Words Lost and Found
Polity of Literature (46/51)

Words Lost and Found

On a short trip to document the Aramaic revival, Ben Shields gets lost in a story from which there seems to be no escape.

Literature consumes itself. Readers rewrite what we read anew, to be read and rewritten again and again and on it goes. “Each fire is all fires,” as Cormac McCarthy put it. In “Words Lost and Found” Ben Shields goes in search of the modern revival of the Syriac-Aramaic language, “the mother tongue of Jesus,” and finds himself lost in a thicket of stories, competing versions of the truth. Shields’ account is literary nonfiction. The author’s borrowing from named works is intentional—though often not signaled by quotation marks or formatting, to both convey the experience of losing oneself in the stories of others and to explore the ways that mimicry and borrowing construct the writer’s authority. T.S. Eliot, a famous champion of this method, originally titled his long poem “The Waste Land, “He Do the Police in Voices.” In that same spirit, Ben Shields gives us “Words Lost and Found.” All scenes and dialogue involving named persons are factual and reported faithfully and accurately.

In July the Levantine summer is harsh everywhere, even in Bethlehem in the cool country. The bus left Jerusalem’s Old City Gate and ran the straight ribbon of the Hebron Road to the West Bank, its air conditioning purring against the July heat. I’d brought a book with me, stories by Paul Bowles, and alternately read from his gruesome tale, “A Distant Episode,” and looked out at the heavily patrolled roadway, envying “the flaming sky in the west,” of the Bowles story. Like the linguist whose misfortune is the subject of “A Distant Episode,” I too was in need of a guide, and would accept whatever fate delivered to me.

            Some years ago, I’d visited Bethlehem for an afternoon, long enough to make friends with a café-keeper, let’s call him Charbel. We exchanged numbers, though we never used them and I’d long since lost his. But I never forgot Charbel, his round bald head, gold-toothed grin, and wonderfully vulgar humour. I’d resolved to find his café again. Nearly delirious from the heat, I quickly became lost in the steep stairways and narrow alleys of Bethlehem’s old city. I had the sense that I was someplace new, only to see a familiar shop or its loitering owner reappear as I criss-crossed the rising and falling passageways. I dislike being lost. Several times I almost fell running or suddenly changing direction on the smooth stones. Worse, my long hair dripped with sweat, tangled and smacking against my neck at every turn.

            Something about me attracted the attention of a well-groomed man my age, his forearms covered in tattoos. “Are you lost?” he asked in bad Hebrew. In his left hand he held an Arabic coffee in a Dixie cup. His hair was slicked back and tied in a bun.

            “Yes,” I answered in English. It was odd to hear Hebrew in Bethlehem, odder still from a handsome young man on the street. 

            “What’s your business here?” he said, sticking with Hebrew. He finished the coffee and tossed the paper cup on the stone street. It quivered side to side, the black grounds spilling over the rim.

The words "What is your business here?" spill from a discarded coffee cup in a narrow street.

            The truth was that an editor had offered me money for a story about Syriac-Aramaic, which I’d sold to him as “the fabled language of Jesus” and the liturgical language for Syriac Christians, still. The fee he offered was handsome enough to overcome my hesitations about the volatile topic. The famous Black September group that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics called that attack “Operation Iqrit and Biram”, naming two depopulated Arab villages, one of which was mostly Syriac Christian. While Black September—which was an avowedly Islamist project—wasn’t promoting the Syriac-Aramaic culture or claims specifically, the link was strong enough to be vociferously denied, as I would find out when I took on the assignment. The field research might be less daunting if I actually knew as much about my subject as I’d led the editor to believe. Unfortunately I was in over my head. My pitch was a rough summary of an incomplete story that Charbel had begun telling over tea. “The ancient languages of the Middle East,” as he put it with his face behind a cloud of cigar smoke, “have never disappeared.” He showed me an image of the Syriac Christian flag, a wide-winged bird with a head of fire that descended from pre-Christian Levantine and Mesopotamian cults. His dramatic affect suggested he had delivered the story to hundreds of tourist customers, probably his biggest hit as a street corner intellectual. He contended that seemingly-vanished tongues like Aramaic and Phoenician continue to form the common ground for statistically minor groups whose long and conflicting histories are by no means over. “Look at the Israelis,” he said, “shouting their Hebrew at Palestinians who don’t understand a word.” The micro-languages of Israel and Palestine aren’t a mere scholars’ pursuit, and Charbel lamented that their complexity is buried beneath the simplified drama of Hebrew-versus-Arabic, Jewish-versus-Arab. To speak Syriac-Aramaic is also to make political claims and resist oversimplification of the Middle East. Or so I told the editor…all that I could recall from that long-ago afternoon. I needed to find Charbel to finish the story, and I was wary of any missteps that I might make by asking strangers. 

Dark, translucent scribbles surround an iconic image of a phoenix, a man's face, and a cigar.

            “I’m a coffee blogger,” I lied to the man. “I’ve never forgotten this coffee I had once, it was near here but I can’t for the life of me find the place.” I pushed the tangled hair off my neck and waved away the sweat it left on my hand. When the stranger smiled I realized how handsome he was, and how precisely groomed. My false claims must have satisfied him: he seemed to relax for the first time. I thought his outheld hand must be pointing toward a café that he fancied where we would sit and talk over another Arabic coffee, but it turned out I was wrong. He touched my hair and said, “This really won’t do, not on a day like this. Come with me.”

