A Prayer for Mark
In response to my August 1, 2012 CounterPunch essay (The Pandering Game) on Romney’s assertion that, because of an inferior culture, Palestinians are not as successful as Israelis, and within two hours of the posting, M.J. S _ _ _ _ _ sent me a flagged email via his Verizon Wireless Blackberry in which he stated: “Palestinian equals terrorist!”
Two days later I responded: “Dear Mr. S. : Thank you for your kind words. Each Sunday in my church study group we have special prayers. I am going to request that your name be added to the prayer list. Salaam, Raouf J. Halaby.”
I promptly received a Red Category response: “OK, SANDNIGGER!!!” to which I (should not have) replied: “Thank you, Mark.”
Fifty minutes later Mark sent his response: “Your [sic.] welcome SANDNIGGER!”
I was not sure whether the aforementioned fit under the category of hate speech, and I considered sending copies of the exchange to the regional FBI office. Instead, I opted, as I had promised, to request a prayer for Mark.
My wife and I attend a local Baptist church; the morning worship service is preceded by Sunday School, a time designated for reading and discussing selected scripture passages — call it Southern Baptist catechism. The group to which my wife and I belong is comprised of university faculty and administrators and professionals (ages 58-67) with very diverse philosophical and political leanings; and, while on rare occasions dissenting views surface, the discussions are very candid and meaningful, and they are always civil. August’s discussions centered on the Four Cardinal Virtues whose sub themes included Discernment, Justice, Courage, and Moderation. A retired army colonel, our discussion leader starts each session with prayer requests. As promised, on the morning of Sunday, August 5, 2012, and without divulging any details, I requested that Mark’s name be added to the prayer list.
Two years ago I had a very heated discussion in, of all places, a London Lebanese restaurant, with a colleague, a staunch Southern Baptist, about whether non-Christians can attain everlasting life. I posited the belief that all human beings who live by the golden rule, regardless of their religious affiliations, are viewed equally by the Deity. Needless to say, I was informed that I was off base and I was labeled a Universalist. Because I consider faith to be a very personal matter, I rarely, if ever, discuss religion or my personal beliefs with friends and acquaintances in private or public settings. Even as I pen this essay, I have this demurring and maladroit feeling that there is something odd, sanctimonious and cheesy about my venturing (in writing and for the first time) into an articulation of what lies at the core of my personal journey in search of higher truth. And I must admit that on many an occasion on this pilgrimage called life the chasm between the heart and the mind (that business of faith and logic) widens and I wander into a Kafkaesque grey zone of doubt. My diversely rich personal encounters with people of different faiths and the examples set by my elders, a childhood priest, and a Southern Baptist Missionary are the factors that prompted me to respond to M. J. S. in the manner in which I did.
During the first 19 years of my life I was most fortunate to have been exposed to the three Abrahamic faiths and to the multiplicity of their offshoots. Of Greek Orthodox backgrounds, my mother and father were married in the Melkite church. Baptized in the Orthodox Church, for several years I attended the Katamoun Orthodox Church in a suburb of West Jerusalem. And for seven years I served as an altar boy, carrying the splendidly ornate silver icons and marching in the processional, preparing the incense burner for the priest, and helping carry a massive illuminated bible whose covers were incised with intricate interlacing damascene chasing and granulated gold and silver designs counterbalanced by an abundance of precious gems. The rich aroma of incense, the beautiful Byzantine style mosaic iconography, and the plethora of encaustic and egg tempera paintings, along with Gregorian chants and liturgy sung in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek, transposed me to a world of magic and mystery. Behind the Iconostasis (screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave), the aged priest treated the altar boys with kindness and gentleness, and his Kyrie Eleison (chanted in morphophonemic syllables) resonated throughout the domed church with an affirming conviction, passion and assurance. On occasion, he would gather the altar boys (three of whom were my brothers) to explain one of the sacraments of faith in language we could understand. “My children,” he would say after the service, “come here and eat the remainder of this holy bread. It has been blessed and must not be squandered.” And I learned at an early age that the ritualistic pageantry is merely a symbolic re-enactment of ancient truths. To get to church, we had to trek through several Jewish neighborhoods, and in one particular neighborhood teenaged Jewish boys would hurl rocks at us and chant “Goyim, Goyim, lekh lebaita!” (Gentile, Gentile, go home), and on occasion the epithet Bo Lehena, Aravi Meluhlah (come here, you parasitic Arab), a derisive invective I often heard during the first 14 years of my life, would come in the form of a verbal assault from the authorities. The uplifting two-hour service more than made up for the harassment, and our return trip home was always a different route.
