Diet Advice from the Caliph

The walls of the priest’s office were lined with black-and-white photographs of his father donning a checkered Jordanian kufiyyeh and his little sister wearing her white First Communion dress. Newer pictures of Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, Roman Catholic bishops of Jordan, and Pope John Paul II, flanked the family shots. 

But the most striking images in Fr. Hanna’s office were the plainest ones: white sheets of paper with Arabic and English quotations spoken by famous individuals. There were sayings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Aristotle, and even a character from the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But the most commonly quoted leader was someone less familiar in the Western world: Ali bin Abi Talib, one of Islam’s most important caliphs and Fr. Hanna’s “beloved friend.”

Fr. Hanna is a scholar of Christian history in the Middle East and an ecumenical and interfaith leader in Jordan. I visited his parish in outskirts of Amman to talk about my research on Muslim-Christian relations and the media in Jordan. For Fr. Hanna, like every Jordanian, interfaith dialogue is not simply an interest, but a way of life. For over a thousand years, Muslims and Christians have lived together—drinking coffee, doing business, watching each others’ kids, and even celebrating holidays—without a thought. They’ve rubbed off a lot of each other, both theologically and culturally, and Fr. Hanna’s affinity for the caliph Ali demonstrates that.

The words of Ali were scrawled in loopy Arabic calligraphy, so Fr. Hanna deciphered and translated them for me into English. One phrase talked about rejecting a wealthy lifestyle, and another warned about getting overly attached to worldly relationships. But Fr. Hanna’s favorite quote of Ali’s is a bit more practical: it was diet advice.

We walked into the kitchen, where the phrase was pasted above the table and next to a sparkly, woven image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It read, “Whatever you limit yourself to is enough.” He told me that the phrase keeps him from eating too much. “If I limit myself to a banana for dinner, and tell myself it’s enough, then it will be,” he said.

But Fr. Hanna does not just eat small meals just to watch his weight; he, like Ali, recognizes the spiritual benefits of fasting. We talked about how many Catholics in the West have abandoned the practice which Muslims, who fast for the entire month of Ramadan, and ِEastern Orthodox Christians, who have a number of strict fasting periods, have maintained. We agreed that Western Christians should re-adopt fasting, which diverts the mind from the body and instead directs it toward God.

Still standing in the kitchen, Father told me a final Arabic saying which illustrates the deep connections between Christians and Muslims. “We say that ‘the heart of a Muslim is a little bit Christian, and the heart of a Christian is a little bit Muslim.’ It’s because Muslims receive so much of their religious heritage from Christianity and because Christians here have been so influenced by Islamic beliefs and culture.”

This sharing, or “enculturation” as Fr. Hanna put it, is at the heart of religious life  in Jordan and in the Middle East more largely. How beautiful it was to be reminded of it there, standing beside the ornate words of a beloved Muslim and an image of Jesus, whose glittering, open heart is made up of a little bit of all of us.

The image of Jesus' Sacred Heart and Ali's quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.
The image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and Ali’s quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.

To learn more about Ali, click here.

To read more about surprising similarities between Christians and Muslims, check out my latest post for Commonweal.

Peeling Kiwis: “Peeling Oranges” Series

October 27, 2013

This afternoon I found myself sitting on the front porch of a woman named Maggie. No, I wasn’t with my own mother on our front porch on Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, but it was about as close as I could get here in Amman.

I had been walking to the Vatican library by a new route, enjoying the sun, the warm wind, and the cloudless blue sky, when I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw a woman waving from her window, and realized it was Maggie, an employee from the library I have met many times. She called me over and, as Arabs do best, invited me in.

Maggie and her adult nephew, Elias (Arabic for Elijah), were sitting on her porch smoking argeelah, the water pipe, passing the mouthpiece between them. Maggie reminded me that the library was closed (Christian organizations take Sundays off, although the official weekend is Friday and Saturday), so she told me I should spend the afternoon with her until Mass at 6pm. I put aside my research goals for the afternoon, and reminded myself that impromptu, unplanned experiences of hospitality are the reason why I’m here.

Elias and I began an extended conversation about everything from my research to our families—all in Arabic, which was refreshing. Because I don’t live with a host family this time around, my conversations in Arabic are usually short snippets with cab drivers or shop owners, and those habitual requests of “take me here” and “can I buy this?” do little to improve my complex speaking abilities. As I spoke with Elias and discovered myself using new words or verb conjugations with ease, I felt proud and that my colloquial Arabic lessons are paying off.

