Saturday, October 30, 2010

Look out for the jackal, look out for the wolf

Pictures here.

Yesterday was a classic day in Syria. What could be better than an impulse trip to a holy city with two people you’ve never met before?

I woke up at 9:00 to go to the English-speaking congregation I attend here. This was trickier than it sounds, because the night before was Syria’s time change, and Syrians are even worse about time changes than Americans. I found out about it from an ex-pat at a coffee shop; his Syrian Muslim friend had no idea. As I tried to sleep in the next morning, the church bells were one hour ahead of me. As of this writing, they still haven’t been changed back. In short, I was convinced that I would show up an hour late to church. Thanks be to God, I didn’t.

My church is an international, interdenominational, English-speaking church that meets in the basement of a school in the New City. After the service, I met a British student named Peter who’s studying Arabic at Damascus University. We clicked almost immediately. (Afterward he bought a book at a coffee shop on my recommendation - The Life of Pi – “I know I only met you an hour ago, but I think you would like this book,” I said). After we had talked for a while, the pastor introduced us briefly to an Iraqi man whom I’ll call Tim.  We chatted for a few minutes, then made our way out.

Since we both live in the Old City, Peter and I decided to travel home together. We were walking down the street, trying to find the bus stop, when we ran into Tim again. He was going to Seidnayya for the afternoon. Would we like to come? We would! Microbus away!

According to the non-authoritative Lonely Planet guide, the Crusaders viewed Seidnayya as the holiest place in the Middle East next to Jerusalem. It is a small town in the mountains north of Damascus, and home to some twenty monasteries, though only eight or so are still active. Some of the monasteries predate the birth of Christ by hundreds of years. They were originally pagan temples; Emperor Constantine converted them into monasteries after he converted to Christianity. The biggest and most famous monastery is Our Lady of Seidnayya, which supposedly holds a painting that St. Luke made of the Virgin Mary. At this place, a Christian Roman emperor was out hunting, and was about to shoot the gazelle, when the Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him to build a monastery on the site. (“Seidnayya” is Arabic for “Gazelle Hunter.”)

The contrast between polluted Damascus and the breathtaking blue skies and clean streets in Seidnayya is amazing. The town clings to the side of the mountains like moss. There is a nary a flat street in the town, and any spot you pick offers a spectacular view of the valley below. Its several thousand residents are mostly Christian, but there is one very prominent mosque in the center of town. All in all, Peter, Tim and I visited four monasteries: St. George’s, Our Lady of Seidnayya, St. Thomas’, and the Cherubim Monastery. We also ate hamburgers with eggs.

St. George killed a dragon, and he’s very popular in the Middle East, though I’ve never gotten the full story. He’s also the patron saint of England; as Peter says, “We nicked him.” The monk we met there was very enthusiastic, and showed us a cave at the monastery that was significant for some reason – I think because they found one of St. George’s bones there, and it smelled like perfume. The monk gave us free incense and holy oil there, claiming it would heal us of any sickness if we believed. He instructed us sternly to burn the wrapper the oil came in after we were done, instead of throwing it away, because it was holy. (If you’re wondering, Tim was translating all this for us.) We saw a man there who had come to the cave hoping to be healed of his back problems.

Our Lady of Seidnayya is perched on the top of a rocky cliff, and designed like a European castle. (It’s been expanded and improved on since it was first built by the Romans.) St. Luke’s painting of Mary is kept deep inside the monastery, in a dark room inside a silver safe built into the wall, so I can’t judge the good doctor’s artistic ability. It was something, though, to see the throngs of pilgrims kissing the safe, including some hoping to be healed there by God’s mercy. Reportedly, Muslims (who honor Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus the messenger) also make pilgrimage to this monastery, though I didn’t knowingly see any there. The views from the wall of the monastery were spectacular. Tim told us that the monastery and convent at Our Lady’s provides rooms for many Iraqi refugees while they search for new homes in Syria.

St. Thomas’s monastery is three hundred years older than Jesus. It was a place of sacrifice for the Roman gods until the Romans adopted Christianity, and we could still see the sacrificial pits inside the church and in the caves around the church. Saint Thomas (the apostle) is said to have visited this monastery on his way to India, where he would be martyred for Jesus.

The Cherubim Monastery also predates Christ, and sits at the very top of the mountain, far above any other buildings. If it weren’t for the thunderstorm that crept up on us that day, we probably could have seen Damascus from the top. As it was, we could see all of Seidnayya, and the mountains beyond, and the plains beyond those mountains. There is currently a Russian-funded project to build a statue of Jesus at the monastery that will be tall enough to be seen from Lebanon. We saw the completed base of the statue there – it’s pretty big. The monastery welcomes visitors. I may go there to spend a night sometime.

At the Cherubim Monastery, a priest who spoke pretty good English was talking to Peter and I. Peter explained that he became a Christian only recently. The priest turned to me and said, “And you, have you repented?”

Repented? Repented of what?

Seeing my blank stare, the priest elaborated. “Have you repented? Are you born again?”

Ohh… “Yes, yes I have repented, thanks be to God.” It was a good reminder.

Throughout the day, Tim told us his story. It’s long and intense, and this is how I recall it.

Tim is from Baghdad. He grew up under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In school, he memorized 1,400 pages of American English words in font size 8, so his English is pretty good. (Also, compared to him, I fail at life.) In 1987, when he was attending university (and at the height of the brutal Iran-Iraq War), Saddam ordered that all the university students spend three weeks of their summer vacation in army training. Their supervisors were students from the military academy, whom Tim claims resented the civilian students, because only people who fail the tests to get into civilian university went to military school. Tim and his friends were allowed only three hours of sleep a day. If they didn’t finish their meals in the allotted time, their overseers would force them to vomit. (Tim told us this over some delicious hamburgers in Seidnayya, to explain why he ate his so fast.) Six students died during the training. One of Tim’s friends tried to run away, but when he got into the desert, he saw some wolves and jackals, and hid in the sand until morning, when he was found by the army trainers, and brutally punished. Saddam, Tim claims, hated all Iraqis, because “they f***ed his mother.” (He claims she was a prostitute. I hadn’t heard this before, but I know Saddam grew up poor).

Eventually, Tim became a chemical engineer. Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law (who would be murdered by Saddam in 1995) was in charge of Tim’s program.  Kamal treated the engineers brutally, and Tim was pushed to the psychological breaking point.  He decided to escape to Yemen.

After Saddam fell, Tim tried to return to Iraq. He spent fifty days in northern Iraq – forty with his family, ten in jail. The Kurdish militias came to his hotel, arrested him, accused him of being from Yemen (after living there for fourteen years, he had picked up the Yemeni accent) and of forging his Iraqi citizenship papers, and beat him so badly he couldn’t move his right side for a week. After that, he decided he wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Iraq, so he moved to Syria.

He spent a few months as a novice in two of the monasteries in Seidnayya. Now he works as a chemical engineer in a factory in Damascus. He says he loves living in Damascus. But he wants to go to America. All he wants, he says, is a “calm life."

Iraqis have a saying, he told me. “Look out for the jackal, look out for the wolf.” It describes a life that is never calm or restful. There is always danger to look out for. He is sick of living like this, he says. He just wants to rest, to be calm.

In Seidnayya, we visited a 105-year-old woman that Tim had lived with for a time after he came to Syria. (For perspective on how old that is, she was born under the Ottoman Empire, was ten when World War I devastated the Middle East, forty when the Syrians kicked out the French occupiers and gained independence, and sixty-five years old when President Hafiz Assad came to power in Syria in 1970.) She hobbled down the cement stairs in her home to greet us. She was impossibly short, impossibly wrinkled, and had an impossible warmth and strength about her. She asked Tim to bring her a candle, so that should could pray for the war in Iraq to end.

