Journal in the Holy Land
May, 2001
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The sounds of Zababdeh:
4:45 AM, Muslim prayer (40 sec.)
6:00 AM, Church bells (40 sec.)
6:30 AM, sheep
7:30 AM, National Anthem (40 sec.)
24-7, Electrical generator (5 sec.)
All night long, cow (14 sec.)
Night-time, shooting (5 sec.)

5/1/01:  Happy May Day!  No school today, though no official announcement was made - there was no formal letter from the Ministry of Education announcing a holiday, but May Day has been a holiday in Palestine for years.  If no teachers or students show up, though, that probably settles it.  Marthame took the opportunity to catch up on words beginning with "z" (for example: "zzzzzzzz").  Elizabeth went with the Latin Church's youth group on a trip to Nablus to visit Abuna Dominick and the Sisters of Charity.  Their convent is also a home for the elderly and for severely handicapped children.  The Zababdeh group (for whom most it was their first visit) helped feed the children and visited with the elderly before lending a hand in the garden.  Heading back to Zababdeh, they stopped in Beidan for some ice cream.  We have yet to explore Beidan properly ourselves, a bit of an oasis around here.  People go there to swim, and many restaurants have set up shop there because of the abundance - relatively speaking - of water, making a rather lush, green stopping place.

5/3/01:  After school, we jumped in the rental and took the Jordan Valley route down to Jerusalem with one of our friends from the Arab-American University of Jenin.  The reason for the trip was to connect with an American group that had come here for a two week visit.  The tour was being led by Paul Eckel, a former pastor of Marthame's, who leads these groups roughly twice a year.  He had invited us to join them and talk about our experience "on the ground."  It was a good chance for us to put our thoughts together and to give a picture of life here these days.  The group was receptive and interested, if a bit weary (long days of trying to get to Bethlehem coupled with jet lag will do that to you - so will driving from Zababdeh to Jerusalem!). Meeting them in their hotel, we discovered where all of the tourists have been hiding - the Olive Tree Hotel's dining room was packed!  The group was kind enough to put us up for a night and feed us, as well as pray for us and our work.  Food for the body and food for the soul.

5/4/01:  A late, late morning meant that we missed the group's departure for the Mount of Olives.  Apparently our bodies had a different idea of how we would be spending this time.  We dropped off the rental in its particularly fortuitous location at the Israeli checkpoint entering Jerusalem, then walked to meet our taxi to Zababdeh.  The journey was thankfully unremarkable, given the usual route through the valleys and pits, though the Israeli soldiers did allow us to pass through one military checkpoint rather than driving for miles around it.  We are now realizing that we only have a month before we head off to the States in June - yipe!  That means wrapping things up here, putting our thoughts together for talks we'll be giving, and bringing our work for the school year to a close.  It also means being fairly antisocial for a few weeks, alas - something quite counter-cultural in these parts.

5/5/01:  Funny thing happened today - can't really put it up on the website, so make sure and ask us.
Today was also the last day of Elizabeth's adult English class - the initial twelve decreased dramatically after Easter, so all five of us gathered here in our apartment for a small celebration, some language practice, and Arabic coffee.  In theological news, today continues the daily worship for the "Month of Mary" in the Latin Church.  Every afternoon the church is packed.  It has put us to the ecumenical test, recognizing that this is a fundamental difference in belief between Catholics and Protestants - perhaps not understanding the language fully is an asset now.  We have committed ourselves to supporting the work of the Church (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) here.  The greatest gift of ecumenism, though, is not to unite us in a common set of doctrines and practices, but to open ourselves up to learning more about other Christian practices as well as our own.  Right now this month seems to be falling into the latter category, but there's a lot of month left.

5/6/01:  More and more people are getting the urge to depart.  The internet cafes (yes, there are two for a village of 3000) have become an escape for some - a few hours of chatting, etc., and a resource for others - learning about American immigration requirements.  More families have approached us for emergency assistance, which is a two-edged sword: there is a real, deep, critical need for work and money as the closures and collective punishments of the Occupation continue - something we hope we can minister to in the right ways.  At the same time, there is a sense of dependence that underlies these requests, which we are not eager to reinforce.  This latter is also part of the climate of a developing nation, which relies heavily on foreign investment and aid to build crumbling and non-existent infrastructures.  Tricky at best.

5/7/01:  The colds still linger!  Aargh!  The ever-changing weather contributes to that, as does - no doubt - the daily stress of living in such a military zone.  We both headed to the Zababdeh health clinic, housed under the Anglican church, to take a peek at the lungs once again.  We also took the opportunity to gather a few more photos for our June trip, telling everyone that we are making a documentary to show in the States.  There is very little work, but everyone was eager to be included in the pictures working away in their various capacities.  There is a small medical lab, dentist's office, pharmacy, and ob-gyn specialist once a week (who probably gets the most work in a Palestinian village).  This clinic is one of the many ministries under Fr. Hossam's purvey as Anglican priest, and it not only provides a level of medical security, it also gives badly-needed employment for trained doctors and nurses who would be working elsewhere (or, as would be the case now, not working at all).  News came today of the four month-old baby killed in Israeli shelling of a Gaza Refugee Camp.  A lot of head-shaking is taking place in Zababdeh, particularly at Sharon's half-hearted "apology" as he visited settlements in Gaza again.

