Tuesday, April 15, 2014

narrative nonfiction

Someone was in my room. The sky outside was bruising itself with a sunset and my sweating feet were swimming in the tiny sheet that covered them. There was a voice in my room, but it was too dark to tell who was there and my mind was still defogging from the confusion of sleep. The person was far too manly and Arabic-like to be my female, English-speaking roommate, Emily. The room swelled with the voice, and I sat up, waiting to meet the criminal who unlawfully entered our house. 
            The call to prayer. The eerie sounds of Allah’s shepherds welcomed the changing skies and calling the faithful to their mats. I swallowed the panic sitting cross-legged in my throat and rolled over to my clock. It was sometime between the hours of 4 and 5 AM, and I had been in a travel-induced coma since we arrived the previous day.
            It was my first morning in Nazareth.

            Nazareth is a city on a hill—which I can only undoubtedly assume was Jesus’ inspiration for the saying. At the very height of the cliffs sits a hospital where I lived, and sitting at its feet was my workplace, a petite farm village snuggled into the hills, intended to recreate life in the first century for tourists. Living at the highest point in Nazareth meant I could see everything, even the very distant corners of Lebanon and the scared land of warring Syria. The white walls of the city below stood like dominoes and the blue of the sky reached out its palms towards their roofs. The trees seemed to sing as their lungs filled with birdsongs and chatter. The city was ancient, yet very much alive.
            Despite all of its biblical glory, Nazareth was actually fairly simple, offering few tourist destinations or holy sites. The downtown was a cramped living room: the streets and sidewalks are one, with pedestrians, cars, and falafel stands all packed in like fans in a stadium. There was little room to breathe, as car horns competed with people’s voices as they ask where your pale skin hails from. The storefronts were an interesting ode to Nazareth’s culture, selling the hijab for the Muslim wife alongside sequined mini-dresses for the less-modest Christian believer. The city was the meeting point of modern—laced with litter and neon ads—with historic—composed entirely of biblically aged buildings and pathways of Jesus' walk. It was the crash site between competing religions.
            I was in God’s land. Allah was singing in the rafters and Jesus had danced on this earth. I outlined Christ’s footprints with my own, walking where he once had and among the descendants of those he preached to. I could see him everywhere: in the blue of the Palestinian eyes, in the honey of the Arab skin, in the strapped sandals trend that are named after him. While there, I was also doing his work—not just ministering to others about His life and death, but washing hands and feet of dialysis patients in the hospital and doing carpentry work at Nazareth Village. I saw him, I mimicked him, I walked among him, but for some reason, I couldn’t feel him.

“All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.”
- Isaiah 53:6

            I had long wanted to be held in Israel’s arms and walk amidst her holy dust. There is a love for the place that swims in my veins and lives in my marrow; a seemingly genetic love that I inherited from my Opa, passed onto my mother and then to me. Canadian soil had never been enough for us.
            As a child, I would sit wide-eyed in front of the bookshelves the size of trees as my Opa would recount the history of the Jews. He would begin with the Exodus, when they feared the Pharoah, to the time his neighbours in Holland hid them in their basement, when they feared the Fuhrer. He would trace his fingers over the books’ spines, jumping from one book to the next as he jumped from one century to another in their history. Some books were bigger than the Bible, and in my juvenile mind that somehow made the books seem more important.
            My mother picked up on this interest—suitably, as Jewish ancestry continues through the mother—but for less historical reasons and more religious reasons. When I was young, she would throw the map of Israel onto our kitchen table like a tablecloth and map out Jesus’ life, connecting the dots and writing Bible verses down at certain locations. She drew small stars on all the places she wanted to visit, all the places that somehow had meaning to her although she had never been there.
            And then there was me, inheriting the historical and the religious, and adding in the political. I had my own filled bookshelves, my own marked-up map, my own “must-see” lists. Everything I learned about and grew to love was now in front of me, the world of my Opa’s and mom’s words coming to fruition. Their stories created the city, decorated the walls of the churches I visited and watered the roots of the trees.
            I am the first one of the three of us to get here.

“He will gently lead the mother sheep with
their young.”
- Isaiah 40:11

            On the third day, I found it. The roof laid like an open palm, waiting to embrace or hold someone. All roofs in Nazareth were just as friendly, created flat and ready to host a party or become a tanning bed. My roof was gated off—deemed untouchable, despite its longing to hold someone. It was on top of the doctors’ dormitory and stood just before a cliff that fell into the open jaws of Nazareth. It was labeled off limits, but that mystery only heightened my determination to get there.
            My roof and the forest of Nazarene roofs below quickly became my shelter. Beyond the gate sat my small amount of hope for spiritual recovery, and it became a daily routine to see if I could connect to the eternal presence of the Holy Spirit. Three things came with me every morning: a blanket, to save a burning, water, to save desert dehydration, and my bible, to save my faith.
            The words of Matthew and Moses quivered in the wind of the holy air, as I tried everyday to feed my soul its daily bread. I forced my way through books I’d read before, and saw my environment give a new translation to the words. I would pray, closing my palms around their own sweat and closing my eyes to shut out the city, the sun, and Lebanon. I would meditate, opening my hands to the heavens and staring out at the eternal expanse of the desert. I listened for His whisper of a voice in the sea of Nazareth noise. I prayed obediently, to a different Allah than everyone else praying at that time, when the call to prayer sounded for a second time. Despite my effort, the only progress was that of the wind, which slowly changed into a dust storm. No holy fire, no moving spirit. I was in the land of God, but he wasn’t there.

