Always Burning: 2

Prayer Vigil

Watch for the Smoke…

Always watching...

Always watching…

The evacuation began when the crack of the first stone hitting concrete sent shock-waves through our coffee cups. We were all sitting

down-stairs, together. Wa’el ran up the stairs to street-level in a flash, to check, and burst into the foyer again within seconds saying  “yulla, yulla… let’s go before the gas…”. We re-stuffed our bags and scrambled up the stairs and through the gate, showing our kefiahs to the protestors but hiding our faces from the tower guards. Wa’el, Drew, and I stopped

several times to glance over our shoulders—I felt like Lot’s wife: a pillar of

salt, transfixed. Any moment, noxious projectiles would rain down on the masked youths. Wa’el offered to give us something to drink, which in the spirit of Palestinian hospitality meant we were going to his house to hang-out indefinitely. He asked if we wanted to light the hookah, too…

* * *

I do not look for physical signs from God often. Some read extra amounts of Divine intention into happenings, especially around Jerusalem. I went to القدس الشرقي to show my solidarity with Gaza at the Dominican Church by the Garden Tomb. We lit candles and held vigil on International Children’s Day. The service was attended by Christian leaders from across the city, faces to match the names on the Kairos Palestine document. The atmosphere carried the unmistakable essence of reverence and urgency comingling, for God and humanity respectively. When the Lutheran minister prayed in English for the children in Gaza, my swelling emotions cascaded in droplets down my face tears. How had the world over-looked the source of this suffering? Hot droplets began to fall on my hand, jolting my eyes open. I tried to remain stoic but I could not resist glancing around the room at all the melting candles, to see if anyone else had flinched. Who can resist a funny moment in such difficult times? I searched nervously for another fast melting candle. Each person’s candle produced a neat trail of excess, except for one: mine. My candle was no brighter but it seemed to burn hotter, erupting with blobs of molten wax that stung my shaking hand.

* * *

We smoked. Every time I passed the hose away to Wa’el, laying sideways on an easy-chair, or Drew, looking pensively into space next to me, the heaviness slowly rose and engulfed me. The viscous sense of resignation stuck to my joints, immobilizing my body.  So, I breathed in the fire again. My rage quenched, I consecrated my lungs with every breath until the hollow spaces hummed with the sense of swimming, running, lifting, and punching but I never moved – fire never moves, it only spreads…

* * *

This summer, a new friend was staying in the second-floor apartment across the court-yard, above a capable young woman who has worked here for over two years. My friend commented that her downstairs neighbor seemed to be consistently annoyed with her. Why? I told her we are cruel to ourselves, sometimes, in our self-centeredness: it was not her fault nor about her. Our neighbor’s job in the difficult West Bank context, staying present with people, puts a heavy weight on one’s chest. Four months later, I know that I was right in ways I did not understand. I had never stayed for more than three months at a time, myself. When our new Wi’am volunteer arrived, I noticed myself becoming irritable with him, employing smoldering passive-aggressive tactics to put distance between us. I believe I am much more moody and much less capable than my experienced neighbor, too, yet when I finally became close enough with my ‘victim’ to confess he asked me:

“what makes you believe you are bad at your job?”

“I do everything I am asked; you’re right,” I replied, “Of course, the occupation remains…” Two possibilities dawned on me. One, that I finally feel part of what keeps my neighbor burning and, two, that people could see me like I see her: intense and dedicated.