5/8/01:  One of our visits yesterday garnered an invitation to visit the Baladiye, Zababdeh's municipal offices.  It is here that taxes are collected, water and electricity bills are paid, and building permits are secured.  The municipality has a full-time architect, who showed Marthame the extensive maps of the village, including which lands are owned by whom, where the water and electricity routes run, and where Palestinian "Area A" ends to be met by "Area C" (Israeli military control).  There are plans afoot for municipal improvements, including the digging of a water reservoir partially funded by USAID.  Zababdeh relies on a broken water pump in Area C, which is caught in "Corporate Occupation" - the Israeli's independent water company is refusing to cooperate with the Palestinian's independent water company due to the current unrest, which means Zababdeh gets water about once a week (roof water tanks are automatically refilled from the pump when they get below a certain level, if there is water).  At the same time, there is the problem of ancient pipes underground, which break and cause seepage - plans are underway to replace them, as are plans to begin badly-needed road improvements.  After Mass, Marthame hitched a ride to the university to for a round of Scrabble with some of the other ex-pats - the construction crew finally finished the road there today (which has lain in dust since the Fall).  Meanwhile, Elizabeth slaved away getting ready for exams.  So little time...

5/9/01:  Marthame headed back up to the university today to take a peek at a car for sale.  It gave him a chance to enjoy the always breathtaking view of Zababdeh (they picked a great spot for a university).  It was an old car, with all of the charms that come with it - missing handles, busted speedometer, etc.  But a strong, strong car - an Opel.  Now comes the decision process, because we were intent on looking into a new car - a lot more money, but hopefully none of the headaches of our previous automobile experience.  Particularly in this political climate, a working car is far preferable to one stuck by the side of the road.  But the situation here continues to deteriorate (news came of two settler youth found stoned to death in a cave), and having an evacuation plan is a reasonable thing to do - do we want to abandon a $15,000 car, or one with a missing window?  Nonetheless, the whole excursion gave us the excuse to visit with our friend who teaches Sociology and Human Rights at the University about life in Palestine, particularly as it relates to religious identities - a complex issue, but a particularly compelling one from a sociological perspective.  The shooting returned again tonight, too, about 1:00 in the morning.  Fortunately (?) we weren't asleep yet...

5/10/01:  Departure preparation continues.  We are taking a side trip in a few days by way of Jordan and have been trying to figure out how to get there.  As Americans, we need a Jordanian visa to enter.  The easiest way (and cheapest) to get to Amman without a car is through the Allenby Bridge, but they don't issue visas there.  We'd have to get over to Tel Aviv (no chance Jordan would have an Embassy in Jerusalem, of course) to get one.  The other possibility is to go through the northern Sheikh Hussein Bridge, where they give visas at the border.  But getting there is more complicated, since it would mean traveling through Israel on Shabbat (i.e. no public transportation).  We'll likely hit up someone for a favor.  Today word came in the school of the Patriarchate Essay Contest Winners.  Zababdeh's school had more students honored than any other school in the Patriarchate!  Tenth grade, as a stand-out, took 2nd and 3rd place as well as three honorable mentions.  We're also sure (well, OK, maybe pride overtakes us) that our 12th grader who took 2nd place would've taken first if she hadn't done so last semester - a particularly striking and powerful essay.  Speaking of power, we somehow managed to blow ours today by plugging in the computer cord (just the cord).  After it came back, the light fixture in the living room began to fall - perhaps something metaphorical happening here?  A hidden life lesson?  Perhaps the secret is in the artichokes that grow wild here (for the curious, the word "artichoke" comes from Arabic: ard - "earth" + shooke - "thorn").

5/11/01:  As Elizabeth spent the day trying to wrap up things on her Master's Thesis, Marthame headed off for the nearby village of Raba (north of Zababdeh, east of the university) to visit a friend - correction, to visit our friend and mechanic.  If we had kept the old car, he would've been a very, very wealthy mechanic and would've owned half of Raba.  Raba is a small village of about 7000 (twice the size of Zababdeh), resting on a nearby mountain peak.  Unlike the luxuries of Zababdeh, Raba's electricity is limited to eight hours a day (5 PM - 1 AM).  Our mechanic surfs the web late into the night thanks to his solar panel. He and Marthame joined in with his kids (the ones we would've put through college with the Citroen) in playing soccer on the porch before Marthame headed back to Zababdeh for more Month of Mary.  Abuna Louis spends Fridays in Bethlehem teaching at Bethlehem University, so there was no priest.  But the place was packed as everyone read and sang the prayers together (audio - 8 sec.).  Something amazing about the dedication to this month of worship.  The same folks come every day to pray the same words every day - worship and liturgy matter.  We've had several evening visits from friends over the past few days, always welcome and unexpected, but with all of the extra workload thrust upon us recently, we were hoping to be a little more antisocial for a few days!

