“The Dream,” Newsletter #4

Ibrahim and myself at sunset just outside Ramallah

“I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog…Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies…And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.”

From Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (21–22)

Leading up to, during, and after my forays in the Middle East, I have often been asked the question, “If you are interested in engaging with the world’s problems, why get on a plane to do so? We have plenty of problems here at home.” Although I don’t agree that we ought to give some sort of “preference” to an issue based geography, I understand the sentiment behind this inquiry. Sometimes I even struggle to give a full answer. Systemic injustices run to the core of our world’s systems of power – no matter where we are.

I do know this, though. My experiences overseas, and especially Palestine, have served to give me eyes with which to look back and see the place I was formed in a new light. Recently, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the author’s letter to his teenage son reflecting on his experiences in a deeply racist America. In it, he counsels his son on how to survive and see the beautiful despite existing in a nation that, “[is] an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans…[is] built on the destruction of the body” (Coates 143).  In particular, the black body. Wrestling with this book in conjunction with listening to the stories of my friends here has been challenging and convicting. In the blog that follows, I’ll share more excerpts from Coates followed by stories of my friends that came to mind while reflecting on this important work.

One-Third

“…each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body…I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that this third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things” (Coates 24)

My friends Majd and Reem El-Masri are twins who have spent the majority of their lives in a house not far from El-Muqata’a, the complex that has functioned as the center of the Palestinian Authority (PA) since the time of Yassar Arafat. Today, it still houses the current President, various governmental agencies, Arafat’s temporary tomb (his wish was to one day be interred in Jerusalem), and the Arafat Museum.

However, in 2002 near the end of the Second Intifada, this place became the location of a siege. The Israeli military surrounded Arafat in El-Muqata’a with tanks and concertina wire. The neighboring areas began to resemble a war zone. Strict curfews were imposed on all residents in the district. Often times families would only be allowed to leave their homes once every several days.

Majd and Reem were nine years old at the time.

Today, they are both artists, and we shared this conversation while sitting in their home art studio. Cigarette smoke wafted slowly to the ceiling as Majd recalled a time she was biking around her neighborhood on her new bicycle. She took a turn onto a street she thought was empty, but upon looking around Majd realized she was not alone: a tank stood on the pavement not far behind her. In that instant, all she could think about was escaping and began pedaling as fast as she could along the road. Unfortunately, she happened to be going up a hill as well. Everyone in the neighborhood knew one another, and family friends noticed her distress. They called her to them and Majd, in her rush, ended up falling off the side of the street into their garden that lay below the level of the street. The neighbors helped her out and brought her inside.

Another time during the siege, Reem and Majd broke daytime curfew in order to play hide and seek with their friends in the neighborhood. It was their turn to hide and, naturally, they found a great spot together. The game commenced and the other children began to look for Reem and Majd. However, soldiers came into the area, realized that the kids were playing hide and seek, and started “playing” with them. Most of the people living on that street were political activists, and as such the military personnel knew their family names. Therefore, in an attempt to get the kids to come out, the soldiers began calling out names. “Daughters of Nabeel El-Masri, we know you’re here. Come out!” All the kids ended up coming out because they were terrified. In a tight-knit neighborhood during a time like this, any abnormal exchanges are always noticed. One of the neighbors heard the commotion, came out, and berated the soldiers, as a child’s game should never be used to inspire fear.

Only a Few Minutes Earlier

“She alluded to Twelve Years a Slave, ‘There he was,’ she said, speaking of Solomon Northrup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act [took my son’s life]. It’s all it takes.” (Coates 145)

The above passage is Dr. Mable Jones reflecting on her son Prince’s death at the hands of police. He had a spotless record and was a successful student at Howard University who was profiled wrongly, followed for hours, and shot to death miles outside the plainclothes policeman’s jurisdiction.

Time and time again over this year, the word “capricious” has proved itself useful when seeking to characterize the nature of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories. On a daily basis, the very lives and livelihood of Palestinians are subject to the whims of a system that, more often than not, makes absolutely no sense. Some days people are let through checkpoints without issue. Other times, they are turned around without an explanation. A wrong look at the wrong soldier on the wrong day can inspire intense questioning or even place one’s life in jeopardy. That same look a couple hours later may be greeted with indifference as the soldier focuses on their smart phone.

In January, the Israeli military entered Ramallah city several days in a row. Their stated purpose was to acquire security tapes that would help them find a wanted man. The presence of the military is always accompanied by stone-throwing local young men, who are greeted with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live rounds. After a few days, the military’s operations in the city itself ended. But, they continued incursions in areas surrounding Ramallah such as the road between Ramallah and the neighboring city of Birzeit.

