Familiar Tunes

I’ve come to learn that music has some sort of mystical power. It carries memories with every sound. Something to do with the connection between lyrics and melody and the way we associate our own emotions with the songs themselves.

I tend to remember where I was, who I was with, even what I was thinking when I first heard a song I really like. I have reinforced this trend over the last eight months. Each of the songs that have been influential enough for me to play repeatedly have some sort of memory associated with them. There is the song “Straight Shot” by DeVotchKa that I heard as I gazed at the setting sun over Beit Sahour during our first week in Palestine. There is “Me and your Mama” by Childish Gambino that I first listened to while cooking a delicious curry dish with my best friends here in our apartment. Another song that comes to mind is “Space Song” by Beach House. This one I heard while I was walking through the city streets, all lit up at night, to my gym on the other end of town. These are just a few examples of the many tunes I heard for the first time since I’ve been here. They may have seemed like just any other song when they echoed through my headphones the first time, but I would soon find that they had much more of an effect on my psyche than I could have imagined.

Why is it that songs, especially the right ones, can have such a powerful emotional impact on us? Lyrics and chord progressions seem to be so repetitive these days after all. Yet they tend to draw out unique memories and emotions in all of us. Could it have something to do with the way we feel when we hear them? One consistent state I feel that I have been in for a lot of this year has been vulnerability. I have often thought about how little I know about this place. How difficult it can be to live here without behaving like a complete American idiot. This has made me turn away from my usual need to feel ordered and in control and to embrace discomfort and unawareness. Songs have helped with this. I find it therapeutic to simply put in my earbuds and clear my mind with a good song.

I had been a fair-weather fan of DeVotchKA for a while. Ever since I heard their grand opus “How it Ends” in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine.” So when I found that they had released a new album back in August, I jumped at the opportunity to sample its most popular song. “Straight Shot” opens as if already in the middle of a well-conducted string cacophony. The minute I hit play, I can hear a steady strum on an acoustic guitar and an up-beat picking on an electric guitar that rises and falls seamlessly in unison. As if mirroring that feeling I had, when I first arrived, that I was beginning a new stage of my life but in a place that was already in the middle of vast cacophony. I further connected with the song when I took the time to read the lyrics which seem to be about the phases of life that one man experiences. The good times and bad times. The things that are constant in our lives throughout all of the change as well as the things that seem to disappear and reappear with the passing of time.

I tend to believe that I’m like a lot of the other white, American fans of Childish Gambino. That I was in love with the talent and sense of humor of Donald Glover but because of shows like “Community” and “Saturday Night Live” and jumped on the wagon of his musical fandom late. Nevertheless, the opening anthem from the album “Awaken, My Love” hit me hard when it played in our kitchen as my friends and I engaged in what eventually became one of our favorite things to do together; cooking.

People told me about Beach House many times in the past. I was told that I would really like their alternatively-futuristic sound. But what I didn’t expect was that I would hear “Space Song” for the first time while a was walking along my common route to the gym. Guided by city lamps and headlights, I heard the synthy ballad about isolation and solitude on my lonely walk.

This is what I mean when I say that a song can engage with my mood and affect my emotions in such a memorable way. I heard all three of these songs at least seven months ago yet I remember them so vividly even now. I will take these little memories with me through the rest of my life, when I return home and beyond. There will be many new songs and important experiences, but these ones are going to stay with me from this most influential year of my life.

The Tawjihi Papers

At the school for which I volunteer, students who reach the twelfth grade enter into a program called Tawjihi. This is evidence of a culmination of all their hard work in previous grades as well as their intention to attend university or join the work force. The closest parallel I can draw to the American educational world would be some sort of post-secondary or advanced placement program. These students spend their year preparing for and taking exams, the results of which heavily influence which universities they will be permitted to attend as well as which careers they can likely pursue. I work with their English teacher and was recently given the opportunity to read some of their essays.

                Miss Haneen assigned them all to write about their perspectives on money. They were asked what money is good for as well as why it may be considered “the root of all evil.” Granted, my main role was to correct their grammar and spelling, but I couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised by the content of their responses. These students are incredibly gifted thinkers and they are blessed with teachers who ask them all the right questions.