“Taghadaiti?” Maggie interjected after she exhaled white smoke from her mouth. “Have you eaten lunch?”

“Shwayeh,” I responded. “Sort of.” I had eaten some trail mix and crackers earlier in the morning, but was quite hungry. She heated up some fusulia, a dish of beans, rice and beef, and brought me into her kitchen, which glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I sat alone and ate in silence. Occasionally, Maggie would come in to refresh the argeelah by heating up coals on the stove and stuffing a lemon-flavored something into the pipe. Maggie’s family is Roman Catholic and her home is decorated like those of many other Catholic families here. A sculpture of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper sits on the dining room table, and a drawing of Mary, with the caption, “Mystical Rose” (one of her name titles), was pasted above the counter in the kitchen.

I had spent my morning at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, researching the history of Christians in Jordan. So it felt good to finish my day not immersed in a book, but immersed among the people who I’m trying to learn more about. Hearing about the experiences of Maggie and Elias informs how I read history books or academic papers, just as those materials help me better understand the lives of those I meet.

After spooning the last of the rice into my mouth, I rejoined the couple on the porch, and was presented with a plate of fruit: two plums, a nectarine, an apple, and a kiwi. I chose the kiwi pressed a dull knife into its fuzzy skin to peel it. As the juice seeped onto my fingers, I was reminded of a time in the cold winter of 2012 when I peeled oranges with my host brother and I discovered a paradoxical truth: that ordinary moments can often be the best vehicles for revealing God’s presence. Sitting with Maggie and Elias, watching people walk by as wind moved through the olive trees, was one of those simple moments that speaks simultaneously of God’s closeness and unexplainable grandeur.

As I pulled the knife toward me, I was taken aback by the bright green fruit that emerged from behind the skin. The kiwi was especially green, almost neon, and juice sparkled on its flesh. The contrast between the rough brownness of the kiwi’s skin and the bright, moist greenness inside revealed a new message, too: that the dullness and hardship of our days give way to a newness of life, a surprising Joy, that cannot be expected or planned. The most beautiful and most joyous experiences often emerge out of the most scratchy, sand-papery parts of life. The green fruit is so much sweeter because it’s hidden beneath abrasive rinds. This is a truth I’ve known but one that I’ve experienced most palpably during my time living in Jordan.

With the cold winds blowing in, there will be fewer afternoons on Amman porches and fewer fruits to peel. I’ll have to look harder to find reminders of these important lessons. So on the grayest of days, when I’m wandering unfamiliar streets under a melancholy drizzle, I’ll watch for mothers waving from their windows. And I’ll try to catch raindrops on my tongue, and pretend they taste more like juice than dust.

Things I won’t forget (“Peeling Oranges” final installment)

As I finish up my writing about Jordan and Palestine, I’d like to share some final snapshots.

Faces 

My host mom, who walks by my room and says a cheerful “Keefik ya Jordan?” after a long day at work. 

My baby sister, who sits on my lap, pressing the tops of my fingernails and squeezing the skin between my thumb and forefinger.

My nine-year-old brother, who spins a Frisbee in the street, mumbling songs from Glee in broken English.

My twenty-year-old sister, who throws her head back in a hoarse laugh, and slapping her leg.

My sixteen-year-old sister, who kicks her feet as she shows us her new dakbeh dance moves.

A nine-year-old neighbor boy, who shyly says “marhaba” as the white blossoms of a cherry tree fall into his black hair.

An Iraqi tweenage refugee, who invites me to play basketball, her icy blue eyes growing wide on her creamy face that reminds me of an upturned almond, shaved of its skin.

Our cab driver Samir in Bethlehem, who insists on showing us Aida refugee camp, the separation wall, and the famous graffiti that’s sprayed on it.

Our tour guide ‘Eisa (Jesus) at the Nativity church in Bethlehem, who explains every detail of the church, and shares with us his frightening childhood memories of the 1967 war.

Our favorite Armenian shopkeeper Maro in Jerusalem, who tells us about her daughter in America while selling us hand-embroidered crafts from West Bank cities at a discounted price.