One of those evenings, my friend Ibrahim left our group around 10 PM in order to drive another of our friends back to Birzeit University. It is located about 20-30 minutes outside of Ramallah. While on the road, they noticed about 3-4 cars parked on the side of the road with an ambulance. This seemed a bit strange to them, but Ibrahim was not feeling well, assumed it was a car accident, and kept going on the road. About a half kilometer further they saw many stones covering the middle of the road and multiple Israeli military vehicles. They had driven right into the aftermath of a protest. Ibrahim’s heart began to race and his grip tightened on the steering wheel. He realized that they were the only car on the road, and immediately thought that a lone vehicle heading towards the military would instantly make the soldiers afraid of a car ramming. Thankfully, the soldiers were already in their vehicles.

Afterwards Ibrahim told me that, if the soldiers had still been standing on that road, he is almost certain that they would have used live rounds on them. One wrong turn only a few minutes earlier could have resulted in the death of two of my closest friends here. And, one racist act, no matter how closely linked to fear for one’s life, would have taken the breath from their very lungs.

Power and “The Dream”

Answers to such injustices, such imbalances, do not come easily. Yet, a common theme I identify in these cases and countless others I could have referenced is that of power. Those who possess power (i.e. white people in the U.S./the “West” at large and Israelis in this context) create for themselves, as Coates calls it, “The Dream,” where they live in a safe, sterile environment that exists in a world completely separate from the people whom were used and disposed of while attaining the Dream. Life goes on, comfortable and safe, behind the picket fence, and the lives of people who do not fit this definition can be taken at any moment in the name of preservation of the Dream.

I, in many ways, am a product of The Dream. I will be grappling with this reality for the rest of my life, and hope that my journey will be characterized by working to undermine this false reality. I refuse to Dream when the lives of so many I love do not make the cut. That, I think, is where we can find what Rilke described as the “country they call life” that we can know by its “seriousness.” This seriousness is not without wonder and laughter. In fact, it contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful things I have ever experienced. But, the weight of The Dream is ever present.

May we all wake up.

بجنن \ Bijennan: Newsletter #3

Sunset at Ein Qiniya with Majd and Eli. Photo credit: Reem Masri

I have now been in the Jerusalem area for almost five months. This is an astonishing fact. Time has been moving by at a blinding pace. Frankly, I find this somewhat distressing, and I already find myself dreading the day I say “see you later” to this place that has taken so much of my heart. There is some comfort in the fact, however, that the majority of the year still lies ahead of our ragtag YAGM cohort.

YAGMs “walking on water” in the Galilee. Photo credit: Colin Grangaard

I digress. Time to talk about something that I’ve been reflecting on for the past month. I’ve been more or less silent on social media and the blog for a number of reasons. For example, the craziness of the end of the semester at the School of Hope and the hectic nature of Christmas in the Holy Land took up a lot of time and headspace.

Yet, I think the main reason I’ve been less connected on social media is frequent encounters with startling beauty in and around Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and more. This beauty has left me with a feeling of fullness and contentedness, not desirous of more than to bask in the moment. Another English word that fits well here is “awe” (shout out to Dr. Andy Tix).

To me, the Arabic word that best fits this sense is بجنن / bijennan. I have heard Palestinians use it when referring to people and things that exude beauty, even in their imperfections. Over this holiday season, I found myself speaking it over and over, as it felt like the right thing to say. In this newsletter, I’ll invite you into my life here and share a number of the moments that drew this word from my lips.

At various times throughout December, EIi and I were asked to help with various decorating projects in and around the church. Most of our work was focused on the Lutheran Church of Hope’s sanctuary. In it, Pastor Imad (my host father), a myriad of women and men from the community, and us YAGM put together trees, hung lights, and even built a replica manger scene grotto out of chairs, tables, wire stars, and crumpled paper made to look like stone. We played Christmas music in Arabic and English, and simply rested in the spirit of the season. Late one night, Imad, Ra’id, and myself finished the grotto. I was ready to go onto the next project but both men said, “Let’s just sit and look at it for a while.” We did. Minutes of silence admiring the scene: twinkling lights, wooden Christ child, realistic grotto, hay, and star suspended by fishing line between two chandeliers. بجنن.

December 9th was our friend Ibrahim’s birthday – the big 2-5. Myself and a few friends hatched a plot to surprise him. On the day, I said nothing to him other than asking him to come over later that night. Each of us had an assignment throughout the day. Mine was to get the house in order and purchase a Nutella cake from Ramallah’s Vanilla Café (it is even better than it sounds). We talked to a few friends (he prefers smaller gatherings) and everyone was in position when he arrived. I led him into the living room, and song and laughter soon followed. After, he told me it meant so much to spend his birthday with his closest friends in his “second home.” Bijennan.

My view while walking to pick up the Nutella birthday cake.

