Justine Buisson, in a chapter called, "The Gifts of Andrew" (in Rohr, Grace in Action), describes how the devastation wreaked on Miami by Hurricane Andrew brought the unlikeliest of comrades together as they shared the few supplies of water, food, and batteries that were available.
Her tale reminded me of the every-month-or-so neighborhood party in Amman, Jordan. In Jordanian apartment buildings, one family lives on each floor. Usually, the families living on each floor are related to the other families in the building (fathers, brothers, sons). However, that was not so in our case. Donnie and I, Americans, lived on the top floor. The Arafats, Palestinians, lived on the second floor, and Abu Yelez, with his family, lived on the first floor. Over time, we all got to know each other pretty well, sort of becoming like a family, bonded by our building.
Now, the building had help in fostering our bonding by the city of Amman. Periodically, especially frequently during the hot summer months when everyone is trying to run air conditioners and fans (fans were my preference), the city experiences brown-outs. So, with nothing else to do and having no light inside, the Mahlous, Arafats, and the parents and siblings of Yelez (who, himself, had emigrated to Chicago) gathered on the small square of lawn in the front of our apartment building and passed the time of day for minutes, sometimes hours. Om Yelez, living on the first floor where things were retrievable by candlelight, would bring out drinks and snacks, typically dates or figs and limonad bi nana (mint lemonade), and we would sit quietly munching. There is nothing like building camaraderie than quiet munching -- doing nothing together, sometimes even saying nothing together, just being together. Enjoying the wonder of nothing.
Then the lights would come back on. We would say our good-byes to Abu and Om Yelez and climb the stairs together with the Arafats, saying good-bye to them at their door, and continuing on up the additional two flights to our apartment. It was always easy to fall asleep after that. We were already in a relaxed state from an evening of nothing.
We came to appreciate the bonding power of nothing when Abu Yelez became quite ill near the end of our days in Amman. Om Yelez worried about him and took care of him in the special way that Arab wives take care of their husbands. One day when I was out of town, doing some consulting in Bahrain, Om Yelez died. Yes, that is correct; the healthy wife, not the ill husband, died. Om Yelez, it turns out, had a heart problem about which we had not known. The shock reverberated all the way from Amman to Manama. I could not return, though, in time for the sitting. When I did get back, I apologized to Abu Yelez and the unmarried adult children still living at home -- an Arab custom, as well -- for missing the sitting. Sami, the only son among them, replied, "We understand. We know you loved Mom, too, and would have been here if you could."
Barely a month later, Abu Yelez died. This was not unexpected, but it was still sad. It felt like our family was falling apart, our family that had bonded by doing nothing.
This time I went to the sitting. In the Arab world, the men sit at a different time from the women. Donnie went down and spent part of the male sitting day with Sami and his male relatives and friends.
Then I went down to the first floor and sat with Lana, Maha, and the female relatives and friends. I took my turn at silent reading one of the suras (books/chapters) from the Qu'ran; of course, I did not place it back into the case with the other suras, having learned from other sittings that my Arabic, especially classical Arabic, was not sufficiently good for anyone to have considered that my reading of the sura constituted it having been read. Sure enough, someone else picked it up after me, read it through, and put it back into the case.
As the sun faded and the day waned, the remaining handful of women began to depart as a group as a caterer brought in supper. I stood up to leave with them.
"Where are you going?" asked Maha.
"Upstairs," I replied, "so that your family can have time to yourselves for dinner." This was, I knew by then, in accordance with Arab culture.
Maha, however, looked at me a bit stricken and protested, "But you are family. Please stay." I did.
That is when I knew that we belonged in Jordan, that we were no longer outsiders. We had a family, and it was all thanks to the wonder of nothing.
(Photo: Our neighborhood in Jordan, taken from our third-floor apartment window.)