Moonrise Over the Jordan

Moon Phases

Something happened a week ago, a moment that happens as if it were imagined and is remembered as if it’s always happening but fading away.  We left the by-pass road that runs between The Scent and The Holy –Jericho and Jerusalem—and rose upon the backs of naked, blushing hills. We stopped at a hillock marked with a cross, climbed and gazed down at the monastery swaddled in the darkening canyon walls below.  I wished I had wings to visit that secret place, set-apart not just because of what it is but because of the way it sleeps in the land. I would try to describe it more but…

The moon, huge and orpiment, peaked from behind the mountains across the Jordan Valley. It was perfectly round, though not so perfectly uniform, with light shadows that make it look like an incandescent cookie climbing, floating from the streets of Amman, Jordan. Only a short drive from the barbed-wire of the conflict-leeched West Bank is the East Bank Kingdom: a glittery carpet of little villages, coffee-stands, and Bedouin lanterns that unravels from a distant cleft, a widening stream of lights running into the river.  I fathomed from where the moon had just come, a place where I lived in exile. I used to eat chicken at the Iraqi restaurant while the sun sank below the humps of seven Jebels—neighborhoods filled with stairs leading to many secret-doors…I recalled stairs in places further East, too… the moon nudging aside islands in the South China sea…

 

Who am I, now?

 

My blog has gone noticeably quieter as I sort through what I call the ‘new impetus’. This new sources of energy and direction is also something happening now, in my imagination, and yet rooted somewhere deep in the past. I watch the moon many times as it rises from the shepherds fields in Beit Sahour, or Wadi Nahr beyond, but there was one first time, when I realized a new period of my internal life had started. It recalled a pivotal moonrise at the beginning of my college phase, when it cast a bleach-white beam across breakers on the West-shore of Lake Michigan. I questioned God’s existence that night, then found an inkling of Her in the sparks of a fire and the hugs of friends: sparse flashes of illumination but a constant warmth. Yet, in Bethlehem it is not God’s nature in question. It is my own.

I always have wanted to be an author. In the intervening years between kindergarten and graduate school, my preliminary education let us say, I managed to become some kind of writer. I think all the time about how I would blog about the uncanny or ironic or essential or warm or etc moments in my own life. What about fiction? Poetry? I talked to the mission shrink psychologist about it and she suggested that I just needed to take the last step. Nothing makes me so hopelessly, so frantically, yet so subtly angry as having someone tell me that I can be an author because I have spent so many days thinking I should be one but so few acting as one. Instead, I have been a reporter-activist. The shrink expert therapist showed a little frustration with me,
“People often thwart themselves when they are closest to their goal!”

“I know! I know! It is because we don’t have a heuristic for succeeding anymore; I lived a narrative of failure and my brain cannot take it—look at my bad examples! Look the self-thwarting itself…“
“Just take the last step…”
“One step? Just one step? What makes you think this is the last step? I picture thousands of steps…”

 

When I finished shouting at her, I realized she was not ‘shrunken’ about this: it is time. As an understudy to the rising moon, the steaming coffee, the ex-girlfriend who leaves with vague explanations and gives an awkward, last hug—as a reporter, I have the capacity to turn my eyes outward. I can throw my social media habit and my other compulsions on the sun as it leaves for the night. My stages have finally become a cohesive era—an era passed. Where I am has more in common with my future than my past. None of this is happening without my conscious participation but I could not purely will it, either.

Even as I approach eight-hundred words, I am still unable to encapsulate it. My central office frustrated me with domestic placement questionnaire of ten engaging questions, for which they demanded 150 word answers. In a moody-fit, I told them to ask six questions and allow 250. I know, though, that my colleagues do not feel this way: I am speaking from the pit in my stomach.

Almost a month ago – a moonth ago—the Earth passed through a meteor field. At first I did not recognize the shifting constellation, draped next to the moon. I can thank my grandfather’s pilot-vision that I could see it at all. The meteors were colliding with the halo of atmosphere around the moon: sprays of wishes.

 

And when one pierced the sky above my head, I did make a wish.

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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…

A Bridge and a Baptism

I was in the footsteps of Mary & Joseph, pacing along Star Street to my favorite barber. His shop is nestled into an alcove on that fateful street in the antique narrows of Bethlehem. I greeted him in simple Arabic (“مرحباً” ) and he welcomed me to his chair.

                Why do you not have more Israeli friends if you are here so long?

 

From that chair I admired his shop, as he brushed and oiled the electric clippers. There was a clock with an embroidery face, cacti growing in tiny pots, scissors bathing in fragrant alcohol, newspaper clippings taped to the mirrors, a faded pink towel by the sink,

                Do you have plans to visit the territories? Jenin? Hebron? Bethlehem?

and snapshots of his baby grandson scattered around a portrait of his father. He commented to another gentleman that I stayed with the Zoughbi family, cracking a warm smile. He gestured to the clippers and I nodded: (“قصير, من فضلك ”). Short, please.

                What do your parents do for jobs? What is their phone number?

Wavy, buckskin locks fell free to the floor in piles. They grew in Ireland, through Jordan, across Asia to Hong Kong, and washed in Filipino waterfalls before coming to rest in Palestine. I would not let anyone cut my hair or shave my beard. I was waiting for a special day:

                You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.

 

the day I crossed the Sheikh Hussein bridge.

* * *

Last Monday I sat outside of the Israeli embassy in Amman for four hours of pressure-cooker meditation. I prayed for every person I could imagine, and not myself, to detoxify the concoction of fear and impatience gushing through my arteries. My passport returned to me with a cloud of excuses but no visa stamp. Two days later I called Yousef the taxi-driver and breathed slowly for two hours as he drove me to the Northern Bridge. We drank coffee and he mused about each town we passed in his native Jordan. I took another deep breath, walked up to the counter at the Jordanian border station and presented my passport. They charged me an eight-dinar exit tax, asked three questions, and said “okay, bye-bye now.”

