Losing my religion in the holy lands


Hanthala makes it to the Sistine chapel

My husband told me a funny story that happened to his friend the hydrologist; lets call him Jim (not his real name). Jim and another person were doing research on a certain river in BC. The river runs parallel to a highway. They used a small boat to sail through the river, until they reached a section that contained large boulders lying on the riverbed, right underneath the water surface. The two men decided to dock the boat and step from one boulder to the next, to do their measurements and take samples. They were using the boulders as footsteps, and moved briskly along the river. While they were working away, Jim lifts his head up to see a group of people gathering around. Each person had parked his car to the side of the highway and was starring in the direction of the two working men. From a distance, it looked like Jim was walking on water. The crowd thought they were witnessing a miracle. The fact that Jim is a slender bearded man probably contributed to the confusion with a certain biblical figure.

And so begins my losing my religion story, not with a bang but with a joke.

“I am a Christian”, I declared in first grade. I was attending Amal, a catholic run private school in Kuwait where half the students were Christian and the other half were Muslim. Amal means hope in Arabic. The Muslim kids had to attend a weekly class on Islam as mandated by the state curriculum. We Christian kids got to play outside. Being a Christian was good, one less class, less homework and less studying. Until my father had to ruin it for me by telling the teachers and nuns running the school that I am a Muslim. I could no longer join the Christian kids playing in the courtyard during Islam classes. I had to stay in class and learn to recite the qura’an. “Bismillah al rahman al raheem”, the teacher would say and we would repeat after her as loud as we could. “Al hamdo lilah rab al alemeen”. In the name of god most gracious most merciful, Thank god the ruler of all the worlds. I understand what these verses mean today, in grade one I just repeated over and over again. Nobody explained what it meant just that we had to know it.

“I am shea’a” I declared in grade 5. I had transferred from the private catholic school to state run public school where the majority of students were Muslim. On my first day there, I was asked about 10 times if I was sunni or shea’a. I never heard those words before, I didn’t know what they meant. At Amal we only spoke about Christians and Muslims, this was a new classification system that I was not aware of. At home I asked dad the question. My dad told me that our ancestors were shea’a, so shea’a I was. At school when asked the question, I had a clear and concise answer. People seemed happy with my answer and would nod knowingly. The “I don’t know” of the first day at school seemed to confuse and irritate people. Now that they could fit me into well defined category everything was simpler. I never understood the difference between Sunnis and Shea’as, the two major sects of Islam until I became a university student and decided to do some reading on the subject.

Do you blame me for losing my religion later on? But wait! It gets better.

“Islam is the only true religion”, my primary school teacher told us one day. It is obvious that Islam is the only true religion; anybody who thinks about it would realize that fact. She didn’t explain why Islam is the only true religion; it just is. Questioning the teacher was not allowed. Even as a child I had my doubts. There was a faint voice in the back of my mind that said “it is not obvious to me”. Would I still believe in Islam if I was born and raised in Holland or China? I would dismiss those thoughts and try not to think about it too much. Everybody around me seemed to confer with my teacher’s proclamations, grownups and children alike. In Kuwait doubting the existence of God or Islam is punishable by law, furthermore it would make me an outcast within my own society. I would pray but feel nothing except the physical movement of the prayer. I would fast Ramadan and feel nothing except the challenge of conquering my hunger and thirst. I had faint doubts about my religion in the back of my mind but was too afraid to acknowledge them. “May be there is something wrong with me”, I thought. I wanted to believe, I wanted to have faith.

In 1996 I moved to live in Jerusalem, Israel because of my husband’s work. I thought that living in the holy lands would help quell those doubts; I was expecting to have some sort of a spiritual experience. But this losing my religion story is about to take a sharp swerve. Hold on to your seat!

“I am Jewish”, an acquaintance of mine in Jerusalem told me one day. “And that means that I have a right to this land. It is the holy covenant between god and Abraham that we the Jewish people were promised this land”. “But what about the Palestinians?” I ask him. “They don’t matter, they can stay or leave, but this land is ours because it says so in the old testament.” In my mind I was thinking “but use your head, use your heart does it seem right?”. I don’t say anything, he doesn’t seem very perceptive anyway. He has faith.

In Jerusalem you can tell a person’s religion with in the first second you lay eyes on them. Muslim women wear a small qura’an hanging on a golden chain, Christian women a cross and Jewish women a star of david. Everybody is wearing their religion around there necks, but is any of it getting inside. The hypocrisy is enough to make me lose my religion on the spot, but I hand on.

One day there was an explosion in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. Among the dead, a mother of a new born baby girl. The baby was injured but survives. Somehow the story of this young mother touched a chord with me. I remember the stressful and overwhelming first year when my daughter was born. I would go for a walk while pushing a stroller in front of me. When my daughter would go to sleep I would go to one of the local coffee shops and have a cup of coffee, sometimes I would have a desert with that. It was a prized treat that I gave myself. Somehow I could imagine this young woman walking around with a stroller all tired from too many sleepless nights, her daughter finally goes to sleep and she decides to go relax a bit, have a cup of coffee and enjoy a stress free 15 minutes. Then boom! She dies. Her crime being that she was enjoying a cup of coffee on beautiful sunny day in Tel Aviv. Few days later a religious and bearded man from Hamas gives a speech telling people not to feel sorry for this woman. Her death was necessary, we must be stead fast in our fight against the Israeli occupation. Rip any sympathy for this woman or her baby out of your heart, no room for such sympathy. He repeats those statements several times. I feel a piercing pain going through my heart, this man is asking me to give up on my humanity in the name of god and in the name of religion. If religion is not humanizing us and making us more compassionate then what good is it. I can be a hateful person without any religion at all.

