Tag Archives: Arabic

Not Time.

Some of you are those people.  The ones who really want to know the answer, when you ask, How are you?  No matter how muddy, how messy, how story-filled, or how strange, the answer may be.

Thankfully for me, one of your type meets up with me for coffee each week.   We hadn’t even ordered the mochas yet, last week, but she wanted to know.

“I’m feeling uneasy,” I answered.  Then I gave a very “foreigner”-sounding reason for it: “I have many things to do today, and yet have managed to start none of them….”  Went to meet someone; forgot they are not home.  Wanted to organize my university class from my laptop, while sitting in the lobby of the community center; interrupted by local friends walking in the door.  Shifted other plans to be present at a language lesson; time got changed, last minute, by my teacher.

Unfortunately, my addiction to showing results, to doing things efficiently– in a hurry— did not get left behind on my native continent.

Wednesday, a little before class, one of my students informed me of a special prayer ceremony, which would take place in half an hour.  It was in memory of the fallen soldier.  I assured her that she and the other students would be allowed to attend; my 75 minute lesson was shortened to 15.  Then we took the last 15 minutes to talk about the pilot.  Many of the students had seen the video, which had been made public the night before, of his death.  How do you feel?

“This is not Islam,” one began.  The class nodded their assent.

“We feel sad…sad.”  “People think it will separate us but it will unite us.”  “They make our Muslim faith look horrible.”

“We feel angry.”

“We feel like he is our brother.”

“I have no words in the English language,” said a young woman in the front row.   Encouraged to speak Arabic, she still struggled to find vocabulary:  “It’s a crime. How… how could anyone do that?  How could they burn a person?”

Some other students studied the tiles on the floor, solemn-faced and articulately silent.  Finally one spoke up: “We feel frustrated, because there is nothing we can do.”

What do people do when they are angry?  Our response to others’ actions is a choice– so what should WE do?  I want to give them answers.  To throw them a life preserver, as they wrestle with a flood of confusion and grief… To drag them back to safety.

But I don’t have answers either.  As we left, I saw a printout of his picture, posted at the university’s entrance.  Not the military picture from the news articles; he is dressed casually, smiling, maybe on vacation.  Relaxed.  And I thought, this is over our heads, and there is no shortcut.  We are going to have to learn how to swim.

And that will take some time.

Forty-one teenaged Arab girls spent Friday exploring the most famous tourist attraction of their country: a world-renowned, historically-rich archeological city.  Many had never visited before.  Groups had prepared presentations on one of 12 specific locations, which spread out over several kilometers, up hills, and in valleys.IMG_2371

I was in charge of the day, and felt responsible to get them to as many sites as we could visit.  Maybe 10 out of 12, I thought.

We left an hour late.  I looked the list of locations.  Maybe nine out of twelve?

Lunch, which we had arranged in advance, wasn’t ready on time.  We lost another 40 minutes.   Eight? 

And then there were the girls themselves.  I tried to motivate them by making it a game– “Your team gets a point if you make it to the next spot on time!”– without smothering the fun of the journey.  They were stopping to look at Bedouin shops, posing in caves and on camels.  Their songs reverberated off the rocks, as they ambled ancient paths between the mountains.

At one point, what I thought I said was meet in 15 minutes.  The whole group laughed good-naturedly.  “We’ll starve if it takes that long!”

What did I say?  

Apparently, my Arabic still needs help.  “You just told us to meet in fifteen years!”

At the end of the day, I think we had hit six or seven of the sites.  But rushing toward the goal would have robbed them of the chance to fully savor it all– the journey.  The presence of their teachers and each other.  The conversations with locals.  The challenges of exertion and exploration.

Together with the ones at the university, these students will keep reminding me that learning, like healing, can’t be rushed.

When I meet my friend for coffee tomorrow, I’ll know– just a little more than I did last week– it’s not about time.

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One Word (a matter of light and death)

I held the box in my hands, waiting.

