The Phoenix in the Olive Tree

The phoenix of popular imagination does not belong flat on his back, atop a broken couch and cuddled with his trumpet, in the cave beneath the(A dark phoenix -- Moltres) Zoughbi house. I was sore from the previous night’s stress-release workout. Still, by the time Rajaee found me in my hiding place, my brain was busy piecing apart the possibility of getting a PhD in Peace & Conflict Studies.

We went olive picking the very next day, strained calf-muscle or not. Last year’s olive harvest made an arboreal man of me. This year I felt just as lithe, though not as daring as the Swede since he had a way of getting into the highest branches. As usual, I was looking for things to write about: the teenage hired-helpers and their father, hanging our arms out the side of the car to carry long ladders, plump orbs of green and purple, or the cactus patch –bare of fruit but still menacing. Aloft in the oldest tree, I conceived of myself, as I had in a line from a poem I wrote long ago, as a phoenix alight in an olive tree. ‘I really am a phoenix on an olive branch– a fiery person reborn in the movement for peace.’ The olive tree is made of sleeping fire: when the fruit is squeezed it produces a flammable oil.

…as I was plucking olives from the tree, my mind went back to a discussion I had with a friend about altruism (useful concept?) and the nature of collective responsibility (more useful, I believe…). Writing and peace are where my inner nerd marries my inner geek.

I fell asleep early last night, in the drowse from a beer shared with the Swede, our colleague from Alabama, and Zoughbi (who preferred ginger-ale). I excused myself to bed and slept until six in the morning, rolled out of bed to turn the alarm off, and rolled in again under the weight of my aching body. The weight never quite left me when I rose, hopeful about drafting my vision for life but overwhelmed by the gravity of doing something like that. Tea is often my solution for moments of inertia but I didn’t expect that the next ‘big move’ would strike me as the tea was steeping.

“I need to be reconciled with my ex-girlfriend… I’ve become genuinely thankful that she left me.” I drafted an e-mail, thanking her for making that decision and for the way that she chose to do that. Understand, friends, I had once taken back my sense of pride by criticizing her. Today, I took back my honor by seeing the good in what she had done and appreciating her for it. I want to show respect to my colleagues, and my future, by choosing the restorative way.

My visionary break-through was not waiting for me in Microsoft Word. I dragged my heels and fussed with iTunes but only came-up with this meager skeleton:

Vision Statement:


My Biography (free-write)

-Starting in Mindanao, reminded of who I am. Go into flashbacks to tell the story

My Main Interests (free-write)

How Peace is Composed (free-write)

My Related Interests (free-write)

The social media vortex grabbed my attention, as I struggled to be articulate, and I had to thrust myself away from the computer. My hand-written journal was laying open on the couch, book-marked to an entry in July where I write about “recoil effects” from my solitary confinement in Jordan. I know too well that I have had too much solitary dwelling in my history. I fought hard to stay engaged with what I had written weeks ago, to keep from medicating my sense of emptiness with more browsing. I know too well I have too much self-medicating in my history. As I read yesterday’s entry, this passage came into sharp focus:

“Five minutes after I awoke the second time, I was laying flat on my back with my face buried under my hands. At the turning-point of my life, I’m still wondering about bread, vegetables, changing money… [spiritual-director] ‘kicked’ me hard last night, urging me to begin the process of applying to graduate programs and reminding me, again, that I think I don’t deserve it—don’t deserve to go by the seat of my pants, don’t deserve to be a talented writer after my squandered years online, don’t deserve… khalas. I have a number of ‘blocking’ feelings I can’t name and don’t understand…”

Putting aside the hard-back journal, I immediately fell into a fitful sleep on the couch. (Moltres outline) I woke in Palestine, realizing my laundry was dry and that I should probably remove the multiple shirts hanging in crucifix- position on my clothes-line. A little morbid humor was good medicine, just then. A suppressed memory of my dead grandmother emerged, as she seemed to pin my grandfather’s shirts against Michiganian, lake-effect winds and, concurrently, hand me the shirt I took from his closet after he died.

