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Ode: A game of lentils and wits

Nesrin Abu Ata
Ally Karsyn

I was in the Hispanic food aisle in Walmart when I heard a white woman say, “What is this?”


I had found the couscous to make tabbouleh in the same section, but couldn’t find the lentils. This woman seemed to have stumbled across the last bag. I sighed.


Americans don’t know their red lentils, from brown lentils, from Garbanzo beans. It’s all beans to them—no different than how I think about Brussels sprouts and zucchini. They’re all green vegetables to me.



But in that moment of desperation, I could hardly stand it. I needed those lentils for my soup, and she had no idea what to do with them.


Should I just snatch the bag of lentils from her hands? No, no, I thought to myself, someone will call security, misconstruing the chaotic scene in the Hispanic section as a potential act of terror. All over a bag of lentils.


I pushed my cart right up next to her, and I thought about what my mother does when I ask her for a specific cooking tip to make an Arab dish.


Mind you, I never ask my mother about the whole recipe. I know better. I just ask her for one little thing, like how to cook stuffed cabbage leaves. But none the less, my mother will take it upon herself to spend the next 30 minutes explaining to me, over the phone, how her specific recipe works, and how she thinks everyone should cook stuffed cabbage leaves like the way she does it.


I usually try to politely interrupt my mother and hurry her along.


“Okay,” I’ll say, “can we fast-forward to the part when you boil the cabbage?”


“But this step I am telling you about is very important,” my mother would say. “You need to listen.”


And I would listen. I didn’t really have much of a choice.


So now, facing this food dilemma in Walmart, I could walk away without the lentils for my soup, or I could refer to my mother’s cooking conversations and talk this woman’s ear off until she’s so annoyed and wants to get away from me that she’ll leave the lentils behind in a cloud of dust.


I moved in closer and stood right next to her. I had hoped my hovering would be enough to get her to put them down and pick up foods that she actually knew how to cook. But when that didn’t happen, I said in my best motherly voice, “Geez, they seem to be out of lentils!”


The lady looked at the bag in her hands and said, “Oh, I have these here. What are these anyway?”


“They are kind of like splits peas,” I said. “You just boil them in water, and you can make great soups or mix them with rice.”


The lady was still looking at the lentils. I worried that I might have made them sound too good, and now she was going to buy the last bag.


Just when I was about to give up on the idea of making lentil soup that day, the woman reached out her hand and said, “I don’t want them. Do you?”


And I said, “Sure, why not?”





I wrote this poem when I hadn't been home for two years as junior in college and I was home sick. Walking into the Arab restaurant was comforting.


This is called, “My Grandma Im Saleem.”


In an old restaurant, Decorated with plastic plants, Im Kalthum was played Resurrecting an old memory of a home That has only become a ghost. I desperately seek a living remnant The song resonates within my soul Other tunes of that land A bald old man, with a big moustache, Dark skin and big rough hands, Brings me water I smile: does he know my song? Secret whispers come from hookahs Pictures of a mosque, a church and the kotel The smell of food brings pictures and sounds Of when my mother used to make me eat Grapes leaves and Zucchini The smell of Arabic coffee brings back Early mornings with Old people sitting at balconies Sipping coffee talking about the future My grandma is reading in my cup, "You will travel many places. Maktub." Does the cup say when I will come back? "No. But, I see a group of people. Who love you greatly," she says. I look in my cup to find it but I cannot It only takes a wise old person, Like my grandma Im Saleem, Drinking Arabic coffee to see that.


Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.

We’re hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Shawn Blomberg, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Risk.” 

Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.