Thursday, 25 December 2014

A funny way to celebrate Christmas. Or perhaps not? Plus: a Christian story

Merry Christmas to you all.

We’ve just got back from Oxford, where we had Christmas lunch with my mother and brother. Not at home, you understand: at ninety my mother rightly feels she can put behind her all the labour and heartache of the preparation of a massive lunch.

No, we went to a restaurant that proudly proclaims itself to be open every day of the year. Having spent a long time looking, let me assure you there aren’t many places that can say the same.

Al-Shami: open 365 days
Except in leap years
Al-Shami is a Lebanese place. It’s sat right opposite the Oxford Synagogue. Indeed, it was members of the Jewish community, in which my mother has been active these last few years, who recommended it to us. They live, it seems, by their recommendations because, as lunch rolled on, more and more members of the community turned up for their own lunches.

So we enjoyed Tabbouleh and Sujuq, Shawarma Lahme and Daoud Basha, without necessarily knowing what they were, and capped it all off with one of those dishes which seem to be mostly cream, at the mere sight of which one’s tongue salivates and one’s arteries fur. All with a splendid view of the Synagogue across the street and the chatter of cheerful Jewish voices all around.

It struck me as perhaps a slightly odd way to celebrate Christmas. But then again: Levantine cooking while surrounded by Jews? Perhaps that’s rather more appropriate a way to mark the birth of Jesus than what we generally do.

The Oxford Synagogue, opposite Al-Shami
An appropriate view on a day dedicated to a Nazarene Rabbi?

Postscript: Just to mark the season – a story to illustrate the Christian message at its best (hope you’re listening David Cameron, with Christian values always in your mouth, never in your deeds).

This story was told us by friends from Dublin, dating back to the time they still lived two or three decades ago.

A friend of theirs was in deep trouble. Recently abandoned by her husband, she’d been left with two kids and no means to finance her mortgage, on which she was now three or four months in arrears and with the bank beginning to threaten foreclosure.

There was a knock on her door and her heart sank still further when she realised she was being visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses. They began to talk to her about their beliefs, and hers, until one of them suddenly interrupted the flow.

“You seem very unhappy,” he said.

“I have my problems,” she curtly replied.

“Can we come in, have a cup of tea, and talk about them?” 

She let them in and made the tea. Then, to her surprise, she found herself unburdening herself of all her problems, to these two complete strangers. They listened politely without making any judgement or offering any advice. They even asked the extent of her arrears and, again to her surprise, she told them.

They left soon after but were back on her doorstep the following day. She let them in and made tea again.

“We’ve brought this for you,” one of them said.

“This” was a cheque. For the full amount of the mortgage arrears.

Her first reaction was overwhelming relief. Out of nowhere had come a solution to her immediate problems. With that money, she could rise above her difficulties, rebuild energy and morale, and work on a future for herself and her kids – as, indeed, she later did.

But then a terrible thought occurred to her. What would they expect in return?

“I don’t plan to convert, you know,” she said, “I’m not attracted by your movement. Why, I don’t even like having Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep.”

“You’ll never see us again,” they told her.

And she never did.

Dessert at Al-Shami
Great substitute for Christmas Pudding
Less appreciated by my vascular system

No comments: