Scholz 33-Day War Journal (Part 11 of 11)

SquareEmail

I decided to try something different for my blog in November. For 11 days, I’ll post stories from the war that didn’t make it into the recently published Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.

While recovering from our evacuation experience in July 2006, I wrote a debriefing journal, while memories were still fresh. I predicted that the stress of that time in our lives would erase details that could be helpful to remember later.

I almost incorporated this added information into the email pages of the book, but decided that realism would be ruined and the urgent feeling of their brevity would be lost.

Now I offer you these details as an added-value bonus to supplement the rather sparse treatment found in the book.

Day 12
23 July 2006
From Limassol to The Fairgrounds in Nicosia, Cyprus 

We got up and showered in the morning and headed up onto the deck as a family, looking for whatever we could find for breakfast. Since we had stayed on the ship in the morning, they’d had a chance to stock the restaurant with new food, so they had something for us. Unfortunately, the small size of the café made it difficult for the ship’s entire population to access it. It was yet another wearisome long line to stand in.

I went looking for a table with Naomi while Kimarie and Gideon stood in line. I rediscovered a family, who had been staying with us at the Convent. We more or less stayed with them until leaving Cyprus. The husband’s name was Bassam, and the couple had two medium‐aged children who loved playing with Naomi and Gideon.

From our vantage point on the deck, we could see the US Navy vessel that had transported a bunch of people, parked directly ahead of us at the dock. We could see several hundred US soldiers sleeping in their fatigues in rows on the open deck of the ship with the morning sun beating down on them. They had apparently been ordered to give up their bunks for their passengers and been assigned to sleep up there, whether they actually were able to or not.

The breakfast that Kimarie brought consisted of mini croissants and pound cake muffins. Our German‐born captain made an appearance on deck as he made his rounds, encouraging his crew.

After eating we walked a lap around the deck, noticing the helipad and empty pool and re‐ entered the cabin for more exploration of its other decks. We poked around the gift shop to see if there was anything to eat there that we might want to pack for future meals, but it was all pretty much junky food that we couldn’t bear the thought of eating any more. We did buy a cylinder of Pringles chips and a baseball‐style cap with the name of the ship embroidered into it for posterity. You could tell that the clerk at the register was about to collapse from exhaustion, but he was still very amiable as he ran the credit card.

After the announcement was made that we could get off the ship, people came from many different levels and all merged together in a huge mess. Some tried to buck the line by using the handicap elevators to bypass large segments of people who were even waiting on the stairs with their children and luggage.

At one point we had gotten just around the corner before the gang plank and a guy came up from behind us with a panicked look on his face, saying that the people he was with back there couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t we all stand to the right of the corridor so that the air could get back to them? We all complied with his wishes, which then gave him room to move right up to the folks at the gangplank to negotiate getting his family out ahead of everyone else.

He came back and was shouting about his children’s safety and wanting to avoid their suffocation. As he passed by me, I pointed out to him that he was now the only one that was remaining on the side of the corridor that was meant for air to circulate. He patronizingly told me that he was trying to help people.

Kimarie came a little unglued at this point and released some righteous indignation, “I have children that are hot too!”

He said, “Maybe you should move to the front with them too.” Then Kimarie shut him down. “They already offered to let me get off earlier, but I refused because nobody here is more important than anybody else!”

There was a murmur of approval in what she had said among the crowd around us, and the obnoxious guy shut up and went back to his family. We noticed, however, that in the end he got some official to help him get his family off before us by taking another route in the corridors.

As we were nearing daylight, another cluster of people emerged from the elevator at our left, which set Kimarie to fuming again. Even though she was right to be angry and indignant, it wasn’t going to help the situation much for her to shout. And we were almost there. Just a few more people ahead of us now…

As we finally passed the ship’s registration desk, I tried to hand a fifty dollar bill to the attendants there as a tip for all their sacrifices they had made for us. I had seen a tip box at the information desk earlier, but had not had the chance to get back to it. The guy looked at me with surprise and told me that he wouldn’t accept it, that they weren’t accepting tips.

