Here & there: A love lesson – in Arabic

Syrian baked goods Lahmajoun (Arabic: لحم بعجين‎; "meat with dough", image By James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA - Bakery, Aleppo, Syria, CC BY 2.0,, St. George News

OPINION — It was Spring 2017 when I had my first Arabic lesson. It was also my only Arabic lesson.

My clumsy mouth tongued over the three, simple words again and again as my patient teachers repeated them with soft corrections and smiles: aljibal (mountains); manzil (house); and shajara (tree).

There wasn’t a class syllabus or even a lesson plan; the words du jour simply picked from what was visible from the front window of my car as it sped along the freeway. That is also where the Arabic lesson happened: in my car on Interstate 15 in Utah.

At the time, I was chauffeuring three Syrian refugee women to a dinner they were both catering and the guests of honor. The car was heavy with aromatics of parsley and lemon, onion and tomato and cardamom and cinnamon from the eleven aluminum baking dishes steaming with food in the back of the car.

What space wasn’t taken up with people was almost entirely filled with food: Maklouba (chicken, rice and cauliflower), tabbouleh salad, baked dough balls filled with cheese, lentils and noodles and harissa cookies with almonds.

Any space that remained was filled with conversation; at first, between the three guests of honor.

I listened to them speak for several minutes, enjoying the musical sound of the language and the warmth between the women. Safa, the woman sitting shotgun and the only of the three who spoke English, apologized for excluding me.

She explained that the women – all friends – were excited to have a little time to visit with each other. The demands of home and family and assimilating into a new culture didn’t afford them as much time together as they’d like, despite living in the same apartment complex.

She also said the other women wished they could speak English. It would be easier, I countered, if I spoke Arabic.

And so began the lesson.

But my real lesson didn’t begin until after dinner. That’s when Safa shared her experience of being driven from her home, waiting in a refugee camp for three years with her amputee-husband and three children and then finally coming to America.

She talked about a Syria she loved, a Syria she still missed. Beautiful landscapes. Beautiful people. The smells of peacetime. The joys of peacetime.

Safa didn’t want to leave that Syria. But Syria was no longer that place. The violence and death overshadowed all of its beauty.

In better times, it’s still hard to leave your homeland. Haitian immigrant and author Edwidge Danticat writes about her beloved uncle who didn’t leave Haiti even after the rest of his family did: “’It’s not easy to start over in a new place,’ he said. ‘Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.’

Safa said she still longed for Syria. Even as she built a new life in Utah. Because home is always home.

But so far no one is going back to Syria. And that’s not likely changing any time soon.

Pro-government forces are still mobilized. Rebels are still fighting. Chemical weapons are still being used … as recently as last Saturday. And children and innocents are still dying.

But I suspect there is still some part of Safa that longs for Syria. That still loves her.

Twelfth-century poet and philosopher Yahuda Halevi talked about that kind of love:

‘Tis a fearful thing

to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing

to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,

And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing

to love.

Maybe one day that love, that holy thing, will help transform the once beautiful Syria back again. For Safa’s sake. For everyone’s.

Because I’m not sure more missiles or chemical bombs will do the trick.

Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News, any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected] | [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • mesaman April 16, 2018 at 9:31 pm

    Just what every young person should have; a moslem love lesson book. I do hope there is a chapter on when to behead a spouse if they disrespect their husbands, and a handy “how to” for husbands who have been disrespected.

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