Kazakhstan: The God "within" AruzhamalAnother story from a country hit, at the beginning of the year, by riots with deaths and injuries due to the economic crisis: that of a Muslim woman with a passion for cooking, who, because of her encounter with Lucia, decided to open a bakery…
There is a fact, a face through which God has answered the question which, since the events of January, has been most acute. After returning to normality, after the violence and the state of emergency, there is now an absence of hope and an emptiness, a forgetfulness, that can kill like bullets. Where does my hope lie? What have I witnessed that can embrace all the people of this country with truth and love?
I am an Italian teacher. Aruzhamal is one of my Kazakh students from a Muslim background. She is about forty years old, married with three children, and she is the last of four children. According to Kazakh culture, the youngest child has the duty to serve the whole family: parents, in-laws, older siblings, in addition to her husband and children. Since she is a very talented cook, they always ask her to prepare everything on every occasion. I met her because her passion for cooking led her to me because she wanted to learn Italian. She wanted to understand the videos of Italian chefs on YouTube. And not only did she study the language, but we arranged for her to spend a month in Umbria in the kitchen of a Bed and Breakfast to "steal the secrets of Italian cooking," while continuing to study the language.
Aruzhamal has always struck me for her simplicity, her positivity, her willingness to serve everyone without complaining. But one day, two years ago, she came in looking like someone else... thinner, sad. She was living a moment of deep crisis, both personal and with her husband, whom she could no longer look at because how hurt and offended she was. She said to me, "I feel like I've done everything wrong in life, that I'm wrong... I have always served everyone with love, but who am I really loved by? Giving, giving, giving and feeling so empty! After a very bad argument with my husband, I am sad and angry with him. We Kazakhs, Muslims, believe that when you let a bad thought in, you host a bad spirit and bad luck and misfortunes begin. And that is how I feel. All my relatives have told me that it is my fault, that I am exaggerating. Is what I desire, to be happy and to feel truly loved, impossible?"
As I listened to her, I prayed that the Spirit might make itself present through Our Lady. I said to her, "But what if this sadness is not a bad thought? What if it is a gift from the Most High? Is the Almighty Creator not the One who loves and continually gives so much that even at this moment we are not making ourselves? Has not your serving, cooking and giving - which I have always seen you do with joy and positivity - made your heart more like God's? And your husband made a mistake, certainly, but does that mistake have the power to destroy all that ever was? And he - when everyone else was against your trip to Italy - was the only one who supported you to make your dream come true. You know, I want to be happy and loved too. Let us wish for it together and let us see how the Most High will answer."
We hugged and said goodbye, because my class was about to begin. The next day, while I was in the classroom, someone suddenly opened the door...it was her, with a beaming face, asking me to step outside for a minute. I went out and she hugged me tightly, thanking me with these words, "Yesterday, as soon as I got home, I hugged my husband in a rush, because there was no more anger in me and he was so amazed that we were finally able to talk about that day, about me, about us. The Most High responded immediately...through you. And do you know why? Because you are Catholic and Catholics live like you do, with one hand touching God and with the other touching man, but deep down." "For us, God is like this," and she gestured upwards with her hands, "for you it is God within!" and she gestured downwards.
She has not stopped since that day. She had never worked outside the home, yet enrolled in a master's program for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and, after successfully completing it, wrote and presented a project twice to the government to obtain the necessary funds to open a cafeteria, which is also a bakery-laboratory, where she prepares dough for savoury and sweet pies using Italian machines. In addition to selling them in her store, she supplies some supermarkets.
Shortly before the January protests ,I finally got to go see it. It is really nice, with colorful walls and murals.... She has also put her children to work, one at the counter and the other on deliveries. But she works more than anyone else and it is already a revolution because the Kazakh mentality is that if you are “the boss” you do not have to do anything, just make others do the work. Even the name she has given her business is quite a statement: "Sfoglia bella" [Beautiful dough]. When I asked her why she had named it that, she told me that she had seen so much beauty in our Center and in Italy that she realized that if I had not taken her desires seriously, she would not have made it there. She wanted the place to be beautiful and the products to be good to show others what we had been for her. During the January chaos, she kept her business open and began making bread, which was much needed in those days. I asked her why she did it and if she was afraid, she answered: "There is a need for bread and by making it I respond to what is happening... Just like you, just like you, I carry God within. My country is not about violence and stealing, but about good bread."
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This is how God has answered my question. Hope is the "God within”: waking up, studying, teaching, being with people, from the cab driver to the student, preparing food by begging for Christ's presence... The God within, even in the midst of violence and forgetfulness. It is a new life that blooms from His grace and our simple yes.