Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Wonder of Nothing

Justine Buisson in a chapter called “The Gifts of Andrew” (in Richard Rohr's book, 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 yard party in Amman, Jordan that took place in the wake of each brownout that routinely afflicted our Um Uthaineh neighborhood. There being nothing else to do, people who lived in each of the stone buildings on our street would gather in their yards with the residents of the various floors of their building, drink tea, munch on figs or dates, and catch up on a month’s worth of happenings (well, maybe not a month’s worth—people visit each other frequently in Jordan, and we were no exception).

In Jordanian apartment buildings, often one family owns the whole building and one sibling’s family lives on each floor, but that was not so in our case. Donnie and I, Americans, lived on the top floor. The Arafats, Palestinians with relatives in Israel, lived on the second floor, and Abu Yelez (lit., Father of Yelez, Yelez being his oldest son, who lived in Chicago) and his family occupied the first floor. Obviously, to get to the third floor, there being no elevator in the building, I had to walk past the first floor, and so often I would pop in.

Om Yelez (lit., the mother of Yelez) was not quite old enough to be my mother, but she was not young. In her late 70s, she spoke no English, but no English was needed because I could easily figure out the Arabic for mother talk. Don’t all mothers talk about the same things? Our kids, our homes, our spouses, our kids, our plans, our worries, our kids.

As for her kids, I knew most of them. The youngest, Lana, would take evening walks with me. A first-grade teacher, she was certain that the reason I could not speak good Arabic was because I was illiterate, so she would bring the first-grade book upstairs after our walks a couple of times of week and give me a reading lesson. It was indeed helpful and did much to confirm the assumptions I made about Arabic letters and words throughout the day as I read signs and talked to people. The second oldest, Sami, had opened a computer graphics firm with a partner, and he and Donnie, who at the time was teaching computer graphics at the university, became good friends. (It helped that Sami speaks English since Donnie never did learn much Arabic.) Maha, the next to youngest, worked quite successfully as a financial counselor at a bank. Given that she had completed only a bachelor degree, her career had likely already topped out although she was only in her early thirties. I talked her into enrolling in the MBA program at the university where I was chief academic officer, and she was just completing that program when we left. I met Olga upon a few occasions; she had married, mothered three children, and lived on the street behind us. Yelez had moved to Chicago to go to school and had ended up marrying another Middle Eastern student and remaining there, but I did meet him when he came back to show off his first-born.

Beyond the brownout parties, we also had water shortages. A number of times Sami carried a heavy bucket of water from their first-floor apartment to our third floor apartment, sharing the limited resources. Occasionally, Lana would stop by with loz akhdar (green almonds – unlike in the US where almonds are usually roasted, in Jordan they are eaten raw in their soft green covering), or Maha would bring up apricots from their tree. Our apartment was owned by Abu Yelez (it was his building), and, with his approval, we added some modifications, such as air conditioning in the bedroom and office/den, that he would not otherwise have been able to afford. So, there was truly a sharing of resources.

I realized that this family had crossed the line from neighbors whom you meet on the lawn at brownouts and with whom you occasionally share the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, when Om Yelez died. Her death came unexpectedly. Abu Yelez had been sick and had broken his hip. His children had expected him to be the first to die but instead the heart of Om Yelez, the quiet, gentle, uncomplaining woman I had come to love as an older friend with shared interests in each other’s children (Doah lived with us in Jordan for nearly a year), simply stopped one day with no warning. I was filling in for the academic dean at our sister campus in Bahrain at the time of Om Yelez’s death, shuttling back and forth between the two countries on a weekly basis, and so I missed the sitting, the Muslim wake in which everyone gathers in the home of the deceased, sits together, and reads the Q’uran, each reader taking a different chapter until all the chapters have been read. Words are few although people do talk quietly to the relatives while sipping on cardamom tea and reading. Usually any one person stays for 1-3 hours, but some stay longer. When I returned from Bahrain, I apologized to the children for having missing the sitting. “Please do not worry about it,” Sami told me. “We know you loved omna (our mother), and, more important, she knew you loved her.”

As misfortune would have it, two months later, Abu Yelez, who deteriorated rapidly after the loss of his wife, abruptly, but not unexpectedly, died. That time both Donnie and I were home. Donnie went to the men’s sitting, and I went to the women’s sitting. I stayed most of the day, making sure that any Q’uran chapters that I read were also read by someone else since my Arabic is not good enough to read with understanding, and reading with understanding is important in this situation. In the early evening, food was brought in for the family. As the women who had come in the afternoon began to leave, I stood up to go, as well.

“Where are you going?” asked Maha.

“I am leaving so that you, Lana, Sami, and Olga can have dinner alone as a family,” I replied, indicating that I understood the Jordanian traditions.

Maha looked genuinely confused, and Lana appeared distressed. “But you are family,” Maha said, as Lana nodded in agreement. Of course, I stayed. What had started as nothing – just people making the best of limited resources -- had turned into kinship.

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