A Hot Idea in the Cold Air

cropped-mi_bethlehem_coffee1.jpgA person becomes an idea as soon as they disappear into the ground; I mean down the escalator of the DC Metro, in this case. If I could get out of my own head long enough, I might be able to see myself as an idea too — getting smaller and smaller as I stroll into the darkness of a cold January night on Capitol Hill, letting go of a moment in faith there will be at least one more like it. Let go. The boiling-point of a hug is low. The gesture sublimated into the air and joined the fog pouring from me. I imagined I was one of those suspiciously conical ‘hills’ in Belize, seeping ghosts from a doorway long-overgrown with vines — temple? Gradually, I am absorbing that something happened Saturday — exactly one year after I visited the site of Christ’s baptism.

The cold wind tried to drink me with every pass, sipping the flush from my still-blushing cheeks. Something caught my attention on the sidewalk by the Library of Congress… I should have been less surprised when I saw it: a finjaan, turned lip-down on the sidewalk. The walls between my realities are Capitol Citythinning, as I grow accustomed to allowing myself to pass through them. I was not noticeably shocked. Another pedestrian waddled past without acknowledging my perplexed pause. Those tiny cups are everywhere, in Palestine and Jordan, because the rituals in which they play a part are ubiquitous. There was at least one dirty finjaan (or perhaps “finjaantyn”, 2) on my desk at Wi’am at any given time, a halo of Arabic coffee grounds nestled in the bottom. They were common in Bethlehem, usually bore the same designs in either red or green, and it was normal to see the shards of muddled conversations, perhaps even fumbled mediations, lying on the ground in the form of broken finjaneen (multiple, tiny coffee cups). Yet I had not seen one since Jericho, a year ago on the exact same date: the Orthodox Epiphany. I was a little surprised.

Of course I wanted to touch it! Immediately, I picked it up in my bare hands and flipped it, looking for the tell-tale rings and streaks. It was clean. I was baffled. In fact, I was a little bit sad to see that the finjaan was laying empty on the ground forgotten — as if it had never been used. Bonds forged over coffee can change lives. Insha’allah. I started to walk away with the cold, tiny cup clutched in my left-hand. My veins felt strangely warmed, which I wrote-off as having more to do with where I had just been than where I was going. Then again, where I had just been was exactly where I wanted to be going: to coffee. With someone. The finjaan heated quickly, and soon felt almost as if it had just been filled. Glancing down, I startled. It’s creamy bottom seemed etched with the remains of coffee. Tower

Then I was in Bethlehem again, on the patio at the Wi’am Center staring at the West Bank Separation Barrier. There was no one there with me but I realized, by the scorch marks still on the guard turret, that three of them were with me — with me in Jericho, drinking that last finjaan a year ago! The power of coffee opened a link to the last day of work I never had, the day we went down to the Jordan River instead of into the office. The wind was also blowing in the West Bank, yet slightly faster, wetter, but (mercifully) less cold: filling me with the scent of growing sage and mint. The coffee tray sat on the picnic table beside the herb garden, epitome of hospitality. The pot at its center was hot to the touch. I ran to the door of the center but it was locked. From whence came that hot java, I’ll never know.

CRACK. A stone hit the scuffed pane of the turret. When the stones hit the turret, we used to evacuate before the soldiers retaliated. My colleagues were not eager to be tear-gassed. The protests, as much as the detentions, inhered my PTSD; it was never a severe case …but mild infections sometimes go unnamed longer. In Bethlehem, I absorbed every impact without so much as a chip but the reverberations were inescapable — they haunted me upon return, made me angry and sullen last spring, demanded I undergo therapy. I learned to stop turning the strain inward, in good time.

They battered it down to the wire...

They battered it down to the wire…

That awful November it was Israel that bombed Gaza, the US which blocked Palestinian Statehood in the UN security council, and shabaab in the West Bank who made the protests blazing hot, really and figuratively — during all of that, I went to work to write grants and reports. That was my statement. Hollowed, I returned to the snows of Michigan with no more fuel to push myself out of bed each day: a wraith. Mission accomplished: I lasted. I was done. six months passed in D.C. and I decided to return to an old dream — to this dream: to write creatively! To finally do all the ‘bad writing’ that my perfectionism would not allow. In a sense, I evacuated from the new sense of purpose I was given in Bethlehem and all of what I had learned about myself before ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’. I spent the Autumn reacclimating instead of preparing for the next battle. Now, I’m kicking myself because I wasted time: I’ll never be happy in the shadows, now. The writer I would have been will never exist and I am at peace with that because… …because I evolved. Peace & Justice work became part of me and broke me from my cycles of dysfunction. Saturday, the coffee brought me back to crisis again — in the best way.

