Long after Easter, returned from my exile and baking in the summer sun, I was in Beit Sahour waiting for the bus; I met eyes with a young man commuting from job to home. As he approached he said “Shalom”.
But I pretended not to understand him at all, apologizing and asking him what he’d said…
لوو سماحت, سديق : شو حكيِت، إنتَ؟
But he inquired again…
Yet I apologized, again, and indicated I didn’t understand.
ما بأفهم, لوو سماحت
Then he greeted me in Arabic:
To which I replied (roughly translated) “whattup, brother?”
مارحبتين! كيفك, أخي؟
He said “I’m fine” but asked once more if I spoke Hebrew.
انا ملي لكن إنتَ ما بتحكي عبري؟
لا. باحكي عربي شوَاي, مش عبري
“No. I speak Arabic slightly, not Hebrew.” That was essentially true: however pathetic my Arabic, my Hebrew was restricted to an empty ‘Shalom’ when I was using my dumb-tourist-routine to cross military check-points more easily. He and I had in-common an emotional distance from Hebrew that would confuse many ‘religious’ contemporaries of mine for whom Hebrew is the exotic script of sacred texts, not the familiar drone of racial profiling or the roaring loud-speakers of destruction. When my seminarian friends get inked-up to show their devotion, I am relieved that their tattoos keep peace in silence; they are read but cannot speak.
To ancient Hebrews, the name of God was unspeakable. God was too mysterious to be known and therefore the Deity’s name was impossibly sacred for human lips. If one could not completely comprehend God then how could God even be nameable? They deployed a substitute script, for the sake of reading, and deity-words were borrowed from other cultures for the sake of speaking.
In Arabic, you cannot complete a casual conversation without uttering the name of God. It is Allah. Allah is incorporated into common phrases, into the very fabric of keywords — not least of which is “Justice”. Phrases of gratitude or of wishfulness incorporate God’s name, as does the common expression for “let’s go!” (“y’allah!”). I could not leave the room without tripping over God’s name. If God composed everything, then how can God be avoided? A special ligature (a contraction of Arabic script) was invented for our God-writing convenience. God’s name stretches from minaret to minaret five times a day and swings from the lingering smoke of church incense, incanted.
Even those of us who seek the Divine merely glimpse it. It exists only in-part, if at all, yet as long as we seek even the smallest amount there seem to be clues beckoning from everywhere. The whole idea is impossible to obtain but its constituents are impossible to discount. Neither of these languages is adequate but, interestingly, in countering one another they become complete together. It is bewilderingly Taoist; or would it be less deceptive to say it is groundingly contradictory? *winking*
That is the essence of everything. I am neither from Palestine nor Israel. I am from Michigan —land of lakes— where some previous inhabitants called this Mystery “Gitchi Manitou” — a ‘Great Essence’ or ‘Great Spirit’: The Everything Essence. Of course, each other thing on Earth has its manitou, an essence or spirit — not like a ghost but like an archetype, a raw state, or a central core from which to project its power and qualities into the world. Somewhere between nowhere and everywhere, I lost ‘here’: my manitou and, with it, the manitou of everything else with which I would be in symbiosis.
TBC (as always)