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.

Examples of empathetic journalism

This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.”  This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written.  During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.

“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”

I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism.  For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy.  As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories.  Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too.  Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.

Nick Kristof

This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:

“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”

He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it.  You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.

I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade.  Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often.  By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.

Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here.  If you want to hear more, listen to the program!  He talks about…

…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.

…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.

…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.

You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.

Al-Jazeera English

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.”  Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict.  Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission.  AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.

One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched.  One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin.  Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions.  Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.

Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic

She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset.  Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation.  It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said.  I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.

If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it.  You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.

City Stories

This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis.  Along with another co-

Teaching camera basics

counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders.  As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.

I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer.  You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link.  Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”

Storyboarding

I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices.  (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)

Final quotes for thought

“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that.  And as a reporter, I understand it.  I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little.  Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves.  If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction

“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian.  She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.

Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.