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?
Me—I’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, I will cheer you up, he boomed. Tomorrow you can come to my house, and I will buy you hookah from the souk. You like apple flavour, correct?
That Jalal had retained this piece of trivia about my tobacco preferences was as surprising as it was sweet. Correct, I said. Then I went to my room to throw up.
One evening during my final month in the Holy Land, Fakhri whipped out a key from the back pocket of his jeans. Tonight after work, he declared, we were all going up to the convent’s fifth-floor terrace. A rooftop view of the Old City! Rich tourists paid a premium for this shit.
Fakhri popped the collars of all his polo shirts with a confidence bordering on contempt. He wore a gold chain and immaculate white skinny jeans, and had a high-fade haircut like a work of art. He also had a Facebook profile that claimed he played midfielder for Real Madrid C.F.
You know them? he asked me out of the corner of his mouth while expertly lighting two cigarettes at once. He inhaled from both sticks a few times before palming one off to Jalal.
Not really. No.
That’s okay since you’re a girl.
From the convent’s rooftop, I could see the Old City sprawled out before me: magnificent, moldering, pockmarked ruin. Holy old chunks of spirit-sapping limestone. I was in a particularly foul mood that day, because I’d spent an hour running around the souk trying to get into the Third Holiest Site in Islam. One of the convent’s nuns had assured me that the place would be open from mid-afternoon onwards. But when I arrived at the most obvious entrance, a man with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder barked: Muslims only! Muslims only!
It made sense that he was being strict. After all, fanatics of all stripes in this city harbored ill intent towards the Third Holiest Site in Islam. Some wanted to build their Third Temple on its grounds—and made sure that everyone else in the Old City knew it, by marching down the streets at least once a month while bashing percussion instruments, and screaming indecipherably. Other people—like the ones who went to my church back home—also wanted the Third Temple to materialize. But they were hoping for a further, even more exciting, epilogue to the drama, where Jesus came back to rule the world.
I just wanted to take a decent photo for Facebook. So I circled the area, eyed the guards, and scowled at every person they let through the gates. I sat down in a fit of pique on a bollard, then bawled passive aggressively on the phone to a friend—until finally, an annoyed passerby told me to go around the block, and queue up at the special tourists’ entrance.
Fakhri laughed in my face when I told him this story. That’s so stupid, he said. You can see it from here.
He was right. Across from us, the golden dome of the Third Holiest Site in Islam was winking like a big, fat taunt in the night.
Near the edge of the terrace, Nadia and Amani were squawking with escalating energy at some sort of choppy home-video that was playing off Whatsapp. Jalal was cracking jokes with the other Palestinian part-timers while picking scraps off an outrageously large plate of food that someone had annexed for him from the pilgrims’ dinner service.
The moon was bright. The air was cool. And the music being played was—defying all belief—even trashier than the usual top-40s dregs we washed dishes to. Whenever a new song came on, Jalal would belt out the first line off-key while everyone else play-heckled his attempts. Aywa aywa! they’d briefly yell, before talking over him again.
Fakhri conveyed my stupidity to the rest in Arabic. Screeching ensued. He looked down at me, grinned, and took an enormous, kingly drag off his cigarette.
Next time, he advised me, take it easy.
Just stay here. We’re the best attraction in Jerusalem anyway.
According to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, a wonder is fundamentally different from a sign. A religious sign, typically, contravenes some basic law of nature—as in water becoming wine, or a dead man defying entropy to pop back up to life.
But a religious wonder is different. It doesn’t have to spark incredulity, or defy belief in any way. All that it has to be is marvelous to behold: a source of endless and genuine amazement. A wonder functions to turn your gaze. Or even, for a second, to stop your heart. It whisks your breath away, as it lifts off the visible surface of the world and breaches your memory in a scintillating wave.
Ultimately, a wonder is capable of holding your attention because it is a conduit—a space of possibility that the spirit passes through. It hums itself alive with the raw energy of the divine. It looks straight back at you as you turn to contemplate its form.
The Bible Dictionary puts this distinction more succinctly. Whereas a sign appeals to the understanding, it explains, a wonder appeals to the imagination.
