A Wedding Reception (part 2)

All names are still changed, as in the last entry. Photographs by Ruben Vl.

There was a staggered set of concrete blocks to prevent anyone from rushing the check-point but, otherwise, the occupiers did not care about traffic going into Beit Sahour. We passed unheeded and Roger exhaled. Having just come from the wedding via the surreal streets of the Israeli settlement, our group of seven was eager to get to the reception and celebrate. Just as the sun began to set, A.T. remembered the time he had a job interview in East Jerusalem but brought his son’s passport by mistake. The soldiers held the passport and his wife had to come get it. This is how things really happen in the West Bank. The flow of their lives is interrupted by apartheid, wedding days and holidays included. It sends my thoughts in directions I do not want to explore.

I fiddled with my prayer beads again as we passed grazing herds of sheep. I bought the beads in Al-Khaleel, the day Belgium, Sweden, and I came there from Ramallah, then went to down-town Bethlehem and over to a restaurant in Beit Jala. We began the day talking to lawyers who defend juveniles in Israeli military courts (<occupation), accompanied some Cambridge students to the divided Ibrahami mosque1 (<occupation), then went to see Walid at “Pain Art Studios” (<tattoo guy). Belgium wanted to get a Handalla on his bicep and I was happy to accompany him to the second floor of the barbershop by the spice-store. I took my commission in peanuts and tequila that day, a rare treat.

Fun with ceiling mirrors.

The three of us arrived to the fourth floor of the reception-center together. Pencil sketches of the new couples were on display near the entrance.

Yulla! Yulla!

Rows of long tables striped the grand banquet halls. I found it hard to believe that every chair could be full by ten in the evening but, with all barriers behind us, there was nothing to stop anyone from celebrating. What really impressed me was that the three of us were more than welcome to celebrate; I mean to physically REJOICE. With apologies to my cousin’s great marriage, and respect to the beautiful ceremony of which I was a part, and acknowledgement of the food, I lament that her wedding-day became flaccid for lack of dancing. A wedding without dancing is a cold bath; a half-filled pie-crust.

Our pies were filled to overflowing, metaphorically speaking. Literally, we had chicken and rice. Though we ate and made small-talk, and had interesting encounters with new people (including a very small old man sitting next to me), I was consumed by the urge to dance. Dancing at Palestinian weddings has far exceeded my expectations. The music is ideal: rhythmic, intense, and exuberant. The enthusiasm of the entire room was a match for that energy. At first, it was a group of tiny little boys attempting to break-dance while we waited for the newlyweds (ending in a kung-fu match and a good cry). Once the couples were with us, though, people of all ages left their chairs – and by that time, the chairs were mostly full. Dozens of family and friends, barred from the ceremony, arrived to congratulate the brides, grooms, and parents.

Of course, my own dancing cannot be summarized in writing. It has to be witnessed. My highlight came when, shoved into the middle of an open circle, I had to dance by myself with everyone watching. Another great moment was when two young guys suspended a cane between their chests while the rest of us leaned back and danced along underneath. Overall, I think everyone who tried danced fantastically. My personal dance strategy is only to try my hardest to have fun and this, I gather, is culturally acceptable as long as I keep my clothes on and do not touch any women who are not my sister2.

If my wedding is not like this, I demand a re-try…

Grown men were thrown into the air. All the young men came together and threw Jack up and down several times, scary considering what a big guy he is. They almost chipped a ceiling tile throwing Jim and he’s closer to my size. Men were up on each other’s shoulders throughout the night, including both brothers, their elder brother, their father, and I am fairly sure a few brothers-in-law offered their shoulders, too. No one was hurt while the action took place, though I think there must have been some sore backs in the morning

Meanwhile, some certain people had quite a bit to drink and had a wonderful time. That is all I will say on the matter except to state, for the record, that I was a help to the staggering without joining their ranks. I owe a great deal of thanks to the rice I ate after I drank my arak3.

As we were leaving, I wanted to make sure to thank both grooms for letting me celebrate with them. Here I was, a person they barely knew a year ago from a country that supports their subjugation, and yet I am allowed to eat, laugh, and even hug these people. By small increments, I have dug a small spot for myself as a family friend. ‘Jim’ (whose real name is beautiful4) returned my well-wishes with interest. Without going into sentimental details, here, he hoped the best for me and my future marriage. It was probably the relational content of that – that my friend wants me to be happy – that really touched my heart.

