For longer than I knew, my father’s Arabic-language Bible lay on the dining table, a thick, gold-leafed tome, warm and fragile with years of page-turning, the family’s sacred text that had sustained Dad on his long journey from Syria to America. That Bible now sits atop my own bookshelf. I cannot decipher the elaborate twists and turns of its beautiful script, but my eyes are nourished just by passing over the worn pages. Often I lay my hand on its cover and experience unspeakable joy.
My father relished reading aloud from that Bible in Arabic. As youngsters, we sat to listen (usually after some encouragement), despite our inability to understand. We were born Americans; English was our native tongue. Nonetheless, those angular cadences filled my soul with something mystical, right up there with whiffs of Mom’s fresh-baked Syrian flat bread, called khobz, and her sweet, flaky baklava. Or my dad’s routine of rummaging about the produce section in the tiny grocery store, which was his start in the American dream.
America, my father liked to shout in a voice strong enough for nearby customers to hear, is the greatest gift God has given us! Noshkr Allah!Thanks be to God!was the Arabic phrase I remember so well. And why such gratitude? Opportunity! Amid endless rows of giant orange trees along Florida’s Highway 17-92, Dad’s grocery stood as the sole structure, its doors and cash register forever open to those looking for food with a Middle Eastern flair. Charles Azar’s gambling spirit parlayed that commercial property into bigger holdings, though his greatest delight would be to gather Arab men around a tiny table located at the back of the store. There they sat, sipping thick Turkish coffee, exploding one opinion after another. Chaos? Yes. Every man had his view, and sometimes he had to pound the table hard to prove it. But I could see God smiling on this sincere band of Arabs, gracing their longing to bridge old-world habits into new-world mentality. In today’s climate of Arab hostility, it hurts me to read media headlines purporting to find Arab connections to terrorist plots. Those young immigrants who sat at my father’s table knew nothing of terrorist plots, except perhaps the terror of old-world hunger and disabling empty pockets.
As for Mom and her circle of Arab women, here were my first workaholics: rising early, tending babies, sweating alongside their husbands, and always preparingsome said sufferingfor the next meal. Yet, how they artfully cast off all burdens at periodic outdoor feasts. Singing, dancing and clapping to wild Bedouin drums. My scrapbook has pictures of my mother dancing around barbecue pits or within the circles of men, her arms waving, wearing her smile, always her smile. Arabic women knew how to celebrate the dance. How I carry their joy, as well as the hopes of other Arabs who went before me and who endured that beginning time. As a woman born into the American culture, I am compelled to expose, in this time of Arab profiling, detention and suspicion, my own Arab pilgrimage, no less a proud American and no less a Christian.
Baptism in my parents’ Greek Orthodox church was the beginning. But with no Orthodox church nearby, I attended Sunday school nearest our grocery: at North Park Baptist. I loved the little wooden chairs placed around the low oak table, where colorful pages unfolded God’s word in picture books. However, it was the bright young Baptist instructor who planted a fundamental, never-to-be-forgotten biblical truth in my soul.
He singled me out one Sunday and asked, Would you like this picture of Jesus? Around its edges, he had scrawled in bold black letters: God Is Love. I slid the plaque into my pocket and walkedno, floatedhome. My father smiled. His hammer and a nail applied the lesson to my bedroom doorpost. That text became the defining norm of what I called the real Christian fundamentalism.
When the time came for junior high school, Dad was adamant: I don’t like the jokes you’re coming home telling us. No more public school. So, although it contradicted his Orthodox bias against Catholics, he shipped me off to St. Joseph’s boarding school in St. Augustine, Fla. Oddly, the time proved to be the religious experience of my life. If my father had only foreseen the consequences. Not only was I delivered from grinding grocery chores; I was given into the hands of loving yet mysterious creatures who scurried along the wide porches in long flowing robes. These women did not just educate us; they were interested in each little problem. I fell in love with the nuns. So I spent junior high getting high on Catholic rituals: kneeling at an altar, running my fingers over rosary beads and surrendering to times of sacred silence. I loved all of it, but ultimately, Dad couldn’t help barking: It was the worst decision I could have made! He saw Catholic designs marking his daughter’s ambitions. I wanted to be a nun and there was no stopping me.
In Jensen Beach, Fla., the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph stood high on a hill. Here I would be grounded in the community’s rules. Despite the pain of turning away from the closeness of my family, I inhaled deeply this mystical call and relished taking a religious vow among women passionately attentive to God. When I looked out the chapel windows, even nature itself expressed an abundance of God I had never known. The St. Lucie River gently flowed southward. Wind-swept palms and other exotic tropical flora were happily pushing me to see God transparently. It was the greening of a woman’s spirit.