                “If we could actually have a fair life, we wouldn’t suffer,” wrote one especially candid student.

                Many students like this one wrote at length about their lives under occupation. They wrote about how lack of freedom of mobility limits them from achieving things they once dreamt of as children. Some of them wrote on their thoughts of money as a necessity yet, at the same time, a shallow form of motivation. Others detailed financial success as their most important goal. But the common thread that wove through was the circumstances are unfair. To pack the entire plight of the Palestinian people into one metaphor would be to say that some people are dealt a bad hand. Believe me, the essays were loaded with metaphors but I wont tell you who wrote that one.

                A friend of mine, who has been to this place before, initiated a difficult conversation with me a few months ago when he asked, “The difference between poor and wealthy is wild here, isn’t it?” I didn’t have to think on that question long before I nodded in agreement. We spoke for a while about finances; how they affect our lives and how we’ve seen them affect the lives of those in our host community. He made a heavy point when he said, “Poor back home is wealthy here.”

                Some of the students wrote about differences they were aware of between separate nations’ economies. And I thought about the conversation I had with my friend as I read their work. I also recalled this walk that I enjoy taking. It’s one of my favorite walks in the city, especially around sunset. In about thirty minutes, if I move quickly, I can get all the way from our home near the center of town to one of the northernmost neighborhoods. I like making this trek because of the spectacular views but it’s always a shock to see the city change from derelict to well-kept. To see such an immediate and stark contrast between the poverty of the city and the wealth. This is the crux of one of humankind’s major problems, isn’t it? The inequity between classes of people. Between races, genders, religions, and social status. No one is more aware of this problem than the students of my school.

                The reason I don’t spend time attending class with the Tawjihi students is because they are engaged in standardized studies that take up all their time. To even glimpse their work has been a gift. They are intelligent, talented, and motivated. I have every confidence in them as the future of Palestine.   

In the North

All for the Best: In the shadow of the mount of the beatitudes

Growing up, one of my favorite parts of the Bible was the beatitudes. You know, the famous scene from the New Testament where Jesus gives His sermon on the mount. He doesn’t call a press conference for all of the political news channels to broadcast. He doesn’t whiten His teeth, tease His hair, and do stupid crap on YouTube. Instead, He is followed up to the top of a large hill near the Sea of Galilea where He uses the power vested in Him by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe to grant blessings on the undesirables of the time. The people that the rest of the world wouldn’t even give a second glance are not only admired by Jesus but blessed. This kind of stuff drove the empire mad. The chief priests, the tax collectors, and anyone else with power were all wetting themselves and no one so much as lifted a sword in rebellion. None of them needed swords because of what Jesus instilled in them: Hope.

Author Mitri Raheb brilliantly describes hope in his book Faith in the Face of Empire when he writes, “Hope is putting what we see into action today. Hope is the power to keep focusing on the larger vision while taking small, often undramatic, steps toward the future […] Hope doesn’t wait for vision to appear. Hope is vision in action today.” Jesus doesn’t say anyone will be blessed. Rather, he says they are blessed right there in that moment. This is the kind of Hope that people who are overpowered and abused by an empire need.

Some of my friends and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing the implications of the beatitudes. Specifically, we discussed the idea of the blessings being conditional. That one needs to be meek, poor in spirit, a peacemaker, one who mourns, pure, or persecuted to receive these blessings. The general consensus was an interesting one. After a considerably long discussion, we decided that the point Jesus was making was that all are blessed regardless of things like religious beliefs, social standing, ethnicity, gender, vocation, etc. We also understand those blessings to be unconditional, requiring no effort on our part. But that definitely doesn’t mean He was calling for complacency.  

 

Stones

I had skipped maybe a handful of stones in my life. Before arriving at the sea of Galilea, I really hadn’t taken serious time to just wade and throw. Somehow, the still waters of the sea (or pretty big lake as it should rightfully be known) welcomed stone skipping more than any other I had seen. Maybe it was the numerous black, volcanic choices that had washed up before our feet as we waded knee deep. These smooth, black stones were so perfect for skipping. It was as if the lake was begging us to throw them. I had never known peace and tranquility quite like when I launched stone after stone across the surface of the Galilea.

