Opinion: Palm Sunday reflections for the Christian Holy Week

“It was an annual tradition. Women rolling out little discs of dough, others filling them with dates or nuts,” writes Azzi.

“It was an annual tradition. Women rolling out little discs of dough, others filling them with dates or nuts,” writes Azzi. Pixabay


Published: 03-30-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com.

This year, this time of year, I am reminded of times when I didn’t feel as vulnerable as I do today. Spring has sprung, Ramadan has begun, Holy Week engages the Christian world and Passover approaches. I have been writing about genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, famine and dispossession for months, all with urgency and justification, yet today I want to tell you a different kind of story.

While I may be sharing more thoughts about Holy Week in the coming days, about what I think about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, about what I think a radical, dark-skinned preacher from the land I know as Palestine means to the conflict that has been consuming the Holy Land, today I have another story to tell.

I want to tell you that Jesus is the most revered prophet in Islam after the Prophet Muhammad and that I always feel honored to witness how others celebrate the beauty of his life. While theologically the issue of Jesus’ divinity separates Muslims from Christians, there is much we believe and share knowing that issues of dignity, freedom, non-violence and social justice, infused with love, based in Scripture, form the basis of our human dialogue, as they do with all of goodwill.

All good things a radical preacher brings to our attention, calls upon us to witness.

Today, however, I simply want to share an excerpt from a moment of beauty I believe I captured a decade ago in a Palm Sunday column I wrote about my childhood:

On Palm Sunday, after church, the families gather at our house.

The women gathered, weathered, stout, some stooped, bent from years working in fields, mills, factories. All present. Sitto (grandmother). Aunts. Cousins. Mummy and her sisters. Most wearing their Sunday best, all wrapped with large aprons, starched, crisp.

The men were gathered as well. They always sat in the living room weaving, with calloused hands, fresh palm fronds, which they had brought home after attending mass at Our Lady of the Cedars Church, into traditional delicate designs that would hang over doors for the coming year, smoking cigars, playing cards and drinking coffee made by Mummy, who had to keep tearing herself away from making ma’amoul, Arab Easter cookies, to keep them happy!

Palm Sunday. Sitto had prepared the dough in advance.


Walnuts had been ground, mixed with sugar, and flavored with rose water. Dates had been carefully pitted, then ground through a meat grinder clamped to a sturdy wooden kitchen table. Then reground.

I still have that grinder, attached, for sentimental reasons, to a table in my kitchen.

Card tables were set up and covered with white sheets. Extra chairs had been borrowed.

Everyone had a place.

Everyone was ready.

Time to make ma’amoul!

It was an annual tradition. Women rolling out little discs of dough, others filling them with dates or nuts and folding over the top, forming puffy semi-circles, others carefully crimping the edges and decorating the tops with pierced patterns made with small tin tools Daddy made in his basement workshop.

Late that night, after the ma’amoul had set a while, Sitto baked them (she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it) in our ancient green Garland wood stove, deftly sliding cookies in and out on a wood peel so old and worn I think she might have brought it with her when she emigrated from Syria at the turn of the 20th century.

On Monday the cookies, after having been sprinkled with generous amounts of powdered sugar, would be hand-delivered to each family that had joined us in making them, each getting their share.

I favored the ones with walnuts — their taste lingers still.

In the early 1990s, 1991 maybe, well after I had embraced Islam, I remember being in Cairo and Damascus suqs (markets) during a springtime when Easter and Ramadan overlapped. The bazaars were full. Christian shopkeepers welcomed Muslims, Muslim shopkeepers served Christians and richly decorated church candles and Ramadan lanterns competed for space in shop windows. During that Ramadan, I was flooded with memories of past Easters with my family, with lingering memories of rose water and walnuts, cigars and coffee.

I am flooded today with memories of such salvific stories and so thankful there is still opportunity for me to reaffirm my belief in the unity that sustains us all.

Lovers of life, lovers of the good, gathered together in worship.

Logos in an Easter cookie. Logos in a cup of coffee, a Torah, a Vigil.