Tag Archives: Arab mommas

Christmas Songs

Hazy and muddled, specific and definite.  My memories patch together like an heirloom quilt in reverse.  They remain clear and crisp in the places that are held the most frequently.  They fade in the places that are not often touched.

Perhaps the vagueness of this one memory comes from its being annually repeated, in some form, every Christmas that we are all together.  My family, in the living room, singing Christmas carols.

But one year was different— when, I don’t remember, but I and all of my siblings still shared an address; the nieces and nephews and novels to which they would give birth were yet unknown; and my fingers remembered how to coax a song from the yellowed, out-of-tune piano in the hallway.

My brother still played guitar often.  My sister could brush up her flute.  The youngest had just started learning the violin.

This nameless Christmas saw four siblings rallied over a song, and its two audience members— Mom and Dad— awed by the harmony, as we performed our version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

— 

They have no idea what I am saying.  

I’m at an end-of-the-year celebration for the dozen or so ladies who work at our community center, to make jewelry and household items from recycled materials.

Their small business has gone through big changes in the past 12 months.  In the midst of all of it, they have rallied to fill challenging bulk sales orders, started doing fitness and English classes together a couple of times a week, and held “family” gatherings every few weeks to increase their sense of harmony and identity.  Meals cooked with love in the kitchen of the community center.  A road trip to a historical site and the spot with the best bakery for a particular dessert.  A piñata— looking like a pinterest fail, made by me, but still a hit— at a “Mexican Night.”

IMG_8768For the end-of-year event, they have made the national dish, the one that is synonymous in this region with celebration.  They pose with the flowers and bonus envelopes that they receive from their director, like graduates getting a certificate.  Pictures and piles of food seem to be the basic party requirements.

IMG_8767Then someone tells them I know Christmas carols.  I sing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  I think, They have no idea what I’m saying, but release the words over them, to the rhythm of my guitar: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…”  “Come and behold Him… O come, let us adore Him.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This time we found someone to sing in Arabic.  She has yet to be accepted on Arabs Got Talent, but she would have all our votes; we ask her to sing for the Christmas party of our community center’s wellness program.  A combination of American and Arab teachers lead those classes, and usually have more people wanting to attend than they can enroll.  Three times a week the women gather for aerobics, basic yoga, and bellydancing— or some combination of these— along with a post-workout community and coffee time in the center’s upstairs sitting room.

On the morning of the party, we fill the top floor of a restaurant, 50 local women and a handful of ajanib, foreigners.  “May you be well every year,” they say as they enter, kissing my cheeks.  It’s the general blessing for every holiday, but several add “Merry Christmas” with a smile, as if to communicate that their knowing this phrase honors my language and my faith— though they are not their own.

IMG_8794Our local singer takes her place in the front; I stand next to her, guitar in hand.  I try to follow the unfamiliar cadence of Arabic through renditions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Then she sings Silent Night in her language, and stretches the microphone to me so I can sing it in mine. I look at a room full of women wearing headscarves, at the mosque outside the giant picture windows, at the mountains beyond that.

I sing, “All is calm, all is bright.”

My heart says: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

I am a substitute for the center’s adult English classes.  But several of the students have been very receptive, and several of my friends are teachers, so I decide to attend their graduation.

Certain semesters of English seem to foster a higher degree of camaraderie; this group was particularly close.  After graduation, when most of the selfies had been taken and students were starting to return to their homes, a young woman takes me and another female teacher by our hands.  “We need you upstairs,” she says.  She hurries us past the second floor, with its classrooms, to the third-floor gym.

Music pours from the speakers.  A group of female students stands in a circle, hips and feet and fingers twirling in Arabic-style dance.  We laugh and jump in, to the approval of the students, who twine their fingers with ours.

We hand them sequin-covered hip scarves from a basket.  The lead dancer straps a yellow one around herself, mauve around me, blue around the other foreign teacher.  But none of us can make the imitation gold coins jingle like she does. This woman’s face is unfamiliar to me; later I learn that I know her, but did not recognize her because I usually see her in mixed-gender situations, when she is wearing a niqab— a head covering that only shows her eyes.

We dance until it is time for the building to close.  The women descend to the first floor, we kiss their cheeks, and they disperse into dark streets.  A young Arab woman, who is visiting the center for the first time, tells me, “It is like a family.”  Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Sixty of the Young Leaders boys are gathered in the gym, our last session of this youth mentoring program for the semester.  How are you different than when you started this program in May?  What did you enjoy?  What did you learn? I ask.

Their answers make my heart swell.  I tell them, though, that none of it matters.  Nothing of what you learned this semester matters.  Unless you use it when you are not at the center. Then it matters.  

And I believe that it does.

We descend to the first floor.  Someone puts candles in a big pan of cheesy, sweet kanafeh, to honor one teacher’s birthday.  They begin to sing; first, “Happy Birthday” in English, but then the song somehow changes to a clapping, table drumming, tremendously loud chanting of songs probably written before their grandfathers were boys.  Some of them don’t stop, even when the usual time for them to go home arrives.  They sing with one voice.

