Freedom of belief
7 min read

Letter from Amman: discovering resilience around the dinner table

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

Dining in a different culture lets Belle TIndall contemplate struggle and belonging across the heartlands of the Middle East.
a Lebanese meal of many dishes displayed on a table.

Did you know that a traditional Lebanese meal is usually served in four or five courses?  

First comes the vegetarian feast; a smoky eggplant dip, a mountain of pita, grape leaves that are rolled around vegetables, rice and nuts, bowls of pickled turnips and ribboned cucumber.  

Then a hint of meat is introduced; chicken wings and slow-cooked liver, beef meatballs unfused with onion and parsley and smothered in breadcrumbs, all served alongside more dips, more vegetables and more pita.  

The third time the servers come around, you are presented with the climax of the meal - a plate of painstakingly cooked lamb and chicken skewers. Only once that has been enjoyed can you expect desert before a final course of fresh mint tea and little almondy-flavoured treats.  

Each time the servers re-appear, you find yourself convinced that there cannot be enough room on the table to accommodate yet another round of plates. And each time you realise that you were wrong. Lebanese cuisine, similar to many other Middle Eastern cuisines in this respect, is designed to be enjoyed slowly, continually, and communally.  

I did not know this.  

When I found myself at a Lebanese restaurant in their neighbouring country of Jordan (affectionately referred to as ‘the oasis of the Middle East’ throughout the evening), I naturally loaded up my plate on the first round, wondering why everyone around me was being so overly polite with their miniature portions. That was, of course, my mistake. By the third (and arguably best) course, I was defeated. My far savvier dining companions that evening were Christians leaders from across Jordan, the Middle East, and beyond. Among those present were Anglican bishops and archbishops, those whose provinces spanned countries and even continents. Leaders from the Oriental Orthodox family – representing Coptic Orthodox, Syriac, Indian, Greek and Armenian. There were Maronite leaders from Lebanon, Lutheran leaders from Jordan, and Anglican leaders from Israel to name but a few. And then there was me. I am twenty-seven years or so into this Christian life of mine, and as well as being exposed to six or seven different expressions of ‘church’ in my lifetime, I also read a lot. So, I had kidded myself into thinking that I understood the immense diversity encapsulated in the term ‘Christianity’. It turns out that I was wrong, again (are you beginning to sense the theme of my trip?).  

If there is such a thing as sacred geography, I think I may have experienced it that afternoon.  I was able to soak in the past, and it was glorious. Almost as glorious as the glimpse of the present that I was granted that evening. 

Utterly honoured to be at that table in Jordan’s capital city of Amman, I was exposed to more diversity in that one meal than I had experienced in my entire life. I am truly not exaggerating when I say that there wasn’t a single minute spent at that restaurant where I wasn’t soaking up something entirely new; whether that be a story, a statistic, a taste or a custom. There were seemingly endless details to learn about differing expressions of a faith that I knew so well, lived out in contexts that I knew not at all. The whole experience was a sledgehammer to any notions, consciously denied yet subconsciously held, that Christianity had come to set up its largest camp in Europe.  

On the contrary; we are, at present, but a quarter of the story.  

Furthermore, the Middle East, in many respects, is the birthplace of Christianity. These countries are the ‘biblical heartlands’, as Rupert Shortt puts it. The Christian presence there dates back to the lifetime of Jesus Christ himself, who travelled and taught throughout the then Roman-occupied lands. As a Biblical studies scholar, one of my favourite oddities of Christianity is that it is, to a degree, situated. There’s human context involved; tangible, immersible, learnable context. The death and resurrection of the Son of God happened in human history. Of course, Christianity simultaneously bursts the banks of such contexts; in a far truer way it is unplaceable and certainly uncontainable, transcending time, space and matter. It resides beyond all that we can measure. God is, after all, over all things, through all things, and in all things (to borrow a phrase from Paul… who wrote this in a particular letter, to a church rooted in the particular city of Ephesus, during the particular timeframe of 60-62 AD. So you see my point…).  