“I myself will search and find my sheep.
I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock.
I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places
where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day.”
- Ezekiel 34:11

            Three weeks passed. My head was filled with stories of conversions from Islam to Christianity; my heart was full of compassion and love for this unique Arab-yet-Israeli city; and my days had been filled with exhausting volunteer hours. Meanwhile, my spirit remained empty.
            On my last day volunteering in Israel, I expected it would include much of the same, being a bread-maker, a yarn-dyer, and a construction worker all in one day.           Despite my growing professionality in those areas, I was assigned to a new job, a new area that I had not yet experienced: the farm animals. The shepherd was called to his second job unexpectedly, and he had to leave at lunch.
             “Put one of the Canadians on the job and see how well they do!” Samir, our blue-eyed papa bear, offered. It was a joke, which unfortunately would be taken seriously by Jul, the shepherd.
            “You just have to put the sheep and the goats in the barn. It really is not that difficult. Just call ‘yalla, yalla’ and they will run to you.” Even while he demonstrated, some stray sheep collected at his feet, hearing his calling voice.
            “Have fun!” he said, running off.
            The village covered a few acres, so the task of rounding up a bunch of fluffy creatures didn’t seem overly difficult. The baby lambs could be carried to the barn, and all of the donkeys were on leashes so they could be pulled along against their own will.
            “Come on, sheeps! Yalla, yalla!” No clamouring of hooves, no stampede of white wool. Perhaps my Arabic wasn’t quite as good as I thought it had been.
            “YALLA!” I could have really used the help of that call to prayer speaker.
            No new sheep appeared. The five sheep that had responded to Jul’s call stood around me, staring doe-eyed into space like a bunch of mute philosophers, and were completely unfazed by my attempts to herd together their friends. “I’ll just put you guys away first, then,” I told the sheep, who spoke none of my languages. I took a few steps toward the barn, which stood crooked and brown about 100 feet away. It stared at me, as if knowing of my coming failure.
            Yalla, kharouf!” The Arabic still wasn’t working, so I tried English again. “Come on, sheep! Hurry up, sheep!” I grabbed a handful of leaves and waved it in front of their faces, making ridiculous clicking sounds with my mouth while trying to talk them into walking. The stubborn animals would not move. Their hooves were cemented to the earth through sheer gravity and determination, and they were not interested in following me to the barn.
            But if they wouldn’t follow me, then I would force them there. I planted myself behind one of the unmoving pillows and pushed, losing my fingers into the abyss of their wool. The sheep quickly responded, locking its knees and leaning backwards into me. “Oh, you stupid thing,” I told it. The fluffy factor was wearing off and these animals were very quickly losing their cute aspect. I tried and re-tried all of my techniques, but after 20 minutes the only thing I had to show for my efforts was a growing tidepool of sweat.
            “Lindsay!” I heard my voice being called from the bottom of the hill. “Lindsay! What are you doing?!”
            Jul, in his Jesus sandals, came running at me from the lunchroom. Turned out his other employer no longer needed him, and he had been watching my useless efforts of shepherding the entire time.
            “I’m trying to get your sheep together. It’s impossible!”
            Jul quickly showed me how it was done. His yallas echoed off the cliffs, his words hanging like Christmas lights in the air. The sheep came bounding, their little white heads bobbing above the grass with bahs in their throat. They came in numbers, 5 then 10 then 20, and congregated at Jul’s feet, patiently waiting for their next line of orders.
            Is this guy serious?
            The entire flock dutifully skipped behind Jul’s heels, as he led them to their home. He picked a baby lamb up from the river of white and placed the small ball of fluff into my arms. Finally, a job I was good at.

“Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you.
Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly.”
- 1 Peter 5:2

            I took one last visit to my roof that night, to drink in the lights of the city and the lights of the cloudless sky. Nazareth was tucked under its blanket of black, but noises from car horns and conversations snuck out. The chaos never slept.
            I went empty-handed to my palm-like roof, leaving my bible, my blanket, and my water behind. I went naked and bare, only going to say goodbye to the city that had nestled its way into my heart so easily. The barn stood a few hundred metres downhill, sitting tall and crooked in the darkness. The sheep were silent, and probably standing around absolutely clueless without their shepherd to direct them. The sheep. The sheep.
            That was what I was called to be. God could have called me to be something ferocious and dominant, like a bear or a lion. He could’ve at least flattered his followers by naming them after an intellectual, strategizing animal that had built-in weaponry, like fangs and claws. But he didn’t. God wanted me to be a sheep. He wants his people to be well trained in essentially only one thing: following His voice, and only his voice. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t feel him or couldn’t hear him, I had to trust that He was always there. Even if I didn’t have the emotion to go with it, I had to base my faith on that knowledge. The metaphorical lightbulbs quickly lent to smiling, as I laughed at my own sheep-like stupidity.
            Someone was on my roof that night. And it was Jesus.

“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will we do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away!” - Matthew 18:12


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