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.


The Showdown in Haifa

Me, hiding beneath my cap

Me; circa September

I was awake the entire night. Conventional wisdom maintains that one ought to be in bed early in order to rise before the sun but I dreaded sleeping through my chance to get a year-long visa. The latter parts of Saturday night are a blur but I know I spent the wee hours of Sunday morning talking to an associate pastor in Northern California. She was relating the finer points of a personality typology using Hundred-Acre-Wood characters. Nevertheless, I was ambulant when Janet arrived at 5 AM to cart my carcass to Haifa for an appointment with the ministry of interior there. By the end of the day, my paperwork would be expired and I could be deported.

For those who are just joining us, I work in Bethlehem with a community nonprofit. The Israeli regime is apartheid in nature and illegally occupies the Palestinian West-Bank [in terms of] international law (very disappointing, but true). This blog began at the end of a long exile and documents my re-entry. Sunday was the consummate day, since a law was passed permitting immigration forces to penetrate Palestinian controlled West Bank to apprehend “infiltrators” like myself – telling the truth. The drive from Bethlehem to Haifa is at least two hours so I had plenty of time to think..

Infiltrator, rebel, gentile, missionary… I fell asleep almost instantly in the ambiance of Janet’s Peugeot. The

I love the kefia…

combination of lemon airfreshner and warm sun overwhelmed me.  I woke with a shiver at the usual pit-stop, a petrol-station with a coffee-stand outside. I vaguely recall forcing myself not to stare at the lovely Israeli ladies preparing the coffee. One cocked her head to the side when I insisted I wanted my coffee black, without sugar.
“To their credit, it’s black enough… but it’s missing the هال*” I murmured as I extended my proboscis slurped the opaque elixir.
“Yeah, well… are you awake now, connoisseur?”

I adore my car trips with Janet because I can be myself without reservations. Janet is easily the best person to understand my challenges, balancing our sending agency in New York with actually working in Palestine. Transfigured by coffee, I finally gained traction and started talking about my ongoing adjustments and the funk that clung to me after our first trip to Haifa. Each gulp ratcheted my intensity another level higher, until I felt quite agitated.
“It seems like I haven’t popped yet – like I just need that moment to be vulnerable but I’m stuck. Maybe that’s why my chest feels so tight?”
“You drank that coffee fast.”
“That’s probably it, actually…”

Me, years ago in a sunsetThe bishop’s office was open but mostly vacant. Janet and I launched several attempts to get in contact with our connection to the ministry of interior (we’ll call him Ed) using various phone companies. This gentleman had made all the arrangements; in his absence, we would improvise and keep our hopes just above being realistic. In an uncanny way, we were in our common element. It is not a position either of us prefers but was the type that, surely, has shaped us. First, we sat and enjoyed the beautiful morning in Haifa, since we had at least ten minutes to let something good happen. The unspoken rule is to do no worrying. Ed did not arrive. With two minutes left, Janet said, “it’s about that time,” and I said “yeah, show-time – yulla…” It was actually forty-five minutes before my appointment but we allowed extra time for contingencies. We talked about the logistics, going from the street to the immigration office. We may have discussed what to say, just briefly. I also took time to notice myself. I wondered if it had been the wrong time to pull an all-nighter but the ‘machine’ in my brain started talking to me:
“Your condition is irrelevant: run the operation.” As I buckled my seat-belt again, it occurred to me that being tired increased the likelihood that I would look like a harmless idiot but I decided not to count on it.

These are the moments that create the stress debt, necessarily. Middle-East missionaries don’t live in a spa. My mantra was strangely metacognitive, being mindful of how I have evolved to manage in these situations in order to feel reassured while never ever getting a sense of mastery. From a faith perspective, that is probably why God put me here and not anywhere else: so I would never be tempted to feel expert. I used to think some feeling of power came with using faith but now I know faith is too tiny to feel. It’s the diuretic that makes you piss out your doubts – a pill. Anyone can take it if they can stomach the taste of uncertainty.

