My first encounter with the ‘Cenation’ phenomena was at the Steil Boys & Girls Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At that time I was their half-competent volunteer coordinator, loitering in the games-room. One of the other staff introduced me as “Mr. John” and some junior high geniuses quipped “John Cena?” A nine-year-old’s war cry rang out as he rose from the bean-bags and knocked my knees from under me. Not wanting to spoil my blessed ignorance of professional wrestling, I never researched John Cena.
Wrestling is popular across Arab nations, including Jordan and Egypt. I could not trip over my shoelaces in Amman without either meeting an Egyptian waiter or seeing a John Cena T-shirt. Perhaps the handsome wait-staff are key vectors of this acquired taste. Some of them are not much older than Wi’am Center kids. I emerged from exile just in time for Wi’am’s yearly summer camp. Conscripted as a photographer, I had the privilege of making funny faces at the small children while they did their crafts and, thanks to ocular technology, taking sniper snap-shots of self-conscious teenagers. The middle-school boys learned my name was John and henceforth greeted me with seismic slaps on the back and exuberant exultations of “John Cena! John Cena, حبيبي*!” If I had a pro-wrestler’s body it would all be cool but three ‘shabaab’ at a time was too much. The staff finally intervened when boys started grabbing me by my shirt and yelling “you can’t see me!” in my ear.
The camera’s memory went bad the day before the field-trip to Taybeh and Ramallah. Zoughbi knew I was digesting a funk so he coaxed me into simply going anyway. Taybeh is famous for being all-Christian and home to Palestine’s most excellent brewery. I boarded the bus to crows of “John Cena!” and “صورنا!, bicture!” Bristling a little, I wormed into a seat in the middle of the bus near one of the chaperones and her young son. The little boy peered several times from behind his mother and whispered in her ear. She looked at me and smiled, then winked and said, “He thinks you are really John Cena. He says ‘he has changed a lot!’” I hesitated five seconds to let her clarify for him that I was another John but she just patted him on the shoulder and smiled at me again. I felt like an unbearded mall Santa Clause doing his first Christmas.
Camp is for the camper. I can deepen my misery or transcend self-centeredness and let the kids give me some of their energy. The juxtapositions I saw working with these kids were more than enough reason to disregard my ineptitudes and just stay present with them for a day. It is a special treat. For example, the image of a sugar-charged mob, dressed in all kinds of graphic t-shirts, swarming heedlessly into Taybeh’s historic Roman Catholic Church for an art lecture from a sweating nun (the portrait of St. Khader slaying the dragon came to life through several grotesque-sounding reenactments– thanks boys). The kids seemed even more out of place at the Taybeh home for the elderly, where I saw nothing resembling a program to hold their attention. They are so funny. I did not dream we would visit the brewery but, indeed, there we were: guiding them between vats and trying to keep them hushed during the beer-making video which was, interestingly, in English. The good folks at Taybeh Brewery sold the kids some of their nonalcoholic brew. One of the mothers was putting driblets on her finger and feeding it to her infant; he relished it, testifying the excellent character of Taybeh beer.
The crusader chapel on the hill was the highlight of the morning. We scrambled up the ancient stone steps to look upon…
…a huge blood-spot. Someone had hung a carcass from the hook in the disembuildinged doorway and slaughtered it right there, I concluded; alternatively, there was a blood sacrifice in an all-Christian village. Kids filtered into every nook of the ruins, scaling the remains of walls. Feeling spry and game, I jumped to a perch of my own in the sun. For a minute I gazed over the valley below; I pondered being faux-John Cena and tried to come fully to grips with the fact that, whether by lies or faith, I was in the West Bank again. Being alone so much had made such reveries second-nature, which is why it was for the best that a familiar word jarred my attention Earthward:
The boy clasped his hands to his mouth, shocked, when he realized I spoke English. He knew what he had done. I met his eyes and said “”شو حكيَت, حبيبي؟ (what did you say, my lovey?)
He shook his head. I laughed and told him, basically, not to worry. I stopped worrying, too.**
The summer camp field trips have several goals. Exposing the kids to their heritage and building a sense of collective responsibility is certainly a priority. Yet under no circumstances should the value of cutting-loose and having fun be under-estimated. That kid’s day should not be ruined because he said ‘fuck’ once, considering the glance I threw at him was enough edification. The Wi’am camp stresses fun, which is as it should be for youth who live in a tense political situation. We want to give them a piece of their childhood before it is all blown-away. There was no question: I needed to swallow my pride and get onboard with the John Cena gimic.
The final stop in the day was the amusement park in Ramallah. The staff held that over their heads to keep them to a low boil until the afternoon, when they could explode all over that park. The rides were mostly carnival cast-offs (except for the 4-D theater, which was amazin
g!) but these kids were undeterred. I’ll keep details to a minimum; what matters is that I learned John Cena’s hook-line. He does some thing where he waves four fingers in front of his face and says “you can’t see me!” That explained the ringing in my ears; it was only a matter of putting it to good use when my ‘friendly backslappers’ boarded the roller-coaster. Just as they came around the first bend I popped-out from behind a concession stand, waving my four-fingers in front of my face and yelling “YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”
*boys & girls alike waved back in kind* “JOHN CENA! YOU CAN’T SEE ME! YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”
*An Arabic term of endearment meaning “my lovey”, often used between same-sex friends.
** On a previous day, I heard two young ladies chatting openly with each other in English. I forget what one of them said but I looked in their direction and wrinkled my nose. The other girl’s eyes went wide as she said, “Oh my God, that guy speaks English…”. Apparently, they were using English as their private language to critique the camp in front of less fluent staff-members. I hated to rain on their parade…