Rhinoceros crushes annexation wall

Sometimes I wish I were just a little bit bigger…

Alone, I stepped closer to that wall. The crack of another stone erupted, faintly, from the next turret. I looked again at the tray of finjaaneen. Once, in a moment of creative clarity, I sat next to Adnan drinking coffee on the bench and imagined that all the tiny finjaan in Bethlehem floated to ‘our’ section of the separation barrier and, like a swarm of locusts, pelted the wall by the thousands. Each finjaan bit a chunk of concrete out of the wall until the section was obliterated. I had imagined raising my arms in the air like Moses, cleaving the wall with a plague of quaint coffee cups. Yet I knew, as the frostiness left my breath at last, that the ‘medicine-touch’ rarely works in such a way. I poured myself a cup of rich, cardamom laced Arabic coffee and savored it to the last drop.

A Hebraic voice ripped the air. A teenager met eyes with me from his perch in the tower. Pouring another cup, I raised it in honor of him and said “someday, my cousin, your blindness will pass. What should work, by the name of God, will work but what should not be will eventually be laid to waste: one cup at a time.” Shaking a little, I sauntered to the base of the wall with my full cup of coffee and stood there while the Israeli soldier yelled, sipping my coffee and ignoring the boy quite intentionally. He calmed, after a while, and the sound of stones faded even further into the distance. Taking the empty cup in my right hand, I dug it hard into the graffiti stained concrete. Though it was solid to the touch of my finger, with the finjaan I could scoop a piece of the wall as if it were all made of ice-cream. One chunk fell from my cup and, shocked, I exclaimed: “You really can destroy Apartheid with coffee! Praise Jesus!”

The cup went frigid again: I stared at the awkwardly nude figures in front of the Library, a stone’s throw from the US Capitol Building. I could still feel the coffee in me but it was American coffee. Just a half hour before, I had enjoyed some coffee in the capitol hill area, though not alone. “Praise Jesus,” I said with a contented sigh, “you really can destroy PTSD with coffee — but not just any coffee…”

I have more to say but this particular piece is done. There is a danger in saying too much. Sometimes, something or someone needs to disappear for a period of time to be recovered fully later. Insha’allah: God brings me closer every day. I’ve decided to keep my ideas and let people be whomever they need to be. If I am mindful of myself, perhaps I will be invited to linger… to catch the same sentiments as they condense again…

Drugs & anti-Drag

Xavier's Mother

My Mother: cute but worried.

My mother posted a link to “Always Burning: 2” on the Facebook wall of my old baby-sitter. Her comment: “This is what I am going through with [him]; I’ll be glad when he comes home.” They may be unnerved by the passage where my coworkers and I evacuated the office to avoid tear-gas and then smoked a sheesha. Wonderful, temperate women like my mother and Mrs. [baby-sitter] are not wrong to worry.

I too seldom write about my everyday life, since there is no shortage of drama and issues to recount in Palestine. Smoking is not for deviants and rebels in Palestine; they smoke like Americans did in earlier, harder times. People know smoking is bad for them but they have also heard fried food is ‘not good’ and the distinction is often lost. There are so many, quicker ways to die and cigarettes are part of a daily ritual for regular people. It restored me to normal in a time of near-trauma. Readers should note, still, that I have smoked less than a half dozen times in my life, all after my return from Sheikh Hussein bridge.

Nicotine is a dear friend in the moment but a mistake for the future, I know. Like cannabis, it deters and kills insects for a plant that could care

Awesome green sheesha pipe.

Sheesha: decadently delicious, top of CDC’s tobacco no-no list.

less about our buzz. Unlike cannabis, nicotine is legal and does not impair judgment in any way except one: it is fiercely addictive. Yet the tobacco made a ritual available to us in a tense time. It is an aide to normalcy.