I released the bill from my hand and let it fall to the counter and continued heading toward the gangplank. Before I could make it there, however, he had chased me down and forced me to take the money back. It was a strange experience to see this man’s selflessness amidst the selfish pressing of the crowd as each person tried to be the next one off the ship.

After we got off the ship, we went through immigration and customs and boarded busses to go to Nicosia. This process took place in a large room. On the way in, relief workers were handing out sandwiches and small bottles of water, which we eagerly accepted and stuffed into our bags.

Once again we were separated. One member of the family was sent to lines with the passports to register with the others going to sit in the waiting area. I chose a cordoned line that turned out to be the longest wait.

I had to make myself wide with my elbows to avoid having two obnoxious women cut in front of me in line. When I reached the ubiquitous official with the laptop, I was informed that we wouldn’t be getting right on a flight, but bussing to a more appropriate waiting area while they arranged for our further travel. After registering our names we were free to claim our baggage (we didn’t have any to claim) and get on any bus.

That’s when I went back to find Kimarie by herself – crying. The Refugees chapter starts here. The following details were left out of that chapter.

It was a hot day at the fairgrounds, and even shady trees didn’t offer relief from the heavy air. My last change of clothes that I was wearing was going to be pretty ripe before we were finished with our travels. We had left our other changes of clothing on the cruise ship, thinking we wouldn’t need them again and that carrying them would just slow us down. Doh!

While Kimarie was feeding the kids from our diminishing store of snack foods, I struck out for the registration building to write and send an email update so that people would know that we were all right. Just before I arrived, something funny happened to the wireless network and it stopped working for the rest of the night. Though I couldn’t connect, I did find Wally, and after we greeted each other, he pulled Naomi’s little plastic construction worker out of his shirt pocket and gave it to me to return it to her.

I decided to at least write the message and send it later when the network was back up. I sat in a plastic chair outside in the shade of a nearby building, listening to the Marine’s AC/DC music playing in the background. There was a refreshing breeze that made it very comfortable.

Kimarie wanted to at least let our parents know that we were okay, so she decided to stand in the long lines for the payphones. We had been given a free phone card, which was supposed to have enough time to be able to call the States for several minutes. Gideon stayed with her in line, while I took Naomi for a walk.

Gideon, Naomi and I played around a pallet piled with boxes of bottled water that was sitting nearby the phones. Gideon was picking up and throwing several of the bottles that were strewn around the ground, and Naomi was climbing to the top of the mountain of boxes and jumping into the arms of the awaiting daddy below. We were providing entertainment to many other waiting folks around us.

The location where we waited was also the drop off point for a van, taking people on a fifteen-minute trek to take showers. We never wound up using this service because we heard that the van ride back from the showers was so packed and sweaty that it removed the point for going to take a shower in the first place.

The last trip had just concluded for the evening, and we assumed the responsibility to inform people arriving with towels over their shoulders that they were too late. As the sun was setting, more and more people were milling about outside as if to confirm Lebanese evening social custom requirements.

During our time there at the fairgrounds we had many conversations with all kinds of people. We heard their own horror stories of lost ventures and split families. We felt close to those people, like we were sharing something that went to a deep level that we knew nobody else would ever understand. At the same time, I never offered my email address or asked it of others. It was as if we needed each other for the moment, but realized that future contact would be awkward and counterproductive to healing. There were some half‐hearted suggestions of keeping in touch, but in the end we didn’t even exchange information with Bassam.

The rest of my Journal notes about our evacuation were incorporated into the Refugees chapter in the book, and cover the final two days of our homecoming.

Reverse Engineering a Relevant Life: Kill Your Inner Procrastinator

JanOneI don’t journal much.

If you open my journal, you’ll see a parade of entries for January 1st over the years. New Year’s Day has a way of compelling me to aspire to a more relevant future. But simply writing down objectives at the beginning of the year doesn’t work.

