Camels and Cranberry Sauce

Posted: May 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Firsts, Food, Friends and Strangers, Miss Kate, Sisters | 4 Comments »

My friend Maria is shopping for a new religion.

She’s a nice Italian-American gal. She’s married with two young kids, and wants to do something religion-wise with her fam. But she’s just not feelin’ it from the Catholic Church any more.

I think she’s looking for something a bit more New School, if you know what I mean.

So Maria did what anyone does these days who’s looking for a good dry cleaner, or a restaurant tip for Date Night. She posted something on Facebook.

“Religion shopping,” she stated simply. “Any advice?”

I loved it.

The thing is, about half her Facebook posse seemed to think she was kidding. They left comments like, “WHAT??????,” and “‘Religion shopping. Hmmm. I don’t get it.” One person even asked, “Religious items or actual religion??”

Maybe they think The Internets aren’t the appropriate medium for finding one’s Higher Power. But as someone who’s wrangled with what-do-I-serve-my-family-for-religion-tonight questions of my own, I wholeheartedly condoned her approach.

In fact, I was hoping I might be able to coast on her tailwind. You know, pick up some useful insights for myself. (Mental note: Must follow up with her on this over a bottle of wine this summer.)

So a month or so ago, my SoCal sister Judy came to the Bay Area for Spring Break. She’s no college co-ed, but she was entertaining two students. And she was hell-bent on introducing them to Yosemite, Wine Country, San Francisco, Berkeley, and every roadside attraction, restaurant, and fabulous friend she had along the way.

When my sister does something, she goes big. Trust me.

In the midst of this break-neck Spring Break, I invited her and her friends over for dinner. My girls love their auntie—and we don’t get to see her nearly enough. Plus I was curious about the students she was spending so much time with.

“No pork,” she said, when I asked about their food preferences. “And you can’t go wrong with rice.”

As a hardcore hater of certain foods (mostly mushrooms, really), I always ask guests what things they don’t like to eat. I appreciate when folks do the same for me. But I also wanted to be cool from a cultural perspective, since my sister’s friends are from Egypt. They’re Fulbright scholars doing a year-long program at the university in her town.

While I knew there was little chance of making these guys feel truly “at home” in my Craftsman cottage in the middle of Oakland, I at least wanted to be sure they’d enjoy their dinner.

So while I focused my attention that afternoon on what we’d be eating—roast chicken, cranberry sauce, broccoli, and plenty of rice—I was utterly unprepared for what we’d do. Or rather, what they’d do. Which was, to be specific, pray.

Because after they’d swept in, and I set out cheese and other nibbly things, and after I offered wine (which was declined), and they allowed my unabashedly un-shy girls to literally crawl all over them, my sister turned to her friends and said, “There are two bathrooms if you’d like to wash.”

Which struck me as a bit odd.

I mean, I know that I unintentionally mother people, by sheer force of habit. I’ve been know to ask adults if they “need to go potty before we get in the car,” and to hand Kleenex to sneezers “in case they need to blow.”

But my sister’s got dogs, not kids. If anything I’d expect her to hold the back door open, make a smooching sound, and ask liltingly, “Have to go out?” Or maybe inquire in an excited tone if they want to go to the park.

Yet her friends didn’t find her directive to wash at all odd. In fact, they looked out the window at the near-setting sun, detangled themselves from Kate and Paige, and headed to the back of the house.

“They wash before they pray,” Judy whispered.

And sure enough, ten minutes later, after having flipped the roasting broccoli and needing to use the bathroom myself, it was apparent that some washing certainly had taken place in there. And from the state of things, it might have happened with water shot from an elephant’s trunk. Or a fire hose, perhaps.

The whole room was soaked.

Back in the living room my sister was catching up with the girls. Her guests were nowhere in sight.

“—and we went to the zoo. Paige tooted really loud. It was soooo funny! And Dad got a flat tire on his bike… ” Kate was breathlessly babbling, deep in one of her non-sequitor-laced talk-a-thons.

“Oh and I got a purple pony in a goodie bag from Zoe’s party!” Kate continued. “Lemme show you. It’s in Paigey’s room.”

My sister held her arm out. “No. Don’t go in there right now, honey.”

Kate stopped in her tracks. “Why not?”

Judy: “My friends are in there.”

Kate: [scrunching her face] “What are they doing?”

Judy: “Praying.”

Kate: [pauses] “Why are they doing that?”

Judy: It’s their religion.”

Kate: [thinks] “What’s religion?!

Ha! Exactly.

[Cue a large plot of my deceased Catholic relatives turning over in their graves.]

When Kate left a small opening in the conversation into which I could wedge a few words, I got the download I’d been desperate for.

“Yeah, so what’s up with the washing and everything? Explain, please.”