I descended to the cave to try to play away some of that tension but the Swede intercepted me with an offer to help at the office. A half-hour later I was shelling-out pomegranate kernels and listening to my co-worker talk to our Mennonite friend about an Israeli assassination conspiracy. I scooted my chair closer. It was my pleasure to join the dinner discussion about a culture of acceptance and the complex prospect of mosques in Germany. This is the essence of the life I found by accident—my greatest challenge and greatest gift—because my commitments in Michigan walked away from me. I gambled with the extra space in my life, hoping to fill it with stories worth telling, writing, or even melting into the fabric of my being. Not one step has been easy yet all have been fruitful, somehow. Now, I live in the bigger-version of our world.

My prayer under the stars, tonight, became a long journey into places I have not seen in months, years. I used to become a black-hole every time I prayed—collapsing inward, looking for my ‘flaw’. What is the opposite of a black-hole? A disco-ball—it’s reflective on all sides, yes, but it’s also a great deal more fun than having your atoms pulled apart. Disco-balls are for dances… for weddings… for hanging in miniature-form on my rear-view mirror. Living through the computer-screen, it’s easy to forget the breadth of visions contained in my brain– begging to be visited, ordered, and reinterpreted. My thoughts careened through the inner-space of night: church hay-rides, a snow-filled college-campus, boat-lights on lakes, camp-fires in the woods, holding my mother’s hand as we leave my aunt’s house on Thanksgiving… Palestinian barbeques. I miss all those places with a hurt that scares me. I want it back.

Inside again, I struggled to sketch what I wanted from my adventures:

I want to explore the way that narratives interface with collective identity

                the way the colonized critique the colonizers; the way traditions critique themselves and each other and the overall goals of culture.

I want to create enriched narratives from my encounters with peace-builders

I wonder how acts of creativity manifest resistance

                mediate the process of building trust or reimagining narratives

I would like to do an ethnographic study of grassroots peace-builders and their stories, perhaps passed through literary/artistic lenses.

                sociological lenses/mass media lenses/IPC lenses

                pertaining to particular biases, synthesized together in restorative ways

Concerned with building a safe-space for story-telling, toward creating common narratives.

                toward a ‘culture of acceptance’ where trust provides a foundation for dialogue

                with acknowledgement to the ‘metaphorical engineer’: friction is always there…

I would like to improve the art of story-telling in myself, using that as a way to create dialogue

                to dissolve the usual power-dynamics.

Ways of fragmentation versus ways of emulsification…

Nobody here but us trouble-makers...

Nobody here but us trouble-makers…


An e-mail quietly appeared. It was my ex, the one who turned her back on me in 2010. The precise contents of that message are private but she was appropriately gracious. She wished me luck during the next phase of my life, let me know she was happily married and tending the house, etc. I learned she had left church-work as a career– a beautiful irony that the ‘broken’ person became the missionary and the very religious person found tranquility at home. At the end, she said she had no intention of being friends nor of staying in-contact, which is what I expected since she tended to keep her circle small. Oddly, instead of thinking “Fine: she doesn’t appreciate my friendship—screw-it” I thought, “it would probably confuse her too deeply to try—I’ll let her know I’m removing her from my address book and that I appreciate her reply.” There’s nothing wrong with being happily married and tending house, nothing to hold in contempt. Every woman should have that right – in every place.

My heart ached for just a moment, just a flutter of leftover sadness, but I looked at the other pane on my screen:

The place of peace and conflict studies in my life is to provide foci and goals for diverse interests: writing & literature, history & sociology, consciousness & communication. Still, this field of study is inseparable from a personal commitment to mitigating social disharmony. Without this love, the labor is too difficult to sustain.

She said she knew in her heart I couldn’t be the partner she needed. God bless that guy, her husband. On the other hand, God bless me for being a Phoenix—for blazing brightly, sometimes volcanically. The love I know now was unintelligible then, living with so much hurt in a culture where anguish is taboo. I mistook my codependency for commitment, years ago, but now I can see what real commitment looks like—looking back at me while I shave. The tattoo over my heart reads “to seek justice and resist evil”: resisting it in the world and in myself. It would collapse her world to understand that; it’s better that she remembers me slumped on an old couch, with a potted plant on my lap (because I had to cuddle something to stay composed). Not everyone is willing to see me differently – but I do now. I also want to see myself be vulnerable like that again; I want to merge selves.

