Last Saturday I hosted the United Nations for lunch in my dining room in Kansas City.
Well, actually, not actually. But you can see how it felt like it.
My 14 guests were all my friends: three Arab immigrant mothers, 4 of their teen daughters, 2 toddlers (the only males attending!), three friends on my street, and my older sister. We come from two religious traditions (Islam and Christianity) and two languages (Arabic and English – one spoke no English and 3 spoke no Arabic).
I had cooked for 3 days for this meal! I grew up in the Middle East (carried in a picnic basket to Lebanon when I was 5 months old), so I “knew” what things should taste like. The right ingredients at the peak of freshness, prepped, sliced, chopped, stuffed and spiced in very Syrian style. (I spent years in Damascus – captivated by their food flavors – my taste buds permanently skewed towards seasonings from Straight Street in Damascus.)
Was I tense? Totally. Would my guests feel welcome in a group of women who had not met each other before, who could not speak to everyone without translation, different religions, first time talking to someone not like them.
Was I worried? Absolutely. Would my dishes be good enough to pass the taste-test of Arab mothers who learned from their mothers what things should taste like? You probably get the feel of what I was feeling to put on that “event,” right? In a word, stress.
As host of the lunch, my eyes were on plating, serving, clearing, next-coursing, who wants tea or coffee, cream or sugar? My ears straining to catch snatches of conversations until the last tiny cup of Arabic coffee was boiled and poured.
Before I served dessert, my guest who spoke no English looked like she was preparing to leave before the coffee. Which is a subtle sign that someone is shy or uncomfortable about something. I managed to convince her to stay, but I could not sit with her and do host-stuff, too.
And then for the next hour the most remarkable thing happened! I spotted one of my American friends in extended conversation with my shy guest. My American friend who spoke not a single syllable of Arabic and had never met or had a conversation with an Arab Muslim woman before. Laughing. Smiling. Startled, I could not imagine what was going on. Or how?
My sister, Danielle (a real life-saver as a stand-in host), told me later that my no-English friend pulled up the Google Translation app on her cell phone and used that to chatter away for over an hour with my no-Arabic friend. And at the end of lunch, my Arab guest said that of all the people there, she most enjoyed that most unlikely of friends – the one who could not speak a word of Arabic but was interested in her!
I am definitely the daughter of my father, Curt Rhodes – the founder of Questscope. I grew up in Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Jordan – leaving to the US for college when I was 18. After college I went back to Jordan to work for a time with Questcope, then lived several years in the US before moving to the Arabian Gulf to work for a year and then to Damascus for 2 years to study Arabic language, literature, and history.
That day, I experienced again how wonderful it is for us as humans to reach out beyond our comfort zones, to extend care to those who seem to be “other,” to give space to those who appear to be Last to become First in our relationships.
What marvelous American friends I have! Such open hearts. What wonderful Arab friends I have! Such open hearts. We do so much good as humans when we choose to sit and listen across gaps that are not really gaps at all. Just spaces to fill with welcome for each other.
Warmest and best!
Nadia Rhodes Schroeder