A Wedding Reception (part 2)

All names are still changed, as in the last entry. Photographs by Ruben Vl.

There was a staggered set of concrete blocks to prevent anyone from rushing the check-point but, otherwise, the occupiers did not care about traffic going into Beit Sahour. We passed unheeded and Roger exhaled. Having just come from the wedding via the surreal streets of the Israeli settlement, our group of seven was eager to get to the reception and celebrate. Just as the sun began to set, A.T. remembered the time he had a job interview in East Jerusalem but brought his son’s passport by mistake. The soldiers held the passport and his wife had to come get it. This is how things really happen in the West Bank. The flow of their lives is interrupted by apartheid, wedding days and holidays included. It sends my thoughts in directions I do not want to explore.

I fiddled with my prayer beads again as we passed grazing herds of sheep. I bought the beads in Al-Khaleel, the day Belgium, Sweden, and I came there from Ramallah, then went to down-town Bethlehem and over to a restaurant in Beit Jala. We began the day talking to lawyers who defend juveniles in Israeli military courts (<occupation), accompanied some Cambridge students to the divided Ibrahami mosque1 (<occupation), then went to see Walid at “Pain Art Studios” (<tattoo guy). Belgium wanted to get a Handalla on his bicep and I was happy to accompany him to the second floor of the barbershop by the spice-store. I took my commission in peanuts and tequila that day, a rare treat.

Fun with ceiling mirrors.

The three of us arrived to the fourth floor of the reception-center together. Pencil sketches of the new couples were on display near the entrance.

Yulla! Yulla!

Rows of long tables striped the grand banquet halls. I found it hard to believe that every chair could be full by ten in the evening but, with all barriers behind us, there was nothing to stop anyone from celebrating. What really impressed me was that the three of us were more than welcome to celebrate; I mean to physically REJOICE. With apologies to my cousin’s great marriage, and respect to the beautiful ceremony of which I was a part, and acknowledgement of the food, I lament that her wedding-day became flaccid for lack of dancing. A wedding without dancing is a cold bath; a half-filled pie-crust.

Our pies were filled to overflowing, metaphorically speaking. Literally, we had chicken and rice. Though we ate and made small-talk, and had interesting encounters with new people (including a very small old man sitting next to me), I was consumed by the urge to dance. Dancing at Palestinian weddings has far exceeded my expectations. The music is ideal: rhythmic, intense, and exuberant. The enthusiasm of the entire room was a match for that energy. At first, it was a group of tiny little boys attempting to break-dance while we waited for the newlyweds (ending in a kung-fu match and a good cry). Once the couples were with us, though, people of all ages left their chairs – and by that time, the chairs were mostly full. Dozens of family and friends, barred from the ceremony, arrived to congratulate the brides, grooms, and parents.

Of course, my own dancing cannot be summarized in writing. It has to be witnessed. My highlight came when, shoved into the middle of an open circle, I had to dance by myself with everyone watching. Another great moment was when two young guys suspended a cane between their chests while the rest of us leaned back and danced along underneath. Overall, I think everyone who tried danced fantastically. My personal dance strategy is only to try my hardest to have fun and this, I gather, is culturally acceptable as long as I keep my clothes on and do not touch any women who are not my sister2.

If my wedding is not like this, I demand a re-try…

Grown men were thrown into the air. All the young men came together and threw Jack up and down several times, scary considering what a big guy he is. They almost chipped a ceiling tile throwing Jim and he’s closer to my size. Men were up on each other’s shoulders throughout the night, including both brothers, their elder brother, their father, and I am fairly sure a few brothers-in-law offered their shoulders, too. No one was hurt while the action took place, though I think there must have been some sore backs in the morning

Meanwhile, some certain people had quite a bit to drink and had a wonderful time. That is all I will say on the matter except to state, for the record, that I was a help to the staggering without joining their ranks. I owe a great deal of thanks to the rice I ate after I drank my arak3.

As we were leaving, I wanted to make sure to thank both grooms for letting me celebrate with them. Here I was, a person they barely knew a year ago from a country that supports their subjugation, and yet I am allowed to eat, laugh, and even hug these people. By small increments, I have dug a small spot for myself as a family friend. ‘Jim’ (whose real name is beautiful4) returned my well-wishes with interest. Without going into sentimental details, here, he hoped the best for me and my future marriage. It was probably the relational content of that – that my friend wants me to be happy – that really touched my heart.

Simultaneously, the literal content of that statement stirred deep feelings in me. Before I arrived in Palestine, I was coming out of a broken period of my life. My family split apart, in the midst of divorces and deaths, and made me into a broken person who could not keep his own relationship from shattering. Yet, I try not to think about that as often, anymore, since the people I see on a daily basis know me differently. I expected to weave a deep reflection about romance, fidelity, and ultimate love from this journal entry but instead I see an opportunity to be at rest for a moment. The harder I have tried to be the man I wished my father would have been for my mother, the more I have not been the person that was invited to the wedding last weekend. The same community that celebrated with the two brothers has, at least partly, restored me to what I might have been three years ago. There is really nothing I can do but trust to God and believe that I am, indeed, a member of a great extended family. It is a family that includes my friends in Palestine, of course, but also people around the world who fight depression not by drowning it in idle pleasure, nor by trying to destroy the people who hurt them, but by having a hope, a will, an energy that is buoyant enough to lift the weight of trials, light enough to rise to the surface in times of celebration. I have been impatient with myself and that has made the wait longer, though I still cannot regret any step I have taken because the latest period in my life has been so essential.

Though I feel like a fragment, there is hope for community and, with the support of that community, for Loving again.

With all the problems in the world, these are the moments that become our oasis.

 ***

1) The building was divided following a horrible attack where an extremist settler came into the mosque and opened fire and was consequently overwhelmed and killed. Apparently, the punishment for not lying down and being shot is to have your Holy place split in half. I often compare this building to the story of Solomon where the king must deduce to whom a baby belongs. The mother who agreed that the baby should be cut in half was NOT THE MOTHER. Real life does not work out as sensically, after all.

2) My sister was more than an ocean away and does not dance.

3) Arak is a fine liquor which one can find information about on Wikipedia.

4) It literally translates as stated.

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
[CHORUS]
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.