We welcome Joanna Liss to the Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. A veteran of volunteering overseas, she recently went to Israel with the voluntourism group GoEco — on a quest that can best be described as quasi-spiritual.
I must confess I do not consider myself a particularly spiritual person. I have been on what would qualify as a spiritual retreat only once — about 40 years ago, when spending a weekend at a Zen center in the mountains of New Mexico. I was a student at the University of New Mexico at the time, with a religious studies minor (though a non-religious person, I was fascinated by religion’s folkloric aspects).
We were assigned to our dorm accommodations, given sparse meals of miso soup and bread, spent many hours sitting still and meditating — interspersed with breaks of walking and meditating — and were instructed not to talk, at all, all weekend.
My major memory of that experience was a dorm companion gesturing, rather frantically, and graphically, in a charade that I finally interpreted as a request for a tampax. I had a hard time stifling giggles for the rest of the weekend.
An unholy visit to the Holy Land
I have traveled to many places but never, until recently, to Israel. I never, honestly, had much of a desire to go — perhaps ironically, because my heritage is Jewish. It is difficult for me to sit through a Bat or Bar Mitzvah service, and my religion-related endeavors consist mostly of cooking potato latkes and matzoh brei.
I also admit that my politics do not necessarily align with those of the Israeli government. I wasn’t interested in religious travel, and there were too many other places that called to me more.
What finally prompted my visit to the Holy Land was an online listing for a volunteer project in a gallery of Arab art in Umm el-Fahem, an Arab city in Israel. I was ignorant enough to not have realized, beforehand, that there were Arab cities in Israel, or that a full 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab. I had thought of the Israel-Arab conflict as between Israelis and Palestinians, complicated enough, without knowing that it was made even more complex by the situation of Arab Israelis. (I asked around and was somewhat comforted, perhaps wrongly, to learn that most of my friends, even those who are Israeli Jews, were not aware of the Arab Israeli situation.)
And so, I set off for what would be a rather unorthodox Israeli experience, as a Jewish woman living, for six weeks, in an art gallery in an Israeli city where I was the only Jewish person.
Yes, I not only worked in the gallery but actually lived in an apartment on the rooftop third floor, surrounded by the whimsical sculptures on the rooftop patio outside my apartment. This living space afforded a spectacular view of the city, and several times daily the steep hills of the city echoed with the sounds of the muezzin calling out their amplified prayers.
If I were to call an experience spiritual, I suppose this would be one, especially when the amplified voices of the muezzin blended and harmonized, intentionally or coincidentally, I couldn’t say. It would probably have been a less moving experience for me, though, if I had been able to understand the words.
Travel as a source of personal renewal
I’ve heard, often enough, a person say she or he wasn’t religious, but spiritual. But what exactly is spirituality, especially of the secular kind? According to my prime informational source, Wikipedia, secular spirituality can be experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life, without necessarily accepting belief in a divine being. It can encompass compassion, patience, tolerance, contentment, responsibility, forgiveness, and concern for others.
In that sense, all my travels can be considered spiritual experiences, at least in secular terms. So maybe I am more spiritual than I thought?
Still, for me renewal comes not from retreat but from immersion in a new experience — be it a hot spring in the snow, watching the Eiffel Tower’s midnight light show from my garret apartment, or enjoying a leisurely breakfast at home of my favorite cereal with plump fresh blueberries and the sun shining in through the window.
Travel renews me, certainly — when I’m viewing an architectural or natural wonder, a work of art and, most of all, when I’m interacting with interesting people I might not otherwise have encountered.
The mystery of the falling headscarf
Back to Israel: I had many experiences in Umm el-Fahem that might fit the spiritual bill. Let me relate a couple. An artist on exhibit while I was there was Fatima Abu Rumi, whose meticulously detailed paintings deal with issues of self-identity. She paints herself repeatedly, totally veiled, with hijab (head scarf) hiding her hair but not her face, with the same scarf around her neck in quite a modern style, without any scarf at all.
Almost every school day, groups of young local children visited the gallery with their teachers and some mothers, the women all wearing the hijab. After some discussion Halima, the gallery educator, would bring out a basket of scarves, and all the children, boys and girls, helped by the adults, would don scarves, on their heads, over their faces, over their shoulders, as they chose.
Morning after morning, I descended from my apartment and watched, mesmerized. Some children were shy, some posed for my camera. I was as fascinated by the positive reactions of the adults as by the children. I only wish I could have understood what Halima had told them.