The 14-15th of December were spent in Bethlehem for a YAGM cohort Christmas and joint-birthday celebration. We exchanged secret Santa gifts, ate cheesecake (courtesy of Jeni Grangaard), sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Arabic, and offered thanks for this past year with Courtney, Calla, and Colin. The next day, I found myself buying a White Elephant gift for the Bethlehem Bible College’s Christmas Party. An invitation came my way via my friends Keren and Daniel. I faced a dilemma, though – what to buy? White elephant exchanges can be full of gags or somewhat serious/thoughtful. And, I only knew Keren and Dan…I didn’t want to be the one guy no one knows coming in with a gift-wrapped toilet seat. So, I played it safe and got a pretty bowl made in Hebron. However, Keren went the “gag” route and bought live pet fish to give. So, I filled the bowl with fish food to go along with the joke. Hilarity ensued, and I came out of the party with many new friends. And, I got to dance at a club called Taboo and enjoy a late-night kebab sandwich with Dan, Keren, and new friends Areej and Josch. بجنن.

Post White Elephant. The fish are swimming in the kitchen.

The following week was taken up by finals and Christmas celebrations at the School of Hope. Finals mean no real teaching responsibilities for the volunteers, which in turn translates to writing a few grant proposals and spending a lot of time with the teachers. The yearly program here looked like many in the U.S.: all the students are unbelievably cute, but some of them are more gifted singers (or dancers) than others. When one’s child is up front, parents rush up to get the best shot. And, teachers (including English class assistants) have their work cut out for them. In a brief moment of escape, fellow teachers Wafa, Majd, and myself played volleyball for a few minutes in the teachers room. Bijennan.

That evening all the teachers and staff members got together at a local hotel to relish in a job well done. Icebreakers ensued (including me having to speak Arabic into a microphone for the first time) and we enjoyed a wonderful meal together. The best part, however, was the dancing. This group is comprised of fun-loving, life-engaging folks. As such, we all felt comfortable to cut loose and dance together in the hazy, smoke-filled room. And, we had the pleasure of watching Principal Naseef and Pastor Imad tear it up together in the traditional Palestinian dance called dabke. I was astounded by their skill and joy. بجنن.

The best table at the School of Hope Christmas party. Soon after this picture was taken, the dance started.

A couple days later on the 22nd, we “Ramallis” (teachers and staff from Ramallah) made our way through terrible traffic – courtesy of the Qalandia checkpoint – to Beit Sahour for the Lutheran school-wide Christmas party. And a party it was! One of my fellow teachers, a close friend, told me that this is what she appreciates the most about the Lutheran community here – their ability to fill a room with joy. The Ramalli folks dominated the dance floor and afterwards we stayed up together until about 4 AM discussing school, life, meaning, and everything in between. The moon shone full in the sky above and my heart was touched by a deepening love for people and place. Bijennan.

Majd Masri’s rendition of an aspect of the hotel we Ramallis stayed in after the Christmas party.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. The place where it all went down. Around 10:00 AM, Eli and I walked from Jeni and Colin’s place in Beit Safafa through checkpoint 300 into Bethlehem to meet up with our friend Keren and a few others. We situated ourselves just above Star Street at a favorite café to watch the Scouts parade through Bethlehem. This was an experience unlike any other. The scouts are more or less mixed-gender boy/girl scouts that play percussion, brass instruments, and (the best part) bagpipes in their respective communities. Each Christmas Eve, scout troops from the area join a parade from the lower city to Manger Square. The Catholic Patriarch (awesomely named Pierbattista Pizzaballa) brings up the rear, shaking hands along the way – including mine! Seeing some of my friends performing and simply having fun on this journey brought tears to my eyes. After the parade, we attended a number of worship services, including one where Pastor Carrie of the English speaking congregation in Jerusalem offered a reflection on the nature of Christ’s birth and the important role of the midwife who helped bring him into the world. Humility from the start, and humility till the end. We also had dinner next to the Nativity Church and afterwards ended up at my friend Daniel’s house. Stargazing until about four AM. بجنن.

Christmas day. We rise early in order to make it back to Ramallah for the morning service. The road is somewhat long and we’re somewhat ragged, but we get there. I catch the last half of the service and partake in communion. The community meets for a few moments after church at our family’s house for drinks and sweets, but soon filter out to their own homes. Imad’s brother is here visiting with his wife and fun-loving young daughter. We open presents together and then partake in one of the most delicious and meaningful meals of my time thus far: lamb neck, rice with meat, stuffed chicken, assorted veggies, and more. We eat, drink, talk, laugh, tell stories, and play with the kids. One game becomes a mainstay – myself or Imad chase after his niece, she hides in a room and closes the door, and when we walk away she comes out again calling for us to chase her. The dynamic between uncle and niece, brother and brother, wife and husband, and friend to friend is steeped in life. Later in the evening, I look through Rula and Imad’s old wedding photos with my host sisters and turn it in tired, but full. Bijennan.