* * *

The anxiety floated out of me on clouds, in jets of fragrant smoke cascading in reverse. The nicotine built upon the foundation we had poured in cups of pitch-tint Arabic coffee. This colloid of stimulants buoyed me; it retrieved my sense of reality from the tar-toned depths of my affected reservoirs. We also drank tea. Substances carry a shock as powerful as moving a thousand miles or can keep us moving at a snail’s pace for so long that we forget we are moving, can hardly sleep when their medicine is removed…

* * *

More than a week before, at Dar Eneidwa, the Swede and I saw a film about the Hungarian Revolution. It had a Hollywood-quality storyline and love-story that made me miss romance in my life, yet so many resonant snapshots of Soviet occupation. In one scene, Hungarians take the streets in Budapest and light torches when the authorities cut the electricity; I felt the upwelling of a burgeoning nation, just as I had in Manger Square a year before. I felt the surge of excitement when the students revolt and cut the hammer and sickle from the middle of their flag, just as I felt in March during Land Day when a young man scaled  the apartheid wall and planted the Palestinian on top. Yet I know I was oblivious to the shelling of Budapest, when the Soviets retaliate unexpectedly and place their iron fist of occupation back on the Hungarian people. I didn’t feel, deeply enough, what that meant. Gazans do – doubly. At the end of the film, the Olympic water polo player is separated from his lover by the conflict, he going to Australia to win Gold and she to a prison interrogation room. I drank too much at the reception and indulged in loneliness the rest of the night.

* * *

Addictions threaten to ensnare me as surely as they promise to free me, like a net that saves me from falling but tangles around my limbs. I have not had my moment of final triumph against them, neither substance nor behavior nor, worst of all, the attitudes of my heart. Following Gaza coverage late into the night, riding high on a magic carpet of outrage, I felt as if I had finally lost myself completely, by the next morning, until that burst of stimulants reanimated me on Wa’el’s back patio. A dozen pieces of quick-light coal later, my co-worker offered to reload the pipe.

“No; I really want to but ‘no’ because I will stay here all day and smoke.”
We have to leave and continue with our lives, after a while, nursing our fading buzz as the smoke clears…

A message at the tower's bottom.

Last week’s coat of paint is this week’s canvas for resistance.


July & August: 48 Hours

Rise and Shine…

Morning dawned on the last day of July and the breeze still carried the refreshment of evening. I could work-out the next day; my late night writing session earned me an extra hour of rest. Content to snuff my alarm, I nestled back into the cool sheets. Time has been kind to my soul this month. My perspective has grown deeper, though not always wider – which is fine. Below, Zoughbi was already frying a pan of vegetables – onions, tomatoes, peppers of both kinds, garlic – I told him he could drop two eggs into the skillet for me. He loves to extoll the virtues of such breakfasts, when he remembers to make them.

“People really are crazy right now,” he noted, “a woman’s husband killed her.”

Morning dawned on the first day of August and my back felt like a gang of mountain goats had stomped on it. The first pangs struck so hard, the night before, that I went to bed early. It felt even stiffer by morning. Time has been unkind to my body this year. I could not possibly work-out; an hour later I phoned my boss to apologize for running late.

I awakened him with my phone call: he had mediated a late-night case.

Ten minutes later, we ate an odd collection of fruit with bread dipped in olive oil and powdered thyme. I went into the living room and sat perfectly still in the softest chair.

“Perhaps we should get you some bengay…”

Well Begun is Half-Done…

My friend in the USA asked me, just hours before, what I typically did at work. When my boss and I arrived at Dar Sansour (our office), I descended to the patio for coffee with Saliba and Adnan– two cups. Excusing  myself inside,  I climbed into my alcove and started the computer. I edited a report for Zoughbi, started my July newsletter, and skimmed an ICHAD update. My main task was to talk with Usama about a grant-proposal to upgrade our software and equipment for a fresh campaign aimed at financing garden renovations. In the process, it was decided that I should have logins for all Wi’am social media platforms. All my pistons were pumping. Still, I reminded myself that this was just one kind of ‘typical’. I heard voices through the open window and, spying a familiar face, I left all my activities in order to reconnect…

I knew ‘five minutes in the municipality building’ with my boss would be at least fifteen but it became more like fifty. I accepted my fate and an offer for tea, using the hot sting of the tiny glass to keep awake while the older men mumbled in Arabic to each other. My eyes drifted around the deputy mayor’s office to the spoils of overseeing Bethlehem – the glint of gifts from pilgrims. I also noticed the really expert carpentry of the moldings and doors, only outdone by the relief carving of the coffee table. Everything was done in such a way that it need never be done again – the first chance may be the only opportunity.

