“I want to go to America. I want to learn how to fly a plane.”
“You do? Why do you need to go to America to do that?”
Sometimes, when in a new culture, you don’t understand everything going on, and occasionally, you put your foot in your mouth.
It is Saturday afternoon. I am in Shefam’ar. I am the guest of the Khourleh family. They gather as a whole family every Saturday afternoon and have a typical Mediterranean meal. In attendance are the matriarch and patriarch, children, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, and now an American, me. One of the grandchildren, Amal, has been translating for Fr. Karim, the pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Melkite Catholic church which I visited earlier today. She also brought me to St. Joseph Roman Catholic church. The family is excited to have a foreign guest, and I am humbled by their hospitality.
But my heart breaks a thousand times. How can it not?
“Can you tell me how it feels?”
“It feels really bad.” Amal describes to me. “It feels like I am no one, a nothing. I am not recognized by anyone. I am living here in a country where I speak Arabic, I am an Arab, but my parents and grandparents consider themselves Palestinian. I have never known Palestine, my papers say that I am from Israel, but I am not Israeli. I am not Jewish. I am not permitted to do what Israelis who are Jewish can do. Everyone thinks that if you live in Israel, and are not a Jew, you are a Muslim, but I am not a Muslim.”
Amal has helped me come to understand many things today. As she translated for Fr. Karim, I came to better understand the layout of a Melkite Church, where the icons are, what the icons mean, how the altars are arranged. Christ is “born” on one altar in the form of bread and wine, and then “sacrificed” on the other. This all takes place behind the iconostasis (screen). The priests in this diocese, out of necessity, need to say more than one Mass a day, but the utensils in the liturgy are never allowed to be used more than one time every day. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of Ss. Peter and Paul Church by clicking here.
Amal also told me, first hand, about things that I had imagined, but never knew. The rights of Arab people in Israel are heavily restricted by the Israelis. For example, there are “Israeli-only” roads in Israel. Palestinians/Arabs cannot drive on them. I scratched my head and wondered, “How is that different than ‘White-only’ restaurants and busses that America had before the Civil Rights movement?” Arabs do not face automatic-enlistment into the Israeli Army, which is good, only in so far as they would be probably put at the front lines and commanded to shoot at their Palestinian brothers in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza or the West Bank. And of course, little Amal’s cousin is restricted from learning how to fly a plane, at least within Israel.
Amal asks me, “What were you told in America about the war with Lebanon last year?”
“That depends on what hour of the day I watched the news,” I replied.
I then went into an explanation of how the evening news in America is written to provoke excitement and fear, because it attracts viewers. It is entertainment. It helps people to forget their own troubles, by the discovery that there are people who have worse problems than theirs. The news wants to make people afraid, because the airtime of the news is paid for by companies that wants to make you feel safe. After 4 minutes of fear, they show you a commercial by a home-security company, who buys the air time knowing that you’ll want to buy a security system when “the world is such a dangerous place.”
This kind of commercial influence can determine the bias of the stories told on the news. If you report that there are terrorist groups from Lebanon threatening the peace and security of Israel, it solicits more fear than a story about Israeli soldiers harassing Arab people on the Israeli border. Who wants to hear a story about Arab people who live in extreme poverty, with their rights heavily restricted, harassed, and responding to oppression out of necessity? I explained to them that I was able to find news reports a year ago that reported the plight of the Arab people, but I asked my hosts what kind of companies they thought would buy air time for commercials with news reporting that had a sob story for poor Arabs.
The world is a sad place… where innocent people, displaced from their land, are denied education, access to good jobs, and are taunted by teenagers who wield guns provided by the Israeli state. But isn’t it good that you can feel fresh and secure with ___________ feminine hygiene? Won’t you feel better falling asleep on sheets washed in ___________ fabric softener? You could make the world a better place by having _____________ cookies for your kids when they come home.
