Monthly Archives: January 2014

Does it make me cool that, in the cell phone contacts I’ve accumulated since arriving, I have the numbers of an Italian mother superior, a local imam, a Palestinian bodybuilder, a PBS documentary producer, the head of security for the neighboring village, and an organic goat farmer?  I kind of feel like it does.

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January 28, 2014 · 2:46 pm

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Also, my sister visited me!  Many adventures were had, I was sad to see her go, and I am currently working on a convincing argument for the many sociology programs available at the universities here in Israel.

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Here for the Holidays

I decided not to write this on the holiday itself as a “Merry Christmas, everyone!” post; I was afraid that, if my post came out of the midst of my roiling Christmas Day emotions, it would sound too melancholy, depressed, or bitter.  Because celebrating Christmas in another country is hard.  I’ve only done it twice, but this is the pattern I’ve noticed: as December rolls around and the temperatures are still in the 70s, I decide I need to take matters into my own hands and to create the Christmas spirit that isn’t being poured down my throat like it would be in America.  So I go on a crafting frenzy, snipping away at little triangles of folded paper until I have enough snowflakes to coat every wall in my house.  Probably twice.  I actually bake things, attempting to replicate my mom’s recipes with the ingredients available in Israel.  I succeed greatly with some recipes.  I throw a lot of rock-hard cookie-ish blobs in the trash.  I secretly access Pandora, tricking my computer into thinking I’m in the United States so that I can listen to Christmas music in the background of everything I’m doing.

And then, about a week before the 25th, I start to wonder if I’ve taken entirely the wrong approach.  Maybe it would’ve been better to let myself forget Christmas a little bit.  Maybe I should’ve just let it slide by like any other day.  Because my paper snowflakes can’t compare to the red and green and gold tablecloth we always put out in December, or the ribbon angel that’s hung on the back of our door for every Christmas I can remember.  My cookies – despite my jubilant pride over the ones that actually turn out – are nothing like my mom’s or brother’s, and I’m nowhere near confident enough to attempt our Christmas morning chocolate chip coffee cake.  And stupid Pandora will NOT stop playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  None of these things really assault me that terribly, but each further reminds me of the real problem: I will be spending Christmas 5,000 miles from everyone who really knows and loves me.  And that’s just hard.  And it tends to make me temporarily forget the happy, exciting, fun moments of the last few months and to focus on all the sad ones: every time I felt lonely or directionless or needed a hug and didn’t have someone to hug me.  Because those moments will exist here and there when living abroad, regardless of how satisfied I may be with my overall experience.

But there are other moments, too, that appear during Christmastime abroad.  Little patches of cozy Christmas warmth that, though entirely removed and distinct from the traditional warm and fuzzies of the American holiday season, still make me smile and shake my head in wonder and gratitude for this place and time in life.  Like… watching the annual Christmas parade march through the streets of downtown Nazareth, my body being jostled back and forth by the families trying to get a better view, the countless tiny children in full Santa costumes on their fathers’ shoulders shrieking as their eyes light up with excitement, “Baba Noel!  Baba Noel!  Mama, huwwa ha’ee’ee???  (Santa Clause!  Santa Clause!  Mama, is he real???)”  It doesn’t matter how many men of varying height, complexion, hair color, and jolliness they saw dressed in the red suit and white beard; every time, the same elated cry.

Or watching the Rudolph Christmas special late one night with a volunteer from Taiwan and a Muslim coworker from Nazareth, pausing every few minutes to explain the plot and suddenly realizing how many complete absurdities I had apparently overlooked for years.  The stop motion animation that I have absorbed with nonjudgmental adoration every year as a child, when seen through fresh (adult) eyes and actually explained plot-point by plot-point, is surprisingly ridiculous.  Nevertheless, the process of discovering this at least makes for a warm evening of togetherness and laughter.

Or sitting at the inn two nights before Christmas with Yafit as the maintenance man and the electrician, both called in to work late in the evening, try to fix the hot water that rarely functions quite right in this atmospheric but somewhat decrepit part of town.  Yafit suggests I put on some background music for the big, drafty reception hall; as I cue up an arbitrary version of “Silent Night,” I notice an irregular echo and realize that, in the middle of a frustrated text to his wife to tell her he won’t be home for dinner, the electrician has absentmindedly begun to sing along in Arabic.  In the midst of a chaotic evening of inexplicable malfunctions and disgruntled guests, he fiddles with wires and murmurs, “Silent night.  Holy night.  All is calm; all is bright.”