One man wagged his finger forebodingly as he told a story, then drew it across his throat. The others shook their heads and whispered inscrutable admonishments into space.

“هذ  عنف—مجنون –مجنون” It suddenly made sense to me.

Expect the Unexpected

I sat for five Palestinian minutes, alone with a crock of lamb and rice in Saliba’s car. I decided to tag-along with my co-workers “just in case” they needed help picking-up food from the community oven. These two speak minimal English, slightly better than my Arabic. Of course Adnan has a face and personality that transcend the language barrier. I adore watching Adnan be himself. He can be so gentle as he carries out the pleasantries of pouring the tea or reading the newspaper but then his cell will ring. Accustomed to the enthusiasm of Arab telephone conversations,  I opened the car window to release excess shouts. Saliba took it in stride. He is our elder statesman with the heart of gold. He pulled the car to a stop.

“Sit sit, rest,” insisted Adan, waving both hands. “Five minutes, no problem.  Stay.”

I tried not to fall into a bottomless pit of thoughts. Just then, a woman in a white cotton dress started walking up the stairs toward Star Str. She was obviously foreign. I watched the breeze caress her flowing brunette hair and exposed calves. I wondered where she was from—

she smiled at me. The warmth of her glance was wholly unexpected.

Just as I came to the water-cooler, Zoughbi announced we were going to a demonstration. Adnan, Saliba, Imad, and I piled into his battle-worn Volkswagen and shuttled to an old city area where a plug of people had formed in the narrow street. Our co-worker, Lucy, stood resolute in the middle as people pressed around the clot with bags of groceries. Imad whispered quietly that they were protesting the fatal case of domestic violence from a few days before. They marched from the site of the crime to the nearest traffic circle and chanted about an end to violence in the home. Some of them wore hijabs, some seemed to be Christian women, but a few were men. I stood with my other co-workers. Zoughbi became interested in forty shekels worth of faqoos; before long, I was carrying them into the pharmacy, where I bought locally-made muscle cream. When I emerged, Zoughbi took the heavy bags from me. It was then that I noticed Lucy: did she have a post-demonstration glow? She is another person who can be gentle or quite passionate.

We picked-up Adnan at the top of the hill, pacing deliberately with a phone clutched to his ear.

So Typical…

While I was eating with our Mennonite visitors, a familiar face began to say, “remember when I mentioned having dinner with Daryl and Cindy in Amman and met a guy who lived in a hotel across from Hashems Restaurant?”

He pointed at me.

“Thirteen weeks gone?” another one said, “that is a long time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I think it is…”

‘This is another type of typical day,’ I whispered to myself as I foraged the office refrigerator for broken cookies. An aching back, several unannounced interruptions, but nothing had fallen behind schedule yet. ‘And the day is young; good things can still happen—or more bad. Oh! Here’s some salad…’

Hanging-Out After Work

A narrow staircase leads from the barber shop to Walid’s second-floor den. We greeted one another warmly and I sat in the black leather chair next to his desk. His workspace is several shades darker than the desert sun but it projects a cool, clean motif: like a photographer’s dark-room melded with a doctor’s office.

                “Do you want to drink anything?” he said.

                “Whatever you are drinking, if you please.”

                He called for two Schweppes orange sodas. He browsed photographs on a large, wall-mounted monitor, tapping the occasional note on a netbook. He shook his head and whispered something, then turned the netbook around and said, “look at this.”

                “Oh damn.” There was a woman lying on the ground in a nest of hair and spilled blood, eyes stark open, with a gash on her neck.

