A Word on God (after Easter)

Long after Easter, returned from my exile and baking in the summer sun, I was in Beit Sahour waiting for the bus; I met eyes with a young man commuting from job to home. As he approached he said “Shalom”.

But I pretended not to understand him at all, apologizing and asking him what he’d said…

لوو سماحت, سديق : شو حكيِت، إنتَ؟

But he inquired again…

بتحكي عبري؟

Yet I apologized, again, and indicated I didn’t understand.

ما بأفهم, لوو سماحت

Then he greeted me in Arabic:

مارحبح؟

To which I replied (roughly translated) “whattup, brother?”

مارحبتين! كيفك, أخي؟

He said “I’m fine” but asked once more if I spoke Hebrew.

انا ملي لكن إنتَ ما بتحكي عبري؟

لا. باحكي عربي شوَاي, مش عبري

“No. I speak Arabic slightly, not Hebrew.” That was essentially true: however pathetic my Arabic, my Hebrew was restricted to an empty ‘Shalom’ when I was using my dumb-tourist-routine to cross military check-points more easily. He and I had in-common an emotional distance from Hebrew that would confuse many ‘religious’ contemporaries of mine for whom Hebrew is the exotic script of sacred texts, not the familiar drone of racial profiling or the roaring loud-speakers of destruction. When my seminarian friends get inked-up to show their devotion, I am relieved that their tattoos keep peace in silence; they are read but cannot speak.

To ancient Hebrews, the name of God was unspeakable. God was too mysterious to be known and therefore the Deity’s name was impossibly sacred for human lips. If one could not completely comprehend God then how could God even be nameable? They deployed a substitute script, for the sake of reading, and deity-words were borrowed from other cultures for the sake of speaking.

In Arabic, you cannot complete a casual conversation without uttering the name of God. It is Allah. Allah is incorporated into common phrases, into the very fabric of keywords — not least of which is “Justice”. Phrases of gratitude or of wishfulness incorporate God’s name, as does the common expression for “let’s go!” (“y’allah!”). I could not leave the room without tripping over God’s name. If God composed everything, then how can God be avoided? A special ligature (a contraction of Arabic script) was invented for our God-writing convenience. God’s name stretches from minaret to minaret five times a day and swings from the lingering smoke of church incense, incanted.

Even those of us who seek the Divine merely glimpse it. It exists only in-part, if at all, yet as long as we seek even the smallest amount there seem to be clues beckoning from everywhere. The whole idea is impossible to obtain but its constituents are impossible to discount. Neither of these languages is adequate but, interestingly, in countering one another they become complete together. It is bewilderingly Taoist; or would it be less deceptive to say it is groundingly contradictory? *winking*

That is the essence of everything. I am neither from Palestine nor Israel. I am from Michigan —land of lakes— where some previous inhabitants called this Mystery “Gitchi Manitou” — a ‘Great Essence’ or ‘Great Spirit’: The Everything Essence. Of course, each other thing on Earth has its manitou, an essence or spirit — not like a ghost but like an archetype, a raw state, or a central core from which to project its power and qualities into the world. Somewhere between nowhere and everywhere, I lost ‘here’: my manitou and, with it, the manitou of everything else with which I would be in symbiosis.

TBC (as always)

 

Advertisements

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.