They are Muslim, We are Christian
Reposting a story I wrote for OnFaith on dining in the home of Palestinian Muslims, originally published April 3, 2017.
As we prepare to step inside their home, a friend says, “It is a different world in there.” They are Muslim, and we are Christian. We come from white American privilege, and they from the poverty of trying to survive military occupation, corruption, and oppression.
I’m with two friends, volunteering with the Al-Basma Center for the Developmentally
Disabled near Bethlehem in Palestine. Christian and Muslim women devote themselves here to teaching and loving dozens of social outcasts in the greater Bethlehem society. Here the students play music, dance, perform plays, learn arts and crafts, and smile. They are reintegrating into a society that has little use for them.
We’ve been working alongside a young Palestinian Muslim woman named Safa. Due to our language barriers, my friends and I have been unable to communicate much with her. We mostly drink tea, work on crafts, look up and smile, work some more, look up and smile some more. Despite this, she sent word that she would like to host us in her family’s home for dinner. We accepted with enthusiasm—home-cooked Palestinian cuisine is not to be missed.
Entering off a side street through a wooden door that has seen better days, we climb a winding set of stone stairs to reach Safa’s home. Their house is simple. As far as I can tell it contains only two rooms, both spartan, with a few pictures and small woven tapestries hanging on the walls. Outside these rooms is a stone porch of sorts. Grapevines grow over their doorway, and a few steep steps lead to a pathway connecting the roof of Safa’s house to that of her grandmother’s. In Palestine, families often stick close to each other.
Our hosts greet us in the traditional Palestinian manner, “Ahlan wasahlan,” which means, “you are most welcome.” They invite us to sit on their makeshift sofa while Safa’s father, Muhammad, prepares our meal. On an old, tin cooking tray, he layers chicken breasts and legs; sliced potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots; and large chunks of eggplant all of which he covers with three or four local spices. When the dish is ready to cook, we follow him to the roof where their small and seemingly ancient stove sits, with a thin chimney that must rise at least ten feet. We start talking with Muhammad as the food cooks, mostly answering his questions. He wants to know who we are, why we are in Palestine, and what we are studying. While we talk, I help one of his young children launch a Kung Fu Panda kite from the edge of the roof. From it, I can see over the hills and valley of Bethlehem, houses scattered among tiers of olive trees and stone, with the faint outline of Jordan’s mountains visible in the distance.
Dinner is ready and Muhammad removes it with care using blocks of olive wood that double as oven mitts. We descend to the narrow porch area outside where the family is gathered, and Muhammad sets the tray of food between us all. We’re handed two pieces of pita bread, which we use to pick up bites of food from the tray.
I look around me as we start eating: three American Christian young men and six Palestinian Muslims are sitting in a circle around a meal. We are cross-legged on the same stone and eating from one central dish. Muhammad looks at us and says, “Here, in Palestine, we all eat together. Not like in America. Each does not have his own plate here. We eat as one.”
Throughout the night, we receive tea and coffee, as well as lessons from the Qur’an, insights into life under Israeli occupation, and questions about some of the mysteries of the Christian faith. At one point Muhammad asks, “What is a Muslim? A Muslim,” he continues, “a true Muslim, is someone who does not hurt someone else. Not with the body, and not with the words. This is a Muslim. The Qur’an teaches this.” He tells us that when we understand the heart of Islam, we may start to see it is a religion of peace, of respect for others, and of devotion to God.
He points out, like Christianity, Judaism and other religions, the fundamentalists of Islam abuse its teachings, hijacking popular opinion and reducing the nobility of Islam into something sinister.
He tells us, “We are all brothers. The Jewish, the Christians and the Muslims. All brothers. We have the same ancestors and all worship the same God. We are all one.”
I find myself thinking about how many stereotypes are being shattered in these late evening hours in Safa’s home: Muslims who don’t hate Jews or the United States, who don’t want to conquer the world in the name of Islam, who don’t want to blow themselves up. Instead, they are sharing their home, food, and stories. They have welcomed us without condition.
By now we’ve been here for hours, and as we start to leave, bidding farewell to the family and thanking them for their gracious hospitality, Muhammad takes our hands in his. His firm grip sends comfort through me. As we step out into the night, starting our walk down the hill toward home, he calls to us, “You must come back to see me before you leave. You must. You are like my sons.”
I know, as he closes the door to their home, that his words aren’t the answer to all the ills of this region or our world, but I can’t help but think they’re a start.