“Is Iraq getting better?” I ask Tim.

“No. Iraq is gone forever.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “We did not know what we were doing.”

He smiles gracefully and changes the subject.

Monday, October 4, 2010

What Learning Arabic Is Like

Learning Arabic is like playing football. I am not naturally cut out for either. When you make a pass, take a shot, or construct a sentence in a conversation, there is no time to reflect. You have to be aware of multiple things at once, and remember multiple things at once. Is this in the right tense? Is it conjugated towards the right person? Am I pronouncing all the letters correctly? Do I need a direct object suffix or an indirect object suffix?

All of that is for one word, the sentence’s verb. When I come to the noun, if it’s plural, there three different ways to say it, depending on if it’s a pair, a set of 3-10 objects, or more than 10 objects. Did I mention that the regular plural forms are almost never used? Almost every noun has a unique plural form. Also, make sure you pick the right prefix for the preposition you have in mind. These prepositions do not line up with English prepositions. When the noun’s done, onto the adjective. Make sure you match the gender and number of the adjective to the gender and adjective of the noun.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim is quickly losing interest in what I’m trying to tell him. “Use English!” he says.

The ball comes towards me. Should I head it, or try to move back for a kick? Who should I pass it to? Do I have time to stop the ball on the ground and aim, or do I just have to pound it? Oh crap, I might not get to it in time. It’s going out! Wait – who touched the ball last? Maybe it’ll be out on the other side? Get out of the way! Too late.

But when you get it right – in football or in Arabic – there’s nothing sweeter. I get a big smile, and a “Bravo, Joel!” from the priest or the students.

And if you’re wondering – yes, they make me play football. Twice a week. It’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll take them to get sick of my fecklessness.

Learning Arabic is like listening to a really crappy radio. Most of the time, all I hear is static. Every once in a while, a word I know pops up, and I get excited. But by the time I’ve translated it in my head, Brother Sarkiz has moved on to something completely different.

On especially staticky days, I catch maybe every 10th word. On clear days, I catch every 2nd word. On brilliant blue-sky days, I can occasionally catch an entire conversation, then wow my students by interjecting a comment. I wonder how much they think I understand. That kind of ambiguity could be useful…

Learning Arabic is like being in second grade again. When reading, you take it letter by letter, until you remember that you already had this word five times in class today. “Kh…kha…kharo…wait a second, I know this word! Kharouf! Sheep!”

Favorite phrases so far:
“Qatar il-mot”: Literally, “train of death.” It means roller coaster.
“3ala 3ayni”: Literally, “on my eyes.” It means, “You’re welcome.” (The 3 stands for a letter not found in English. To pronounce it, trying saying “Ah” like you’re being strangled.)
“Hammam”: Bathroom.
“Hamam”: Pigeon. (Be careful there.)
“Ya Lateef!”: “Oh, kind one!” (meaning, God).

Four words that sound exactly the same to my Western ears: Flip-flops (shahata), martyrs (shuhada), the Muslim declaration of faith (shahada), university degree (shahada).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tomatoes and Free Time

My boys are here.  The other day, I was eating lunch with all twenty-three of them in the dining hall.  I think I mentioned before that I'm not yet comfortable with Syrian culture?  Well.  One of the boys asks me, "Beddak bendora?" Do you want a tomato?  Yes, I would.  But I don't have a knife to cut it with.  Before I can expalin this, he hands me one, and takes one for himself, and bites into it like an apple.  When in Rome, I think to myself, and start to eat my tomato the same way.

Father Mayas walks along the table monitoring el-shebaab (the young men.) He takes one look at me, throws me a knife and says, "Joel, don't eat like you're from Saudi Arabia."

That's all for now.  I am insanely busy this week and next week, and it's hard to make it to an internet cafe.  If you've sent me an e-mail, I really appreciate it, and will respond when I get the chance.  Just not now.  Sorry about the inconvenience.

Grace and peace,

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


This is how things sometimes go in Syria.

I am eating lunch with the priest in charge of the seminary, and three of the boys who attend it, Jan, Jon and Issa. Jan says something in Arabic to the priest. The priest (who speaks halfway-decent English) turns to me and says, “Jan wants to know if you want to go to Jedaydah with him.” All I know about Jedaydah is that it’s the hometown of Jan, Jon and Issa, it’s a suburb of Damascus, and its name is pretty similar to one of the multitude of Syrian Arabic words for “good.” (MniiH, helwa, kwayyis, tayyib…)

“Of course,” I say. “Tomorrow?”

“No,” the priest says. “Today.”

“Today? What time?”

“2:00,” he says.

I have four worksheets and three new verb forms to memorize for Arabic tonight. “Uh…OK!” I say. Hey, I’m in Syria, not college.

I rush to my room, throw some things in my bag, and walk to the bus station with the boys. The big green city bus takes us a short ways, but we catch a microbus to make the rest of the journey to Jedaydah.

What are microbuses?  Glorified 12-passenger vans. They’re basically the cheapest form of transportation in the Middle East. (Camels have to be fed. [Just kidding. I haven’t seen any camels here - and unlike Cairo, no donkeys or horses.]) They seem to go everywhere, and they’ll usually pull over for you if you signal them from the side of the road. Twenty cents lets you on board, and you can get off wherever you want, just by yelling at the driver to stop. In Egypt, drivers use hand signals to tell potential passengers their destinations. (The “surf’s up” hand wave means “Giza.”) In Damascus, some bright person thought to write their destination on a piece of cardboard and stick it in the window, and the idea caught on.  I appreciate that.

One last factoid: I have yet to find a microbus in the Middle East with enough space between the seats for my legs.

Anyway, Jedaydah. The town is on the other side of the mountain range the runs alongside Damascus, which makes for a pretty scenic drive. Jedaydah is squarely in the desert, which I love. There’s something about that vast sandy expanse that fills me with awe every time. The town itself is a lot like Damascus, but perhaps a little more rundown.

The reason my students wanted me to go with them on that particular day was that it was Eid es-Saliib, the Feast of the Cross. I’m not sure exactly what the feast commemorates, but it involves the Emperor Constantine discovering the location of the One True Cross, and something about fire on a mountain. Appropriately, the Christian residents of Jedaydah (a good percentage of the town, apparently), celebrate with huge bonfires and lots of fireworks. Issa set off a couple that briefly deafened me, but his grandmothers didn’t seem to mind. They laughed hysterically and lit a few themselves.

I had an afternoon meal with Jan, his brothers and his parents. None of them spoke English very well, but we had some conversation. At the start of the meal, I was handed a cup of tea, a thin circle of bread, and presented with eight bowls filled with different, unfamiliar foods. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go from here. This, I gathered, was wildly funny, and “just like Steven” (the American student who had this job before me.) At the end of the meal, Jan’s mother spread an unknown substance on another pocket of pita bread, rolled it up, and handed it to me. Not knowing quite what to expect, I bit into it, and tasted maybe the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted. It was a delightful shock. Of course, I couldn’t remember the Arabic word for sweet at the time (helu!) so they probably thought I was chocking at first.

Afterwards, Issa took me to a Greek Catholic (Melkite) mass. It was all in Arabic, and I only understood a few words. (“God,” “evil,” “amen.”) It was very ceremonial and very liturgical, and the priest walked around the sanctuary several times shaking a bowl of sweet incense. I asked Issa (who speaks more English than any of the boys I’ve met) to make sure I was doing everything right. He showed me the proper way to cross myself, and how to light a votive candle.

