Feasts, Fasts and a Collage of Culture

Diana Abu-Jaber is a writer in residence at Portland State University. Her first novel, "Arabian Jazz," won the Oregon Book award; her next novel, "Crescent," will be published by W.W. Norton in April.

Thanksgiving at our house means a roasted turkey, stuffed either with breadcrumbs, celery and onions because my mother is American or with rice, pine nuts and ground lamb because my father is Jordanian.

From year to year, you never know which it will be. There are bowls of creamy hummus next to the cranberry sauce, candied yams beside stuffed grape leaves, vibrant green bean casserole, steaming rounds of fresh pita, roasted chestnuts and smoky baba ghanouj.

When more of our relatives lived in the United States, Thanksgiving meant lots and lots of family, several generations worth, from several countries. There were always visiting friends and foreign exchange students that my Jordanian professor-uncle invited because no one should miss out on such a good idea as Thanksgiving.

We had a crowded table. In my father’s culture -- which understands the scarcity of the desert -- you feed your guests amply, even if you go hungry; you offer bites of food from your own fingertips; you tell the cook, “Bless your hand”; you urge everyone to eat more and more, as much as they can; you tell them they’re too skinny.


This year, Thanksgiving will be falling during the Muslim monthlong celebration of Ramadan. Both events have to do with recollection and celebration. The Muslims fast from sunrise till sunset, my father says, to remind them of those who have no food, to remind them to be compassionate and generous, to remind them to be grateful. When you break the fast, you have a meal of celebration, giving thanks for the plenty of the Earth, for divine grace.

Sometimes my life gets rushed and frantic and I forget to give thanks, though in my heart I am grateful.

This sort of Thanksgiving may sound familiar to many people, especially to anyone from immigrant ancestors or who are themselves immigrants. Everyone who has ever studied or felt close to another culture, an older culture, will understand the joy of ancient ritual, its graceful confluence with the rites of a newer world and the pride we take in seeing them intermingle.

When I enter Portland’s newest, sprawling supermarket, I am stunned by the profusion of beautiful, glimmering foods in every aisle. It’s undeniable how good it is to know there is enough, that there are no economic sanctions, no shortages of food, medicine or other necessities. I look at people shopping, chatting in a bookstore, enjoying their coffee. I think: How good it is to talk, to visit, to know that you and your children are safe, to live freely and without fear. And I wonder what the mothers, sisters, sons and grandfathers in Baghdad are feeling.

This Thanksgiving, this Ramadan, I hope that we all feel gratitude for what we have because that is what reminds us of what is most important. I give thanks for bravery and nobility, for every time that men and women -- elected representatives or private individuals -- find the courage to defy political expectations or social pressure to speak out on behalf of the innocent of the world.

This month, Iraq’s acceptance of the new U.N. resolution allowing the return of weapons inspectors was an opening to clarity: I am grateful for each chance we’re given to avert war.

I give thanks for every day in which someone stands up and says: War is serious, debilitating, expensive; war compromises American integrity and security the world over.

This month, the London Guardian stated, “There is still no evidence that Iraq presents an immediate threat to the rest of the world.” Now we have been given the opportunity to really test that statement. Vague rumors, mistrust, innuendoes, dislike, biases, grudges -- even revenge -- are unpleasant feelings, but they are not sufficient reason for the terrible immensity of waging war. Donald Rumsfeld’s “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is an empty tautology when confronting the immensity of war. To be provoked, war demands a shout in the face, not a whisper in the wind.


This Ramadan, this Thanksgiving, I will remember those less fortunate, and I will give thanks for the strength, wisdom and compassion of the United States, and for this invitation that the United States has been given.

Only the weak lash out in fear and desperation, only the timid agree with what they do not really believe, only the cowardly depend on unjust and brutal force. And only the foolish would ever turn away from a real prospect for peace.

I give thanks that the United States, in its deepest heart, is none of these things.