Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jerusalem Stories

Jaffa – On Thursday night in the Old City of Jaffa, I went to a place called the Arab-Hebrew Theater to see a performance of Jerusalem Stories, first in Arabic and then in Hebrew. Jerusalem Stories is an innovative idea in conflict resolution. It is a collection of Jerusalemites’ narratives, told in theatric monologue form, about their personal struggles, feelings, and losses inside the holy city.

Over three hours, six stories were recounted with much passion. Among them, there was an elderly muhajiba woman who traverses checkpoints daily to sell olives and dried fruits at Damascus Gate, a Kipah-wearing bus driver whose bus was bombed by a young suicide bomber, an aggrieved Palestinian man whose nephew was killed by the Israeli army on the day that Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, and a distraught Israeli mother who lost her young son to Palestinian suicide bombers in downtown Jerusalem.

What’s unique about these Jerusalem Stories of sadness and suffering are how they are told. There were actually two performances. First, the talented Mazin Safadi and Hiba Muffatesh delivered all six of the monologues (three Israeli and three Palestinian) in Arabic. Then, after a thirty-minute break, and to a different audience (with some exceptions), the equally strong Royi Nave and Hava Ortman performed the exact same six stories in powerful fashion, in Hebrew.

Since I stayed for both performances, I had the chance to hear, in Hebrew, about the muhajiba woman’s struggle at checkpoints and with Israeli soldiers. Similarly, in Arabic, I listened to the story of an Orthodox Israeli woman recite her favorite of the tehillim or psalms, which she reads for the victims of terror. At moments like these, the presentation was paradoxical, in a smile-inducing way, which was not altogether natural.

That wasn’t the case though for the stories of the deaths of Magdy or Assaf, young Jerusalemite boys, a Palestinian and an Israeli, struck down during the al-Aqsa intifada. As the actors playing Magdy’s uncle, first in Arabic and then about an hour and a half later in Hebrew, expressed the anger and grief of the loss of a loved one outside of the expected sequence of life, the language melted away. The story stopped being Arabic or Hebrew and it was just about the tragedy of the death of a boy. It was the same for the death of Assaf. The grief on the Arabic-speaking actress’ face and the distress in her voice as she described the absence of her son and the void in her life was moving. It wasn’t Israeli or Palestinian -- it was purely human and very sad.

And I guess that is where the conflict resolution comes to force. People identify, rather easily, with the suffering of their own kind. Carol Grosman, the project director and chief storyteller, and Mohammed Thaher, the project’s Palestinian director, have taken an innovative route. In addition to the stories there are post-performance facilitated discussions, other educational workshops, and a photograph exhibit. The stories, though, are the centerpiece, and they bring each community, in their own language, face-to-face with the horrors they know and carry around, but also with the tragedies and difficulties of the other community, which they may not have previously seen or recognized. To watch these stories recounted, in such a meaningful way, one can’t but walk away with an idea of the other’s loss and suffering as well as a sense for each people’s attachment and affection for Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Stories convey a powerful message, but I was just a few steps outside the theater when I was reminded that there is so much more than conflict, pain, and suffering here. Walking through Jaffa’s Old City, I passed sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea and downtown Tel Aviv. The Old City’s cobbled streets were quiet and the Mediterranean breeze made me feel like I was in Southern Europe. On my way to my car, I passed Abu Lafya, an Israeli legend of a bakery in Jaffa.

During the day, Abu Lafya is bustling. Arabic and Hebrew speaking customers swarm the counter and order fresh pastries that are baked in gigantic fired-ovens and filled with cheese, zatar, potatoes, eggs, and other favorites. Tonight, though, Abu Lafya was still. Abu Lafya family members sat in plastic chairs behind the counter drinking tea. I ordered a potato pastry in Arabic from a youngish guy with gelled black hair. A middle-aged guy with glasses came up beside me and ordered his pastries from the same young man, but in Hebrew. We each got the same thank you and good night, but in different languages.

The pain of the stories inside the theater, the tales of personal heartbreak, spiritual commitment, national love, and justice denied are all true, but there are so many other stories of co-existence and normal daily life, that are also true and less frequently told. There are lots of stories here, of all varieties.