 * * *

Moltres, of Pokemon fame.

Moltres, of Pokemon fame.

Xavier Phoenix is barely aflame again, in the ashes of foiled wishes. What fire-bird

A Foil to Moltres: Articuno

Articuno, also of Pokemon fame.

would NOT want to find someone with whom he can dash into trouble—another fire-bird? I could not try hard enough to find her but I hope to cross her smoke-trail.

On the other hand, maybe precisely what I need is a woman who leaves flurries of snow in her wake – someone so cool that she tempers me.

Tonight, though, I feel like I am courting my fate in a different way. As my friend said, “graduate education is not a matter to consider lightly.”

“Of course. I was upset with myself for not taking the step forward earlier, until I realized that peace-studies and I have only been dating since I came to Palestine… relationships take time.”


Cactus Pricking

Since the showdown with the Ministry of Interior in Haifa, I have noticed my psyche relaxing to a healthier, idling state. I was more apt to let writing go this week in favor of spending time socializing – company was dearly missed in exile. This week was counter-intuitively comforting for all its mundane worries, like moving back into my flat and exorcising it of the interim-tenant’s grime. It was almost sundown, and I had just finished moving all my clutter upstairs, when my boss’s ring-tone erupted from my newly kludged cell-phone holster.


“John – hallo! Would you like to pick cactus with us?”

The answer could not have been anything other than “yes” because I had never picked cactus-pears before. Additionally, I had been outlining an entry about ‘communion’ in my head and it seemed like it would be less funny and interesting than one about going to a cactus patch. Nothing against the last supper, of course…

I knew the story was only going to get better when I reached the family court-yard and saw Rajaee Zoughbi, pulling on a pair of heavy gloves. Rajaee is Zoughbi’s nephew of twenty-years, a musician by passion, a budding accountant by study, and all-around interesting guy.

“John! Do you want to pick cactus? Be careful: you will feel the spines in your hands later…”

I was dressed for the occasion in Fred Elmore’s old jeans, Tim Leisman’s discarded hat, and a t-shirt badly in need of retirement. I gave Rajaee the thumbs-up and we climbed into the Volkeswagon station-wagon. We peeled all the windows down and I noticed Zoughbi’s demeanor begin to relax; he is a man heavily relied upon in Bethlehem civil society but his inner boy emerged as he warned me: “…ya John – you will feel the spines later *cackle* but we rub salt on our hands, habeehee. You want to pick a prickled pear, a prickly prickly treat? *cackle*” (salt?!) I tried to disguise my smile. When he is fretful, I remind myself of these moments so that I know it is the weight of his job that sours him a little, not his true nature. He is, well, as sweet as a cactus on the inside.

The cactus patch is on the next ridge, in Beit Jala; as we started up the hill Zoughbi told Rajaee (in Arabic) to look for discarded boxes. I pointed to an empty Carlsburg carton but Zoughbi shook his head (later, it dawned on me that a cheap beer-box was clearly not the way to deliver fruit to family members). We made an abrupt stop on a narrow side-street and Rajaee squirted out the door and pilfered a clutch of plainer cartons.

“For the cactus so we can carry it places.”

Half-way uphill, Rajaee and I bailed-out with the boxes.

“I will go and get the machines,” said Zoughbi. My imagination ran wild with visions of Dr. Seuss-esque cactus picking machines.

“He means he’s going to get the tools,” said Rajaee blandly.

We walked a short distance before I recognized the plot: it was the same place I had picked olives the previous fall. A short flash-back montage danced into my mind’s eye:

                “The hired guy fell on top of me!” –Me

“He wants to know why you did not catch him – he’s joking…” -Z

“I showed him where I live in Michigan by pointing to my hand…” -Me

“He is from the middle of Bethlehem, that’s why he pointed to the middle of his hand…” -Z

“Don’t step on the olives or we’ll lose profit…” -Z

“Sorting the olives on the ground is supposed to be women’s work…” –Rachelle

“GAH! I twisted my ankle… why are the police here?” -Me

“The police wanted to fine me for burning grass but I reasoned with them…” -Z

“How did you get in the tree? Did they lift you up? We should take a picture!” -Everyone

Me, in the middle, olive-pickers on either side.