5/12/01:  We have been busy wrapping up things at school - grading, make sure substitutes are arranged, getting copies of exams for our absence - so that we can leave for a conference.  We have been invited to Baghdad to the Fifth Annual Christian Peacemaking Conference, and have been making preparations for several months now.  As we left with one of the French teachers, we got word that there had been an Israeli assassination of three Palestinians in nearby Jenin.  We debated the best route to leave - through Jenin and risk running into an angry funeral, or by the settlers' road and risk running into retaliatory violence.  Our friend who works for the Palestinian Authority had these words of wisdom: "Be careful."  We went by the settlers' road and met with no incidents.  From there we crossed at the Sheikh Hussein bridge at Beit Shean into Jordan, also without incident.  We shared a taxi with a traveler from Ecuador down to Amman.  He spoke no Arabic or English, which left us to translate from Arabic to Spanish.  We're finding that we've lost most of our ability to use Spanish, as Arabic words seem to have pushed them out of our brain.   This poor Ecuadorian had headed for the Israeli border without receiving a visa and had to turn back to Amman (the visa is automatic for Americans).  We gathered in Amman with others who would be attending the Conference for a relaxing dinner in the cool night air.

5/13/01:  A bilingual worship service (audio - 10 sec.) in the Christian Missionary Alliance church gave a good start to Sunday morning.  It's been a while since we've worshiped in our first language - about two months.  After worship, we took a long (REALLY long) walk across Amman.  We later discovered how ridiculously cheap taxis are, but were unaware at the time.  (did someone say "learning curve"?).  Our task was to find the Ministry of the Interior to give us permission to leave Jordan by the Allenby Bridge and return that way weeks later without having our visas expire.  We found the Ministry, and the man in charge of the process, who sent Marthame to window 3 to pick up the forms.  He returned to the man, and was then sent to window 5 to fill them out.  Then return.  Then to window 1 to make copies and buy stamps.  Then re...several hours of this brought to mind Soviet-style bureaucracy.  We left there with one sheet of paper giving us permission (then later discovered that returning by way of Allenby Bridge is routine - the rationale given is that you are crossing into the West Bank, not into Israel, and so have two weeks on your current visa).  We had the wisdom of taking a taxi to return and then hit an internet cafe (as there is no internet, or at least not publicly, in Iraq) and got our paperwork back for traveling into Iraq.  We had attained a second passport, since our main passport bears witness to the fact that we've been in and out of "Dixie" (the codeword used for "Israel" by journalists in the area anxious not to tip-off would-be eavesdroppers), not a popular - or even legal - place to visit according to most Arab states, notable exceptions being Jordan and Egypt.  Since we are part of a Conference hosted by the Iraqi Ministry of Religious Affairs, attaining a visa for our blank passports was no difficult task, thankfully.  We capped the day off with a lovely dinner in downtown Amman (we decided to take a taxi there and back).

5/14/01:  Sixteen hours in a bus was our fate for the day.  Word spread last night about what time the busses were gathering, which seems to be par for the course - that's how we found out about the conference, how we knew what hotel to gather at, how we knew we needed a second passport, etc.  Two weeks of a schedule based on "hearsay" might be a bit much, though.  We gathered with some of the 400 others going to Baghdad in front of the Iraqi Embassy for our first-class luxury ride across the Jordanian and Iraqi deserts.  Unfortunately, first-class was booked and we settled for "'steamer" class.  We are being very careful to talk discretely about where we are currently living.  Even though working with Palestinians is a popular idea among Iraqis, the reality means that we have been in and out of "Dixie" - an unpopular notion.  Still, since we are part of an official delegation, we feel comfortable in confiding in most people and will take most of our cues from those in the know.  This is truly an unique experience already, with Maronites talking to Pentecostals, Lebanese speaking with Dutch, priests conversing with laity (and that was all just the two guys behind us!).  We arrived at the border to discover that cellphones are forbidden from entering Iraq - the GSM technology used in Europe and this part of the world has been used militarily for precision attacks.  Israel has used it in assassinations of Palestinian leaders, and the Iraqis clearly fear that might be the case here.  It's also probably true that there's some fear of free-speech being allowed access into the country, too.  When we double-checked with one of the organizers, he said, "I told you not to bring them."  Apparently that announcement hadn't made it to us through the grapevine.  We buried the phones in our bags and held our breaths during the cursory bag inspection (one bag was opened, given approval, and the rest of the caravan was waved along).  As we made our way through the desolate desert, we stopped several times along the road to fill up at "gas stations" - barrels of fuel jerry-rigged with a pump and a hose.  Fuel prices are unbelievable - $1 will buy you 25 gallons.  We arrived at our 5-star hotel in Baghdad, which was indeed quite nice (that included two TV channels, a roll of toilet paper, and a toilet!), and unwound by gazing at our balcony's truly extraordinary view of the Tigris River.  We're between the Tigris and Euphrates!  Mesopotamia!  Sumer!  Babylon!  Ur!  Ashur!  Nineveh!  Nimrod!  Wow.