After church, I went to Issa’s grandmother’s house, and met most of his extended family. The house is at the edge of town, where the desert begins in earnest, and I was able to see the stars for the first time in two weeks. We had a delicious meal of chicken and potatoes grilled over a desert fire, followed by an extensive round of hookah (“argille,” or “hubble bubble pipe” here). Even Issa’s aunt joined in. Issa – sixteen years old - drank a glass of arak, a strong spirit, with his meal. He’s a big kid, but I was still a little surprised that his elders didn’t mind. To the contrary – they insisted that I try it. It tastes like black licorice.

The arak and argille were followed by an acapella Arabic song-and-dance session. Issa’s cousin Katrina drummed on a plastic chair, and Issa sang in deep, nasal baritone. I was forced into the dancing part. Syrians have a cruel sense of humor. Issa’s nine-year-old brother Ilyon took it upon himself to teach me Arabic. (I learned the words for “foot,” “fire,” and “firecracker.”)

I slept at Issa’s house (after watching Gone in 60 Seconds with Arabic subtitles), and took a microbus back to Damascus with him early in the morning to catch my Arabic class.

All in all, it was a wonderful night, and one you probably can’t find out about in a Lonely Planet guide. I feel like I was able to transcend the tourist effect and see how Syrians actually live and celebrate with each other. Once you go off the beaten path a little, it’s pretty easy. The people here are incredibly hospitable, even to people who can’t speak their language.

Other highlights from this week in Syria:

Going rock-climbing for the first time at a mountain near the border with Lebanon with my new friends Ben and Jordan.

Starting a new Syrian Colloquial Arabic class. Four hours a day, plus homework. Oof.

Trying to explain “emo” to a Syrian Catholic priest. Apparently, it’s catching on here. Thanks, Fallout Boy.

Listening to, and finally “getting” Sufjan Stevens’ new EP. It’s terrific.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ana fil Damascus!

Hello, friends and family. Today is my fourth day in Damascus. I am still adjusting to life here, still trying to figure out exactly how the city works, but I am doing quite well. I arrived here after spending five blessed days with my old roommate Brian Cassels in Cairo, Egypt. Photos of that week and of my first few days in Damascus are up on Picasa.

Last night, I went to meet an American friend who lives with his wife and little boy in the Old City. Since it had been three days since I had talked fluent English in person with anyone, I was eager to spend some time with them. We met at the Roman Arch, a two-story arch that juts into the Street called Straight (the street the Apostle Paul stayed on during his period of Christ-induced blindness). The Arch must have been much taller when it was originally built, but thousands of years of dust, construction and destruction have left the original Old City, and much of the Arch, below the ground. The Street called Straight is one of the widest streets in the Old City, which is to say, it is wide enough to allow for one-way traffic and some parking on the curb.

My friend greets me in beautiful American-English, and we exit the expansive street into the dark, winding alleyways of the Old City. We are surrounded on all sides by two and three-story apartment buildings that seem to flow into each other like a giant organism; we cannot see more than a hundred feet in any direction. After a few minutes’ walk, my friend stops at a random metal door in a wall, and says, “Here we are.”

His second-story flat is very nice, but the architecture of it all bewilders me. He shares an oddly-placed veranda with his oddly-placed neighbor, whose flat seems to form an L (or some Arabic letter) around my friend’s flat. There is a hookah shop just below my friend’s flat, recently converted from a café. His wife worries that the second-hand smoke from the shop will flow into their young son’s room. They briefly discuss enlisting some of the neighbors to jury-rig a new chimney for the shop.

The night before, I had tried to explain to my Syrian Christian friend George why there are no buses where I live. This is why: in West Des Moines, everyone has a house, everyone has a car. In the Old City (and, I suspect, most of Damascus), people literally live on top of each other, or above and to the right of each other, or diagonally, or any other combination possible in three dimensions. I suspect there’s very little room for garages.

“Want to see the roof?” he says to me. Of course I do. We walk through his bedroom, onto a seemingly-purposeless annex that connects to his neighbor’s living room, walk through a ramshackle door onto the lower roof, and then shimmy up his neighbor’s wall onto the higher roof. (Confused yet?) From there, we can see the whole Old City, and much much more.

“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, both now and forever more,” the Psalmist wrote. If God had chosen Syria as the Promised Land, the Psalmist might have said the same thing about Damascus. From my friend’s roof, Mount Qassion seems surreally close, and thousands of multi-colored lights from the slums built into the mountain’s side light it up like a Christmas tree.

To the southwest of Mount Qassion, my friend tells me, we could see the mountains of the Syrian Heights if it were daytime. (The Syrian Heights have been occupied by Israel ever since the 1967 war. Israel and Syria are still technically in a state of war today.) Below Mount Qassion is Melki, where the President lives. To the northwest, my friend points out two isolated clumps of light. Right in between those clumps, he tells me, is Maluula, one of the three villages left in the world where people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

From the roof, we search for the moon, but don’t find it. Our search is pertinent to the entire Muslim world, including the non-Muslims who live in it. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and this is the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. If a full moon (or a new moon – we’re not sure) appears tonight, Ramadan will be over, and tomorrow will mark the beginning of the Eid al-Fitr, a weeklong celebration of feasting and prayer. But in any case, the official moon sighting, and the final decision, has to be made in Saudi Arabia.

As it turns out, the feast won’t start until September 10 – tomorrow, as I write this. The feast also means that the boys I will be tutoring will not arrive at the seminary until the 19th. I’m trying to use this time to prepare as best I can – learn how to get around Damascus, study Arabic, learn how to work the laundry machine, study Arabic, buy a cell phone, enroll in an Arabic class, study Arabic. I am living with Christians in a Christian part of town, but I hope to experience some of the Feast. Damascus is not nearly as chaotic as Cairo, but it should still be interesting.

There’s more to say, but I think this is enough for one post. I would appreciate your prayers during this time as I try to get used to living in this completely foreign city, amongst people who do not speak my language. I am very excited to be here, and getting more excited as I learn more about this place, but there is definitely an adjustment process to go through.

I hope this post finds you all well. If you know about this blog, there’s a good chance that I love you dearly and wish you could be here with me. Go with peace, my friends.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Tomorrow, I leave for Cairo, and eventually Syria. As is my tradition, that means I'm up all night tonight packing.

In my defense, I started packing at 9 AM this morning. But between family meals, last-minute shopping trips, and taking a break to watch iCarly with the younger siblings, the day went fast.

My main problem: I have too much stuff.

I'm hoping to get away with taking only one big suitcase, a duffel bag, and a backpack. I know I can. I'm not moving to the Congo; if it turns out I forgot something I can't live without, I can buy it in Cairo or Damascus. But it's not so easy to convince myself of that while I pack. Part of feeling secure or comfortable is having your stuff close-by. When packing for nine months away from home, it's difficult to distinguish between the things I really need, and the things that merely make me comfortable.

It's been a great summer in America. Many of my good friends got married, and I was fortunate enough to be at two of those weddings. I went to Yellowstone National Park with my family. I got a wonderful visit from my old Egypt-roomie Adam. I had a good job, read some really good books. I got to live at home and have some great times with my parents and younger siblings. There are things I didn't get around to - mostly the post-college writing I had planned on doing - but there's no use thinking about that now.

Wheels up at 1:40 PM. Am I ready for this? God only knows.

PS: Even if we're one or two continents apart, I would love to hear from you guys. I'm not on Facebook this year, but please e-mail me or Skype me. You'd make my day.