The next day we woke up slowly. I read a bit of Nora Krug’s Belonging, a first-generation German immigrant’s “reckoning with history and home” in regards to the atrocities propagated by the Nazis and her family’s place in it all (I highly recommend – especially for Americans – given our troubled past characterized by empire and domination). Eli and I then received an invitation from our fellow teacher and friend Majd to watch the sunset from the top of a mountain called Ein Qiniya. That was a no-brainer. In the late afternoon, Eli, Majd, Reem (her twin sister), a French artist named Juliette, and myself wandered the top of the mountain and took in the tapestry that was the sky that evening. We drank in the view while weaving through olive trees and sitting together on top of an abandoned house that has been empty since 1948. Afterwards, we went back to Majd and Reem’s studio to play a card game called Hand and roast chestnuts (I loved this so much I’m now nicknamed Abu El-Kastina, “father of the chestnuts”). While the chestnuts were resting on the space heater, Majd and Reem showed us their awe-inspiring artwork. بجنن.

The next day, Eli and I wandered a rain-soaked Jerusalem in order to get his parents from the airport in Tel Aviv. This was the beginning of a six-day span where it rained daily, and therefore my socks were constantly damp. Somewhat annoying, but the reasons for being out in the rain made it more than worth it. Dinner with Eli’s parents in the Old City. An Ultimate Palestine tournament in Bait Sahour (We came in 4th place out of five teams, but given how new everyone on the Ramallah team was, we were happy with the result). Trip to Haifa with Genna, Katie, and Hannah, my fellow YAGMs. Dinner in Haifa with old friends (Aicha, Ali, Sara, Alaa) and new. Exploring the ramparts of the old city of Akka. Eating burritos. A candlelit New Year’s Eve in Ramallah spent with dear friends playing the Four Questions game (thanks, Keren!). New Year’s day breakfast consisting of za’atar and cheese manaqish at Marcelo’s. Continuing education with the YAGM cohort, including but not limited to: a day trip to Nablus, exploring the precariously-placed Mount of Temptation monastery in Jericho, swimming in the Dead Sea, learning about the racialized roots of mass incarceration in the U.S. through the documentary 13th, engaging in a difficult but important conversation on antiracism, and eating lemon bars to celebrate Katie’s 24th birthday. Bijennan.

Bikafii /بكفي (enough). There you have it. Christmas and the New Year in the Holy Land. Life is not perfect here. It is definitely not always easy for those who live here. A forthcoming blog will explore this more. But, in the midst of the difficulties, there is beauty. There are laughing friends (old and new), hearts drawn close in community and shared suffering, and some of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever seen. I’ve received so much from my friends and companions here, and my life will forever be marked by their love. بجنن.

Newsletter #2: “A Day in the Life”

My eyes open around 7:00 and see a small amount of light coming in through the windows above my bed. This is a sure-fire sign that Eli (my roommate and friend) is eating breakfast. After absentmindedly skimming social media for a few minutes, I rise from my heavily-blanketed bed (the winter has started, and our home is surprisingly chilly) to join him. I start the day with a chuckle – Eli is sipping coffee with leftover spaghetti from last night, having decided to opt out of the usual hummus and bread. I am a few minutes behind him, as this is the one day a week we go to different volunteering sites: Eli to the school and myself to Meals on Wheels.

We chat together about our after-volunteering plans for a few minutes, and then Eli gets up to shower. While eating breakfast, I throw on a podcast. This morning, it is a Radiolab episode discussing the events of mass hysteria that followed fake radio broadcasts proclaiming War of the Worlds alien invasions in the U.S. and Ecuador. It’s a fascinating piece that ends up delving into our tendency as humans to be drawn to horrifying news events in order to be pacified by the calm, commanding voice of the objective news reporter.

I’m still chewing on this idea as I crawl into the warmth of my bed – not to sleep, but to spend about thirty minutes trying to get the Arabic flashcards I’ve been making on my computer squared away. After clicking around for a while and watching a YouTube video, I accomplish half of my goal. I have yet to figure out how to “flip” the cards I’ve made on the Anki flashcard app on my phone. Later.

I glance at my watch and realize that it’s time to shower. I get that done, get dressed, wander out to the living room to strum out a few notes on the ukulele, and then throw on my headphones and begin making my way to Meals on Wheels. In the U.S., Meals on Wheels is a program that delivers food to the homes of people who are unable to get out on their own due to age or disability. The program in Ramallah is similar, but backwards. Each Tuesday, Abu Ali hops into a large van (oftentimes with me) to pick up the 20-30 elderly folks (mostly women) and bring them to the Ramallah Women’s Center for a delicious home cooked meal.