I discovered a planning technique in my last term of college that profoundly improved my ability to steadily accomplish goals.

I’d just finished a nightmarish string of all-nighters from the previous quarter because I’d misjudged what I could procrastinate. I sat down in my dorm room after the first day of class and arranged a short stack of syllabi on the desk in front of me.

What I Needed Was A Map

I pulled the calendar off the bulletin board and transferred the due dates for every major assignment from each class into the appropriate boxes.

Then I tried something new. I began with the last final exam and started working backwards. I estimated how much time I’d need to study the subject to get a good grade. Two days. I counted back two days on the calendar from the date of the exam, and wrote, “Start studying for exam Z.” Then I found the next to the last exam, and decided I needed two days to study for that one too. I counted back two more days on the calendar and wrote, “Start studying for exam Y.”

Next, I found a paper was due on the same day as those exams. I figured I needed a week to write it, so I continued counting backwards seven days from where I left off and wrote, “Start paper X.”

I kept working through the due dates this way, assigning myself start dates increasingly early in the schedule. By the time I was finished, I was supposed to start a paper in the first week that would be completed weeks before it was due at midterm. That seemed silly, but I decided to try following the plan.

It Worked!

This small exercise in planning allowed me to steadily plug away at my work in bite-sized, manageable chunks in a methodical execution of the map that I’d made. I walked at graduation a rested man, but I felt like kicking myself. I could have saved myself a lot of torture if I’d figured out that trick earlier.

Thankfully, the usefulness of the lesson didn’t end when college was over. It turns out you can reverse engineer any goal you want to accomplish and create your own map to follow.

What Have You Got To Lose?

Try working through these six steps on New Year’s Day instead of making a resolution that you know you’ll break.

1. Define a goal

2. Create a detailed list of what would have to change or be accomplished for the goal to be realized

3. Organize the list in chronological order based on a progression of prerequisites

4. Set an optimistic date for the goal to be achieved and write it on a calendar

5. Map the list starting from the last task on the list, and backward from the goal date on the calendar, estimating the span of time to accomplish each subtask

6. Diligently execute the scheduled tasks on the map and adjust assignments to reflect reality

Maybe you have a different method of ensuring that your life follows a relevant course. Please share it with us in the comments section.

Giants Like Bob: Everyone needs a mentor

Candy

Seattle, WA – Circa October 1998

Some experiences evade the threat of failing memory through sheer sureality.

The first time I visited a Muslim household was to celebrate the holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the fasting month of Ramadan. By custom, the children of the family offered me candy from a bowl, as if I had come to the door trick-or-treating. Sitting in the living room of their modest apartment, my head swam as the men of the house spoke to each other in Kurdish.

A Ham At A Bar-Mitzvah

I felt incredibly out of place, but that wasn’t the bizarre moment that I remember so well. It was in the car on the way to visit the next Kurdish home that I suddenly wondered how my life had brought me to this moment.

My new friend was driving. Bob was a giant of a man. I’m not extremely tall, but most men aren’t a full head taller than me. The little car he drove made him look even bigger after he squeezed himself in behind the steering wheel.

He navigated the roads of Seatac and belted out hymns from memory in a deep singing voice that could have won him a role in an opera.

That was the moment I remember. Had I really chosen this situation?

The Key People We Meet In Our Lives

Someone introduced me to Bob while I lived on Vashon Island. I told him of my plans to move to Lebanon, and asked him how I should prepare to live there.

“How many Muslims friends do you have?” He asked.

“Uh. None,” I confessed.

“Come with me and I’ll introduce you to some.”

He had helped to resettle Kurds into refugee camps from the mountains in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. Many in the Kurdish community in Seattle had followed him there after Sadamm Hussein regained control.