Go with the Lord.

- Joel

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Since it’s the latest “national controversy”…

...I guess I may as well jump in.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”:

1. Is over two long city blocks from Ground Zero (six normal-sized city blocks),
2. Is farther away from Ground Zero than the New York Dolls Gentleman’s club, and another already-existing mosque,
3. Is not and will not be visible from Ground Zero,
4. Is not a mosque, but a Muslim cultural center containing a mosque, and also a library, a culinary school, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a restaurant, and a performance theater. It is all open to the public,
5. Is headed by a man who the Bush administration sent to the Middle East TWICE to represent American Islam to the Middle East, and who delivered the eulogy at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, an American-Jewish reporter who was murdered by the Taliban in 2002. In that eulogy, he said, “We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul…hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one…If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one...”
6. Is being built on private land, by a private organization, and is thus completely protected from government intervention (which raises the question of why the Republican Party has made it an unofficial centerpiece of their November campaign),
7. Contains a memorial to the victims of 9/11, among whom were many American Muslims.

So why are we still talking about this?

Two final thoughts:

1. Has the Republican Party officially decided that scared white people are the ticket to future election victories?
2. The anti-Mosque Movement is sure giving plenty of ammunition to communist propagandists who talk about the upper classes distracting the masses from the power of capital with fake scandals.

Hat tip: Alvin Shim, Micah Schuurman, Andrew Knapp.

Further reading:
'Ground Zero' Imam: 'I Am a Jew, I Have Always Been One'
Fact-checking the 'Ground Zero mosque' debate
How the "ground zero mosque" fear mongering began
9/11 Memorial Pledged as Part of Mosque Plan

Thursday, August 5, 2010

J.R.R. Tolkien on World War II

The real war [World War II] does not resemble the legendary war [the War of the Ring] in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dur would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, in his Foreword to Lord of the Rings.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tales from the Great Recession

One of my newest co-workers was recently laid off from one of America's biggest banks. He's my age, gradauted with a two-year degree in 2008, and went straight to work for this bank's foreclosure department. Needless to say, things were about to get busy.

According to my new co-worker, this is how one of his foreclosure calls went:

My New Co-Worker: Hello, sir? I'm with _____ and we're calling about your failure to make mortgage payments on your house.
Borrower: Oh, yeah, that house. I had it cut up into three pieces and shipped to Mexico.
My New Co-Worker: Really? Wow. Well, you still have to pay for it, you know.
Borrower: You'll have to find me!

I don't know whether to cheer or cry.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Possibly the Greatest Thing Ever

Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

- Jeremiah 31:13

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I Saw Inception Last Night...

...and then decided to shamelessly appropriate a long Facebook post I wrote on my friend Alvin's wall about it as a movie review here.


Hoo-kay...saw Inception last night. Concept was pretty great. I love the opening scene a lot now. Still haven't figured out how they connect into each other's brains by hooking up their wrists to some machine, but whatevs. It wasn't nearly as mind-blowing as everyone made it out to be. I expected to come out of the theater with my mind reeling, and to stay up all night trying to figure it out. But I never didn't know what was going on. (Not to brag). You had to work to follow it, but it wasn't that hard. It was like Memento in that way. I did not notice the smarmy lines you referred to. (By the way, ever wonder if what we consider "smarmy" is just how non-English majors talk in real life? They say people in everyday situations "script" what they say partly based on what they see on TV and the movies, so maybe it's a feedback cycle...) Anyway. Your mom is right that it was too loud. I thought the idea of getting trapped in a dream for decades was absolutely terrifying, and they executed it really well. Their whole mission was weird though - were they being the good guys by breaking up a world energy monopoly (snort) through, essentially, emotion-rape? Or was Leo just doing what he had to do to get home to his kids, and screw the morality of it all? Finally, I did not think any of the characters were vapid, but I didn't have very high expectations for character depth going on. And I thought the special effects were as good as were needed. It wasn't Avatar, but then, it didn't need to be.

Yes, I liked this movie, very much.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I Know It’s Cliché to Complain About Arizona…

…but their new immigration law is starting to hit close to home.

On June 8, I voted for Terry Branstad in the Iowa GOP’s governor’s primary. His leading opponent was Bob Vander Plaats, a native of my homeland, Northwest Iowa, who actually went to high school with my dad. I’m sure Mr. Vander Plaats is a decent man, and almost anyone would be better than our current governor. I voted for Branstad for two reasons: 1) he was governor for sixteen years a long time ago, and did a lot of good, and what we need now more than ever is a little competency, and 2) he’s a moderate like me. He opposes gay marriage, but unlike Vander Plaats, he’s not willing to provoke a state constitutional crisis by ordering state agencies to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses. And, significantly to me, Bob Vander Plaats supported Arizona’s new hard-line immigration law, while Branstad said he would not like to see it in Iowa.

So imagine my disappointment when Terry Branstad declared on Wednesday, “When people are stopped for a criminal violation or traffic violation, if they cannot show they are here legally, they ought to be detained and turned over to the federal government for deportation.”

Essentially, that is what the Arizona law does: when state police officers make a “lawful stop” and “reasonably suspect” that the person they have stopped is in the country illegally, they are required to demand proof of legal residence. If no proof can be produced, they are required to arrest them.

Immigrants are already required to have their green card with them at all times. But American citizens have never been required to carry proof of citizenship around with them. The very suggestion evokes thoughts of Nazi Germany and South Africa. But that’s what the Arizona law amounts to. It’s all well and good to say, “You don’t have to carry papers around if you’re a citizen – only if you’re an immigrant.” But if you can be arrested for not being able to prove that you’re a citizen, what difference does it make?*

If Arizonans were actually afraid of being arrested for forgetting their driver’s licenses or birth certificates at home, this law never would have passed. But ah! Here’s the catch. The police officer must have a “reasonable suspicion” that you’re an illegal before asking for proof.
What amounts to a reasonable suspicion?

According to a training video produced by the Arizona Police Department, police are forbidden to profile by race, but can use the following indicators as a basis for “reasonable suspicion”:

• A suspect speaking English poorly.
• A suspect dressing like they’ve just crossed the desert (layers, apparently).
• A suspect being in an area where illegals are known to congregate to look for work.
• A suspect running from police.
• A suspect traveling in an overcrowded vehicle.

Uber-helpful, huh?

These guidelines notwithstanding, what cop would ever suspect a white person in an overcrowded van of being in the country illegally? That’s simply not, well, reasonable.

Thus, the only American citizens who need to worry about forgetting their papers are Latino-Americans.

Please don’t take this as an attack on the integrity of Arizona’s law enforcement personnel. Arizona police groups vigorously opposed this law, and for good reason: it gives them a mandate that’s nearly impossible to enforce. Question and detain people you suspect of being in the country illegally. Do not use race as a factor. By the way, there’s about 460,000 of them, and they’re almost all of the same race. Good luck!

Ah, the complexities that arise when a government ostensibly committed to human rights decides to try to deport 7% of its population:

The law's various requirements have baffled many lawyers, and the training materials show that even the state government is not certain what some provisions require.

For example, the law requires that all people arrested be held until the federal government verifies their immigration status. But the video says it's unclear whether this applies to arrests for any offense or just those involving possible illegal immigrants.

Additionally, the law allows any legal resident of Arizona to sue if a local agency has a "policy" against enforcing federal immigration laws, but the video warns that no one knows what that means.

(Remember that whole competency thing I was talking about at the beginning?)