5/15/01:  Day one's schedule found us gathering at the Baghdad Conference Center, a beautiful assembly hall.  We sat through many speeches by bishops and patriarchs (dubbed by Marthame the "hat and necklace brigade"), all calling for an end to sanctions, decrying American imperialism, speaking of great religious freedom in Iraq.  Palestine's situation was referenced often, either directly or indirectly linked to the situation here.  There was also the perfunctory thanking of the President ("May God protect him"), with the perfunctory applause, as Saddam's ubiquitous image looked on.  At least, that's what we could gather from the translation.  The beautiful hall was wired for earphone translation, but the translators were mediocre at best.  It sounded like they would get stumped by the translation and then go out for coffee.  In addition to the "Hat Brigade," there were also welcoming remarks from a Muslim cleric ("If you return home to call for an end to the sanctions, we will thank you.  If you don't, we will welcome you.") and from the leader of the Sabaeans, the modern-day followers of John the Baptist, who speak Aramaic and have repeated cleansing/baptism rituals.  We were regaled by several choral groups as well (audio - 13 sec.), which gave a wonderful opportunity to put the earphones down.  Marthame was interviewed by way of a translator for a Baghdad-area newspaper, truly a unique experience.  Not sure it'll appear in print anywhere else, though.  Seeing how the first part of the day had gone, and that we were to be subject to more poorly-translated speeches, we set off on our own.  The Mother Theresa Sisters of Charity in Nablus had asked us to visit their fellow sisters in Baghdad, so we set off to find their convent with two bags of food staples and a Presbyterian minister teaching seminary in Cairo.  We arrived at feeding time and lent a hand to the three sisters - all from India - and the nineteen handicapped children.  Suddenly, all of the absurdities of the morning session disappeared as we witnessed the true love, joy, and witness taking place in this desolate little corner of Baghdad.  The sisters, too, have suffered from the sanctions, but labor on.  They had received invitations to attend, but decided that it wasn't worth being away from the children to sit and nod.  Perhaps they were right.  We returned to the hotel to sit by the pool (remember - 5 stars), which was a bit of a contrast.  Elizabeth got a lesson in traditional Iraqi bread-baking (video - 5 sec.) before dinner.  After an evening's program of traditional entertainment, including singing (audio - 11 sec.) and dancing (video - 12 sec.), we once again went to our balcony to enjoy the view (video - 25 sec.).  The view!  The view!

5/16/01:  Another morning of translations was more than we could bear, but unfortunately we missed our friend's speech (in English no less!).  Again, the "hearsay" approach hadn't made it's way to us.  After a less than adequate job of groveling at her feet, we gathered with a smaller delegation of the conference for some planning.  Eleven American Presbyterians, including us, had made plans to extend our stay in Iraq past the conference and visit the five Presbyterian churches in Iraq.  Yes, that's correct: Presbyterian churches in Iraq!  We gathered with representatives from the churches to map out our schedule for the next week or so.  The entire Conference was then taken to the sobering Al-Amariyya Shelter.  Built as one of many bomb shelters during the Iran-Iraq War, it was being used during the Gulf War in 1991.  One night in January 1991, as hundreds of men, women, and children gathered to escape the nightly air raids, American and British planes targeted the shelter.  403 were killed, mostly women and children.  The UN forces first claimed it was being used as a military installation by the Iraqis, then said it was being used as both, then said their intelligence was bad and stopped short of apologizing for the "collateral damage".  Moving memorial photos line the walls in an endless stream (video - 25 sec.), as this shelter has become a symbolic reminder of the ravages of war and the innocent victims it takes in its wake.  Both in the shelter and outside of it conference participants engaged in the kind of uneasy, shifty eye-contact that is familiar to anyone who has visited the death camp at Auschwitz, the killing fields of Vietnam, or the 1948 Palestinian ghost village of Deir Yassin.  We then split into two groups.  Our half visited the Saddam Children's Hospital, where we were greeted with a picture of him lavishing attention upon children.  Such is typical of his omnipresence - at a school, he's teaching; at a mosque, he's praying; at a military outpost, he's the general.  The purpose of the visit was to see the desperate medical condition the sanctions left Iraq in - something we had known already, hearing how the enforcement of the UN sanctions have effectively prevented basic medicines from entering because they might be used as chemical weapons.  Cancer hospitals, as a result, operate with barely a bottle of aspirin as painkiller for the patients to share.  This was the intention.  Instead, 200 people with cameras descending upon sick children and their families ended up feeling more like a trip to the zoo than a humanitarian venture.  We were relieved to leave the hospital and return to the hotel. After supper, we were treated to entertainment from the Baghdad Music Group (audio - 11 sec.).  Marthame opted to try his luck at Marwan's "Airdressing Saloon" on the second floor of the hotel. He wound up with a hideous haircut, but a good story.  The highlights included having his eyebrows trimmed, his ears plunged during the shampooing, his face waxed, his waxed face doused with aftershave, his back pummeled, and his neck snapped with a towel to signal it was finished.  Fortunately, hair grows back, and nothing is too expensive in Iraq.  We talked with one of our Presbyterian counterparts who used to work for the state-run oil company for $1500/month.  His son, a doctor, is now earning $10/month (a cup of coffee in our hotel costs $0.40).  This downturn is directly a result of the sanctions at work.  The money here is an interesting thing.  The only bill printed is the 250 dinar note.  $1=1800 dinars, so we were all walking around with a big fistful of dinars (which would be a great name for an Iraqi movie).