Nicotine and alcohol, both, are best omitted from daily life and saved for ceremonial use. A stimulant will temporarily lift a person out of their fatigue but alcohol anesthetizes them as they finally allow themselves to relax, sink. I went with colleagues (Dawid & Drew) to a place they knew where we could have beer. The inhibitions I maintain sloughed and I started to converse more freely, even laughing and singing. Later in the evening, I realized that the alcohol enabled me to be more open and social, which I needed desperately, but I should be able to do that of my own accord. Alcohol cannot be my every day companion because it does impair my judgment. If I try, I can do for myself what alcohol does but much better.

Once a person reaches the point of being burned-out, it is much harder to consciously do for oneself what nicotine does automatically. Living here has given me much more compassion for people living challenging, unfair lives everywhere. Smoking is not an intelligent habit but that does not make smokers idiots – life is hard! Cut smokers some slack. Still, we should all become ex-smokers together because our bodies are not made to be on that artificial roller-coaster. Now that I have seen the CDC file on sheesha, I am convinced there must be a better way.

Advent Solo, anonymous

Me & my kludge Trumpet: awesome, anonymous

Unfortunately, my sinking mood might have other causes. Swallowing difficulties forced me to visit the doctor, who found an infection in my throat and prescribed an anti-biotic. Doses of amoxicillin seem to coincide with moody episodes, for me. The line between sickness, stress and drugs is paper thin right now. These episodes remind me, in a muted way, of the terrible time I had when doctors prescribed an anti-depressant for me in the wake of my 2005 surgery. My emotions ran unnaturally high on Zoloft, owing to unpredictable minutia. My emotional state deteriorated rapidly After 11 PM every night until I quit the drugs and picked up a trumpet: therapy.

I will never understand that nightmare era except to know it precipitated the era I am exiting, this stage characterized by fluctuating  esteem, uncertain purpose, and intentional distraction—behavioral addictions. I feel all that coming to a slow, aching end as Advent begins. I can choose to move forward. I took a big step forward when I ‘attended’ a webinar through Eastern Mennonite University on trauma and peace-building. At a personal level, I finally found a way to see myself both as an aide and affected – the facilitators said their trainings were meant to do that, exactly, to equip people to care for others and themselves.

They spoke of trauma as a wound that is often on our dignity. My trauma was never of safety or loss but damaged integrity, instead. I was singled-out and forced to undress twice at the bridge-crossing, then accused of lying while all my possessions were scattered across examination tables. I had to maintain my story, verbatim, or else be turned away. When the guard looked me in the eye and entreated that I tell her the whole truth, my heart skipped at the chance to be honest but I quelled the impulse and won the battle of wills after almost seven hours. All that day, I was yawning and shivering, sometimes trying to rub a pins and needles feeling out of my hands and legs. I learned this week from the webinar that these are ways the body tries to release trauma energy when overwhelmed. Affect I held inside, intentionally, remains there like a coiled spring.

Between affliction and transformation, there is the traditional sacrament of the morning: coffee. Caffeine is a steadier friend, for mind and body, and coffee is its natural vessel. It would take gargantuan amounts of coffee to hurt us while a tiny cup does what nicotine would do… but more gently! Coffee is more than a stimulant in Arab culture because there are social rituals for drinking it. It gathers our staff in the morning, to talk through issues and keep company with each other. We pour the fine black liquid for each other to show respect and affection, saying “please” and “thank-you”. Coffee, and none other, is the beverage that legally binds a Sulha mediation. I wrote “Between Tea and Coffee” about coffee’s powers of magical realism. Could coffee revive the dead artist in me? Revive the dead in us all?

Coffee is my anti-drag. My memories with coffee began when I was a teenager, working with my grandfather and wanting to be more like him. In college, it was a welcomed lift after walking across a snow-filled campus. Now, the original coffee culture is offering me a rescue from other drugs. There is a time to say no to even coffee but it is a matter of doses and applications: one coca leave in the cheek is good for altitude sickness, they say. Yet coffee remains an aide, not a cure. Even coffee-drinking can become just another excess.

So, here I am, deciding what therapy is right for me this Advent: what should I do?

Tray of Arabic coffee *drool*

Arabic Coffee: smart

Between Tea & Coffee

Beverages matter. My co-workers once called me down to the foyer and offered me tea brewed with maleesa (an herb). I added sugar from a small metal bowl, using a little spoon, to my tiny glass cup with no handle. Just then, Saliba came from his office. I immediately rose and went to the kitchen, bringing another glass and setting it on the tray.

