Richard Wiley Writes About Researching his novel, The Hotel Shalom (Korea)
Last week I wrote about the Arabs and Jews I met when researching my novel, The Hotel Shalom; about the dusty town of Nablus with its jobless, hopeful boys, and Elon Moreh, illegal but thriving, with neither side talking to the other but with enough violent remedies to go around.
This week, I thought I’d say something about the Christians who are also everywhere in that part of the world, some born there – 47,000 Christians in Palestine, 177,000 in Israel, at last count – and some come from other parts of the world, especially evangelical America, to wait for the rapture like carrion eaters perched on barren branches above a battlefield.
When I went to do my research I stayed in the “Palm Guest House” in East Jerusalem, just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate – it’s my model for the Hotel Shalom – and in Christian guest houses inside the city, where many…”rapture hopefuls”… I shall call them… also settled in to do their waiting.
One such place, near Jaffa Gate, had a beautiful, secluded garden, where a particular American woman drew my attention, since every morning, no matter how early I rose to go for coffee, she would be there ahead of me, her hands clasped beneath her chin and her eyes cast skyward, like a figure in one of those Raphael paintings, waiting for the sublime.
“Good morning, how are you?” she asked me once, so clearly in the hope of proselytizing that I found my coffee elsewhere.
In Bethlehem, too, which is a half hour from Jerusalem but in Palestine, among the regular Church of the Nativity tourists were more ‘rapture hopefuls’ with such frenzied expressions on their faces that they could as easily be described as orgasmic as ones of eschatological longing.
I didn’t mention that to them, though, when we spoke.
Rather, I learned that they waited for two things:
“For Jesus to come and get me,” one man said.
“And before that,” said his wife, “for Israel to reclaim all the land that God promised Abraham in Genesis 17:8.”
In her parlance, ‘all the land’ meant kicking the Arabs to the curb, though two of Christianity’s top three holy sites – Bethlehem and Nazareth – were Arab occupied, not only now, but back when Joseph and Mary plodded along between them on their donkey.
I don’t mean to sound snide. I, too, grew up Christian, in the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, in Tacoma, Washington. I went to Sunday School there, sat in the church’s pews with my parents, listened to Dr. Long’s homilies and sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” while watching the dust motes float around the chapel’s beamed ceiling. I thought I saw an angel sitting on one of those beams more than once, and whenever we recited the 23rd Psalm – Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – I got Jesus scared into me and the bejesus scared out of me, at the same time. I said my prayers. I even went to church camp, hoping that one of the congregation’s pretty girls might notice me.
So though I knew little about Judaism or Islam, I understood where these Jesus freaks were coming from. Who wouldn’t want the rapture to look forward to when the alternative was lying dead and moldering in one’s grave, like poor Jud Fry?
Wait, I didn’t mean to write ‘Jesus freaks’ up there, but ‘rapture hopefuls.’ They were “me”, these folks, far more than were the main protagonists in the never-ending drama. So I felt freer to judge them. If I saw a twisted face, streaming with ecstatic tears, I wanted to tell its owner to get a grip, or go blow his nose. Back at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church we never acted like that, but sang our holy holies sedately, like good 1950s Republicans.
Yet those I am making a little fun of here are really only supernumeraries, extras hanging around the edges of the stage, while the scions of Ishmael and Isaac, the first two sons of Abraham, fight to the death (in perpetuity), in the center of it.
Ismael and Issac… Brothers! Well, okay, half-brothers. But could they not simply get along? Did their parents never teach them any manners?
A dear old friend of mine, much more savvy than I will ever be about the situation in the Middle East, wrote me a note regarding last week’s essay, “Meeting Both Sides.” He said, of the ongoing and intractable battle, “When God is invoked by both sides even She cannot resolve it.”
Indeed, She cannot. But both sides still invokes Her. And I believed that invocation is the devil doing his, and not God doing Her, handiwork. (There is no doubt about the devil’s gender.)
Do you remember that great Tina Turner hit, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
Well, put Tina’s voice in your head, place her over in Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Ramallah, and change the word “Love” to “God.” What’s God got to do with it?
I admit that, unlike love, God is no “second-hand emotion,” but can’t we put Her back where She belongs?
Where does She belong, you might ask, if not fighting for Jews or Muslims or Christians?
And my answer would be, to paraphrase James Joyce, She belongs ‘within or behind or beyond or above her handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent and paring her fingernails.’
I must admit now that I still do pray for things, like happiness for my children and grandchildren.
And also that the religious among you will forgive me my trespasses in this essay.
Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) is the author of ten works of fiction. His first novel, Soldiers in Hiding, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1987. He has also won The Maria Thomas Award, and the Washington State Governor’s Award. His most recent novel is The Grievers’ Group. He is an emeritus professor of English at UNLV and currently resides in Los Angeles.
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Richard: I’d like to read The Shalom Hotel. Is is out? Where can I find it? If it’s anything like this essay, I should love it. David
A wonderful and refreshing read to begin my day, Richard.
I lived at the edges of your story in my PC days, for two years in a mixed Kurdish-Turkish village. The Kurds had been there forever, and were distinguished from most Kurdish villagers in the region by not being under the thumb of an Aga–a feudal landholder, That due to a Kurd who had gone through Ataturk’s Village Institute program (inspired in part by a visit from John Dewey–and come home to build a school and teach in his village and be a life-long supporter of Ataturk.
The Turks were refugees from Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia who arrived in the late 1930s in trades of peoples. They were Muslim and spoke Turkish, but looked more like Bulgarians and Greeks. I was there 1965-67, so not long after their arrival.
In the village I met traveling gendarmes from across Turkey; our schoolteachers were a Kurd and a Black Sea Turk–probably, in part at least, Laz or Circassian.
In the city of Diyarbakir I met shopkeepers who quietly pulled out necklaces with crosses–they were Chaldean Catholics or Syrian Orthodox. I also met Agas who owned many villages, and once sat while a young Aga, dressed in fine western style in a small dark hotel in the old part of the city, entertained visitors, who, hat in hands that trembled, asked him for permission to marry off a daughter or extend credit on this year’s crop. He ordered tea for me, gave me a close-by seat, and translated from Kurdish to Turkish.
One of my language teachers who became a close friend was Donmegi-from those who had “turned” from Judaism to Islam in the 1700s, following a Rabbi who thought himself the savior, and when confronted by the Sultan, decided that he was not a savior of the Jews, but a Moslem.
When I was on the staff, one of my volunteers went with some of his Christian Palestinian students on break to the Holy Land and came back to write a story on the PLO–yes, many Palestinian Christians were part of that original organization aimed at liberation from Israel–for the local English language newspaper. The ambassador was not pleased, as I recall.
This cradle of world religions has seen their mixing and transforming for centuries. I am anxious to read your account of the current iteration in land holy–and continually contested–by many.