Varieties of Religious Experience, Palestine Pt. 5
There was supposed to be shooting in the camp later that day.
I’d spent the night with my flatmate and a friend of hers after we’d arrived in Bethlehem and the rest of our party, post-dinner, had returned to Ramallah. The night had passed languorously, after introductions, at an argileh restaurant, the two newly-acquainteds with lemon mint and I and my flatmate taking turns on apple-flavoured tobacco. I don’t remember much of what we talked about (Coldplay mixtapes, the school where the two former strangers taught and the variously poor manners of Bethlehem’s rather small number of cab drivers), but I remember the entertainingly flamboyant touches our server dashed upon our service. The flipped glass landing smoothly in his palm, the flicked wrist when he emptied our ashtray and replaced it, the hand to the heart when he mock-bowed. I joked that he wasn’t doing it for me, and if he was, then I needed to spend more time with three pretty girls. My attempt, perhaps, at repurposing for my own self an event that had other aims.
But the night was short and before long, we were back at my flatmate’s friend’s spacious abode and I passed an hour or so with Sophie and Nathan and first-person William Styron before I turned out the lights.
The next morning shone with newness out on the type of backyard that nature builds into hills and mountains; we had tea and pillaged our respective packs of Gauloises while a mangy, formerly white dog circled in and out of my legs, dirtying my slacks and coating my fingers in dust from Bethlehem where I’d scruffed the space between his ears and along his neck. Our host made us tea and we laid out our itinerary for the day: first, the Church of the Nativity, a visit we attempted to time around the ebb and flow of the ever-present pilgrims and tour groups; then the Aida refugee camp, notorious for a wall covered in art to rival the Louvre’s Impressionism collection.
I ‘checked in’ on Facebook, but the platform refused to allow me the location of ‘Bethlehem, Palestine’ so with manual override, I expressed my wish to someday take Mom here, to this place that only a day earlier had existed as simply a name on a thin, gilt-edged piece of paper in a massive, mostly-unread spiritual guidebook.
My flatmate and I set out and took pictures outside the church. As we approached, a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims surged out of the sanctuary’s entrance. Just when we thought we’d found our opportunity to enter, the stream would redouble and we were forced to wait awkwardly by the entrance, dodging the line of sight in the cameras of others while straining to maintain our advantageous position. Eventually, the stream turned to a trickle, then to nothing, and we entered.
My flatmate pointed out as I ducked into the threshold that the thing’s ceiling was so purposefully low as to humble every penitent bent on ingress and egress.
Once inside the nave, chandeliers and skylights cast the sunlight over the interior, rhomboid blocks of luminescence playing over the space and the penitents ambling through. There was a door in the middle of the floor that opened out onto tiles. No explanation accompanied the sight.
Straight ahead was some sort of altar-space, bejeweled and glinting and ornately decorated. We would return to that later.
Squeezing in just before a group of Brazilians and their guide, we enter a room that had originally been ahead and to our right, were granted candles in exchange for our donation and, passing the iconography that, though peeled, still impressed with its coloring, found a series of what looked like paintings. One of them, my flatmate stopped in front of, made the sign of the cross and gently pressed lips to. The act surprised me, more than her tireless recounting of each scene displayed on the walls or in the windows, or her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the place. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some small kernel of envy. In a bastardization of the impulses implanted in me during a childhood of piousness and religious and spiritual devotion, I’d occasionally tended towards the Pharisees, believing more often than not, that my displays of virtue served best when they could be observed by others. She’d kissed that image without guile, and my envy, small as it was, doubled.
We proceeded to a duo of metal dishes that held candles already lit, slipped into slots with a coating of sand at the bottom of the thing to help keep the rushlights upright. We tipped our own towards the flame, then, lit, deposited them in their own slots.
She pointed out more iconography, explained their significance, then I’d noticed a long line of pilgrims jostling against each other and the unknowing who sought to get past them and chart a perpendicular course.
My friend joined the queue and I watched her advance. Each penitent, when they got to the icon, made the sign of the cross, some multiple times, and kissed the thing.
Familiar envy pinched my heart.
“Wanna see where Jesus was born?” she asked, smiling. “X marks the spot.”
I followed her. The odyssey down to the entrance more closely resembled the rush to an open bar than a walk to the site of Christ’s birth. But we were eventually corralled into something of a single file line and I watched pilgrim after pilgrim, tourist after tourist get on their knees before the small cave, lean their head forward and kiss the black oval at the center of a multi-point silver star that marked the spot where He was born.
My flatmate was ahead of me and performed the ritual. I took a sacrilegious and blurred photo of the moment, to my own chagrin, and then it was my turn.
I took longer than I should have, and I don’t know if it was because my knees had become stiff or if I was debating participating in this ritual before all these impatient eyes, performing something I’d up until now done only in the quiet of my room or over a plate of food, communicating gratitude and adoration for the divine, having a conversation only I could hear. I thought of my flatmate kissing that first icon, and plunged forward, eyes closed, lips pressed to cold glass.
There was a small depression behind us that we entered and this was apparently where He had been wrapped in swaddling clothes. A trio of candles occupied the space he had wailed in over two thousand years ago.
Afterwards, we left the underground portion of the church and stumbled upon a gated space where, on the other side, an organ played, rousing and forlorn at the same time, and a priest prepared the place for worship. My flatmate and I wondered about the benefits and pitfalls of worshiping in a place as famous, as renowned, as sacred as this. I missed my rustic, colonial, Congregational New England chapel.
