Narrative, People

A Wedding Ceremony (part 1)

“I love smuggling – you should write about smuggling like you wrote about the cactus…”

‘Roger’ also said I should change each person’s name. He and ‘A.T.’ became our forbidden goods, spirited into Al-Quds for ‘Jack & Jim’s’ double-wedding. “Canada” was driving, carrying us through Al-Khader1 village in a purple van (that wasn’t purple). We emerged through a tunnel under the apartheid barrier onto a road that, after I found my bearings, I recognized as leading to the drive-through check-point. We were in the settler lane. Our Palestinian friends sat snug in the back, nephew and uncle, as the van crept toward a lady soldier in over-sized sunglasses.

My two European friends looked to me for cues, so I said, “this is a smile-and-wave check-point: we have a Canadian driving, a Swede in the passenger seat, a Belgian and an American—the soldiers won’t look long enough to notice the two in the back.”

I fiddled with my prayer beads. Belgium glanced at me:

“Did you get those in Al-Khaleel?—oh…” A stoic calm bleached all our faces as the soldier waved Canada through, a moment that will play in slow motion in our dreams for weeks. The blush rushed back into our faces and everyone started clapping and laughing. We emerged from the next tunnel and caught a fleeting glance of Beit Jala from the Israeli side of the barrier.

This beautiful church was disgraced when radical-Jewish settlers scorched its doors and wrote “Jesus is a Monkey” on an exterior wall.

“My heart! My heart dropped below my stomach and now it is beating!—look, there is Cremisan!”

“Do you think it helps that we are wearing formal clothes?”

A knot of Israeli bureaucracy made it impossible for most of the guys’ family to attend the wedding in al-quds(Jerusalem) but, to maintain their ID cards, the ceremony could be nowhere else. Around the Scottish Church, we started following the grooms’ mother and family in their giant white van.

“—your sister-in-law drives less like she’s being followed and more like she’s being chased.”

“She is a very good driver” assured A.T. “–she can lose whomever she likes…”. The city is never quite alive, for me, unless A.T. is painting it with memories, like when he had his Easter week permit. If there is anything worth breaching Israeli ‘security’ for, it is a family wedding. Along the way, we passed a church that was scorched and defaced by Jewish Settlers. We arrived at a bride’s house to perform a visit. The groom(s) wait at the church while family and friends pour into the bride’(s) living-room to sit. And eat cookies. And drink coffee or juice. And talk. We ‘paid congratulations’, a counter-point to all of the condolences I have paid with A.T. in the wake of death. I like this tradition of sitting, present, with each other in both times of sorrow and joy.

Our Belgian friend, who took all these pictures, snapped this one of everyone sitting together: guys by the door and ladies in the room beyond.

We followed the wrong car and arrived at the Melkite church instead of the other bride’s house. The grooms’ younger brother (Jake, we’ll say) stood guard by the door, welcoming people. He would be intimidating if he were not so sweet. We asked him where we should park but he shook his head innocently. I gave him a hug: I haven’t seen as much of him since the boys left for Indiana. Sweden and I found a pew by a pillar in the upstairs sanctuary. More guests trickled in, many of them familiar– brother of the bride, aunts & uncles, new faces that resonated with features from relatives I already knew. My sense of alienation sloughed away: bad Arabic aside, I am a family friend.

The second of the two couples arriving down the aisle.

Before I write about what is different, I must say that it always felt like a wedding to me. The essence of a wedding goes across cultures and, on this day, many of the details too. The brides in their white dresses and grooms in their tuxedos marched together down the aisle to the priest. Their wedding party was composed of brothers and sisters—three families of them. I knew I would not understand the words as the priest began but what I did understand is that there was not going to be any idle-talk: he chanted the whole service. From the moment he began, I was captivated by the beauty of Eastern churches and their rites. Having been to the Apostle Peter’s ruined house and various archaic churches, I am sure that the Holiness of the Holy Land is watching people you know joined together, in the presence of their community, with a promise made to God. Stones are not holier than love, though only the stones and the olive trees are more continuous in this land than ceremonies like these.

Crowns are an element completely missing from the Western tradition of marriage. The priest placed them on their heads in matching

The newlyweds and their posse, moving in a circle together.

sets and chanted a blessing and bond between each pair. Before the marriage was finished, they all joined hands and stepped slowly in a circle with the priest as he continued singing. It all made intuitive sense, to me, in a way that a double-wedding would not in the West where we trifle with “I do” and spectacles like photo-slide-shows or instrumental solos. Here I felt less like an audience member and more like a community member, bearing witness to a living ritual. We watched them enter a new phase of their lives. For these men, it was an instant change-of-state –and long-anticipated. When the chanting was finished, all four were all part of the same family.

Just like every wedding I have ever seen, there was a receiving line. I felt so happy for all of them, especially for the parents. This was not just a “win” for love but for politics and the future: Jerusalem ID-cards. Aces, baby! We all took pictures together after the ceremony, inserting Sweden and Belgium in with myself and the newlyweds. I ate candy with Roger, Jake, and little sister ‘Mary’, dressed absolutely gorgeously. Later, when she caught the bouquet I said, “You’re sixteen – does catching that mean the same thing here as it does in the US?”

“Yes, but it’s just for fun… don’t be silly…”

Our journey took an uncanny twist when we decided to pass through the Beit Sahour checkpoint via Har Homa settlement. This hilltop “suburb” is like an extraterrestrial installment: a megalithic, uniform wart of regular housing we can see from Manger Street, as if Martians whacked all the trees away and lowered it to the Earth in one piece. Settlements are where daydreams and nightmares meet. Each street of perfectly matching condos dead-ends into a playground so that every street looks virtually the same, except stocked with a different cast of settlement-issue Israelis walking their dogs2. We passed around some cinnamon gum while our Canadian friend navigated the dystopian labyrinth. Our curiosity was on fire but we felt a discomfort that nearly overwhelmed it, riding around, now, with Mary in the front seat and two more Arabs, still. Canada reminded us that we could all be carrying kilos and kilos of explosives. We knew it. We know that security is just another word for the loss of freedoms for unwanted people and their allies. There isn’t any barrier that cannot be crossed just once. The point is to prevent the unwanted people from carrying on with their lives over generations. Security has always been a tarp thrown over displacement practices – as if the US reservation system was about saving white settlers from “savages”. Palestinians sneak into Jerusalem to see family, to find work, and to remember times passed.

[To be continued: the wedding reception]

                “Oh! My heart dropped again!”

“It’s okay – it’s always easier coming into Bethlehem than going out…”

1) Al-Khader village is named for Saint Khader, a soldier and Christian in the Roman army who was martyred when he refused to burn other Christians. That’s what I think, anyway… when I hear Al-Khader I think of that story even if it actually isn’t true. I also think he is the patron saint of England, where he’s called George.

2) Our Belgian friend made a comment about this. He said it was strange to see Jews walking dogs. In North America, its not uncommon to see any given person walking a dog but in Europe the collective trauma must run deep: Holocaust. A.T. talked about his dislike of dogs and the traumatic experience he had at a tender age when Israeli forces took him captive and threatened him with attack dogs. They might have done it under the umbrella excuse of security, another reason why I never suppose that the ends justify the means. There are consequences for our means beyond our ends and those ends to which we strive are rarely ever our salvation, or else we would know that humane means ought to be our primary end.

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