When I am about a third of the way to my volunteering site, the Women’s Center’s van happens to pull up next to me and Nawal signals me in. Nawal is the leader of the Center, a women who strives day in and day out to do the most good possible for the residents and visitors that depend on the Center. She does this work masterfully and with limited resources. She, Abu Ali, and myself chat on the way to the Center after making a short stop at a dukaan (shop) for Abu Ali to grab a small to-go breakfast.

This morning, I decide to forego riding along to pick up the program participants in favor of being present with them as they sit in the Center waiting for the meal. This is a wonderful time for conversation and storytelling. While waiting for the first car-full to come, I spend a few minutes chatting with the kitchen staff: Shahar, Em El-A’bed, and more. They provide me with a glass of tea and I wander outside to a spot that, if you were to visit the Women’s Center on Tuesday morning, you would likely see me sitting. It’s one of my favorite places in the city, as it is a relatively quiet space filled with green – a nature-filled oasis in the middle of the metropolis. Here, I sit quietly to think, pray, read, and reflect.

After about thirty minutes, I see the first group of women pull up in the van. I help a few up the steps and then situate myself next to the group. The topic of conversation wanders from topic to topic, covering things like: cell phone difficulties, things planned for the upcoming holidays, family all over the world, beautiful places to visit in Palestine, and the recent escalation in Gaza. Sometimes, we just sit quietly and listen to the clamoring sounds emanating from the kitchen.

A curious sight – a crew of uniformed governmental officials – enter about forty-five minutes into our time together. It turns out that today is the Palestinian Civil Defense’s volunteering day. Medical practitioners among them start taking blood pressures and one man gives a presentation on safely heating homes in the winter. The Meals on Wheels cohort is captivated, asking many questions and exclaiming when another horror story (on, say, an accident with an indoor heater) is told.

During the presentation, one of the leaders of the Meals on Wheels program, a woman named Selwa, spoke to me about their work. She said that, for the program participants, this program is nothing short of a lifeline. “We need connections as people, and many of these women are lonely because the family is working or gone,” and Meals on Wheels facilitates meaningful relationships between these individuals. And, of course, an ajnabi (foreigner) from Minnesota.

After the uniformed officials left, I help deliver meals. Today: chicken, potatoes, and carrots all slow-cooked together. As usual, it is nothing short of delicious. I grab my plate and happily wolf it down (as an aside, one of the women told me a few minutes before I look like I have gained weight. I think it might be the loose sweater I’m wearing. But, if she is right, I know a large contributor is this scrumptious weekly lunch). After picking the bones clean, I add them to the bag that Leila – one of the women – collects every week to feed the cats outside her house.

I sit and chat for another hour or so, then leave the Center to meet Eli and Majd. Majd is one of the educators at the School of Hope. She teaches art, and is herself an artist. Today, Majd is showing two posters at the Palestinian Museum at Beir Zeit University not far from Ramallah. She created them for the Qalandia International’s Solidarity project. In them, she tied the plight of the Palestinians with other peoples in order to communicate shared values and desires for liberation from injustice. On the way to the university, we pick up two of her friends. One chats with me most of the ride in Arabic (Majd tells me after that he does not know a lot of English, and therefore was excited to talk to a foreigner in his native tongue). He’s a jokester, and we rib each other while trying to stay in our seats on the windy, hilly city streets.

Upon arrival, I am immediately struck by the beauty of the Museum. It’s architecture reminds me of some sort of trapezoidal structure meant to mimic the topography of the mountains around it. The group sits outside for a few minutes to have a smoke (as usual), and then we move downstairs for the presentation. All in all, there are twelve posters communicating Palestinian solidarity with seven countries/places: Yemen, Syria, South Africa, Venezuela, Western Sahara, Africa, and Ireland. Majd’s pieces are beautiful and haunting – see below, words do no justice. There were postcard-sized representations of the posters to take, and hers disappeared first.

Following the exhibition, Eli and I wandered through the exhibit upstairs showcasing traditional Palestinian cross-stitching. Then, we all pack into the car (four deep in the back!) back to Ramallah. After thanking Majd profusely for the ride and for sharing her wonderful work with us, we open the door and promptly make our way to the couches, where I promptly begin to stare at my computer for an embarrassing amount of time while trying to think about how to write this newsletter. Writers block persisting, I decide to make a hummus, hot pepper, and labna (yogurt dip/spread) sandwich. Maybe I’ll find inspiration there.

It worked. Not long after eating, I begin typing the first paragraphs you see above.

As an aside, one thing my cohort and I have learned is that onions and hot peppers are particularly potent here. After cutting peppers, the oil can remain on your fingers for hours, rendering an itchy eye occasion for screams of pain and profuse crying. Eli has taken to wearing gloves when cutting peppers. I did not today.

Having gotten a start on my newsletter, I begin to get ready for the weekly workout with a local organization called Right to Movement (RTM). I go every Tuesday, and every time I get crushed by this punishing hour and a half. Having worn glasses all day, I take them off and, as is my habit, put in my right contact.

