Tag Archives: homestay

The Art of Arabic Dance

I took a deep breath, hands resting against the steering wheel, then stepped out into the night.  The dark and silent road reminded me of my stay in that house a few months ago.

My former host mom and I had contacted each other occasionally since.  It had been a while since I heard from her, however, so her message that afternoon surprised me: “A few ladies are coming over for a little party tonight.  Come join us. Eight o’clock.”

It’s difficult to know what you’re getting into when people say “a little party” here.  They were in the sitting room, where we had never sat while I lived with them.  The ten-year-old threw herself into my arms for a hug; her younger brother also allowed a quick embrace, before they fled upstairs to the family room.

I introduced myself to the other guests: a well-made-up momma with a restless infant, a contented-looking grandmother, and a handful of other ladies– all coiffed to perfection.  When my host mom entered, she was wearing black leather boots and a leopard-print dress.

We all exchanged kisses on the cheek, and small talk on our lives, as more women entered the room.  They would arrive with head coverings, long robes, and plates of food.  Then they would disappear briefly into the kitchen, and re-emerge with unveiled hairdos, mid-thigh skirts, and four-inch heels.

I repented of my terribly comfortable– and terribly worn out– purple flats.

A friendly shouting match over song selection ensued.  The woman closest to the stereo solved it by abruptly turning up the music, so much so that no one could talk.  The only option was dancing.

My host mom started things off, joined by her best friend, Amany.  The rest of us sat in a circle, clapping in rhythm and watching the graceful arc of each arm, the subtle twist of each hip.  I had been to enough parties to know that these “simple”-seeming movements are not easily duplicated by someone who has NOT been reared on hummus and pita bread.

A few others took their turns in the middle, until they finally persuaded the oldest woman present to perform.  Perfect, controlled movements of her knees, hips, and shoulders, almost faster than the eye could see, astonished me for about half a song.  Then she cut herself off and sat down.

“I’m old,” she muttered.  “I can’t dance all night.”  But her smile-lines deepened around her eyes, communicating: I’ve still got it.

After repeated cajoling from the other women, the young momma plopped her child into his grandmother’s lap and took the center.  She danced with skill equal to the oldest, but had more flexibility.  Kicking off her stilettos, she drew her whole body– eyelashes to toenails to fingertips and everything in between– together into a living, swirling work of art.

Grandma patted the baby’s back in time to the beat.   I remembered the words of a wise old teacher: Some emotions are inexpressible with everyday words.  That’s why we need poetry, music, art….

and dancing.  

Contented as I was, I knew what was coming.  The ladies looked my way.  “Your turn,” they said, uncertain of how much urging I would require.

Exclamations of surprise and approval accompanied me as I stood up.  Standing up showed I was willing, and that went a long way.  I also knew it was better if I was not alone.  “Dance with me!” I said, drawing the woman beside the stereo with me into the middle.

The rest encouraged me like I was a kid who had just colored a cute picture.  Amany even smiled and said, “You dance like my nine-year-old!”

Given how nine-year-olds here dance, I thought, that is just fine.

Then they pointed to the corner, where the oldest woman was sitting.  She was waving her arms, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear or understand her over the music.  So she roused herself and stalked into the center of the circle, her eyes alive with merriment, confidence, and sass.  She put her hands on my waist.

“From here down you dance like an Arab.  But from here up you dance like a foreigner!”  And she commenced again with waving, showing me how to move my arms.

I got home around 11:30, my stomach stuffed with their desserts, my clothes saturated with their second-hand smoke, and my mind straining to remember their advice.  Let go.  Stay strong in the core.  Make small moves– they have great power.  Be flexible and consistent, together.  Encourage those who hold back.  Hold stuff for them if they need you to.  Teach the ones who are struggling.

You don’t need to keep your arms close.  You aren’t being called to protect yourself.  Open up.

Be always willing.  Even when there is awkwardness.  Even when you look like a child.  

Even when there is darkness.  

I am learning to dance.

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Zombies vs. the Holidays

“Are you zombies!?”

She laughed at her joke, while I found the right words to explain myself.  I had attempted to tell my host mom about Thanksgiving in America, and had concluded with, And we eat our families.

Which would make you zombies, she had delightedly pointed out.  Missed one important word.  With.  I re-stated it in Arabic: “We eat WITH our families.”

No, I am not a zombie.  But after living with a host family, wrestling with Arabic from before I got out of bed in the morning, I sometimes felt like I was.  My host mom would say, “Come with me to…” and I would obediently follow, even if I didn’t understand the destination.  My delayed understanding often manifest itself through blank stares, slow reaction times, and silly misunderstandings.  The parents were usually quiet during the day and emerged at night; often that just looked like all of us sitting in the same room, occupied with our own projects.

Sometimes it meant shopping runs or social visits.  On one of these, they asked me, “Do you like to eat …?”  And since it sounded vaguely like a vegetable I had once, and I’ve liked almost everything here, I enthusiastically responded with yes– only to find out it was the one food I have yet to find palatable in any country.

Liver.

When I actually understood all the words spoken, sometimes I still had to confess that I had missed their meaning.  To understand, in depth or in daily rhythms, requires more than translation.  Words are not sufficient.