Bob mentored me without my realizing or fully appreciating it at the time – and I wasn’t alone. I met others in his home, where he and his wife Jan gathered and fed us. The encouragement I found around that table gave me the courage to step into unusual, uncomfortable moments. He challenged me be courageous when I didn’t know what to expect.

Seeking Out People To Influence Us

When was the last time you experienced something bizarre enough to be memorable?

Sometimes it only takes talking about our dreams with people who have already lived them out, and saying, “okay,” when they offer a suggestion. Otherwise, it seems too hard to get started on your own, and you wind up having to live with the itch, like a burr in your saddle, or a raspberry seed stuck in-between your teeth.

There you have it – in a nutshell. Everyone should be mentored by giants like Bob.

Discontentment As Incentive

CrownThe car was still running. I enjoyed the heat being blown out at me for the last couple minutes before stepping out to run a couple miles on the Centennial Trail. The last few swallows from my coffee mug went down as I read three pages of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King to supply a starting place for a conversation with God. I extracted the thought that the Kingdom of God has already started, even as it is being built.

I switched off the ignition and slid the key into my pocket as I jumped out and headed down the trail – slowly at first due to a twinge of pain in my back. There weren’t many others on the path this morning. A few bicyclists. Another runner. I greeted them in passing with, “Good morning.”

Absentmindedly, I asked the woman walking her dog, “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” she said, as I clipped past her.

The way she said it lodged in my mind. It became the new topic of my runtime prayers, or rather, a practical extension of the idea of kingdom building.

Bothered by my own lack of compassion

My prayer dialog is perhaps unusual and a little hard to describe. A conversation runs through my thoughts, with my own voice taking both parts. It’s not like I’m asking questions and God is answering – more like I’m asking and answering, but God is moving freely in both.

“That woman needs to be encouraged. Go back and pray for her.”

“Hunh? Based on what – that she said, ‘okay,’ and not, ‘fine?'” I’d had these compulsive ideas before. I’ve come to recognize them not as tests, but more as opportunities to follow Jesus that are given as gifts. Without exception, they always require an action that most people would consider foolish. The feeling of regret I’ve faced from ignoring these calls to action in the past far outweighs the risk of injured pride. Still, it always takes some convincing.

“I can’t just turn around now and go back to her. I’d look like some maniac. And what would I say?” I had passed her, running in the same direction that she was walking. The space between us grew with every jogged step.

“You definitely need to go and talk with her. Say, ‘Excuse me ma’am, but you seem to be carrying a burden. Is there some way that I can pray for you?'”

“Okay, but I don’t want to interrupt my run. I’ll wait for her back at the parking lot. Then it won’t be so awkward that I’m going back to talk to her.”

“Don’t miss it! Remember how rotten the lost opportunity feels. She could turn around and head the other direction at any time.”

A Decision is Made

“I’ll cool down after my run by walking back that way. If I meet her on the path, then I’ll know that I’m really supposed to talk to her.” There are always negotiations and deal making in these dialogs. I was a mile away from where I’d passed her when I turned around and started to retrace my steps.

“What should I say when she calls me a weirdo, frowns at me, and tells me she doesn’t believe in God?”

“I don’t want her to feel endangered because a strange man stopped to talk to her.”

“Doesn’t matter. Gotta do it. Take it as it comes.” After 5 or 10 more minutes of internal debate, I rounded a corner and there she was – still headed my direction. There was no turning back now.

She eased the awkwardness by looking up and smiling. She said, “Going for another round of road punishment?”

I smiled back and stopped. “Actually,” I said. “I was hoping that I’d run into you again. There was something in the way you said, ‘Okay’ that made me think you had a burden that I could pray for.” I stopped talking. What would happen next?

Bricks and Mortar in The Kingdom

Janet was her name. She had arrived from Colorado in time to hold her granddaughter before she died. As believers, the newborn’s parents had time to baptize the tiny girl – prematurely born before her lungs had developed enough to support her breathing alone.

Standing there on the path in the woods, we prayed together. God’s compassion to engineer this moment built faith in both of us. The dog waited patiently.

