On Palm Sundays, after church, the women gathered, weathered, stout, some stooped and bent from working years in fields and factories. All present. Sitto (my grandmother). Aunts. Cousins. Mummy and her sisters. Some still wearing their Sunday best, all wrapped with large aprons, starched and crisp.
Sitto had prepared the dough in advance. It was risen, and ready.
Walnuts had been ground, mixed with sugar, and flavored with rose water. Dates had been carefully pitted, then ground though a meat grinder clamped to the edge of a metal-topped kitchen table. Then reground.
Card tables were set up and covered with white sheets. Extra chairs had been borrowed.
Everyone had a place.
Everyone was ready.
It was time to make Ma’amoul, Easter cookies.
It was our annual tradition. Women rolling out little discs of dough, others filling them with dates or nuts and folding over the top, forming puffy semi-circles, others carefully crimping the edges and decorating the tops with pierced patterns made with small tin tools Daddy made in his basement workshop.
Late that night, after the Ma’amoul had set, Sitto (she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it) baked them in our green Garland wood stove in the basement, sliding cookies in and out with a wood peel so old and worn I believe she might have brought it with her when she emigrated from Syria (now Lebanon) at the turn of the century.
The men always sat in the living room, weaving fresh palm fronds into traditional designs that would hang over our front door for the coming year, smoking cigars, playing cards and drinking coffee made by Mummy, who had to keep tearing herself away from making cookies to keep them happy!
On Monday the cookies, after having been sprinkled with generous amounts of powdered sugar, would be hand-delivered to each family that had joined us in making them, each getting their share.
I favored the ones with walnuts. The memory of their taste lingers still.
In the early 1990s, 1991 maybe, after I had embraced Islam, I remember being in the Cairo and Damascus suqs (markets) during a special Spring when Easter and Ramadan overlapped. The bazaars were full. Christian shopkeepers welcomed Muslims, Muslim shopkeepers served Christians.
Richly decorated church candles and Ramadan lanterns competed for space in shop windows.
Jerusalem, had I had time to visit, would have been the same.
To paraphrase Catholic theologian Thomas Merton, who used the word “Catholic” where I have replaced with “Muslim”: “I will be a better Muslim, not if I can refute every shade of other religions, but if I can affirm the truths in them and still go further. This does not mean …; (embracing)…; the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Muslim merely by denying all that is Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Muslim.”
During Ramadan I was flooded with memories of past Easters. Rose water and walnuts, cigars and coffee. After sunset, after breaking my fast and prayer, I wandered the bazaars, exchanging greetings, tasting treats and drinking coffee, being reminded of the goodness that prevails when politics and prejudice are swept from view.
In the Qur’an there are “uppercase” Muslims and “lowercase” muslims.
Upper-case Muslims are followers of Islam, as I am.
Lower-case muslims are persons who have submitted fully to God, regardless of religious affiliation, as Prophet Abraham “surrendered himself unto God” — Qur’an 3:67.
All Lovers of God.
“Uncle Robert,” he said excitedly, “I just saw a Torah for the first time. The rabbi was looking at it and I asked her about it and she showed it to me, and we spent time together with it. Really cool. Then she invited me to the Passover Seder. I think I’ll go.”
He’s a Muslim. She’s a “muslim.”
After the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus is the most revered prophet in Islam. While issues over Jesus’ divinity separate many Muslims from Christians, there is much we believe and share, as do all monotheists, Jews, Muslims and Christians. Issues of freedom, non-violence and social justice, embraced with love, based in Scripture, form the basis of our human dialogue.
Friday, this weekend, my Muslim nephew will visit a church basement for the Passover Seder to commemorate the Exodus, when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Through knowledge and respect he and the rabbi will embrace each other’s truths.
I believe that the brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist are lower-case “muslims”; they have surrendered to God. In their Cambridge Monastery, overlooking the Charles River, they live a life in pursuit of Truth and Beauty, of service, devotion and submission.
My closest friend is a “lower-case ‘muslim’.” One of my oldest Muslim friends says, “She’s a better ‘muslim’ than many Muslims I know.”
I agree. She lives her life with truth and integrity.
Early Easter Sunday morning, we two, together, “muslim” and Muslim, will travel to Cambridge, she to participate, I to witness, the Easter Vigil. In that darkness that is deepest before the dawn, in a small, narrow, vaulted sanctuary lined with worn, stiff-backed benches, alongside celebrants and witnesses, there will be a burst of light.
The church will fill with prayer. Christians will celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection and together we will celebrate the promise of renewal and redemption.
These salvific and life-giving stories give us guidance.
Logos in an Easter cookie. Logos in a cup of coffee, a Torah, a Vigil.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.