Yet providence is always superior. Just as we reached the first traffic circle, we sighted Eduard. He gently honked his car horn and motioned us to follow.
“It’s better to be lucky than good.”
“Amen—keep an eye on his white Toyota, the traffic here is atrocious…”

Ed walked us around the growing line of people to a side-door, where he told security we were going to the cafeteria. Seeing the metal detector, I quickly shuffled my Bethlehem Municipality key-chain into Janet’s purse where it could be lost in knick-knacks. Ironically, it was Janet who got the royal treatment from the guards as each of her dangling earrings, hoop bracelets, and metallic hairclips irritated the sensors.

“You should have been at Queen Alia airport with me,” I quipped, “they just ignore the beeping…”

I knew I was incredibly tired when we reached the doors to the appropriate office and I felt nothing. Luckily, Ed was in excellent form and speaking flawless Hebrew. He turned from talking to the staff and told me to sit and relax. I glanced at Janet. We sat; we are experienced sitters. Before long, Ed was in the ear of the staff by the door again, motioning for me to come. Janet made a smiling comment about how he knows just the right times to ‘be Israeli’, which, for those unfamiliar, meant advancing one’s own agenda without hesitation. Normally, such hesitation is when we take time to use our social faculties, to be considerate for others’ sake and weigh consequences, but inside an Israeli office it is a matter of survival. The bureaucracy is designed to chew-up polite activists, after all –now I am getting political. The point is that I needed a connection who knew how to push the system the way it pushes, who speaks its language literally and figuratively.

When the moment of truth came, I was relieved to notice that it was not my moment. By God’s grace, I picked an excellent time to chatter with my lovely friend all night. I knew I was going to be okay when Ed politely whispered “صباح الخير” to the lady working at the desk. From that point forward, I handed them money when they asked and tried not to let my eyes drift around the room. He did all the talking. Finally, they passed me my passport. I managed to keep my jaw from hanging slack: the volunteer visa** was inside, in its painstaking detail. Then, he looked at me and, cracking a slight smile, said…

I still can’t believe he said this, literally,

“Here’s the visa; you’re free.

He actually said ‘you’re free’. In spite of my fatigue, I did feel my body becoming lighter on my feet as we emerged into the Mediterranean sun. I think I may never forget the white of the smooth limestone paving stones, the tall flag-poles flying debateably-infamous six-point-stars, the sound of horns honking impatiently at a nearby traffic circle, and the sweat rolling down Ed’s brow. It was hard to believe the entire showdown had happened long before high-noon. Even better, Ed & Janet saved my psyche from another tough battle – even if I had it in me, this was what the Bishop had intended. Now, I have until January to make a few visits and properly legitimize my volunteer visa.
“We should get him and the bishop each a gift for this,” said Janet.
“Me; I insist; I should get them each a gift.”

Joy to the world!

* This is a spice found in Arabic coffee that enhances its flavor. I have heard of smokers chewing it right before lighting-up, as well.

** I smelled it a little. Just before I finished editing this. Yeah. It’s pretty sweet.


Way of the World

A little girl frisks a soldier

Its healthy to get a taste of one’s own medicine…

I decided to walk over to Rainbow Street and get an over-priced-anything, as a concession to myself. Rainbow Street is a sort of tourists’ outpost on the opposite hill, a long contemplative walk from the Canary Hotel. I found an ice-cream shop and ordered a scoop of  pistachio-filled “Arabic” ice-cream, since I can’t get that just anywhere. I wanted  a Strawberry chaser. But I gobbled my cone and slinked to the café for a sandwich. It was a good thing that my coworker texted me a warning, an hour earlier, to stay in Amman. The Israeli promise to deliver my visa from Haifa to the Sheikh Hussein bridge in 48 hours was, frankly, an archetypical Israeli promise. That was my prevailing thought but, seeing nothing to gain, I distracted myself by finding a shortcut to Rainbow Street and pretending that 2.50 dinar was not an abominable price for a lemonade. “I’m paying for the motif of this place,” I reassured myself.  I lingered at the ‘bar’ listening to the radio. “September” by Earth, Wind, & Fire was playing:

…As we danced in the night,
Remember: how the stars stole the night away
Ba de ya – say do you remember?
Ba de ya – dancing in September!
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy dayyy…”

