Eating cake with our neighbors can make the world a better place

Nadir Alzoubi talks to BDN Portland reporter Jake Bleiberg via a translation app on his phone in Portland last month. You can see the cake and tea offered to us by his wife Jamila on the table.

Nadir Alzoubi talks to BDN Portland reporter Jake Bleiberg via a translation app on his phone in Portland last month. You can see the cake and tea offered to us by his wife Jamila on the table.

I have a personal code of journalism conduct. The number one rule, at the top of the list, is: Always eat the cake.

Not long ago, I was in an apartment on Munjoy Hill when Jamila Alzoubi disappeared behind a gold curtain separating the carpeted living room from her kitchen. A few minutes later, she reappeared bearing a tray of steaming tea and yellow cake.

Her husband, Nadir, was talking to my colleague Jake Bleiberg via rudimentary English and a translation app on his phone. The Alzoubi family, including four children, arrived in Portland in July, four years after fleeing their home in Syria. Jake and I were there to check in on them and produce a followup story.

Jamila offered us the tea and cake. We both took some and nodded in thanks. Jake continued with his interview. I made some photos of the family while sipping the tea.

Then, I ate the cake. It was sweet, grainy and made from semolina. It was delicious and had almonds on top. I made audible noises of pleasure and rubbed my stomach, smiling at Jamila. She smiled back.

It’s that easy, making a friend — and I wasn’t putting her on, either. It really was tasty, as well as a kind gesture on her part.

I developed my number one rule years ago, when I worked at another newspaper. I was with a reporter, interviewing a young woman and her grandmother, who was from Belarus. She’d spend hours making traditional, flaky meat pies in advance of our arrival. She wanted to give us a taste of her homeland.

She came, beaming, from the kitchen with a similarly laden tray, mounded with home-cooked, international friendliness. I watched in horror as the reporter waved her off with a brusque, “no thanks,” barely sparing a breath from his interview questions.

The old lady’s face sank and her shoulders drooped. She looked sad. I tried to make things better by eating his share but the moment had passed, making the world a little colder.

Since then, no matter what, I say yes to food and drink, whether it’s stew, coffee, beer or a raw clam. It always makes things better.

Just a couple weeks after eating Jamila’s cake, another Syrian woman gave me baklava at her house while working on another story. I ate some, of course. It was great. I asked her what they called it in Syria. Her husband slowly pronounced, as to a small child, “bah-cla-vah.”

We all laughed.

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This is me making friends with Yassin Saker’s family in Westbrook. They’re also from Syria and serve great baclava. Watch for their story soon in the BDN.

I think if the politicians who talk about taking every measure possible to block refugees like the Alzoubis, or who smear them as dangerous Trojan horses, could nosh on some baklava, face-to-face in the kitchen of a Syrian, they would find those words harder to say.

Food, especially sweets, knows no language barrier. I don’t need a translator to tell someone that his or her cake or pie or cookies are delicious. Moans and tummy rubs do the trick.

Likewise, even though Jamila may have zero English skills, she says “hello friend” loud and clear when she rustles up tea and cake. It’s an especially moving gesture when you think for a minute about what she and her family endured to get here, with not much more than they could carry.

It’s an act of generosity that cannot be ignored. You must eat the cake. It’ll make the world a better place.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.