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A Seat at Our Table

Close your eyes. When I say “Aleppo,” what do you think of? Piles of rubble? Bomb-shattered homes and burning cars? Do you think of the young boy sitting in an ambulance, all ashy skin and deadened eyes?

Maybe you see a dance of insurgents and government forces, each grasping at a city that has no more to give. Maybe you see a political knot that needs American hands to untie it, and what better hands than a man who has proven himself to be both unapologetic and brutish.

Last week, I was wandering through Brookline Booksmith when a cookbook caught my eye. The cover was a sea of pomegranates, shining red with a wash of yellow. My breath caught when I read the title: The Aleppo Cookbook. I could picture the piles of rubble as I pulled the book off the shelf and gingerly thumbed through the pages.

Later that week, Trump issued an executive order banning all incoming refugees from Syria. As I read over the order, I thought of The Aleppo Cookbook. I thought of the matte images of Syrian foods and the Syrian families who might have inspired them.

What would happen if one of these families invited Trump to their table? They might tell him stories of their city while feeding him deep purple baba ghanouj and mhammara (a red pepper and walnut dip with pomegranate molasses). They might pour him another glass of arak as he gazes in awe at the tendrils of steam rising off of the stuffed eggplants, and then serve him another heaping spoonful of semolina and butter pudding, even as he shakes his head no, no, I have had enough.

When we sit down to eat with somebody, we open ourselves up to their humanity. We confront our common desires: for bread, for fulfillment, for comfort, for love. As we eat and talk and sigh with delight, we light a small candle against the darkness of hate, loneliness, and fear. We build a safe space, where our only concern is whether we can have another plate of this or whether our neighbor has gotten a spoon of that.

In the midst of all these conversations about Syria, I wonder about this fundamental truth. How many kitchen tables lie underneath the rubble of Aleppo? How many singed dishrags and shattered serving platters? How many lights of hope have been blown out?

As I read through The Aleppo Cookbook, mentally rebuilding the city through its culinary traditions, I wondered how much space we had at our table. Trump would like us to believe that every seat is filled. We have only enough space for ourselves. There are no extra dinner rolls, no extra ladle of soup to be spooned into a crying woman’s bowl.

But what if these refugees, these tired, denigrated people, have more to offer than an empty bowl? Flip through the pages of The Aleppo Cookbook and you can see all that they do have to offer. They bring recipes and ingredients, brilliant chefs and dazzling dining companions. When we close off our borders to these things, we limit the potential of our own kitchen tables. We deny ourselves that magical exchange that happens over a hot meal and a glass of wine.

Think back to that Syrian family. I asked what would happen if they invited Trump to their table, but what if we invited them to ours? What if we stopped the dehumanization and distancing, the complicated excuses that allow us to forget a simple connection, and actually sat down with them to eat? In the midst of warfare in Aleppo, this family’s kitchen table is at risk. It has probably already been destroyed.

But our table has not. As we discuss these complicated political situations, let’s not forget the simple humanity that lies beneath them. Let’s take up books like The Aleppo Cookbook, books that celebrate Syrian culture and the people who created it, and let’s remember our enormous responsibility to invite them to our table.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff

February 5, 2017