Our fellow travelers from our hostel in Jerusalem (a Yankee, a Scot, an Aussie, and a Kiwi), who make me realize that I need no reason or justification to travel and see the world. 

Images

Clouds sweep over the golden Dome of the Rock, the orange rooftops, and the green Mount of Olives—all visible from a church bell tower in Jerusalem’s center.

Flocks of birds dipping and turning between the boxy, cement hills of Amman in the pinkness of twilight.

The viridian, rock-studded hills of north Jordan, which seem to shift and overlap as our bus flies down the slopes.

Tastes 

Spoonfuls of sugar and sage leaves in boiling black tea.

Spinach-laden broth poured over steaming, soft rice. 

Olive oil and zaatar (a thyme and sesame seed mixture) stuffed between the folds of warm pita.

Lemon and mint blended together in a cold glass.

Crispy falafel and yogurt-covered cucumbers in a sesame-bread sandwich.

 

 

Hassan Al-Deeyafeh (“Peeling Oranges” Series)

The green, stone-strewn hills beckoned us out of the city and welcomed us into their fields, bursting with yellow flowers and fed by a gushing stream.  As two friends and I descended into the valley, passing homes and shops, children waved hello while washing their goats, and men took long strides to catch up with my friend, David, shaking his hand as they exchanged phrases like, “Go in peace” and “God be with you.”

Wadi As-seer (Seer Valley)

Walking along the road, I glanced down at a home nestled into the hill.

Marhaba!” I said a woman sitting on the patio and holding her small son.

Waving, she said, “tafaddili.” Gesturing toward her home below, she was inviting us inside.

After exchanging glances, we decided that our trip to the ancient Jewish castle in the valley could wait and accepted the invitation.  For the next hour, we talked in broken colloquial Arabic with this woman and her family who treated us like their own children, even though we were strangers.

Under the shade of a grape tree bursting with new, green buds, we sipped gritty coffee and clear tea. While the family leaned against the wall of the house, we sat in plastic chairs, our glasses resting on shiny wooden tables brought outside from the living room onto the patio.

The branches of the grape tree split the sunlight into shards that stretched across the faces of our hosts—Reema, Muhammad, Rami, Abdullah, Aseel, and Ahmed—and I willed my mind to remember every feature of their faces, and more importantly, their small gestures that spoke of infinite kindness.

I won’t forget the mother Reema, who pleaded with us to stay for lunch, and the way her gray hijab fell down around her shoulders as she stuck her head out of the kitchen door to toss out trash.

And Muhammad, the quiet father, his eyes crinkling from the sunlight as he offered us fresh mint to suck on.

And Rami, the eldest son wearing a tight pink shirt and a baseball hat, who served us our drinks and told us about the annoyances of his electrical engineering program at the Hashimite University.

And Abdullah, the nine-year-old busy-body who stood tip-toe on tree branches to pluck fuzzy, green unripe almonds for us to eat.

And Aseel, the shy seven-year-old who bounced a blue marble against the stone floor, and tied a green scarf around her own legs, playing a pretend prisoner game.

And the baby Ahmad, who sat burrowed in his mother’s arms, stuffing his hands into a glass of coffee and smearing the grime all over his face.

After we eventually waved goodbye and continued on our way, I realized that this is why I’d come to Jordan: to experience and learn from hassan al-deeyafeh, the “hospitality” that makes the Arab world such a beautiful place.   It’s the principle that a stranger can’t walk through your town without being offered a place to sit, drink, and eat.  Other petty obligations can wait, because people and relationships are most important.

Throughout my time here, I’ve experienced this hospitality countless times: when my cab driver went from car to car to break my 20JD bill, so I could get the proper change; when my host brother placed a bouquet of wildflowers next to my bed before I woke up one morning; and when shopkeepers truly care about how I’m doing, and insist that I take a trinket from their store as a gift.

If there is one story I can bring back to the States, it’s this one.  If there is one thing I want Americans to know about this country I now call home, it is hassan al-deeyafeh.

And if there is one thing that I hope to bring home and adopt in my own life, it’s hospitality.  As the Catholic theologian Louis Massignon often talked about, we all must adopt the hospitality that is so present in the Arab world, because it exemplifies the way Jesus wanted us to treat our neighbors, enemies, and even strangers.

“Let brotherly love continue. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:1-2