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 [in terms of] 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 not 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.



Fragmentation: Recoil-Effects…

It was as ineviMaria's outlinetable as it was unfair. My co-worker lifted me from my bed-bug infested sheets in the valleys of Amman to an air-mattress between the polished sky-scrapers of Hong Kong. She took me swimming and I toured the city, from a beautiful temple to the zoological gardens. There were fine meals and trips to the movies. After a week, I snapped. The second Monday, word never came from Haifa about my visa and I lost control. “I should already [FUDGING] KNOW,” I erupted. It visibly stunned her, though it is not hard to guess what she expected: a vacation would release the tension inside me.

It did.

Her organization hosted an event for migrants that weekend, so we went to the Indonesian market to get their favorite coffee. When it wasn’t where she thought it would be, she was verbally distressed. I lost patience.

“Why are you worried about coffee? Free yourself: you’re working a placement ripe with opportunities to be successful – and they love you! To hell with the damn coffee!” I prayed we would not find it but God edified me, poetically, by ensuring that I found the coffee myself…

 * * *

 * * *

Janet’s friend in Haifa spoke fluent Hebrew. The Israelis at the ministry of interior admitted there were clerical errors and faxed us paperwork to keep me ‘legal’ until my official appointment. I settled into the passenger seat of her cheap but clean Renault and breathed a first sigh of relief on the highway back to Bethlehem.

“How was Hong Kong?”

“Too good for me, apparently – outdoor escalators, air-conditioned subways…”

“Too good for you?”

“I relaxed for about a week and then… the same as Ireland, there was a weird stage.”

“I tried explaining this to the mission psychologist,” said Janet, understanding perfectly. “She said ‘oh, just go to the Galilee and relax’. That makes it worse because all the pressure that builds up working here just, I guess, comes out!”

“Yeah and its impossible to explain to people – especially in the States. It’s like deep-sea diving and climbing on an airplane the next day…”

“Exactly: we’re always pushing against the stress of living here. When there is nothing pushing back on you—“

“I know.”

That night, I sat down in the recliner and fell asleep in front of several people. Instantly…

* * *

I would not let myself write, I said, until I finished the reimbursement form for my visa exit. I was right but not the way I wanted to be. If my writers’ block is numbing, my mathematician’s block was paralyzing. As I laid out the financial burden of my trip, piece by piece, I felt all impetus leaching from my body into the atmosphere. It was a short time before I was obsessively checking twitter, or beseeching friends for attention on facebook, or reading about the Higgs-Boson. The hole began to deepen…

* * *

I laid down on the dusty, legless couch in the lower cave and balanced the trumpet on my chest like a brass teddy-bear . I slipped into a stupor: three months passed, without a note. If only the mouthpiece hadn’t been stuck, I could have buzzed to keep in shape at the hotel. Instead I waited, and every attempt fell flat for a week until, finally, I just prostrated myself…

* * *

I decreed we would get kayik and falafel, just like we did almost weekly before my eighty days of exile. Kayik is rings of fine bread covered in sesame seeds and baked to a perfect brown. I stayed patient while we bought the falafel, not daring to touch the kayik. It needed to stay special. Driving back to Wi’am Center, we saw a man wave to Zoughbi.

“I do not want to talk to him right now,” said my boss, to my mild surprise.  Coming from Zoughbi, that was an omen. The man arrived at the office five minutes later, just as Adnan brought the coffee. He monopolized Zoughbi’s attention, speaking in disruptively loud Arabic and eating freely from the kayik and falafel I had purchased as a gesture to my co-workers. Hospitality dictated that I pour his coffee for him, too…

* * *

The Fourth of July is an excellent day to remember. Gettysburg. I remember the fine rhetoric that oligarchs and imperialists clothe their interests in so that young men die valiantly killing each other. One-hundred fifty years later, a UNITED States protects and endorses an apartheid state masquerading as a ‘Holy’ people: manifest destiny. Nationalism makes me nauseas…

* * *

The chickens start to call just as my cell-phone alarm sounds. I mumble excuses while I reprogram it and settle back into bed, for the tenth time. My morning meditation practice evaporated and my general thought discipline has eroded. Walking back from work, I caught myself dwelling on old family matters – all the times I tried to change my father. Insanity is doing the same things over and over but expecting different results…

* * *

The guy at the spice store asked me if I was tired. I smiled and thanked him for noticing. I took my nutella and baking-soda home and looked at my face in the mirror for a long time…

* * *

The volunteer from Texas lit a cigarette and started playing psychologist-mother with me. In compassionate tones, she let me know I could approach her about anything I needed to talk about whenever I liked. Sweet lady that she is, she admitted she has cried at the end of every day here in occupied Palestine.