My YAGM cohort and I noticed stones in many places during our week-long retreat after Thanksgiving. First, at the ancient city of Caesarea where Herod laid them high in the forms of an amphitheater, aqueduct, harbor, and many other structures consistent with Roman cities of the time. We then saw them in the city of Nazareth, where they were stacked to staggering heights in commemoration of Mother Mary. The Basilica of the Annunciation was a spectacular sight to see. The cold surface of the stone beneath our feet was matched by the bitter silence of spectators and worshipers from every corner of the world.

Each day during our retreat was filled with discussions and sightseeing as well as ample time for reflection. I am grateful for what I saw and heard. It gave me the chance to reflect upon stones and what they mean to us as people. Walls were built with stone. But the stone crumbled. I saw direct evidence of this very fact in Caesarea and again at Nimrod, the castle on the hill in the Golan Heights. Walls are built with concrete today. The impermanence of stone and concrete is visible in this place. You can see much more of the landscape over a fallen wall than a standing one.

I will long remember the moments I shared with the other volunteers in my cohort a couple weeks ago. I will remember how we stood, pants rolled up past the knees, skipping stones across the Lake of Galilea. We could see the sun set as we hung out on the shore. There was something deeply comforting about the whole experience. While we had all spent time viewing locations of former and current ideological unrest, the water remained calming. I wonder what the water was like to the people in the time of Jesus. Was it just as smooth and reflective as it is today? Did Roman soldiers pal around between patrols, splashing in the water? Did the disciples skip stones like us? Did Jesus? I know how ridiculous that may sound. Yet, at the same time, why wouldn’t they?

Maqluba

“Yatik galafi,” I said to the taxi driver as I got out around two o’clock. This phrase, basically meaning good job, is the common way to tell a driver that you are where you need to be. He simply smiled, nodded, and said, “welcome” but I think my smile was bigger as I had achieved something I never had during my time volunteering in the West Bank. I had navigated through the entire city of Ramallah, on my own, speaking only Arabic. Albeit broken Arabic.

I set foot on the pavement of Beitunia with that stupid smile still on my face. My Arabic tutor’s home was only about a block away from where the car had left me in the dust. Checking to make sure that I still had all of my supplies, I began to cross the street towards a home I’d never visited to be with a family I’d never met.

This is the point of the story at which younger Eli would become extremely nervous. There is a lot in Palestine that is different from the U.S.A. and never has a greater understatement been uttered. One major difference is the spirit of hospitality. In my experience, there are very few places in the States where a stranger will agree to teach you their language for a small price. I tend to assume that there are even fewer places where that stranger will invite you to his home to meet his family and share a lovely meal. My younger self would have collapsed with anxiety at the mere thought of trying to get to a new place in a foreign country to meet new people. I would be lying if I said that the current me wasn’t a little nervous still. But little did I know, I was agreeing to what would end up being one of the most enjoyable meals of my life.

I was met by my tutor, Abdullah, just outside the entryway of his family’s apartment. He had a big, welcoming smile on his face. Thinking I would get lost somewhere in the city throughout the whole journey, a wave of relief overcame me as I shook his hand and followed him upstairs. We were both greeted by his infant son just before getting in the elevator. I waved to the little boy and said, “Ahlan! Shu ismak?” His response was to bashfully turn his head into his dad’s thigh and shoot me a little smirk. After the elevator landed on our floor, Abdullah gracefully led me into his home.

Before the door was even fully open, I could smell one of the most intoxicating scents I’d ever smelled. When we were all through the door, I saw a beautiful family of three standing before me. I could tell how pleased each one of them was to have me there. I wonder if they could tell that they were completely altering my prior perceptions of human kindness with this experience.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an extremely active imagination. As a child, I could turn a jump from a tractor trailer to a pile of leaves into a leap from the plank into the sea. This childlike, playful imagination has since evolved into the way that I form my expectations of people and places. The day that I first spoke to Abdullah on the phone, I imagined a middle-aged man who had spent most of his life teaching the language and raising a family with several children all in college. I imagined a tall man with grey hair and smile lines. Abdullah happens to be in his early thirties, probably no more than six years older than myself. I didn’t ask, but his wife appeared to be even younger and, of course, he only has the one son who is just around two years old. I was instantly relieved by this lack of disparity between us.