It gave me a moment to observe the givers.  One grinning, rubbing his hands– a gleeful, boyish gesture of impatience.  One watching with eyes shining, and a quiet whisper: “She’s going to love this.”  One sitting very close, her hands poised to assist and her presence, as always, a steadying one.

Their delight and anticipation on another’s behalf– that is worth more than anything they could have put inside this box, I thought.  Finally, I released their treasure from its plum-colored case.  It caught the light and shimmered.

IMG_4061My friend’s fingers fastened the fragile chain around my neck.  “We knew we had to choose this green stone for you,” she said.  “Because of your word for the coming year.”

It was the night before I left New York, in order to move to a different language and culture: that of the Arab world.  A few days earlier, I had been with most of the same friends on New Year’s Eve.  We spoke of our hopes for the coming year, set out the challenges, and then summed up our focus– what we were each determined to pursue in 2014– in a single word.  Mine was Life.

I had no idea how much dying would be required.

When I boarded the plane to the Middle East, I didn’t just carry on a guitar, a green pendant, and a good old L.L.Bean bag. I carried with me memories and anticipation.  But these had expanded with unchecked assumptions and fears: things that would stick out, in the year that followed, in the strangest places.

Change cuts deeply.  In those twelve months, it felt like a hammer and chisel were being applied. They broke off some pieces that I didn’t know existed, and others that I had been convinced were essential.

When I thought the work was complete and my appearance was again smooth, some new layer or other facet would be exposed.  I was left, for all to see, ragged.  The pressure of perfection built as I tried to adhere to mixed messages, regarding various aspects of life:

  • Dress attractivelythey don’t like frumpy here.  But not too attractively-you don’t want to look like you are trying to be sexy.
  • Work hardyou’ve got to learn Arabic and do your part as a member of your new “family”/company.  But don’t work too hard heed the cautionary tales of depression and burnout, from friends… and those no longer here.
  • Don’t expect too much— things may be slow, you have to be in it for the long haul.  But don’t expect too little— or you’ll get it. Too little.
  • Keep in touchyou need family and friends back home.  But open up hereyou must learn to depend on local friends/coworkers.
  • Be independent-– there are endless stories of “needy” personalities.  But don’t be too independent— don’t act like you know what you are doing before you really do.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what I’m doing.  I am sometimes needy; sometimes overly communicating, sometimes overly guarded; sometimes focused on surviving, sometimes dreaming steps ahead; sometimes lazy, sometimes extended too far; sometimes sticking out, sometimes caught at a grocery store with a mis-matched skirt hastily thrown over my exercise clothes.  Complete with sneakers.  Frumpy AND sweaty.

What’s being put to death is security based on perfection.  Performance.  People.  And pleasing others.  A work that is in progress, but oh, it is positive.

And it is painful.

My story is only one part of the challenge.  The second stories cut deeper.  Sweet ladies whose dreams, bodies, and spirits are assaulted by discrimination and human depravity.  Syrian friends sent far from home, wondering which relatives are alive, wishing for escape.  Treasured family members and friends facing death, separation, and sickness from all around the world– their questions are unanswerable.

One morning I woke up to this world of work in progress, and I had in mind the manger.  A cloth-cloaked baby surrounded with straw.  Appearance is weak, but all power is His.  Lowly, but “by highest heaven adored.”  He is startling and He is strong.

And He is life.  An explosion of all prior expectations.

I’m on the sidelines.  I realize, in that picture, that we can cease attempting to perform perfectly, to resolve every question.  Because while chiseling has to happen for the stone to gleam, the brilliance never came from inside the rock.

Our tenderly cut stones catch the Light.  And we shimmer.

Mara and the Mountain

Not everyone made it.

Fifty Arab teenagers faced a sand dune: enormous, steep, and scattered with thorns and stones.  These girls were on a day trip in the desert, part of a week-long leadership camp, that would include games to build teamwork, group discussions on values, and dancing around a fire pit.