“People who cannot cry have reached an even deeper level of depression, you know.”

Since then, I have been more careful when I converse with her. On her first visa, I cannot expect her to understand, let alone be able to offer anything…

* * *

Tim invited me to my his patio for some arak. Passing through my his apartment, it felt like the same place, even with all my things gone and his there instead. I was still trying to get a bead on who Tim was and what brought him to Bethlehem. First I learned he was Unitarian. Second, I realized that I had no idea what that meant. Third, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to hear him explain, anyway. I tried not to think about the fact I was also fleshing-out the details of my sect by behavior, drinking alcohol in small sips and blowing-off the term ‘anti-Semitic’  just like most people dismiss witch-hunts and the notion of “savages”.

“It’s just the ugly rhetoric they hang on people they don’t like—it doesn’t mean anything anymore.” My tongue started to loosen a little and I mentioned the volunteer from Texas.

“…she’s alright but I’m not ready to talk about that, man, especially with someone on their first visa. She basically said that I had slipped into a deeper level of depression. Well, I can’t [fudging] cry every day and expect to do my job. I know Zoughbi says not to have a hierarchy of pain but I can’t go around weeping as if it were my personal tragedy. I guess my insides are fragmented — the tears are locked in a part I can’t seem to get to, right now.”

Of course the air was pregnant with irony: the last time I wept uncontrollably it was on that same patio, the rooftop balcony where I can see the hill by al-Waleje. The annexation wall ties a tourniquet across the main highway, absorbs acres of olive trees, skirts Beit Jala, and then CLEAVES THE HILL BY AL-WALEJE IN TWO. Why? I thought the land was significant because it was Holy but apparently its only important if they can possess it…

“…then I remembered when Jesus rode the colt into Jerusalem, and the way he wept for them. I mean, the people and their self-fulfilling prophesy. I realized Christ really loved all those people, like the ones who started chanting for Barabas to be released, at the merest suggestion… I balled my [fudging] eyes out…”

“Yeah, man…” he said, tinged mellow by the arak. I mellowed a little too.

“I had a hard time connecting with my co-worker in Hong Kong; she is doing such an excellent job, there. The thing is, Hong Kong is a little more conducive to the work, you know?”

“Yeah but, you know, I think suffering is relative man.”

“You’re right: that’s the main thing I learned in Hong Kong. We play to the level of what we’re up against. The pressure is higher here. I guess the deep-sea fish shouldn’t judge the fish on the reef.” He nodded and we finished our drinks…

* * *

I set the vice-grips on the rim of the mouthpiece. I had already tried icing it to make the metal shrink and wrapping it in towels of all different textures to get a better grip. I knew using tools was a terrible idea but I wanted, so badly, to get it loose so I could at least clean it. Instead, the brackets on my lead-pipe gave way and it came loose with the mouth-piece still attached. The trumpet is unplayable but its fragments surrendered a last lesson: sometimes we are falling apart not because we were made too loose but because we have been stuck for too long.

Way of the World

A little girl frisks a soldier

Its healthy to get a taste of one’s own medicine…

I decided to walk over to Rainbow Street and get an over-priced-anything, as a concession to myself. Rainbow Street is a sort of tourists’ outpost on the opposite hill, a long contemplative walk from the Canary Hotel. I found an ice-cream shop and ordered a scoop of  pistachio-filled “Arabic” ice-cream, since I can’t get that just anywhere. I wanted  a Strawberry chaser. But I gobbled my cone and slinked to the café for a sandwich. It was a good thing that my coworker texted me a warning, an hour earlier, to stay in Amman. The Israeli promise to deliver my visa from Haifa to the Sheikh Hussein bridge in 48 hours was, frankly, an archetypical Israeli promise. That was my prevailing thought but, seeing nothing to gain, I distracted myself by finding a shortcut to Rainbow Street and pretending that 2.50 dinar was not an abominable price for a lemonade. “I’m paying for the motif of this place,” I reassured myself.  I lingered at the ‘bar’ listening to the radio. “September” by Earth, Wind, & Fire was playing:

…As we danced in the night,
Remember: how the stars stole the night away
Ba de ya – say do you remember?
Ba de ya – dancing in September!
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy dayyy…”

