A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God


This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

The Bookshelf: The Geography of Madness

A book about penis thieves, voodoo death, and the search for the meaning of the world’s strangest syndromes?

Yes, please!

A book about which Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Frank Bures has some of the widest (and wildest) curiosities of any writer out there. This is a man who truly wants to know the world, in all its strange and beautiful variations. He is fearless in his reporting, generous in his spirit, and brilliant in his prose. I would follow him anywhere.”


A book by Frank Bures who has written for Harpers, Outside, Poets and Writers, and so much more?


And, a book by a fellow Minnesota, friend, and someone who has been to, and written about, Djibouti?


I just got my copy and am already several chapters in. In fact, here’s a confession, my family had a movie party last night. The new Star Wars (we have no movie theater in Djibouti so are just getting to watch it now) and about thirty friends, on our roof. We showed it on the side of our house with the sounds of Djibouti in the background: the call to prayer, dogs snarling, a woman beating laxoox batter for the next morning’s breakfast. But what did I do? I curled up in a corner and read The Geography of Madness.

Instead of watching Star Wars, people!

No one who knows me is surprised by this but still, that’s what a fun book it is.

The Geography of Madness is about Frank’s journey to understand the inexplicable, to untangle the web of culture and belief and behavior. It is funny and insightful and filled with a contagious curiosity.

So many Djibouti Jones readers are expatriates or travelers and I know you will appreciate Frank’s stories. They make you look at yourself and your surroundings, whether familiar or foreign, and begin asking questions about what is ‘normal’ and why.

You can buy his book on Amazon (click the image above) and check out Frank’s website for other essays here.

What I Learned: People Are People Everywhere

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Shannon Malia Heil who writes about recognizing the universality of hard and beautiful people.


We were leaving the museum, laughing and holding hands and skipping. My three young children clung to my legs as I unlocked the car and started the (seriously) 10-minute process of loading them in. That’s when I notice the other car–getting ready to back into me and my family.

Maybe it was not culturally normal and so further exposed me as a foreigner, but I raised my arms and my voice. Both passenger-side doors were opened into the parking space. The four of us were standing in the parking space. And this car was backing into that same parking space. My eyes swept the parking lot and saw maybe 50 empty spaces, but this car wanted this space right in front of the elevator.

My family wasn’t moving, so the passenger from the car got out and started to “help” me. Without looking me in the eye, she actually shut one of my car doors and tried to shuffle me out of the way. Infuriated, I spoke up, but it did no good. Gone were the giggling voices of my children as I almost threw them into their seats to save their lives.

Well, it wasn’t that dramatic, but I felt my face grow hot and my hands shake. I felt my teeth grit and my heart beat to the rhythm of war drums.

This culture! This selfish culture! my brain ticked away.

Then: No, that was rude. Sometimes rudeness isn’t cultural. It’s just rudeness.

And I realized that people are people everywhere.

The thought played on repeat in my calming-down mind, and memories came flooding in as the dam of stereotypes collapsed.

A student’s face, wrapped graciously in a hijab, smiling at me as she brought me a gift;

the side-glancing scheming of the bank teller who withheld 20 dinars from our withdrawal;

the stoic but unimposing marhaba of our bus driver each morning;

the unashamed, worshipful, and spirit-stirring sound of hymns in Arabic–

these wash away my blanket memory of Bahrain and replace it with people.

People are sweet. People are selfish. People are indifferent. People are passionate.

Everywhere.mks girls.jpg

Our favorite fruit vendor, inquiring tenderly about my growing unborn, over an exchange of sour mango;

the harsh handover of fare after a dishonest taxi experience, then stranded;

smiles over shared soup with our language teacher;

polite wais to the building shrine, the beggar beside the businessman–

these spill over my warm recollection of Thailand and replace it with people.

People are caring. People are thoughtless. People are personable. People are detached.

Everywhere.floating market.jpg

The grandmother who cradled my sleeping daughter on her lap for the hour-long bus ride home;

the teenager who took the last spot on the elevator, leaving us with our stroller to wait;

the store owner who made plastic raincoats for my kids during the sudden downpour;

and yes, the couple who pushed us aside to park in their choice spot–

these ripple through my stubborn perspective of Korea and replace it with people.

People are giving. People are pushy. People are kind. People are rude.


malia kids

And me–I am an individual too, one that doesn’t have to play into the stereotypes of my culture, one that doesn’t have to label a bad experience as representative, one that can combine the good and the lovely and the sweet gathered from people here, people there, people everywhere.


maliaMalia lives in Seoul but her home is with her husband and three children–traveling to and from places and in and out of books. Blending the cultures of her life, she dances hula, eats pancit, says “yalla,” and bows her thanks. She writes more about family, faith, and culture on her blog At Home Abroad.

