Middle East North Africa: One Size Does Not Fit All

Middle East Thanksgiving World Chicago

I love, love, love, Thanksgiving. So when World Chicago said they needed Thanksgiving hosts for a “multicultural group,” we were in.

World Chicago “promotes citizen diplomacy.” Essentially, World Chicago makes the local arrangements for travelers who are on professional and educational exchanges (“to advance national security, economic development and social justice”) funded by the US State Department. I’d been on their mailing list for years, focusing on what I couldn’t do (they need homestays, hosts for month-long professional fellowships), when I locked in on their need for hospitality hosts—one night dinners in your home. That I can do!

Shortly before the day we got the assignment: Two guests from Saudi Arabia, one from the Palestinian Territories (plus the translator, originally from Sudan now living in Alexandria), all Muslim, were coming to dine in our Jewish home.

We take off shoes in our house anyway and had no pork or shellfish on the menu—in fact we regularly accommodate vegetarians and vegans within our family already. We bought extra slippers to leave by the door for guests and got a separate pitcher for plain apple cider (to separate it from the spiced bourbon punch) and we were ready to go.

As we opened the door I paused to process the diversity within that “supposedly homogenious” foursome: from Muna in mini-skirt and boots to Fatemah in a traditional Saudi Arabian green velvet dress and lace head covering, to the college student Abdulaziz, in a stylish, skinny black suit, cell phone in-hand. There was so much going on between four different people that it was impossible to draw one single conclusion.

Which, interestingly enough, is what interculturalism is all about. Yes there may be commonalities—but even in Diversity & Inclusion training we counsel that communication styles or values by culture may only apply to 55-88% of that group—there is so much varying by individual. Then there’s the intersection of age and gender which also impacts beliefs and styles.

The youngest of the group, 19 year old Abdulaziz announced through a translator during pre-dinner chit-chat that he thought Americans were nice, but was surprised to see so many people who were homeless in downtown Chicago. “In Saudi Arabia we would not lie in our beds knowing someone did not have a place to sleep,” he announced. “We would not eat knowing others are hungry.”

And, indeed, he ate only a pickle and two olives at dinner despite the abundance of turkey and veggie roast, potatoes with marshmallows, stuffing, vegetables, pies and more. Although, I think that was more about the overwhelming difference of so many new and strange dishes. I strategically (and with respect to Muslim culture) had the men, the young people and the women clustered separately. Abdulaziz (metaphorically, in retrospect) was assigned the seat with the teenage boys on one side, and the men on the other.

From what I was told, they had lively conversations and Abdulaziz was the first to text my husband only shortly after leaving to say thank you and what a good time he had.

We, the ladies at the other end, had our own conversations. Muna (from the Palestinian Territories) spoke perfect English (she had been a longtime consultant with Ernst & Young).  She politely acknowledged her colleagues’ beliefs, but made it clear it was THEIR opinion. We snuck into kitchen where she shared insights about the divide between rich and a poor largely non-Saudi Arabian underclass.

Did I mention I was Jewish?

Clearly this is my issue of feeling unnecessarily defensive about being Jewish in the company of people from the Middle East. Something we pretty much never do, we kept dropping into conversation that we (my son and I) were Jewish. I threw it out to World Chicago in the planning, when they said the guests did not eat pork or shellfish “either do we,” I announced, “Because we are Jewish.”

My husband shared it during our pre-dinner chitchat (the guests were promptly on time at 4 pm which initially freaked me out because dinner was called for 5. In the end it was fortunate so that we could chat and connect before the other guests arrived.) “Shabbat Shalom” Azhari, the translator from Sudan, greeted my mom as she descended the stairs to join us, after we had shared that she was a religious school educator. We don’t even speak Hebrew (but of course know what it means) but his gesture was so genuine and respectful.

Where do I even begin with all the things I don’t know about the Middle East…including that I could even say “the Middle East” as though it is one monolithic place. (Here’s a link that dispels that stereotype, plus a bunch more.)

Real Life Encounters Dispel Unconscious Bias

But we are trying. On this front we started with the Abrahamic dinners through the Niagara Foundation last year—which I wrote about in a blog post, “One Hour Remedy to Thwart Muslim Stereotypes.” Clearly it’s going to take more than an hour, and will involve, I hope, making deep and lasting friendships along the way.

But that’s why we enjoy the dinners so much…it’s a chance to realize our unconscious biases in these person-to-person exchanges and apply learning and tools in real-time to grow.

Gingerbread House Name Place Cards

Mini-gingerbread houses served as the name place cards for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner.