Monday, September 14, 2009

It's sixteen miles to the Promised Land, and I promise you I'm doing the best I can.

With a wonderful Iraqi nun riding next to me, the Chaldean Church of the Sacred Heart set off on a pilgrimage today for Eid al-Salib, or the Feast of the Holy Cross.  While some of my favorite students didn't feel well enough to make the trip, we had a good group for the journey to As-Salt in the north, Mt. Nebo, Madaba, and the Dead Sea.  Setting off early in the morning, the day began with prayers in Chaldean (Neo-Aramaic) that I'm beginning to get the hang of and songs in the same language; in other words, it was what I imagine a church field trip to be, had I ever gone on one of those in the states.

Our first stop was Kineesa Mar Giorgis (or Mar Jirjis to the Orthodox) in As-Salt.  It is here that St. George left a footprint in the rock, maybe even slaying a dragon here.  In any case, there is a small cave at the back of the church that seeps oil, which the faithful dab at for its healing properties.  It is quite possibly dragon blood.  The church had a serpentine motif throughout, which I thought was pretty cool.  I've always thought that St. George was one of the church's more interesting saints.  I mean, sometimes diseases can heal themselves and get attributed to an especially pious person who lives in a cave nearby, but killing a dragon?  St. George certainly did something extraordinary, and there were probably giant lizards back in the day.  Maybe St. George killed a velociraptor.  (Someone please photoshop this together)  See also: Jerashic Park (that's a daydream I had about dinosaurs populating the Roman Decapolis city of Jerash).

But I digress.

After our stop in As-Salt, we headed to Mt. Nebo via one of the most beautiful valleys I've ever seen.  At times there was a stream at the bottom, but often it was just a string of green - date palms, tall grasses, and other plants - at the bottom of a desert canyon.  Tiny paths crisscrossed the hills, making me think of the wise assertion that "Sand people travel single file to hide their true numbers."  I'm essentially the same person as I was at age 12.

After that gorgeous drive up and down the canyons, we arrived at Mt. Nebo, the site of a major part of the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses got to see the Promised Land and deliver the law again to the Israelites before dying atop the mountain.  Fr. Raymond said mass in the Franciscan church there, which was an amazing experience.  Attempting to keep up with the Chaldean hymns, I had the feeling that I was doing something right with this project.

After mass, I walked to the lookout point, from where you can see the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Nablus, and a few other places in Israel/Palestine.  Then I stopped to talk to a couple of my students in shade of a few trees, who were having fun with Arabish, I told them that Arabic would be a lot better if you could just add an "s" to make a plural.  "Teresa" thought Arabic could be improved by the addition of a progressive tense.  She then said, "hua rooh-ing to al-bus." That made me laugh pretty hard.

After a short drive, we stopped at a nice rocky outcropping, where everyone unloaded, bringing out a picnic to feed about twice as many people as were in attendance.  I was planning on fasting today, but Iraqis really don't take no for an answer when it comes to food and hospitality.  In about thirty seconds, I had two sandwiches, a piece of chicken, salad, a peach, grapes, dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and a coke thrust upon me.  And halowiyat (sweets).  I barely managed to turn away a second peach, a banana, a beer, and a plate of briyani (Arab fried rice).  When I got back on the bus, I was handed what looked to be a muffie, y'now, the top of a muffin (see: Seinfeld).  It was, in classic Iraqi fashion, filled with meat.  Jordanians joke that Iraqis eat meat for every meal.  Breakfast isn't breakfast for Iraqis without lamb, beef, and chicken included.  I suppose that comes with living in a fertile area like Mesopotamia.  But beyond that, I should note here that Iraqis are like magicians with meat.  They can put meat into anything.  You think that's a grilled onion?  Nope.  They hollowed it out like a faberge egg and filled it with lamb.  That red pepper is stuffed with beef.  Same goes for that zucchini.  Even a delicate little pastry is secretly a meat-filled morsel.  This is not a complaint; I just remain in awe of their wonderful cooking.

After consuming what could conservatively be estimated as four meals, I hobbled onto the bus and we continued on to Madaba.  I had visited Madaba before, home of the famous Madaba mosaic map from the sixth century AD, but it was definitely worth the second trip.  The map is fantastic, and I have just enough knowledge of the Greek alphabet to make out some place names on the map which covers present-day Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and the Nile Delta in Egypt.  After saying a few prayers and singing a hymn, we were off to the Dead Sea.  

This was my first visit to the Dead Sea, though I had seen it from the mountains before.  It is easily 15 degrees hotter than any other place we went today, and the feeling the salinity of the water was pretty strange.  Watching the teenagers horse around and older folks just dip their toes in, it was nice just being part of their pilgrimage.  After wading in with my student "Emanuel," we cleaned up and headed back to the bus.  On the way home to Amman, Sister "Miryam" fell asleep on my shoulder.  Today felt like I am doing the Watson right.

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