August 20, 2012
(Continued from Part 1.)
In a thick flourish of sign language, facial expressions, broad gestures, smiles, tears, occasional Arabic words and occasional strange sounding English ones, Hanin, who grew up as a deaf, religious Muslim girl in Cairo, Egypt, tells us the story of her life.
Hanin’s listeners and witnesses, besides Yitz and Shonna and Wendy and me, include two guests from Eugene, Judith and Chava. None of us can understand all the details of her story, but we all get the message. The great hardships she has had to overcome, and her enormous empathy for other deaf women in Egypt whose lives are so difficult. Her job with Egypt’s Education Ministry, focused on educating deaf children. And now, here in Eugene for this international conference, her praise for all God’s blessings, with joy, hope, gratitude, and love. Her determination to take the message of empowerment back to Egypt, and to make an even bigger difference to people there.
We all sit around the dining room table with our food contributions in the middle, spread out before us as a sumptuous feast. Earlier today, Hanin went shopping at a local natural food store for spices. She didn’t know how to describe what she wanted and couldn’t understand the labels, so what she did was, she opened up every bin and smelled them all. When she got back to Yitz and Shonna’s kitchen, she took a couple of eggplants, her newly purchased spices, and made baba ghanoush, which is sitting in a bowl on the table. We hold hands, bless the food, laugh and talk all at once, pass the dishes around. Hanin’s baba ghanoush is amazing, the best any of us have ever tasted.
As dinner progresses, the conversation between Yitz and Hanin gets too complex for either to understand the other. Not to be deterred, Yitz pulls out his laptop, fires up Google Translate, types in his question to Hanin in English, and there underneath is the same question in Arabic. Hanin laughs and claps her hands. I fire up Google Translate on my iPad with an Arabic keyboard on the screen, so she can answer. Soon we’re passing the devices around the table. Words are flying a-mile-a-minute, with everyone talking and typing at once.
Wendy has a question. She’s a nurse practioner who works in the neurology clinic at Kaiser in Hayward, California. Recently she saw a patient, a devout Muslim woman, who was suffering from severe migraine headaches. It was Ramadan. Fasting on Ramadan (or any other time) can trigger migraines, so medically it is not advised. Wendy discussed this with her patient.
“The Koran permits me to break the Ramadan fast for medical reasons,” the woman had said, “but then I will have to make it up later.”
How can this be? Wendy thought to herself. Is Islam really that harsh that it will require this woman, eventually, to suffer excruciating pain? She typed in this question onto my iPad, waited for the Arabic translation, and passed it to Hanin.
Hanin looked at the Arabic sentence, then at Wendy, then around at all of us. She set the iPad down on the table and laughed. “No, no, no!” she said, very clearly. “Allah is merciful!” In gestures and sounds, she told us the following: Allah does not want this woman to suffer. If she cannot fast on Ramadan, then what she must to is to feed the poor and hungry instead.
I honestly don’t remember if the rest of us of us broke into applause, but that was certainly the mood. Wendy’s excited. “Hanin, you’ve answered another question for me. I not only treat migraines in others; I also get them myself. For years I haven’t been able to do a complete fast on Yom Kippur, so I’ve done a juice fast, but that never feels complete. Now I know what to do.” I don’t know if Hanin understands all the words, but she smiles and reaches out to Wendy.
“It’s the same thing that Isaiah says!” says Yitz. “Is this not the fast that I have chosen?… To award your bread to the poor.”
At this point we’re all beyond words. “Maybe it’s time to say Birchat HaMazon,” I say to Yitz. The traditional thanksgiving blessing after the meal. Yitz nods and is about to start the blessing.
Suddenly Hanin reaches up, as if extending her hands to the heavens. Then she circles her arms around the table. “All one!” she says. We all do the same. All one, all one.
Yitz smiles. “Now that’s a good blessing.”