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.”
For 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.
Then 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.
Our 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…