Or dropping off to sleep after working the late night shift on Christmas Eve and realizing that, over the course of the day, I’ve been wished a sincere and heartfelt “Merry Christmas!” by four Jewish friends and five Muslim friends, usually accompanied by a big hug, while one of my Arab Christian coworkers even came back after her shift was done, running through the dark streets of the old market with a tray full of food so that she could share her family’s Christmas dinner with me.

Bittersweet is a pretty wonderful word; and, though perhaps a little melodramatic, the inherent contrast in the adjective more or less aptly describes the foreign Christmas experience for me.  But it was just a light, passing bittersweetness.  Not that 70% or 80% cocoa stuff – just the concentration of a normal dark chocolate.  (I’m sorry.  I know that was terrible.)  Because, as I woke up on December 26 and stared out my window at the city Jesus would inhabit for most of His life, I was comfortable moving past the holiday with minimal pomp and simply continuing my life.  I wanted to think that the removal from the traditions and ceremonies surrounding the holiday allowed me to focus more clearly on the birth of my Savior, but I’m not sure it did.  As I set out into the days following the holiday, however, I felt that the simultaneous bitterness and sweetness of Christmas in Nazareth had helped me instead to focus on characterizing each little moment with an appreciation of the sweetness of this place and time He’s given me, regardless of a bit of bitterness here and there.

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So, I’ve been slowly and lazily working on a few posts for a while, and I’ll finish them up soon – hopefully – but, for now, I’ve decided to put them on the back-burner and to write up a quick something about the current state of Nazareth.  Because I really have no idea what’s going on in this city right now.

This is what I’ve gathered so far from observation and from the variety of hurried, muddled, inevitably biased explanations I’ve been given by a variety of friends here [disclaimer: I’ve mostly left out my own political analyses, since I’m not particularly qualified to be making them]:

When I arrived in Nazareth in September, I found the city entirely plastered with posters of people’s faces, framed by catchphrases like “Now is her time,” or “Leadership creates change.”  Nothing too different from the States; it seems that, all the world over, these are the telltale indications of election season.  At night, pairs of neon red Arabic letters glowed from the tops of hundreds of houses scattered across the city – I would later puzzle out that each pair of letters represented the initials of a political party – and the same campaign songs played over and over from the raucous rallies taking place startlingly close to my window.

From what I could piece together from the conversations floating around me at work, there were two main contenders: the incumbent, Ramiz Jaraisy, a Christian who’d been mayor for 20 years; and Ali Salam, a Muslim and the figurehead of his own, new party.  Commentators tried to portray the rivalry as one that fell along religious divides, I was told; but I was simultaneously reassured that the general population – or, at least my young Muslim friend who was volunteering for Salam’s campaign and did most of the explaining, didn’t view the elections as a religious matter.  And I didn’t see how it could be, if in this city of 70% Muslims and 30% Christians, a Christian – the incumbent, no less – was seen as equally matched with his Muslim rival.

October 22, election day, arrived with a foreseeably drawn atmosphere of baited breath descending on the city.  I worked that night, waiting for the clamor of fireworks that would inevitably be set off by the winning party when the results were finalized.  Fireworks accompany every major event in Nazareth (as well as most minor events).  But the skies remained dark, and the city went to bed with no results.  The next morning, the cook told me the whole city was walking on eggshells, still unsure who the mayor would be.

For several days after the election, I was pretty unclear on what exactly was happening.  First I heard that Jaraisy had won; then, someone on the radio said that Salam had won.  Then many people started to tell me that Salam had won, and that it had been a matter of 22 votes.  Walking into town, I saw young boys in the streets, joyously running out in front of cars and shaking their giant Salam posters in front of the windshields before stumbling out of the way of traffic.

Then, apparently, Jaraisy contested the outcome, claiming fraud and miscount.  He took the matter to the court, and they suspended the results.  According to a friend, this was problematic for Salam as he had already slaughtered hundreds of sheep for the celebratory banquet he had been planning.