With WWE playing on the TV at a low volume, Abdullah had me sit in his living room. “We’re having Maqluba,” he said with that same welcoming smile. “Do you know why we call it that?” His wife, as if answering the question, moved from the stove to the living room table holding a large pot that was capped with an even larger tray. “Like this,” she exclaimed as she effortlessly flipped the pot and tray, then revealed a steaming collection of seasoned rice, chicken, and fried vegetables. They explained to me that the name of the dish translates to “upside-down” and I realized that the scent of the food was actually making me salivate.

I had essentially gone straight from school to the apartment and hadn’t eaten anything more than an apple all day. I thought I was glimpsing paradise as they served me a plate and I devoured it without taking a breath. Hosts in this place will continue to feed you as long as your plate is empty and there is food left to serve. I know they could see that I was hungry. The four of us, a very small child included, sucked down what must have been three cups of rice, half of a chicken, and a garden’s worth of vegetables. With their limited English and my almost non-existent Arabic, we said little but enjoyed the entire meal regardless.

After we finished, they wouldn’t let me help them clean up. Abdullah’s wife brought their son into his bedroom for a nap as I cleaned the meal’s remainders from my hands. Then, it was time for the lesson. I was so satisfied and busy digesting, I could have fallen asleep right there on that couch. But there was too much learning to be done. My incredibly charismatic tutor helped me conjugate various Arabic verbs and the lesson became almost rhythmic as we powered through word after word, rule after rule. After this, because we were in a room that doubled as a kitchen, he proceeded to lift various cooking supplies and tell me their names. I quickly scribbled what I thought I heard him say before repeating each word. He would then give me a smile that said close enough and we’d move on to the next item. I now have a whole vocabulary that relates to food and cooking.

It was pushing 4:30 by the time we moved on to the final part of the lesson. It was the best moment of the day by far. Abdullah and I talked for what must have been another half hour about the similarities between Islam and Christianity. Between the U.S.A. and Palestine, English and Arabic, Mediterranean food and Americana, traditional Arab music and country, the list goes on. We were two people from such different backgrounds that the conversation might have seemed like the beginning of a joke, or a children’s book that was promoting Arab-Western relations. I never used to be privy to my misconceptions of Islam or Arab culture. It was like a whole new understanding of the world was given to me in just one afternoon-long conversation.

We decided it was time to end the lesson. I shook the hand of the man who was once my teacher but is now my friend. I couldn’t have thanked my hosts enough. They wouldn’t let me leave without hugs. As I was walking back to the street corner from which I would catch my ride home, I couldn't keep myself from tearing up. Like the delicious Maqluba that I had just devoured, my entire world view was flipped upside-down. What a beautiful moment. All that I could think about was, “Wow, I really need to blog about this!”

The Young Will Not Forget: Palestinian National Heritage Day at the School of Hope

            October 8th in Palestine had quite a unique feel. This day was not like any other at the School of Hope in Ramallah. Students and teachers alike dressed in traditional Palestinian clothing as the first step in their recognition of a great heritage. The clothing, of course, would not be the only thing that these proud people would recognize as their own.

            Following the first five classes of the day, students were led outdoors into the school’s courtyard. They were fed toasted bread, covered in oil an za’atar. This is a common food in the cuisine of Palestine.

When asked what he likes best about the celebration, an 11th grade student named Hammad said, “I enjoy everything but especially the food. I really like the bread with oil and za’atar.”  

The school’s multi-talented music teacher began playing the oud, a stringed instrument that vaguely resembles the guitar of the west or the sitar of Asia, as students filed out into the courtyard. He continued to play while other teachers prepared to give speeches to the crowd about the history of Palestine and her people’s identity.

“Everyone must know about these things because they are a very important part of our heritage,” Hammad said with a smile on his face. “I enjoy seeing the clothing, eating the food, and hearing the music.”