5/17/01:  Today was our day of sightseeing.  We hired two cars to take us on a quick highlight tour of Baghdad.  First stop was the large central mosque.  Mosques here have a different architectural and aesthetic sense from the ones we have seen.  The exteriors are decorated in elaborate mosaics, unlike the monochromatic Arabesque domes of Palestine.  This particular mosque is elaborately decorated in gold and silver.  Elizabeth and the other women in our group rented long black abeyyas, and though we were not allowed into the mosque itself, we could enter the expansive courtyard. (video - 17 sec.).  We then took a boat ride across the Tigris River (video - 5 sec.) and wandered through several museums, including the Baghdad folklore museum.  There we learned, among other things, that circumcisions were traditionally performed (on boys aged between 7 and 12 years!) by the town barber (turns out Marthame wasn't offered the full treatment at the "Airdressing Saloon").  We also went to the Ministry of Information museum which has extensive pictures and dioramas of the "collateral damage" of 1991: radio stations, hospitals, schools, churches, mosques.  One photo was of the conference center where our opening session had taken place.  We then visited the al-Mustansiriya school, completed in 1234, which offered Arabic, medicine, arithmetics, and theology.  The cars of Iraq are a sight to see too.  Most of them are old because of the sanctions (reports are that 1 million cars are ready for import once the sanctions are lifted), and not a single one has a windshield intact.  Cars from 1990 are among some of the finest on the road.  We left our car behind and took off on foot, visiting the area of the souq (market) where coppersmiths beat beautiful patterns in copper plates, tables, etc (video - 11 sec.).  The Baghdad clock museum houses many of the Presidential gifts that Hussein has received over his 22 years as president, including a bejeweled spur from Ronald Reagan in 1987 and an autographed football from the New York Giants in 1998.  Our final stop before lunch was the Saddam Hussein Tower, which has splendid views of Baghdad. Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed as it also overlooks one of the President's 67 palaces across Iraq.  The nation is very sensitive about which pictures you can take, even if their President doesn't seem to be sensitive about the excessive nature of 67 presidential palaces in an economically-crippled nation.  The first-class buses took off again to visit one of Iraq's holy sites, the ruins of Mar Toma church and monastery - claimed to be built originally in the 1st century.  Very little remains of it, and little work has been done on its restoration, but the views of the countryside on our journey there and back were worth the time - spectacular views of the Tigris; lush, green farmland - not surprising for the place where farming first began.  We then gathered for worship at the Chaldean Catholic church (audio - 31 sec.), where doves were released as a sign of a hope for peace.  One, at least, seemed to find an appropriate resting place.  The passing of the peace was particularly moving, as the Iraqis with whom we sat greeted us with tears in their eyes, pleading, "Please pray for us."  People vigorously waved across the church at one another.  We returned to the hotel to relax by the pool and listen to some traditional music (audio - 39 sec.).  Apparently the toilet paper is only delivered upon check-in...

5/18/01:  The Presbyterian delegation broke away from the conference to meet with the two Presbyterian churches of Baghdad.  In the morning, we worshiped at the smaller Assyrian Presbyterian Church (audio- 11 sec.), whose front courtyard is beset by sewage pipes overflooding.  The church itself was beautiful and understated.  The congregation was formed from Assyrian Christians, and so many of the traditional elements of worship - the Lord's Prayer, hymn singing, etc. - are done in Aramaic rather than Arabic.  Friday is their usual day for worship.  In the Middle East, this is the weekend, and so churches often adjust likewise.  We were blessed with translators scattered through the congregation for Pastor Nashwan's sermon on Luke 5.  After some brief time for fellowship, we hurried off to the air-conditioned (Baghdad summers warrant it) Evangelical Church of Baghdad (the word "Evangelical" in the Middle East usually means "Protestant"), 1000 members strong.  Our schedule didn't give us the opportunity to worship with them, but we did meet with their Session and their Egyptian pastor, Pastor Ikram.  The word in Arabic for "Presbyterian" is Mousheikhiyya, which comes from the root-word sheikh.  A sheikh is also the leader in the mosque, but it means "elder," and is so used by Arabic-speaking Presbyterians.  We heard later that the rest of the Conference had headed to Ur, where they were greeted by 2000 "grass-roots" pro-Saddam/anti-sanction (and anti-US) protesters. As the attendees made their way up the Ziggurat (tall prayer tower, like a pyramid), the protesters gathered at their tents for refreshments.  We, instead, headed down to the site of ancient Babylon.  While very little original exists of Nebuchadnezzar's magnificent city (great treasure from here is in British and German museums), the old city has been reconstructed quite well to give a sense of the grandeur (video - 17 sec.) that once enveloped this place.  Among the original treasures that still are here are an ancient lion statue that once guarded Nebuchadnezzar's gates, bricks with the mythical Marduk in relief, and one of the original mosaics that once lined the walls here (visit Germany for the rest).  On the mountain overlooking reconstructed Babylon is another presidential palace.  During the 1991 Gulf War, the symbolism was apparently too much for some millenialist Americans, who saw Biblical prophecy being fulfilled as "Babylon was being rebuilt."  We chose, instead, to read passages from the Bible that talk about exile.  Seems more appropriate given the disconnect between visions of God's reign and the realities of this region.