I sit behind the counter and watch.  I remember the awkward silence before their first class.  Their nervous interviews when they came to apply for the program.  The fights and insults that teachers had to intervene in, some just weeks before.  The looks on the faces that have changed.  The looks on the faces that haven’t.

And I keep a song close in my heart.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The words stay crisp and clear, remembered often, in the dark and in the light.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Has come to thee…

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With

With.  A word that turns something into a connection:

She’s with me.  They’re with the family.  He’s with the band. 

In Mark 14, Jesus is at a table, and a woman comes up behind him, breaks a jar of perfume, and covers him with a scent. Imagine breathing in that rich smell; this perfume was not an everyday-use variety.  It’s price went deeper than an annual income.

It would have been heavy in that room, saturating the senses of everyone at the table.  The gift was overwhelming.

And the attention was riveted on this woman.  “Why the waste?” I can imagine them slowly shaking their heads, frowns growing deeper.  “Many poor people could have been helped with the money she squandered.”

At the retreat I attended two weeks ago, we were asked to put ourselves into this story. I could hear the irreparable cracking open of the alabaster jar.  When it was broken, there was no rationing that could be done; no socially harmless, secreted gift.  Just lavishness.

The ones accusing her of doing more harm than good spoke with voices familiar to me (I ask similar questions, particularly of my own life).  And the consolation baffled me as it may have confused them.  “You can help the poor anytime.  They’re always with you.  She did what she could.”

I sat in a coffee shop a few days ago, phone in hand, checking a facebook account for news on an event happening in my NY home congregation.  They were seeking His presence, listening to good teachers, and celebrating it through posting videos and quotes.  I had come to the coffeeshop for my own time with God, but my heart was focusing on not being with them.  Homesickness ebbs and flows oddly enough.

A song reminded me of the one thing that motivated me to arrive there: His presence.  The same thing that motivated my friends to gather at a downtown brick structure in NY, had me sitting in a coffee shop in the Middle East, with strangers’ not-so-subtle glances and a mediocre drink and a reason to sit and to wait.  Impractical in the eyes of outsiders, invaluable to the one whose presence I am seeking.

And somehow alongside the bitter dish of being without, I am tasting the sweet wine of with.  Not a pairing I would have chosen.  God with us– in the longing, and the fulfillment.  In the community, and the quiet.

It’s that with that I bring with me, to the homes of local friends, to the community center with my Arab mommas, to the university classroom, to the basement space that is my home here.

 

 

 

 

 

Which of us is teaching?

The look was something between concentration and panic.  The first day I saw her in my English course, one among forty women, I would remember her look.

She was petite, shorter than the other university freshmen in the course, with wide eyes and a childlike face emerging from a white headscarf.  In my experience teaching and leading a group in worship, I have seen many expressions: nervous, eager, frustrated, engaged, vacant, hoping… But this look was different.  It did not change through the whole first lecture.  “Tell me your name, and one thing about yourself,” I asked, and 37 young women answered.

Three could not find words for anything other than names.  When it was her turn, she said shortly, “Nani,” and let the other question fall.

I kept this in mind and prepared a language assessment for the students.  If they don’t speak ANY English, they should not be in this class, I thought.  Nani’s look intensified during the second class, as she joined her classmates in answering questions and filling in blanks.

“Kevin has a headache.  He should take some _________.”  Most students filled that blank with some form of the word “medicine.”  Two wrote that Kevin should take some “coffee.”  Geniuses.

Three students struggled to answer even the question, “How are you doing?”  Nani was one of these.  She desperately tried to drink in everything, but was unable to, and therefore had the look of someone who was drowning in a downpour of English.

Third class: a new student named Mohammad, one of the few men in the English department, walked in–saw that the whole class was female– and walked out again.  His loss, I thought.   One of the three struggling students had dropped also, but it wasn’t Nani.

I separated the students into small groups, and asked them to describe a picture from their textbooks.  Nani struggled to come up with the English words, her look of concentration creating furrows in her forehead.  So when each group picked one person to report their discussion to the class, I was surprised to see Nani stand up.

She held her notes close to her face and read as quickly as she could, clipped words delivered in a childlike voice.  I held back applause as I saw this young, brave woman diving into the difficult language, boldly attempting to form its strange sounds.   As she stood, she rose above the knowledge of her peers, and showed something far more fundamental for success in college, in life…

After class she lingered.  “Nani,” I got her attention.  “You did a great job reading today.  Well done.”  Her brow un-furrowed, the fearfulness left those wide eyes, and a generous smile took over her face.

…On another day, we worked alongside local ladies from the fitness program at the community center,  organizing clothes and household goods to give to refugees.  As we were working, one of my Arab mommas, who works in an income-generating business also at the center, came up to me.

She handed me something, and I wondered if it was for the refugees.  “No, for you!” she smiled, and I opened the black plastic bag to find a purse and hand-knit slippers.  Her generosity leaves me speechless.  I learn what love and courage look like when I see them in the quiet choices of these women.