On a walk through the school’s courtyard, one would see waves of students clad in embroidered dresses, shirts, and robes from all different regions of Palestine. Some wore tunics of Majdali weaving from Gaza. Others covered themselves in heavier clothing from Bethlehem. Many of the boys and men were sporting a black and white keffiyeh either around their shoulders or on their heads. All of these students wore their ancestors’ threads proudly as they modelled them for their fellow students and teachers.

  Pictured: Students model clothing from Gaza.

When asked about his thoughts on the day, Mr. Islam, an English teacher at the school, said that the experience of his students is what he cares about the most.

“I enjoy seeing what my students learn,” said Mr. Islam as he watched the afternoon’s events. “Schools, students, parents, even businesses and all other types of organizations should do this.”

A foreigner visiting the area for the first time could have attended the School of Hope on this day and learned a great deal about the pride each person has in their identity as a Palestinian. A guest would see that heritage is just as important to the young students as their own modern lifestyles. Mr. Islam recalled the summary of a speech once given by the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, saying, “The old will die and the young will forget.” This statement was in reference to Ben-Gurion’s stance on the subject of the Palestinian identity.

Mr. Islam continued, “Young people are the most important part in understanding the heritage of Palestine. If they continue to care and learn, the identity continues to survive.”

It became quite obvious that the students cared deeply about their heritage when the dancing began. Young and old, student and teacher alike joined in the fun. When the music played, the feet moved. Numerous students began to pridefully dance the Dabke, linking arms and lifting legs. The Dabke is a traditional dance of the Palestinian people that consists of multiple moves: the taxi, inzen, badal, and harbish. All of these moves concern specific steps and moves that the dancers make with their feet.

Several 10th grade, 11th grade, and Tawjihi students excitedly demonstrated their knowledge of the traditional dancing in Palestine. Many have been taking dance classes and have nearly perfected their Dabke skills.

Numerous different aspects of traditional Palestinian culture were pridefully shared on Monday. The food, clothes, and dancing created a lively atmosphere at the School of Hope.

“As a refugee, I was not exposed to the same types of clothing that you saw,” said Ms. Mays, the Dean of Students. “Monday was the first time I had the chance to wear a top like that.”

Ms. Mays expressed pride in her culture and knew that her students were proud as well.

She continued to praise the events of National Palestinian Heritage Day when she said, “A lot of our students are from the city or communities near the city. People in the villages of Palestine still dress in traditional clothing. But the students from the cities are modernizing there heritage and making it their own. This is a good thing, they are proud of who they are.”

  Pictured: Students and teachers gather in the courtyard.

The students, teachers, and administrators all seem to agree that their heritage as Palestinians must be a source of pride. They know who came before them, what they wore, what they ate, and how beautifully they danced. Culture in Ramallah may be changing, but there is no reason to believe it is any less Palestinian. It may even be stronger than it has ever been. So, despite what was once said by Ben-Gurion, the young will not forget.   

Trees and Their Fruit

 

            We may be fifty-nine hundred miles away, but my American roommate and I are well aware of what’s going on back home in the U.S.A. We are blessed to have access to news and current events at the drop of a hat. This has also been a bit of a curse. Meanwhile; here in the West Bank, Palestinians have unified for a day-long strike in general protest of the Israeli occupation as well as ongoing depopulation of their villages and cities in the surrounding area. I feel as if I can smell the tension in the air through closed windows.

            All of this has got me reflecting on a very memorable Bible passage. The author(s) of Matthew tell us in chapter twelve, verse thirty-three that Jesus said, “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” According to this passage, Jesus further explains his allegorical point when he says, “[…] for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” I would tend to regard words the same as actions in this circumstance, for actions and words both require thought and a personal decision. This passage may be an extreme oversimplification, giving the whole of humankind only two outcomes when all is said and done. One good and one bad. But isn’t that just Biblical?

            I would never presume that what is going on back home, what is going on here, nor anything in-between is either good or bad. But I will say that I am beginning to understand this parable in a new way. We, in this new technological age, have the ability to make our thoughts widely known in a matter of seconds. We speak and act quickly, sometimes with little or no predetermination. I have read some things that I truly believe were not thought out carefully enough. I have heard people say things that make me feel so passionate about issues to which I have no real connection. Then, in turn, I have felt the sudden urge to speak or act on that misguided passion. This passion may manifest itself as joy, rage, fear, and maybe even humor for some.