Pain. Curse hot peppers. Put in left contact. Pain. Curse them again.

After the tears stopped, I walked the car-filled streets to the gym. This workout is a particularly difficult one, in part due to the sprints and part to the nagging presence of hot peppers in my stomach. Lesson learned. When the workout finishes, ya’tik al’afia (a hard-to-translate phrase that here basically means “good job”) abounds and we take our mandatory post-exercise group picture. I and four other friends (three local, one international) walk back together, making for a conversation in both Arabic and English. My international friend, a woman from Holland, decides to check out a shop to look for a gift for her boyfriend’s family. I decide to join her. The shop worker (and owner’s son) explains the history of the place and even brings us upstairs to the antique museum that is filled to the ceiling with old trinkets, furniture, etc. from all over the world. His father was an avid collector, and his habit served as the motivation to start the shop. While in conversation, the worker and I connect in a special way because that he attended the School of Hope when he was a child.

After taking our leave, my friend and I part ways and I make my way back. Not long after walking through the door, someone tries to get in. No cause for worry, however – we were expecting our friend Ibrahim. Generally the door is unlocked when we are around during the day and he just walks in. He’s become that kind of friend. Eli goes to bed soon after in anticipation of the early morning and long school day before us. Yet, Ibrahim and I have not seen each other for two days. Which, to us, is actually quite a long time. As such, we sit and catch up for about an hour and a half, covering almost every topic imaginable. This is one of the best ways to end the day, in my opinion. Ibrahim is an engineer with a full day tomorrow and as such leaves around 10:45.

I’m tired. So, I read a few pages of Braiding the Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and turn out the lights. Cozy in the dark, I say “thank you” and then drift off.

How Many Times?

This morning, Eli (my friend and fellow YAGM volunteer) and I climbed the stairs of the bell tower at 10:30 AM to ring the two bells like usual. This has become one of our weekly responsibilities, and as such we have stopped checking in with other church members before pulling the slightly frayed cables connected to the bells. However, perhaps just twenty seconds after starting, a church member came up the stairs and ordered us to stop. We were shocked – this had never happened before. He then told us that the pastor was not here yet.

We knew that our regular pastor and host father, Imad, was out of town and another local minister was to fill his shoes today. This responsibility fell on Pastor Fursan, the head of the Arabic-speaking congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. We walked down the stairs and began to ask more questions.

Jerusalem is only 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Ramallah. As such, a Sunday morning drive – even including traffic – should take no more than 20 minutes. However, this does not account for the reality that is the Qalandia checkpoint. This checkpoint has become a regular feature in our lives, and has been so for the Palestinian population for the past seventeen years. Here, Palestinians with permissions pass through daily to go to work, worship, or visit family. Every time they come through on a bus, the able-bodied dismount and pass through cage-like structures and security screening reminiscent of stalls used to herd cattle. Cars are frequently stopped and searched. Here, capriciousness rules the day. Sometimes folks move relatively quickly though Qalandia. Sometimes, minutes stretch into hours or a return trip from whence one came.

Qalandia_1

The traffic created by this checkpoint was the culprit this morning. Undeterred, about fifteen minutes after our service was supposed to start, a woman in the congregation started calling out hymn numbers and we began to sing together. We got through about four hymns and then she directed the readers to read today’s scripture passages. A rhythm began to develop and a worshipful atmosphere was cultivated. Then, a full hour after the service was supposed to start, Pastor Fursan strode in at the perfect time to proclaim today’s Gospel, Matthew 18:21-35.

21Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven…’”

.

After the reading, he delivered one of the most powerful sermons I have heard on this text. The stories of instances of radical forgiveness offered by Christians in obedience to this text were wonderful, but what truly struck me was his admission that living faithfully to this command is extremely difficult here – only made possible by the Spirit. It brought to mind the words Pastor Imad shared a few weeks ago in a sermon after taking over two hours to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to Palestine just that morning, “It is so hard to love your enemies at the bridge.” It is a place that is starkly dehumanizing and humiliating, just like the checkpoints, the wall, and the illegal Israeli settlements that pepper the Palestinian countryside.

The people that I have grown to love here are showing me just what it looks like to be Christian. It means looking in the face of the soldier demanding your papers and choosing to love instead of hate. It means opening your home constantly to share your food and very lives with local people and those from abroad. It means continuing to sing, continuing to worship, continuing to pray, and continuing to forgive, even when the checkpoint aims to choke hope.

I do not claim that this community is a perfect one. But, it is a profoundly faithful one – one that is helping me remain in relationship with Christ despite my many doubts. For that, I am grateful.

 

 

 

Flying Plates and New Friends

Arabic is a beautiful, oft-confounding, and witty language. For example, if you want to let someone know that they are funny, one way to do so is to tell them “damak khafeif (دمك خفيف).” Although this means “you are funny,” it literally translates as “your blood is light.”