When, in the early 1950s, mother attempted to enroll us in the newly established neighborhood school in the Upper Bakaa’ neighborhood of Southwest Jerusalem, the principal told her that she could not enroll her children in an all Jewish school because “ you are not Jews, you don’t belong in our country.” His country? Surely this just-off-the-boat European transplant knew that Palestinian Christians and Muslims have had centuries-old roots in Palestine. As a result, my twin brother and I attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Elementary School, a Palestinian Catholic convent by then converted to a full-fledged school for Palestinian children whose families did not flee Palestine after the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe). Later we would attend St. Mary of the Rosary convent school adjacent to the American Consulate in the Mamila district of Jerusalem. My two older brothers were enrolled at Terra Sancta, a Franciscan middle school, and my sister was enrolled at the Tabeetha School for girls in Jaffa. While we were required to attend mass and participate in catechism, we were not required to participate in confession or the partaking of the Holy Communion. In my last year in Jerusalem I was enrolled at a small Anglican school headed by your typical English School Marm who, in spite of being a septuagenarian , was as spry a teacher as a twenty-something woman. My classmates were the children of UN officers stationed in Jerusalem, the children of foreign diplomats, missionaries, and corporate executives.
When going to the Orthodox church became more dangerous, the family worshipped at St. Andrews Church of Scotland, a historic structure that is perched on a hill, within view of Jerusalem’s ancient city walls and in full view of the Orthodox cemetery where my father was buried in 1947. After 1948 the narrow strip of land on which the cemetery was located became part of the Green Line and in the center of no-man’s land that became the demarcation line between East and West Jerusalem. The YMCA, a world renowned Jerusalem architectural landmark, lies past an olive grove and just up the street from St. Andrews. At St. Andrews I learned what high church is, and at the YMCA I would hear sermons by itinerant evangelical preachers from across the globe. Inebriated by all things Holy Land, these preachers (and especially the American types) would preach fiery sermons laden with thunderous admonishments about the wages of sin and eternal damnation. To tell the truth, after hearing some of these sermons in my pubescent years, I would go home laden with fear, for the wages of sin (most of which I did not comprehend) weighed heavily on my mind. After one such fiery sermon in which the preacher implored the congregants to build their faith on solid rock and not sand, I worried. Was our house built on rock, or was it built on sand?
To help us become more proficient with our Arabic linguistic skills, mother would read passages from a handwritten 16th century manuscript of the Holy Koran, a family heirloom given to us by Muslim friends. I distinctly remember the worn out morocco leather cover and the somewhat torn spine, the jagged edges of the yellowed pages, and the ornate geometric arabesque patterns. But mostly I remember the beautiful calligraphy and the beautiful cadence of classical Arabic recited with reverence, for in addition to its being a sacred book, the Holy Koran is, par excellence, an undisputed linguistic document.
Upon crossing the border from Israel into Lebanon in 1959, the Israeli border Mishtara (police) confiscated the Koran, a rare stamp collection, and a rare coin collection of Byzantine, Ottoman, Greek, Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian, Italian, Lebanese, French and English coins of every shape and size, some of which dated back to the 17th century. The explanation? “State Security!” And for the past 63 years the Israelis have been systematically securing their state by building walls of apartheid and Jews-only highways to imprison, expropriate real estate, ruin livelihoods, and denigrate Palestinians through a network of animal-guard-type check points across the West Bank.
On the old Jerusalem-Bethlehem Road and just beyond the German Colony in the Upper Bakaa’ neighborhood, Reuven Street runs perpendicular to the main road; the street slopes to the west. In the post 1948 war, my family was the only Palestinian family in an amalgamated neighborhood of newly arrived Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. Much farther down the street and literally across the railroad tracks resided Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq, and the divide between European and Oriental Jew was obvious. At the end of the pasture behind our house was a synagogue whose congregation was Sephardic, while some 75 yards to the front of our house was another synagogue whose congregation was Ashkenazi, and this segregation pretty much lasted till the mid 1980’s. Both of these synagogues were traditional one-story mason-cut native stone homes previously owned by displaced Palestinian families. Reuven St. Mishpar Teshaa’ (Number 9) was known throughout the neighborhood as Bait ha Aravim (house of the Arabs). How ironic – prior to 1948 all the houses in the neighborhood were Baitim Ha’Aravim. When word got out that mother frequently invited Haim, our across-the-street neighbor, to instruct us about the Torah, Talmud, Jewish traditions, and Jewish lore, the neighbors became more accepting . Mother’s expertise at raising an assortment of house plants became legend, and our large front veranda became the greenhouse from which clippings and seedlings were transported to many a neighbor’s pot or yard. And recipes for stuffed grape leaves, cabbage and squash, tabouleh, falafel and humus became popular substitutes for what was otherwise a bland European fare. An abundant harvesting of almonds, grapes, pomegranates, plums, pears and peaches was always shared with the neighbors.