            This just seems as good a time as any to remember that some are heard more than others. Some are given, or have taken, the right to bear more fruit while others wither under the weight of heavier trees. But we ought to remember that, whatever the case, “the tree is known by its fruit.” If I had an answer for how to even the odds and give everyone a chance to be heard and believed equally. If I could give a prescription that suddenly fixed this global problem, I would. I don’t. None of us do. But you know what? Neither did Jesus.    

First Steps in the Holy Land

We reached Jerusalem in the afternoon on a sunny day. Not a sunny day like any other, but the kind of day that invades your senses from every angle with an overpowering feeling. For me that feeling was astonishment. Or, at least, I think it was. I still can’t really understand exactly what my emotions were trying to communicate. What I do know is what I saw.

It’s an eerie thing to be standing before a place that you’ve heard about so many times. A place that you have read about in the Bible, talked about in school or in church. Maybe you’ve seen so many pictures and postcards of the place that you feel as if you’ve already been there. But the physical experience is something completely different. I saw Jerusalem in the flesh on Thursday and somehow felt that I understood it less. We seven YAGM volunteers were led to an overlook from which we could see the iconic Dome on the Rock. It stands there, in the middle of a bustling metropolis, glistening back the light of the sun. That is why I say this was a day unlike any other - the sun was simultaneously above and below us. Mosques, temples, and churches ascended from earth to sky as if to call their God down to talk for a while. This, as far as the Abrahamic religions are concerned, truly is the Holy Land.

First impressions can be difficult things to grapple with. I’m sure those of you who have taken the time to read this blog can agree with that statement. We Americans can often be quick to make judgements about people and places that are different from what we know. I, of course, am just as guilty of this as the rest. But the really beautiful thing is when we start to dig in and see the world as it is in all its complicated magnificence. All of it. With some time and a wide open mind, we start to see much more than the black and white of a first glance.

Dear friends and loved ones, if you are at all like me you may have specific ideas in your head of what Jerusalem should look like. You may have feelings about her people due to what you’ve seen or heard in the media. I want to challenge you to drop all of that. Help me do the same. Let us experience many more moments of seeing the sun shine in two places for the first time. Trust me … it is invigorating! 

September 15, 2018

At All Times

We carry these things with us AT ALL TIMES.

You may have noticed in some of the pictures, if you haven’t I encourage you to take a look, that all of us YAGM volunteers in the West Bank are carrying small shoulder bags, purses, or satchels with us. The reason you see us carrying these is a good one. A traveler in the West Bank without her/his passport is as good as a sitting duck. Every road in this place is watched by authorities wondering, “Who are you?” and, “What are you doing here?” The rather stark reality is that these questions must be answered quickly and accurately with only a visa page in a little blue book. This is one of the things we must carry with us at all times.

Another thing that will be found in one of these little bags is a cellular phone issued to us by our country coordinators. These phones have been programmed for in-country use as a sort of security measure. Rest assured, there are few occasions in which they are used, but that in no way decreases their importance. We bring them, fully charged, everywhere we go.

Where are my keys? This is a question I’ve grown so accustomed to asking myself back home. Did I leave them in my room? Are they on the hook by the door? It is not a question we allow ourselves to ask in this place. We lock our doors here, not out of fear but caution. I realize that this is a common practice in the States as well, but here it is a necessity. Lock, then unlock and repeat. We always know where are keys reside.

The fourth component of the at all times bag is money. Money, money, money. Shekels to be more precise. Much like the passport and visa, some get’n around money is required for … well … getting around. We must regularly take public transit in the West Bank, whether it is a buss, a taxi, or a Service. These are often inexpensive and prices can sometimes be negotiable. Certain colored plates will signify whether a vehicle is or is not permitted to enter Israeli territory from the West Bank. So we must always be cognizant of where we are going and how we need to get there.  Furthermore, some of the best food I have ever tasted is readily available in the streets. Falafel and Shawarma on every corner. We find ourselves fully fed for fewer than 10 Shekels most every day. This is extremely convenient but only if we’ve got that money ready to go.

Now you know a bit about the things we carry with us, you guessed it, at all times.