Christian, for All Intents and Purposes
Peeking at the notebook on the lap of the young woman sitting next to me on a Frankfurt airport shuttle, 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 tails of the gs in fine hooked form, the curves of the s almost symmetrically even-handed), a precision of penmanship that belies the slightly off grammar.
I read her words with a narcissistic fascination. As I try to practice “a piety of description” (thank you, fellow KtBnik Nathan Schneider, for turning to phrase James Agee’s belabored way of showing every little thing at hand), I wonder how other people do it. My haphazard method involves scribbling, in a hodgepodge of cursive and print, arrows and asterisks, filling small notebook after small notebook I can’t leave home without. I want to know what and how other people write, in public, on their private pages. I’m as curious about this girl’s note-making as Stephen Prothero confesses to be about “Another Man’s Prayers” (a Believer, Beware dispatch from Jerusalem), the handwritten prayers Barack Obama left in a crevice of the Western Wall. I’m a voyeur, too, trying surreptitiously to make out the words between the numbers the girl has written on another page. I wonder if she feels as compelled as I do to try to note down the all of moments great and small. I wonder if she is likewise attached to her notebook, to her college-ruled repository for translating experiences into words. And I wonder what grammatical incongruity accounts for baggages. Is there no collective noun for travel bags in Hebrew? In Yiddish?
Yiddish, I suspect. Her skin looks Ashkenazi-fair to me, and the man sitting across from us—her husband?—looks like he could have been born in the Warsaw of another age. After five years of living in Brooklyn, the curly, beard-length side locks of Hasidic men, their long black overcoats, buttoned right over left, are no longer a novelty to my Alabama eyes. I got used to shtreimels, big, furry hats and tallit, prayer shawl tassels, Yiddish signs for kosher butchers and wig shops, by biking through Brooklyn’s Boro Park.
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, clearly Jews, get through security much faster than I, a brunette with almond-shaped eyes and a suspicious last name. A security officer tells me to sit down and wait for his supervisor, who 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 get sent to another room, where 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 and gently.
“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 the little three-by-five sized pale-pink covered kitab al muqaddas (“Holy Bible,” in Christian Arabic) on my aunt Elene’s bedside table after she went into a coma.
“Not a Muslim prayer book?” the officer asked, still discreet and gentle.
“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 Christ is the “way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6), or that heaven is anything like the kingdom most churches envision, or that the Bible always tells the truth about the way we should live. But I do believe in believing in a son of God who has come so that we may have life “more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). And I do 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 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 Ben Bagbag or Jeff Sharlet 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.
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 hers, 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 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 make it into turns of phrase in her notes. I imagine that for a moment she and I were writing in tandem, nothing in the world between each of us and our hands making words on the notebooks on our laps waiting to go to Israel. I imagine our pages stuffed in close crevices of the Western Wall.
On my third day in Jerusalem, I take Elene’s Bible out of my suitcase, to do what I’ve been saving, or avoiding, 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 Elene’s memorial service. (The Coptic powers that be take Paul literally about women keeping silent in the holy sanctuary.)
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.
I put her Bible, our Bible, back in my bag. I walk east, toward the Arab Quarter. For the the third time, I walk down the Via Dolorosa. I think I should stop. I am a Christian, for all intents and purposes, in Jerusalem. And this sixth station of the cross is where Veronica wiped Jesus’ face. But I don’t go there. It’s complicated.
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.