A pathetically short bus-ride separates one nation’s reception lobby from the other’s. Mere meters from Jordan, where they sent me through the X-ray machine with my belt still on (beeping all the way) is Israel, where security personnel circle a bulky piece of luggage like a pride of lions. I brandished my best idiotic smile as the security guard pulled me from the herd. In five minutes I was holding my pants up by hand while my jacket, shoes, every article in my pockets, and both bags were going through the machine. Then they reversed the conveyor and looked again. Then they rotated both bags in every conceivable direction to run additional scans.

Two guards informed me I was undergoing a security check. One asked me why I looked nervous and I laughed and said I was embarrassed he could see my underwear (for the second time). When guards say I look nervous it is not an observation but a wish: hoping for a defensive reaction. In December I took the bait and became flustered but these days I giggle and play coy. Once the peep-show was over, I went into the back room for the grand exhibition and story-telling festival. Every pocket was swabbed, every box opened, and sunscreen bottles uncapped as I watched my luggage be gutted. “Are you an actor?” said the  short one with thick glasses. Yes (kinda); I said it helped make English lessons fun for the children in Haifa (lie). I was a substitute teacher, that’s why I carry colored-pencils and dolphin stickers (truth). Those envelopes are addressed to Jerusalem because my friend has a P.O. box there but I don’t know why (lie).  I am learning Arabic, yes (truth). My parents helped me pay for this trip (lie). No, my local church did not send me (truth). The embassy staff told me I did not need the visa ahead of time (half of them); here is paperwork from the ministry of interior in Haifa (a copy). Fiction and non-fiction braided into one.

Repacking bags after a search is a time of quiet, personal privilege. One of the seven sleuths attending to me asked me where my passport was. “I don’t know,” I said coolly. To me, every second at the bridge undenied was a miniature triumph: I spend their time and resources improving my discipline. I parked my bags, sat down, and re-entered the prayer exercise developed at the embassy. I devoted most of my energy to keeping a disconnect between thoughts and physique, sitting in dull tranquility while my emotions seethed for six hours. I literally commanded my body not to shiver. Guards came from the office at intervals to question me and probe for contradictions in my story. By that time I was intentionally staring at a book of Mark Twain stories, watching them with my peripheral vision and looking upward (with a smile) only when they were within two meters. I caught glimpses of Israelis being human beings, drinking Coca-Cola and teasing each other. One with straight hair and narcotic, sapphire eyes almost broke me:

                “You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.”

My faith in humanity almost ignited. Over nine months of service, I had finally learned to see the guards as people, doing the best they can, worthy of respect and love. After 13 weeks of exile, though, I know that the system which employs them is fundamentally sick. I looked past the lady and saw her role: a guard slaying a maverick. “Jousting” at the bridge is a ‘shoot-the-moon’, ‘all-chips-in’ level of maneuver – epitomized when I pulled a Palestinian flag pin out of my pocket and said, nonchalantly, “oh, the kids gave me this…” Lying felt disgusting but relenting meant failure. I held my integrity in dissonant suspense. I was a beast wrapped in a machine, having the best day of its dystopian life.

The same guard who discovered my stickers invited me to come into the food court under her supervision. She had a name: Roz. She smiled sweetly at me and told me to put my money away when I tried to pay for my soda. I stopped myself from admiring her long curly hair and splashes of freckles; I needed to be perfectly in-character. I visualized myself as a blonde Sean Connery: stirred but not shaken, cool but not frigid. I ate my tuna sandwich with deliberate bites and well-timed sips of orange soda. I had my own sapphire eyes to flash in this masquerade, dressed cunningly as a hippie-seminarian who works with children. I did stroke my beard and throw a few glances toward Roz but my attention was on my primary interrogator, emerging through the double-doors and striding to the counter, then back again with a Red Bull in her hand. Our gaze did not meet. I knew exactly where I was: a short sprint from the Promised Land but several steel doors away from my passport. I was no fool. I followed Roz back into the lobby and resumed my stake-out.

“You have one week to renew at the ministry of interior; do you understand?” (I did: perfectly)

The Galilee palms were bathed in golden, evening sunshine. I overheard two men speaking to each other in Arabic. I asked where I might get a ride to Jerusalem and they offered me a ride, if I agreed to ride with them to Jericho while they visited a friend. The Arabic name for Jerico ( الأرحا) means “The Scent”. I smelled a sweet opportunity. I felt almost human again but I was slow to relax my guard. When I learned they were going to بيت زفافا I asked them to drop me at Tantur”
“Tantur? That is almost in Bethlehem – you said you wanted to go to Jerusalem–”
“Yonni,” said the other, understanding my dilemma, “it’s between Jerusalem and Bethlehem–halas…”

* * *

The barber misunderstood and lathered my face for a shave; I didn’t correct him. I love the feeling of his straight-razor sweeping across my chin. He is the only person who has ever done this, other than me, and his shaves are so expert — refreshing. We walked over to the sink to wash away the excess. Leaning before him, it felt like a baptismal ritual. As I toweled off, he held his index finger up and signaled for me to sit down: the after-shave cologne. It left a sweet, cleansing sting on my exposed features. To my surprise, I was not so baby-faced. With all the camouflage taken away, I saw a grown-man in the mirror and I hoped this one would have the chance to speak frankly, truthfully, and freely from that moment forward.

Just a picture from the barber's.