Hope

As North Africa heats up, people are disappearing from the streets to hide in their houses with drawn shades and fans.

But there are some who cannot hide.

Like the homeless sub-Saharan African man reclining in the shadow of a doorway. The despair in his eyes tore my heart.

Even worse is seeing that same despair in the face of a child. Like today, when I passed a family: a disabled father and a young mother with a toddler strapped to her back. The boy’s face was stricken with hopelessness.

I have so much. And I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about hope. Even in the valley, I can still see the mountain.

But what about them? What do they see beyond the next moment? What would cause them to lift their heads?

“Do we hear them?”

The child is weeping
because there is nothing,
not even a horizon.

His mother’s heart will not hear
because it won’t
be tricked by hope.

And every man’s disrobed dream
sinks
in the mire of the present.

Life is nothing
and beyond nothing is the dark
that dogs every moment.

Do we hear them?
They’re clawing at the gates of hell,
believing there’s nothing better.

Hungry or not, here I come

IMG_5905How exactly does a one hour tutoring lesson turn into eight hours? Simple: I agreed to stay for lunch.

It was my first day of tutoring. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure how the protective father would view my method of teaching his 5-year-old son.

Exactly ½ hour before we had agreed to meet, the father came to pick me up.

He took me to his house where I met his family, extended family, the maid, and of course, his son. After a long conversation–some of it typed in google translate–we had breakfast (their first; my second). Then I spent exactly one hour teaching and reviewing with the little boy.

“Will you stay for lunch?”

Noting the family sitting around the salon table, I agreed. But I soon realized that I wasn’t sitting down to lunch; this was pre-lunch! After two breakfasts, I was expected to fill up on bread, cookies, and tea and then eat lunch a little while thereafter.

When we finally did get lunch around 3:00 p.m., it was several courses: a salad followed by a beef and plum dish with another salad on the side, and then a huge chicken stuffed with vermicelli noodles and resting on a bed of rice. Everything was eaten with bread.

And all of the while, if I wasn’t reaching my hand into the platter, I was being told to do so.

“Eat! Eat! Please eat!”

The extended family kept a calculation of how much I ate while persistently informing me that it was not enough.

We finished with luscious fruits for dessert, of which I was too full to enjoy.

This story has no moral, except not to take a tutoring job if you’re on a diet!

Bad mood

Dear Journal,

I am telling myself it’s a combination of yet another rainy day and of not having a break from school. I’m exhausted and on the last day of the school week, I am required to slosh through puddles and mud and still be late for class.

And then I get home, reheat the coffee I didn’t have time to finish before school, and try to drown my melancholy mood in language study.

But in the apartment below, I hear the neighbors playing the Qur’an. The sing-songy chant grates on me. So I turn on my own music:

You’re the God of this city.
You’re the King of these people.
You’re the Lord of this nation.
You are.

You’re the Light in this darkness.
You’re the Hope to the hopeless.
You’re the Peace to the restless.
You are.

There is no one like our God.
For greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city.

No matter how “done” I feel with life right now, His work has only begun in this city. And He wants to use me now, right where I am. In the middle of puddles, mud, and too much homework.

My calling to glorify Him isn’t based on circumstance.

IMG_5805

Day with the plumber

Just below our bathroom, in the storage closet of the apartment of the second floor, there was a gentle tick, tick, ticking of water dripping into a plastic tub. The neighbor had already visited our apartment to make it clear that this was our problem, not his. (His apartment is owned by a different landlord.)

We were not convinced, especially after talking with a friend with plenty of renovation experience. However, he forewarned us that the plumber would blame the problem on whoever would pay the bill: the foreigners.

My roommate called our landlord who sent us down the street to talk to his friend who came over and buzzed our neighbor. They had a long conversation in high decibels without resolving anything.

We waited for the plumber to arrive at 2:30 as scheduled. At 3:30, we visited the neighbors to tell them that the plumber wasn’t coming today. At 4:00, the plumber arrived, unconcerned that he had largely missed his appointment.

He checked our bathroom, the neighbor’s storage closet, and then predictably told us it was our problem.

“Fine,” we said. “Tell our landlord.” And we handed him the phone.

Several hours later, the neighbor was happy because the problem was fixed, at least temporarily. And the plumber was happy because he walked away with a pocketful of money.

Only my roommate and I were not so pleased because our European and American perspectives groaned at the inefficiency of a warm culture workforce. The gentle tick, tick, ticking had cost us an entire afternoon and evening!

Aisha- part 3

Isolated. That was the flavor of the air as we walked down streets that were merely variations of the same. I was the only foreigner in the neighborhood, strange considering that just over the hill, tourists were thick within the shadowy walls of the old city.

