Sharing an Uncommon Relational Banquet in a Very Common Restaurant

There are places where relationships are savored and agendas drop away.

There are places where relationships are savored and agendas drop away.

My family’s visit early last Saturday morning to the Blue Nile Restaurant in Seattle, Washington was about more than finding a place to eat. After all, it was only 10:30 in the morning and not really time for lunch.  It was about more than getting a chance to enjoy habesha food—the traditional food from East Africa—that our family has come to love since I journeyed some decades ago from Eritrea to the U.S.  The Blue Nile Restaurant is, by American middle class standards, a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ gathering place.  There is nothing fancy about it.  What we knew we would find there was a relational richness that characterizes few public gathering places.

A chime on the door announces our entry.  There are a few tables with Eritreans and Ethiopians huddled over cups of sweet spicy tea (Shahee) defying the cold wet Seattle wind that sweeps bits of debris down the street.  In an act reminiscent of communion, some are breaking off chunks of thick pan-baked bread called ambasha and dipping these into their hot tea.  As we push the door shut behind us, our family with blond, blue-eyed daughters attracts more than a few gazes.  What brings this white family to a clearly East African gathering place?

I greet the room collectively with one of the few Amharic words I knew.  Teanaste’lle’n. The phrase translates roughly to ‘May God give you health.’ The greeting brings welcoming smiles.  An Ethiopian lady who carries some aura of dignity and authority rises to greet us.  She seats us in the center of the room, pulling two tables together to give us room to spread out.  On the wall above us is a picture of the “waters that roar”—a crashing waterfall in the Blue Nile.  The waters of the Blue Nile are a sacred place in Ethiopia that evoke a sense of magic and mystery.  After all, this is considered the birthplace of civilization.

Respecting my weak efforts at Amharic, this lady who speaks perfect English responds to my one word greeting with a string of Amharic phrases that I am unable to translate.  She is conveying her clear willingness to accept us without question as part of this gathered community. When she learns that I am from Eritrea she announces that finding in Amharic to the men gathered in the restaurant. An Eritrean man comes forward to affirm that he was also born in Asmara, my birth-town.  My few words of Tigrinya are quickly exhausted.  But we find a common bond from our shared journey to this place from an East African nation half way around the world.

Our family requests coffee as it is traditionally prepared in Eritrea and Ethiopia.  Tina (the American name for the Ethiopian lady who is our server) conveys the request to the kitchen to get approval from the matriarch who is in charge of this domain.  We know that our request is an involved one.  Habesha coffee is not even on the menu.  Preparing and serving this coffee is a ceremony of sharing that cannot be rushed. A traditional coffee service involves green beans that are roasted then brought to the guests to enjoy the fragrance of the freshly roasted beans.  What is to follow, about 45 minutes later is the presentation of a jebena—the traditional blackened pottery coffee pot with a thin neck—filled with strong delicious coffee.  This is poured into small handless cups arranged on a tray with a dish of burning incense.  Tina serves each of us, and then pulls up a chair to join us.

Tina is more than a waitress in this restaurant. She shares a bit of her story as she sips coffee with us. She is the owner of the next door retail business that sells spices from East Africa along with an assortment of grocery items and packages of injera, the traditional bread of Eritrea and Ethiopia.  There is little hierarchy in the tiny space of the Blue Nile restaurant. From the taxi cab drivers drinking tea on their break to the occasional homeless person who wonders in to get warm, each person finds a respectful welcome.

A TV cable channel broadcasts in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, a news story on the relationship between Ethiopia and South Korea. Pictures flash from boys herding cattle out to pasture in rural villages to urban development in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The cable TV story chronicles the mixture of old world and new. It reflects the recent engagement of Asian and Western nations with the nations of the Horn of Africa.  It blends into the mixture of languages, cultures, religions and social classes so present in this little room with blue walls called the Blue Nile Restaurant.

As they sip tea together, the Eritrean and Ethiopian men engage easily with each other slipping freely from Amharic (the language of Ethiopia to Tigrinya (the language of Eritrea). This might seem surprising only because the two countries fought a brutal extended war with each other that cost tens of thousands of lives.  Many of those in this room are refugees from that war. Most have lost loved ones to this terrible conflict. While the two countries maintain an uneasy peace with each other and Eritrea continues to be guarded about its territorial rights, there is no evidence or mention of that conflict in this place.

Several hours later, we emerge from the Blue Nile restaurant into the now sunny day in Seattle Washington.  We leave full– not so much from the amazing spicy vegetarian and meat dishes, but from the rich relationships. This is truly a place where differences that divide people around the world fall apart as a meal is shared from a common dish.  It is a place where immigrants and refugees readily welcome the stranger in their midst.

The experience leaves me wondering how finding peace between nations can be so difficult.  Do we need more of these gathering places where we can eat together from a common dish?  Where are the places where we can share the richness of relationship and our diverse cultures, where hierarchical boundaries melt away and where stories are not on the menu but very much part of every meal and every cup of hot tea or coffee?  Where are the places where we can come as strangers and leave as friends?  How might diaspora communities like those from Eritrea and Ethiopia–that seem to meet so easily in urban Western cities–make some contribution to peace in their countries of origin?

Our world slowed down while we were in the Blue Nile Restaurant.  Our agenda for the day was set aside for a few rich hours of engaged relationships.  We savor today those relationships and the special time we shared together, long after the leftovers from our meal have disappeared from our fridge and we have returned to our busy routines that cause us to grab some food ‘on the fly.’

Our experience in the Blue Nile Restaurant reminds me of a conversation with Dr. John Rijsman who leads the Ph.D. program I graduated from at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.  He noted that Brussels, Belgium has been the host of numerous gatherings that have resulted in peace treaties among nations and that very many times those peace agreements were hammered out over shared meals in the diverse dining establishments in Brussels.

What can we learn about the importance of place, of shared meals in peacemaking?  How are relationships changed when we eat from a common dish?  Might we intentionally co-construct meeting and eating environments that support peace and reconciliation? Where and how can we value relationships that raise us above differences compelling us to set aside agendas that bring us to war with each other?

How does just slowing down and taking time for each other foster peacemaking? I want to explore these questions more deeply by spending time in places like the Blue Nile Restaurant in Seattle, Washington or in the dining establishments in Brussels, Belgium where peace treaties have been forged.  Like the waters of the Blue Nile River, these are sacred places where we find communion with each other. They are places where we set aside our differences. Let us share together in this relational banquet. Won’t you join me at this table of exploration?

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