Walking into a regular salad bar for lunch, one anticipates nothing more than a short and simple exchange of civilities and of course a mixed salad. But there are instances where the wisdom one may receive from the man behind the counter has more variety than the salad.
Busy New Yorkers generally eat lunch at their desks. This is New York, after all, the city where “time is money” and lunch minutes are counted. This meal can be a quick coffee and a sandwich on the go or perhaps a bowl of warm soup. To cater to this eating tradition, there are countless “delis” all over the city where you can dash in and grab a bite to take out for your lunch. One popular trend is to order a freshly-made salad. Many delis are especially-equipped with a glassed-in counter housing a myriad of salad components laid out in bins – carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, tomatoes, beets; you name it, they are all there, for after all, this is New York, where there is something for everyone. You call out your desired ingredients, and a friendly server mixes them up for you, and then packs it up in a plastic bowl for you to take back to your desk.
I buy my “compose-your-own” tossed salad from a salad bar on 60th Street at Lexington Avenue. I always eagerly anticipate the selecting of my ingredients to make a salad just as I want it for that particular day. Let’s see, shall I have tofu or chickpeas today? Will I dare to eat some fresh onions? Shall I toss in a few almonds for flair? The events of my day may be running in total chaos, but I can certainly be in control of my salad.
At my salad bar, the server behind the counter who assembles all my selected ingredients and tosses them together is a young, rotund black fellow with a smile and accent as broad as the Hudson River. I always enjoy my few minutes with him each day, for his smile seasons the pleasure of the tasty lunch to follow.
Today while I was waiting in line, Tony was busy mixing up a salad for the girl in front of me, and I heard him say a few words to her in Arabic. I discovered through their conversation that she was an Egyptian.
Listening to him speak with her, I assumed that he was one of the many African-Americans who have embraced Islam. When it was my turn, I said to Tony, “Oh! I am so impressed! Do you know Arabic? Have you become a Muslim?”
He looked at me, smiled and replied: “No, I am not a Muslim. But I am currently trying to learn Arabic. You know that story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible? It tells us that a whole lot of trouble was caused because people just can’t seem to understand each other. So I thought if I could learn the language of this faith and of these peoples who are certainly in need of having us better understand them, then that would be a positive step to better communication. I look at all the religions in our world, and I thought too, if I could learn to recite a few prayers in Arabic, I would be able feel my own faith in a deeper way.”
His words astonished me. I anticipated a simple, polite exchange of civilities, and instead I received a gift of unexpected, profound perception. As I watched Tony mix my salad, my thoughts tossed up in all directions like the lettuce leaves. I was led to think of many things while I waited for him to finish.
I thought of Queen Cleopatra reciting her line in Shakespeare’s play, "...My salad days, When I was green in judgment, cold in blood..."
I thought of those green salad leaves and my commitment to vegetarianism as a hope for a more respectful communication with our planet.
I thought of the events of that story of the Tower of Babel from the Chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible. I recalled that it related how the people of the earth became so skilled in construction that they decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven. I remember how God came to look at their tower and decided it would only lead the people away from His Infinite Wisdom. Just what had displeased the Lord so in this Tower of Babel construction project, I wondered? Was it because the people were so presumptuous that they could make a building so tall it would pierce the top of heaven? I thought about the construction site of a new skyscraper now rising on Manhattan’s skyline that I had passed on my way to the deli. I wondered about the boastful modern Babel builders of today who vie to make a name for themselves by trying to build the tallest building in the world, yet still do not manage to reach heaven in their earthly ways. I asked myself too, if these buildings of our new world were leading us closer or farther away from God, just as they had in the Old Testament.
I thought about the Twin Towers that used to grace lower Manhattan, and their tragic story.
I also remembered how in the story of Babel all the men on the earth at that time still spoke one language. I recalled in the text how, in reaction to their prideful building of that Tower, God thwarted their plans. He confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so they would not be able to understand each other, and how He also scattered the people of the city all over the face of the earth. I thought about how this story pertained to my life as a cross-cultural communicator and language instructor. I wondered if it was an illusion to think that all the languages of the world could ever come together in one humanity of communication, or rather are we condemned to remain mute among each other?
I thought of all the towers of incomprehension we build in our lives, not just with words, but with thoughts and deeds. I thought of how the outer words of speech and writing create not only beautiful literature, but also in many instances doubts, confusion and arguments.
I then thought of the Sufis and their Language of the Heart, and wondered if that could be the only true language all the peoples of the world could potentially share. I thought of how the Sufis speak and act with a Divine Gift of the language of the heart, where every outer word is a linguistic reflection of their inner peaceful quest for beauty and praiseworthy actions.
I thought about the true Sufi masters, who are not reclusive residents of monasteries, but who live in our midst and go about their business on their quest for finding the oracle of the heart. They are on the Sufi path, which may lead right through your neighborhood. This Sufi may be a shoemaker, a shop clerk, a lawyer, a photographer….or a salad fixer in a Manhattan deli.
But in the end, all these thoughts in my mind circled back to the simple wisdom of Tony’s words. His efforts honored the hope of the verse in the Qur’an which states: “We created you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (49:13).
Yes, we need to try to give a chance to understanding those around us, whose languages and customs we do not know, so that we can know one another. Tony showed me that there are many individuals making just this effort. As he tossed my salad, I thought of the salad of our world, sometimes raw, sometimes cooked; sometimes flavored with ingredients both savory and spicy, a bowl of mixed greens of both incomprehension and the concord of many paths and peoples.
When he had finished tossing, Tony, with his ever-present bright smile, handed me my container of prepared salad with a flourish. I looked at all the diverse ingredients which had come together to make a salad like none other before it, all now mixed together in delicious harmony. As I took it from his hands, I knew I would be sustained this day not only by the green leaves of nature’s bounteous garden, but also by the green leaves of his salad of hopeful humanity, this salad which Dr. Martin Luther King called our “inescapable mutuality of existence.”
Katharine Branning is the Vice-President, Library, French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan and author of a series of essays on Turkey, Yes, I Would Love another Glass of Tea. She is also the curator of the exhibit “Song of Stones” dedicated to Seljuk art held in New York and Washington DC.