5/19/01:  An early, early morning took us to Samarra and its spectacular mosque.  The mosque itself is being renovated, but the prayer tower is accessible by a spiral staircase around its exterior that leads to spectacular views of the nearby towns (video - 23 sec.).  The lack of a handrail, both on the staircase and at the peak, was a bit much for some.  We then headed for the ancient ruins of Hatra, a Hellenic city north of Baghdad that was a caravanserai thousands of years ago.  It has been spectacularly preserved and restored, with details of animals, humans, godesses and gods adorning its facades (video - 30 sec.).  As we traveled along the road north from there, we were astonished by theabundance of wheatfields.  We have found ourselves in the bread basket of Iraq.  This oil-wealthy country has been devastated by the sanctions, but the people of the north have fared somewhat better because of the abundance of agricultural land.  We arrived at our stunning 5-star hotel in Mosul (the ancient city of Nineveh).  It is a spectacular place (three TV channels, and extra toilet paper).  Passing through the buffet line, Marthame struck up a conversation with one of the attendees from Germany.  It became clear that he was disturbed by Marthame's persistent use of the word "Palestine," and tried to correct him, assuming he was playing it safe and saying "Palestine" instead of "Israel." Soon, it dawned on him that Marthame was referring to our work with Palestinians in the West Bank, and the conversation soon ended.  Later we learned that the same man had seen the figures of goddesses at Hatra and had suggested to the Catholic nuns in his company that the residents of Hatra were pagan worshipers of Mary, just like them.  There is a clear variety among the delegates...We then made a brief stop at the ruins of Nimrod, guarded at its entrance by magnificent mythical stone beasts.  The intricacies of the stone work and bas-reliefs are stunning, with details down to the toenails and fingernails.Cuneiform is written everywhere, and it makes us sick not to have brought materials (i.e. a pencil) to make a rubbing.  We then headed to the Presbyterian Church of Mosul, nestled in the winding streets of the old city (where raw sewage runs through a trough at our feet).  Built in 1840, it is the oldest Protestant Church in Iraq.  Unfortunately, they have worshiped without a pastor for twenty-six years (their recent four-month trial with an Egyptian pastor didn't last - he clearly missed his wife and child).  One of our group, a Syrian-American Presbyterian pastor, gave a brief sermon at the worship service scheduled specifically for our visit.  The conversation afterwards quickly became very pointed - not at American sanctions, but at American morality (or lack thereof).  Clearly, anti-American propaganda has worked as well here as anti-Iraqi propaganda has worked in the States.  We were also told about the Yezidis who live in surrounding villages who have been showing interest in becoming Christians.  Yezidis are a sort of pagan monotheism, believing that Lucifer the fallen angel must be appeased so that evil will be removed from earth and he will take his rightful place back in heaven.  It was yet another reminder of the religious diversity practiced quite proudly in Iraq.  We returned to the hotel before the rest of the conferees, so three of us decided to head down to the river.  There was some momentary panic when we left without a guide from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, but when we invited him along (and he didn't accept), things were quickly restored to calm.  We took a chain ferry to an island in the middle of the river, where we snacked on pistachios and talked with people anxious to practice their English (and Spanish..and...German...and French).  Our dinner with the conferees was accompanied by the pianist (audio - 13 sec.) and the photogenic smile of our presidential host ("May God redeem him").

5/20/01:  Didn't realize until this morning what a spectacular view we had of the Tigris (video - 24 sec.)!  There is far more to this country's scenery than the desert, as we are quickly learning.  The Conference had scheduled two visits today to churches in the north.  As we headed up into the north, the fields got more and more lush and gave way to mountains that sprang up like America's Badlands.  Two years ago, when the Conference got to this part of Iraq, military escorts joined the group as this approaches Kurdish lands.  We did have soldiers with us for the last leg of our journey, but the tension was not as palpable as it clearly once was.  The busses stopped below the Monastery of St. Matta, originallly built in the 4th century.  We wandered among the shepherds while we waited for our smaller cars to take us up the mountain (too arduous a journey for the busses).  Once we arrived, we were greeted by the Patriarchs of this Syrian Orthodox Monastery, and by the monks who live, worship, and work there. The monastery once had over one hundred monks in residence, but this has now dindled to one bishop and three monks. The view, of course, down the valley was unparalleled (video - 21 sec.) - those monastics knew the basic rule: location, location, location. One item that caught our eyes was in among the photo gallery of patriarchs was His Excellency's visage (video - 16 sec.).  Our second stop for the day, and the Presbyterian delegations last stop with the Conference, was the Syrian Catholic church of the Virgin Mary in nearby al-Kouth, one of many Christian villages in Iraq.  While their walls were decorated in Aramaic and Arabic, the liturgy had a far amount of French in it.  We were treated to a wonderful meal in the magnificent flowering courtyard before our little delegation hustled East to Kirkuk. We stopped at the old walls of Nineveh long enough to say, "Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown," but not long enough to understand what implications that might have for us.  On the road to Kirkuk, one of our GMCs broke down (bad fuel pump).  Elizabeth wandered off to explore a little creek (with green reeds and long-legged birds, nestled in the brown brown desert) as everyone else stared under the hood.  Finally, we decided to flag down a taxi or two and get to the church 30 minutes late.  The warmth of our reception was palpable.  Part of that was due to the groundwork laid by First Presbyterian Church of Houston in their family-to-family program which has paired families in the two congregations in a letter-writing relationship over the past few years.  The spirit in the worship service was palpable.  One of our group, a Presbyterian pastor and college professor, spoke about the Biblical metaphor of the desert.  The words rang as true for us as Americans as they surely did for our fellow Iraqis, and our Palestinian brothers and sisters as well.  We continued the evening in the graciousness of food and fellowship.  It's always good to be fed, even if we do not live by bread alone.  We then made the long drive back to our hotel in Baghdad.