The court did not reach a quick decision; after about a week, I asked one of my friends why he had stopped talking about the elections.  “I’ve decided I just can’t care anymore,” he told me.  “They keep playing with my heart and emotions, and I can’t handle the stress anymore.”

But it was clear that he and the rest of the city maintained a quietly vested interest in the eventual outcome.  When the subject did come up, people from both sides shook their heads and warned that, were Jaraisy to regain power, he would swiftly become Nazareth’s first assassination.

Fast forward about three months.  A few days ago, the court apparently announced that they were recommending a revote.  I wasn’t aware of this (the terrible news coverage of this whole matter is an issue I can’t even begin to address right now), but I was aware of the sudden appearance of big poster boards zip-tied to every tree, pole, and bench in the Mary’s Well Square; the by turns clever and bitter statements sharpied on them accusing Jaraisy of ruining the city and demanding his graceful withdrawal.

Two days later, I woke up to my apartment-mate’s phone ringing and her loud cursing as she dug through her bag to find it.  I heard her leave the apartment to walk to breakfast, and five minutes later I rolled out of bed and followed.  As I sat down with her, she said that our manager had called, recommending that she not offer our inn’s free city tour this morning.  “All the stores will be closed because that Christian guy is mayor again, she said, and she’s afraid it isn’t safe to be out in the city today.”

After talking to one of the cleaning ladies, I gathered that the court had revoked its previous recommendation for a revote, declaring Jaraisy the winner by nine votes.

Nazareth was almost terrifyingly silent that day; our vegetable delivery guy arrived early, quickly placing the bags in the kitchen and mumbling to the staff that the supermarket was already closed for the day.  Every storefront was closed up, and the streets were empty; the only detectable movement was the mounting stir rising from the hundred or so people gathered around the posters at Mary’s Well.  At first, I heard that the stores had all closed because they were afraid of the violence that may erupt from the disgruntled supporters of Salam; later, however, I heard that they had done so in solidarity, a kind of citywide strike against Jaraisy.  The one cafe-owner in all the city who chose to remain open, incidentally our manager’s sister, apparently received a visit from some of Salam’s “people,” threatening her and trying to intimidate her into closing.  (My source for this story was a pretty staunch supporter of Jaraisy, though, so I’m just a touch skeptical.)

The next day (this last Friday), as I was walking down into town after my run in neighboring Nazareth Ilit, I slowly became aware of the extraordinary number of cars pouring out of Nazareth; and, as I began to enter town, of the abnormally high presence of vans marked with a big, black UN.  I uncharacteristically found myself fearing the worst – some kind of mob or violence, or even the assassination so many had predicted.  But, upon finding two friends waiting at an overcrowded bus stop, I discovered that the entire main street was being closed down at 2:30 for protests.

I went out that evening to observe these “protests.”  Purple flags supporting Salam were everywhere, and the song about the keffiyeh that I’d heard over and over from his rallies throughout September and October was being blasted from the speakers of every parked car in the Mary’s Well area.  Countless people milled through the impassable street, stopping to chat with shop owners and friends they bumped into – fathers and sons, groups of older women, packs of teenage boys.  The whole thing had an almost carnival-like atmosphere.  Many of the conversations floating around me were political; but many were also typical chatter, asking after the health of one another’s relatives and gossiping about mutual acquaintances.

Since then…I don’t really know what’s been happening, officially.  I don’t know if these protesters are just making noise to express their discontent, or if they actually expect to influence the court’s decision.  Or if they even can, legally.

This morning, at breakfast, I asked one of the staff if she knew anything about any developments.  She just rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue.  “Who’s the mayor?  Do you know?  I don’t know!  You know what they need to do?  They need to bring in a Jew and put him in charge.  That’s the only way they’ll fix this.  It won’t happen, but that’s my opinion.”

I never really expected to hear that.

SO.  Sorry for the lengthy post on Nazarene politics, but this is by far the most interesting local election I’ve ever witnessed!  With competition coming from the contentious municipalities of Huntingdon, PA, and Middlebury, VT, the weight of that honor is questionable, but still…

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