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?

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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?

Meeting Muslims, Part 2 – Where Are They?

IdrissMosqueI took off my shoes and put them into a cubbyhole, just inside the front door of a mosque, in Seattle. Was this really happening? I shook off the haze of surrealism and strengthened my resolve.

In 1998, I was about to move to the Middle East. My knowledge of Lebanon was limited to a ten-day trip I had taken previously. My friend Bob questioned my lack of preparation.

“So Nate, how many Muslims do you know?” I had to admit to a goose egg. Zero.

He promised to connect me with an Iraqi Kurdish friend of his, whose family needed tutoring in Conversational English. That was a great start, but I understood that to avoid culture shock, it would be better to have a wider exposure. I summoned the needed courage to visit the one mosque I knew about. Where else could you go to meet Muslims?

Shoeless in Seattle

I was led into the basement of the building. Without having any idea of the Friday prayer schedule, I had arrived late, but just in time for the Qur’an study afterward. I was ushered into a room with fifteen bearded men seated around a long rectangular folding table – exactly like the tables in my church’s fellowship hall. The Imam welcomed me with a smile and bailed on the planned subject of the class in favor of exchanging theological points with me.

The two of us had an informative though somewhat defensive conversation. The others in the room observed silently, adding tension. I managed to escape the torment after an hour and a half and reclaim my shoes. I left with a Qur’an in hand, given as a gift.

Of course it was awkward. How could it be otherwise?

Artificial and Forced

In retrospect, I considered what it would be like to reverse the situation. What if a Muslim walking into church just in time for Sunday School? The novelty would create a host of questions. Is this guy here to try to disrupt our worship? Is he dangerous? Maybe he wants to convert? The emotions would range between fear, distrust, and defensiveness all the way to hopefulness and potentially excitement. But it wouldn’t be comfortable.

How would the pastor respond? Would he patiently explain the Trinity? Would he invite the Muslim to share about his beliefs? How many of the others attending the class would engage respectfully in the conversation?

Do you think it likely that such an exchange would end in friendship?

Alternatives to Mosque Hopping

In contrast, I think of Nabih and Omar. I met with them a couple times a week at the Lebanese restaurant where they worked. I’d drop in at 3:00 PM when there were no customers, and learn vocabulary words from Nabih. One time, Omar agreed to teach me the Lebanese national dance – the Dabke. We stood next to each other between the tables. With fingers interlaced, we moved counterclockwise. Left, right, left, right, left foot kick, stomp.

Playing soccer, shopping at international markets, and watching for cultural events are other great ways to connect. Intentionally deciding to be friendly and slowing down long enough to talk are key components too.

Where have you met Muslims in settings more conducive to friend making?

Fear of Islam in the United States: A Faithful Approach

FearFilterThe subject line of an email informed me, “This will give you cold chills.” I read on with a pre-loaded sense of foreboding. It was the transcript of a speech by Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament. He outlined how Europe has already fallen to Islam’s global political agenda. The warning to Americans: our turn was coming soon. He wanted us to be afraid.

But fear is a poor guide.

There must be some way that we as Jesus-following people can be educated about dangers that exist in the world, but avoid the cloudy judgment that results from fear. There is no place in the Bible where we are taught to fear anyone but God himself. I think the first place to begin overcoming a fear of Islam is to practice empathy. What do Muslims think of us? How do they feel?

I remember trying to sleep the first night I spent in south Lebanon, fifteen years ago. I imagined the explosions I heard outside were sounds of terrorist violence. In the morning my host chuckled as he explained that I’d heard the fireworks at a wedding celebration. I was embarrassed. My fear had invented danger that wasn’t there.

Christianity as a Global Movement

Did you know that hundreds of thousands of Muslims are becoming disciples of Jesus all over Africa and Asia? Jerry Trousdale describes this phenomenon as people movements in his book Miraculous Movements. Muslim leaders who are aware of these statistics must fearfully wonder how to control the Christian horde that threatens to end Eastern Civilization.

Could it be that both Christians and Muslims are experiencing the results of globalization rather than nefarious attempts to subjugate each other?

Our two belief systems demonize each other by assuming that the opposition is knowingly sowing evil and chaos in an attempt to destroy. Believing the worst about each other causes the avoidance of contact. Nobody wants to get to know the person whom she believes hates her.

At the same time Muslims and Christians each see ourselves as honorably offering our enemy that which we hold most dear – true faith in God. Can you accept the idea that a Muslim who wants to convert you to Islam sees his efforts as an act of love? Could it be as difficult for a Muslim to believe the good intentions of a Christian?

The Obligation of Jesus Followers to Makes Disciples in The Nations

I read an excellent article by Ralph Winter in a course called Perspectives on The World Christian Movement. The Kingdom Strikes Back explains how the fame of Jesus spread around the world, even in historical moments when his followers forgot the task to “Go, and make disciples of all nations.”

It turns out that when Christians haven’t gone with the good news, God has brought nations without it to come to them voluntarily.

Consider the Viking invasion of Christian Europe. Geert Wilders’ barbarian ancestors were eventually won to Christ as they were assimilated by the monotheistic civilization they came to plunder.

Can you blame people for wanting the better life that exists in wealthy western nations? If you lived in Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan, wouldn’t you want to move here too?

A Better Response Than Fear

Geert Wilders failed.

Instead of making me afraid, his warning increased my passion to obey. I’m committed to demonstrating what it means to follow Jesus in the growing Muslim communities in our US cities. I see opportunities to build a kingdom for the King, not a threat of Christendom lost.

How have you engaged with Muslim neighbors in a way that honors Jesus? Please share in the comments section with practical suggestions so we can learn from each other.