Passover in Piraeus (#5, 4/25/2016): The Alif Ba of Serving Chai
A tall string-bean of a blond young man asked me if I got time.
“I got time.” I replied, and followed him to a small car. Willem, a Swede volunteer coordinator with A drop in the Ocean, one of the main NGOs staffing volunteers in Piraeus’ Greek port housing thousand of Syrian, Afghan and Yazidi refugees, drove me on a late afternoon from camp E1.5 to E1, the larger of the two camps. He dropped me off at a large red metal container with four smiling but tired looking Swedes at one end where its door was open. Catherine instructed me to stand in front of a makeshift fence made of a folded table and wooden cargo pallets around the opening of the container while they served tea to two existing lines.
“Watch the kids.”
I followed her gaze to the line on the left where dizzy I saw a swirling haze of brown black and blond hair pink green blue and yellow shirts one with a superman t-shirt proving that the man of steel is indeed faster than a speeding bullet. Amused by my shock Catherine said “They know the word ‘Line!’ so just repeat that.”
A tiny sneaker slung and hit a small girl with florescent green eyes.
I call “Line!” and feel amused by my better chances to stop the wind.
“No water!” another thin girl with green dress wants her chai straight.
An older woman walks to the head of the line and points at the men’s line to our right with dismay. I point at the women and children line on the right and say “Hafif, Hafif”, meaning “quick” in Arabic, she rolls her eyes and goes to the back of the line. Another woman strolls confidently to the front, I repeated the codeword “Line!” but she just glared at me and smiled. The rest of the women called to me and pointed to the where she was standing. I get it, they are ok with her cutting line. There’s respect there. She’s the mama.
A little boy in orange pants climb up the side of the ‘fence’. I pick him up and bring him down to the line only to find two other in his place now nearly over. I hold both up and imagine holding them tight on a shaking rubber raft from Turkey, or from the white dust under concrete buildings, fallen by barrel bombs.
I place the two down gently, look them in the eye, and say softly “Line.”
I get into the groove and enjoy disappearing into the work. Some of the kids hold my leg as they wait. Some climb on me. I smell the sweat in their hair. I feel the mud on their feet. I pass them brown hot sweet water.
Catherine opens two bags of sugar into the two large nirosta urns sitting on two kerosene burners. With one hand I hold the boy first in line and with the other fill the water carafe she’d use to dilute and cool down the tea in the Styrofoam cups. Next to it is the tea carafe — empty. The other volunteers around the urns seemed concerned. Tea was gone, a new batch was being brewed. The line grew longer and the kids started to call out “Chai! Chai! Chai!”
In hope to pacify the masses I started reciting “Alif! Ba!”, the only two letters from the Arabic alphabet I know. They got it. The two dozen pair of eyes locked on me, raised their index fingers and continued “Ta! The! Jim! Ha!” spelling their alphabet. I repeated after them after each letter to make sure my pronunciation is correct. It wasn’t and took several repetitions. The Swedes smiled at me with surprise and respect and I lost them shortly after “‘Ayn!”. I retorted to the well trusted “Line!” which by now lost all effectiveness.
The tea pot kept on giving and I thought of the miracle of Hanukkah when the single small pot of oil fed the lights of the Maccabee Hebrew temple lantern for eight days, and I thought how gratitude is just like that.
“Two! Baba!” a young girl is disappointed by getting only one styrofoam cup, wanting another for her father. I hold a finger and say “One… Shukran!” The dissatisfied eyes turned disappointed then soft and then a smile appeared. She moves to the side.
So next times I repeated “Line!” and “Hafif!” but start adding “Shukran” each time. ‘Thank you” in Arabic.
There is something with this simple show of gratitude that turned what sounds like demand to request. I breath with ease, feelings soften. From the men’s line a young man takes a styrofoam cup and says in flowing English “Thank you for coming from different countries to support us. Thank you. Thank you.” Suddenly I remember I’m there, feel seen and appreciated and my heart opens. I’m in line. I have just been served.
As without so within — I think of this line of kids before me and think of the line of kids inside of me, the different parts that need different kinds of sustenance — community, warmth, empathy, fun, mourning, to be seen and acknowledged or just — chai. Most importantly, in me, these young parts want to be seen as part of the whole, included in the large family of me. So I imagine those without do so, too. I imagine a long line of children, men, women stretching outwards into the horizon, Rami standing along with them and simultaneously the line of voices inside each and every one of them, us, leading inwards, expressing what is needed to be alive. Serving tea was both just serving tea and it was also serving care, acknowledgement that we are, actually, alive.
The tea in the urn finally ran out. No more kerosene for the next batch. Folks been waiting for over forty-five minutes and the line of kids, (what line?!), is scattered all over the concrete like a bag of colored marbles after the big bang. I ask — “maybe serve the tea as is — lukewarm — if that’s what we got?”. Catherine looked at me with kind forgiving eyes. “The water has to boil for sterilization.”
I met her knowing gaze and recall the Zen koan of the mysterious road-side tea-lady outwitting a wise-ass Zen guy in the ancient country side of China. I laughed and no-one knew why.
The burners turned off, the urns cooled down, the kids occupied by other volunteers playing a rope game, the tea station closed until the following morning tea shift returns. I walked to the bus station that marks the eastern side of the camp. I looked around me at the feet sticking from the tents, the mother holding a baby looking into a cellphone in the shade. I wondered whether the line of kids never ends, the line within, the line without. The line of human needs pulsing like blood in veins through this entity called humanity that we all make up, encompassing with our peoples and cultures and language this miracle of lush planet that is our home, that serves us endlessly, that through the dusk Mediterranean breeze whispers “Line. Shukran,” and through the bells of the boats calls “Alif. Ba. Ta”
(This journal was written during the members-lead Zen Peacemakers plunge in Greece in April 2016. )