Last month I went to North Africa. We spent nine days setting up an art gallery, meeting new friends, talking with gallery visitors, eating at new restaurants, and praying for the city we were in.
The country we were visiting is 99% Muslim. The city we were in had a handful of indigenous believers. We were told that it was a great risk for the locals to choose Christianity, because they would likely be rejected by many of their friends and family. Many people we met through our art gallery had never had a prolonged conversation with a Christian before.
Our pop-up gallery gave us a unique venue to get to know people and to explore the ideas presented in the art: Who should we care for? Who can we relate to? How can compassion transcend cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers? What does it mean to welcome “them”, whoever “those people” might be? What kinds of people should we assign value to? Artists from across America sent us pieces centered around those ideas for the three day show we hosted.
“If you were here longer, I would invite to to my house.”
I heard that from so many kind people while we were in North Africa. I know, I would tell them, a week isn’t long enough.
I talked in previous posts about seeing people once, twice, or three times between the language school and our art exhibition. After meeting a woman, if I saw her again, I soon realized it was normal to kiss on both cheeks as a greeting. If they were particularly happy to see me, I would get one kiss on the right, then two or three kisses on the left.
People weren’t satisfied to talk with us about the art for a moment, then leave. They wanted to talk for longer, to hear the thoughts behind the work, to ask us questions about ourselves and, in turn, answer questions we had for them.
Three North African women we met even invited us over for dinner at an American friend’s house. That dinner was definitely one of the best meals we had while we were there.
Crowded around a single table, in the local style, we all ate off of one plate.
We had to be careful to stay in our section of the plate, luckily it wasn’t as hard as I thought for us to pick apart two whole chickens with our forks.
After the first dish, we had a soup that is traditionally eaten with dates on the side. This soup is a particularly important dish when eating an iftar meal, a meal breaking the fast during Ramadan, however it is also eaten all year round.
Once we were all full, we lounged and talked about everything from shopping, to programming, to cooking, to our mutual dislike of bugs. This led to looking up the scariest insect videos we could think of on Youtube and cringing at them together. Evenings like that one always feel precious to me. Spending time with people from a vastly different culture, sometimes searching for the right way to explain an English word, we were offered such wonderful hospitality and constantly found common ground in our likes, dislikes, ambitions, and talents.
The world is vast, filled with beauty beyond measure in different countries, cities, and villages. People are not the same from place to place, and sometimes it can feel like differences in world-view, culture, or beliefs open up a vast gulf between peoples. However, even in the midst of our strangeness, quiet evenings spent around lovingly prepared food remind us that diversity does not have to mean distance and that differences can be spanned with a simple joke, a common preference, or a second bowl of soup.
My next blog post explores some more of the food we ate while we were there.