Tag Archives: host family

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.

Wildflowers Live Here Too

I was riding on the back of a motorcycle in Asia when I glimpsed it.  The “motorcycle taxi driver” had taken the long way home. Tired, I wished I had remembered to tell him about the shortcut back to my host family’s place.  I was staying with them for a month while researching their city, and it had been tough– beyond anything I had experienced in the previous year of living in the country.  But we were too far in to take a shortcut.

This route brought us to a different horizon, on the city’s edge.  Instead of smothering smog and sun-concealing concrete, I saw low houses and fields lit up by a glorious orange sky, that was fading to pink, then to dusky blues.  My breath was caught.  Now I wanted the ride to be as long as it could be.

A talented friend, Shawna Handke, gave me a piece of her artwork while I was still in New York (you can see more here at her website).  Wildflowers Live Here Too, she calls it.  I love the movement, the color of the flowers–IMG_1082 and the stark beauty of the solid buildings.

The stories this week include some large piles of concrete, hard edged, pretending they possess power to delete the sun from the sky and keep the ground without life.  I will tell you only one: from a woman who eagerly helped our group pack first-aid boxes to give to refugees.  She is also here in flight of that war.

She showed pictures of her two kids, her mother, her sister, all smiling.  Then she showed a picture of dust and rubble.  “That is all that is left of our home,” she told me.  The difficulties of displaced people go far beyond material provision– loneliness, lack of family network, loss, insecurity… Although now she has become part of community exercise, she said she would go for weeks with no one to talk to, when she first arrived here.

The Wildflowers picture looked bare on my wall, and I found no frame.  So one night, inspired by Brene Brown’s challenge in Daring Greatly that gratitude is a PRACTICE, I grabbed a post-it note, jotted one thing to be grateful for that day, and stuck it on the edge of the picture.  Same thing the next day.  Two days after that.  The frame is a work in progress– sunset-colored notes reflecting the flowers that, in Shawna’s art, tower over black-and-white buildings, and somehow seem far more permanent.

  • My friend’s 6-year-old daughter smiling and greeting me as “Khalto,” the Arabic word for “auntie.”
  • A quiet place outside to sit with my music, journal.
  • A trio of messages from dear friends, coming when I needed them.

A fistful of wildflowers.

And perhaps, I can be a friend– a wildflower to my new acquaintance– as she, with her dedication to helping other displaced people in this town, is a wildflower in my eyes.

 

Rickety Stair Stories

It’s snowy.

Things have been wrapping up over the past few weeks.  Just in the past two days, I graded the last papers for the class that I taught, and attended my final board meeting for my local congregation.   This afternoon had me sniffling as I went through dusty drawers of seldom-used items.  Keep.  Throw out.  Give.  Recycle.  Look up on the internet and try to figure out what it is. (That’s for my under-utilized electronics…)

And what I really want is to have people sit in my house as the snow falls, or to hit a coffee shop with friends and my “to be done on computer” task list.  But the snow made me less adventurous, so some things had to be done today in the quiet of this basement: just me, Pandora playing in the background, and an occasional sniffle because of dust.  Mostly because of dust.

One of the drawers I cleaned out held an old flash drive.  On it were research notes from my “ethnographic study” in Southeast Asia.  A twenty-two year old version of myself, with several months of language study and very little clue how to do it, went to a big town on the outskirts to look at life there.  My host family’s house was on stilts, as per local traditions/comfortability ideas, and a rickety staircase led to their door.

My twenty-two-year-old self, nervous and off-balance with a big red suitcase, attempted to make her way up to the door.  This led to a rather ungraceful “stumble” between the slatted steps.  My host family, concerned, asked me several times if I was okay.  When I replied that I wasn’t hurt, just embarrassed, they reassured me, “At least no one saw your fall!”

For the next hour, everyone in the neighborhood– or that’s how it felt– came to meet me.  It wasn’t every day a foreigner came to this area of town, much less took up residence there for a month with the sole objective of hearing people talk and learning about their stories.  And during that hour, my host family told each person who entered the hilarious story of my fall up the stairs…

And that became my first research note, “re-discovered” today on my flash drive :-).  Now I sit in the quiet, and I can hear the sound of my host sister’s voice, the good-natured laughter of our neighbors, and the quickly-forgotten consolation, “At least no one saw!”
I tell my present self that it’s okay.  Stumbling toward new things, sniffling on the way– some moments are made to be savored in quiet, and others in community.  But I think I’ll go out in the snow tonight.