Early every morning, the local muezzin begins his call, asking all those who hear him to pray. I’ve lived here long enough now, that it doesn’t usually wake me up anymore. However, this morning was a little different. The call was markedly louder than usual and the usual muezzin was replaced by someone very talented in his singing/chanting. Today marks the day thousands of sheep will lose their lives as local Muslims commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice and the end of the hajj to Mecca. Some have fasted the day before, believing that doing so will absolve them from the sins of the past year.
Living in a different culture can be very interesting. I learn about myself just as much as others. For instance, why are pancakes okay for breakfast but cake isn’t? Really, there’s not a lot of nutritional difference.
I now dwell in a land steeped in traditions, some of which are millennia old. This means abiding by rules that I don’t always know or understand. This can prove quite mind boggling as I work to determine what I can and can’t wear or what food items go together. Thankfully, the mandate of hospitality means others should share their wealth of information and knowledge with me so as to preserve my life and reputation. No one wants a dead or injured American on their hands. And everyone loves to be a hero. This is actually one of the things I love about the Middle East: everyone is quick to help others. They all want to share their favorite recipes or their way of doing whatever it is you need to do. It’s beautiful. It’s community.
And so, their help is usually welcomed. I am particularly grateful for a friend pulling me aside and showing me a better way to walk down the street so as to attract less attention. And for another friend who taught me how to host properly.
Occasionally, though, this advice is ill-founded. Awhile back my friend kept trying to save me from certain suffocation by moving all my plants to the balcony. In this way, she was preventing “reverse photosynthesis” from removing all my oxygen. No amount of scientific evidence would sway her belief. And just last week, while at a coastal city, I ordered shrimp with banana-milk. The waiter was very reticent to place my order as shrimp and milk don’t mix. I thanked him for his concern and assured him I’d be fine. And I was.
Life overseas is an interesting adventure of paradoxes and juxtapositions. As I wade through the muddy waters of culture and tradition, I am faced with my own culture’s faults and fallacies. I’ve learned to blend my own culture with my host culture, creating an entirely new me in the process.
And I’ve learned that at times, it’s okay to let others be your hero. Even if you didn’t think you needed saving. You never know what you might discover.
I’ve lived in the Middle East for awhile now. I have studied the language, learned to play the music, and appreciate the art. Oriental dancing, however, alludes me. I grew up in America, so I never learned to make my hips do whatever it is that they’re supposed to do in oriental style dancing. My Sicilian heritage failed me for I have surprisingly short legs. Makes dancing of any type awkward.
As I was making a fool of myself today in a dance aerobic class, I was reminded of a time early on in my time in this part of the planet. I had been spending a lot of time with a group of girls. Their favorite pastime, aside from watching Turkish dramas dubbed into Arabic, was to put on some music and dance. I would get up from the cushion on the floor, try to wake up my sleeping leg and shake various parts of myself, mimicking what I thought they were doing. They would fall down laughing as tears rolled down their smiling faces at my futile attempts to assimilate into this part of their culture.
One particular day stands out in my memory. My friend’s brother was getting married and I would be invited to the female reception (they have two – one for guys and one for girls). After quizzing her on the particulars regarding what to wear, what to bring, etc., she informed me that I needed to improve my dancing skills. I begrudgingly got up as the music started. Ceremoniously raising one hand to “change the light bulb” and then lowering the other to “pat the dog,” I began to try to dance. This time, however, my friend placed her hands on my hips, telling me, “shake like this!” I tried. I kept trying. Finally, I looked at her and said, “It’s no use. I’m a foreigner. Our bodies just don’t do that.” She shrugged and said, “Keep doing that with your hands and maybe no one will notice.”
My prayer from my journal this morning (and my prayer for those in my life):
I sense the sweetness of your Spirit flooding my soul. Refill me. Refill me every minute. So often I sense a filling of your Spirit in my life and then, like getting out of a pool on a hot day, the water of you begins to drip off. Then as the hot sun beats down on my head, the water evaporates leaving me sweaty, uncomfortable and irritable. Continue to wash over me. Don’t allow the heat of life to come between your Spirit and mine. I need you desperately. I need you for everything.
My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding—
indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the
Lord and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand what is right and just
and fair—every good path.
For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
Discretion will protect you,
and understanding will guard you. (Proverbs 2:1-11 NIV)
Thanksgiving outside of America is always strange. There are no pumpkins in giant bins at the grocery store. The leaves on palm trees never change. There was no Halloween marking the beginning of a series of holidays. And there are no turkeys at the butcher shop.
I think my mom was feeling sorry for me, knowing that fall is my favorite season. I grew up surrounded by mountains covered in trees that turn beautiful colors in the fall. Now I’m surrounded by mountains covered in sand. She sent me some trees from our yard she laminated so I could at least gaze longingly at the beauty of nature changing. I showed them to all my friends who thought I was weird. It’s ok, I am. I’m carrying around laminated leaves from my yard in America. It’s time to find a place for them at home.
But now Thanksgiving is upon us and some American friends and I are determined to celebrate the holiday. We divvied up the food list and ceremoniously pledged to do our best to make it as American-like as possible. Unfortunately, the poultry shop didn’t get the message and there are no butterball turkeys to be found. We’ll have to settle for chickens. I’m to make corn bread, apple pie (no ingredient problem here) and cranberry sauce. My friend, rolls and chocolate pecan pies. Doesn’t that just sound divine? What happened next was much less than heavenly. It started to rain. It rains in the dessert. Not often, but when it does, it pours. And there is no drainage system. So the streets flood. My friend and I, though, would not be discouraged. Armed with an umbrella and raincoats, we trudged through the waterlogged streets going from store to store asking about cornmeal, cranberries and pecans. We got all kinds of suggestions for all kinds of places to no avail. (Why didn’t I buy that can of cranberry sauce at the import store back in July when I saw it?!?) After three days of being drenched, we settled on making cornbread with semolina (it feels like cornmeal), walnuts (maybe we won’t know the difference since its been so long), and to forego the cranberry sauce. And then there is was. Full with a flow from above. One final can of cranberry sauce. I think angels started singing. I snatched it up and bolted for the cash register. And we headed to our respective homes to begin our baking.
The eve of Thanksgiving, my kitchen looking like a war zone and my books strewn about the living room as I tried to do my homework in between baking times (Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, so I had class that day), I received a frantic phone call from my friend saying her gas had run out while the pies were baking. Could she and her husband come over (it was too late for her to be out by herself) and finish baking them? Knowing the turmoil of gas for the stove running out while baking something important, I quickly agree. Ten minutes later they arrive with several pies in tow, my friends sigh as the pies go back into the oven. Thanksgiving is saved!
Our thanksgiving feast was different. Chicken and tabbouleh and sweet potato casserole and semolina cornbread and walnut pie made for an interesting, albeit warm and lovely meal. And I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.