I remember my first visa-dance. It was August 31st 2011, in the early hours of the morning. Global Ministries flew me to Tel Aviv on Turkish Airlines for economy’s sake. I was a young male, traveling alone in the wee hours, on a ‘suspicious’ airline. Worse, I was nervous. Like a true rookie, I picked the booth with a lady-guard. She was buying none of my story. How could I not know my driver’s name? How could I not know at what hotel I was staying? What kind of organization is the Methodist Church, anyway? She had a tenacity that made the Israeli character from NCIS look good-humored. She took me in the back to her supervisor, who was clearly tired and disinterested. They snapped in Hebrew to each other and continued to question me along the same lines she had at the booth. When they asked if I was going to the Palestine Territories, I told an outright lie: “No.” I pushed the dumb-tourist routine algorithmically until the supervisor mumbled something and waved passively. Her eyes went wide and she stood bolt upright, protesting. He waved again and then stamped my passport. I must have been quite the convincing idiot. She admonished me for being so directionless and I thanked her warmly for her concern.

“Nice touch,” said Janet as we drove away from the airport, “but try to avoid the women if you can: they have more to prove…”
“Well, I hate to be sexist…”
I also hate to be racist. A close friend studying psychology asked me how I would feel if she worked for a Jewish social services agency.
“The same as I would feel if they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or secular, as long as they help people instead of hurting them.”
While I am flattered people tread carefully for my sake, there are Jewish and Jewish-Israeli organizations working alongside our ilk. B’Tselem and ICAHD belong in the same sentence as Badil and Al-Haq. ‘Clash of cultures’ is a myth: we have a clash of ethics. The lines are not drawn according to race or religion but according to awareness and convictions. I asked a mentor of mine how he felt about fibbing his way through security and he replied that helping the oppressed took precedence over personal integrity. I can not think of any better answer! The US-supported infrastructure and bureaucratic hoops in Israel are so ubiquitous, entrenched, and patently insidious, it necessitates a bag-of-tricks.

When that visa expired Global Ministries found a conference on migration in Geneva for me to attend. My eyes were shut-tight in prayer for most of the return flight, working on my story. I relented, at last, and mumbled “oh God, please don’t make me lie this time.” When I landed, I went through two random scans where I said I was studying theology. Seminary is a powerful lubricant. I almost stopped to rest but hesitation is an enemy to confidence. I strode up to the guard who was laughing and joking with his neighbor. Without asking me a question, he flipped open my passport and applied the stamp. As I walked away, he was still joking with the other guard…

I learned to hide my nerves beneath layers of detachment. When I returned from Ireland after the second three month stint, I played my cards exactly as I had on the Geneva exit, right up until the guard I picked was relieved by another: a female guard. She was having none of my story, after I had been in ‘Israel’ for seven months. What guest-house in Nazareth? Why is seven months not enough? Do you have enough money? I was taken into the back where I met her supervisor, also female. I SO hate to be sexist. She grilled me. At one point, she asked me to write down my friends’ names in a list. Without hesitation, I took the lined paper and filled it with bogus, generic names. No one has time to check them, only to check my face for fear. I waited well over an hour in the lounge after my ‘interview’. She finally returned and gave me a three week visa. Apparently, my tracks were covered well enough that I could not be turned away at the airport. I caught the Neshur van to Tantour, brushing off sideways glances from people in yarmulkes. The sun was rising and the drive was fantastic. I felt alive.

Sing some Earth, Wind & Fire with me:
“That’s the way of the world
Plant your flowers and you grow a pearl
A child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart grow cold…”

This latest delay came exactly ten weeks after the Maunday Thursday exit: a Christian three days short of Easter in Jerusalem. My exit stories are more interesting, now that I think about it—I’ll be glad to share them another time. Even Israel will hardly stop me from leaving. The closest that ever came to happening was at the baggage counter in Hong Kong. I told them (truthfully!) that I was going to be volunteering in Israel and the baggage clerk placed an ominous phone call to make sure it was acceptable for me to travel over-land from Jordan. Now that I have experienced other nation’s checkpoints, I am curious to meet my worthy opponents, the Israelis, again. When I entered Jordan for the first time I had a surreal experience at the checkpoint. An old officer waved-off my inspection and declared “Welcome to Jordan!” for reasons The West could hardly fathom. This will be my first Israel-entry by land. Janet is coming to get me again. We will drive South and I will try to picture the fruit stands and coffee-vendors of this East Bank rather than the settlements and barbed-wire growing invasively along the Jordan valley to the West.