Thursday, September 23, 2010

Min wein inta?

I'm a pretty firm believer in "everything happens for the best," and today was one of those days....

After a long day of tutoring, I walked to my bike to find my back tire was flat, after having been replaced only a few hours before. I was already running late for a meeting with my pastor, which I was looking forward to because I wanted to get the congregation's support for the Palestine trip. At least emotionally, it would be great to have a couple hundred people thinking of me while I'm over there. Especially at Christmas-time. Anyways, so I got the tire fixed...way too late. I called my pastor and re-scheduled, then indulged in a kiwi-mango snowball, plopped down on my porch and wished the afternoon had gone better. I was planning staying in Mid-City after the meeting and before choir practice to stop by a few corner stores and restaurants near my church and follow up with my New Orleanian-Palestinian contacts. But I ditched the bike idea. I wanted to street car to choir practice, if only to catch up on a book that I'm actually determined to finish, The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. My grandmother lent it to me, and 50 pages in, I could already tell it's the most informative book I've ever read on Palestine. As in, the land that eventually became Israel and will be partly, insh'allah, a Palestinian state. Any book on the conflict invites you to interpret with your own bias. This book makes me squirm because it's not so easily boiled down. It infuses you with a human investment in characters from all sides, all angles. It's the story of two families and a house; one family was expelled from it, and another family moved in. It's about the young Palestinian knocking on the young Israeli's door, and all the reasons they don't understand each other. It's a damn good book.

Before I got on the streetcar bound for church, I stopped at Lebanon's Middle Eastern restaurant to get a falafel sandwich, inquire about a part-time serving position, and ask the manager a question I've been asking a lot lately...

Min wein inta? Where are you from?
His response: Ahhh, Filisteen.

Filisteen! Excellent. I handed him a flier for the Free Palestine walk, explained the event, and said I'd be back soon. I skipped out with my falafel, glad that I had made another friend and contact. I wondered where he was from...Ramallah? All of my contacts were from Ramallah, or nearby.

Moving on...

I eventually got to the church, and sang at the top of my lungs for an hour....
I don't have to worry about the things ahead
I don't have to worry about the things ahead
I don't have to worry about the things ahead
I don't have to worry about the things ahead
All I have to do is live right
All I have to do is live right
All I have to do is live right
All I have to do is live right
And believe in what He says....

I don't know if I believe in everything He says, much less everything a bunch of people said thousands of years ago, but First Grace is a good place for people who don't just need to answer questions, but question answers. The question of how much room in my life I have for Jesus has never been a priority, always stagnant, sentimental but not relevant. All I know is that what we have in our church makes us contagiously happy, and it makes us better people. The dancing, the clapping, the four-part harmony, the diverse and loving community I would never have known otherwise...especially the little kids who run around the pews and occasionally stop to bust out some ridiculous moves. Because we have a band. And we sound goooood.

While I should be listening to instructions, I think about how I'm going to approach the subject of Palestine with my pastor and the church. If the mission is peace, and the way is love, why do I fear being misunderstood?

It was dark when I headed home. The journey took an hour and a half. I waited a while for the Canal streetcar, read a little more by lamplight, and had a nice chat with a newcomer to New Orleans who asked me if the car was running on schedule. I shared my philosophy on how riding the streetcar isn't so much a mode of transportation as it is a way of life. I felt like a bit of an asshole, but I think she understood. I love the streetcar. I love the uncertainty, waiting with random people, how it's too loud for phone conversations, how I can push forward the seat in front of me and kick my feet up, leaning my head (slightly) out the window on a cool night, and how the conductors always say "you're welcome" when you thank them. I'd rather tune out most of the conversations I hear between tourists and college kids, but I like to strike up conversations because most people are nicer on a streetcar. Just like people were nicer in olden times. And that's a fact.

There was something wrong with the track at Lee Circle, so after the Canal car I had to board a bus to the St. Charles car. I embarked and kept reading. This is what happened while I rode the bus:

The Khairi family had lived in al-Ramla for generations, but violence was escalating between Jewish immigrants and Arab nationalists, so the Khairis tried their best to stay put and not give up their home while looking after the safety of their children. After much fighting, the Arabs of al-Ramla were defeated, and by order of the highest ups in Israeli government, all the city's inhabitants were put on buses and dropped off in the desert near Ramallah. (yalla Abdullah, go to Abdullah of Transjordan, said the Jewish soldiers)

Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, the Eshkenazi family has just survived the Holocaust. They were rounded up to be deported during the war but the actions of a few brave leaders spared the Jews of Bulgaria. Bulgaria wasn't the best place to raise a family, so when the Soviets declared their support for a Jewish homeland, they took their newborn and boarded a boat to a soon to-be Israel.

At this point my bus stops and the driver goes "everybody off." I'm tired and disoriented (or just extremely oriented) as I step off into the night with a bunch of strangers and try to figure out what street I'm on. After reading about two groups of people who were constantly being loaded up and dropped off and sent to places they didn't want to go, I had this strange, relatable moment. Followed by the inevitable "how dare you compare" feeling. I managed to enjoy the final stretch home. I was in a clangy, rickety St. Charles streetcar, reading by light that went out every minute or could very well have been 1948.

So now the Khairis have marched through the desert and made it to Ramallah where tens of thousands of refugees are milling around and awaiting news of their home towns that are now under Israeli control. The word Israeli is new and strange.

When the Eshkenazi's boat reaches Haifa, everyone can see the sparkling lights of Carmel and they break out cheering and singing. The book gives the lyrics to the "Zionist anthem," which, turns out, I sang a version of in 6th grade choir. Our rendition went like this:

Yearning for freedom in Zion's land
Each Hebrew soul by God's command
Is gazing to the East with shining eyes
Looking to Zion, the ancient prize
Twas not lost, our hope so sure
Through the ages did endure
Freedom again, our people yearned for
The land of Zion, and Jerusalem.

So I got off the streetcar humming the tune, which oddly enough I remembered after twelve years, and I decided to make a stop on my way home. All the employees at Lebanon's were inside, cleaning up...I asked for an application, filled it out, and realizing it wasn't a good time for a long chat about how my new friend came from Palestine to New Orleans, I simply asked maa medina...what city. Ramallah.

Ahhh, Ramallah. He asked if I've been there. I replied, no, but insh'allah, this December.

Then I walked home, thinking about flat tires and how things are just meant to be.

Read the Lemon Tree.