If this were a text on philosophy, or theology, or a very extensive science fiction or fantasy novel, then I could write a true beginning, with no antecedents. My story starts in the middle of history and, in fact, interrupts my own life narrative. I had not planned to be working with Wi’am in the first place, of course, but I so much less intended to see my life scattered into an Eastward wind. Now, I am cobbling together some passable starting point for this newest blog.
Two hours after my twenty-sixth birthday officially ended, I was napping in a pile of my luggage at the Metro Manila airport. I had been training in Davao City for two weeks, following two weeks of leaching from a colleague in Hong Kong where, in turn, I had come to escape paying a fine for over-staying my visa in Jordan which, incidentally, is where I had fled to avoid the same in Israel (in spite of the fact that Bethlehem is actually in the Palestinian territories). My missionary term became a Russian-doll adventure, one experience enveloping another, until I left Davao and began unshelling each visited place in turn. I peeled away more layers, still, in my imagination, tracing back to New York, Chicago, and Grand Rapids Michigan. There, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I took the fateful stand that set all these events in motion. Little Plainfield church elected me as their delegate to the annual church conference and I spoke-out for United Methodist divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. It was, I believed, what a friend and previous mission intern would want me to do. It did not occur to me that I would cement my own place in that ongoing saga.
I did not enjoy the Metro Manila Airport. After enduring all the hurtles and flaming hoops (so to speak) of Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, I always assumed that no airport could get under my skin. I chalk-it-up to feeling like ‘the good guy’ when I pass through Israeli security; if the guards make my passage difficult I can get more mileage from the story later. In Manila, I just felt like a jerk for judging the Philippine airport so harshly. It is poorly designed, rife with hidden-fees, and the Cebu Pacific Airline counter is staffed by near-teenagers. Ironically, I flew into my favorite of all airports: Hong Kong international, where they use scan-card technology to monitor the speed of the visa line. I landed, exhausted from the constant cabin pressure changes that kept me awake during my Cebu flight. Joy came to the airport, thank goodness, to ensure I made it to the train and re-installed myself in her apartment.
“Men in Black III is in theaters, now. Maybe you should go see it.”
MIB movies are funny and action-packed. On the other hand, the secret agent vibrations are resonant with me. Before I left Jordan, I had to do a wipe of all articles I had written or had been written about me on the internet. I shut-down a blog called “In Rainbow Colors” that bridged my unemployed days in Grand Rapids with to my first seven months working in Bethlehem with Wi’am. I suppose, like Agent J in the first MIB movie, I brought all my personality and memories with me into a new role and story-line but had to leave many of the direct ties behind. Only a movie character could make such a clean break, of course. A Google search of my full name still conjures a film review I wrote in 2009 for World Association of Christian Communicators. Like agent J, I feel like a colorful, confident character in an unusual job who never quite gets to the pith of the universe’s secrets:
K: “I promised you the secrets of the universe—nothing more.”
J: “Are you saying there are some secrets the universe doesn’t know?!”
K: “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to…”
Unlike J, I cycled through dashing internet aliases like “Daniel Xavier” and “Fysh Phoenix” in my quest to reinvent myself just a little bit better than the time before. It was part of my efforts to generate something profound and renewing, a truly original start. Something Divine!
In hind sight, there is not much divine about an alias. Aliases are meant for people I do not intend to see again, and only when my passport is not with me. The Divine moment comes when an old name is given a new beginning, in the middle of events. A cab-driver found me, waiting by a cafe for a morning cup of coffee. When he asked for my name, I gave him the real one and then he showed me outside to some men making coffee in the traditional way and pouring it into small cups. Now, I must pause for a moment and emphasize the powerful sacramental nature of coffee in the middle-East, or perhaps the sacrament of powerful coffee in the middle-East, naturally. Coffee is both part of the ritual of Sulha, traditional Arabic conflict mediation, and the daily rituals of the Wi’am office where I worked. Wi’am means cordial relations, after all, and the cab driver paid for my coffee in such a gesture. Drank in the rising sun, hot and blackity-black opaque and with just one spoon of sugar, this first cup of coffee was inherently perfect. It tasted smoother but kicked harder than the instant coffee I drank for over a month in Asia. For all the baggage I have been carrying in my heart, reminders of my imperfect past, I still cannot help but feel like that cup of coffee was an important turning point. As we drove across the sparse East Bank landscape and into Amman, we shared some seeds – cracking them in our mouths and tossing the shells into a paper cup.
Of course, that beginning is just for the sake of narrative, too. Everywhere I turn, there are familiar pieces from earlier in my journey, though always illuminated a little differently. Imagine my delight when the juice vendor’s face lit with recognition and I said, in my meager Arabic:
“مرحبا, كف حالك؟”
“مبسوط, الحمد لله”
“عصير برتقال, من فضلك.”
“لا. كبير…و انا بدي إشربها هن”
I sat down and drank the large, fresh squeezed orange juice and lingered for quite a while, in reverie about my weeks in Amman. Virtually everything that happened during my thirty days in the valley took on the veil of secrecy, in internet exile, and I was careful to share only minimal details with the staff and guests at the Cliff Hotel and the wait-staff at the full-roster of cheap restaurants I worked from. I jested that I was in the purgatory of the Arab world, along with Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians and so many Mediterranean Palestinians waiting for their own return. At their best those days were contemplative, especially when I walked half-way to Jebel Weibdeh to my favorite garden; I read several books, contemplated my future graduate career, and allowed my environs to diffuse into my veins, my stresses to pass from my pores. The worst days, I was covered with itching bed-bug welts and watching the divestment debate. The General Assembly of the Methodist Church meets only once every four years. I never felt so alone, watching the proceedings on an internet feed. My friend and predecessor rose and delivered such a stirring speech on behalf of our cause that I nearly cried. Meanwhile, some old badger from Georgia launched a Zionist diatribe. Then came all the equivocators, vacillators, and all-around injustice-normalizing cowards, afraid of sinking stocks and broken eggshells. They left the authority in the hands of The Board of Pensions and Health Benefits. I was angry. So angry that I needed a vacation. Would I like another glass of juice? “شكراَ، لا…”
There is a delightful symbolism to my current living arrangements. I know where everything is in the valley area where I lived for a month. Now, I am up on a hill in Jebel Weibdeh. The new purgatory is shorter and sweeter, at the Canary Hotel, but I can only reach the places I know with some effort. I spent my entire time down there without any clue when I would return to my life in Bethlehem. Now, I am 48 hours from a brand new start in a familiar place. Culturally, that life is almost identical to this one but interpersonally it could not be more different than what I am feeling right now. There, I have a community. There are no aliases, no illusions of espionage. To the contrary, I think they see me for who I am better than I see myself. And yet, they care for me anyway.
In the mean time, my new story is enriched with so many old memories. I hope that all of my readers, new and old, can appreciate why I am so excited to start a new blog. If nothing else, I can at least speak with a different perspective on what was once taken for granted. Until then, I hope I can be forgiven for such a long introductory entry.