I remember my first visa-dance. It was August 31st 2011, in the early hours of the morning. Global Ministries flew me to Tel Aviv on Turkish Airlines for economy’s sake. I was a young male, traveling alone in the wee hours, on a ‘suspicious’ airline. Worse, I was nervous. Like a true rookie, I picked the booth with a lady-guard. She was buying none of my story. How could I not know my driver’s name? How could I not know at what hotel I was staying? What kind of organization is the Methodist Church, anyway? She had a tenacity that made the Israeli character from NCIS look good-humored. She took me in the back to her supervisor, who was clearly tired and disinterested. They snapped in Hebrew to each other and continued to question me along the same lines she had at the booth. When they asked if I was going to the Palestine Territories, I told an outright lie: “No.” I pushed the dumb-tourist routine algorithmically until the supervisor mumbled something and waved passively. Her eyes went wide and she stood bolt upright, protesting. He waved again and then stamped my passport. I must have been quite the convincing idiot. She admonished me for being so directionless and I thanked her warmly for her concern.

“Nice touch,” said Janet as we drove away from the airport, “but try to avoid the women if you can: they have more to prove…”
“Well, I hate to be sexist…”
I also hate to be racist. A close friend studying psychology asked me how I would feel if she worked for a Jewish social services agency.
“The same as I would feel if they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or secular, as long as they help people instead of hurting them.”
While I am flattered people tread carefully for my sake, there are Jewish and Jewish-Israeli organizations working alongside our ilk. B’Tselem and ICAHD belong in the same sentence as Badil and Al-Haq. ‘Clash of cultures’ is a myth: we have a clash of ethics. The lines are not drawn according to race or religion but according to awareness and convictions. I asked a mentor of mine how he felt about fibbing his way through security and he replied that helping the oppressed took precedence over personal integrity. I can not think of any better answer! The US-supported infrastructure and bureaucratic hoops in Israel are so ubiquitous, entrenched, and patently insidious, it necessitates a bag-of-tricks.

When that visa expired Global Ministries found a conference on migration in Geneva for me to attend. My eyes were shut-tight in prayer for most of the return flight, working on my story. I relented, at last, and mumbled “oh God, please don’t make me lie this time.” When I landed, I went through two random scans where I said I was studying theology. Seminary is a powerful lubricant. I almost stopped to rest but hesitation is an enemy to confidence. I strode up to the guard who was laughing and joking with his neighbor. Without asking me a question, he flipped open my passport and applied the stamp. As I walked away, he was still joking with the other guard…

I learned to hide my nerves beneath layers of detachment. When I returned from Ireland after the second three month stint, I played my cards exactly as I had on the Geneva exit, right up until the guard I picked was relieved by another: a female guard. She was having none of my story, after I had been in ‘Israel’ for seven months. What guest-house in Nazareth? Why is seven months not enough? Do you have enough money? I was taken into the back where I met her supervisor, also female. I SO hate to be sexist. She grilled me. At one point, she asked me to write down my friends’ names in a list. Without hesitation, I took the lined paper and filled it with bogus, generic names. No one has time to check them, only to check my face for fear. I waited well over an hour in the lounge after my ‘interview’. She finally returned and gave me a three week visa. Apparently, my tracks were covered well enough that I could not be turned away at the airport. I caught the Neshur van to Tantour, brushing off sideways glances from people in yarmulkes. The sun was rising and the drive was fantastic. I felt alive.

Sing some Earth, Wind & Fire with me:
“That’s the way of the world
Plant your flowers and you grow a pearl
A child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart grow cold…”

This latest delay came exactly ten weeks after the Maunday Thursday exit: a Christian three days short of Easter in Jerusalem. My exit stories are more interesting, now that I think about it—I’ll be glad to share them another time. Even Israel will hardly stop me from leaving. The closest that ever came to happening was at the baggage counter in Hong Kong. I told them (truthfully!) that I was going to be volunteering in Israel and the baggage clerk placed an ominous phone call to make sure it was acceptable for me to travel over-land from Jordan. Now that I have experienced other nation’s checkpoints, I am curious to meet my worthy opponents, the Israelis, again. When I entered Jordan for the first time I had a surreal experience at the checkpoint. An old officer waved-off my inspection and declared “Welcome to Jordan!” for reasons The West could hardly fathom. This will be my first Israel-entry by land. Janet is coming to get me again. We will drive South and I will try to picture the fruit stands and coffee-vendors of this East Bank rather than the settlements and barbed-wire growing invasively along the Jordan valley to the West.