                “Crazy. Her husband or boyfriend or someone was so angry that he just killed her.” Walid waved his cigarette in the general direction of the traffic circle.  “Right over there. Crazy…”

                “Crazy…” I said, popping open my soda. I could tell Walid was feeling some acedia and it was nice to sit in the air-conditioner and keep him company for a few minutes.

                “Well, okay, let’s see how it’s doing.”

                “Yeah; just let me take my shirt off, in a minute…”

                 He looked intently at my chest and said, “come back in four or five days…”

“شو سويت اليوم؟” asked Imad, knowing very well what I had done that day.

“انا كتبت رسالين و …شغل ثني…” I replied.

“شغل ثني؟ شو سويت بعد؟” ‘And other things’ was not specific enough, for him.

“رحت معهم (معك) إلى…”,  I hesitated.

“You went with us to the demonstration. We call it [مسيرة], like a ‘march’ in English” he said, scribbling on the whiteboard. I scrawled Arabic characters onto my lined notebook.

“Why did they demonstrate? Tell me in English…”

“A woman was murdered.”

“’Murder is [قتل ] and murderer is [القاتب]. Crime is [جريمة]. Who killed the woman – tell me in Arabic.”

“رجل– الجوز الأمرأة”


“جوزها—” –“her husband.  Did [الشرطي ] come?”

“Yes, they arrested him [ هم أعتقلوا الرجل… ]”

There was a pregnant pause as we each shook our head.

“It is a shame,” said Imad, “enough about that – what will you do later tonight…”

After the Arabic lesson, we sat on Imad’s porch with his mother and ate grapes. The sky seemed clear but there was actually an even scattering of fine dust that gave it an antique quality, as if someone had painted the dome over our heads years ago and it had faded just a little.

“After it rains, you can see to Jordan from here.”

All’s Well That Ends Well? 

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. Walid’s acedia had passed into my system and I fell asleep on the couch with a Bible on my chest. I tried to continue in devotion when I awoke but the previous night’s activities were taking their toll.  Hoping my quick nap would fuel my impetus for the evening, I brewed some tea and studied Arabic for the next day’s lesson. The deterioration continued at a steady pace in spite of my ambitions for a new blog entry titled “Bethlehem Ink”*. Past ten in the evening, it felt like an iron baboon crawled onto my back and grabbed my flesh with twenty fingers. I went outdoors with my tea and a lit candle to try praying under the full moon. All I could think about was the pain in my back and anti-Semitism. I wrestled with questions about the Occupation and ethnic conflict for several minutes. I could not get to the kernel of my prayers. Relenting, I went to bed.

When I arrived home, I ate chocolate-spread on pita and paced around the apartment. With nothing to lose, I decided to take a shower. I even allowed the water to get hot, though I was nearly done by then. Afterwards, I rubbed on my new medicine. It worked just as much as I expected, not more or less. Nothing could replace having a special loved-one rub my back for me but I was grateful for my consolation prize:

“Made in Beit Jala – suck my toe, Israeli pharmaceutical companies!”

I studied my Arabic in the same fashion as the night before, at the same slow pace, with the same frequent tea-breaks. At intervals, I chatted with friends from Michigan State University on Skype. It comforted me to know they had initiated conversation, this time, which was so unlike my days in Grand Rapids when I was too desperate for any kind of contact.

“Perspective is my counter-attack; I did a little less than I did yesterday but I’m satisfied with myself because everything I did today was in spite of pain. I refused despair.”

When I went outside to pray, I butted against the same problems. God answers under the surface of our consciousness, sometimes, and I noticed

Life is a blessed gift… even with back pain.

that I was deeper into my thoughts than my surroundings. Whoever said that prayer disconnects us from our environment? Maybe prayer is becoming aware of what God is doing in our environment. The moon was bright, subtly haloed by the fine scattering of dust and illuminating rooftops, minarets, steeples, and cars.

                “Thank you for the Moon, God – hey! That’s what I forgot last night: I have quite a few things to thank you for from the past 48 hours…”

                And I did. I still do.

*Come back in four or five days…

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.