As a nun, I covered my body completely, curiously paralleling the dress of today’s Muslim women, bodies shrouded in mystery, set apart and, as a friend described it, cast into a spiritual hothouse. There was nothing more I wanted than to be God’s girl. With such joy, I became zealous about bringing this delight to others, spreading this born-again feeling to the students in my class. In hindsight, though, I see I was too zealous. When I look back, I wish I had been less inclined to such strong missionary thrusts. It is not my way anymore.
Suddenly, almost in a moment, everything changed. The newly elected pope pushed open a stuck window and in came the freshest breath of air not felt in hundreds of years. We Catholics saw the larger body of Christ in other Christians and even in non-Christians. Updated theology grew compassionate, and my mind and heart peeled open. The terms secular (worldly) and sacred (holy) amazingly found each other, and it seemed as if the controversial Jesuit scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had been right all along: Nothing is profane for those who have eyes to see. Had not the Second Vatican Council exploded my parochial world in 1962, I might still be wearing the black veil. Still, my convent years continue to be a source of overflowing gratitude for a time of intense friendship with God. And I salute the spirit of the many women who still hold to that fervent lifestyle.
The council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions declared that Jewish faith is whole and entire in its covenant with God. That truth strangely began to reawaken my Arab roots in a way that I never dreamed. The full awakening would arrive later, but for now, as a lay parish administrator, I was discovering that Christianity was about love, no matter what religion you called yourself. Christ was not about making nice theological distinctions.
When I expressed my sadness at Jews and Arabs fighting like school children, my Jewish stockbrokerthe only Jew I knew thensuggested that I join a local peacemaking group. He sent me to their meeting. The gathering, to my surprise, was in a home directly across the street from my own. Getting there was easy.
Welcoming Jews into my heart was not. When a Jewish attorney stood to address the group one evening, something dark in me floated to the surface. I squirmed. I wasn’t sure what to name the feeling, but I didn’t like it. Adele, are you anti-Semitic? I asked myself after getting into bed that night. But all Arabs are Semites too. This feeling doesn’t make sense! Nonetheless, it surfaced again and again. There it was! Yahood! (the Arabic word for Jews). I remembered my father’s piercing accusationsThose @#$#$ Yahood! They own the media, the banks and the power. Oh, he could certainly go on with his Arab gang in the back of the store. Little did I know how deeply those voices had penetrated me. And now that voice was coming at me again. Dad’s passion was so entrenched that one day, at a Mideast gathering, I stood to talk and couldn’t get my mouth to utter the word Jew. I tried, but the syllable rolled back, refusing to be heard.
What’s happening? What’s wrong with me, God? Jewwhat does that mean to me?
I felt shame. There was nothing to do but go home, get down on my knees and turn to my best weapon: prayer. I lit candles. I watched their flames, asked God to burn those rotten inner recordings. I took out my journal and gave every negative feeling lots of page space. Finally something shifted. I saw something old in a new way. There was my Baptist angel holding that beloved childhood plaque, God Is Love. This time, holding it out to the entire world. Somehow at that moment, I saw the face of God. He is the Jew. He is the Christian. He is the God in all of us.
The leader of the Foundation for Mideast Communication was my Jewish friend, Hedy, whose joy-filled presence was the best tonic for me. Hedy, I said hesitantly as we got into her Honda to go to another Mideast presentation, did you know that you’re a genuine Christ figure to me? Obviously delighted and without forethought, she quipped, Well, of course, Adele, Jesus was one of our boys. I laughed, but in the ensuing and very pregnant silence, I felt myself jerked forward to another face of Jesus: the Jewish face. Jesus was one of their boys, the thoroughly Jewish Jesus, the go-to-temple Jesus, the Passover Jesus. I exulted in the contradiction: Jesus was Christian and Jew. My struggle was over. I overflowed with possibility.
Church friends smiled at the change in me. How it happened, I cannot completely explain, but in time I grew vocal about my Arabic roots. Jewish friends had nurtured this identity of mine that I had more or less successfully masked. Oh, the paradox of it all! And so, to anyone who will listen, I proudly announce that I’m an Arab-American woman. Sometimes I add in jest, and it’s all because of Jewish friends!
As the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton put it in his last public utterance, replying to a nun critical of a speech that didn’t include the mention of Christ, What we are asked to do at present, is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.
It has taken me a while in my long faith journey to connect to this truth. Now, as an American, an Arab and a Christian, I am becoming comfortable with all traditions. At base, all true religion is fundamentally about love. Jesus’ love embraces the Good Samaritan, the woman taken in adultery, the misguided disciples and, yes, by extension, today’s Muslims, Christians and Jews. I have nothing to do with a fundamentalism that extols self-righteous attitudes. I prefer instead the Hindu greeting Namaste: The God in me salutes the God in you.