Tag Archives: language

The Blind Date

Let me tell you about my accidental blind date.  

With Mohammad.

I had been in the country for about six weeks.  A friend from our community center, Khudrah, invited me and my housemate to visit the ladies in her home.  My housemate warned me that Khudrah had been inquiring about my marital status that day, mentioning a cousin who “wants to marry a foreigner.”  Note: Marriages here are often set up by the female members of a household, who research options and then arrange a meeting between the potential couple.

As surrogate family, my housemate had tried to discourage Khudrah, but gently so as not to insult the family.

So I wasn’t worried about the visit that night, and I had my housemate with me to help with any challenging language situations. One of Khudrah’s aunts began telling me about her son, suggesting he could teach me Arabic.

I declined the offer.

That Thursday night, Khudrah invited just me out for coffee.  I told myself that there was no way the cousin would show up– culturally, that would be really, REALLY weird.  But the discomfort persisted…

Until I got in the car, and saw just Khudrah and a single aunt of hers sitting there.  I need to be okay with not controlling all the details, I reminded myself.

So I didn’t ask where we were going.  We parked in a busy downtown area, and I noticed the people in the car next to us– three women, some kids, and an infirm-looking older gentleman– and thought, Why is that one lady waving at me, smiling so expectantly?  Have I met her before?

Khudrah grinned: “This is the coffee shop, owned by my cousin Mohammad!  There’s his dad and my aunt– his mom– in the car beside us.  You remember her, right?”

I spent the next two and a half hours trying to make small talk with the women of the family, in my excruciating Arabic. Trying not to make small talk with Mohammad, who would emerge from behind the counter periodically, smoking cigarettes and attempting to ask me questions in English.  Trying to be clear with Khudrah, drawing her aside, saying, I’m here to hang out with you ladies, not with your cousin.  Trying to be polite when the aunts commented that I was “shy” around Mohammad, and Khudrah informed them, “She doesn’t talk to men.”  Trying to figure out if being reserved made them more or less interested in me as a future daughter-in-law.  Trying not to laugh at the awkwardness of the situation.

I found out later that an initial meeting is often all that a potential couple has to go on, before they decide whether to get married.  Sitting with my housemate the next day, I told her, I think I just went on this culture’s version of a blind date.

“Yes,” she said, after hearing my story.  “Sounds about right.”

I waited for the awkward follow-up conversation, but it never came; Khudrah and I became close with other people, and we didn’t see each other much outside of the community center’s exercise classes.  But, just last week, she invited me to a wedding.

Weddings here involve lots of music and dancing, and almost no interaction with the opposite sex.  The women celebrate by themselves, and the groom enters with the bride to dance, cut the cake (with a sword), and present the bride with her dowry of gold jewelry.  I knew Khudrah’s female cousin had just gotten accepted into the Young Leaders’ program, and that I would probably see some of the other ladies from her family, so I accepted her invitation.

On the way over, I asked who the bride was.  “I don’t really know the bride,” Khudrah replied.  “I’m related to the groom.  Remember Mohammad?”

I’ve been in the Middle East under 18 months.  Like “Part II” of a novel, when enough has changed that the author feels it necessary to give you a blank page so that you can catch your breath, a good many things have shifted this spring: the level of my friendships, the people who are my coworkers, the definition of a “hot” day (anything under 95 doesn’t qualify for me anymore), the things I pray when I sit in quiet, the job I do at our community center.

But then there are the things from “Part I” that were incomprehensible then, or stories that I didn’t know how to tell, that are resurfacing later in the book.  Last Tuesday, at the graduation ceremony for our Young Leaders, I saw 100 “parts” ending; 120 new students will begin next week in their place.  Parts ending, parts begun.  All unfinished.

No one but the author knows how the stories will be woven together.

