July 24, 2010

Arab Coffee – Seeking Peace in the Middle East

The scent of the coffee, the taste of it, tells stories. It calls to mind the poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

Here, where the hills slope before the sunset and the chasm of time
near gardens whose shades have been cast aside
we do what prisoners do
we do what the jobless do
we sow hope

You who stand in the doorway, come in,
Drink Arabic coffee with us
And you will sense that you are men like us
You who stand in the doorways of houses
Come out of our morningtimes,
We shall feel reassured to be
Men like you!

-State of Siege

The Arab cawe (coffee) is thick and bitter-sweet. Dark and steaming, I take a sip, sitting in the square in Bethlehem. I love this square. The vast expanse of worn marble in front of the church, the seats of carved stone.

When seated in front of the church, you see a mosque at the other end. This is a perfect image of my own journies in Palestine. I found Islam through Christ. Muhammad was not my first doorway.

It amazes me how marble feels alive, buttery, warm. The ancient marble holds stories. The living stone that has seen so much history unfold.

The marble seats that line the wall of the church in the square in Bethlehem hold memories for me now. Sitting for hours, watching Muslim girls and women walk by, Sheiks, Priests, street boys running in packs.

The world there feels more ancient. Architecture tells stories, and orchards of olive, fig and pomegranate trees hold ancient secrets in the crooks of branches, gnarled like an old man’s fist.

There is an image I saw in a shop in the hidden markets of Bethlehem – the places where only locals wend their way through shops offering cawe fresh ground, school uniforms, and the occasional gift shop.

The image; a photograph of an old Palestinian woman hugging an ancient olive tree that has been dismembered, with an Israeli jeep in the back ground. All that’s left of the tree is the trunk, and she’s holding onto it like it’s her dead lover.

Tears are streaming from the woman’s eyes, her face contorted in agony.

This image is not for sale. It is there as a reminder. A reminder of what’s been lost. A reminder of what’s being taken. A reminder that there are bulldozers tearing trees from the ground at this very moment.

And as always, the shop smells of cawe, and the owner asks us to sit, sit, enjoy a cup before you move on.

The smell of Arab cawe calls to mind the Bedouin tents and shanties, the markets in Jerusalem, every home I entered in all my travels through the Arab lands, the Arabic tongue like music, rough and guttural, with melodic overtones.

It calls to mind a night spent in the courtyard of the only Mexican themed restaurant I saw in all of the Holy Land. My friends and I were sitting at a small table, coffee steaming in front of us.

At the next group of tables was a group of young Palestinians. They were obviously liberal, reformist. Young women sitting with young men, the hookah shared with ease in a way that older Palestinians do not posses.

But if they were liberal, so were we. I was a woman at a table of men. We were out sitting together, drinking together, talking politics.

There were other tables in the courtyard, quiet conversations echoing off the walls of the enclosed yard.

After urging from his comrades, a young man stands and recites. Everything but his voice falls silent, still. Not even a cup or bottle is raised to mouth. The hookah burns itself out.

I don’t understand Arabic with any fluency, but in my blood and bones I understand every word he says. I feel his meaning in my core. I don’t know how, but I recognize that it is Darwish’s words that stream with urgency from his lips. From his body. He is lost in the words, and we are lost in him.

He ends his recitation, and there is silence, then applause. Then requests called out from tables scattered around the small square we all share. We are lost in a moment purely poetic – not just in word, but in spirit, too.

He recites more Darwish. Then, in the next silence, he gives himself over to something new. Though I recognize nothing of the meter, I recognize the pain. It is his own; his own pain, his own poetry.

For bordering on an hour we sit still, rapt in a moment purely Arabic. A moment that lives in a culture that will still stop everything for a poet, for one who recites. A culture that holds the space for images and words that will someday stop the tanks, the jeeps, the suicide bombers.

Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword. And an image, it is said, is worth a thousand words.

If these things are true, than someday – someday soon ensh’llah (God Willing) – these weapons that lead not to blood but to tears of understanding, a shared understanding of the human condition, these weapons that are tools, will win the war without end.

To Darwish, to the memory of him, to Palestine and those who love her,
To the Israelis and the Americans,
to the world, I offer this;

I invite you
to come inside
the sitting room
of my life

to smell the scent of the dirt that holds
the roots of jasmine
to smell the flower
to smell
the coffee brewing in the kitchen
strong, bitter, sweet
cardamom and sugar

(From Filistina, Ya Habibi – in memory of Darwish. Click here to read the rest of the poem.)

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