Now, I’m not bragging about how I obeyed God’s call on that path. You can probably tell from my feeble thinking process that I’ve experienced more failures than successes in this battle. But discontentment in my irrelevant, safe life drives me more and more to be willing to consider foolish actions for the chance of creating relationships. I believe that’s what its like to live in a kingdom that isn’t finished being built yet.

The Value of Discontentment

Building a kingdom worthy of King Jesus is the adventure that satisfies. The paradox? The incentive to build is found in embracing the feeling of discontented hunger.

Have you been struggling with identifying the source of your own discontentment? What do you think of the idea that staying hungry is a good incentive to guide a life of obedience?

Jihad and The Green Cabinet: Perfectionism vs. Community

Perfectionist

Tyre, Lebanon – circa March 2000

My Sunni Muslims landlord, Jihad, was frowning when I stepped into his candy shop for a visit. He regularly helped me practice my new Arabic vocabulary, if I came before the daily rush of kids on their way home from school. That particular day, the green bathroom cabinet sitting in front of him on the sales counter distracted him.

“What’s wrong, Jihad?” I asked, after the customary exchange of greetings.

He pointed with his open right hand at the piece of furniture, and gave it a sidelong glance. “I just picked this up from the painter down the street.”

“What’s the problem? It looks like he did a good job to me.”

“But I told him to paint it white!” Jihad exploded. “When I complained, he told me that he thought it looked better green and tried to convince me to agree with him.”

I joined Jihad’s outrage. “You didn’t pay him, did you?”

“What else could I do?”

The Need of The Many Outweigh The Preferences of The Few

The painter was likely a relative of his. His business probably suffered in the bad economy, and he may have only had green paint on hand, without money to buy white. Jihad had resigned himself to accept the wrong color in order to recover his property from its overdue captivity in the paint shop. A green cabinet was better than no cabinet at all.

I couldn’t imagine this situation ending in any way other than a lawsuit back home in the States (maybe a fistfight and then a lawsuit).

It wasn’t that Jihad didn’t have personal preferences. His outburst demonstrated that clearly. But community-centered values allowed him to give up the right to have things the way he wanted them.

The Struggle Within

I think Jihad was aptly named. Most westerners learn from the news that the word Jihad means “holy war.” Of course, it can mean that, but the simple meaning is “to exert influence.” My friend had indeed won out in his internal struggle to keep the peace.

For myself, I probably wouldn’t have minded making enemies if it wasn’t quite the right shade of white that I had expected.

Some people would call that perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist. It sounds like a positive trait, as if I’m always working toward the betterment of things. Truly, perfectionism is a term spoiled brats like me use to make ourselves feel better about our selfishness.

Things in my life are the way I want them to be, most of the time. I wonder what quality of community I could be enjoying if I preferred other people’s preferences more often.

What about you? Do you choose lonely perfection or compromised community by the actions you take in everyday life? Are there other options?

The Night I Experienced Shiite Street Justice

StreetJusticeSouth Lebanon, 2001

I was returning home to Tyre after an evening of visiting friends in another town called Nabatieh, which is not known for its friendly feelings toward the West. I drove my early nineties model Honda Accord hatchback.

I crested a hill, winding through streets hemmed in tightly by concrete structures. Suddenly, another car shot out from a narrow alley on the left that had been concealed from my view by the darkness. I stomped on my brakes and veered to the right, but our front ends met and the two cars abruptly came to rest in the middle of the street.

Almost instantly there was a crowd of men where a moment before there had been no one. In the darkness an assembly convened. Five young Shia men got out of the other car and at least seven more emerged from nearby homes to participate in the impending tribunal. I fearfully tried to prepare myself for the beating that my imagination told me was coming next.

Vigilante Justice

Nobody was hurt, but the other driver was understandably upset about the damage to his car. “Why didn’t you swerve more? You could have kept from hitting me!” He shouted amidst hand motions demonstrating the path I should have taken.