“He doesn’t take tea– but you are getting better…”

Two microscopic ripples of emotion collided in that moment. I saw the shift in my orientation, my ability to not only notice there was not a glass for Saliba but be actively caring whether or not there would be enough glasses for everyone. At the same time, I felt sad that I had sat with Saliba so many times and not noticed that he usually is just sitting with us: being present.

I do not know how to tell these people I love them in a genuine way. In fact, I feel as if the normal activities of life are supposed to be love, so that it does not have to be explicitly mentioned. When we orient to ourselves, we want our acts of love recognized as special. When we orient to others, we want our acts of love to make them feel welcome and accepted. Since I have returned, I notice how often Adnan is ready with the coffee-pot, filling our فناجين as we enter. Today I sat by the coffee-pot and did the same, for everyone but especially Adnan. Shortly after, he asked for the pot so he could pour himself a second cup. Then, he put the pot by his feet. That is what I should expect from a Sulha man (a mediator) and his negotiating tools: I suspect he usually keeps the coffee under his thumb. My imagination engulfed me and I tried to picture all the فناجين of coffee Adnan has drunk, plastered in a pattern on the giant concrete wall by our office. I cam confident that if there were an individual فنجان for each dose

Tray of Arabic coffee

Small but mighty

of Arabic coffee, we could really do something like that. Now I am picturing all Zoughbi’s cups, plus the cups from all of Bethlehem and the surrounding villages, materializing and clinging like hungry suction-cups to the annexation wall. Then, by magic, the wall disintegrates and fills all those little coffee-cups. They fall in waves and cascade down our adjacent driveway, or into the playground, or the ditches around the distant Qalandia check-point near Ramallah. Cups falling in Al-Waleje, in Al-Masra, and rolling down the divided streets of East Jerusalem.

When all the cups have finished their work, we can see Rachel’s Tomb and all of the Israeli officers running into the street with their guns drawn, panicked, because they know what Arabic coffee is but they don’t begin to understand what it represents, nor what it could do for them if they did.

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 according to 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 no 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.

 

Craving the ‘Joe’

Tray of Arabic coffee *drool*

Kiddies, this is coffee! Huzzah!

I left Hong Kong on forty-eight hours notice. Clearance came from headquarters at the last minute. The discount Filipino airline refused to take my bag, so my colleague had to drag a trumpet and wad of dirty laundry back to her apartment. Manila has the most poorly designed airport I have ever seen but they aired NBA games by the gates so I call it an even break. Just before my flight to Davao I procured a mocha and settled. I reminisced about the mocha I drank the first time I visited القدس الشرقية  (East Jerusalem). This one was not like that one but I could still dream. The flight from Manila to Davao was worse than driving in the mountains ~ the cabin pressure fluctuated wildly.

For two hours I sat at the airport bus stop, drinking orange juices and reading. Security finally came and asked if I needed help. I shrugged and said “uh, yes. I thought my friend might come but he did not.” My colleague and I never clarified if he was coming to get me, nor exchanged phone numbers, nor had I copied the convention center’s address. I wondered if I had reached the proverbial dead-end but I decided to sit and wait for new variables. The airport guards recommended I go to the Mall and use the internet.

“I knew you would figure it out –“,said my colleague, “I had things to do.”

The next day I was packed into a van with two Filipinos, one Filipina, two Indonesians, and an Indian named Jerome from Delhi, all of us bound for the municipality of Tulunan. We drove several hours from Davao city for a field course with local leaders about ‘Zones of Life’ or ‘The Peace Zones’. These were revealed to be now-mostly-stagnant ideas that emerged in some displaced barangaysA during a martial law period in the late eighties. I wrote a four page long amateur analysis (none of which is here).

What matters for this blog is that I was the only white person and I had a sinus infection that turned my snot the color of lemon pudding. My body started talking to me. That is how I came to be in Hong Kong: my body told me I needed to swim. Now my ailing body decided it wanted فلافل )falafel) and قهوا عربي (Arabic Coffee); it was given white rice and Nescafe. I take pride in eating well so I shoved the Philippine cuisine down my gullet in earnest. At one barangay they had a desert called “puto” that was fluffy and slightly fermented. My stomach decided this was just enough like bread. I inhaled puto like a starving man. The village ladies were so pleased, they sent extra home. Puto is now dead to me.

