AMMAN, Jordan -- In the Middle East, the lines between fact and fiction, history and religion, myth and reality can become maddeningly blurred. That’s why you may find it difficult to believe me if I tell you I just ate manna from heaven. It’s true.
It all started with a casual conversation. I was chatting over Turkish coffee with my Iraqi friend Reem, who lives here in Jordan. The conversation turned to the parallels between the Quran and the Bible, and then to Passover and the story of Exodus, a version of which, incidentally, also appears in the Quran.
I was nonexpertly recounting my vague knowledge of the biblical story of the Israelites led by Moses crossing the Sinai desert out of Egypt. We noted that Moses made it all the way to Mount Nebo, just outside Amman, from where he could see the Promised Land he never reached. On a clear day you can see Israel from that mountaintop.
During the 40 years in the wilderness, I related to my friend, who grew up in a world where the Bible was not frequently discussed, the Israelites ate a strange, wonderful and mysterious food said to be sent from heaven by God.
“It was called manna,” I told her. She looked at me with a slight frown and tilted her head. “Did you say manna?”
It turns out there is a rather mysterious food in this part of the world — the best of it comes from Iraq — that goes by the name of Mann al-Sama, or Manna from Heaven.
Moments before, as the sound of dhuhr, the midday call to Muslim prayer sounded faintly in the distance, as Jews around the world celebrated Passover, commemorating the flight from bondage in Egypt into the Promised Land, I had my first taste of manna.
Is it a fruit? Is it bread? Is it candy?
Reem brought me a compact, oddly heavy box, about the size of a thick book. It came from her private stash, hand carried from Iraq by one of her friends. In Arabic characters the box certified the contents come from Sulemaniyah, in Kurdish northern Iraq.
I pried the loosely nailed lid to find thickly packed white sugary powder. The lighter-than-air sweet flour flew everywhere and a scent of cardamom rose from the edible treasure as I dug into the box, excavating clumps of something resembling a taffy; misshapen pieces of a food vaguely reminiscent of Colombian melcocha, but not nearly as gooey or sweet.
It turns out the stuff does, in fact, appear out of nowhere — as if from heaven.
It is not a fruit. It is not a baker’s or a candy-maker’s confection. Instead, it blows in the wind and lands on the ground, generously served by nature, although my nicely packaged gift showed some unmistakably human intervention.
There are different varieties from different sources, but the one I ate is formed by sap that escapes from a tree.
According to legend it has been doing so for thousands of years, from the days of the Prophet Musa, better known to us as Moses. It’s as if a hole in a maple tree allowed maple syrup to fly out, and in the arid desert air the sap dried and hardened into a tasty resin and then rained on the ground.
I will not venture into a discussion about what exactly the Israelites ate as they crossed the desert. There is plenty else to debate in this part of the world. Food, by the way, recently came up as a source of friction during President Obama’s visit, when Palestinians and Israelis argued about which one of them could claim falafel as their own before the Leader of the Free World, whatever that is.
The intriguing notion, however, lingers in my mind about a story found in the Bible and in the Quran, about a food mentioned as a gift from providence; to believers, a miracle; to skeptics, a magic trick, a legend to dismiss. It’s hard to draw the line between myth and reality, between possible and impossible.
But the manna I just ate was miraculously real. And it was perfectly delicious.