Mary experienced something that was communicated in words from angels, signaled by a star, witnessed by shepherds; it was a story strong enough to change the way we mark time.  Those shepherds– secondary characters in most Nativities– hurried off to tell what they had seen.  But she, who was as close as anyone could humanly be to the center of the story, kept her lips sealed.  Even modern music lists questions we’d like Mary to answer: How much did you understand?  Mary, did you know?

She had no speaking lines that night.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Shortly before I moved to the Middle East, my friends/teachers Chuck and Ingrid prayed blessings over me.  Chuck’s words were authoritative, asking for empowerment and discernment; my soul affirmed them.  Ingrid, however, blessed me to be like Mary, to treasure things and ponder them in my heart.  No, I resisted quietly.  I don’t want to be like Mary.

I want to tell the stories.  I want to be understood.

In English class yesterday, my students were describing what was needed for a famous regional food, mansaf.  First, fermented yogurt.  Nuts.  Spices.  Meat.  Rice.  A thin, platter-sized piece of bread.  Do we need anything else?  

Omar answered: “People.”

An essential ingredient of some stories is their retelling.  I could be tempted to keep quiet for fear of being misunderstood.  But these are the stories that give life, and just as no one would think of eating mansaf alone, I cannot hold these stories to myself; I invite others to share them.

But the “sharing shepherd” is the easier of the roles for me.  During the two weeks with my Arab family, there were cultural miscommunications, deep talks, awkward moments… but the hardest part was the silence.  Sitting together, presence assured and pressure off, not much in the way of words.

And those stretching times were what made the difference between “visiting” and “living with.”

So I remember Ingrid’s prayer, that I can become a person who knows how to sit in silence.  With others.  With myself.  With my God.  Treasuring the moments that don’t need to be commonly understood or retold, at least not yet.

And pondering them in my heart, I say, Amen.

Burning Question

I walked with eyes forward. Step quickly. Attempt to look purposeful.

I had absolutely no idea where I was going.

For over a year, I had been living in Southeast Asia. My group had asked me to move to another city for a month, and do a research project on the area for a new community development team. I had resisted. I had seven excellent reasons why me doing such a research journey by myself was a terrible idea.

But the ugly, true name of the resistance, in this case– resistance to the unknown, to the uncomfortable– was fear.

Somehow I ended up going anyway…. and my fears proved justifiable. My plane was delayed due to heavy winds. My host family couldn’t take me in until five days after I arrived. Foreign politics (in 2007) felt personal to that region’s occupants, and occasionally some people, frustrated with the West’s involvement, would throw angry words toward me as I passed.

On a less serious note, my first conversation with my expat contact was also bumpy– she chose the gentle phrase I would never go out in that to let me know that my capris and short-sleeved shirt were NOT up to the modesty standards of this part of the country.

She also let me know that she wasn’t impressed by my presence in the city. If your company wanted to know something about this area, why not just ask me? What are you going to learn in a month that I don’t know from living here?

What, indeed? I sat gaping at her kitchen table, feeling like an imposition even as she agreed to let me crash with her until my host family returned. She took me to see where she worked, and then I was on my own. Might be exaggerating, but only slightly, to say I was the only blonde in that city of 600,000. And I walked, vaguely thinking I should go shopping for some long sleeves, trying to set my face like flint while internally answering the burning question: Why am I here?

That question returned to me forcefully this week, when I moved in with an Arab host family. Although this “homestay” is just half a month, and in the same city as supportive coworkers… discomfort and the unknown have visited me like distant relatives, the kind who show up without invitation and make themselves at home in the living room, fluffing couch pillows and saying they’ll sleep there just fine, without stopping to ask if they are welcome.

My host family has a beautiful home, and currently one bedroom is being reconstructed, at unpredictable hours.  So I may come home late at night to find them demolishing a wall, or wake to the sound of buzz saws and hammers.   I can’t seem to get a feel for the rhythm of family life, either.  This means long stretches of silence, times when I step out to meet a friend and inadvertently miss a family event, nights when the good conversations don’t begin until late, or don’t begin… Each day’s plans, like the construction noise, are unpredictable, somewhat jarring, and– at least in theory– building something.

Still, I find myself wondering, Am I getting enough language? Am I learning what I need to learn culturally? Is this worth the price, giving up my schedule? Because if unpredictability, for me, is sandpaper, then my desire to plan and achieve must have some rough edges. The friction between the two shapes me, but sometimes I just feel the burn. Why am I here?

As I walked along that road alone in Southeast Asia, I was crying out, “God, I know You are before me, behind me, above me, beneath me.  Right now I need to know You are beside me, because I feel so far off…”

And I was remembering the answer to the question: Why I came, is that You told me to be here.

Sitting on a red motorcycle, wearing exercise gear and a white head scarf, balancing a young child behind her, a woman was watching me, curious.  “Selamat pagi,” I said as I walked by, greeting her in her language.

She looked shocked.  “You speak my language?  What’s your name?  Why are you here?”  A few minutes later, she was inviting me to hop on the red motorcycle.

Although I don’t recommend this in all circumstances, I said yes.

But that is a second story.

 

–Song with the Story: You Have Called Me Higher, a simple, solid one from All Sons and Daughters