I got out and looked at the damage. I had a small dent and part of my rubber bumper out of place slightly; purely cosmetic. The other car’s radiator had been crushed into a 45 degree angle and had already emptied its contents into the street in a puddle. It wouldn’t be moving from that spot under its own power.

Then something amazing happened. A few of the gathered crowd pulled the other driver aside and calmed him down, asking his side of the story. A few others came to talk to me, the scared-eyed westerner who barely knew enough Arabic to communicate. A judicial process kicked in and members of the spontaneous community assumed roles as if they had rehearsed in advance.

After their interviews, the negotiators and witnesses met in the neutral ground, barring physical contact between the drivers while they sorted out the details. I was mesmerized by the flurry of activity.

The Verdict

They reasoned with the other driver. “Look, you have no insurance and the foreigner does. The damage to your car is a lot worse, but he won’t have to pay because it looks like it was your fault.”

I offered to call the insurance agent to make a claim, but he was in a tight spot because he was driving with no insurance, which would have gotten him in trouble if the accident was reported.

The counsellors continued “If the foreigner agrees to accept his own damages, it will go better for you.”

He didn’t like it. He argued that I should pay him for the damages. One of the bystanders asked me if I wanted him to pay to have my car fixed. When I said, “No.” he told me to get in my car and go. I got in and went.

Case dismissed.

A powerless American, acquitted by a God-fearing, Shiite justice mob.

If you like this story, you should read my book, Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.

Fresh Chicken – A Cultural Education in Arab Food Preparation

FreshChickenMany unsettling questions go unanswered when preparing to move to the Middle East. Will my hair dryer work with 220 power? Will I be able to use my debit card in ATM machines? How will I get Microsoft Updates with a dial-up Internet connection? But perhaps the most haunting questions are about food. How will my dietary habits have to change?

I’m thinking particularly of a vegetarian friend of mine who is heading to Turkey soon.  A great way to understand how people on the other side of the world think is to get a peek at the routine of their daily lives and how it differs from ours. Here’s the story of my first meat buying excursion after moving to Lebanon in 1999.

A Trip To The Souk in Tyre

Denis and I went to the open-air market and approached the blue-painted walls of his favorite butcher. He picked out a chicken in the same way that someone in a fancy restaurant might choose a lobster. She looked at us and blinked as she was extracted from the cage by the vendor. We had time to name her if we wanted. How about Hilda?

It all happened very quickly and with no warning to either Hilda or me. With practiced precision the knife flashed at Hilda’s throat and she was thrown head first into a hole in the counter. After three minutes, the chicken stopped thrashing around inside the cabinet.

Another worker came and submerged the bird in scalding water to loosen the feathers and then threw it into a cylindrical machine, shaped like a clothes washer. Plastic quills inside, sticking out from the walls, neatly removed the feathers as the chicken spun around like it was in a blender.

The butcher then deftly sectioned it and removed all the innards. Was it my imagination, or was its heart still beating?

The meat was placed into a small black plastic bag – its handles tied to produce a loop for easy carrying on a finger. The bag went into the scale and Denis paid by the kilo.

By the time we got back to my friend’s house and presented his wife with the fruit of our manly hunt, the bag was still warm.

“Meet Hilda.”

That’s what I call fresh chicken!

Too Gruesome?

In my youth, I cleaned the meat market at Vashon Thriftway. The chicken scraps I scraped off the counters at the end of the day represented the chicken’s last stages of processing from coop to table. But the meat arrived at the store in boxes, not cages. After all, meat is supposed to be presented how God intended – refrigerated and encased in Styrofoam.

Maybe removing the visibility of the butchering process has allowed westerners to become overly carnivorous. It could be that you’d like to know more about the source of your food. How do you think your dietary habits would change if you had to look your dinner in the eye before eating? Would you eat more or less meat?