In a fast-paced whisper, Judy gave me the low-down on how her friends were Muslim. They pray five times a day, and one of those times is at dusk. And before they pray they do what she called “ritual washing,” where they splash water on their face, hands, arms—ears and feet even–in a special way, and a certain number of times. (Which explained the soggy state of my bathrooms.)

I felt bad that my humble home didn’t better accommodate their needs. I envisioned them facing Mecca on Paige’s hot pink polka-dot carpet, alongside the stinky diaper pail. All that washing and preparation, and they were probably kneeling on a lost Lego piece, and growing faint from poo fumes.

During dinner our new friends fawned over and joked with the girls. They tried cranberry sauce—something Kate and Paige would fight to the death over—and didn’t care for it. It blew Kate’s mind that one of her favorite foods was something some grown-ups hadn’t ever tried.

And in the relative calm of the dinner table, Mark and I had a chance to ask them about the changes that’d taken place in Egypt since they’d been away. “Was it weird to not be there for that? What were the reports from their families like? How did they feel about going back now?”

We asked about what their houses were like. How much English they’d known before coming here. (Not much.) And how they planned to apply their studies here to their careers at home.

Every question I asked seemed to spawn three more in my mind. It took all my restraint to not pull out a video camera and dive into a deep documentary-like interrogation.

It was fascinating, and heartwarming, and an incredibly unexpected way to spend a Wednesday night at home.

Kate asked to be excused to fetch the globe from her room, then had the guys show her where they were from. Then she asked, “Do you have camels?” which we all had a good laugh over. Mark and I had no idea where she’d come up with that. (Apparently some cigarette companies are doing an excellent job of marketing their products to kindergartners. Thank goodness. See how much she’s learned!)

My sister posted on Facebook a few days ago, “It is hard to prepare yourself emotionally that you may never see someone again.” And I knew she was referring to her Egyptian friends, who are heading home today.

She met them though a professor friend, who works at the college they attended. The woman thought they needed someone to practice their English with, so Judy invited them to her house for Thanksgiving. And many months later, they’d gotten into a groove where they all walked her dogs daily, cooked together and taught each other recipes—even planted a garden at my sister’s house.

I feel her pain. When our long-time nanny went home to Israel last fall, I felt the same way. In my sadness I asked Mark if he thought we’d ever see her again, and he gently responded, “Probably not.”

Why is it everyone’s always talking about how small the world is, instead of how damn huge it is?

After our dessert the night of our dinner, I tucked Paige into bed then closed her bedroom door behind me. Judy and Mark were quietly standing in the middle of the kitchen. I felt like I’d clearly walked in on something.

“What?” I said, looking around for clues.

And without a word they both opened their eyes wide, and jerked their heads towards the living room. I craned my neck to peek in, and saw that our guests were praying again. This time, wisely, not by the diaper pail.

I tiptoed over by the refrigerator to give our new friends some privacy.

That afternoon Katie hadn’t even known what religion was. But by the end of the evening we’d all gotten a chance to see it in action—twice. From people who, I imagine, never questioned the faith they grew up with, or felt the need to shop for a new one. People who went to amazing, bathroom-drenching lengths to practice their religion several times a day.

I’m so happy we got to spend an evening with those guys. What an education for all of us.

I send them both a wish for happy trails and safe travel. And I hope that they find peace and contentment in all they are going home to.


4 Comments on “Camels and Cranberry Sauce”

  1. 1 Auntie Judith said at 4:22 pm on May 30th, 2011:

    We appreciated the photos of making silk eggs that same night.

    H & M soaked up everything I threw at them and I hope our 5 month journey together gave them an appreciation for the diversity that is America and more specifically the Bay Area.

    They enjoyed making friends and seeing the real american family life.

    Safe journey guys, we’ll think of you often

  2. 2 FAB said at 7:15 pm on June 2nd, 2011:

    A fantastic account of a very kind American taking in, as family members, two foreign students…educational to the American as well as the foreign students..if more people did this, peace would reign supreme, wars would never occur, and the world would benefit by these friendships…even the 3 and 5 year olders learned first hand so much about the religions of others, their customs and even their foods..and this lesson will remain with them forever, even in the face of bigots and isolationists.

  3. 3 MJ said at 6:54 pm on June 4th, 2011:

    Hi- Delurking yet again to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post. (I’m the reader who has the same birthday as you.) I also happen to be Muslim, although I am American born and raised– my parents converted years before I was born. I am touched at how respectful you were in this post. I think many people these days are totally confused/intrigued by Muslims, and I am glad to see that you had a good interaction up-close-and-personal with some kind, balanced Muslims…although I wish they would have used less water or cleaned it up…too much water during wudu/leaving it everywhere is a pet peeve of mine;)

  4. 4 kristen said at 12:42 pm on June 5th, 2011:

    Hey MJ: So happy you liked the post. (I love it when you delurk!) And to be fair to those guys, I did exaggerate the soggy state of the bathrooms a *wee* bit. :)

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