Oftentimes translating words from English to Arabic is difficult. As a result, various gymnastics are done to try to form these new linguistic constructs. A favorite of mine is one of the translations of “frisbee.” The most common one I have heard is qurus ta’ir (قرص طائر), which translates literally as “flying disc.” Of course, this is a pretty standard rendering in English. My favorite, though, is the less-used sahin ta’ir (صحن طائر): “flying plate.”

I chose to focus on the translations of frisbee because (1) I find them delightful and (2) Ultimate Frisbee has been a surprising source of deep connections for me over the past month.

In August, I was reminded just how much I love playing Ultimate while at YAGM orientation in Chicago. My friend Gracia brought a frisbee and initiated regular games that commenced nearly every day after lunch. She and another YAGM named Owen had played in college, and were obviously the most seasoned “frisbee-ers.” Yet, people ranging from beginners to these grizzled vets joined in the (surprisingly exhausting) fun. I left Chicago having initiated great relationships with many other YAGM, but there was a special connection made between those of use who regularly played frisbee.

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In my previous blog, I cited a profound experience our group had while hiking with a local Palestinian through the Wadi Makhrour valley in Beit Jala just a few days after arriving. Something else significant happened that day, as well.

Before the hike we parked in front of a school in Beit Jala. I noticed that there was a large group of local youth throwing frisbees together on their athletic field. My extroverted side decided it would be a good idea to walk up and ask them if they play regularly. I got some weird looks at first – most Palestinian youth are not used to an ajnabi (foreigner in Arabic) like me busting into their practice. As turned out, however, this was just a two day-long introduction to Ultimate put on by a local teacher and community leader named Daniel.

I was shocked, as I had met Daniel once three years ago when I lived in Bethlehem for a month conducting research. We chatted for a minute, and then in subsequent conversations I learned that he and a young man named Ibrahim were aiming to start an Ultimate Palestine team in Ramallah. They invited me to help get it off the ground and I enthusiastically agreed.

We have now had three practices and I must say that they are consistently the highlight of my week. The Palestinians here are incredibly competitive and talented, which makes for a two-hour session of full of laughs, lay-out catches, and, sometimes, a frustrated Phifer (especially when Na’el scores the final point after burning you).

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After our first practice in Ramallah

For me, the most meaningful aspect of this surprising community is the people. Ultimate Palestine has facilitated the formation of friendships that I am sure will only deepen as the year goes on. In particular, Ibrahim (the guy Daniel connected me to) has become one of my best friends. I really believe this friendship (and, inshallah [God willing], others as well) will last far beyond this year.

Further, these individuals embody the tenacious, life-giving spirit of Palestinian people who refuse to allow the weight of military occupation to choke their ability to find joy in play. Even though it takes a number of the players from Beit Sahour (a town near Bethlehem) about two hours to traverse a distance that would only take 30 minutes if there were no checkpoints, they come. They compete. They advocate for justice. And, they live. 

So, as of now, I am surprisingly thankful for that trusty old Flying Plate, and for the people like Ibrahim, Daniel, Jiana, Na’el, Eli, Dan, and more who have become my friends through Ultimate Palestine.

EDIT: For more information on Ultimate Palestine: click here for the main Facebook page, here for Ultimate Ramallah, and here for Ultimate Bethlehem. Further, here’s a link to a fantastic video about our community.

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Phifer’s First YAGM Newsletter

(This is the first of the bi-monthly newsletters I will be sending. If you are interested in receiving them directly via email, please let me know. Otherwise, I will continue sharing them on the blog throughout the year)

On October 14th, just shy of 80 young adults convened in the South Side of Chicago for our Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) orientation. Although the Discernment, Interview, and Placement weekend had taken place months before, in many ways it felt like we had just learned of our country placements. The reality of the coming year had not yet settled in. But, after eight days of group conversation, sharing of painful and beautiful stories, exploring privilege, prayer, worship, ultimate frisbee, liar’s dice, and more, the time had come – whether we were ready or not. For me, personally, I was eagerly anticipating our departure, despite how surprisingly difficult saying “see you when I see you” to many members of this remarkable community was.

We were welcomed in Tel Aviv after our 11-hour overnight flight from New York by the Grangaard family – Jeni, Colin, Josie, and Amos – alongside Adrienne Gray, another ELCA missionary. Jeni and Colin are the JWB country coordinators, and Josie and Amos are their wonderful children. We then took jet-lagged selves to their home for a light lunch and some introductory conversations. That night, we got to know each other better over delicious pizza from Bethlehem’s Zuwadeh restaurant, and soon after tried to catch up on some sleep. Some familiar sounds and smells greeted me from the start, such as the call to prayer out of a mosque near we were staying and the aroma of jasmine wafting from the plant just outside our building.

