A taste of the Middle East
I came to the Middle East intentionally uninformed, research about the region’s history left untouched, so I could soak in the experience with an open mind. I didn’t know mosques were like the Mediterranean Sea: sparklingly beautiful from a distance. I didn’t know this city within the Middle East consisted of extreme contrasts: a Western exterior with an Eastern heart.
A planned walking tour of the capital city filled in gaps about the history and tragedy that have touched this country. Some homeowners fled after the civil war, leaving property and buildings to crumble, abandoned, in the city’s highest rent districts.
Top restaurants, hotels and elite brands claim space along the capital’s boulevards – Gucci, Armani, etc. In fact, looking around the beautiful downtown cityscape, I forced my mind with difficulty to believe that I was, indeed, in the war-torn part of the world portrayed by international news media.
Transportation, on the other hand, is one of the most obvious evidences of this city’s heartbeat: organised chaos. There are buses, taxis and shared taxis, but no fixed transportation schedule. Rates are generally stable. For all of these options, though, you have to wait in the hot sun for who knows how long. Make sure to have small change. If you leave extra early, chances are your transportation will be likewise speedy. Beware of running late, though. Most likely you’ll hit a roadblock. Or your bus driver will jump out of the vehicle and start fighting with the driver of a different bus on the same route who is parked at a stop along your route. It happens.
Clothing, too, is relative. When we go to the mall, I wear a casual top and capri pants. When we visit the conservative areas of the city, I wear long skirts and long sleeves. When I hang out at co-workers’ apartments, I wear a T-shirt and running shorts.
As far as languages, there are four that I’ve encountered: Arabic, English, French and Charades. There are no rules for knowing who will use which one with whom. The Syrian refugee family I met speak perfect English, including the 10-year-old son. The local pastor’s mother cooked our lunch with a flurry of French. The taxi drivers flirt with me in English, which is annoying. Bus drivers gesture and speak Arabic. I try to speak Arabic, too, but my Syrian friends tell me to stop at “Marhaba” (hello). It’s something about the “r” and the “h” together – it’s harder than it looks.
Even the use of English words around town has its nuances, though. I might understand the words, but the context remains foreign. Another example of this odd mix is the pizza meal offers advertising French fries on the side. Apparently, people in this city love French fries (maybe it’s the name). At any rate, they eat them with everything, even sticking them inside a sandwich called shwarma.
This brings us to the food, which is wonderful, especially mana’eesh. Fresh-baked bread filled with melted cheese and an absolutely unique spice blend called zaatar pretty much equals heaven for my taste buds. For my stomach, not so much... I am thankful for lactose pills! Other foodie highlights: hummus (amazing in the Middle East), frozen mint lemonade (which is a bright green) and exquisite fresh fruit. It’s a picnic lover’s paradise, a delicious combination of creamy spreads and delectable snacks.
Other unexpected moments included eating chocolate chip cookies and other gourmet homemade treats at the host home of co-workers, watching the Disney channel with Arabic subtitles, playing volleyball for 2 hours in a full-length skirt (I think it was 95˚F, 35˚C, that day), and being unexpectedly doused in a playful water fight.
There is nothing predictable about the Middle East. Life is hard, but the people are lovely. Some search for beauty, some for belonging, some for refuge. Indeed, the emphasis on outward appearance masks the heart – which, although lost without the Lord, is still soft. The unconditional generosity exhibited by the people in the Middle East, particularly those with the least, shames my own selfishness.
My first encounter with the Middle East, albeit brief, taught me the following: living here will require more humility than I have, more grace than I know, more patience than I’ve learnt and more surrender than I can give. In fact, it is impossible—apart from Christ. I’m going to be a perpetual learner, and I’m probably going to be more homesick than I can even imagine. I’ll cry a lot, but I’ll also laugh a lot. (Laughter is one of the best stress relievers I know. Plus, life here is sometimes just bizarre!)
There is no magic formula for instant adaptation. It will take time to adjust to life in the Middle East, and it will take total dependence on God, powered by the prayers of people who love me and who love Jesus.
To tell the stories that really matter, I’ll need to learn the language sooner rather than later. To tell people about Jesus, I’ll need to take the initiative and intentionally choose how to spend my time. Knowing this, at least, will help me communicate better with supporters over the next few months and motivate me to continue forming habits that will help provide stability when everything else changes.
Before I arrived, I was told, “Expect the unexpected.”
While this advice still proves paradoxical, I have a minutely better understanding of how it plays out in everyday life in the Middle East. Even though I’m leaving not totally sure of what the next few years hold, I’m certain they will be unforgettable.
“Yalla!” Let’s go!