Simultaneously, the literal content of that statement stirred deep feelings in me. Before I arrived in Palestine, I was coming out of a broken period of my life. My family split apart, in the midst of divorces and deaths, and made me into a broken person who could not keep his own relationship from shattering. Yet, I try not to think about that as often, anymore, since the people I see on a daily basis know me differently. I expected to weave a deep reflection about romance, fidelity, and ultimate love from this journal entry but instead I see an opportunity to be at rest for a moment. The harder I have tried to be the man I wished my father would have been for my mother, the more I have not been the person that was invited to the wedding last weekend. The same community that celebrated with the two brothers has, at least partly, restored me to what I might have been three years ago. There is really nothing I can do but trust to God and believe that I am, indeed, a member of a great extended family. It is a family that includes my friends in Palestine, of course, but also people around the world who fight depression not by drowning it in idle pleasure, nor by trying to destroy the people who hurt them, but by having a hope, a will, an energy that is buoyant enough to lift the weight of trials, light enough to rise to the surface in times of celebration. I have been impatient with myself and that has made the wait longer, though I still cannot regret any step I have taken because the latest period in my life has been so essential.

Though I feel like a fragment, there is hope for community and, with the support of that community, for Loving again.

With all the problems in the world, these are the moments that become our oasis.

 ***

1) The building was divided following a horrible attack where an extremist settler came into the mosque and opened fire and was consequently overwhelmed and killed. Apparently, the punishment for not lying down and being shot is to have your Holy place split in half. I often compare this building to the story of Solomon where the king must deduce to whom a baby belongs. The mother who agreed that the baby should be cut in half was NOT THE MOTHER. Real life does not work out as sensically, after all.

2) My sister was more than an ocean away and does not dance.

3) Arak is a fine liquor which one can find information about on Wikipedia.

4) It literally translates as stated.

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A Wedding Ceremony (part 1)

“I love smuggling – you should write about smuggling like you wrote about the cactus…”

‘Roger’ also said I should change each person’s name. He and ‘A.T.’ became our forbidden goods, spirited into Al-Quds for ‘Jack & Jim’s’ double-wedding. “Canada” was driving, carrying us through Al-Khader1 village in a purple van (that wasn’t purple). We emerged through a tunnel under the apartheid barrier onto a road that, after I found my bearings, I recognized as leading to the drive-through check-point. We were in the settler lane. Our Palestinian friends sat snug in the back, nephew and uncle, as the van crept toward a lady soldier in over-sized sunglasses.

My two European friends looked to me for cues, so I said, “this is a smile-and-wave check-point: we have a Canadian driving, a Swede in the passenger seat, a Belgian and an American—the soldiers won’t look long enough to notice the two in the back.”

I fiddled with my prayer beads. Belgium glanced at me:

“Did you get those in Al-Khaleel?—oh…” A stoic calm bleached all our faces as the soldier waved Canada through, a moment that will play in slow motion in our dreams for weeks. The blush rushed back into our faces and everyone started clapping and laughing. We emerged from the next tunnel and caught a fleeting glance of Beit Jala from the Israeli side of the barrier.

This beautiful church was disgraced when radical-Jewish settlers scorched its doors and wrote “Jesus is a Monkey” on an exterior wall.

“My heart! My heart dropped below my stomach and now it is beating!—look, there is Cremisan!”

“Do you think it helps that we are wearing formal clothes?”

A knot of Israeli bureaucracy made it impossible for most of the guys’ family to attend the wedding in ‘Jerusalem’ but, to maintain their ID cards, the ceremony could be nowhere else. Around the Scottish Church, we started following the grooms’ mother and family in their giant white van.

“—your sister-in-law drives less like she’s being followed and more like she’s being chased.”

“She is a very good driver” assured A.T. “–she can lose whomever she likes…”. The city is never quite alive, for me, unless A.T. is painting it with memories, like when he had his Easter week permit. If there is anything worth breaching Israeli ‘security’ for, it is a family wedding. Along the way, we passed a church that was scorched and defaced by Jewish Settlers, which televised news finds less interesting than an offensive youtube video about Mohammad. We arrived at a bride’s house to perform a visit. The groom(s) wait at the church while family and friends pour into the bride’(s) living-room to sit. And eat cookies. And drink coffee or juice. And talk. We ‘paid congratulations’, a counter-point to all of the condolences I have paid with A.T. in the wake of death. I like this tradition of sitting, present, with each other in both times of sorrow and joy.

Our Belgian friend, who took all these pictures, snapped this one of everyone sitting together: guys by the door and ladies in the room beyond.