So, in sum, the Arizona law:
• Is hopelessly vague,
• Effectively, if not on paper, imposes a paper-carrying requirement for a particular ethnic group in Arizona,
• And deprives 460,000 Arizona residents of a secure relationship with the state police force.

Keep in mind that the ethnic group on the business end of this law will make up 29% of the population by 2050. Are we trying to commit societal suicide?

I know that illegal immigrants broke the law of this land. I understand why some want to hold them accountable for that. But we must remember that for decades, our immigration laws were barely enforced, while our corporations, businesses and farms practically begged low-wage Latin American workers to come over. They are here because of our demand for their labor, not to take advantage of our social programs, kill our children or raid our wine cellars. Now they number twelve million – workers, families, communities. We can’t simply ship twelve million people away. That would be one of the biggest forced population movements in history. How would we justify it? By saying, “That’s the law”?

Sooner or later, we need to figure out how to integrate them into our society as fully equal participants. Our national leadership has been ignoring this need for decades. Hopefully, they will get their act together in the next few years. Hopefully, the passage of the Arizona law will convince them to.

But in the meantime, we need to figure out how to live in peace with our illegal neighbors. And we need to call on our state governments to treat them like the invaluable part of our society that they are.

So, back to Iowa.

Terry Branstad has clearly decided, along with most of the Republican Party leadership, that the image of the derelict, pious, haughty Obama administration suing poor, embattled Arizona over this law is too good not to take advantage of. I must say, I’m disappointed.

Should I vote for him again? His opponent’s reply wasn’t exactly inspiring:

"I think the point here is that Terry Branstad is out of touch. He's going to suggest that the local Iowa property taxpayers pick up the tab, which we're not going to do, which would only result in a property-tax increase."

Appeal to the pocketbook. Classic.

The case for democracy is getting weaker every day.

*Does a driver’s license count? There are five states where illegal aliens are allowed to have driver’s licenses: Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. Elsewhere, a driver’s license would presumably qualify as proof of legal residence. And of course, you should never drive without a license. But people still do walk places, you know.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Abortion Conundrum

The abortion issue jumped back into Iowa politics last week when the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, tried, and failed, to articulate a consistent prolife position on the issue.

Asked by the Carroll Daily Times-Herald what penalties she, as a self-identified pro-lifer, would impose for abortionists and women who have abortions, she replied, “Well, I think it would be equivalent to murder. I would want to research that before I would lay specifically out what the penalties would be.”

Reynolds went on to say,

• Abortion (a procedure that usually involves stabbing, cutting up or burning a fetus to death) is NOT equivalent to stabbing an adult to death.

• The punishment for abortion should fit the crime.

• “I would want to take a look at that and make sure that I completely walked through that before I would say anything right now.”

Anyone else confused yet?

Don’t blame Reynolds. Neither side in the American abortion debate has been able to articulate a consistent position on the matter.

The pro-life position rests on the status of a human fetus as a person, which, by extension, does make the act of abortion equivalent to murder. If abortion is not murder, it is merely distasteful and perhaps damaging to a country’s demographics, but in a liberal* society, neither of those problems is grounds for criminalization.

But if fetuses are persons, if abortion is murder, then over one-fourth of human beings worldwide are victims of murder before they are born. Abortion would rank as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world, abortion-on-demand would surpass slavery as America’s greatest societal crime, and stopping abortion immediately should be the highest priority of pro-life politicians. Because the practice is so widespread, we would at a minimum need a new Department of Preborn Rights to enforce an abortion ban. Huge funds should be dedicated to saving human beings from death by miscarriage. And if conception is marked as the beginning of personhood, then discarding frozen embryos should also be considered murder, and efforts should be made to rescue embryos that fail to attach to the uterine wall.

When was the last time you saw someone running on that platform?

Even if someone did run on that platform, they could never succeed in implementing it permanently. The pro-life movement, ultimately, has no political constituency, because unlike other oppressed groups, the potential victims of abortion can never be integrated into our political system. They are permanently voiceless. They can never be liberated or empowered. By the time they are old enough to speak (or even think, or be aware) for themselves, they have exited the oppressed group. If the oppression were ever ended, there would be no positive consequences for anyone else, only increased misery, as millions mothers who didn’t want to be mothers were forced to carry their babies to term. The only benefit would be the abstract sense of satisfaction that babies were no longer being killed. And society can fulfill its need for moral self-respect far more easily by convincing itself that respect for abortion rights demonstrates tolerance, rather than genocidal neglect. The utilitarian ethic provides absolutely no reason to ban abortion. The only possible rationales for protecting unconscious human beings that do not truly experience pain or happiness would have to come from a transcendent moral law that places human life above all other needs and values. Good luck getting everyone to agree on that.

The pro-choice position (and current U.S. law) on the other hand, holds that human beings assume all the rights of personhood at the moment of complete birth – a moment that, while emotionally significant for families and society, marks nothing more than the movement of a young human being from inside its mother to the outside world. Mentally and physically, nothing significant distinguishes a newborn baby from a fetus. Moreover, current U.S. law regards a human born at seven months a person, while a human still inside the womb at eight months is regarded as a part of the woman’s body. A consistent pro-choicer would regard human beings as full persons only at a later date of development (speech?) (adulthood?) and would have to argue for the right to infanticide. A few pro-choicers, such as the ethicist Peter Singer, have actually gone this far. The vast majority of pro-choicers, being properly socialized, somewhat decent human beings (like their pro-life opponents), would recoil at that proposal.

So I think it’s fairly clear that the standard parameters of American liberal* thought leave us in a quandary on this issue. There is no (tenable) way to be consistently just. To resolve this quandary, we will need to leave those parameters, and start again with the first questions: 1) what does God require of us as individuals, and 2) what does God require of the state?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. We’re supposed to love and care for all human beings, for the sake of our Lord, who loves them as well, and whose image they bear. If I believe anything about politics these days, it’s that the government should as well. But does that necessarily entail the liberal* quasi-legalism of rights, that demands that all persons be treated exactly the same, and that their deaths be avenged with equal ferocity?

That might sound like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. I have no answer right now.

Curse these ambiguities.


*Classical liberalism, not contemporary. Individualism, capitalism, and limited popular government. Think John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's Worse than We Thought

So it's been pretty obvious for a while that Hugo Chavez is a power-hungry megalomaniac who's working steadily to install himself as Venezuela's Dear-Leader-For-Life. Unfortunately, it now appears that, in addition to all of those things, he is also shatbit crazy.

Today, without warning, Chavez unearthed the remains of Simon Bolivar, "the Liberator," who helped to liberate almost all of South America from Spanish rule in the 18th century. Why? So Chavez can prove that Bolivar did not die of tuberculosis, as the historical consensus holds, but that he was murdered.

Now, I'm no coroner, but after TWO CENTURIES in the grave, what possible proof of murder could be left (other than, say, a split skull)?

I'll let His Excellency's tweets (yes, tweets) from the exhuming ceremony do the rest of the explaining:

"Viva Bolivar. It's not a skeleton. It's the Great Bolivar, who has returned."

"Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air ... You awake every hundred years when the people awaken. I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance."

"That glorious skeleton has to be Bolivar, because his flame can be felt. My God, Bolivar lives... We are his flame!"

"Chavez said he has at times doubted that the entombed remains are those of Bolivar, but that as he gazed at the eye sockets in the skull, he asked: 'Father, is it you?' And, Chavez said, 'My heart told me, "It's me."'"

To recap: Chavez asked Bolivar's skeleton if it was really Bolivar's skeleton, and CHAVEZ' HEART replied, "It's me." [!]

