Topics to avoid at the Ramadan table
Sayed Kashua invites his daughter's American camp counselors for a festive family meal - then wishes he hadn't.
"Are you sure I said yes?" I asked my wife as we drove to Tira last Friday for a festive Ramadan meal.
"You said yes," she said firmly, although I still had a little trouble believing I'd told my daughter she could invite three of her American summer camp counselors for a Ramadan meal, and in Tira yet.
"God knows what was distracting you when you said yes," my wife said.
"But I asked you too and you said, 'Yeah, yeah, sure.' And why does it have to be in Tira?" I asked.
"I don't know," my wife answered. "Who knows what they think we do on Ramadan."
My parents' home was filled with delicious aromas. My mother had made about a million or so dishes in honor of the guests from America - "to give them a good impression," she explained when I insisted she'd gone a bit overboard. "And besides, I didn't make all that much. Hardly anything, really."
Arrayed on the counter were, among other things, platters of siniya (a chopped meat dish) with tahini, siniya with tomatoes, stuffed chicken and perfectly rolled grape leaves, all for the esteemed visitors from America.
"Why isn't there an Olympic competition in grape-leaf rolling?" asked my father, only half-jokingly as the opening ceremony was getting underway in London. "At least the Palestinian team would have a chance of winning a medal that way."
The Americans arrived in Tira right on time, a half-hour before the muezzin's call to break the fast. They called from the entrance to the town to get exact directions, since their GPS was little use in a place where there are no clear street names.
"Take a right at the cemetery," I found myself instructing them in English. "And then you come to a dumpster that usually has a big truck that says Tnuva parked next to it, and you go left. But take it slow because there's a big pothole there," I added, as I overheard their car falling into the pothole.
The American girls were very nice and polite, and acted like they were great admirers of my daughter. They also brought the kind of gifts that Americans bring: imported chocolates tied with a bow, and some kind of clever piece of jewelry for my little girl that she could make all different shapes out of.
The food was already on the table, but we explained to them that we had to wait to hear the call of the muezzin. In the meantime, we invited them to sit down on the couches, next to my father, who under no circumstances will turn off the television or change the station from Al-Manar.
"So, what do you girls think about what's happening in Syria?" my father asked our cheery guests. They shook their heads to show they were appalled and said things like, "Awful," "Abominable," and a few other phrases sprinkled with words like "suffering" and "human rights."
"Dad," I tried to stop him just when he was getting excited by the Americans' answers. "Maybe we could change the subject?"
"Why?" he said. "They understand what's happening." And he added in English: "You are right. It is terrible. And you should go back to America and tell your people there about it. These armed men there in Syria are slaughtering the people. It's an American-Saudi-Qatari conspiracy but, God willing, they won't have a chance of succeeding."
"Dad," I tried again.
"Tomorrow," continued my father - who has of late been boycotting Al Jazeera, to which he was addicted for years - "tomorrow there is big battle for Aleppo, and the army, God willing, will clean the city of all the traitors there."
The American guests were a little taken aback. I was hoping that mostly it was because they were confused by my father's English, and didn't know the difference between the army and the rebels. We're talking about Syria, after all. What could these young American girls really know about it?
"Just awful," they were saying again. "Really abominable."
The muezzin's call saved us from further discussion of Syria.
"Tfaddalu," I said, using a word the Americans understood, and they went to the dining table. "Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim," I found myself muttering, when I sensed the guests were waiting for some kind of ritual or prayer before the start of the meal. They made a fumbling attempt to repeat the words after me, and then dug in.
"Wow, this is so delicious!" they all said with each bite. My mother, who hadn't tasted the food that she cooked because of the fast, was pleased.
"And what do you girls say about Iran?" my father suddenly bombarded the Americans. This time I shouted, "Dad!"
"He's right," my mother interjected. "Iran is not proper dinner conversation."
"Fine," my father said in Arabic. "But Israel will be making the mistake of its life if it dares attack there."
"Yes," I said with a big smile as I passed the grape leaves to our visitors from overseas. "It's a holiday today. Uh, the London Olympics are starting."
"Yes," they said. "The opening ceremony is going to be amazing."
"No way will it be better than the one in China," my father said right away. "But unlike China, where the whole world has something to say about the regime, nobody will say a word about colonialist England, that left no stone untouched in every country it conquered. Just look what they did here."
"Yes," I tried to smile some more at the guests. "The ceremony is sure to be wonderful. Do you like watching the Olympics?"
"Oh yes," they said with that typical American good cheer. "Of course. Especially the swimming and gymnastics."
"You have no chance against the Russians and the Chinese," my father said. "You're just wasting your time."
"What did I say?"
"Nothing," I replied. "But leave them be. They're just leftist students from Harvard who came to volunteer here."
"Leftists?" my father said in Hebrew, and then addressed the guests in English. "So what do you think about that capitalist fascist trash Romney who came to visit here?"