In a small niche hung a headscarf, black and white, identical to the one Fatima had repeatedly painted herself wearing. One morning, before my eyes, the hanging scarf suddenly fell off its hook on the wall. There had been no draft of air. I debated whether to pick it up or leave it. Later that month, when we delivered one of Fatima’s paintings to a prominent Jewish art collector, I noticed that the scarf had been tucked into the back of the frame, and told him the story.
Another significant moment came at the Haifa Museum of Art. We had gone to watch another Umm el-Fahem artist, Farid abu Shakra, do a performance piece. Farid is the younger brother of Said abu Shakra, the founding director of the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery. An artist and an art teacher, Farid also curates some of the gallery’s exhibits.
At the end of the piece, Farid took two pieces of cloth that were hanging on the museum wall, a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and a keffiyah (the black and white cloth worn as a head covering by some Arab men). He tied them together. The message was clear. No words were necessary — and no religious belief — to feel the power of the moment, as well as to demonstrate the power of art to transform people, a major goal of the gallery.
(Amusingly, when I later showed my photo of the connected cloths to Farid, he commented, “very powerful image” — as if he were complimenting me, when the image was his.)
Farid also shared with me a series of maxims he had written in English. Here is my favorite:
He said to me, are you happy with your life? And I said to him, first explain the meaning of happiness, and then I tell you my reply.
Further mysterious sightings
On my next to last day in Umm el-Fahem, I visited the nearby ruins of Tel Megiddo, aka Armaggedon. It was just after a certain American minister had re-predicted the coming of the end of the world, realizing he had miscalculated the first time around. The site, and the world, were still intact when I visited. The ruins were interesting, and peaceful, aside from the surly saleswoman in the gift shop. We walked through the ancient stables and down into a huge stone lined cistern. I do feel a heightened intensity of place where historical events have occurred, and Tel Megiddo has had its share of events and battles over the millennia. The now quiet ruins actually might not be a bad place to spend the world’s final days.
Israel, of course, is replete with places of intense spirituality, to folks of many different beliefs, and it impossible not to feel the significance, historically and religiously, particularly in places like Jerusalem and Nazareth. Although I was not there for spiritual reasons, there are, wherever you turn, places of extreme importance to many. One encounters ultra-religious Jews in their dark clothes, side curls on the men and boys, head scarves on the women, Christians walking the literal stations of the Cross shouldering large wooden crosses, Muslim houses painted with what looks like graffiti but is actually a mark that the owner has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
I went to the Western Wall on the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, along with thousands of others. It was crowded, of course, but, surprisingly, not very difficult to make one’s way, after security, to the wall itself. I did make the mistake, at first, of heading toward the men’s side, and was kindly directed to the other side. There were women of all ages and kinds, some with strollers, some with canes, most praying, some just being tourists like me.
I walked up to the wall and touched my hand to it briefly; it seemed like the right thing to do. I did not write a prayer on paper and stick it in a crevice the way most people were doing, although it was tempting. I do like rituals at times, and mysterious things.
Here is the biggest mystery of my Israeli sojourn. On the women’s side of the wall was a woman (man?) who was a dead ringer for Michael Jackson. No kidding. I have the photo to prove it. S/he was standing next to more normal looking women, complete with quasi-military jacket, brass buttons and epaulets. There are many mysteries in the world that may never be solved. But please, is there someone who can explain this to me? I am hoping, and praying, that someone will.
Readers, can you relate to Joanna’s description of her secular spiritual travels — or do we need to come up with another term for it?
Joanna Liss has been traveling from the time she was a child in the Bronx, first to exotic destinations such as Brooklyn and Manhattan, later on family car trips up and down the East Coast, to places including Maine, Delaware, Montreal, and Miami, through all of which she professed that she could never live anyplace but New York. That all changed when she moved to Paris after high school. She has been traveling ever since. Her trip to Israel with GoEco marked her eighth adventure volunteering overseas; the other seven were with Volunteers for Peace. You can follow Liss’s adventures at her blog: Joanna’s Journey. Next stop: Havana.
STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, an interview with Dave Prager, author of Delirious Delhi, on our list of 2011 books for, by and about expats.
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Images (top to bottom): The view from the rooftop of Liss’s apartment in Umm el-Fahem, Israel; the artist Fatima Abu Rumi (note the Hello Kitty tee shirt) with one of her paintings; the keffiyah and tallit tied together at the Haifa Museum; and the Michael Jackson lookalike Liss spotted at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (women’s side).