I went out to lunch yesterday with two women from my office. One, who I'll call Hadiyah, is Jordanian and Palestinian. The other one is from El Salvador. I'll call her Ana.
At first, I was hesitant to go. What started as lunch plans with Ana turned into lunch plans with Ana and Hadiyah at her family's restaurant. I was really kind of looking forward to eating at Applebee's or even Taco Bell, but both of them were super excited about tabouli and hummus and grape leaves and "Oh god, Dena, you have to try the pita bread when it's fresh!"
We were seated at the family table. Hadiyah spent most of her lunch talking to an aunt named Hafa and a cousin named Abir. They had met Ana once before, but this was the first time I'd met them, or even heard about them, and I was introduced as "the skinny, white girl" Hadiyah works with. The restaurant was bustling with clanking silverware and dozens of people speaking Arabic. Even the music being piped in on the sound system was Arabic pop music. Hadiyah told me stories about when she took her kids to Ramallah and was rushed out of the city by cab when gunfire broke out unexpectedly. Ana spoke about being in El Salvador as a teenager and how the little neighborhood kids were fascinated by her "Americanism". I had a few jokes thrown my way because, not only am I unable to shake the greek salad dressing properly, I also need to eat more. So Hafa says, "You want to try tabouli? I get you tabouli! You eat it! Eat the tabouli!"
Ana and Hadiyah talked about a mutual friend of theirs who is considering taking a trip to the Holy Land. The cease-fire has ended and Ana didn't believe it was safe to go. Hadiyah disagreed and admits that if she had a ticket, she'd get on the first plane. Cease-fire or no cease-fire! I was just sitting there eating my tabouli. This made Hafa very happy.
While everyone was talking about armed soldiers, the best hummus recipes, and how wonderful it was to teach Kuwaiti children lessons in English, I looked around and realized I was the only white person in the whole restaurant. I started to worry about how boring I looked. Seriously. I have a brown bobbed hairstyle and I talk like I'm from the North Woods. The only exotic thing about me was that I was eating with my left hand. Shit! Can I do that? I was in a middle-eastern restaurant and had probably already offended ninety percent of the clientele with my left-handedness. But nobody said anything to me. I was just a silly, uncultured white girl.
But then I remembered my own childhood in Europe. I've had confrontations with bad guys. Our first night in our italian duplex was chock-full of fear and anxiety as my father hid my brother and me underneath our parents' bed. The blasts outside continued into the night as my father dressed himself in his military uniform and prepared to be called to duty. I cried, Mom prayed, and we all lived to tell the tale of how my father saved us from Italian Independence Day fireworks.
In 1983, airport security took my brother's stuffed Mazinga doll and confiscated it, claiming it was made with illegal materials like...stuffing? Then they came after me and my plastic case of Strawberry Shortcake dolls. My father had to convince me to hand the case over because the machine guns these guards carried didn't mean a damn thing to me. Dad was elated when the guards returned my case to me because it meant that I'd have something to play with during the flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Philadelphia. I can't say the same for my brother. But I'm sure he was pissed.
There were the gypsies, too. Especially the one we called The Lady with the New Shoes. This woman terrified me! She wore a black shawl that covered up most of her scraggly gray hair and looked like the witch from Snow White. The Lady with the New Shoes would come into my yard with her back hunched over, almost like a question mark, and wander around aimlessly, mumbling crazy shit to herself in italian and shuffling her feet hard into the rocks that covered the front portion of our property. I was always instructed to run into the house whenever The Lady with the New Shoes showed up just in case she was looking to snatch a cute little girl to throw into her cauldron of boiling witch brew. She never caught me but my cat went missing. My mother swears Dixie died a natural death. I like to think Dixie lived out her last days as a best friend to The Lady with the New Shoes.
Maybe I'm not very cultured. But I can honestly say that, until the age of nine, I believed I was a true Italian girl. That all changed when we moved back to the United States and I was introduced to my extended family from Wisconsin - the Polskis and the Germans. Gone were the dinners of homemade gnocchi and spaghetti carbonare. In were the brats and saurkraut. Pasties and beer bread? Where's the freakin' tortellini, Ma!??
Back to the lunch with Hadiyah and Ana. Hafa was smiling at me, almost like she felt sorry for me. The poor uncultured white girl from Jacksonville, Florida. Hafa knew nothing about me and Abir was quick to answer me when I asked if their American-born cousin was allowed to leave Kuwait on her own free will. The answer? Yes.
No, no, wait. The answer was, more specifically, "Those barbarians in Saudia Arabia have nothing to do with what we believe! It's like the Indians beating their wives and pouring acid on their faces so nobody else will want to marry them!"
I lifted my fork with my left hand and finished off my tabouli.