5/21/01:  We got a well-deserved late start and began our drive south to Basrah. As we left the capital, the land becomes drier and the climate resembles desert more here.  It's the first time that we've noticed garbage alongside the roads.  There is an impressive cleanliness to Baghdad and northern Iraq, it must be said.  All along the roads there are military checkpoints, but our Conference status and our escort from the Ministry of Religious Affairs gives us easy passage from one region into another.  As we get farther south, the landscape gets greener, and we see more marshy bits and palm trees (Basrah is famous for its dates--over two hundred different varieties!). Basrah also has the unfortunate distinction of being the closest city in Iraq to both Iran and Kuwait, and as such was caught up in the damage inflicted in both wars - we passed a bridge that has yet to be restored from 1991's damage.  At the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates (called the "Arab Shore"), Basrah's once impressive infrastructure has all but crumbled.  The effect of the sanctions has been felt most heavily here, too.  We arrived at the Basrah Sheraton (again, along the water) in time to check in.  It's once grand (five star) stature has been reduced - our toilet tank lid was held together by some mysterious gray substance (it's simply not feasible to replace, or apparently find mysterious white substances).  We arrived late for worship again, and to find that the church is a few days away from completing phase two of their air-conditioning installation - the "turning it on" phase.  In the summer there are days when Pastor Gilbert is the only one there, apparently.  Another wonderful worship service with wonderful music (audio - 5 sec.), as the woman who began First Pres Houston's family-to-family program here (as well as in Kirkuk) talked about how that program has brought Christians across the world into relationships of mutual support and encouragement (Romans 1).  One of Houston's families was part of our delegation, and to see their first meeting with their Basra family - with whom they have exchanged letters and photos for almost three years now - was truly moving.  Marthame took part in the worship leadership, too.  We then gathered outside for some wonderful fellowship and conversation and an Iraqi-style Presbyterian-potluck.  One of the elders, whose mother was Lebanese and father was Turkish, confirmed what had been said about Iraq's religious tolerance.  His father had fled Turkey for Iraq to practice his Christianity freely, and this man still felt that Iraq practiced what it preached when it came to diversity and tolerance.  Another man told Marthame his story of conversion from Islam to Christianity...who'dathunkit?  It was also Marthame's birthday.  The church folks sang "Happy Birthday" (video - 5 sec.) and danced with him on their shoulders (video with an inner-ear problem - 5 sec.).  While it may be hard to top the 30th (ordination and a bluegrass band), the 31st came in a close second   We returned to our hotel, guarded by the silhouettes of Iraqi officers killed in Iran pointing at the battlefield where they were "martyred".

5/22/01:  We had one last stop in Basrah before hitting the road, to visit the Syrian Orthodox Church and its priest Abuna Boutros Ibrahim.  He and Pastor Gilbert are quite close, evidence of a different spirit of ecumenism at work in this land.  But both churches have seen the devastation of the two wars.  Emigration after 1991 was particularly devastating - the Presbyterian Church had, in 1978, over 100 families.  Now there are fewer than 30, but they all gathered for worship with us last night.  As we made the long drive back to Baghdad, we saw the remnants of the Marsh Arab community.  Their way of life basically unchanged for 6000 years, the Marsh Arabs have had to move away from their ancestral lands as they have been almost totally drained.  What's 6000 years, anyway?  We got a partial answer as we headed to Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.  We were not met with any protesters, like the rest of the conferees were, but instead with blasts of hot wind (note to self: plan historical desert visits at high noon on purpose).  We climbed the impressive ziggurat (originally built in around 2000 BC), saw its cuneiform signatures, and visited what is purported to be Abraham's restored house.  It was from here that Abraham's father took him and Sarah to Haran, near the border of Syria and Turkey, before he headed to Nablus and Hebron. We now have a very real appreciation of how REALLY FAR that is.  Abraham's link with the three monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism was particularly resonant for us, as we read Genesis 11-12's description of his travels from Ur to Canaan.  We returned to our Baghdad hotel (that darn toilet paper shortage!), where Elizabeth and a retired pastor in our delegation (getting ready to head off to work in Kyrgystan) went in search of dates - the best in the Middle East, we are told.