But still, the context is there: the depth of history, the breadth of legacy. As Augustine once said of the Church: it is on a pilgrimage through time. And I would suggest that nowhere is such a pilgrimage more obvious than the ‘biblical heartlands’ of the Middle East. Indeed, one of the variables that fed into me being embarrassingly eager at the dinner table that evening was the appetite that had been worked up that day. An appetite caused by venturing into the Jordanian wilderness, walking along the Jordan River, journeying up Mt. Nebo, looking out over the landscape that one can find detailed in the pages of the Bible.  

‘Not a bad place to have a cup of tea, aye?’, remarked the Archbishop of Dublin (who knows these regions well), as we sat next in the grounds of a Franciscan Monastery on the top of Mt. Nebo, looking out over the Dead Sea and all that surrounds it.  

If there is such a thing as sacred geography, I think I may have experienced it that afternoon.  I was able to soak in the past, and it was glorious. Almost as glorious as the glimpse of the present that I was granted that evening.  

I began to ponder at length what faith looks like when it is laced with defiance. By the third course I was beginning to appreciate (albeit in an incredibly limited sense) what hope feels like when it must be stubborn to survive. 

Over a long and shared meal, the kind that makes getting to know the stranger opposite you quite inevitable, I was able to hear about what it’s like to be a Christian in the Middle East in the here and now. The hospitality extended to me at the table included me being so generously provided with stories of what it can be like to be a Christian in their contexts.  

Of course, many stories shared throughout my time in Jordan were pertaining to the on-going Israel-Palestine conflict. I was able to speak with a Greek Orthodox Bishop about the Greek Orthodox church, filled to bursting with refugees, which was struck and destroyed in a Gaza City blast. I was able to hear about the Anglican-run Cancer Treatment Centre of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, which was hit and damaged in a similar way.  

I learnt about the Christian communities who are readying themselves to respond to the needs and trauma of those who may, eventually, be able to seek refuge in their countries. I heard compassion flow from people whose eyes hadn’t for one moment turned away from the on-going plight of the Palestinian, nor the Israeli, people.   

I also realised that evening, just how much there is much to be learnt about the faith that one has taken for granted, from those for whom the very same faith is a source of discrimination, even danger. The pressure that 360 million Christians across the world are living under is referred to by Rupert Shortt as ‘christianophobia’ and profoundly coined a ‘360-degree threat’ by Janine Di Giovanni.  

I heard how it feels to receive word that members of your community have been executed for their Christian faith; how such news incites instant fear and unimaginable grief. I spoke to one man who plans to leave the country he’s currently residing in as soon as a certain political leader is no longer present, because according to him, this sympathetic leader’s presence is the only reason his Christian faith has been tolerated thus far.  

And very quickly, I realised that I was no longer learning about these Christian leaders and the communities they represent, I was learning from them. I began to ponder at length what faith looks like when it is laced with defiance. By the third course I was beginning to appreciate (albeit in an incredibly limited sense) what hope feels like when it must be stubborn to survive. I glimpsed first-hand the difference that resilience can make to one’s compassion. Like I say, I was intending to learn about these communities, but I found myself learning from them.  

Sitting at a table in a country that I had never been to before, with a group of people who were all strangers to me before this trip, trying to wrap my head around contexts that I have no experience of, the words of the afore-mentioned Janine Di Giovanni sprang to mind,  

‘It (Christianity) combines ritual, which soothes in anxious times, with a vast sense of belonging to something much larger and greater than yourself.’ 

How, in that situation, where I had utterly misunderstood the meal-time etiquette, could it be that I felt a sense of belonging? On one level, it could very well have an awful lot to do with how naturally hospitality seems to come to people in Jordan, and it appears, the Middle East in general. But, I would suggest that it is something else too; something larger, something greater, something unseen.  

Perhaps Christian community, in accordance with the Son of God upon which it is built, is both completely situated in one’s individual time and place, and simultaneously utterly un-containable.  

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4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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