Caracas, we have a problem.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Plan

Yesterday, my visa came in the mail. My plans are now as official as they get.  God willing, on August 31, I will fly to Cairo, Egypt, the Mother of the World.

I'll spend six days there hanging out with my friend Brian, meeting old friends, and exploring parts of the city I didn't see during my semester there two years ago.

After that, I will fly from Cairo to Damascus, Syria, where I will spend nine months at the Kinesat al-Zeitoon (Olive Church) in the Old City, living with Syrian teenagers, taking Arabic classes during the day and tutoring the students in English in the afternoon.  My goals are pretty simple: 1) See most of what there is to see of Syria - Palmyra (ancient Roman city), Lattakia (on the Mediterranean), and Malulu (where they still speak Aramaic), for starters, 2) become conversational (at the very least) in Syrian Colloquial Arabic (a dialect spoken in most of Syria, Jordan and Palestine), 3) make some lasting friendships with Syrians, 4) keep writing on this blog throughout.

After May 2011, the plan gets murkier.  But for now, that's okay.  I feel blessed beyond belief to have this opportunity, and I plan to make the most of it.  To what end, I have no idea.

Before I leave, I need to finish going through my copy of Syrian Colloquial Arabic (Level 1).  Encouragement, please! (iza betriidon!)

Now, some photos of Damascus, interspersed with some  fast facts about Syria:

  • Since the U.S. dominates the aerospace industry, U.S. sanctions on Syria have forced the Syrian government to ground most of the country's civilian air fleet, along with the president's personal jet.

  • Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, inherited the presidency from his father, Hafiz al-Assad, in 2000.  Assad the elder took over Syria in a military coup in 1970.  Bashar was an ophtamologist in London until his older brother, the heir apparent, was killed in a car crash in 1994. 

  • Damascus, the capital, is claimed by its residents to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city on earth.

  • Over one million Iraqi refugees live in Syria.

  • Syria, along with Iran, is a key sponsor of the Shiite Islamic Lebanese politicaly party/militant group Hezbollah (The Party of God).  Hezbollah was formed to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.  Since Israel's occupation of Lebanon ended in 2000, Hezbollah justifies its continued attacks on Israel by claiming that the Shebaa Farms, an area of the Golan/Syrian Heights, Syrian land still occupied by Israel, is really a part of Lebanon, not Syria or Israel. (Got all that?) Paradoxically, Syria supports this claim.  The Shebaa farms are 5.5 miles wide and 1.5 miles long.  In other words, one could run all the way around them in a half-marathon.  Over 1,000 people died in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.

  • According to the U.S. government's Overseas Security Advisory Council, "Unlike many other capital cities around the world, Damascus enjoys a low crime rate. This is probably due to the pervasive police presence around the city, as well as traditional Syrian culture." Nice! (The traditional culture and low crime rate part, I mean.)

  • However, the State Department's travel website warns, "While most Syrians appear genuinely friendly towards foreigners, underlying tensions can lead to a quick escalation in the potential for violence. In a few recent examples: an American reported being verbally harassed and told 'you Americans are not welcome here' after he avoided stepping on an Israeli flag that had been placed on the ground in a shopping area." 

  • The State Department's website also advises Red Sox fans not to wear fan apparel on visits to the Bronx.

  • The last time I went to Damascus was only a few days after U.S. forces attacked a Syrian village on the border with Iraq, killing eight people.  Anonymous U.S. officials claimed the strike was aimed at an Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorist cell.  Things were a little awkward on my visit, to say the least.  However, as the State Department helpfully notes, everyone I met there appeared genuinely friendly. (My guess is, it's because they are genuinely friendly.  But as everyone knows, Arabs are oh-so-crafty.)

That's all for now.  Tomorrow I return to my job calling businesses to verify employment for loan applicants.  I've read eight books so far this summer, and I hope to post some book reviews here soon.  I'm currently reading Living in the End Times by Slavoj Zizek.  So far, it's wildly entertaining but not very accessible (to me).  For the uninitiated, Zizek is a populizer of neo-Marxism.  If that upsets you, blame the initiated (you know who you are.)

Enjoy the summer, everyone! 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Signs Something May Be Seriously Wrong With Your Political-Economic System

The AP:

"According to the Labor Department, three out of four farm workers were born abroad, and more than half are illegal immigrants."


So the federal government is officially trying to deport over half of America's farm workers.

Even if that were moral, or physically possible, it would make zero economic sense. These illegal immigrants want to work, farms want their labor, and Americans (it can be safely assumed) want to eat. A pathway to citizenship for these workers and their families is in everyone's interest.

But our politicians can score points by taking tough stands against illegal immigration and "amnesty." So the majority of farm workers America remain underground, without legal protections or day-to-day security. Every now and then, federal agents descend on some rural town, deport all the illegals they find, issue an overblown press release, and leave the community to pick up the pieces. The economy continues to benefit from illegal labor, right-wing politicians continue to use illegal labor to rally their base, the federal government is allowed to maintain the pretense of a "rule of law," and illegal workers continue to live in fear. Predictably, everyone benefits except for the disenfranchised.

But hey! What the American people want, the American people get.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why Helen Thomas Was Wrong

On June 3rd, three days after the flotilla attack, veteran Arab-American White House reporter Helen Thomas was approached by a rabbi with a camera at Washington DC’s Jewish Heritage Celebration. “Any comments on Israel?” he asked her.

She replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When the rabbi asked, “Where should they go?” she replied, “Go home! Poland, Germany, and America, and everywhere else.”

Four days later, Thomas resigned over the outrage her remarks elicited. Four days after that, this letter appeared in my hometown newspaper, The Des Moines Register:

Helen Thomas spoke up like more Americans need to do. This whole fiasco started back in 1947 when the United States supplied Israel with the war materiel to drive the Palestinians out of what is called the Jewish state.

What the United States did was continue to inflame the discourse that had been going on for centuries.

Thomas is a true American, just a shame there isn't more Americans like her.

- Clarence Swartz, Orient
A letter to the editor is just a letter to the editor, but I think this letter represents some feelings and beliefs that shouldn’t go unaddressed.

First, let’s look at Clarence’s claim that “the United States supplied Israel with the war materiel to drive the Palestinians out of what is called the Jewish state” in 1947.

This is simply false. The United States did not supply Israel with any “war materiel” until 1964, when we gave them a handful of F-4 fighters. Before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israel ranked twenty-fourth among nations receiving aid from the United States. Today, it is the largest recipient. (See Aaron David Miller, The Much-Too-Promised Land, p. 80).

True, President Truman recognized the State of Israel within minutes of its declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, but that was mostly because the Soviet Union also recognized and supported the infant state, and Truman didn’t want the Soviets to get an exclusive foothold in the Middle East. (Israel’s founders had strong socialist leanings.) The Jews did the actual fighting bit mostly on their own.

This is an important point, because Clarence’s commonly-held misconception has led to Israel being portrayed as a creation of the West, when in reality, it was forged by Jews fleeing from the West (and Russia and the Muslim world). In the latter decades of the pre-state Zionist movement, Jews fleeing to Palestine had to sneak past the British occupiers, who were determined to keep the Jews out to placate the Arab Palestinian population. Eventually, Britain found itself at war with both the Zionists and the Arab Palestinians, and called it quits in 1948. Israel is not a tool of the West. (After all, what purpose could “the West” possibly have for angering the world’s largest oil producers by staking out an outpost in an oilless tract of land smaller than New Jersey?) It is a country in its own right.