But the first adventure was not so organized– our Bedouin guides raced their Jeeps through the open spaces of the desert, and came to a stop at the bottom of a mountain of sand.  Disembarking from the open pick-ups, the students knew what to do– and they were full of anticipation.

But what does Mara anticipate with this? I wondered, looking for her.  There she was, walking toward me, dragging her stiff right leg behind her small frame, as she always did.  “Are you ready?” I asked, sounding out her plans.  This sand dune would not be easy, even on two healthy legs.  She replied in a voice that was soft and ever-so-slightly slurred.  “I’m ready.”

Next thing I realized, Mara was leading me to the base of the sand mountain.  We stumbled forward, arms linked, quietly laughing.  We had come only a fraction of the way when we paused to recover.  “Do you want to keep going?” I asked.

“Yes.”

The stumbles turned into falls– the dune was steeper past the base.  This isn’t going to get any easier, I thought, looking upward.  But Mara was focused.  And a few rocks ahead might provide secure footing.  For every step, I pushed with two legs, and Mara with her one healthy leg, but the loose red sands absorbed our shoes, socks, and ankles, sucking us backwards.

We sat down.  “It’s an amazing view, Mara, even just here!”

“Yes,” she said quietly, eyes forward.  “But it will be even better from the top.”

We stood again.  Eventually we learned that the plants were thorn bushes, and while hardy, not to be used for any support.  But we found our rhythm: Mara would wait while I stepped forward.  Then I would reach back and hold her arm, pulling her upwards while she pushed from her good leg.  We’d end up standing together– usually dragged down half a step for every step we took– and then would do it again.  “Are you tired, Mara?”

“No.”

The rocks, it turned out, were also disappointing.  The small ones I thought would support us tumbled down the fine, hot sand when touched.  We sat on the ground again, resting. “I have relatives in America,” Mara said, mixing in occasional English words with her Arabic.  “When I turn 18 I will go and visit.  They have really good doctors.”

Five years ago, she told me, she and her mom had been in a car accident.  She was eight years old. “I stayed in the hospital for one month.  I couldn’t move my legs.  And I couldn’t talk.”

Others on the mountain had started to notice our ascent.  One offered to carry our bags.  We were at the halfway mark.  Those at the top– as well as those who had decided to halt somewhere along the way– started to call out encouragement.  I wondered if Mara would feel embarrassed.  She seemed not to notice, just keeping the edge of her mouth in a smile and her eyes on the sand in front of her.087

Three quarters of the way to the top.  Mara asked me, “Are you tired?”  Is she trying to tell me that she’s tired? I wondered.  Our staggered steps were becoming less coordinated.

Then we heard a voice above us: “You’ve got this!”  We looked up.  One of the other volunteers, a friend of mine, smiled and came to take Mara’s free arm.  We had to awkwardly figure out how to coordinate as three now, but it was worth it– we inched upward again.  Mara’s small smile returned.  The girls at the top started chanting her name.  Mara.  Mara.

MARA.  MARA.

She made it.

Mara said little, but her smile had taken over her whole face.  After a few minutes of taking in the view– which as Mara predicted, was MUCH better from up there– I started to wonder how she would get down.  Most of the rest ran (it feels kind of like flying), and that would not work for her.  Before I could ask, Mara told me what she wanted.  A couple of others thought it looked like so much fun, that they joined her.

She slid.092

Connections

I’m starting to see the connections.  For example, the Arabic word meaning to remain with is connected to the word for to sit down.  I get that.  A word that starts as discussion can easily become the word for argument.  Makes sense.

And one of the words for working out also means… math?

That one, I asked my teacher to clarify.  She grinned at my puzzled expression. “Of course: exercise for your body… or exercise for your mind!”

