Saturday, March 21, 2009

Faith















Their footsteps gave them away, though my eyes were closed to the sheltering sunlight. A person pattered by, nimbly and swiftly. Rebecca. Another followed after, slower, heavier, less certain in her direction. Jessica. They disappeared into the apartment, their chatter receding into blessed silence. Only the occasional car horn, the rumble of an engine, the jingle of the gas man’s truck, the voice of the mosque, the shriek of a child disturbed my serenity. I turned over, bare leg stretched out luxuriantly on my mattress.

I heard their voices before their footfalls, a rise and fall of cadence twittering about the events of the last two nights. Their events, not mine. Wrapping my blankets around me, I stood up and relinquished to them their balcony and gossip. I paused next to the kitchen counter, inhaling the redolence of my fresh lilies blooming in spring glory. With a contented sigh, I settle into the familiarity of the loveseat, permanent residence of my ailing laptop, and lean over to sip my Diet Pepsi. Grrrrrrr. Empty. With a more frustrated sigh, I push aside my disgruntlement and admire the shade of my skin, smoothing transitioning between pasty winter white to sun-brushed bronze. Insha’allah.

With God’s will. This simple Arabic phrase, the most oft-repeated in the Arabic world, making the impossible suddenly possible. I hope you get better, insha’allah. I will see you again, insha’allah. It is amazing, really, the faith behind these words. They grant the gift of hope, of possibility, of reality. Were they to be suddenly, inexorably, effaced from the Arabic language, I cannot imagine the chaos this would induce. Business transactions, prayer sessions, friendships, conversations would be suddenly bereft of the assurance of faith, of the comfort of knowing that all rests in God’s capable hands. Faith, yes. But also inculpable cultures, societies based on the belief that, ultimately, God is responsible for Everything. Only through God is anything possible.

Sound familiar? Is that not the basic tenet of most major religions, the ultimate faith in God? The simple act of prayer is an act of insha’allah, of placing our needs, our concerns, our hopes and our joys on the will of God. Here is what I wish, God, and, if you will it, then make it so. Christians are so good at prayer, yet many of them utterly fail to see the connection between this action and that of their Muslim brethren. Faith in the same God, acts of worship to praise and petition Him...

Religion. By my own will or not, I seem to find myself recently enmeshed in religion experiences. Life in the Middle East is an encompassing journey of religion, an ensconcing envelopment in the practices of Islam, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism and Christianity. I hear, and see, Islam every day. My local mosque assures that I know, 5 times a day, when I should be praying in the direction of Mecca. Many cab drivers leave the Quran blaring from the radio when I step inside. Every veiled woman is a testament to the fundamentals of Islam, to the decree that women should be modest and unadorned, and, by nature of the veil’s controversy, every unveiled woman is a testament to her own form of faith, be it towards the religion of Islam or another.

But visit any of the sites of the Holy Land, and you will soon learn that Islam is not omnipotent. Christians and Jews have as much, or more, history in this region as the Muslims, and they will not go quietly. Attend a church service in Amman, and you will find Christians both devout and fervent. Pass by the Western Wall of Jerusalem on a Friday night, and the flocks of bearded, black robed Jews will overwhelm you.
But, religion is not the problem. No, don’t laugh. It is Man. Man created these apocryphal divisions between us, Man suddenly decided he could not live harmoniously beside another decent human being. Religion does not advocate slaughter of another people merely because of their religion. I am not going to go into the basis of jihad, but nowhere in the Quran does God tell Muslims to murder. And nowhere in the Torah does God tell Jews to commit genocide merely on the basis of differences in creed. The Bible is devoid of any reference to wage war against you neighbor because he is unlike you.

Man is reasonable; faith is unreasonable. Perhaps this is where the tension lies, between the void of reason and faith, and the struggle to connect the act of miracles with the reality of life. Yet, without this faith, without religion, where is Man? Alone, with the weight of the universe crushing down upon him. Religion begets responsibility. We have an interceder between us and the expanse of time and space, something that recognizes us, something that cares about us, something that gives us direction.

And so, we believe. We have faith in that which we cannot see, touch, or hear.

Faith comes in many forms. For the non-religious, faith is found in more prosaic objects-money, love, sex, friendship, humanity…But these things are imperfect. They will always betray you. Only a God, designed in perfection, will never leave you. And this, perhaps, is why humanity has always chosen the divine over the mortal, the unseen over the tangible, the imagined over reality.

And so I understand the mindset of the Christian worshippers of Thursday night, of their fervid devotion to God and their love of Jesus. And their sermon, well, it was good. Not just good in an oratorical sense, but good in a sense of purity, of ethical mores. In instructed parents on child-raising practices, and listed 6 values-honesty, integrity, respect, self-confidence, charity…And, afterwards, when we gathered in the apartment downstairs to share a meal, I felt at home. Everyone was kind, smiling, generous, laughing, attempted various levels of English with me. But, perhaps what touched me most was the last speaker of the night, a burly old man with a red-checked Jordanian headscarf atop his head. He lumbered up to the lectern, and I internally rolled my eyes. He exuded the conservative, dare I say backwards, attitude that I detest in Arab men, be they Christian or Arab.

