I am going to make a come-back on this blog.
It’s been awhile, but I’m tentatively planning on writing several times a week. Nothing fancy like the old days–no more blog post a day–I don’t have as much time and find myself with more to do. However, in the interest of reflection and keeping people relatively up to speed on my life as it is…here we go.
I live in Bethlehem now. I’m not really sure what that brings up for your mind. If anything I assume that you have a series of Christmas hymns playing in your inner monologue now. I’ve moved to the Middle East in pursuit of a MA at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In short, I will be here for something like 2 years. I will learn a bunch of things including more modern Hebrew, more biblical Hebrew, more Greek, archaeology, akkadian–the written language of the Babylonian Empire, and many other things. If I survive the madness, I hope that PhD programs will want to pay me to keep learning.
But I’m not going to bore you (always) with my academic pursuits. For now, I’ll just say that there’s much to be learned. Living in Bethlehem means that learning as much Arabic as possible is a good idea. I’ve found with my very limited vocabulary in Arabic that people respond very well to phrases like “thank you” and “peace be upon you.” I’ve also found that basically everyone has some English. Since, I passed 7 weeks of the summer at a language intensive in Modern Hebrew I am doing quite well when I journey into Jerusalem. I can accomplish basic tasks in Hebrew like getting a gym membership and asking how much stuff costs.
Yet, there is a small problem. I happen to be able to pass for every insider group. When I walk down the road in Bethlehem, people speak to me in Arabic first. When I speak to Israeli Jews in Hebrew, they respond in Hebrew. At first you might think, “wow. That’s neat.” So did I at first. But then I realized that people speak to me like I already know their languages. While it is flattering to pass as an Israeli Jew and as a Palestinian, I can’t communicate nearly as well as folks assume in Arabic or Hebrew. I speak just enough of both to get me into a conversation that I can’t finish.
Now, in the long-term this is not an issue at all. People basically accept me as one of their own wherever I go. I shall thank my Hispanic ancestry that stretches back to Spain for the skin color and facial features that I have. These things are very helpful, and I never needed to try to have them. But at the moment people assume that I understand far more than I do as I fumble through conversations. Mostly understanding in Hebrew and getting lost in the first sentence in Arabic. One of my favorite theologians says, “we are always beginners.” This is certainly my life here.
I have started many things anew in this past season. New homes, new languages, new currency, new relationships, new foods, new spaces to be faithful to God and love other people. I am a beginner, but I am quietly reminded regularly that where I am is enough.
For example, for some inexplicable reason–to me at least–there are many Mexican Catholic Priests here in the Holy Land. I found myself at the church of the nativity the other day speaking to a Father Martin from Mexico in Spanish. I not-so-secretly plan on befriending them and speaking Spanish with them often. In another example my friend and landlady Nasra is a God-send. She has single-handedly made my life function since my arrival. Picked up from the airport shuttle, fed dinner, taken to apartment, taken to get internet and cell phone set up, introduced to shop-keepers, introduced to her friends, given many glasses of juice and coffee, given free and helpful advice. Let no one speak badly of the hospitality of Arabic people. Nasra has been a friend from day 1. Much like every other Arab person whom I have met. PS: there are many many Arabic Christians here. Just FYI.
Now, this isn’t to say that Israeli Jews are bad people either. But the cultures are different. Arab culture is much more like the Hispanic culture that I’m familiar with while Israeli Jewish culture has a more European/WASP in the USA feel to it. Now, both of these cultures were already home to me in different ways from my life experience, but I’m grateful for the order in which I’ve received them here.
There are definite challenges to living here. The atmosphere of dislike is somewhat oppressive. Jews are afraid of Arabs and Arabs are afraid of Jews. There is a wall much like the border between the USA and Mexico that I cross often to get to and from Jerusalem to where I live. It is emotionally taxing. It’s easy enough with an American passport, but dear God is it exhausting.
Also, languages complicate things. Speaking English or Arabic is good in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, speaking English or Hebrew is good in Israel and West Jerusalem. The wrong language is grounds to almost immediately invite suspicion. Not dislike, as a foreigner I have significant wiggle room (Arab folks have graciously spoken to me in Hebrew because they don’t speak English), but suspicion nonetheless. Languages function like identity markers and the language you choose to employ has political implications. The undercurrent of political and ideological zionism VS Palestinians is always present.
I wonder about the similarities in the USA with Spanish/English. There are certain places where people look down upon you for Hispanic heritage or speaking Spanish. It is seen as uncivilized. The language/culture of gardeners, day-laborers, and gangsters. On the other hand speaking English in certain Hispanic circles can be perceived as asserting the need for people to assimilate or to “speak American.” English becomes the language of the oppressor, the language of the privileged, the language of the power structure that says your culture isn’t good enough. The similarities here are self-evident.
Obviously, all languages have value. They all carry parts of humanity that are otherwise inaccessible. They all have strengths. They all have weaknesses. The problem comes when the language of one group is privileged over another. One group starts to assert its own cultural identity at the expense of the diversity of others. Diversity is not treasured. It is feared and it is overtime labeled as not authentically human. This way of being isn’t enough for a Christian or for humanity in general. God treasures the diversity of humanity and we must also.
And so, here in the Middle East amongst my various friends who likely cannot be friends with each other, I begin anew the practice of hating no one. It was easier at home where I do not have to cross a checkpoint to be with my friends. Where the structures of oppression were not regularly (outside the borders between the USA/Canada and the USA/Mexico) a literal wall of concrete and steel that I had to walk through. However, God in Jesus through the Spirit has no enemies who are human beings. So, I’ll keep asking for what it takes to be faithful to this God who has no enemies amongst humanity as I navigate these two worlds separated by a concrete wall.
Even with this wall in mind, I’d like to point something out. I submit that I am not in danger here. Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by helpful people who seek my good. I cannot count the smiles that I receive on a daily basis. The graciousness with which I am received everywhere is immeasurable. People here have known hospitality for strangers since the time of Abraham sprinting to welcome the three angels (or the Trinity?) under the tree. Maybe when you think of me in the Middle East, think of this story about Abraham instead. Think that Chauncey is a guest of 2 peoples who both seek to bless him in their own ways.
If you start there, you will be able to understand more of this place. That’s all for now. Until next time.
Peace be upon y’all
Paz sea con ustedes