Excuse me, but how do I eat this?
“The land of milk and honey” is somewhat misleading as a description of the Holy Land. More like the land of processed white bread. The pita is like Mexico’s tortilla or China’s white rice…or Asheville’s whole grain, organic, free range and spiritually harvested quinoa. And after five months of a steady diet built precariously on a foundation of empty carbs, I noticed one morning in April that my body was beginning to say “Halas!” (enough in Arabic).
No one likes to admit they have a bizarre rash – just the very word itself induces collective jitters in travelers around the world. But that’s what I got – a fierce Lichtenstein complex on the upper half of my body (thank the Lord for small graces) from my shoulders down to my fingertips, culminating in a hulk-like swelling and bubbling in the palms of my hands. And oh does it itch? Like hell.
But even when my instincts about the correlation between gluten and my “manky” hands - as my British friend calls them - were confirmed by a local doctor, I still continued to explore alternative factors like cleaning solutions and laundry detergent while trying to scrape away the truth with my fingernails. Since reality set in, I’ve gone through a number of series of committed anti-gluten regimens and cookie-driven denial, cycling me through varying degrees of maddening itchiness.
At the moment I’m back into a semi-committed relationship with rice cakes and exploring how the hell I can also enjoy what I love most about the region’s food culture: falafel and hummus and all of the other delectable dips, goos, spices, and tapenades the Middle East is famous for. I’ve come to realize that bread is simply the vehicle for the awesomeness, but I’m having to adapt my digestion patterns to accommodate my new reality. I can spoon the falafel and its toppings out of the pita; the makings of a bagel are just as good on a salad; and croissants…well, sometimes I still shed a tear or two over the loss of chocolate croissants (or steal a bite of the Belgian chocolate cake that has melted onto my side of the ice cream bowl. It’s a process…)
But I was recently considering this question of having to consistently ask “how do I eat this?” as I deal with a completely other form of digesting the Middle East. I have no idea what international news is focusing on outside of the World Cup, but around here and splattered all over Facebook are outcries, speculations, and escalating emotions about three young settlers who were recently abducted in the West Bank. At the most basic level, this is a tragic and terrifying story of families experiencing their worst nightmares. It’s one we are unfortunately not unfamiliar with in the US in terms of wayward hikers and the nauseating rise in school shootings. But this kidnapping is also part of a greater political narrative here – that of the occupation. These kids and their families are living on contentious land – land that by international law does not belong to them. They are intentionally residing in harm’s way as an expression of their political and religious values, and their absence is naturally causing a ruckus on both sides of the wall.
Feeling overall saddened and confused about the situation, I’ve turned to a social compass for support, but my community seems just as perplexed as I am. Some of my friends are in a complete dishevelment about this kidnapping, demanding the return of our boys, cursing the evil of the Palestinian leadership and spending hours praying at the Western Wall. Others are focused on the politics of the situation –they are asking why no terrorist organization has yet claimed responsibility for the assault as it traditionally would; why the Palestinian Authority is being held accountable publicly but behind closed doors the Israeli government is rejecting their help; pointing out the hypocrisy in the scores of arrests have been made at random throughout the West Bank. Nearly one hundred young Palestinian men are being held for questioning – simply not coming home to their parents at night. Still others have no idea what to think about where they stand politically, but are just aching for the individuals caught in the conflict as they watch tensions rise in their back yard (and holding their breaths as we welcome over three hundred Ultimate Peace campers and staff to camp).
I’m wondering how to eat this. I think that in a previous chapter of my life, I would have swallowed this frenetic energy and carried it deep in my belly - digesting it like the Eucharist to somehow feel connected. But this time I feel disconnected from this crisis, almost like I’m floating above it. I’m choosing not to read the articles and pay attention to the news - to instead focus on what I want and what I can control. I remember someone asking me once how I could possibly help a beaten man simply by letting myself get beaten. Does understanding someone else’s inner turmoil make me better serve the world? If the answer is no, which is a relatively new theory I’m entertaining, then what I seem to be doing with my life experience now is taking a lick or two off the top and then leaving the rest – acknowledging that if I chew it up and swallow, it will make me too raw to function. But isn’t that cheating? Is it okay to dig all the good stuff out of the middle and leave behind the stuff that hurts? Are we allowed to suck the falafels and meat out of the sandwich and leave the pita behind?