Maqluba

“Yatik galafi,” I said to the taxi driver as I got out around two o’clock. This phrase, basically meaning good job, is the common way to tell a driver that you are where you need to be. He simply smiled, nodded, and said, “welcome” but I think my smile was bigger as I had achieved something I never had during my time volunteering in the West Bank. I had navigated through the entire city of Ramallah, on my own, speaking only Arabic. Albeit broken Arabic.

I set foot on the pavement of Beitunia with that stupid smile still on my face. My Arabic tutor’s home was only about a block away from where the car had left me in the dust. Checking to make sure that I still had all of my supplies, I began to cross the street towards a home I’d never visited to be with a family I’d never met.

This is the point of the story at which younger Eli would become extremely nervous. There is a lot in Palestine that is different from the U.S.A. and never has a greater understatement been uttered. One major difference is the spirit of hospitality. In my experience, there are very few places in the States where a stranger will agree to teach you their language for a small price. I tend to assume that there are even fewer places where that stranger will invite you to his home to meet his family and share a lovely meal. My younger self would have collapsed with anxiety at the mere thought of trying to get to a new place in a foreign country to meet new people. I would be lying if I said that the current me wasn’t a little nervous still. But little did I know, I was agreeing to what would end up being one of the most enjoyable meals of my life.

I was met by my tutor, Abdullah, just outside the entryway of his family’s apartment. He had a big, welcoming smile on his face. Thinking I would get lost somewhere in the city throughout the whole journey, a wave of relief overcame me as I shook his hand and followed him upstairs. We were both greeted by his infant son just before getting in the elevator. I waved to the little boy and said, “Ahlan! Shu ismak?” His response was to bashfully turn his head into his dad’s thigh and shoot me a little smirk. After the elevator landed on our floor, Abdullah gracefully led me into his home.

Before the door was even fully open, I could smell one of the most intoxicating scents I’d ever smelled. When we were all through the door, I saw a beautiful family of three standing before me. I could tell how pleased each one of them was to have me there. I wonder if they could tell that they were completely altering my prior perceptions of human kindness with this experience.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an extremely active imagination. As a child, I could turn a jump from a tractor trailer to a pile of leaves into a leap from the plank into the sea. This childlike, playful imagination has since evolved into the way that I form my expectations of people and places. The day that I first spoke to Abdullah on the phone, I imagined a middle-aged man who had spent most of his life teaching the language and raising a family with several children all in college. I imagined a tall man with grey hair and smile lines. Abdullah happens to be in his early thirties, probably no more than six years older than myself. I didn’t ask, but his wife appeared to be even younger and, of course, he only has the one son who is just around two years old. I was instantly relieved by this lack of disparity between us.

With WWE playing on the TV at a low volume, Abdullah had me sit in his living room. “We’re having Maqluba,” he said with that same welcoming smile. “Do you know why we call it that?” His wife, as if answering the question, moved from the stove to the living room table holding a large pot that was capped with an even larger tray. “Like this,” she exclaimed as she effortlessly flipped the pot and tray, then revealed a steaming collection of seasoned rice, chicken, and fried vegetables. They explained to me that the name of the dish translates to “upside-down” and I realized that the scent of the food was actually making me salivate.

I had essentially gone straight from school to the apartment and hadn’t eaten anything more than an apple all day. I thought I was glimpsing paradise as they served me a plate and I devoured it without taking a breath. Hosts in this place will continue to feed you as long as your plate is empty and there is food left to serve. I know they could see that I was hungry. The four of us, a very small child included, sucked down what must have been three cups of rice, half of a chicken, and a garden’s worth of vegetables. With their limited English and my almost non-existent Arabic, we said little but enjoyed the entire meal regardless.

After we finished, they wouldn’t let me help them clean up. Abdullah’s wife brought their son into his bedroom for a nap as I cleaned the meal’s remainders from my hands. Then, it was time for the lesson. I was so satisfied and busy digesting, I could have fallen asleep right there on that couch. But there was too much learning to be done. My incredibly charismatic tutor helped me conjugate various Arabic verbs and the lesson became almost rhythmic as we powered through word after word, rule after rule. After this, because we were in a room that doubled as a kitchen, he proceeded to lift various cooking supplies and tell me their names. I quickly scribbled what I thought I heard him say before repeating each word. He would then give me a smile that said close enough and we’d move on to the next item. I now have a whole vocabulary that relates to food and cooking.

It was pushing 4:30 by the time we moved on to the final part of the lesson. It was the best moment of the day by far. Abdullah and I talked for what must have been another half hour about the similarities between Islam and Christianity. Between the U.S.A. and Palestine, English and Arabic, Mediterranean food and Americana, traditional Arab music and country, the list goes on. We were two people from such different backgrounds that the conversation might have seemed like the beginning of a joke, or a children’s book that was promoting Arab-Western relations. I never used to be privy to my misconceptions of Islam or Arab culture. It was like a whole new understanding of the world was given to me in just one afternoon-long conversation.

We decided it was time to end the lesson. I shook the hand of the man who was once my teacher but is now my friend. I couldn’t have thanked my hosts enough. They wouldn’t let me leave without hugs. As I was walking back to the street corner from which I would catch my ride home, I couldn't keep myself from tearing up. Like the delicious Maqluba that I had just devoured, my entire world view was flipped upside-down. What a beautiful moment. All that I could think about was, “Wow, I really need to blog about this!”