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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.