Thursday, July 02, 2009
Suspended in Prayer
I found myself in the West Bank at a very inauspicious time last week, and in a most inauspicious manner.
Shortly before midday on Friday I agreed to accompany an American friend of mine to see the place where the Baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We spontaneously made the last minute decision to go. To save time, we drove in her Israeli boyfriend's car up to the military checkpoint on the Israeli side. I was pretty sure we could get permission to park in the lot beside the checkpoint, but the Israeli child soldier in the booth that day refused to let us park and told us to drive (with Israeli tags) on into town.
Of course, I knew from experience that cars with Israeli tags are permitted inside the West Bank. I recalled seeing this when I lived there, and so I told my friend that what we were doing was perfectly legal and ok. Still, this did nothing to reassure her.
"Oh my g-d, WE ARE IN THE WEST BANK!!! What if someone slams into me or it gets stolen? The insurance won't cover it if you take in into the territories!!"
Her anxiety about insurance issues was sudden, unexpected and practically overwhelming. I did my best to calm her, yet all of the while I couldn't help but internally note that we were prime targets for a carjacking and kidnapping in that car, especially on a Friday, when commerce is down and the peace process continues to hang in limbo. Despite my familiarity with Bethlehem, I began to have second thoughts that bringing my friend in here was a good idea. She didn't seem to have a grip on herself, and this particularly worried me...for my sake. In my effort to quell my own anxieties, I decided to keep that small tidbit of information to myself and make sure that she stayed on the main streets.
Onward we drove into the heart of town as I took in the scene around me and calmly gave directions. Everything appeared calm and normal for a Friday. I found Bethlehem to be lulled into its usual sleepiness at midday. Traffic was low and the streets were practically empty. I assured my friend that we could easily park, check out the church and then quickly get back out of town. But by the time we arrived in Manger Square, my friend had completely let her fear of the unknown overtake her. I gave her the option of going back, but she insisted that she wanted to at least get out and see the church.
"Ok, so you go into the church and take a look around," I said in my calmest voice. "I'll just hang out here and keep an eye on the car while you do your thing," I told her.
The truth is that when we got there, I immediately noticed the place was unusually full of men and boys. This mildly concerned me, but also intrigued my inner researcher. I immediately wanted to ask questions and figure out why so many people were gathered there at once. Wasn't it a little hot for this sort of thing? And if a protest was about to go down, I wanted to know about it so that I could move my friend's car and get the hell out of the way.
I knew that my friend would be safe to cluelessly wander through the church, which gave me the opportunity to make immediate friends with a passing sheik and a couple of guys standing nearby. After the usual introductions and flirtations, they informed me me that the reason why so many people were in the square at that moment was because of the special Friday sermon and call to prayer.
Since it was Friday afternoon it did not shock me that there was a longer sermon coming over the mosque loudspeaker. But, what did truly take me aback was that as the speaker's voice filled Manger Square with a condemning sermon for righteous living, it seemed as though ever Muslim male from the entire area began to fill up the place, too. Scores of large and small men and boys clung to the shaded spots along the stone walls of the square. Cars upon cars started filling in, and before I knew it the entire area turned into a parking lot of dinged up cars and Muslim males of all shapes and sizes.
When my friend emerged from the church, the look of utter despair on her face nearly made me forget where I was. Yes, the car was blocked in for a while, but I assured her that it was safe. One of my new tour guide friends offered to take her to his shop for a cup of coffee. Assured of her safety, I sent her off with him again, and told her that I would stay with the car.
Meanwhile, under the pelting sun and sermon, there must of been over a thousand men and boys in the square...and me.
Soon, the sermon ended and everyone began to line up in perfect rows on the stone ground, right there in the middle of the day. They put out their cigarretes, unrolled their colorful prayer mats to the ground and dusted off their pants. Within seconds, hundreds of colorful rows were made. Each man or boy had his own place, and everything was in order. Then, the largest public prayer I have ever witnessed began.
For the next 15 minutes, a sun-filled, luminous silence hung upon all of us as the men and boys peacefully moved through their Friday afternoon supplications. In perfect symmetry, they bent over and got down on their knees and put their foreheads to the ground. Together at the call of the muezzin, they rose to do it all over again and again...until it was done.
In silence and complete awe, I watched. I moved as slowly as possible and did my best to respectfully take as many pictures as I could take without calling attention to myself. When the men bowed, I popped up with my camera. When the rose, I ducked down so as to not be a distraction to the moment. In the interstitial silence of so many people working together in so much symmetry, I noticed the sense order that came over the square. Despite the beating sun, it even felt cooler. Between snapping pictures, I paused and closed my eyes. I inhaled the prayers around me, and felt my heart rate slow down as if we were all in a simultaneous yoga practice. For a brief couple of minutes, it felt as if everything was in alignment in and around all of us in that moment. The anxiety I had because of my friend seemed more like a small polished stone in my pocket, rather than something that loomed jagged and jarring in my mind's eye.
When my thinking brain resumed ticking, I couldn't help but notice these peaceful changes around and within me and think to myself with a sense of wonderment, "Hmn...so, this...this...is Islam!"...
In the end, I realized that I was in the most auspicious place to witness and experience its appeal to so many millions of followers. The feeling of peacefulness that persisted long after the prayer mats disbanded and all of the men and boys disappeared back into the sidestreets of town was still distinguishable. Given that very tangible feeling, I can now understand more descriptively why the followers of Islam often equate it with peace. And now, having witnessed such a rare and incredible moment, I think I have a much better understanding of why Islam has been such a reassuring force for much of a world that has been engulfed in post-colonial revolution, militarism and economic despair.
Of course, the pictures hardly speak for themselves.