Basil – Permitted

basil in mosque  virgin with basil

This fall, I enrolled in an intensive conversational Arabic course at one of the country’s top language programs.  I had taken several two-hour once-a-week courses in the past, but was still incapable of expressing myself much beyond “my name is…, I live in…,” and my desire to communicate in Arabic remained as strong as ever.  Pricey and far, this course seemed to hold out my only reasonable hope of ever becoming fluent.

Now, for three hours a day, twice a week, a team of excellent teachers coaxes us through the intricate grammatical rules, nuanced pronunciation and array of regional dialects of Palestinian Arabic.  I am the only student whose mother tongue is not Semitic, and about 30 years older than the rest of the group – two serious strikes against me.  But I faithfully do my homework, practice with whoever will tolerate my hatchet-accent, and am enjoying the class immensely.

This week we had a field trip to Nazareth, a city I know well, which was very useful in helping me understand the explanations in Arabic.  We started at the massive Basilica of the Annunciation, then scaled down to the Church of Joseph the Carpenter and ended up at the Church of the Synagogue, an intimate stone-vaulted space where Jesus purportedly had his bar mitzvah. From there we passed through the narrow stone-paved marketplace to the city’s historic White Mosque.

The day was clear but freezing and none of these buildings are heated.  Chilled to the bone sitting on a bench in the open mosque courtyard and trying to follow what our teacher was saying, I noticed a potted basil plant that looked like it was suffering from the cold about as much as I was.  It is very common to see basil growing next to the entrances to Arab homes, not for cooking but to spread its pleasant smell as kind of a blessing over the home.  Its name in Arabic indeed translates as fragrant.

On a visit to Nazareth earlier this year I noticed a pot of basil placed at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Annunciation.  And here, in the mosque next door, basil was also extending its non-denominational blessing.  Our teacher pointed out the absence of images decorating the mosque. They are “mamnua,” he explained, “forbidden”.

What a potent antidote that little plant seemed to the surrounding brittle scaffold of ideology, history, and contesting narratives.  Who doesn’t love the smell of basil?




  1. …or the fragrance it adds to the pasta delights served up by an accomplished chef, unencumbered by cultural baggage.
    Looking forward to a seat at your next dinner call, that I can hear!

  2. You wrote a beautiful message.