And in late spring and summer roses and flowers made their way into neighbors’ vases, and on occasion I would hand flowers to a girl I wanted to impress. Plants, flowers, and the culinary arts helped establish more meaningful friendships and social exchanges, and soon my siblings and I were called on to serve as Sabbath Goys. The Seroks, Vanicks, Lichtmans and other observant neighbors entreated us to perform tasks that included turning on/off lights, plugging/unplugging utensils or re-warming previously cooked meals that were too cold to eat. (These were the forgotten chores that should have been performed earlier on Friday and prior to the 5:00 p.m. onset of Shabbat.) And on two occasions we were called upon to change burnt light bulbs in the Ashkenazi synagogue. The rabbi was greatly relieved when we refused to take payment for our neighborly gesture, for that meant that we relieved him of the burden of handling money and thus violating Shabbat. And several non-practicing Jewish neighbors depended on us to acquire bread during the Pesach feast when only traditional matzos could be found on grocery shelves.
By 1959 it was obvious that our status as second class citizens in Israel was not going to change, and we left Jerusalem for good. In mid-morning of April the 9th, 1959, neighbors congregated in front of our house to bid us farewell. Many tears were shed and much embracing took place, and a matronly Russian babushka entreated us to stay and apologized for her government’s policies.
During my six year sojourn in Beirut, Lebanon, I became better acquainted with the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths. At the National Protestant Secondary School and in the Beirut Sea Scout (Troup 2) I experienced yet another amalgamation of nationalities, faiths, and ethnic backgrounds. I competed, studied, played soccer, camped and hiked with Catholics, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Melkites, Copts, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, Muslims (Sunni, Alawite, Shiite, Sufi) and Druze. Dubbed the Switzerland of the Middle East, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s Beirut was a very vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis where East met West in a progressive melting pot of cultural, religious, and political diversity and tolerance.
Upon our moving into a West Beirut second-story apartment on Bliss Street and only four blocks from the American University of Beirut, we attended the large Greek Orthodox church. While I enjoyed the pageantry and centuries-old rituals, I somehow felt that there was a disconnect between ritual and a substantively more personal connection to faith. Not a child any more, the thirst and hunger for higher truth took on a more profound meaning. I give credit to James Kirkendall, a towering 6’5’’ lanky former college pole-vaulter from Oklahoma, for pointing me in the direction of a deeper well from which I could draw to satiate this new thirst. Barely two blocks from our apartment, the English-speaking University Baptist Church opened its doors in 1962, and in 1963 James Kirkendall was assigned to serve as pastor. Sponsored by the Southern Baptist Mission Board (long before this body was hijacked by Richard Land and the Fundies), the church served the English–speaking community of West Beirut. The James Kirkendall, Jim Ragland and Finlay Graham families invested their lives in ministry and in building schools. What struck me about these good folk was the different tone and spirit they brought to bear in all their dealings with their congregations, and especially with the locals, many of whom were of the Muslim faith. There was none of the neo-colonial chauvinism that was so characteristic of late 19th and early 20th century European (and especially British) missionaries who “[carried] the white man’s burden” to establish footholds in the service of the almighty empires under the guise of serving the Almighty. For over 30 years James Kirkendall served with distinction in Lebanon, Iran, India and Bangladesh. In 2009 my wife and I drove to Oklahoma City to celebrate James’ eighty-fifth birthday and to pay homage to a man without whom I would have remained a stateless Palestinian living in limbo in a no-man’s land of perpetual uncertainty. During the visit I learned that James Kirkendall was the first American to be taken hostage in Lebanon during the dark days of the late 1970’s; even to this day, he has nothing but love for his captors. The Kirkendalls and the Raglands (who speak Arabic with the gusto of the Lebanese dialect) exemplify the very best in the magnanimity of the American spirit and character. They are Southern Baptists in the Jimmy Carter tradition, and not of the watered-down theology-lite Hagee/Huckabee brand.
All of the aforementioned to say this: Palestinian, Phoenician, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian, Byzantine, Muslim, and Arab traditions were the crucible in which the bedrock of my formative years were shaped, and on which I draw, even to this day. A mother who inculcated her children withUniversalist values, a priest who helped shed light on divine love, and a preacher who, in William Blake’s words, led me to “Higher Innocence,” have forged an enduring faith that all women and men are equal in the eyes of God.
I am truly saddened that, instead of engaging me in civil discourse, Mark chose to fire his verbal drones in such hateful language. In the Sunday School opening prayer of August 5, 2012, Beverly invoked the following: “… . We know they have special needs and we pray that you will meet these needs. …” To which I say:
Amen and Salaam!
Raouf J. Halaby, a naturalized US citizen, is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. He is a Professor of English and Art at a private liberal arts university in Arkansas. firstname.lastname@example.org