Monday, 15 August
I cannot believe my time here is half over. Eid Il-Fitr, the feast to end the month of Ramadan, is only two weeks away.
My days have settled into a comfortable routine of rising early, eating breakfast, praying, going back to bed, getting up and going to An-Najah, teaching, doing e-mail and Facebook, returning to the flat to do laundry, prepare for class, read Quran, read the New York Times and Plain-Dealer (my Kindle reception is better here than in Lakewood!), nap, break the fast, pray, do a little more work on the computer, then to bed.
I’m actually quite busy with two projects at An-Najah: the English speaking class, and preparing materials for a major cultural fair that takes place here the first two weeks of September. Though I will be gone, other American volunteers will come to do the fair. My job is to assemble a bunch of cultural artifacts that those volunteers can then turn into a display about America. Monica and the kids are collecting a bunch of stuff and Fed-Exing it over this week.
Yesterday (Sunday) was a great day. In the morning, I attended liturgy at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rafidia. Rafidia used to be a separate village from Nablus, but as Nablus has grown outward, Rafidia has become a neighborhood within the city. The church is part of St. Phillip’s parish (I’m living at St. Phillip’s). The service is entirely in Arabic, but I find my ear is finally becoming tuned to it. This is a tiny Christian community living faithfully within a sea of Muslims. And I must say, the 30 folks in Good Shepherd sing much more enthusiastically than our usual 150 at St. Peter’s (ouch!).
An-Najah is a half-mile walk past Rafidia, so after church I had a nice walk up the hill. Along the way, I was hailed from across the street by one of the older members of Good Shepherd. He gestured for me to come over and visit, an invitation that one simply cannot decline in this culture. He insisted on serving me the most wonderful, homemade rosemary juice. Though I was technically breaking my fast, I feel sure that accepting hospitality is a duty equal to fasting in Allah’s eyes! I had a nice visit with this man before excusing myself to get on my way.
Sunday’s class was optional for students. It was simply conversation in English. I invited them to ask anything they wanted to know about America. To my discomfort, conversation quickly found its way to religion and politics. I protested to the students that in American culture, prudence dictates that polite conversation NEVER involves religion and politics! They responded that in Palestine, that’s ALL they talk about.
What was interesting was the difficulty I had explaining America and Christianity to these smart, informed Muslim Palestinians. They asked me probing questions about what’s going on in Washington these days. They asked me to explain why Christianity is fractured into so many sects and denominations. Mind you, I have a Bachelor’s degree in political science, and a Master’s degree in theology. Nevertheless, I found myself at points tongue-tied, lost in expressing complexities that in our own culture we simply take for granted. How does one explain representative democracy to people who have absolutely no say in the government (which deems itself a democracy) that rules them? How do you recommend our economic and political systems when they are so profoundly dysfunctional right now? How do you meaningfully explain the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity to people so profoundly convicted of “tahwid,” the Oneness of God?
I think I acquitted myself reasonably well, but there was no danger of any of these young people converting to Christianity! Nor did they seem convinced that ours is a “best” system of governance. Once again, I was reminded of an important cultural reality. The culture inside of which I was raised in does not look the same from the outside. I am utterly formed by this culture, its language, its politics, its religion, its mores. To me, it is all as comfortable as an old shoe. But to someone raised elsewhere, we Americans can sometimes be mystifying.
This is all the more problematic because American culture so profoundly dominates the world right now. Palestine is a complete mystery to Americans. If Americans ever think at all of Palestine, they usually think “terrorist” in the same breath. But in Palestine, America is an over-arching presence. Twenty or so times a day, American made fighter jets streak by low over Nablus, after-burners in full roar, deafening and frightening. Every child and every college student must learn OUR language because that is seen to be the only way to succeed. Every bank dispenses two currencies: Israeli Shekels or American dollars. Billboards, music, television, clothing, all bear the overwhelming stamp of America. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not.
How many of us in Lakewood, Ohio truly realize that we are the current iteration of ancient Rome or the British Empire? How many of us take seriously that when America sneezes, the rest of the world can catch pneumonia? Are we careful, thoughtful, and humble stewards of this reality, or do we just assume it’s our God-given right?
I, for one, have a lot to learn.