My stories will be interrupted, though, for a little while. I’ve got to take a break from the "Live from ..." blog to work on larger projects. Full-time work is more than full-time, and I have to ration and channel my words, at least for now.

Until my next "Live from ..." column, all the best-

Monday, January 7, 2008

Heartbreak, Again

Jerusalem – Yesterday, at a little before 7AM, the Steelers’ season ended in gut wrenching fashion.

The last few weeks have been a struggle for my favorite team. We’ve lost a key player each week, and with each individual loss, the team has taken a body blow. Willie Parker broke his leg; we could no longer run the ball. Aaron Smith tore his bicep; we could no longer stop the run. Marvel Smith had back surgery; we could no longer protect the quarterback.

Still, the Steelers have heart. It was only two years ago that the team sliced through the playoffs, won three games on the road, and made the big plays in the big game to win the Super Bowl. Despite a blowout loss to the Patriots earlier this year, I wanted to see the Steelers get another shot at the best. You can’t count out a champion, no matter what the odds – nobody wants to play an elimination game against die-hards like Hines Ward and James Farrior.

Still, when I woke up at 3AM on Sunday, I knew that it might be my last chance to watch the Steelers for eight months. Thankfully, ESPN broadcast the game live. Clad in my 2006 Super Bowl t-shirt, I was so happy for the normal sized screen that I didn’t even mind that ESPN showed the same two soccer commercials at every break.

For 3+ hours, we watched the Steelers leave it all on the field against Jacksonville. Their second half comeback was poetic; it was almost impossible to believe that we could lose. The impossible happened, though, due to a terrible play-call, a missed tackle, and a game-winning field goal that knocked the wind out of me until this morning.

After the game, I folded up my Super Bowl t-shirt, crawled into bed, and buried my face in the pillow. I slept for four hours and spent the next 24 hours in my own personal salt mine.

There’s no longer a reason for me to check in the middle of the day for a new Steeler story. The playoffs go on, but not for us. Another year goes by for Ward, Farrior, Casey Hampton and others. Great players can’t stay great forever. The window of opportunity closes, and we’re left with memories of passes batted down in the end zone, special teams break-downs, interceptions at the worst moment, and championships that could have, should have, might have been won.

So how does a fan recover from a game that he had no impact on? It’s not like I can review film and figure out how to cheer better, or that I can switch shirts or buy a new Terrible Towel. Well, “context” and “hope” are the bitter pills that people like me swallow on days like today.

This morning, I was emailing with a lifetime Red Sox fan. Before the Sox won two World Series in the last four years, my friend lived through 40 years of following a team best known for its curse. As I collected his e-sympathies, I realized again why our 2006 Super Bowl win was so special.

The 90s were filled with great Pittsburgh teams that couldn’t write their names in the books. Setting aside Mario Lemieux and a Penguin dynasty cut short by injuries, we loved a Steeler team that lost three AFC Championships at home to inferior opponents over an eight-year period (including 2001), and a Pirates team that lost three consecutive pennants at the start of the decade. The final time, the Pirates choked in such a life- draining way (the Francisco Cabrera moment) that radio stations put psychologists on the air the next morning to help the public deal with the trauma and depression. For good measure, since the turn of the century, Pitt basketball has made it to the Big East Championship game six times. We’ve won once.

It adds up to a lot of disappointment. As a fan, you get up for these championship or playoff games. Especially in our case, you imagine your small market team dropping the hammer on the Yankees, Patriots, and UConn Huskies of the world. But it just doesn’t happen often enough.

Sometimes dreams do come true, though. And when you have moments like Antwaan Randel El completing a gadget-play pass to Ward to win the Super Bowl, all those sour defeats make winning that elusive championship taste so good. I’d guess that it might even taste better than championship moments that have become an end of the year habit for some spoiled fans.

The other bitter pill that we swallow at moments like this is called “hope.” It is cold out now, but only four more months to the NFL draft. Young stars like Ben Rothlisberger, Willie Parker, and Troy Polamalu who are just reaching their prime are reasons for optimism. And between now and the start of training camp in July, Penguin Phenom Sidney Crosby may well take over the NHL. And maybe, despite Pitt’s December injuries, Sam Young and Dejaun Blair will put the program on their backs and carry it to that elusive Final Four.