Reputation In A Community Oriented Culture

mKhaledTyre, Lebanon – circa August 2000

“You owe me $60.” My landlady stopped me on the street, less than a block away from the apartment I rented from her.

“Excuse me? I don’t understand,” I said. “I paid you yesterday.”

She’d come to the flat with her son, while I was there with my friend, Hassan. We all stood inside the front door as I counted out $900 USD in twenty-dollar bills – three months’ rent. She’d smiled and placed the money back in the envelope without counting it herself before going on her way.

This morning she wasn’t smiling. She explained, “This morning when I went to the bank to deposit the money, there was only $840 in the envelope you gave me.”

I looked around. She was speaking passionately, and we were attracting the attention of the neighbors. I lowered the volume of my own voice. “I counted the money out in front of you. You saw it was all there.”

“Then where’s the other sixty dollars?” She persisted. When I told her I shouldn’t have to pay, she started shouting. I was relieved when her son calmed her down and we postponed the confrontation.

What Will People Think?

As a Jesus-following American living in mostly Muslim Tyre I had to work at overcoming a lot of misconceptions about westerners. Now it appeared my reputation was in jeopardy over a misunderstanding. This woman’s normal neighborly conversations would brand me as a thief if I didn’t respond carefully.

Since I was worried about the perspective of the community, I decided to involve the community in solving the dilemma. I dropped in on my jeweler friend, Khaled, who had originally arranged the rental agreement. My landlady was a cousin of his.

Deferring the Responsibility of Saving Face to a Respected Third Party

Rather than being annoyed by my troubles, he was honored by being asked to mediate. He listened patiently over a glass of tea in his shop.

“I know I paid the full amount, and I have two witnesses that saw me count the money. But now it doesn’t seem that I can win in this situation. If I pay her, I lose sixty dollars, and that’s not right. If I refuse to pay her, then she will talk about me behind my back in the neighborhood. She’ll say that I cheated her.”

I paused to take a sip of tea and then continued. “It’s already hard for me to fit in around here as a foreigner, and I don’t want my reputation to be ruined.  Will you talk to her? If you say I should pay her, I will. I’ll do whatever you say is right.

“Don’t worry about this, Hadi,” he said, using my Arabic nickname. “I’ll talk to her.”

The very next day, he called me back into his shop as I was passing by. He assured me that I didn’t need to pay her anything more, and she promised not to say anything bad about me to anyone.

Wow. Just like that [sound of fingers snapping], the problem was eliminated.

Which Cultural Perspective is Better? Who is Right?

In western countries, using an intermediary to resolve disputes seems cowardly and evasive. It’s honorable to be direct in confrontation. Is that truly the better way to be?

I wonder if our communities would be stronger if we cared more about preserving honor and reputation, both for others and ourselves.

What do you think? Does the thought of deferring to the judgment of the community offend your sense of independence? Are you already fed up with worrying about what other people think?

Little Mohammed and The Toothache

StreetTyre, Lebanon – circa 2001

His greed grieved me. How could this little beggar boy have the nerve to ask me for more?

We called him Little Mohammed. Dressed in grubby clothes, he patrolled our neighborhood on a regular basis. He might have been ten years old, but nobody had bothered to keep track.

That morning, I noticed he was in pain and asked him about it. He pointed to his mouth – a toothache. I wasn’t in a hurry that day, so I decided to get him fixed up. I told him to follow me, we entered a nearby building and ascended a flight of stairs.

Random Act of Kindness

Little Mohammed and I sat down on the couch in the the dentist office waiting room. the receptionist was busy doing double duty as the hygienist. When she came out and saw us, she smiled at me and then scolded Little Mohammed for having followed me in. She thought he was being overly aggressive in his alms taking.

I interrupted her and explained that I wanted to pay to have the doctor treat him. It took some convincing. I had to repeat myself. She was sure she hadn’t understood what I’d said. She reflexively wrinkled her nose. Little Mohammed squirmed and wanted to leave, but I held my ground – determined to do a good deed.