I thought they wanted me to help them down from the tree. Then they grabbed me by the wrists… I love Palestine so much.

 * * *

                I stepped carefully around the very same series of rocks where I wrenched my ankle. The cacti themselves were the circular kind that look like giant, green, thorn-studded chicken-patties linked precariously to one another. Rajaee ripped a flap from the box and folded it around one of the yellowish knobs growing from the top of a patty. I got a flap and did the same for a while. Somehow, I had imagined the prickers would not be as bad as touted.

“Ar!” he said suddenly. I think anyone can guess why; the fruits were not covered in long needles but with tufts of tiny bristles that, frankly, are ten times more wicked. A minute later, I could testify to this.

Around then, Zoughbi came with two ‘tools’: they looked like tomato cans mounted perpendicular on rake handles. The idea is that one reaches to a distant fruit and wiggles the can over it. Then, you twist the can and the fruit comes off inside. Sometimes. If you twist too hard, the fruit will come flying out and everyone will duck. Most of the time I twisted and twisted at a little pear, the can slipped off several times, and then I finally tried another one. A quick piece of advice: ripeness does not correlate with easiness; try not to twist the cactus part off in the process.

When the sun had almost completely set Zoughbi said “John – thirty more and we can go…”

I picked a pear and proclaimed “wahid!”

Zoughbi responded “’tnayn”, “tilaht”, “arba”, and “khamza” and I excitedly added,


“Six? You already have six?”
“No, we have six collectively…”

“I meant thirty more EACH.” Heaven only knows what Rajaee had.

I trotted to a better spot on the hillside, careful not to break my legs. Just as I was turning the screws on “subbah” I felt something sting me through my cross-trainers. These shoes are normally a good choice because they have plenty of mesh to let my feet ‘breath’ in the middle-Eastern heat. My shoe had taken a big whiff of cactus needles. I leaned against a retaining wall and picked them out while Zoughbi continued to count. He had reached “subbatash” (17) before I said


“Tinein?! What are you doing, John?” Rajaee chuckled.

By this time, I was determined. I started really plucking those spiny devils. I lost a few to the nether regions of the patch but I made-up quite a bit of ground.


“Mish subba’-wa-ashreen? Oh John…”

I scampered onto a boulder, surrounded on three sides by cactus. The potential for a memorable episode, in the most terrible way, was so salient I could taste it. Instead, I found three likely candidates and went to work.

“John – halas?”

“Kaman wahida, bus!” (just one more!) They both cheered and said ‘kaman wahida!’ with pride. Just then, I put the twentieth pear in the box and declared “ashreen!”

“Taleteen?” (30?)

“La… ashreen…” I said, my voice falling a little.

“Oh… well, halas, it’s getting dark…”

* * *

                I knew he was doing it to me. He asked how I felt and I said “fine” without thinking. That gave him license to just start driving to Beit Sahour without batting an eyelash. With my limited Arabic, I surmised from their conversation that we were taking fruit to Zoughbi’s older sister. I missed my chance to say “I’m tired” and protest.

My inner-American rouses to consciousness when fatigue takes over. I began to think of all the little ways I was not in control, remembering small chores to do and lamenting unwritten blog-entries. As she buzzed us into the apartment building, my inner-Palestinian burst forth in song:

“She’s going to feed us! She’s going to feed us! Praise God on high!”

It was not a hot meal but it was surely fit for a king: stuffed eggplant, pickles, rice rolled in grape-leaves (an acquired taste I picked-up long ago), fresh plums. Several small things I love about Palestinian culture surfaced: it’s okay to eat loudly, finger-licking is a compliment, and there is always a beverage if food is involved. I relaxed, knowing the evening over. Of course, it was not: I also had to endure an episode of catus-pear peeling with Zoughbi’s brother Nicola and his grand-daughter. Just the same, I want to close this piece as if the last thing I did was eat that wonderful food rather than hosing down our catch and discussing constipation:

                “Don’t eat too many or you’ll get a hard-stomach”


When we had said our goodbyes to Zoughbi’s sister and loaded into the car to return home, he said to me, “you never know when you will eat,” and then he looked up at the stars and said, “you know, life really is very good—don’t you think?”

“Yes. I think life is really very good, too.”