Jimmy the Greek's mother was olive-tree ancient; her gnarled fingers and grooved skin retold stories of hardship and happiness. She didn't speak English, but she smiled in world.
Her baklava, thin and crispy sheets layered with sweet nuts, dripped with honey-syrup and gooeyness so thick, it couldn't be licked away. It only dissolved after Saturday night's soak in the tub.
Not even my best friend's mom, Mrs. Wright could make baklava that stood up to Jimmy the Greek's mom's, and even though her name was Mrs. Wright, she was just as Greek. Mrs. Wright did make rice pilaf, almond rice, dolmas, moussaka,~~so memorable, I can still taste each bite.
As I grew up and got acquainted with the ancient world, I was surprised to find baklava not only in Greece, but in Egypt, in Israel, in Turkey and in different ethnic restaurants/bakeries in America.
"I thought baklava was Greek," I would pose to the purveyor of baklava.
"No, it's Lebanese!" Or Turkish, or Persian. Everyone in or with ties to the Levant claimed baklava as their own ethnic legacy.
If only it was baklava and not the disputed lands of ancient Israel.
My study has moved past the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, moved past the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and now I am in Saudi Arabia: the birth country of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Jihad that began in camaraderie with the Afghan Mujahideen, that eventually turned brutal against the United States. I have so many questions, so many more books to read, so much more to understand...when I take my seat on the airplane ride from Chicago, the man next to me is a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. He's only been in the United States for two days.
I am astounded at the timing, the serendipitous pairing on a small plane. I'm almost speechless. I explain to him, I am teaching about the history of terrorism. He gives me carte blanche to ask any and all questions.
I asked how his sisters felt about not being able to drive in their country.
"They have drivers. Why would they want to drive?"
"Not everyone can afford a driver," I assume.
"This is true, but women always have someone to drive them."
I asked about the Quran, Muslim dress for women. We spoke of the history he had learned as a citizen, the history I'd learned from western opinion and translation; we discussed Saudi Arabia revoking Osama bin Laden's citizenship; about the jihadists they would't allow back into their country; about takfir. He didn't believe Sunni and Shiite sects were the cause of disputes, but instead excuses to fight over oil rich land. We talked of his conflict with Islam because he was gay; the secret he had to keep in his own country, the freedom he had in ours.
He was completely open.
Except, there was only one question he would not answer. His response was evasive and in his evasiveness, he revealed his truth.
"As a Saudi, do you hate Israel?"
"I would love to visit Israel," he answered. "It is a beautiful place with beautiful beaches."
I did not push for an answer, for hate is the one thing for which we should feel shame.
This young man is only twenty-seven-years-old. He's never fought against Israel, but his country supported the first war against the nascent nation in 1947. Saudi Arabia surrounds the tiny state of Israel that has never known a moment of peace and never will. Possession and rights to this ancient land will always be in dispute. Its neighbors will always claim it belongs to them--will always claim it does not belong to the Jews.
I think of baklava; only this claim is not so sweet.