“John Puto!” my Indonesian friends became fond of crowing. They like nicknames. Sago, Okie (aka “Captain Okie”) and I shared the same foam pad for the last two nights of the field excursion. Everyone had their own space but there was a communal serenity in sensing two other people in my sleep-space. Sago played with his laptop just before bed one night. He glanced from the screen to me and smiled one of his white, toothy, Malay-Indonesian smiles and said “Look, John; it’s my son!” He was watching short videos of his wife and baby, playing with traditional instruments. “Ah, John. Maybe someday you, yes? Have a son?”

Oh Sago… you sweetheart.

As I said, I came to swim. A group of us made the multi-leg journey to a series of waterfalls that weekend, starting by jeepnee and ending on motorcycle, with a ferry-ride in between. Now there were two white guys, one Indonesian lady, and some odd Filipinos. I mean odd in the most complimentary way: they spent ten minutes making jokes about how “coke” is often mispronounced as “cock”. Far from being offended, our bubbly Indonesian Muslim friend thought this was hilarious. She surprised me when she emerged from the showers sans-headscarf and bare-shouldered. Granted, she had spandex leggings that reached her shins but she expanded my thinking about Muslim swimming attire. Culture and religion are dynamic. Then again, this lady is a dynamic force in and of herself!

We scrambled over rocks, trying different pools and taking the occasional tumble over a waterfall. I relished every moment my feet where not anchored to the ground. While I was wallowing and tumbling through the water like an otter, I lost my vestment: a small anchor-necklace given to me at missionary commissioning. I was disappointed but not crest-fallen.
“That’s too bad you lost it,” said my colleague, lighting another cigarette.

“It’s just a thing – this doesn’t change my commitment.”
“Of course not.”
“It would be better as a tattoo anyway.”

It may have been on the way there or the way back, I cannot recall, but my colleague and I became absorbed talking at the convenience store. We forgot to queue and cut some people in line. “Now all those people will go home,” said one of our Filipino friends, “and talk about how rude the Americans were…” Initially I was bristly about that comment: I had just spent the past eight months in a culture where no one ever queues. Later, though, I apologized to my Filipino friend and thanked him for making me aware. In hindsight, it was pretty low of me to shift the weight of that onto Palestine and Jordan

Yet in Palestine and Jordan I am not “Joe”. From time to time, as we two white guys walked down the street, people would yell “hey Joe” at us. He explained to me that white men in the Philippines are doing one of three things in this order:

1) looking for women to marry or otherwise use

2) serving a tour of duty with the US military (G.I. Joes… get it?)

3) …being aide workers.

I could not climb in a taxi without someone asking if my wife or girlfriend was from Davao. That I was visiting two male coworkers was, judging by their glances, absurd. Yet being called Joe really wormed under my skin because I fundamentally hate the idea of an ubiquitous military, reaching its poison-barbed tentacles around countries and into the lives of their people

Naturally, the next week I met an ex-embassy guard. His name is Sam, he’s from the heartland, he’s getting a master’s at GMU, and I love his guts. Yup. When asked to name something that made him laugh he responded “penguins”. I joined Sam and his undergrad cohorts at the canteen by the swimming pool (I was soaking wet) and he learned about my temperance rule. I drink only what is offered to me in hospitality.

Soon it was my birthday + Sam is a generous man. Actually, no one was hurt: I put a hard-cap on my rule. At the beginning of that night, we mustered as many undergrads as were not sick (lemon pudding? No thank you…) and headed for a nice establishment. There was a band in the background playing classic rock, people were dancing, and the air was not too hot. By the end of the evening, I was sitting with Sam and a Canadian, Matt, who joined us later; we were all talking about our experiences in the Holy Land and the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere. It was one of my all-time greatest birthdays.

It was hard to regret my trip to Asia, sitting in the lobby of the Amman airport. A man approached me and offered me a taxi ride into the city. I said I needed some coffee first. We walked together to the coffee stand and, this time, the joe was in my hand (not me). Sipping those first, precious drops I could not help but ask myself “what more could I possibly want but to be looking at these jebels and drinking REAL coffee again?”

“To go swimming.”

Oh. Right. Desert.

 

A: Barangays are a unit of local government, similar to a township in the mid-West United States.

Genesis, Yonni

Wall graffiti

It appears Alice is also struggling with the visa process.

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.”

“صغير؟”

“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.