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The True Wonders of the Holy Land



Nadia wants to show me a picture of her fiancé. Look, she giggles, dangling a hot pink smartphone in front of my face. Her pre-wedding portrait looms into view. Handsome right? Quite tall? You like his suit?

The man in the photo is totally nondescript. But Nadia herself looks like a supermodel, with layer upon layer of white lace dripping flawlessly down her silhouette. I’m sure that’s why she showed me this photo in the first place.

Back home, I would never have hung out with someone like Nadia with her acrylic nails, skin-tight jeans, and rhinestone-studded everything. Her high-octane boy-craziness totally unmarred by decency. When we met in the convent’s back-kitchen one week ago—soiled aprons wrapped around our waists, our elbows buried in soap suds—the very first question Nadia asked me was: Do you have a boyfriend at home in Singafora?

Yes, I lied.

She narrowed her eyes. How serious?

MeI’m engaged, she added, almost immediately afterwards.

That winter, there was a definite hierarchy among the Palestinian teenagers working at the convent. At fifteen, Nadia was the youngest—but the reigning princess on account of her good figure and precocious matrimonial coup. In this kitchen in the Arab Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Nadia was the most glamorous person scrubbing the fossilized gunk off pilgrims’ dinner plates. Swinging her hips to the boisterous dance music that blared out of someone’s cellphone in the background.

What was I even doing here, washing plates with them? Nadia was confused. She was working for the convent for more pocket money, after high school. But I was a volunteer, who had signed up to do this for no discernible reward—other than the use of a spare bedroom in the convent’s guesthouse for pilgrims. You flew all the way here from the Far East…to stack our plates?

Also to see the wonders of the Holy Land, I said.

Habibti! Nadia snorted. If I had three months of free time, I would take a proper holiday.

On the days when we weren’t working, Nadia would invite me to her house in the Mount of Olives. There, we’d pass over the beautiful, world-famous Garden of Gethsemane, in favor of admiring touched-up photographs where Nadia herself looked particularly attractive. Enthusiasm mounting, Nadia would teach me how to tweeze my eyebrows to suit my face shape—an oval face, she explained, presented its own distinct opportunities and challenges.

At Nadia’s house, I ate from the never-ending flow of snacks that her mum prepared, ranked Arab celebrities by body and face, and slouched against various soft furnishings resting my brain. Sometimes, though, I could feel all the things that we didn’t want to talk about amassing and churning under the surface. Nadia’s marriage was coming up soon, in June—which meant that her parents would be taking her out of high school. When I’m older, I want to live in Europe or America, she’d say. Her mouth would hang open as she gazed into the mirror, swabbing on huge gobs of undereye concealer.


I became proper friends with Amani on the day that I tried to visit the All-Important Church.

The All-Important Church was located a ten minutes’ walk away from the convent whose dishes I was washing. It was so important to everyone because it was the holiest site in all of Christendom—six different Christian orders, in fact, shared joint custody of the place, bickering and squabbling over which relics belonged to whom.

All in all, the All-Important Church contained several specimens of All-Important Stones:

a stone where Christ’s dead body was meant to have been washed and anointed, post-crucifixion;

some stones that marked the great bonanza-discovery of Christ’s probable tomb;

and a stone where the history-making, world-changing angel most likely perched, in order to break the news of Christ’s resurrection to his mourners.

In the dimness of the church, I took all the photos that I could manage. Afterwards, exiting the building, I squinted at my camera; in the shitty half-light of Jerusalem’s mid-winter, all the All-Important Stones looked exactly the same.

In my family’s evangelical church back home in Singapore, I was the leader of a cell group. I went to service every Sunday, and swayed to four-chord songs about the attributes of God. I liked it when ordinary things snuck up behind me and smashed the rapture into my skull; I was gravely disappointed, in other words, to find that none of the special stones had affected me.

Lactic acid accumulated upsettingly in my thighs as I walked back uphill to the convent. In the convent’s kitchen, a skinny, teenaged girl with long, bleached hair was stealing slices of cheese out of the nuns’ communal fridge. She was thrusting them into the microwave, so that they melted over a huge wedge of peppered meat. The smell of grease in the kitchen was overwhelming and, quite frankly, disgusting.

Hi, said Amani. Her cheekbones sliced like a pair of insults. You must be the Singafora volunteer.

Amani thought that Nadia was hot, but dumb for getting married so young. I don’t know why all the others are so impressed, she complained, chewing her hunk of cheese-slathered meat. She herself was single, but moving onwards and upwards to better things—she was studying something to do with computers at Bethlehem University, in the West Bank. It’s more important to be smart than pretty, Amani declared. She raised one oily finger and gesticulated forcefully at the ceiling.

Over the months that we washed dishes together, Amani taught me a whole host of useful Arabic profanities. Shout this at him, she’d command whenever I came in late for work with a story about some lowlife catcaller who had tailed me through the souk again. They pick on you because you look fair and small, she explained. Learn how to stand up for yourself, okay, little girl?

Once, Amani herself was late for work. Checkpoint, she shouted, sweeping into the kitchen three hours later than scheduled. A torrent of Arabic streamed between her and the other teenagers, as they slammed dirty cutlery back and forth across the counters. It’s okay, she said later, waving away my questions. Sometimes it just happens.


In the intricate social ecosystem of the convent’s labor force, Jalal played a role that I recognized: the guy who was suspiciously old to be hanging out with teenagers. I think he’s almost thirty, Amani whispered. At this point, we were both nineteen. Thirty felt like the tail-end of mortality.

Despite being weirdly ancient for this work, Jalal was easy to love. A man-bear who lumbered into the convent in stained, rumpled sweatpants, and bellowed out hearty greetings to everyone present. He cracked dumb jokes where he himself was the punchline, and walked around with huge bags of the pilgrims’ laundry balanced on his shoulders. He once tried to rap in English so badly—and with so much fervor—that even the older staff in the convent had to laugh. Halas! they shrieked, swatting him away, and turning back piously to their floor-cleaning or reception-desk duties.

What’s Singafora like? Jalal kept badgering me. Better than here? Worse?

Watch out, he joked. Next year I’m going there to visit you! We both knew that this was basically impossible. But at least Jalal had the blue ID card that let him travel through Jerusalem, instead of the green one that kept other Palestinians trapped in the West Bank.

Sometime in my second month at the convent, the nuns organized a big daytrip out to Tiberias. They rammed all the foreign volunteers into one rickety minivan, and whisked us off to various sites of great significance. Such as: the Messiah’s Hometown, and the Messiah’s Local Synagogue. The Messiah’s Local Freshwater Lake—that was, confusingly, referred to as a sea in the New Testaments of our Bibles.

Each time we started off for someplace new, one of the other volunteers would read out a devotional text that they had penned under the Lord’s own influence. They were all intrepid retirees who wore cargo pants, quoted Josephus fluently, and genuinely enjoyed parsing hermeneutics with the nuns. I, on the other hand, was falling asleep. I was also becoming progressively nauseated in the back of this airless, lawlessly speeding vehicle.

By the time we got back to the convent that evening, I was two hairpin turns away from a collapse. Why so sad? Jalal enquired as I stumbled in.

My friend,