It is possible to get a closer picture of the truth in America, if you look, but you usually have to watch more than one news report, at different times of the day, in order to see the whole picture. The truth is always more complex than the evening bias.
Bringing up the Israeli war with Lebanon seemed a stark contrast to the day’s events. After visiting Ss. Peter and Paul church, I had the opportunity to go to a First Communion at St. Joseph’s parish. The only problem was, it wasn’t just a First Communion. The bishop was there, and after hearing the Profession of Faith of these Arab youth, he confirmed them. Amal was surprised that Confirmation was being done to children at the age of seven and eight, because she was used to the Melkite Church which confirms the child at Baptism. I was surprised that the Confirmation was being done to children at the age of seven and eight because I thought they were too young… and because Amal informed me the bishop was from Lebanon.
“Really? From Lebanon? How does that work out? Weren’t you at war with them a year ago and isn’t it forbidden for the citizens to cross the border?
“I think there are exceptions granted by the state for religious clergy.”
What does it mean to people to know that they are celebrating a holy ritual, when a year ago their own country was lobbing missiles at the principal celebrant’s house (more or less)? A year ago, the ritual could not have been performed because he was living in a part of the world being bombed viciously by the country he now entered? What effect does it have on Catholics, both the Lebanese and the Arab Israelis, to know that in the land of war, there are First Communicants who have the same guiltless eyes, accentuated by white dresses and white suits as the ones they can see in their parish? These children walk down the aisle and are required to suppress the tickle of a giggle that comes from gazing the hundreds of big people who have come to cherish them, in the celebration of their dignity. They run around the parking lot, on the sugar-high of cakes and punch they swarm to, while parents and godparents steal them away to snap a quick picture, before Lilly-white dresses become napkins for punch.
What effect does it have on Catholics in the rest of the world who, at least once a year, have the ability to witness that same enchantment in their own parish. (should they choose to go) Children at First Communion. How simple. How pure! First Communion still takes place in Galilee, even though Arab Catholics are stymied by the government who is charged with the task of their care. I have put numerous pictures of this precious event in a Google Earth pictorial that you can see by clicking here.
With the discussion of Lebanon still seasoning the chicken kabobs at the lunch table with irony, Amal’s little cousin leans over to me and asks.
“Do you know how to fly an airplane?”
“No, I never took lessons. My cousin knows how to fly though. She even used to teach people how to fly airplanes.”
“Can she teach me?
“I don’t know.” I mutter, trying to mask my gut reaction of doubt.
Amal’s cousin has not yet learned how to speak English. Others are translating for him which allows me to lean over to Amal and whisper,
“When he’s older you should tell him to consider Europe or Asia if he really wants to lean how to fly an airplane. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t look so kindly anymore on Arabs who apply for American visas in order to learn how to fly airplanes.”
“I wish I could change things.” I say to the youth group who is cleaning up after the party, held outside St. Joseph’s parish following the Confirmation/First Communion. As I meet them, I realize how wonderful their very names are. Salamat is 18, her name means “Peace.” Amal is 20, her name means “Hope.” Yet in this group of young people, it is easy to see the problems. They feel hopeless. Peace is not a reality.
For them, it is more than a political problem with the Israeli government. They feel forgotten. They feel abandoned. They are Arab Catholics who live in Israel. Their parents and grandparents grew up in a country called Palestine, which has been reformed and reshaped, displacing thousands of Palestinians in a solution that just hasn’t worked. But most of the world dismisses Palestinians (or “Arabs who live in Israel” as some of them prefer to be called) as Muslims, and for the Western world, dominated by Christians and Jews, that makes the Arab people of Israel easy to dismiss.
“What do you want me to say when I get back to the United States? What can I do to help you here?” I ask the youth group of St. Joseph’s parish.
Each of the youth gives me the same answer.
“Just tell them, 'We are here.' That’s all. WE ARE HERE.”
“… and not to forget that Jesus was an Arab.”