So, that’s it for the 2007 Steelers season. Next year, I hope.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hold the Public Praise, Please

Jerusalem – Last night, I was on the edge of my seat for 2.5 hours, watching a re-broadcast of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Jerry Yang defeated Tuan Lam to win $8.25 Million cash.

The WSOP is the biggest poker event of the year. It takes place in Vegas, has more than 50 events, and finishes with a no limit Texas Hold’em tourney. To qualify, a player needs to win a satellite tourney or post the $10,000 buy-in. 6,358 professional players, internet poker sharks, and garage game hopefuls participated this year leading to a huge pot (Lam won $4.8 Million as runner up).

2.5 hours of WSOP led me to two conclusions:

First, poker attracts a diverse group. The final table included a Dane, a South African, a Brit, and a Russian, all ranging in age from 22-62. The final two players were both refugees. Yang, a Laotian-American therapist and social worker, came to the United States in 1979. He spent four years in a camp in Thailand, where two of his siblings died. On the other side of the table was Lam, a Vietnamese-Canadian who worked as a laborer for a metal company and who was a refugee in an Indonesian camp.

What are the odds? I only wish Bob Costas covered poker so that I could know how many times a refugee has won the WSOP in odd-numbered years, at night.

In the match’s closing minutes, Lam’s supporters pulled out a Canadian flag and waved it patriotically, a la those annoying backpackers who sew flag-patches to their bags to distinguish themselves from Americans. In a Rocky IV moment, Americans in the crowd chanted “USA, USA” for Yang, the Laotian refugee turned Californian.

The second thing that occurred to me during the WSOP was how much I hate the invoking of Jesus (or any other God) at sporting events. I wanted to cheer for Yang – he donated 10 percent of his winnings to Make-A-Wish and other charities, making him a stalwart unofficial ambassador – but he kept calling upon Jesus for help throughout the match.

In tight situations, he’d kiss a picture of his family, and then say things like, “Lord, have a purpose for me to today,” or “Jesus, make us a believer.” After winning the showdown, Yang would thank Jesus, and his family in the stands would call out “Hallelujah!” At one point, Yang went head to head with Lee Watkinson, a 40-year-old from Washington. As the two faced off, the camera flashed between Watkinson’s wife who had her hands clasped together and was vocally asking for Jesus’ intervention and Yang’s family doing almost the exact same thing.

It was an internecine poker Crusade. Unlike when Yang eliminated Alex Kravchenko and his boisterous Russian cheering section, this was a showdown between fellow congregants believing that Jesus had a direct stake in their win.

Even here in the Holy Land, I find it both divisive and pretty self-involved to believe that God is taking an interest in poker flops and game-winning touchdown drives. Nothing makes me reach for the remote faster then a post-game interview that starts with a star or a coach thanking God or Jesus. It is hard to believe that God cares so much about converting a 3rd and 16 but not about stopping genocide in Sudan.

Last year, after the Colts won the Super Bowl, I was feeling happy for Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win the big game and someone who comes across as a very decent man. When asked how it felt to be the first black coach to win the Super Bowl, Dungy responded, "I'm proud to be the first African-American coach to win this. But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith [the Bears Coach] and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord's way. We're more proud of that."


Did all the Colts players do it the “Christian way?”
Were the teams the Colts beat comprised of infidels and polytheists?
And, how did the Colts non-Christian fans feel about Tony Dungy’s post-game speech? If I was a Colts fan, I’d feel left out for no reason.

Think I’m making a big deal over nothing?

How about if your boss ended each meeting at work by thanking God for enabling him or her to be your supervisor? Or how about if Tony Dungy were a Muslim and looked into the camera and stated the Islamic equivalent, “Allahu Akbar!” I wonder if that would have gone over with football America in the same accepting way.

Religion and belief are wonderful, but bringing them into the public space and forcing them on to others – whether that is the intent or not – is more often divisive than uniting. In America, religion is a personal and private thing, something that I realize from living in the Middle East, that we sometimes take for granted. So, if you win the Super Bowl, the WSOP, or anything else, I’m not against you thanking God for giving you the strength to win. I’d just like to ask that you save the thanks for your place of worship, a private moment with like-minded individuals, or your own self-reflection.