Random Acts of Arabic
“Profound joy of the heart is like a magnet that indicates the path of life.” ~ Mother Teresa
From the outside, it is easy to think cross-cultural work is full of adventure. I have had people tell me how glamorous and exciting my life is. I smile and think if they only knew. Travel and living cross-culturally is an adventure, that is for sure and there are many “pluses” so to speak. But, like with everything, there are also a few negatives.
Adventure is great. Connecting with people from another culture is great. Actually, that is the driving force within me, my greatest passion. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, being able to connect cross-culturally. Connection. We all long for that. I have had the privilege of working cross-culturally and directing my life to that purpose.
But, there is a disconnect for me. Jean Vanier in his book, “Finding Peace” puts the cost as this, "Those who seek encounters with those who are different do not always know where the relationship will lead. To love is always a risk: it can mean rejection and marginalization by the secure group one belongs to; it can mean pain in the relationship itself. To love in this way can cause a loss of security, even a loss of friends from one's own culture who remain stuck behind categories and do not understand." It’s hard because my closest friends in America, those who have walked with me for decades, cannot experientially know my life in the Middle East. They know of it, they know my passion, they know stories of my Arab friends, but there is no tangible experience. I find that to be lonely and a cost of my glamorous adventure. There is also the frustration of explaining my experience in the Middle East and sharing about my friends and their stories in America. Many people will argue with me or try to tell me how it really is when they have never been to the Middle East or have relationships with Arabs or Muslims or have never even had a conversation with them. Sometimes I am amused with those conversations, but mostly they leave me feeling more isolated and alone.
Connection. If we could get past our fear and help each other to truly connect. Brené Brown describes true connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” What does that look like for us in terms of cross-cultural connection…in America?
I’ve had an interesting month because I keep running into native Arabic speakers. Once in a grocery store when I was in a foul mood, a sweet woman tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I spoke French because I reminded her of someone. I told her I only spoke English and Arabic, both very badly. She screeched in delight, said, ‘salaam alekum’, and threw her arms around me. We had a 30-minute conversation in the parking lot. Arabic instantly connected me to her.
What was interesting is how at ease she was and relieved she didn’t have to explain her culture to me. I didn’t think it was weird that she invited me over nor was I impatient or rushed in our conversation. For me, just the connection and how comfortable she was really brought me joy.
Almost one week later I am in Santa Fe with two life-long friends. These two women have known me for a long time and probably know me better than anyone. We were walking around the Plaza in Old Town Santa Fe and I spied an Oriental Carpet store. I begged my friends if we could take a look. I smiled as I entered noticing the rugs hanging on the wall, lining the floor, and stretched over furniture. Wall-to-wall carpeting, literally.
A man approached us and started a conversation. I found out he was from Syria and started speaking in Arabic. He was so flabbergasted that he fumbled for words. I told him, “surprise!” in Arabic and he replied with, “really, really, I am surprised!” We talked of his time in the US and his family in Syria. He asked me how I could speak Arabic, I told him about my time in Lebanon, my work in Palestinian Refugee Camps, and my work in the US. He replied with about 50 “Masha ‘Allah’s” meaning “God willed it”; this is used to show joy and praise, and is evoked upon hearing good news.
He taught us about the history of the 200-300 year-old Turkish and Persian carpets. Even how they were made, some took 20 years to complete by hand. He inevitably offered us tea and brought out the dried fruits and nuts; a hospitality staple in the Middle East. When he realized he only had green tea, he sent his son to Starbucks to get proper black tea. My friends were overwhelmed and I leaned in to one of them smiled and said, “Arab hospitality, there’s nothing else like it.”
Our conversation continued with the carpets, his family, and cats. Yes, we connected over their cats, his lovebirds, Romeo and Juliet and my precious Cici. It was an easy conversation with much laughter. My friend told me as we walked away how struck she was with his humor and generosity. I told her that was how most of my interactions with Arabs go, what she just experienced was the norm.
I’m not sure I can adequately explain my joy in sharing that experience with them. They got a peek into my heart for these people and why I love their culture so much. For sure, it felt like a blessing from God; a small desire of my heart that came to fruition. I felt like I was a bridge for them to cross over to engage someone they maybe wouldn’t have. Not because they didn’t want to or because they were scared, but because they didn’t have an opportunity to do so. The opportunity turned out to be a carpet store completely out of place in Santa Fe. Arabic was the connecting factor…or was it?
Arabic was a foot in the door but what connected us was a willingness to engage. We took the time to have a conversation and learn about this man’s world. I am struck by how easy and effortless it was and how much energy and joy it gave me…him…us.
I wonder how many opportunities are lost every single day because of our unwillingness to take the time, to step out, to learn, to risk feeling stupid, and to engage another person. What a shame! Remember, we all long for that connection, in reality we all are connected to each other as human beings, image bearers of God, and really as neighbors in this crazy, beautiful, messed up world. Think of the joy we could be missing out on! Think of the beautiful adventure we can have daily just by connecting with each other…with the other.