But wait this losing my religion story get better.

One day I decided that I would visit the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem (Yad Vashem). My husband said: “don’t go, you will be depressed for a week and I will have to deal with you”. I insist that I should go to a holocaust museum at least once, I think I am ready to face it. Off I went with trepidation. The museum is very silent, there is this stillness hanging in the air. A section displays works of art by children that lived in concentration camps. Handmade toys, children’s drawings, children’s clothing is on display. Under such difficult conditions kids still managed to find joy and play. As I walked out of the museum I felt crushed. It was a beautiful sunny day in Jerusalem. I looked down from the mountain where the museum is situated I could see cars driving below. A flock of birds was flying below in the valley. Such beauty surrounding me, yet so much ugliness in the world. I kept asking myself, “Oh God ,What does it all mean? What does it all mean?”. I do believe that what happened next was divine intervention; I think that higher powers decided to answer me. A Jewish ultra orthodox man approached me, white beard , black suit and a black hat. He had a pleasant smiley face. I think he could see the distress that I was feeling. He starts chatting to me and I was happy to talk to somebody. He says that atrocities like the Holocaust are difficult for us human beings to comprehend but that we must not lose faith in God. There is a reason for everything, even the holocaust. We must not question the wisdom of God. I listen attentively to every word. I want to believe in what he is saying. Listening to his calm voice is pleasant. He asks me about myself, my family situation and my work. Then he tells me that he is married with seven children. “Me and my wife have a very special relationship, we are close like this”, he gestures by placing two fingers parallel to each other. Then he proceeds by saying that even though he loves his wife very much and is dedicated to her, he enjoys having extra marital affairs. He asks me if I would be interested in having an affair with him. I can’t believe my ears, I think to myself “I must have heard that wrong”. I ask him to repeat what he said and again he tells me that he would like to have an affair with me. “We can meet once a week at your place while your husband is at work’, he adds. I get up abruptly and say that I have to go home because I am late. Quickly get into the car and drive away. I feel shock but also I feel anger. “Who the hell does he think he is? Why did I even waste time talking to him? It is my fault for being friendly with him initially” I think to my self as I drive. While I am rebuking myself , I start laughing, I laugh so hard tears stream down my cheeks. I have to park my car to the side because I am laughing so hard. It suddenly dawns on me that a religious man can’t go to the bar to pick up chicks, he would look out of place there. What better place to pick up a women than the holocaust museum? Tourists in distress after seeing images documenting one of the worst atrocities in human history. Mr. religious can offer comfort, few words of wisdom and score. Perfect! I bet that trick worked for him before. Hilarious!

And so this losing my religion story ends in laughter. A hysterical roaring fit. But you need to wait for it.

At home, I start dinner. My husband comes home early and gives me a hug. How was your day? He asks me. “Fine”, I reply. He looks a bit surprised, he was expecting me to be depressed, instead I have a smile on my face. That night I go to bed with a very light feeling, like a heavy weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I realize that I don’t believe in religion any more, not Islam nor Judaism nor any other religion. From now on, no bearded man holding a religious book will tell me how to live my life. From now on, I will rely on my gut feeling to know the truth. The answer to my question “What does it all mean?” is that it means nothing. It means what I want it to mean. It can mean that life is beautiful or it can mean that life is ugly. It can mean that human beings are doomed and beyond saving or it can mean that children always offer us hope for the future. What do you want it to mean, Elen?

“I am not Muslim, not Christian , not Jewish”, this I declare today, knowing full well what each word means. Not Sunni, not Shea’a or any other category. I believe that all religions should come with an expiration date. Valid for consumption until, beyond this date this religion will turn into poison if consumed. Since everybody is creating god in his on images anyway, I think that from now on I will create something that I like.

When asked by friends why I no longer pray or fast I reply that living in the holy lands has cured me from religion. It always shocks people and shuts them up. After that, people tend to change the subject and talk about something else. I no longer get the speech on how as a good Muslim I should cover my head with a scarf.

A catholic friend decides to visit me in Jerusalem. I decide that I will take her to all the religious sites relevant to Christianity. I do research on the internet and I buy tourist guides. We visit the church of the holy sepulcher, the garden of the tomb in Jerusalem. We visit the church of nativity in Bethlehem. At last, Tiberius lake. We visit a little chapel on the north east part of the lake. Monks is dark robes are walking around. Pious worshipers look profoundly moved. Apparently this is the place where Jesus performed the miracle of walking on water. I walk towards the edge of the lake and look into the horizon. Fog was starting to lift in the early morning while white birds are flying around in circles. It feels incredibly peaceful with the soft chanting in the background. There is magic in the air. I exhale deeply and then I look down. There are huge boulders, lurking right underneath the surface of the water. Many of them! Stretching well into the lake………………. I don’t think that having a laughing fit in this place would be appropriate.

It’s best that this losing my religion story comes to an end.

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