Sabbatical Blog Post #18

23 August, 2011-08-23

Only a week to go. This time has flown by!

And with only a week to go, suddenly there seems to be more that I want to do than there is time to do it. Tomorrow and Thursday are the last days of class, and my last days at An-Najah. The University completely shuts down on Thursday afternoon in anticipation of Eid Al-Fitr, the three day celebration to mark the conclusion of Ramadan. The Eid will begin at sundown on either Sunday or Monday, depending upon someone somewhere in the world spying the crescent new moon. Then will follow three days and nights of feasting, gift-giving, and visiting of friends and family. There is a wonderful excitement building in the city as Ramadan approaches its climax.

Yesterday was my first big turn at Ramadan shopping. Suheir, the assistant to my supervisor, and the greatest help in my time here, accompanied me to the souk. I was buying for Monica and the girls, and I needed help. We had a wonderful time walking around the market together. She bargained with the shopkeepers for me, and suggested nice things. I even bought myself a full jalabya, which you will all get to see me in come November. I was stunned how little I spent and how much stuff I got.

Also, yesterday, a wonderful gentleman named Dr. Ahmed Abu-Obeid, a chemistry professor at the University, collared me and insisted I come to his home for Iftar. His son Mohammad has been in my class. Mohammad is a serious student, and a serious Muslim. He is spending every night this week in a mosque in prayer. He has been very excited, along with a couple of other young men, to discuss Holy Quran with me. In our country, we would call these fellows evangelists! Here in Nablus, they are simply imbued with and deeply proud of their faith.

And so off I went. Late in the afternoon, with some time to kill before Iftar, we visited Sabastiya. This is one of the most important sites in the Holy Land. In our Bible, this place was the city Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. It is a high hill covered with 20 centuries of ruins with a spectacular view. It was in this place that the prophet Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebel. It was here that Amos the prophet thundered “let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” words that Martin Luther King, Jr. thundered from the Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago this weekend. The Assyrians laid waste to Samaria in 722 BCE. Herod re-built the city as Sabastiya, and it was here that John the Baptizer was imprisoned and executed. The caretaker of the mosque which now occupies the site unlocked for us the dungeon where tradition holds that John was imprisoned. It is a somber and haunted spot. Dr. Ahmed and his sons were fascinated as I told them the story of this place. The ground itself is littered with remnants of all these events. Great stone columns still stand along dirt roads, marking where once a grand Roman boulevard once ran. Literally, you can pick up pottery shards in the dirt that are 3000 years old.

And then back to the Obeid home for Iftar. And what a meal it was. The table literally groaned under the weight of all the food. I groaned as I rose from the table. Then, we all sat outside in the twilight and drank juice, nibbled on fruit, and after a respectable time, carved through a platter of sweet pastries. And then, it was time for Tarawheer, the special night prayers of Ramadan.

The Obeids invited me to come to the mosque, where I promptly began making a fool of myself. Mohammad took me downstairs to the room here wudu is performed. Wudu is the ritual washing of the head, hands, and feet to prepare for prayer. A bunch of boys were watching this foreigner with fascination as I did this, and raced away laughing when I splashed water on my face without thinking to remove my glasses.

Back upstairs, Mohammad safely ensconced me in a chair off to the side where I could watch, then he went to join the other men. An older gentleman entered, and seeing me sitting to the side, gestured that I should come join the ranks. Not knowing quite how to refuse, I went along. I then began to make a complete hash of the standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating (raka) that is the ritual of Muslim prayer. As I did this, the gang of boys continued to watch and hoot with laughter. Thankfully, a small break occurred, and I managed to step away. But the boys gathered round and began asking my name, and was I some kind of messed up Muslim. I noticed other men in the prayer ranks begin to turn and look to see what the hubbub was. I was, just as I had feared, a great big clumsy distraction in this place. To my infinite relief, Dr. Obeid graciously came to my aid and ushered me back to the car. So, this is what newcomers to the standing, sitting, and kneeling of the Episcopal Church might feel! But for that, it was a lovely evening!

Tomorrow, an adventure. I will make my way to the village of Yanoun to learn about the work of the Ecumenical Accompaniers Program of the World Council of Churches. I have met some of these folks in church on Sundays. They are from all over the world and give up three months of their lives to come to Palestine and live in villages. These villages have the misfortune of being neighbors to Israeli settlements. The settlements are not only built on land confiscated from Palestinians, but the settlers regularly come down the hill and harass the villagers. They cut down olive trees, set fires, steal or kill livestock, and sometimes shoot live ammunition into the village. On occasion, Palestinians have been wounded and killed in these raids. The IDF generally looks the other way, or blames the unarmed Palestinians for “provocations.” The Accompaniers simply watch and document these abuses, in the hope that outside witnesses will dissuade settlers from behaving this way. It also helps the Palestinians know someone in the world cares about their plight.

It makes me feel guilty that I get to leave. My American passport gets me through the checkpoints without question. I will go to Jerusalem, then Tel Aviv, and enjoy my posh western lifestyle again. None of these people have that freedom. They cannot travel to Jerusalem, one of the holiest places in Islam, as I can. They are people without a state. They are only free to move within a few dozen kilometers, and even that can be snatched away at any time at the whim of the Israelis. It astounds me that there is any mental health here at all.


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