Last night, amidst the strobe light and the bubbles from the bubble machine and the smoke from Mohammad’s signature cigarette, this young couple danced out of “Part I” and into “Part II” of their stories.  He made her giggle as he pulled every woman over 50 onto the dance floor with them.  He made the aunts blush as he kissed his bride in public– twice– and sang along to the ear-splitting music.  He took the mic from the DJ and said, “Everyone should get up and dance, since this is my first wedding, and my last!”

Some friends from New York recently caught up with me on the shifting happening in the stories here.  I don’t know which parts of old stories will resurface in the pages ahead, and a thousand new stories are launching on an unknown trajectory, but I’ll heed their good advice: “Be present. Stay patient and enjoy the good parts.”

On that note, off to brownies and a game night, with good friends, who are present in this part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Layering Up

“What should I wear when I visit you?” my friend from New York asked.

“Layers.”

Temperature sits at 115 degrees.  Culture calls for covered legs, covered arms, but away from the public eye, survival calls for something less strict.  Light sweaters to be shrugged off.  Scarves to be undone.  Long pants exchanged for bliss… I mean shorts.

Here, she noticed, while somewhat stifling in moments, the layers shield us from the sun’s intensity.

A few nights ago, a friend’s family had me join them for their “breaking fast” meal.  It was the first day of Ramadan.   They made a local favorite from a recipe so good the mom refuses to share it; they ate quickly, in silence, having tasted no food or water since before sunrise (14 hours, temp of 115).  Feeling slightly awkward, I ate my lamb, and wondered about leaving.  Then someone said, “Spoons.”

It’s a card game that mirrors musical chairs, in that the loser is the one with the slowest reflexes.  The unfortunate player holding no spoon at the end of the round is”punished” by the winner, with a mild dare.  For two hours, we crowded around a deck of cards and battered silverware.  Their parents sat on the couch, enjoying watching us enjoy ourselves.

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Somewhere within the laughter of that night, I remembered the last time I had played this game.  It was New Year’s Eve, in New York, days before I would leave the country.  Playing games sometimes shows new sides of personalities.  But I leave that to your imagination.  I remembered playing with neighbor kids and teenagers on my front porch in Southeast Asia, when we couldn’t speak much of their language, but Spoons let us laugh together.  Vague memories of games in high school, on retreats or all-nighters or with the spoons in restaurants (shaking head).

That memory took on a new layer this week, as Ramadan opened, amidst a silent meal and a rambunctious game of Spoons, among friends who I am still growing to understand, little by little.

Sometimes I just want to shed the layers, return to what is comfortable.  I fear losing something important.  But then I forget that layers can add depth, add richness, not stifle.  So in the heat, I am letting the layers pile on:

  • singing songs that were the anthems of my home fellowship, here with smaller groups of voices
  • celebrating life events & holidays with new friends who are here
  • pulling favorite coffee mugs from the shelf, to be sipped by other, thirsty throats
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Prints

A couple of months ago, a crafty friend showed me how to make prints, layering levels of paint and stamps– processes that I, in my craftlessness, don’t find straightforward.  I tried a layer or two  and protested, “This is a mess.  Can I start again?”

“It looks like a mess,” she agreed, perfectly calm.  “But the best prints often start out like that…. You have no idea what it’ll look like ten or twelve layers from now.”

 

 

 

Listen (beyond the words)

“Forgive me– I don’t speak Arabic well yet.  I am new here.  I have been here about two months.”

Often I will introduce myself in the local language, prompting a flow of Arabic words that surpasses my comprehension.  So I make this little speech, and then say what I can.  And listen.

This week, 20 Syrian refugees came together at the community center.  Local Arab women, from our center’s fitness program, had talked about what it means to love others and what they could do to help. They donated clothes.  Then they organized and folded donations from others, and packed 41 bags to share with refugee families.  We invited these 20 women to come for a health seminar and– of course–  coffee, tea, and sesame cookies.

When I welcomed each lady in Arabic, and their response flowed past my comprehension, I made the speech.  “Forgive me, I don’t speak Arabic well yet…”  I added something extra: “But in America, I studied a little Arabic with a friend from Syria.”