After I returned from Jerusalem, two separate developments occurred. The first, more predictable one was that I jettisoned my faith. Over a few months, I stopped going to my Zionist-leaning evangelical church in Singapore. I stopped reading my Bible, and stopped leading a cell group. More generally, I stopped believing in Christianity’s God.
The second development was much more surprising to me. One day, apropos of nothing, I sat down at my laptop and began to write stories. Until that point, I’d never attempted anything like fiction before. But after I came back from the Holy Land, a whole deluge of imaginative work began to pour out of my fingers starring whole and pulsating, living characters.
To be fair, these stories never featured any of the Palestinian teenagers directly. But more often than not, I found myself building new characters out of aspects of their personalities that I remembered. My characters had Fakhri’s high-tops and Jalal’s belly-laugh. Or spoke in Amani’s serrated voice, which sawed its way out of her chest to scale up the walls of whatever room she was in. They kept tiny bottles of apricot-scented lotion in their purses, just like Nadia did. Or flipped their long, carefully conditioned hair in a perfect imitation of her.
I never tried to publish these stories. In fact, I never showed them to anyone. Instead, I would produce them in quiet, fervid bursts—then hastily flip my laptop shut again, as if to hold in the words. In fiction, I found, I could relive my time with my friends—make the precise textures of their language and behavior come rushing back to me, crackling with electric energy on the page.
As the years went on, I forgot nearly every bland detail of the holy sites that I had visited. The assorted relics of the Holy Land stayed dumb and dead, in old pictures on my camera—or else went to seed on long-forgotten corners of the internet.
But the teenagers, on the other hand, stayed alive, as vivid as they had been all those years ago. I remembered every last thing about them—so many details, in fact, that sometimes the feeling of their presence in the room would floor me. Turn my gaze. Or stop my heart. Whisk the living breath out of me, as I sat down at my desk to write about, and remember, them.
Fakhri had been right. They’d been the true wonders.
In the summer of 2014, three years after I returned from the Holy Land, a new Palestinian Unity Government was sworn into power. One month later, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. In the span of seven weeks, it launched air strikes and ground invasions that killed 2,300 people, and wounded 11,000 more. A total of 520,000 people were displaced; 1,000 children were left permanently disabled; 203 mosques were razed; 96,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed.
On the Israeli side, five civilians were killed by retaliatory violence. And two others died from heart attacks caused by the shock of hearing sirens.
Outrage surged through the Palestinian stronghold of East Jerusalem. When Jewish extremists kidnapped a local Palestinian teenager on the street—then doused him in petrol and burnt him alive—ten thousand demonstrators showed up for his funeral. By the end of summer, there had been a whole rush of protest-attacks in the city, with newspapers murmuring about a Third Intifada. People were hitting back with sniper fire and knives, through vehicle attacks, or by lobbing stones and firecrackers. One person shot a right-wing Jewish activist point blank, minutes after he delivered a public lecture about forcibly taking back the Third Holiest Site in Islam.
All in all, thirty-three Israelis were injured by these attacks.
In response, Israeli military forces injured a further 1,333 Palestinians in Jerusalem.
By this time, I was living far away, watching it all unfold on the news. And then one day, out of nowhere, I received my first-ever email from Sister Rita—the tiny, sprightly nun who had been in charge of the convent’s volunteer program all those years ago.
Pray for Jerusalem, read her update to the ex-volunteers. These are deeply troubling times. The convent was now using its bomb shelter regularly, for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The nuns were mostly fleeing for the safety of their homes in Europe or North America. We don’t know when, or if, the situation will improve.
I blurted out their names in the order that their faces blinked into my mind: Nadia, Amani, Jalal, and Fakhri. What about these people? I asked Sister Rita. My friends, who used to work for you. Do you know if they are safe?
I never found out. Sister Rita never replied.
TJOA SHZE HUI is a nonfiction writer from Singapore. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, So To Speak, The Minola Review, the Oxford-Cambridge literary anthology The Mays, and elsewhere. She has received support from Disquiet International and the Tin House Summer Workshop. Currently, she is working on her first book, a memoir-in-essays about recovering identity. Find her at www.tjoashzehui.com.