tercet.

Structure & Form

‘Arabic’ is a free-verse lyric poem. There are two speakers in the poem. The first-person speaker or poetic persona represents Nye and the other one is an acquaintance of hers. This piece begins with their conversation. Yet, the full text is told from the first-person point of view. Regarding the form, it consists of eight tercets (stanzas having three lines each) and two stanzas consisting of five lines. The lines are loosely grouped into separate stanzas. It does not hinder the flow of the text.

Literary Devices

Nye makes use of the following literary devices in ‘Arabic’.

  • Enjambment: It occurs when the lines are cut short and the rest of the sentence is completed in consecutive lines. For example, this device is used in the first tercet.
  • Imagery: Nye uses auditory imagery in “that only language cracks, the thrum of stones/ weeping, grating hinge on an old metal gate.” She also uses visual and organic imagery as well.
  • Metaphor: In the line “we had felt our days grow white and still,” “day” is compared to the speaker’s life.
  • Irony: The last tercet contains this device. Here, the poet uses the term “Pain” ironically.


What is the poem ‘Arabic’ about?

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ‘Arabic’ is about a speaker’s forgetfulness of her own mother tongue. She hails from the Middle East. After immigrating to a new country, she totally lost touch with Arabic and started to grow unfamiliar with her roots.

When was ‘Arabic’ published?

The poem was first published in 1994. It appears in Naomi Shihab Nye’s one of the best-known poetry collections, Red Suitcase: Poems.

What type of poem is ‘Arabic’?

It is a free-verse lyric poem. The text consists of a number of tercets. Nye writes this piece from the first-person point of view. It does not contain a regular rhyme or meter.

What is the theme of ‘Arabic’?

This poem taps on a number of themes that include language, culture, pain, and sadness. The main idea of the poem concerns a speaker’s inability to converse in her mother tongue and her understanding of the emotion of pain.

What is the tone of ‘Arabic’?

The tone of this piece is sad, nostalgic, and emotive. A speaker is sad as she cannot converse in her own language. This sense of detachment from the roots is conveyed through the tone of the poem.

Similar Poems

Readers who enjoyed reading ‘Arabic’ by Naomi Shihab Nye, can also find the following poems interesting.

  • ‘Language Lesson 1976’ by Heather McHugh — This thoughtful poem uses language to make statements about America and love.
  • ‘Backdrop’ by Agha Shahid Ali — This poem is about the Arabic language and a speaker’s connection to his ancestors.
  • ‘The Cool Web’ by Robert Graves — This piece explores the themes of human experience, language, and communication.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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