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.

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Playing John Cena: Taybeh & Ramallah

My first encounter with the ‘Cenation’ phenomena was at the Steil Boys & Girls Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At that time I was their half-competent volunteer coordinator, loitering in the games-room.  One of the other staff introduced me as “Mr. John” and some junior high geniuses quipped “John Cena?” A nine-year-old’s war cry rang out as he rose from the bean-bags and knocked my knees from under me. Not wanting to spoil my blessed ignorance of professional wrestling, I never researched John Cena.

Wrestling is popular across Arab nations, including Jordan and Egypt. I could not trip over my shoelaces in Amman without either meeting an Egyptian waiter or seeing a John Cena T-shirt. Perhaps the handsome wait-staff are key vectors of this acquired taste. Some of them are not much older than Wi’am Center kids. I emerged from exile just in time for Wi’am’s yearly summer camp. Conscripted as a photographer, I had the privilege of making funny faces at the small children while they did their crafts and, thanks to ocular technology, taking sniper snap-shots of self-conscious teenagers. The middle-school boys learned my name was John and henceforth greeted me with seismic slaps on the back and exuberant exultations of “John Cena! John Cena, حبيبي*!” If I had a pro-wrestler’s body it would all be cool but three ‘shabaab’ at a time was too much. The staff finally intervened when boys started grabbing me by my shirt and yelling “you can’t see me!” in my ear.

The camera’s memory went bad the day before the field-trip to Taybeh and Ramallah. Zoughbi knew I was digesting a funk so he coaxed me into simply going anyway. Taybeh is famous for being all-Christian and home to Palestine’s most excellent brewery. I boarded the bus to crows of “John Cena!” and “صورنا!, bicture!” Bristling a little, I wormed into a seat in the middle of the bus near one of the chaperones and her young son. The little boy peered several times from behind his mother and whispered in her ear. She looked at me and smiled, then winked and said, “He thinks you are really John Cena. He says ‘he has changed a lot!’” I hesitated five seconds to let her clarify for him that I was another John but she just patted him on the shoulder and smiled at me again. I felt like an unbearded mall Santa Clause doing his first Christmas.

Camp is for the camper. I can deepen my misery or transcend self-centeredness and let the kids give me some of their energy. The juxtapositions I saw working with these kids were more than enough reason to disregard my ineptitudes and just stay present with them for a day. It is a special treat. For example, the image of a sugar-charged mob, dressed in all kinds of graphic t-shirts, swarming heedlessly into Taybeh’s historic Roman Catholic Church for an art lecture from a sweating nun (the portrait of St. Khader slaying the dragon came to life through several grotesque-sounding reenactments– thanks boys). The kids seemed even more out of place at the Taybeh home for the elderly, where I saw nothing resembling a program to hold their attention. They are so funny. I did not dream we would visit the brewery but, indeed, there we were: guiding them between vats and trying to keep them hushed during the beer-making video which was, interestingly, in English. The good folks at Taybeh Brewery sold the kids some of their nonalcoholic brew. One of the mothers was putting driblets on her finger and feeding it to her infant; he relished it, testifying the excellent character of Taybeh beer.

The crusader chapel on the hill was the highlight of the morning. We scrambled up the ancient stone steps to look upon…
…a huge blood-spot. Someone had hung a carcass from the hook in the disembuildinged doorway and slaughtered it right there, I concluded; alternatively, there was a blood sacrifice in an all-Christian village. Kids filtered into every nook of the ruins, scaling the remains of walls. Feeling spry and game, I jumped to a perch of my own in the sun. For a minute I gazed over the valley below; I pondered being faux-John Cena and tried to come fully to grips with the fact that, whether by lies or faith, I was in the West Bank again. Being alone so much had made such reveries second-nature, which is why it was for the best that a familiar word jarred my attention Earthward:

“Motherfucker!”

The boy clasped his hands to his mouth, shocked, when he realized I spoke English. He knew what he had done. I met his eyes and said “”شو حكيَت, حبيبي؟ (what did you say, my lovey?)
He shook his head. I laughed and told him, basically, not to worry. I stopped worrying, too.**

The summer camp field trips have several goals. Exposing the kids to their heritage and building a sense of collective responsibility is certainly a priority. Yet under no circumstances should the value of cutting-loose and having fun be under-estimated. That kid’s day should not be ruined because he said ‘fuck’ once, considering the glance I threw at him was enough edification. The Wi’am camp stresses fun, which is as it should be for youth who live in a tense political situation. We want to give them a piece of their childhood before it is all blown-away. There was no question: I needed to swallow my pride and get onboard with the John Cena gimic.

The final stop in the day was the amusement park in Ramallah. The staff held that over their heads to keep them to a low boil until the afternoon, when they could explode all over that park. The rides were mostly carnival cast-offs (except for the 4-D theater, which was amazin

Me, looking crazy happy!

Sometimes, it takes a voluntary attitude adjustment!

g!) but these kids were undeterred. I’ll keep details to a minimum; what matters is that I learned John Cena’s hook-line. He does some thing where he waves four fingers in front of his face and says “you can’t see me!” That explained the ringing in my ears; it was only a matter of putting it to good use when my ‘friendly backslappers’ boarded the roller-coaster. Just as they came around the first bend I popped-out from behind a concession stand, waving my four-fingers in front of my face and yelling “YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”

*boys & girls alike waved  back in kind* “JOHN CENA! YOU CAN’T SEE ME!  YOU CAN’T SEE ME!”

*An Arabic term of endearment meaning “my lovey”, often used between same-sex friends.

** On a previous day, I heard two young ladies chatting openly with each other in English. I forget what one of them said but I looked in their direction and wrinkled my nose. The other girl’s eyes went wide as she said, “Oh my God, that guy speaks English…”. Apparently, they were using English as their private language to critique the camp in front of less fluent staff-members. I hated to rain on their parade…