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.

 

 

Peeling Oranges

During my time in Jordan, I’ve taken many photographs, images that, when I look back at them years from now, will bring back the feelings I felt in those places and with those people.

When I look at this picture, for example, I’ll remember sitting in the cold, purple sand in Wadi Rum at sunset.  The rising rippled rock overhead reminded me of my smallness, and of God’s unimaginable greatness.  And this was a lesson I needed to be reminded of.  As I was sitting in the sand in Jordan, my first paid piece of writing was being published in the U.S., and I felt quite proud in what I had been able to do, what I had accomplished.  But in those large, looming mountains, God had carved AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam).  He was telling me, “You wrote through my power, and for my glory—the greater glory of my creation.” This photo will remind me of humility.

 

When I look at this photo I’ll remember walking the streets of downtown Amman, a crowded area filled with shops and stands, sweets and smoky rug shops.  I’ll remember a feeling described so well by Paulo Coehlo in his book, Aleph, which I began reading when I arrived in Jordan: This is exactly what I need to do right now: walk, walk, walk, breathe some fresh air, take a look at a city I’ve never visited before, and enjoy the feeling that it’s mine. This photo will remind me of the homey comfort I can find, even in new places.

But some of my most beautiful experiences here have not been caught on camera.  Photographing them would have taken away my ability to fully participate in the experience, and or would have caused others to become unnatural or nervous.

Still, I want to preserve these images and the bits of Truth that often accompanied them.  And I can do that best by writing them down.  Over the next few months, I’m going to collect these images and share them here, in a series called “Peeling Oranges.”

This title comes from one image during a cloudy afternoon last week. As I rounded the corner and turned into my neighborhood, I heard the chatter of young children playing in the street.

“Jordan!” One of them called—my 10-year-old host brother.

“Do you want a part of this orange?” I asked him in Arabic.  I pulled it out of my bag, hungry for a snack.

I split it among him and his friends, who hovered shyly against the wall.  I handed a slice to a boy with a pink, scarred hand, and to a little girl who chewed on the empty plastic cylinder of an oversized pixie-stick.

My fingers cold and covered in sticky juice, I peeled the orange and placed the rind on the crumbly sidewalk, the bright color of the skin contrasting sharply against the grayish brown of the cement.

We chatted for a bit, I asked their names, and scooped up the rind from the ground.  The encounter was short, and seemingly unimportant to those who may have been watching.  But sometime during those few moments—in my host brother’s joking, in the hesitant looks of the little ones, and the juice seeping between my fingers—something else was making itself known.

I had a feeling, an awareness, that this simple moment was important, even extraordinary, precisely because of its ordinariness.

It should be no surprise to me that God continues to reveal himself in the most ordinary ways.  It’s a concept that I think and write about a lot.  But each time, I’m still taken off guard.   Each time, the revelation seems at once familiar and new, comforting yet challenging.

More often during my first month in Jordan, I’ve been thrown off my feet not by picturesque views from mountain tops but by peeling oranges with children.

These brief, fleeting, ordinary moments, despite their power, can easily be lost. I don’t want these images—and the love I feel—to fade. And that’s why I write.