After church the women gathered, weathered, stout, some stooped, bent from years working in fields, mills, factories. All present. Sitto (grandmother). Aunts. Cousins. Mummy and her sisters. Most wearing their Sunday best, all wrapped with large aprons, starched, crisp.
Palm Sunday. Sitto had prepared the dough in advance. It was risen, 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 a sturdy wooden 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.
Time to make Ma’amoul: Arab Easter cookies.
It was an 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.
The men always sat in the living room weaving, with calloused hands, fresh palm fronds into traditional delicate designs that would hang over our front doors for the coming year, smoking cigars, playing cards and drinking coffee made by Mummy, who had to keep tearing herself away from making Ma’amoul to keep them happy!
Late that night, after the Ma’amoul had set, Sitto baked them (she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it) in our ancient green Garland woodstove, deftly sliding cookies in and out on a wood peel so old and worn I think she might have brought it with her when she emigrated from Syria at the turn of the 20th century.
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 – 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 springtime when Easter and Ramadan overlapped. The bazaars were full. Christian shopkeepers welcomed Muslims, Muslim shopkeepers served Christians and richly decorated church candles and Ramadan lanterns competed for space in shop windows. During that Ramadan I was flooded with memories of past Easters with my family – the lingering memories of rose water and walnuts, cigars and coffee.
Evenings, after sunset, after breaking my daily fast and prayer, I wandered the bazaars, exchanging greetings, eating sweets and drinking coffee, being reminded of the goodness that prevails when politics and prejudice are swept from view.
To paraphrase theologian Thomas Merton, who used the word “Catholic” which 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.”
Last year on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis affirmed our common humanity when he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman in a juvenile detention center.
Last year my nephew called me. “Uncle Robert,” he said, “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’m going!”
They, too, affirmed our humanity.
Today, Palm Sunday, my best friend and I will drive to Cambridge to attend services at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. In their monastery on Memorial Drive overlooking the Charles, the monks live a life in pursuit of Truth and Beauty, of service, devotion and submission, where the dignity of all is affirmed.
Then, next Sunday, we two, “muslim” and Muslim, will return to the monks, she to celebrate, I to witness, the Easter Vigil. In that darkness we know, that which 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 their belief in Jesus’ Resurrection, and together all will celebrate the eternal promise of love and renewal.
Jesus is the most revered prophet in Islam after the Prophet Muhammad and I always feel honored to witness how others celebrate the beauty of his life. While theologically the issue of Jesus’ divinity separates Muslims from Christians, there is much we believe and share: issues of dignity, freedom, non-violence and social justice, embraced with love, based in Scripture, form the basis of our human dialogue, as they do with all of good will.
Such salvific stories inspire us and I am always thankful for the opportunity to reaffirm my belief in the Unity that sustains us all.
Lovers of Life, lovers of the Good, gathered together in worship.
Logos in an Easter cookie. Logos in a cup of coffee, a Torah, a Vigil.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.