Religious Baggage


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Jerusalem, July 16, 2009

Peeking at the notebook on the lap of the young woman sitting next to me on a Frankfurt airport shuttle bus, I read what seem to be the jottings of a travelogue: arrived…picked up baggages. With her ankle-length black skirt and long-sleeved blouse and blunt bangs that seem too loose at the hairline to be her own, she looks like the Orthodox Jewish girls I used to tutor at Touro College—many of them young women, raised in Brooklyn, for whom English is a second language. And she writes like them, too: with neat, remarkably legible print (the tail of the g in fine hooked form, the curve of the s almost symmetrically even-handed), a precision of penmanship that belies the grammar.

The man sitting across from us (her husband?) looks like he could have been born in the Warsaw of another age. He’s got curly, chin-length sideburns, the tassels of a prayer shawl hanging down from his black overcoat, buttoned right over left—the marks of a Hasidic man, which I’d grown to recognize on my bike rides through Boro Park, Brooklyn.

Disembarking at Terminal C in Frankfurt, I follow the Orthodox couple, pretty sure we’re going to the same place: the transit point to board El Al’s next flight to Tel Aviv.  They sail through to the seating area.  A security officer tells me to step aside. His supervisor will ask me a few questions:

“What is the origin of your family name?”


“What is your father’s first name?”


“What is your grandfather’s first name?”


I hold my tongue, resisting the temptation to tell them that Granddad Nashed died in 1948, so he wouldn’t have had much of a chance to threaten the Jewish state.

“I see you’ve been in Egypt,” he says, looking at the stamps on my passport. “Why?”

“To study Arabic, at the American University in Cairo.” Maybe the American University will help my case.

“What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?”

“Tourism,” I say, a half-truth. I don’t say I’m going to Jerusalem to follow the stories of Sudanese refugees who’ve gotten out of Egypt, only to find themselves detained in Israel, then released to be a source of cheap labor. To follow a twenty-something named Gabriel, and his cousin Lazarus, whom I befriended in a church courtyard in Cairo, whose voices have brought me closer to God than any passage in the Bible.

“Do you know anyone in Israel?” the security officer asks. I can’t say Gabriel Kuol Atem and Gabriel Thon Lazarus, who paid Bedouin smugglers to get them from Egypt to Israel.

“Friends of friends,” I say, trying to remember the name of my friend Meg’s Israeli friend’s name—something like Eitan. “My contacts are in my computer.”

“Show us.”

I get sent to another room, where two security officers ask me to open my laptop. Busted: All I have to show for contacts in Israel are refugee advocates—Hotline for Migrant Workers, Advocates for Asylum, African Refugee and Development Center.

“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming to help the Darfur refugees?”

I hold my tongue again: Gabriel and Lazarus are not from Darfur; they are Southern Sudanese. And I’m not under the illusion that my writing is going to help them. “I came to do research about them.”

“What kind of research?”

I say an innocuous version of the truth. “Well, I’m a student at Yale Divinity School. And I’m interested in interfaith dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in Jerusalem.”

“And what does that have to do with Africans?”

“Well, most of them are Muslim or Christian, and they’re living among Jews. I’m particularly interested in how Christian Sudanese refugees are reading the Bible, in terms of their flight to Israel.”

“They can’t even read the Bible,” one of the officers, a woman around my age, tells me. “They don’t have food, or a place to stay.”

I get sent to another room, where a male security officer inspects my passport picture. “Where are you staying in Israel?”

Finally, a question to which I have a concrete, kosher (I think) answer: “The Lutheran World Federation Guest House in East Jerusalem.” Maybe he’ll think I’m on a Christian pilgrimage.

“East Jerusalem—that’s not a good place for a nice girl like you.” He hands me back my passport. “Be careful.”St. Longbeard

In yet another room, a charming young Israeli scans the contents of my carry-on luggage, with what looks like a stethoscope attached to the handle of an electric toothbrush. He sticks the stethoscope probe into the pouches of my backpack, wipes off my electronic devices, Swiffer style, then the bottoms of my feet, while telling me about his travels in India.

Outside the inspection room, another airport security officer says she needs to talk with me.

“We found an Arabic book in your luggage,” she says, quietly.
“It’s an Arabic Bible,” I tell her.

I’d tucked the small book in the lining of the bag I checked—not to conceal it, but to protect it. I’d found the pocket-sized, pale-pink kitab al muqaddas (“Holy Bible,” in Arabic) on my aunt Elene’s bedside table after she went into a coma.

“Not a Muslim prayer book?” the officer asked, in a discreet and gentle tone.

“No. It’s a Bible.”

“You’re a Christian?”

“Yes,” I say. For all intents and purposes, I don’t say. It’s a complicated question.

I don’t believe Jesus is the only way of truth and light, or that he had to die for our sins, or that the Bible is always right about how we should live. But I do believe in the justice and peace Jesus preached.

And I believe in afterlives—in leaving the door open for Elijah, in case he comes in to drink his cup of seder wine. I believe in reading sacred texts the way rabbinic father Ben Bagbag taught his students to read Torah: “Turn it over and over…And reflect upon it and grow old and worn in it.” I believe in poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s search for “the words under the words” of her Palestinian grandmother’s prayers. I believe there’s something sacred about bali to, a Papa New Guinean idiom for “turned over words,” as anthropologist Steven Feld interprets it (in Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression).  What religion writer Jeff Sharlet likens to turning a stone over and over in your hands:  “Those with eyes to see discover that the other side of the rock reveals new meanings; turn it again, and there’s another.”

Though it may help my getting-into-Israel case, I do not quote Rabbi Ben Bagbag to the El Al security officer. I tell her that my father is an Orthodox Christian from Egypt, and the Arabic book in my suitcase was his sister’s Bible.

“She wanted to go to Jerusalem before she died, but…”

“I understand,” she says, in a sympathetic tone. And something like, “You have your reasons…Have a good trip to Israel.”

Relieved, I unload my carry-on bags in a chair in the final waiting area and sit down to write. I look up from my notebook and realize the young frum wife is writing in her memo pad, two seats over from me. Between us is the bulky shoulder bag her husband was carrying, his black hat and a small green Torah stacked on top of a folded tapestry stitched with the image of a gold-embroidered menorah.

I write in my notebook: Unpack religious baggages!

I wonder how that young woman turns Torah, and if her search for the words under the words turns into turns of phrase in her notebook. I imagine our scribbles stuffed in crevices of the Western Wall.


On my third day in Jerusalem, I take my Aunt Elene’s Bible out of my suitcase, to do what I’ve been saving, or putting off, for another time. I open to the place she had marked with a little cardboard icon of a Coptic saint I know only by his ankle-long beard, ash of some relic of his body taped to the back.

I want to know what Bible verse she was reading before her brain died. My eyes follow the Arabic letters right to left. I sound out the syllables phonetically, while my mind puts the meanings to the words. “First Letter to the Corinthians.” I close the book.  I’ve had enough of Paul, from the apostolic church that almost wouldn’t allow me to give a eulogy at my aunt’s memorial service. (The Coptic powers-that-be take Paul literally about women keeping quiet in church.)

I put Elene’s Bible in my shoulder bag and walk us to the Western Wall. I watch the Jewish women davening and davening to their inherited scriptures. I take out mine, look up at the wall and stand there, turning and turning the book in my hand.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.