Fast connections.  Warm smiles.  I even understood their response: one confirmed that my Syrian accent was still clear, and another insisted that I was “part American and part Syrian.”

Someone noticed the half-dozen young children, present with their mothers.  In record time, she assembled bags of kid-friendly snacks and chocolate milk, and deposited them into six delighted little pairs of hands.

With our own hands wrapped around coffee mugs, the fitness program ladies and Syrian women got to know each other.  One older refugee had been a mathematics professor at a university for 33 years.  “I got tired,” she told me, adding that she now lived with her youngest daughter.  Others named the cities from which they had come.  I recognized these cities from the news; they were sites of violent sieges and extreme civilian suffering.

Another woman told me her name, and I tried the question:  “What is your story?”  She shrugged, saw that I wanted to listen, and began.  I caught some fragments: war, house, destroyed, child… leg (these last two were repeated multiple times).  She did not need me to understand every word.  Even if I had, I think I would not be able to understand what she had been through.  So I listened.

I noticed three children, between three and five years old, contentedly munching from their snack bags.  They sat together.  Their feet dangled off of their chairs.  I attempted to talk to them, and they smiled, but were unsure of how to respond to the woman with long, yellow hair and words that tumbled.  The smallest got an idea, though.  Wordlessly– cheerfully– he offered me a chip.

I accepted.

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.

The Great Stone Face

Sixty teenage girls, a handful of Arab teachers, and one American (with very limited language ability) piled into three buses this past Saturday, headed to the beach.

Another car with a family from the U.S. followed, bringing our group total 2014-02-08 15.20.28close to 70. These young women, along with sixty young men who will hit the beach next week, are part of a program that offers leadership development, English study, and cultural experiences to students from limited-income backgrounds.

Sixty teenage girls collected sea glass, so that other women can make their living by turning it into jewelery.

Sixty teenage girls played team-building games with sand, saltwater, and a couple of hula hoops as the main props.

Sixty teenaged girls laughed in the sunshine and ate shawarma.

Educators, anthropologists, and politicians have discovered that small things like these can influence a person’s perspective.  They challenge us to think outside our own needs, to work as a team, to be a community of life– that laughs much.

IMG_0286From my neighborhood I can see these barren, rocky mountains.  While they lack the chaotic fun of sixty Arab teens on a beach day, the mountains serve as a testimony in my mind to one of my very favorite stories.  They remind me that as I seek to help others gain perspective– to be an influencer– I am also being influenced by whatever I hold closest.

The story tells of a boy from another time and place, who loved to study the mountain from his valley home.  A formation of rocks on the mountain looked like a face, full of wisdom, grace, and strength.  The people of the valley had a prophecy: one day a person from their valley would emerge who would both resemble that Great Stone Face, and embody its nobility and virtue.

The boy spent each day gazing at the Stone Face in the mountain, contemplating the goodness he saw there, eager for the day that the prophecy would be fulfilled.  As he grew up, he would still slip away to study the Face, drawing strength from its depths.

Different citizens of the valley emerged who were thought to be fulfillments of the prophecy: a wealthy business owner, a war hero, a politician.  Each one promised something but could not match the virtue of the Great Stone Face, and fell short of the prophecy.  Finally, the boy who had grown up studying the Great Stone Face– now an old man, and still meditating on that Face each day– met one last candidate.

He was a poet, born in the valley but absent for a long time.  After meeting with the old man, the poet acknowledged quickly that despite his gifted pen, he lacked the depth fulfill the prophecy…  The old man had begun a custom of going into a field at sunset, where the people of the valley gathered to hear him speak simple words of truth and encouragement, and the poet followed.

As the poet listened, and saw behind the old man’s shoulder the mountainside with the Great Stone Face, he called out something that everyone in the valley– except the old man himself– could see plainly: the old man was the fulfillment to the prophecy.  He had gazed so hard at the Great Stone Face that he had become like it.