5/23/01:  Our journey has almost come to an end.  We gathered bottled water for the ride, worrying a bit about the peeling labels and cracked safety seals.  Our driver "reassured" us that this was because they had been in the freezer, causing the labels to get wet and the seals to expand.  Uh huh...As we prepared to pull out of Baghdad, we had one more reminder of the gripping poverty here.  A young boy, no older than eight, maybe, tried to sell bananas to us.  We said no thanks, and as we pulled away, he threw the bananas in to us and grabbed onto the side of the car, so that he came with us as we tried to drive off.  This happened several times before one of the bananas came unpeeled.  We bought one and drove away as he pleaded with tears in his eyes.  Anyone who lives in cities sees such things, no doubt, but to become immune to such a scene is a disturbing thought.  We passed through the same volcanic desert scenery that brought us here a mere ten days ago.  A bathroom break gave us some indication that our driver's story about the water was exactly scientifically accurate (Saddam's Revenge?).  As we arrived in Amman (only a ten-hour return journey thanks to renting GMCs), we did a quick calculation of how many miles we had gone since we left Amman - 2700 miles altogether in ten days.  As we sat down for dinner that night, the waiter brought us a bottle of water - never has the cracking of a plastic seal sounded so good.  We talked a lot about our experience in Iraq, trying to find the kernels of wisdom about the trip.  One conversation with a new Iraqi friend summed it up best.  His observation was that the sanctions had left Saddam more unpopular than ever, but more powerful than ever - a frightening combination.  And, not surprisingly, it was clear that it was the people - in particular, the children - who are suffering.  But it was also clear, for whatever reasons, that the church is thriving in its faithful witness there, free to worship and serve.

5/24/01:  We gave ourselves the luxury of sleeping late and made our way for the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank.  The crossing itself was unremarkable.  We sat on the bridge bus next to a man with an American passport.  He said he was from Lincoln, Nebraska, but his accent suggested that Lincoln might not be his birthplace.  He was, in fact, from Gaza - from a refugee camp there (his family had lived north of Gaza but had been forced to flee in 1948).  He had studied in the US, and was returning as a nurse to work in Gaza with his family.  Obviously, he chose to show the Israelis his American passport rather than his refugee ID card.  When we crossed, it took two hours to fill up our shared taxi to Jerusalem because of the situation - few people are traveling, and the Israelis close the bridge periodically.  When we finally arrived, one of our fellow passengers remarked that he hadn't been in Jerusalem since he and his family left in 1967. He took real joy in seeing the walls of the Old City We met up with friends in Jerusalem and ate elegantly and watched a movie (what's a movie?) in a theater for the first time in eight months.  As we left the theater, we were surrounded by the sound of ambulances racing by and helicopters overhead.  Our imaginations ran wild and we feared the worst.  The sound of ambulances was non-stop, going by us in a constant stream.  Our friends called another friend and asked what was happening - a wedding hall had collapsed, due to structural problems.  A strange shift took place, from Occupation/Intifada tragedy to tragedy.  No better or worse, just different emotionally.  It's very hard to relax here.

5/25/01:  We picked up our plane tickets for our travel back to the States, and then met up with our favorite taxi driver who took us through the highways and byways of the West Bank to get back to Zababdeh.  Halfway there, we came to an Israeli checkpoint.  As we approached, the driver told everyone to say we were coming from Jericho, not Ramallah - our circuitous route took us so far East that no one would ever believe how we came.  We got home, then realized we have five days here before we leave again.  Yipe!

5/26/01:Ilhamdillah 'al-salaami (roughly, "thank God you made it back safely")!  This chorus greeted us as we returned to school.  That, and numerous questions about our trip to Iraq.  Everyone wanted an update, a story.  We brought back a famous Iraqi desert called manu salwah, which is corn syrup wrapped in glucose and coated in sugar.  The name it bears come from the Arabic phrase for what the children of Dixie ate in the wilderness - the manna.  We have returned in the middle of finals, which means that it's time for us to grade those finals so we can leave on time!  We did manage to find time to attend our ex-pat neighbor's sixteenth birthday party.  There's always room - and time - for ice cream.

5/27/01:  As Marthame and Abuna Louis headed into the worship service this morning, Abuna asked him to say a few words about the trip to Iraq.  Marthame jumped at the chance, sharing our trip with the congregation that we went representing not only American Christians, but also Zababdeh.  We had seen a church that was a model of ecumenical cooperation, and that remained faithful in the face of adversity.  He then shared the basic message of the Conference: "Let us pray together for the peace of Christ."

5/29/01:  We've been trying to do a few last-minute visits this week before we head back to the States.  But recently, we've had visitors who have come to us.  Our friendly neighborhood cat (Ursa Minor, Little Bear, Little Dipper, or That Cat) has brought her four kittens out from their safe birth nest!  They are following her around and aren't quite sure what to do with us, but they certainly appreciate our gifts of powdered milk and old cheese.  For some reason, the same gifts haven't gone over well with our human visitors....  Walking through the town today reminded us of some of the things that we'll miss.  One of them is the sound of the birds (mostly cattle egrets) that fill the trees near the Latin Convent (audio - 5 sec.) - one of them isn't the risks we take walking under those trees.

5/30/01:  Last minute preparations as we head off tomorrow (yipe!).  Hitting the last little details, the last few items (like Marthame's suit) getting shoved into backpack nooks and crannies.  We've got a long two days ahead of us - leaving Zababdeh and heading to Ramallah, then finding our way to Jerusalem, then to Amman in time for our 3:00 AM one-stop trans-Atlantic flight on June 1.  But on the other side waits Chicago - the land of baseball and deep-dish pizza.  Just hope that visions of home will give us the energy for the journey.