My mind is getting a lot more exercise than my body this summer, as community center activities take a hiatus and I sit with language teachers, studying word connections and sipping sweet coffee.   So I decided to borrow a work-out DVD from one of my housemates.  I’ve seen fit college athletes nurse aching limbs after one of these workouts: 30 Day Shred.

Jillian Michaels, the coach, reminds me daily: “You want change.  To get that, you’ve got to endure stress…. That’s how change happens.” (Did I mention that in Arabic, the word to beat/to hit someone is connected to the word to coach?)

Rob Reimer is a professor and pastor, and a person experienced in endurance of tough things.  His teaching “hits me”/coaches me even from across an ocean.  The truth is that amidst the summer stillness, I am restless for resolution– resolution of conflict in this region, of sadness of loved friends, and of longings in my own soul.  Reimer reminds me, “…this time between the promise and the delivery of the promise is the most critical time in the life of the people of God.  It is the “in between time.'” (Pathways to the King).

I wasn’t sure I had a story this week.  I am in between spring and fall semesters at the university, between Ramadan and the re-opening of the center,  between being green and being seasoned, between hearing the promises and being able to grasp them with my hands.  And tension resides.  My instinct with this tension is the same as my instinct with Jillian Michaels’ Shred video: I want a different way, I want to get out of it.  But stress builds change often, or at least creates the opportunity for it.  And I’m beginning to see the connection.

Here in the in-between, I spend my days studying Arabic and “shredding,” throwing away last semester’s worksheets to make way for new students, organizing my apartment to prepare for leaving it this fall to live a month with a local family… While I can see the end coming quickly to this in-between schedule, I don’t know when the resolutions promised will come.

Reimer says that, in the in-betweens, people face three major challenges:

  • trying to make things happen via our own resources
  • listening to competing voices (counter to what He says)
  • quitting

So instead I am waiting with arms stretched wide, with one side reaching toward the promises I’ve been given in the past, and the other stretching into hope for the days that remain to be seen; and with whole self here, present.  Sometimes there is pain in the stress.  But Rob and Jillian agree…

This stretch brings about change.  And it’s there that I get ready for new opportunities, which I saw take place even yesterday… although that is a second story.  For now, I’ll just say, holding arms wide open leaves me ready, giving or receiving, for an embrace.

 

 

 

 

Fragile Phrases

I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.

My students would write “inspirational quotations.”  After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas.  They would read and explain them in front of the class.

Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations.  Those were powerful times, charged with energy.  We would taste that here… I thought.

My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational.  Same, familiar words.  The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty.  But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.

…I thought.

Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:

  • a smattering of dialects
  • a few different textbooks
  • a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
  • and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.

One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories.  My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly.  I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.

When I succeed… I start the story.  I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men.  In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna.  To me, this word tastes like mercy.  It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.

Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language.  I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English.  I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.

Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively.  I let every word sink deep.  And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are.  They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.

I’m learning to be like them.  The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends.  The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing.  I savor it well when I share it.  My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.

Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first.  We are both still searching for words.  But that search itself helps to give us something to say.

 

 

Explain Those

The important stories can be the hardest to explain.

I spent part of the afternoon comparing my limited Arabic vocabulary to the story of Jesus’ birth.  Not a pretty comparison. My teacher had suggested that we look at versions of this story from the Qur’an and the Gospels, as our language class tonight.  But after re-reading Luke’s version of the events, I was awed at the gap between the power and intensity of this story, and my ability to communicate.

That’s how I feel when I sit down to blog lately, also.

The stories that burn in my heart are the hardest to put into words.  Saturday I woke up with no plans.  My rhythm of relaxation is still developing.  So unplanned days here are often open spaces meant to be refreshing, and also reminiscent of people and places I miss…

In the evening, I would Skype into a wedding of good friends in New York.  I’m grateful that technology allows us to connect, but let’s be honest: hugs don’t transmit electronically.  So my Saturday stretched ahead of me, less like shade, more like shadow.