Ingratitude Kills Compassion

The dentist examined the boy, who surely had never before sat in a dentist’s chair. Little Mohammed continued to look anxious even after the checkup was over. The dentist prescribed some antibiotics for an infection and Tylenol for the pain – along with stern advice to brush his teeth.

I forced Mohammed to follow me to the pharmacist across the street and I paid for the drugs, some toothpaste and a toothbrush. We had spent the better part of an hour together when I handed him the plastic bag. That was the moment he surprised me by holding out his hand and asking for money!

“What?” I was angry. “Unbelievable. After everything I’ve just done for you, now you want money too? Shame on you! Get out of here.” I shooed him away disdainfully with my hand. He compounded my disappointment by appearing offended.

When Helping Hurts

Months later, I learned about Little Mohammed’s living conditions from a neighbor.

Reminiscent of Oliver Twist, Mini Mo was part of a community of orphaned beggars and managed by a boss whom he was responsible to check in with each hour. He had a begging quota to make, or risk being thrown out of his house. On the day of my generosity he may have been beaten for wasting time on his teeth.

I wish I could say that was the last time I misinterpreted a social situation. Have you ever been grossly misjudged? What could have been done to  avoid it?

Relational Reciprocity

AbuAhmeed“I need to borrow fifty dollars,” Abu Ahmeed explained.

He described how expensive schoolbooks for his kids were. He could buy the books used, but he had to pay all at once for his three children.

I had rehearsed how I would say, “No,” to such requests, but hesitated.

I squirmed in the plastic chair in his tiny storefront tailor shop. My Lebanese neighbors believed that all Americans were rich. It was hard to convince them that I was the only exception to that rule. Requests from them for financial help were numerous.

Abu Ahmeed went back to hemming the cuffs of a pair of suit pants that a neighboring clothing merchant had just dropped off. He was promised a dollar or two for the work, but they only paid once in awhile at their own convenience.

Some days at lunchtime, he’d open the cash drawer in his sewing machine table and hand over his entire earnings for the morning so his kids could eat a sandwich. Abu Ahmeed inspired me with his trust that God would take care of his family, though their survival was day to day.

I knew this because I was a daily visitor, trying to learn Arabic. Abu Ahmeed had agreed to let me practice the vocabulary I was learning with him.  My pathetic language learning abilities demanded herculean patience. Frankly, if the roles had been reversed, I couldn’t have tolerated the tedium the way he did.

Abu Ahmeed never thought to ask me to pay him for his language tutoring. We were friends and he wanted to help me. That’s what brothers do for each other in community. After months of gleaning a word at a time, I was finally able to carry on a basic conversation.

“I’ll go to the bank and get the money this afternoon,” I said. “And if you want to pay me back, you can.” I didn’t want an outstanding loan to mess up our friendship, and I also didn’t want to damage his self-respect. Abu Ahmeed’s request was isolated, and I felt privileged by his trust in me to not embarrass him by gossiping about his situation in the neighborhood.

How Can We Be Friends?

I have this theory that you can’t have a real friendship if each friend isn’t prepared to both give and receive from the other in roughly equal proportions. This is especially true in cultures that are based on an honor/shame paradigm.

My Muslim friends always welcomed me with the Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa sahlan.” The literal translation of this phrase is a testament to the desire for equality. It means, “You’re part of the family, and their are no hills between us.” Where the ground is flat, we have equal footing.

Giving Too Much

It’s good to be generous. But if one gives too much, there comes a point where the inability to reciprocate becomes unsavory for the one receiving. Never having an opportunity to give back creates shame instead of gratitude in the heart of the receiver.

Receiving Too Much

Nobody wants to be friends with a leach. On the other hand, refusing to receive anything from friends makes them feel devalued.

I think the theory of relational reciprocity applies to interactions between cultures as well as to individuals. Do you think it also has implications for the level of intimacy that can be acheived with our creator?