The next two weeks of in-country orientation were a blur of activity. The first few days were full of procedures/safety protocols, the hilarious “Servant Leader, Servant Schmuck, and Servant Martyr” exercise aimed at helping us imagine what a successful life looks like here, and intermittent periods of prayer and spiritual reflection on our journeys that brought us to the JWB program. In one of the afternoons, we hiked the Wadi Makhrour valley from Beit Jala to the beautiful town of Battir with a local guide. Along the way, he pointed out a myriad of plants and geological features, and also provided a vast amount of historical information. For example, Battir is the location where the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E) against the Romans was definitively crushed.

Some of the most powerful moments, however, came when he discussed his life growing up as a Palestinian in Bethlehem. Our guide spoke nonchalantly about being imprisoned twice during the second intifada for no explainable reason. Further, he discussed worries about announced Israeli settlement expansions around al-Makhrour and Battir that would effectively wipe out a Palestinian town called al-Walaja. He then explained that this Christian faith keeps him, despite the injustices that so characterize his existence, from hating his enemies. Instead, he feels called to work towards justice and the good of all people in the land.

The rest of orientation carried on in a similar manner. We learned from many Palestinians and a number of Israelis the ancient and current happenings in the Holy Land as we toured the Bethlehem area, the Old City of Jerusalem, Lutheran World Federation-run Augusta Victoria Hospital, and the various neighborhoods and settlements that comprise the greater Jerusalem area. As a group, we also visited each Lutheran School/volunteer site in which we will be working.

Recently, Eli Yackel-Juleen and myself moved into our home for the next year. Over the past week, we have worshipped with the Lutheran Church of Hope, hit the ground running in the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah, and shared delicious meals with our host family. Furthermore, this week I met with the Meals on Wheels program, and am incredibly excited to form relationships with members of the elderly population in Ramallah as a part of this community-centered service.

This place is already starting to feel like home, and I look forward to meeting many more people as I continue to establish myself here. The next steps on my list: playing with Ramallah’s newly formed Ultimate Frisbee club and joining the local Right to Movement running club.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers and support. As always, I welcome any correspondence and am happy to answer questions you have for me. I look forward to learning together with you.

Why This Title?

I imagine that some of you may be wondering why I titled this blog as I did. It is not Phifer’s Journey to Jerusalem or A Meandering Minnesotan in the Middle East. Instead, it is a somewhat obscure quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, I 59: “Go to the limits of your longing.”

This poem is of deep significance to me. I first learned of it about a year and a half ago in a season of deep stress while studying for the MCAT, taking classes, working as an ER scribe, and prepping for the bear that is the medical school application process. At that time, I felt like I was losing myself in a process that so often turns people into competitive, numbers-driven individuals. Rilke’s poem came to me at that time and reminded me that the process in which I was immersing myself was not motivated by selfish ambition or pride. Instead, it was a natural step in the direction of a deeply-rooted call I had sensed years before.

Before reflecting more, here is the poem in its entirety:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

-Book of Hours, I 59

Israel-Palestine is a place that made a powerful impression on me the very first time I visited on an archaeological dig in the summer of 2015. At that time, the combination of ancient memories, sacred veneration, current political conflict, broken relationships between communities, stark injustices, and more, captivated my heart and imagination. This fascination only deepened after spending three months in Haifa and a month in Bethlehem that following fall/winter, as well as a two week stint in January 2017.

But, really, why the Holy Land? The world is endlessly complex and compelling all over. Injustice permeates the U.S. Beautiful places exist much closer to home. The sick and ill are suffering, and I am putting off medical education for a year to accompany the Lutheran Christian community in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Frankly, I do not know. Perhaps it is the childhood hopes of a “land flowing with milk and honey” that were suffocated as I witnessed with my eyes the shocking visage of military checkpoints and graffiti-covered walls. Maybe I am still grappling with the role that my home country has played in the development and sustaining of this conflict. Potentially, I am struggling to discern how the one called the Prince of Peace taught and embodied a way to live differently in a world characterized by eye-for-eye violence.

“These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.”

I do know this: I am certain that the people I will encounter here in Jerusalem and the West Bank will tangibly embody the God who “speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.” I hope that, through their witness, I might better discern how to live faithfully in this fractured world. Further, here I am living far “beyond my recall” in a place where I will need to depend on the care and love of the people that comprise the community here.

In short, the limits of my longing have brought me back. I pray this journey might, in some small way, lead me closer to “that country they call life…[that is known] by its seriousness.” Further, I hope my reflections throughout this time would help each of you as you seek to live a life following the call to the limits of your longing. Finally, my aim is to, as faithfully as I can, tell the stories of the Palestinian Lutheran community in which I am serving and being served. 

Please reach out to me at any time with questions or thoughts, as I hope that this will be a journey that we can all walk on together.