What I Learned: Time is Relational in Turkey

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Rhett in Turkey where he has learned that time is quite unlike time in his native America.


Last Saturday my wife, son and I were enjoying lunch atop an old castle that overlooks our city when a friend called. The day before we had cancelled a planned overnight trip to a village with he, his wife and some other friends. Lousy weather was to blame. Apparently, nobody wants to pick oranges in the cold rain. But Saturday was as clear as the sea was blue, remarkable since the sea in question is the Black Sea.

My wife and I had planned to run some errands, grab lunch and head back to our apartment for some home improvement projects. We had just ordered menemen, a weekend breakfast dish made from eggs, tomatoes and peppers when my friend called and suggested that we go to the village that day. When?, I asked. Now, he replied.

Sure, why not?” were the next words out of my mouth. My wife gave me the look. The look that says our two-year old son’s nap time is in one hour. The look that says he only has one diaper in his diaper bag. The look that says we had other plans. The look that says there’s no telling what time we’ll get home tonight. But then she also gave the look that says yeah let’s do this.

Friendship is worth it, we thought.

rize kale turkey

Since moving to Turkey in 2010 we have learned the value of relational time. We have learned a new way to be friends, one that is more spur-of-the-moment and less in-bed-on-time. Below are five principles I’ve learned for making friends in Turkey.

  1. The last minute is the best minute for making plans. We recently spent a few months back in the U.S., where it sometimes took three months to schedule dinner with friends. I sit in a library typing right now with plans on settling in with a G.K. Chesterton book tonight after tucking my son into bed. But I could just as easily end up in the mountains shooting fireworks and a Glock pistol with a buddy or crossing into nearby Georgia by dinnertime. Anything is just a phone call away and that phone call is never about next week. It’s about ten minutes from now.
  2. Any minute is a good time for a visit. While it is certainly a nicety to announce that you want to visit someone, it is not necessary. Just knock on the door and take your shoes off. But, remember, it works both ways.
  3. Don’t leave until you’ve eaten the fruit. Turks have a liturgy for night visits—first dinner then nuts then tea then dessert then fruit. Once you eat the fruit you are free to leave. But it may take a while to get to the fruit, which leads to a classic chicken-or-the-egg question: Which came first, the late night visits or the copious consumption of tea? The answer really doesn’t matter, just the reality that we have chickens and eggs and groggy-eyed Americans sloshed up on tea, tired enough to comically butcher all attempts at speaking Turkish and caffeinated enough to lie in bed unable to fall asleep. The point is that while I normally prefer to get home early and wind down with reading or a television show before falling asleep at the ripe time of 11:30 p.m., I am often going to be out late with friends.
  4. Slumber parties are for adults, too. OK, they are not really slumber parties, but it is perfectly normal to stay the night if it will take you a while to get home. One friend invited us—baby included—over to watch movies one night with the assurance that we could just stay the night. And we lived in the same city. Also, when traveling it is not uncommon for someone to offer you a bed to sleep in to save you from hotel expenses. We once had a friend offer his uncle’s house—who was conveniently out of town—to our group of ten Americans, an offer that included a breakfast and hawk hunting excursion to the mountains the next morning. Some of my best friends are those with whom I’ve spent a night in their home.
  5. Constant contact is not just an e-marketing firm with annoying radio advertisements. It’s also the way to be a friend. I sometimes jokingly say that my Turkish friends hover. In the U.S. I talk to my friends on the phone when one of us has something to say that needs to be said right then. Otherwise we are perfectly content to wait until we see each other, whenever that is. A friend told me the other day that he has talked to a high school buddy on the phone almost everyday for the better part of the last decade. If you go somewhere, you make sure to invite your friends or else you communicate that you are not all that friendly. Nothing is to be done alone. Checking in and saying hi—by phone, text, Facebook—should be often, even daily.

What have I learned from living in a different culture the last four years? My time is not my own. It never really has been. Time is a gift from the One who numbers our days. Like all good gifts, it is meant to be shared with others for their good. I’ve learned that time is a currency to be valued, invested and spent.

Rhett Burns is a teacher, coach and writer living in Turkey since 2010. He is the author of Run Like a Stallion: How American Football Explains Turkey  (Amazon, Noise Trade) and is a contributor to the emerging project Neighbor Love:Turkey. Prior to moving to Turkey, Rhett coached high school football and basketball, worked in intercollegiate athletic administration and freelanced for local newspaper and magazine publications in Greenville, SC. He and his wife, Shannon, have a toddler son and a daughter on the way. Follow him on Twitter or his blog

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