Syda Productions/shutterstockMy older brother, older sister, and I are in grade school. One day I come home, and I’m frustrated. I sheepishly ask my mom to no longer put Middle Eastern food in my lunch.
She and my father become quiet. He drops his crossword puzzle, they lock eyes, and my mother, through questioning, gets me to reveal that the other students give me a very difficult time when I pull out food that doesn’t look like everybody else’s. So I ask, “From now on, could we do peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread and an apple?”
And then my brother and sister pipe in and say they’d like the same because they were going through it as well. There were no African Americans in my school; there were no Asians. I don’t think there was anybody from India, nobody from Latin America; not as students, not as teachers, not as administrators. It was primarily a homogenous Protestant/Catholic community.
In the midst of that, our family was slightly exotic. My father’s family was from Syria; my mom’s from Palestine. We had looks that weren’t exactly conforming to what I went to school with. We had food that was different; we had holiday customs that were not the same as everybody else. Sometimes we could stick out.
My mother didn’t say too much when I brought up the lunch issue. But about a week later the teacher announces that we should not bring school lunches the following day, nor should we bring lunch money for the cafeteria, that we were going to have some sort of a special food event.
The next day at lunch, unbeknownst to me, in comes my mother with boxes and trays of Middle Eastern food. The teacher introduces her. “This is Mrs. Nimen. This is Tom’s mom.”
She pulls out the food. She starts serving the kids kibbe. This is a baked dish. You’ll find it in the homes of kings and queens; you’ll find it in the homes of the most humble people. “Try this,” she said. “Here’s some fataya—these are little triangular bread pies and they have meat in them, or spinach, and pine nuts and onions.” And she pulled out tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanoush, and her homemade bread. She had baked bread for the entire class to take home.
Let me tell you about my mother: She was an artist. She dressed like an artist; she spoke like an artist; she had the attitude of an artist. She’s being charming and funny, and she’s riling up the students, and they’re laughing, and I’m blowing a gasket because a week earlier these snarky kids were making fun of everything that I’m eating, and here they are sucking down my mom’s food!
My mother did the same thing the next day in my brother’s class and the day after that in my sister’s class. Now, I would like to tell you that this ended some of the low-grade racial issues that my brother and sister and I faced. It did not. But it took a significant edge off, and she, if I think about it now, was a very early pioneer of diversity, in a very crafty way, using Middle Eastern hospitality.
Courtesy Thomas Royal Nimen
Thomas Royal Nimen, 61, works as a brand developer, graphic designer, painter, and blogger. He writes about Middle Eastern culture at ilikum.org.
Told live at a Moth show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York, NY