Middle East and North Africa Union

You would have to be an artist to understand how proud I felt to announce to Ahmad* and his brothers and their families that I had completed a portrait of their father.

The family stood politely around the painting, expressing their surprise at my gift. But I noticed a reserve that I hadn’t expected as they studied the scene I had created around their father. Something was missing in their response, but I couldn’t determine what it was.

Later that day when Ahmad and I were alone, I asked him whether the gift was appropriate, whether it was well received. He expressed deep appreciation, but he hesitated, as if not wanting to hurt my feelings.

I remember the first time Ahmad invited me to his home. Everything about it was typical of rural Arab culture: the olive groves surrounding the small, cement, flat-roofed house; fig and pomegranate trees with fruit in varying stages of ripeness; and chickens foraging for food in the courtyard. I met Ahmad’s father, who was a shepherd, and learned that Ahmad had six older brothers who were married. We sat down to a mid-morning spread fresh from their family garden, livestock, and kitchen: cheese, cream, tomatoes, cucumbers, olive, omelets, fresh bread, and fig jam. We enjoyed a lively conversation that lasted far beyond the time it usually takes me to eat breakfast.

That’s how my friendship with Ahmad was born. We ate breakfast together almost every day for the month I was in his country. In my free time, I sketched portraits of him, of each of his brothers, and of several young nieces and nephews. The mothers were delighted to receive what I considered simple drawings of their children.

Perhaps that’s why, toward the end of our time together that summer, I decided to paint a formal portrait of Ahmad’s father, the patriarch of them all. I had grown to respect him; his quiet manner and hardworking ways endeared him to me, and I wanted to honor him. Before I left, I sketched him and studied their living room for a setting where I might pose him in the portrait. I returned home with my project in mind.

Over the next few months, I developed a painting of the elderly man dressed in his formal, traditional clothing. After thoughtfully considering a special message I wanted to express, I painted in a simple porcelain teapot and one teacup on a small table between the elderly man and the viewer. I included only one teacup because I wanted to demonstrate my appreciation for his singular hospitality: he would serve his guest but not provide for his own comfort or refreshment.

I was proud of the painting as a special expression of my gratitude and the honor of being included so warmly in their family. So I pressed Ahmad privately after watching his family’s polite response to my gift. What did they really think of the painting? Was it appropriate?

“It was so nice; we are greatly honored,” he replied, picking his words carefully. I decided to listen longer.

“I think the modern teapot is not of my father’s world. We have traditional Arab coffee pots that are very meaningful to us.” He wasn’t comfortable sharing his critique. My artist eyes suddenly pictured the incongruence of the little porcelain teapot and its matching teacup. I apologized profusely and assured him I could correct the painting.

Within a few days, I brought out my paints and inquired for a traditional coffee pot. Within the hour, Ahmad had picked up an elegant antique pot from a cousin nearby. It wasn’t what they used, but it was what they valued.

In a few strokes of the brush, the modern teapot and the single dainty cup disappeared into the canvas. In its place, I painted an old coffeepot with two traditional teacups, following Ahmad's further suggestion: "We must always have two cups, for a guest is always welcome."

Once more, the family gathered, and I humbly brought out the corrected painting. This time, they responded with relief and great appreciation. The painting was ceremoniously hung next to one of the only other decorations in the home—a verse from the Qur’an etched in white plaster.

It was one of my first and clearest lessons in contextualizing. As I paint, I have learned to ask myself difficult, self-inspecting questions: Am I faithful to the assumptions and expectations of my host country, their culture, and the way they see life? Am I careful to use the visual vocabulary they use and the pictures that best express their world?

When so much of culture is visual, those details can serve as a catalyst for saying, “I see what you see; I notice what’s meaningful to you.” That’s the kind of expression that builds long-term relationships for the glory of God. To this day, the ongoing relationship I enjoy with Ahmad and his family is filled with many discussions about faith, and Ahmad and I experience wonderful seasons of prayer together.

The painting still hangs alongside the verse from the Qur’an. And I’m still praying that God will lead Ahmad, his six brothers and their families, and his parents to a deeper knowledge of God.

* Name has been changed.
The author, whose name we have withheld, is the coordinator for the MENA Total Employment initiative.