So, when he opened his mouth and spoke, I blinked, and wondered if my internal translator was malfunctioning. Today is Mother’s Day in the Middle East. Happy Mother’s Day! The occasion was celebrated that evening; all of the women (including me, hence the lilies in the kitchen) received flowers. But, this man, he spoke about recognizing mothers every day of the year, not just one. About their essential role in life, about the respect they deserve, about how hard they work, about how many of them are career woman and mothers…My friend, Reem, squeezed my hand and smiled, her face suffused with the beauty of faith.

Just as, a bit over a month ago, Mother, too, smiled at me while she stood before the altar of the Crucifixion in Jerusalem…

Yes, this blog appears to be about faith, and its tribulations and its elations, and what is more fitting than a trip to the holiest city in the world?

So, to Jerusalem we go, via cab, bus and foot. Cab from Amman to the Allenby Bridge crossing; thwarted at that border; a cab to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing, an hour north; cabs and various buses and interminable waits to finally cross into Israel; a cab (as all of the buses were not running due to the Jewish Sabbath) to Jerusalem, to the heart of the old city; by foot through the Jaffa Gate, down David Street, up stairs into a narrow side alley and, finally, to the Lutheran Guesthouse.

Jerusalem is more of a hassle than anything else. It is a breathtaking city, steeped in history, religion, and culture, but every moment spent inside it is an exercise in patience and discord. This is not to say that neither I, nor mother, did not enjoy ourselves, for we did, immensely. I took Mother on walking tour of the old city that eve, down David street, past the Western Wall, out a gate, and around the outside of the city, enjoying spectacular views of East Jerusalem, the Mt. of Olives, the City of David, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, Mom was hungry, and my route was circuitous, as always, so we had to retrace our steps (not quite as awe-inspiring, the second time) and wander back through the old city.

Teenage Arab hoodlums harassed us, or, more specifically, me (apparently, the shape of my rear side is of particular fascination to Arabs, as the Iraqis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians have all made various comments regarding its general contours and what they wish to do to it), as we traipsed back over the worn flagstones of Jerusalem. Finally, we espied the familiar glow of David Street, with relief, and made our way to the Armenian Tavern, which I had visited on a previous trip. Warm, pleasurably powerful showers later, we slept.

The echoing halls of the Lutheran Guesthouse gave way to the smooth, millennia-old stones of the Via Delarosa. Using my ‘innate’ sense of direction, we found it without toooooo much wandering, and began the walk of Jesus. It was a pleasant spring day, lit by cerulean skies scattered with puffy clouds, a warm breeze carrying with it the whiff of incense, the chatter of tour groups, the mutterings of Arabic, the call of the mosques, and the ringing of church bells. We were among the few independents in Jerusalem tourism traffic. Even without the war in Gaza, most people fear travel in the Middle East. With the war, almost everyone followed obediently behind a tour guide as he explained each of the twelve stations of the cross.

Mother and I, we dodged around the tour groups, ducked into little stores as our whims dictated, and ambled at our own pace along the holiest way in Christendom. Some of the station are marked by beautiful chapels and eloquent statues; others, by mere plaques on the city wall bearing a Roman numeral. One was disguised in basement of a tourist store. The site of Jesus’ prison was atmospheric, at least, devoid of tourists and accessible only by descent into a dark cavern lit by flickering candles. I realized, then, what the Via Delarosa was lacking. Faith. Individually, perhaps, it still persists, resilient despite the shopkeepers selling pieces of the cross, the repetitions of the Quran sliding through the air of the street, the brusque push of impatient citizens pushing in front of you. But I have found more faith in the voices of a congregation in Amman, lifted up in praise to the Lord; in the gentle eyes of my Coptic professor, Nabila, in Cairo; in the soft words of my pastor in Chaska; then I have in the streets of Jerusalem.

Religion cannot exist, wholly, in an atmosphere of repression, oppression, hatred, or violence. In the church of the Holy Sepulchre, situated on the Mt. of Calvary and the resting place of His grave, various Christian factions compete for dominance over the site. While we were there, we witnessed several processions, in the space of an hour, past the sites of significance, each conducting their own rituals. I should think that the time and resources devoted to this puerile competition could be better directed at other causes. God himself must suffer from both deafness and asthma, constantly being asphyxiated by the sickeningly sweet scent of incense and the booming, and often off-key, words of the priests and underlings chanting in front of his grave.

The Church itself is cavernous, with niches, balconies, and stairwells, and chapels to explore for hours. Time has softened its stark, dark, imposing interior, blunted the sharp-cut edges of stone blocks, smoothed the tops of altars with the brush of millions of pilgrims. Regardless of religion, the sheer enormity of professed faith encompassed in one building is staggering. The desire of millions of Christian hearts is fulfilled when they cross its mighty threshold.

We embarked on a backwards tour of Jesus’ life. We walked, from the Via Delarosa to the Mt. of Olives, descending into the valley between, clambering among the Roman tombs. In that sunlight gorge, frequented only by the occasional Arab passing on his way to East Jerusalem, it was peaceful, finally, and the beauty of the Holy Land, unmarred by commercialism, strife, and tension, descended.

