On true resilience, a crown of thorns, a date dessert – and a phoenix that needs to rest

*language note, use of the letter “3” indicates the Arabic letter “ع” 

Recently I discovered a link between the resurrection story of Jesus, the phoenix, true resilience, and a sweet dessert that Christians and Muslims make on every Eid (holiday) called ka3ak bi 3ajwa.  

When I told my mom that I wanted to make ka3ak bi 3ajwa, she called her cousin, whose mother, my mom’s aunt, was infamous for this dessert, to get a recipe.  All recipes can be found in a family, eventually.

While the traditional Christian and Muslim Eid (holiday) sweets, maamoul, come with different stuffings (pistachios, walnuts, etc), the ka3ak bi 3ajwa, is always round, you can know what’s inside the sweet from its shape.  Supposedly, ka3ak bi 3ajwa is easier to make than maamoul, although from my novice first time experience, it definitely wasn’t easy.

According to eastern Christians, the reason the ka3ak bi 3ajwa is always round, is because it symbolizes the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear before he was crucified.  The sweet ka3ak that is filled with date paste is meant to represent how something so good can come out of something so horrifying.  

While I tried to make my ka3ak in a round shape, my dough was too dry and kept falling apart, so I was forced to make it in a flat shape.  This felt like a failure in my indigenous sweet making efforts, although the taste was pretty fantastic.  While chewing on my not so round ka3ak bi 3ajwa, I began to make connections between the sweet date paste and the phoenix.    

The official name for the date palm is phoenix dactylifera, possibly referring to its link to the Egyptian Bennu bird that made its nest in the date palm.   The Bennu bird, which may have been a precursor to the Greek Phoenix, lived to be 500 years before dying and resurrecting itself.  

Phoenix may also refer to Phoenicia, an ancient people that covered parts of Lebanon and Palestine.  These lands, in ancient times, were referred to as the land of the palms, and was the biggest exporter of dates in the old world.  I have also read that Phoenicia was the Greek term to refer to the Canaanite lands.  Phoenix was also the Greek word for this mythological bird, that had many different names in the various legends it was linked to in Egypt, Yemen, and Sumerian lands, like Bennu, Anqa’ and Anzu. 

The phoenix story also seems to be linked to the ancient Sumerian God of Shepherds, Damuzid, who later became Tammuz and Adonis, and I believe is also linked to Nu3man, a Canaanite spring god, although I am still researching this one.  Dumuzid was associated with the green earth, so when the seasons changed and the earth turned yellow, Dumuzid would die and disappear to the underworld.  Every season, the story goes, he would be killed by a wild boar and his blood would fertilize the earth.  

The red crown anemone flowers that would then sprout in spring, would be a symbol of his return.  In Arabic we call this flower “shaqaiq al nu3man” which literally means the wounds of Nu3man.   This seasonal resurrection story would happen over and over again, year after year.  

In many parts of the world resurrection stories exist.  They are part and parcel of nature, the seasons, and even our own lives.  Even the most privileged of us have stories of feeling broken and coming out the other end with new insights and tools to approach the world.   

When the Beirut explosion happened on August 4th, I saw people on my social media feed referring to the Lebanese people as the phoenix, who have risen from the ashes time and time again, and will surely rise from this too.  While I too want the Lebanese people to overcome this horror, in addition to all the other horrors they are living, I wonder how helpful it is to tell people in the midst of yet another catastrophe, that they are strong and resilient and will overcome this.  I haven’t experienced half of that, but there are definitely times in my life when I was going through something really difficult, and what I needed was support, not someone to tell me I am strong and will get through this.

Written in Arabic “from my heart peace to Beirut”

Sometimes we hit the ground and can’t get up. Sometimes strength looks like letting go, like sleeping and being “unproductive.”  Sometimes, on the path to reconnecting to our resilience, we must go through a messy process of dealing with our feelings, of falling apart, feeling broken, shattered, exhausted, unable to give two shits about anything.  Sometimes it is in that place that we can find the rest we need.

I know that having a safe space to fall apart is not possible for most people.  It requires both internal and external safety, and the shitty reality is that, especially for BIPOC, we don’t have this safety.  Not in the diaspora and not even in the bilad (our homelands).  I understand that for many people experiencing life shattering hardships, there is a need to keep going, to rebuild, as the possibility of stopping is not an option. I know that having the space to truly rest is often reserved for the more privileged of the world.

We live in a world where BIPOC people have experienced a disproportionate amount of trauma, and we are resilient beyond belief.  We have been forced to embody the phoenix over and over again.  Yet I wonder, how many times can the phoenix resurrect, when is too much?  Could we be living in a time when the destruction and death is so much, that even the phoenix simply will not have the strength to do it all over again.  

A wild plant that grows all over our farm called varthemia iphionoides, that for me, displays incredible resilience, growing on rocky places and only using the water from the rains of the winter season.

When I was in Palestine I remember being in awe of people’s abilities to live their lives, despite the reality that was constantly going against their very existence. I think for Palestinians, and BIPOC in general, our connection to our roots, and our land, gives us a kind of strength that can not easily be knocked down or destroyed.  

Yet sometimes, all a person needs is to feel allowed to feel awful, to feel absolutely and irrevocably broken.  To know that they are supported and taken care of in this space.   Somewhere in that dark and quiet cave, in a place of true rest, maybe then we can overcome the traumas of all the horrors that have been forced upon us.   The phoenix can only truly resurrect after it falls apart anyway. 

I also wonder how our focus on a people rising from the ashes, might distract us from the oppressive systems that are creating the very ashes these people are being forced to rise from over and over again.  I wonder this for Lebanon, I wonder this for Yemen, I wonder this for Armenia, I wonder this for Palestine, amongst other places on this earth.  

It feels to me that being trauma sensitive means not telling a person how resilient they are, and that they will get through this in their time of need, but rather finding out how to support them and lift them up.  This also brings up the question of community and what does true community mean.  For me it means that sometimes there will be people in the community who are exhausted, from whatever they are going through, and will need to rest.  

At that time, other people in the community pick up an extra load, together so it’s not so heavy, and allow the ones who need to rest and rejuvenate themselves, the time they need for that.  I see community as this constantly evolving and shifting organism that holds people when they need to rest, and lifts people when they can.  A friend of mine described it to me as a hot water bottle that is fluid, sometimes one part lifts up the other parts, and vice versa.  

The reality is that we aren’t traumatized alone, it always happens in the context of others, and therefore, our healing and regulation of our nervous systems is not a solitary act.  There are moments in life where we feel so crushed by the weight of the horrors of the world, as we experience them directly and / or watch them on the news or social media, that even talking about resiliency feels like an act of violence, like the white body supremacist system once again putting a bandaid on the very real and deep grievances we have, and continue to experience.  How can we be more trauma sensitive in this regard, how can we tap into the wisdom of our ancestors and build a true community of support, even as an online community.  

A couple of questions come into my mind:

1.  What does resilience look like and mean for you?  

2.  How does resilience feel in your body?  Describe it using physical sensations!

3.  What would it look like to be supported and held when you can’t feel your resilience?  Describe this using physical sensations!

3.  What does community mean to you, how do we support each other to re-tap into our resilience?  

This is the shape the ka3ak bi 3ajwa usually looks like. Kind of looks like an Ouroboros, interestingly, also linked to rebirth and resurrection.

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