Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Special discount for the Mormons"

Before we arrived in the Holy Land, we were given strict instructions not to talk about our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) or to share our beliefs with those we came in contact with. This restriction is part of the agreement the Church has with the Israeli government – they allow us to have a presence in the Holy Land and to study there and we agree not to proselytize. Sometimes this has been difficult – we are after all encouraged to share our beliefs with people from a very young age – however it has taught me that often actions have power to stand alone.

The people in East Jerusalem certainly know who the Mormons are. I remember how strange it was the first day we walked through the Old City and the merchants greeted us happily with, “Ah, Mormons! Welcome! We give special price for the Mormons.” Granted they knew they could count on our money and so naturally they were happy to have the students back in town, but the fact is they can easily distinguish us from the mass of tourists that walk the streets of Jerusalem daily.

For example, there is Shabaan, a shopkeeper that specially caters to the Mormons by selling leather Jerusalem scripture cases and Hebrew CTR rings among the other general things people look to buy in the Holy Land. Whenever we stop by he quickly passes around plastic cups and pours us each some fruit juice. He told me once this is because he usually offers people tea or coffee, “but for the Mormons we give juice.”

One afternoon a group of us walked into his store and he turned to a customer (from the US) who he was chatting with and said, “These are the Mormons!” She laughed and said, “That’s because you knows them right?” And he said, “No no, we just know.”

After she left the store somewhat confused Shabaan told us about another instance where he surprised someone by being able to point out the Mormons. This person had seen a group of people walking and said, “Ah there are the Mormons.” But Shabaan knowing better had told him they weren’t Mormons. When the group of people approached, the man asked them if they were Mormons, and they said they were not (I wish I could have seen their reaction to such a random question). A few minutes later Shabaan pointed to a group and said those are the Mormons, and by the same test proved he was right. Shabaan then explained to us, “We can tell by your faces.”

On another occasion I had an experience that would make every missionary jealous – a man asked me for a copy of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately I had to pass up this once in a blue moon moment.

It was a cold and somewhat rainy day in Jerusalem and I stepped into a little coffee shop and ordered some hot chocolate. While waiting for the shopkeeper to prepare it, chatted with a man who was sitting at another table. He asked if we were Mormons and then asked us if he could have a copy of our holy book. With much regret we had to tell him that we weren’t allowed to give him one. He kept pushing though and asked us why not. I tried to explain that we had promised the government that we wouldn’t and therefore we couldn’t share our book with him. People always have a hard time understanding why we are not allowed to talk about our church, and of course it is hard for us to refuse to share our beliefs especially when they try to coax us into disregarding the agreement, but as representatives of the Church we can’t afford to do so.

All we could do was apologize to the man in the coffee shop that day. As we got up to leave though, another man stopped us at the door and looking at the cup I held in my hand, he said, “I thought Mormons don’t drink coffee.” Luckily I was able to assure him it was hot chocolate. Here was proof that even though we couldn’t share a Book of Mormon, we could represent who we were by our actions because we were certainly being watched.

As of Thursday night, I am home in Canada with no more restrictions on what I say to people but already I miss the greetings like the one shopkeeper who sang to us as we walked by, “Hello Mormons, we support you, don’t forget us, I’m the man for you.”

This is Abdul - he owned the corner store down the street and was very nice to us Mormon students.

Shabaan owns the Ali Baba BYU Store in the Christian Quarter of the Old City.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

BYU-Jerusalem Students Go to Hell

I can officially say that I have been to hell and back. Ironically I met some of the kindest people in hell and it was a rather pleasant experience. But lest you start to worry about my eternal salvation, I ought to tell you that hell is a very real place in Jerusalem.

Just below Mount Scopus (where I live) lies the Kidron Valley, and if you follow it the Kidron Valley meets with the Hinnom Valley at the base of the City of David. Our English idea of hell corresponds to the word “Gehenna” which is the Greek equivalent of the “valley of Hinnom.” According to the LDS Bible Dictionary, the Hinnom Valley is “a deep glen of Jerusalem where the idolatrous Jews offered their children to Moloch” (a pagan god). Later this glen was used as a place for burning garbage and thus it became symbolical of torment. You probably have never considered where the term hell-fire came from, but now you know!

And so partly out of curiosity and largely to earn the bragging rights, I set out with eight friends on a journey to hell. As a side note, we thought it would be funny if we all wore the soccer jerseys we bought in Egypt and so we all matched and took some team photos along the way.

In the Holy Land, you cannot go anywhere without finding reminders of the past, and so as we walked through the Kidron Valley we stopped to explore some tombs that we found along the way including the tomb of Absolom (son of David). I always feel like Indiana Jones when I’m feeling my way through small dark space though I generally turn back when I start to feel cobwebs. (Don’t worry; these tombs are usually empty of their former inhabitants.) Juxtaposed with the tombs, there was also much to indicate that life goes on in the valley. Herds of goats grazed on the hillside while the goat herders reclined lazily in the shade watching them and further down the path kids played games near a corner store. And to complete the picture, a group of Americans (and two Canadians) wearing matching Egypt jerseys walked by snapping pictures as they went.

When we finally got to hell, which was surprisingly hard to find, we met a very nice Palestinian man named Ahmud. He asked us where we came from and told us a little bit about himself and then invited all nine of us to come to his house, which was across the street – keep in mind that most Palestinian homes are very modest in size. Outside his home, Ahmud introduced us to his grandkids and then showed us around his garden, breaking off shoots from one tree for us to take home, which he gave to us in a potted plant. Unfortunately his wife then came out with little cups of tea for us and we had to refuse and try to explain in broken English why we couldn’t accept it. They both looked a bit upset and he said that for an Arab it is forbidden to turn down something like that when you are at someone’s house. We tried to explain that we don’t drink tea for religious reasons and I hope that he understood.

He soon cheered up again and we sat on chairs outside his house and listened to him tell us about his family. He also told us why he did not like George Bush, which we tend to hear quite often. He also told us that the Arabs are good people and that their hearts are white and not black and asked us to tell people when we go home (and so I am telling you now). He also said the Jews are his brothers and that the conflict was originally because of outsiders interfering in the Middle East. Before we left we sang him a song and thanked him for inviting us to his home.

On our way home, we took a short cut through the Orson Hyde Garden on the Mount of Olives and then through a field above the garden. There under some trees we found a large group of Palestinians sitting on blankets having a picnic. They called us over and invited us to eat some meat as they asked us where we were from. We didn’t stay long but we did share some of their food and a few friendly words in broken English and a few hearty “thank you’s” in Arabic (it’s one of the only words I know).

It amazes me that these families would stop a group of strangers passing by and invite them to share their food. Granted we were wearing matching clothes and probably looked a bit unusual, but at home that would never happen. I have been very impressed at the generosity of the Palestinian people. They don’t have very much – Ahmud in his run down little house and the family with their blankets and old barbeque – but they are willing to give so much. I think that we, who have so much in comparison, have to learn to be more like these Palestinians who have a true sense of who their neighbours are. I hope that through our interactions with them, the people here in Israel will also sense our sincerety.

Overall, I think our PR tour for the Egyptian soccer team turned out to be largely successful.

P.S. I have added the links to my Facebook photo albums so that those without Facebook can view more of my photos. Just click on the album title and it should take you right there. One of them includes photos from my trip to Galilee. Enjoy!

The team next to Absolom's tomb.

Walking through the Kidron Valley.

Our new Palestinian friend Ahmud.