But here, crumbling buildings full of tiny apartments stretched toward the overcast sky. Cobblestone streets cupped leftover puddles and floating litter. Laundry was strung everywhere: on wires, through window grates, on rooftop clotheslines. Curious faces darkened whitewashed doorways and window ledges. Children danced along the streets in endless game.

Much of the world was happening outside. Together. As if the culture didn’t realize that people didn’t have enough room to live.

Our first stop was a relative’s home. We entered a low doorway and were enveloped in a world of chattering woman. It was a noise that trailed up several flights of uneven concrete steps. There Aisha picked up her 1 1/2 year-old son. And there, we were offered coffee so sweet it made my teeth cringe. My coffee cup smelled like the residue of someone else’s saliva. I smiled and drank the coffee anyway. Our hostess was a dainty woman. Her face was young, but her smile revealed only a few teeth scattered along her gums.

I met in-laws, nephews, sisters, and other connections I no longer remember. It didn’t help that I was struggling to remember my family vocabulary! After a few more stops, we wound our way to Aisha’s apartment. She insisted on carrying the juices I had brought with me even though she was also carrying her little boy.

The apartment building was cold and concrete. With every floor that we climbed, I would turn and ask Aisha, “Here?” She would shake her head, “Still!” She said that all of the way to the sixth floor after dozens and dozens of uneven concrete steps.

In each woman, there is a certain amount of pride for her home. Aisha was no exception, although her home consisted of a closet-sized wash room and kitchen, one salon, and one bedroom. That was all.

Aisha’s 16-year-old daughter Soukaina and I walked out on the roof to stare at the world six stories below. Heads walked by–heads without faces from my point of view. A woman dumped a bucket of water over the cobblestones in front of her home and scrubbed vigorously. Two little girls played school. A man propped himself in the doorway and watched the world. A woman two doors down did the same. But it wasn’t just the street that was alive; all throughout the apartment towers, people were moving: appearing in windows, hollering to someone below, gathering laundry on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette, or talking across the street with someone in the opposite building.

Once Aisha ascertained that I liked couscous, the lunch preparations began. I offered to help once, but only once. I was a guest. When the food was ready around 4 p.m., the family pulled down the table for my sake. (I heard the father say, “She’s American.”) There were some other random family members around the table, and I couldn’t remember exactly how they fit in the family. But it didn’t really matter.

We all dug into the center plate. Aisha kept tossing potatoes and carrots onto my side of the platter. Whenever I tried to stop eating, they demanded I eat more. No amount of “I’m full, praise God!”s could satisfy their vicious desire to watch me glut myself.

For me, mealtime was tense because in their attempt to honor me, they set my presumed needs so far above their own comforts that I felt the separation deeply. I was given two cushions to sit on at the table and the older woman present was given none. When I tried to share, I only succeeded in raising a chorus of protests. I was incapable of experiencing their everyday life because I had the prestige of a guest.

After an hour of TV and conversation over the TV, the preparation for the afternoon tea began. I offered to go with Soukaina to buy doughnuts, but the father turned down my offer on account of my being American. “This is not like the new city!” he declared. My presence would attract attention and a 16-year-old companion didn’t provide the necessary protection.

More female relatives joined us for tea and the conversation livened. We laughed, ate, and took pictures. And then it was time to go. We descended–down down down–until the precarious stairwell spewed us onto the narrow cobblestone street again.

We sloshed through the evening drizzle to the taxis. Aisha and Soukaina tried to accompany me home in the taxi, but when I put up a protest that rivaled their insistence, they relented. But Aisha gave the driver precise instructions where I needed to be deposited and made sure that I had enough money with me. I kissed them both goodbye.

For now.

Aisha- part 2

Aisha was waiting for me on my way to school the next day. And the next. And every morning that I had the early hour of class. Because of her, I began to recognize the network of house workers who met regularly to chat on the way to their respective jobs.

Although I was glad for the chance to practice conversational Arabic, I still was unsure of what she wanted from me.

The day she had invited me to stay at her house grew closer. Because of my apprehension, I managed to whittle the overnight adventure down to a day trip. On the Friday before, we rehearsed what would take place on Sunday: I would meet her at the same place under the berry tree across from the bus stop at 11:00 a.m.

I don’t think she believed I would follow through with the plan. She tried calling me five times while I was in church. And when I finally answered, I was on my way to the meeting place.

“I’m coming!”

She spewed a string of sentences I couldn’t understand, but what I assumed to be a reason that she was behind schedule.

“Okay. Okay. No problem. Okay.”

And I waited under the berry tree until a taxi pulled up and honked. Aisha was in the backseat, bouncing in her excitement. She grabbed me in a warm embrace before I had the chance to close the door behind me. And she talked, one rapid sentence after another, often missing the fact that I didn’t understand.

The taxi wound through the new city, behind the old city, and up up up on a hill. There was no containing Aisha’s joy as she led me out of the taxi and into her world.

It was the first bite of a day full of exquisite North African hospitality.