Thinking back on the people I’d watched hold silent communion with those totems of the Christ, my envy dissolved into something less sinister. I thought of my own moments of religious experience, that instant when the minister, ascending the steps to the pulpit, catches a few rays of sunlight so as to halo his entire cloaked form at the same second as the choir reaches its highest pitch in the Doxology. That moment in a Meeting when someone announces their day count and is met by unanimous, hearty applause. That moment when, as a child, I witness my mother, in her nightgown, at her bedside, hands clasped together, head bowed, lips softly whispering words in a conversation meant only for her and God to hear.
Pasta Carbonara for lunch afterwards, and towards the end of my meal I found a piece of meat that resembled Palestine almost completely. Simulacra no more than a few steps removed from cloud photos revealing the shape of the Christ or the appearance in the adjacent panes of glass covering the façade of a finance building the image of the Virgin Mary. Pareidolia. Maybe this is simply how I’m wired.
During lunch, where we were joined by our host, the muezzin’s chant for Friday prayer seemed particularly musical, especially bombastic.
The second half of the afternoon was spent in and around the Aida Refugee Camp, only a small distance away from the Church of the Nativity.
Murals shone back at us from beneath the shade of overhanging trees, bright, uplifting things plastered on otherwise gunmetal gray wall.
We wandered the place’s ghostly interior, the occasional congregation of kids messing about around the wreckage of some car or some old men working in a garage or sitting beneath the shade of an overhang, smoking unfiltered local brand cigarettes. The occasional cab or rickety sedan breaking the quiet with the blast of a busted muffler.
We found a few dead ends, ambled a bit, climbed some brush and eventually found the wall we were looking for, a hulking canvas that towered over us, connected at its corners by an even taller watchtower capped with an observation booth and security cameras. A slinky, washed-out portrait of Che Guevara held some small real estate, as did an excerpt from a quote by MLK. Missives concerning liberation and peace and self-determination and the dreadful and obstinate temporariness of such a thing as a Separation Wall littered the very thing. Along with more creative artistic expressions hinting at the thing’s eventual crumbling or smashing through or pole vaulting. There was, at one point, a painting of a rhino busting through a particular patch of wall.
Of particular interest to us were those bits of canvas devoted to Banksy’s art. Along with a luminous portrait of Leila Khaled with her fingers twined around the banana clip of an AK-47, Banksy’s contributions number among my favorite and the most affecting pieces of protest art I’d ever seen.
Someone tagged a wall with the following message: Jesus is Palestinian. Heresy to friends and family back home, but with this place’s grip on history, a convincing assertion.
A girl in a simple white dress with red lasers coming out of her large eyes, a word bubble over her head: “When I grow up, I’ll blow this up with my laser sight.”
A large disembodied eye with a message from another picture hovering serendipitously beside it: “To build your world, you killed theirs.”
In block letters: “This Lie Cannot Live – MLK” and above that, spraypaint that read: “Banksy’s Shop 200 meters à”
Just outside the Shop, a Banksy replica or facsimile of a girl, being carried upward by her balloons.
“Make Hummus Not Walls” in block letters on the same patch of real estate Leila Khaled had laid claim to.
Seen through barbed wire: A dove in stark relief with an olive branch in its beak, soaring over an intricately reimagined al-Quds with the Dome of the Rock at its center.
At the corner where the wall’s street leads to the Intercontinental Hotel: “Go home wall, you are drunk.”
Elsewhere, a paraphrase of Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” (NIV, 2011)
A stencil of a girl, blowing bubbles carried on by the same wind that plasters her coat to her back.
Across the street from the wall, a Banksy classic: a dove with an olive branch in its beak and a target reticle on its bulletproofed breast.
And not far from that, a tableau of an Israeli soldier in green, hands to the wall, feet apart, while a girl in a pink dress pats him down.
At some point during our art tour, we found the store and home of a Palestinian Christian going by Carol, who sold us some goods and recounted her story, only one of the many pasted against the wall, some of them recounting tales of uncommon and genuine good amidst the turmoil and cataclysm of the Second Intifada, each story a tragic and poignant island of hope amidst violent churning waves. Carol furnished us with singular solace in that she attached a lustrous face to the bituminous situation that has resulted in her home being surrounded on three sides by giant gray wall.
I imagined then the prideful righteousness in my voice when I’d return home and tell my mother of all the Palestinian Christians I’d met here and how few (read: none) Christian Jews I’d seen. Again, the Pharisee.
Carol ended her story with recapitulation of her faith, reiterating how hers was a miracle birth and how miracles had attended so many episodes of her life, how she hoped for even more miracles, but above all else, the miracle that would open her house up to the elements, that would strike down the dividing wall and make the two lands one. It sounded Biblical in my head but coming out of her, it had the texture of flesh and blood and bone, of lived reality, of hope in the face of history.
Here, in an individual life, as also witnessed in the Church of the Nativity, was this thing of such great consequence, something quietly expressed, in a soft kiss or a whispered hope, witnessed by the wayward observer.
It’s apophenia again at work when I try to tie this underpinning of faith, of belief, to the psychic contours of an entire swathe of country, to look for the constellation made up of a sparkling multiplicity of Carols and to wonder where faith went in the country of my birth, why and how it can possess so large a social and nominally robust presence in our discourse and our collective decision making yet figure so little in our individual interiority.
Not every Palestinian is faithful, and not every American is faithless. It is difficult, for me at least, to look at these things, the wall and the rebellious art adorning it and not see a religion flavored by last things, by apocalypse, by the revealing inherent in that phenomenon. New Testament liberation flowering out of Old Testament roots. I’m caught by surprise here. By this New Testament optimism and hope in things unseen, and I realize with despair that before I came here, before I’d met Carol and before I’d seen that bit from Ephesians stenciled on that wall, I’d believed these people in their entirety capable only of that Old Testament dogmatism that believes only in things seen, then clings to them at the expense of everything else, every other word in that message of which the burning bush, the ram in the briar patch, the parting of the Red Sea, is only a small part.