Palestinian Folktale: A Disputation in Signs

This is the only folktale my father told me. He’s what we call a “1948 refugee,” meaning he is one of the original Palestinian refugees, still waiting to return home. This story is interesting because it is first found in the 13th century Gloss Accursius, a medieval gloss on the Roman law code of Justinian.

The Pope was in town for an ecumenical conference. A Muslim peasant happened to sit across from him and, not being familiar with the country, the Pope mistook the peasant for a learned man. The Pope began to question him, and the Muslim shook his head, indicating that he did not understand the Pope’s language.

Undeterred, the Pope decided that they could understand each other if he used signs. And so the Pope took out an apple and placed it on the table. The Muslim took out a loaf of pita bread and placed it next to the apple. The Pope held up three fingers. The Muslim held up two.

The Pope went away very satisfied, saying “that learned man! I showed him the apple, the reminder of the fall of man. And he produced a loaf of bread showing that Christ is the bead of life! I reminded him of the trinity, and he responded with a reminder of his own, that Christ is both human and divine!”

Later, the Muslim was talking to his friends about the peculiar priest he’d met. “He was very rude,” he said. “First, he showed off his lunch, so I showed him mine. Then he threatened to slap me across the face with his hand, so I threatened to poke his eyes out. Only then did he leave me alone!”

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