But the larger misconception that lies behind Clarence and Helen’s call for the Jews to “go home” is the idea that the wrongs of 1947-1948 can somehow be righted today by yet another mass expulsion. It is all too tempting to think of history only in terms of nations: “The Jews,” “the Arabs,” “the Americans,” etc. This line of thinking has apparently led both Clarence and Helen to conclude, “Well, this whole mess started when the Jews came and took land away from the Palestinians. The Jews should just leave!”

Who are “the Jews”? The Jews who settled Palestine from the 1880s until 1948 are long gone. There are six million Jews living in Israel today. Many of them were born there, have lived their whole lives there. Their great-great-grandparents are buried in Palestine. Whatever the crimes of 1948 were, they are innocent. Sending all six million of them packing (a mass expulsion that would exceed the Palestinian expulsion by nine times) would fix nothing. What Helen Thomas said wasn't simply "taboo." It was a call for ethnic cleansing.

History is littered with massive crimes that cannot be undone. Even if one regards the creation of the state of Israel as a great crime (I do not, for the record), we cannot fix the past by destroying the future.

And really, considering the history of human population movements, no one, except possibly the Africans, has a right to disagree.

Thugs and Criminals!

Sadly, he didn't win.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wrapping up the Prophets

Nahum: God Judges the Empire

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords, and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses-

“I am against you,” declares the LORD Almighty.

- 3:1-5

Habakkuk: God Judges the Next Empire

“Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime! Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

- 2:12-14

Zephaniah: Universal Destruction and Universal Salvation?

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the LORD, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.

“Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder.”

- 3:8-9

Haggai: Once More

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty.”

- 2:6-7

Malachi: Sudden Judgment

“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, those who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD almighty.

- 3:5

Now that I’m done reading the prophets, there are three huge swathes of the Bible left that I’ve never intentionally read all the way through: 1) the history of Israel from Leviticus through Esther, 3) the wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and 4) the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and whoever the heck wrote Hebrews. I’m gonna start with the epistles, because I miss the New Testament.

Still haven’t started reading the Qur’an. But it’s coming down the pipe.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Zechariah: His name the only name

Of the last six prophets I read, Zechariah was my favorite. The first six chapters contain nine of the trippiest visions in the entire Bible, which all came to Zechariah in a single night. And starting in chapter nine, Zechariah embarks on two massive oracles that, as near as I can tell, revolve around four events in Israel’s future: the coming war with the Seleucids (predicted in detail in Daniel 8 and 11), the first coming of Jesus, the destruction of the Jewish nation in 70 AD, and the second coming of Jesus. The four events all run together in the narrative, and it’s only with the benefit of partial hindsight that we can distinguish between them (or, alternately, our historical perspective causes us to read these events into the oracles).

Chapter 9 is the craziest example of this:

V. 9:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Most Christians readily identify this with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion, riding in peacefully on a donkey.

V. 10:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.

This part could be seen either as Jesus inaugurating a kingdom that spreads peacefully through love, service and the work of the Spirit, or a prediction of the final political peace Jesus will bring at his return.

V. 11-12:
As for you [Daughter of Zion], because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

This passage can be pretty straightforwardly interpreted as declaring the spiritual freedom that Jesus would bring to the former prisoners of sin.

But then...

V. 13:
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.

So the peace agenda is out, then? And where do the Greeks come from?

If is to be trusted, outside of Daniel and Zechariah, the words “Greek” or “Greece” appear only four times in the Old Testament. Greece is not a big player in Israel’s history until the intertestamental period, when Alexander the Great conquered Judea, and his heirs, the Seleucids, tried to destroy Judaism. This didn’t go over so well, and as the Book of Maccabees (according to what I’ve heard, somewhat inaccurately) details, the Jews resisted and eventually drove the Greeks out of the land, restoring Jewish independence for a brief time, and giving the Jews something to celebrate during Christmastime.

So...that war must be what Zechariah is talking about here, right?

V. 14-15
Then the LORD will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning. The Sovereign LORD will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south, and the LORD Almighty will shield them. They will destroy and overcome with slingstones. They will drink and roar as with wine; they will be full like a bowl used for sprinkling the corners of the altar.

The Bible (at least the Protestant canon) is curiously silent on the merits or demerits of the Jewish resistance against the Seleucids. Daniel describes the war and persecution that is coming in great detail, but never mentions the Maccabee rebels directly, as far as I can tell. We are reassured that the evil king, Antiochus, will be destroyed, “but not by human power” (8:25 – he died of illness in Persia). Daniel 11:33-35 says only, “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them.” So who are the insincere? Does Daniel here bless the resistance? Does Zechariah?

Perhaps I should add the Books of the Maccabees to my reading list.

Anyway. In Chapter 11, Zechariah assumes the voice of Christ, and bitterly narrates his rejection by the Jewish religious leaders. God gives Zechariah charge of the “flock marked for slaughter” – so-called because “I will no longer have pity on the people of the land.”

“So,” Zechariah says, “I pastured the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock.”

“You hypocrites!” Jesus said. “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16)

But soon the flock turns on Zechariah, and Zechariah declares, “I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh” – a graphic description of the siege conditions in Jerusalem during the war with the Romans in the 60s AD.

“Then,” Zechariah says, “I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations.” The nations will now come against Jerusalem to attack it.

Zechariah tells the flock, “If you think it best, give me my pay.” So they give him thirty pieces of silver – “the handsome price at which they priced me!” – and he throws the silver into the temple, to the potter.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

- Matthew 27:3-7
The rejection of the shepherd brings disaster:

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it.”

- Zechariah 13:7-8

“I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half the city will go into exile...”

- Zechariah 14:2

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

- Luke 19:41-44

But in the second oracle, which starts in chapter 12, Zechariah blends together what appear to be two separate attacks on Jerusalem – the one in 70 AD, which brings mass slaughter and exile to the Jews, and a second, in which God “will make the leaders of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume left and right all the surrounding peoples, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place” (12:6). Chapter 14 portrays the LORD himself coming down to the Mount of Olives, returning just as he left (Acts 1:11), splitting the mountain in two, and making the enemy troops go crazy and start killing each other. When the Jews see Jesus, “the one they have pierced,” returning, God will send a “spirit of grace and supplication” on the Jews, and they will be seized with remorse for what they did to the shepherd. “The weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo [where King Josiah was killed]” (12:10-11).

Evangelical dispensationalists often read this passage as a prediction of a future war between the State of Israel and the Arab states, perhaps allied with Iran, Russia and Europe under the leadership of the Antichrist. Interestingly, Orthodox Jews read it almost the same way. According to Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg (The Accidental Empire, p. 260-262), in the wake of the 1973 war, in which Israel triumphed, but suffered greatly and acquired no new land, Orthodox Rabbis turned to Zechariah for an explanation of the war’s meaning: “[Rabbi Yehudah] Amital explained [that] the war was part of the messianic process. Any war over the Land of Israel was actually a war over Jerusalem, and so fulfilled the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the battle for Jerusalem at the end of history.”

The Reformed theology in me rebels against this interpretation, since in Reformed theology, there is only one people of God throughout history: the church, first in the form of early Israel, now in the form of the borderless, multilingual, multicultural body today. The implication is that the Jewish race and culture no longer has anything but a historical significance to redemption (cf Romans 9:4-5). But what, then, to make of Zechariah's prophecies? Perhaps a battle between Israel and the world powers is coming, and God will intervene to put an end to war and empire once and for all. I dunno.

In the end, though, the message of Zechariah and the rest of the prophets is crystal clear:

“The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name” (14:9).

Amin. Allahu akbar.

File this under "Unintentionally Revealing Statements"

“We are not seeking to fill our (bellies), we are looking to break the Israeli siege on Gaza."

- Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, explaining why Hamas will not let Israel deliver any of the aid from the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Madness! Madness!" Thoughts on the Israeli Flotilla Attack

“The activists said they never attacked the soldiers. They thought Israel was welcoming them with commando-shaped piñatas.”

- Jon Stewart

Yesterday at my new 9-5 job (calling employers to verify loan information – I’ll tell you about it later), I overhead this exchange between two of my coworkers:

“What’s going on in Israel?”
“Some ships were bringing food to Gaza, and the Israeli army attacked them and killed like twenty people.”
“Wow, that’s nuts. You know, I really can’t go along with the whole Rambo killing-people thing.”
“Yeah. Especially when they were just trying to drop off food.”

I have a feeling that my coworkers’ characterization of the IDF’s attack on the “Freedom Flotilla” last Monday is fast on its way to being cemented in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, here is my vain attempt to shift the narrative.

(The following summary is based on Matti Friedman’s excellent article in the Associated Press today.)

The Gaza Strip, a 139 square mile sliver of land bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and is controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has dedicated itself to total warfare against the Jewish state, with its destruction as its chief goal. Due to ongoing rocket attacks against Israel launched from the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt have blockaded the Strip, banning all exports and letting through only food and medicine.

On Sunday, a group of 700 activists on six ships nicknamed the “Freedom Flotilla,” organized by the Free Gaza Movement, set sail from Cyprus to bring 10,000 tons of supplies to Gaza.

Say what you will about the blockade, but any nation that let 10,000 tons of supplies be delivered to territory controlled by its archenemies uninspected would redefine “suicidal.” So, quite reasonably, in my mind, the Israeli government warned Free Gaza that the flotilla would not be allowed through the blockade, but offered to pass on humanitarian aid from the ships.

The ships set sail anyway. The Israeli navy sent its ships to intercept, and ordered them to halt. The flotilla moved on anyway. So the Israelis sent their commandos to take over the ships and turn them towards an Israeli port.

Not expecting any resistance – the ships were carrying peace activists, after all – the commandos were armed only with paintball guns and pistols, “in case of emergency.” To their shock, as the commandos jumped onto the deck of the largest ship, the Mavi Marmara, they were attacked by a mob armed with clubs, chairs and knives. One soldier was thrown over the side onto a lower deck and stabbed in the stomach when he landed. Other soldiers jumped into the Mediterranean to escape their attackers. A full twenty minutes after the operation began, the soldiers requested permission to use their firearms, and received it. Two of the “peace activists” were shot dead after they wrested pistols away from the commandos and shot two Israeli soldiers. All in all, nine activists were killed and seven soldiers were wounded.

The surprising part of this story is not that Israel chose to intercept massive cargo ships headed through their blockade into enemy territory. Nor is it surprising that the Israeli soldiers responded with live ammunition when they were attacked. The real question here is: Why did the activists turn to violence so quickly?

They did so for the same reason, I submit, that Israel is now being nearly-universally, unequivocally condemned for the violence that the activists started: In the eyes of Israel’s political opponents, the Jewish state can do no right.

As evidence, I point to an e-mail I received from a pro-Palestinian group called the BRussels Tribunal the day of the attack (Italics mine):


Dead: 19. [sic] Injured: 60.
This is Israel

...For what does Israel fight? Its existence, or the continuance of a regime of collective punishment calculated to destroy the Palestinians? Or are these the same thing?

...From founding until now we have witnessed an unending catalogue of Israeli atrocities. By these countless atrocities, Israel has forfeited any claim to legality — it is moreover a state that refuses to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or consider giving up its nuclear weapons.

...Here every man and woman has a moral duty: inaction is complicity and a betrayal of humanity. All legal rights are with those who attempt to end this situation by whatever means.

■ We condemn the illegal, immoral and inhuman blockade on Gaza, and all who uphold it
We condemn Israel
■ We condemn Israel’s brutal attack on peace activists in international waters. We declare that 700 brave souls, from 50 nations, represent something real that Israeli propaganda cannot erase
■ We demand an international tribunal to judge all Israeli crimes, past and present. We call on the UN General Assembly to request of the International Court of Justice an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel within the United Nations System given its systematic and gross disrespect of international law and moral authority.

Because the global anti-Zionist movement, like the radical Islamist movement and the Palestinian national movement, has never accepted the legitimacy of the Jewish state, its struggle on behalf of the Palestinian people has taken on a zero-sum quality. Its various tactics – blockade-running, disinvestment, etc. – flow from an initial rejection of Israel’s right to exist, and therefore preclude reconciliation with Israel from the outset. In their eyes, no action Israel takes in self-defense can be legitimate, because Israel itself is illegitimate.

Hence – Israel sends commandos to take over ships carrying 10,000 tons of uninspected cargo headed towards enemy territory? They must be trying to kill us! Grab your knives! Man the ramparts! Israel kills nine people in a mob that was beating their soldiers to a pulp? Massacre! Haul them before the Security Council! No, the International Criminal Court! No, the Nuremberg Courts! Israel tries to defend its actions using videos confiscated from activists aboard the ship? Outrage! Have they no respect for freedom of the press?

Keep screaming, activists. This is what the Israeli people hear:

This attitude, to put it mildly, is not helpful – ESPECIALLY for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza held hostage to Hamas’ eternal war against Israel.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is very real. The Strip has one of the highest population densities on the planet - 1.5 million people are trapped in 139 square miles. In 2008, the year before the devastating Israel-Hamas war, 80% of Gazans were dependent on outside food aid, the unemployment rate was 40% , and public services had deteriorated so much that 50 million liters of sewage were pouring into the sea every day. Things have only gotten worse since then.

The blockade must be reformed. Travel rights must be restored. Exports must be allowed through. Real reconstruction must take place, with massive help from the outside world. The blockade must morph into an effective arms embargo.

Unfortunately, Israel is unlikely to do this on its own, for the same reason that Israel elected Benjamin Netanyahu, an anti-two-state solution rejectionist, as prime minister, that its top diplomat is a quasi-fascist who publicly expresses his contempt for foreign leaders, that it publicly humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Jerusalem, that it banned Professor Noam Chomsky from speaking in Palestine, that it has declared its intention to bulldoze thousands of homes and deport thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, that it has refused to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem even temporarily to restart the peace process.

That reason is: since the Gaza War of 2009, Israel has realized that nothing it can conceivably do will win it the respect of the world. So why should they bother?

How different would things have been if the activists had resisted peacefully! The world – and more importantly, the Israeli people - would have seen men, women and children being bound and carried off the ships one at a time. They would have seen the truly innocent cargo being inspected – wheelchairs, food, medicine, cement. They would have asked, “Why are these people willing to go through all this just to bring attention to Gaza? Why won’t our government let cement through to Gaza? What’s so dangerous about wheelchairs?” It might have been the catalyst Israel needed to start a real debate over how to relax the blockade, rebuild Gaza, and undercut Hamas’ popular support. As a professor interviewed in the documentary Handala says, “Nonviolence exposes the reality of the situation. There are no excuses anymore. There are no justifications anymore.”

Instead, I humbly and regretfully predict, the Israeli people will see the world’s irrational overreaction to their government’s completely rational behavior, correctly conclude that they cannot absolve themselves in the eyes of the world, and retreat further into their bunker.

Now is the time for the leaders of the U.S., Egypt, and Israel to pow-wow and figure out a way to relax the blockade while containing the terrorist threat. I only hope that the Freedom Flotilla has not sabotaged that pow-wow before it even begins.