At the Mt. of Olives we visited the Garden of Gethsemane and a beautifully lugubrious church upon the site. Some of the olive trees, they told us, were witnesses to the betrayal of Jesus. They looked merely old, and tired, weighed down with the contemplation of the ages and the secrets of humanity.

Twas the night, and the voices of the muzzeins resounded through the darkened streets, answered by the clangs of the church bells, then the morning. I took Mother, as usual, on the road less travelled, or, I suppose, the bus less travelled. To Bethlehem we went, via public bus outside the Damascus Gate. It was us and Arabs.

The bus deposited us outside a recent construction of the Jews. The barrier wall, with a gate more fortified than a border between two nations. A banner next to the gate read, with mocking sincerity, “Bethlehem and Jerusalem: love and peace.” We followed behind an Arab woman with her children, and waited patiently while the IDF interrogated her. “Oh, American. Go through.” The border guard barely glanced at our passports.

We passed through the several metal detectors, metal queues, beneath the wall itself, through more metal queues, and into the West Bank. When I had previously visited Jerusalem, in the summer of ’07, the wall had not extended that far, and a mere road checkpoint impeded progress. Now, the steel will of Israel divides Jerusalem and the West Bank.

With their usual avarice, the Arab taxi drivers attempted to charge us exorbitant fees to visit the Church of the Nativity. We bartered them down, slid into a cab, and endured the constant badgering of the driver, who tried to encourage us to visit other sites in the West Bank. We exited at the church, gratefully, although he waited for us. Its interior was, of course, beautiful, ancient, gilded, and ornate; only a small crush of tourists impeded our access to the site of Jesus’ birth, although every single one of them took a photo of themselves touching the silver star marking His emergence into this world.

The modern, Catholic section of the church was still thronging with Sunday worshippers leaving service. I saw faith that day not in the glint of the Star of Jesus but in the welcoming smile of the local priest, the laughter of friends exiting the sanctuary, the scattered Bibles across the pews. Below the church lay another historical site: the location of the inn where Mary and Joseph sought shelter.

Our taxi driver brought us to an olive wood store, but their prices were outrageous, so we left. Rather angry by this time, the driver deposited us at the border crossing, muttering curses beneath his breath, while we fled to the Israeli side. I glanced back, once, just as Lot’s wife had done (happily, I was not doomed to life as a pillar of salt) to gaze over the jumble of buildings of the West Bank. I, too, could do little more than mutter curses under my breath for the situation of the Palestinians and those eponymous people’s treatment of tourists.

Directly behind us was a jovial group of American tourists, demurely herded into a single line, utterly fascinated, and impressed, by the aspect of two American women traveling alone through the dangers of Israel. I politely declined to mention that large groups of tourists generally pose more of a target to terrorists than individuals. We got into our public bus; they piled into their tourist one.

A pleasant walk around the walls of the old city later, Mother and I found us in front of an innocuous door for an Assyrian chapel. Another female tourist, also solo, stood beside us, eyeing it with similar dubiousness. Having asked the front desk where the site of the Last Supper was, they directed us here.

We entered the door, found the interior courtyard deserted, and almost turned away, when the flash of light caught our eye. In a side chapel, an old priest, gray-bearded and black-robed, lit a candle and carried it out of side. Curious, I followed him, haltingly, watching as he lit more candles in front of an altar. When he finished, he turned to me, surprised to find visitors. Smilingly hesitatingly, I said hello, and his face crinkled up in the most wonderful smile, and he beckoned to me, mother, and the other woman. For almost an hour, he gave us a tour of the complex, telling us a story of the patron saint of the chapel (I forget the name, forgive me) in slow but precise English. From there, he led us to a sumptuous chapel of red velvet and gold icons and shining altars where he explained the significance of the site. He is one of the few men in this life that exudes, from every pore, radiant goodness. His pure delight in the sacrifice of Jesus, his eternal love, was evident in every sentence. He was a creation of faith in the purest sense. Muslim extremists, too, are creations of faith, as are Catholic/Protestant terrorists. But this priest understood the message of religion free from its corruption and outside influence.

I left the softly lit chapel, hidden down an anonymous street in Jerusalem, glowing, if not literally, than figuratively. I did not find faith in the hallowed halls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or on the steps of the Dome of the Rock, or on the prayer crevices of the Western Wall…no, it was found in the testimony of an old priest in a little chapel down a street I will probably never find.

And that, I thought the next morning, after I had made an early morning (while Mom wisely remained in bed) foray to the Dome of the Rock, is the true beauty of Jerusalem.

Oh, my. Time seems to run in a swift river when I write. What was sunlight is now twilight, and the afternoon call to prayer has melded into the call of sunset. The voices of my roommates, still chattering, now come from the sunroom. Faith is such a tenuous thing. It can be won or lost in the work of a moment; it can endure for millennia, or disappear for eternity; it can be proven in the actions of those you love, and disproven just as easily. It is little wonder the Middle East is forever entrenched in war.

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