We followed the wrong car and arrived at the Melkite church instead of the other bride’s house. The grooms’ younger brother (Jake, we’ll say) stood guard by the door, welcoming people. He would be intimidating if he were not so sweet. We asked him where we should park but he shook his head innocently. I gave him a hug: I haven’t seen as much of him since the boys left for Indiana. Sweden and I found a pew by a pillar in the upstairs sanctuary. More guests trickled in, many of them familiar– brother of the bride, aunts & uncles, new faces that resonated with features from relatives I already knew. My sense of alienation sloughed away: bad Arabic aside, I am a family friend.

The second of the two couples arriving down the aisle.

Before I write about what is different, I must say that it always felt like a wedding to me. The essence of a wedding goes across cultures and, on this day, many of the details too. The brides in their white dresses and grooms in their tuxedos marched together down the aisle to the priest. Their wedding party was composed of brothers and sisters—three families of them. I knew I would not understand the words as the priest began but what I did understand is that there was not going to be any idle-talk: he chanted the whole service. From the moment he began, I was captivated by the beauty of Eastern churches and their rites. Having been to the Apostle Peter’s ruined house and various archaic churches, I am sure that the Holiness of the Holy Land is watching people you know joined together, in the presence of their community, with a promise made to God. Stones are not holier than love, though only the stones and the olive trees are more continuous in this land than ceremonies like these.

Crowns are an element completely missing from the Western tradition of marriage. The priest placed them on their heads in matching

The newlyweds and their posse, moving in a circle together.

sets and chanted a blessing and bond between each pair. Before the marriage was finished, they all joined hands and stepped slowly in a circle with the priest as he continued singing. It all made intuitive sense, to me, in a way that a double-wedding would not in the West where we trifle with “I do” and spectacles like photo-slide-shows or instrumental solos. Here I felt less like an audience member and more like a community member, bearing witness to a living ritual. We watched them enter a new phase of their lives. For these men, it was an instant change-of-state –and long-anticipated. When the chanting was finished, all four were all part of the same family.

Just like every wedding I have ever seen, there was a receiving line. I felt so happy for all of them, especially for the parents. This was not just a “win” for love but for politics and the future: Jerusalem ID-cards. Aces, baby! We all took pictures together after the ceremony, inserting Sweden and Belgium in with myself and the newlyweds. I ate candy with Roger, Jake, and little sister ‘Mary’, dressed absolutely gorgeously. Later, when she caught the bouquet I said, “You’re sixteen – does catching that mean the same thing here as it does in the US?”

“Yes, but it’s just for fun… don’t be silly…”

Our journey took an uncanny twist when we decided to pass through the Beit Sahour checkpoint via Har Homa settlement. This hilltop “suburb” is like an extraterrestrial installment: a megalithic, uniform wart of regular housing we can see from Manger Street, as if Martians whacked all the trees away and lowered it to the Earth in one piece. Settlements are where daydreams and nightmares meet. Each street of perfectly matching condos dead-ends into a playground so that every street looks virtually the same, except stocked with a different cast of settlement-issue Israelis walking their dogs2. We passed around some cinnamon gum while our Canadian friend navigated the dystopian labyrinth. Our curiosity was on fire but we felt a discomfort that nearly overwhelmed it, riding around, now, with Mary in the front seat and two more Arabs, still. Canada reminded us that we could all be carrying kilos and kilos of explosives. We knew it. We know that security is just another word for the loss of freedoms for unwanted people and their allies. There isn’t any barrier that cannot be crossed just once. The point is to prevent the unwanted people from carrying on with their lives over generations. Security has always been a tarp thrown over displacement practices – as if the US reservation system was about saving white settlers from “savages”. Palestinians sneak into Jerusalem to see family, to find work, and to remember times passed.

[To be continued: the wedding reception]

                “Oh! My heart dropped again!”

“It’s okay – it’s always easier coming into Bethlehem than going out…”

1) Al-Khader village is named for Saint Khader, a soldier and Christian in the Roman army who was martyred when he refused to burn other Christians. That’s what I think, anyway… when I hear Al-Khader I think of that story even if it actually isn’t true. I also think he is the patron saint of England, where is called George.

2) Our Belgian friend made a comment about this. He said it was strange to see Jews walking dogs. In North America, its not uncommon to see any given person walking a dog but in Europe the collective trauma must run deep: Holocaust. A.T. talked about his dislike of dogs and the traumatic experience he had at a tender age when Israeli forces took him captive and threatened him with attack dogs. They might have done it under the umbrella excuse of security, another reason why I never suppose that the ends justify the means. There are consequences for our means beyond our ends and those ends to which we strive are rarely ever our salvation, or else we would know that humane means ought to be our primary end.