(read the full story, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, here: http://www.classicreader.com/book/726/1/ )

So what are you looking at?

One Art

His Alabama accent was thick.

I had met his wife shortly after I arrived, a Japanese woman who uses origami to connect with Syrian refugees. We had come together the week before to an after school program for young refugee women.  Waiting in the car with us, ready to help again this afternoon, was my friend’s precocious seven-year-old.  She spoke to her mom in Japanese and to me in English (with her dad reminding her that she should address me as “ma’am”).

We waited in the car, beside the locked door of the center.  Finally we called.  Times had changed– and we had missed the program.

The night before, I told a teammate how I have been feeling huge waves of grief sweep up, sometimes with long periods of stillness in between, and at other times a steady pounding.  She listened a long time, and did not attempt to solve things. “I think the measure of how good something is, is how much you mourn it,” she said.

Today she had me bring my guitar to our community center’s fitness room.  We met with three other women who are involved in the leadership of this fitness program, who were expecting to have a business meeting.  Instead, we sang; we proclaimed the love of God, the holiness of God, the miraculous healings and transformation, the power of God– over ourselves, the space, the women in our fitness program, and the rest of the city.

It was awesome.  So when my impatience stirred like a wind over calm seas, I was surprised.  “It’s getting late.  I need to go visit my Arab moms… or start studying…”  The tug to “do something” was strong.  A quiet voice told my soul, Peace! Be still.  We kept singing.

A favorite poem of mine declares, The art of losing isn’t hard to master.  The author, Elizabeth Bishop, advises,

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

The poet records her losses, increasingly significant (I lost two cities, lovely ones, and vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent…).  She moves from acceptance to seeming to try to convince herself that it’s no “disaster” to have lost what, or whom, she lost (see full poem here: One Art.)

And as I live here in the Middle East, in addition to studying language and society and new roles, I am studying this art.  The art of letting today’s “wasted hour” at the closed community center, turn into the joyful acquaintance of my new seven-year-old-Alabaman-Japanese buddy.

The art of knowing that the best use of time is the pursuit of loving God and others.  And if it’s more about the process than about producing, that must just be part of the art.

And the art of calling the losses the irreplaceable things that they are, and staying soft-hearted and open-handed, embracing life fully, every day.

Out of Place

Have you ever looked at those drawings where you compare two almost-identical pictures, to figure out what is out of place?

When I was in Asia a few years ago, a woman in my neighborhood asked if I would go to the local outdoor market with her.  Aunt Sue, as she was called, bought vegetables there each day, early in the morning, and then sold them door-to-door at a small profit.

I set an alarm for 5:45 a.m. and dragged myself to the door at 6:00 (she was starting “late” out of compassion for me).  We walked two kilometers to the market, and began weaving our way through fruit stands, rice stands, vegetable stands… Aunt Sue was all business, bartering in a local dialect that I understood little of.  I could tell everyone was asking about the foreigner.  Our small town was no tourist destination, and the heart of the street market was not frequented by many with my tone of skin.

Grinning, Aunt Sue picked up something wrapped in a banana leaf and handed it to me.  I remember that I didn’t want to eat it, but did, and it was better than I thought.

Eventually Aunt Sue did not want to answer questions anymore.  She found a friend– a cheerful woman chopping meat, one hand bare and the other wielding a butcher knife– and told me to sit and wait for her.  I tried to make small talk with the butcher but she was shy, and my language was limited.  Her young daughter looked curiously at me, and two teenage girls selling baby clothes in the next stall giggled to each other.

Everything I saw, smelled, and tasted that morning was new and foreign to me.  But as I sat next to the butcher, realizing that this market went on seven days a week almost year round, I realized that the only thing out of the ordinary in the market that day was… me.

Getting ready to move to the Middle East, I am anticipating that some things may look and feel strange, when really it’s just that I am a stranger.  At least, to start.  The market got easier to visit every time.  Aunt Sue became a dear friend.  I learned the local language well enough to figure out what they were asking about me… but that’s another story.