After coffee– still not feeling awake, just restless– I found myself reading Psalms.  My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent (Psalm 22).  I had said goodbye the night before to visitors from the US, including one from home.  I had gotten to process successes from this season as well as the struggles, the places where I still feel the darkness, where God seems silent.  I thought of those conversations as I kept reading.  I will fear no evil, for You are with me (Psalm 23).

And somehow the familiar phrase brought light to cloudy thoughts.

Basking in its warmth, I curled up to sleep again, and on the way to dreams I let the ancient truth percolate: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  The darkness is real.  But it has not overcome the light.  He walks alongside me.

How do I write about kitchen table revelation?  How do I explain how different my day was, when I awoke the second time?  How do I share with you some of the warmth and light that thought gave me, and still acknowledge the shadows that you and I experience?

How can I describe watching, from a screen on the other side of the ocean, as my friends said their vows– how I celebrated, deeply sensing that You are with me, with no other person in the room?  How can I explain why tears still fell, when the screen was off?

Slowly.  Starting with facts, but trying to help us see together the Face behind them.  And praying that He will tell us the soul-strengthening truths that go beyond words.

Kind of the same way I tried to tell the Christmas story tonight.

Not to be Captured

2014-01-11 14.44.25Writing usually evokes the thoughts and events that have been percolating in the back of my mind.  But there are so many right now, it’s hard to decide what to put out here.

Should I write about my first attempt to speak Arabic, when my listener gently replied– in English– that she was from the Philippines and doesn’t speak Arabic?

Or of the women who make jewelery at the center, part of a “small business” enterprise.  Upon our second meeting, these motherly and grandmotherly women began calling me “habibti,” a local term of love and affection.  They teach me Arabic, show me how to roll paper beads from recycled magazines, and feed me quantities of green olives and hummus.

Or maybe I should write about the fun couple from the US who has had me in their home–twice– in the past week, expressing their commitment to helping me settle in.  The map that he made, and the cheesecake she made, were very welcome.  The intentional questions they asked, even more welcome!!

On the other hand, I could tell of writing an e-mail to a friend in Pennsylvania, and of crying as I answered her question about how my last week in the US had been.  Everyone loved, encouraged, expressed appreciation, and blessed me greatly.  My family & dear friends have sent me well.  And I miss them.

I could write about seeing a refugee child selling peanuts on the street, long after dark.

I could write about the eyes of a young woman from the same area, distant and guarded until a smile came her way.  Unbelievably quickly, the look of caution fled, and her face lit up with her own brilliant smile.

I could write about teaching my first-ever English class yesterday, and explaining to a crowded room of students what the words “hope” and “confidence” mean.  “Optimism”– we talked about that, too.

I could write about my first venture into the desert– a beauty unique from any others.  But I don’t think words could capture any of it.

 

Say “Yes” First

“Take a ________ for the road,” he said.  He was gesturing at a pile of fruit, and speaking to me in Arabic.

I had been studying some basic Arabic for months, in anticipation of moving to the Middle East, but I still wasn’t quite sure what he was offering– apple? avocado?  There were also bunches of bananas, but sadly I am allergic to those, so I hoped that wasn’t it.  Somewhere between his third and fourth offers, I accepted.

I did not know what I was saying yes to.

This weekend, a Chinese youth group and a fellowship in Long Island welcomed me to tell part of my story.  I told them the part about going overseas right after college graduation, before I knew what I was saying yes to.   I had been on short-term trips to Spanish-speaking areas, had read lots and lots of books, and knew some people who had done international work.  So I said yes, got on the plane, and soon figured out that much of what I’d anticipated/expected was not reality.

Some of the realities were incredibly sweet; others very difficult to swallow. But I learned that even if I can’t predict all that will happen, “yes” is sometimes still the right answer.

I got a banana.  Couldn’t eat it, but a friend really enjoyed it.  And now I know the word for “banana” in Arabic.