            We walked side by side, and now the familiar shopkeepers I’d passed turned away, disappointed to find my attention taken by the clairvoyant barber. The tattoos on his left forearm, a Cross and a dove, showed him to be Christian. We turned a corner, and the bitter white odour of raw fish wafted by and stuck to us. I took off my dark glasses and put them in my pocket, pleased by the accident of finding this man and the surprise of where he was taking me. Soon we were at a shop door. He undid the locks and slid the metal gate up, ushering me into a cool, high-ceilinged room. A curtain blocking the skylight was withdrawn and the room flooded with light. Even for Bethlehem, the room was old, a dome ceiling from the time of the Crusades. Weeds poked through cracks in the stone walls. He’d hung a few posters, I <3 NY, Dont Worry Be Happy, and a black-and-white shot of a London double-decker. “Bvakasha,” he said, gesturing to the chair.

            He ran his hands through my hair like a weaver readying fabrics for the loom. It went on a long time, longer than necessary but not as long as I wished. His wrists smelled of oud cologne, and when he started messing with my bangs, the smell was so powerful I had to press my tongue to the roof of my mouth to stop a sneeze. I looked at his face in the mirror but he kept his eyes narrowed. The place had no interior lighting, only the sun, which cloaked everything in a fiery blonde. The barber’s jawline was arresting in definition, rivaling Ronn Moss on The Bold and the Beautiful, and it glittered now in the light. Other Arab barbershops I’d seen were also social clubs, jam packed with guys and cloudy from cigarette smoke, but this place was quiet as a chapel. I felt if I said a word something terrible would happen, that I might lose him. He pulled my hair back firmly and hid the extra in his fist so that it resembled a conventional men’s haircut. We made eye contact for a very long time in the mirror. “It suits you, don’t you think?” He had produced a replica of his own slicked-back style. I wanted to please him but this was a bridge too far. We compromised on a layered look, with only an inch or so to be taken off.

            He went to the sink and filled an enormous glass pitcher with hot water. The chair tilted back so my hair hung into a tin basin, and he emptied about half the pitcher over my hair. I grimaced, held back a whimper, for the water was scalding at first, but soon it became extraordinarily pleasant. The barber massaged an ambrosial lavender shampoo into my scalp with strong gentle hands. I closed my eyes, willing the end of this to never come. Inside of my eyelids was orange and then everything dimmed to a faint crimson. I opened my eyes: a cloud had drifted over the sun, adding a shadow of seclusion, although we’d been alone for the whole time. The barber worked his fingers systematically across my scalp like a mechanic scrubbing grit from the windshield. He towel-dried my hair and raised the chair again. The sun slumped toward the horizon and reemerged in the front window.    

            He ran a comb through my wet hair. It kept getting caught in the split ends, and each time he roughly shoved it through. It was unpleasant, but I was in his thrall. “So, you blog about coffee?” It sounded dismissive. Was he flirting or being scornful?

            “Only sometimes,” I said, feeling keenly the urge to impress him now that the game was on. He yanked the comb through a particularly tight knot. “I’m also a paid journalist,” I boasted. “I’m writing now about the minority languages of Israel and Palestine.” His quiet huff implied that he’d heard this line, or something like it, a hundred times before, a preposterous claim if a claim it was. “Currently I’m focused on Aramaic,” I continued. “In fact I’m looking for the café-keeper of that place, Charbel. He’s the one who first told me about the Syriac dialect. Maybe you know where I can find him.”

Was he flirting or being scornful?

            The clairvoyant barber said nothing, snipping the agreed-upon inch away from the hair, the curling pieces collecting at his feet. There was a silence. “I know the café,” he said finally. “We can go there—” gently he ruffled my hair, a barber’s traditional gesture to signal the end of the appointment—“right now.” He removed the nylon cape and shook the excess hair to the floor. Once he’d closed up shop, he led me through the labyrinth of alleyways to the café, not two minutes away.

            Indeed it was Charbel’s. The café’s interior, little more than a large alcove, had room for three tables and a make-shift kitchen behind the bar. Apparently well-known there, the barber strode past the tables to the counter and began preparing our tea. With a swift, silent gesture he directed me to a table where I sat quietly, a bit discomfited by his authority. I feigned disgust at some unseen corruption on the floor and moved to sit out front in a sliver of shade cast by the cafe’s awning. The barber watched dispassionately, then came to wipe off the new table.

            “Does the café still belong to Charbel?” I sounded more impatient than I intended.

            Without looking up, he replied using English for the first time. “He is deceased.”

            “Dead?!” I objected loudly, stupidly. A few puzzled faces turned to look at us. I supposed that he shifted languages because we were no longer alone.  “That’s…I’m so sorry. I’m just a little shocked. Dead for how long?”

            “I don’t know.” He turned and went back to the kitchen. I looked in my cup of tea, a round slice of lemon floating at the top, leaves orbiting around it like a Copernican model. A sleek alley cat sidled in my direction and jumped into my lap. I stroked his back despondently and lit a cigarette.

            I called the barber over and paid for the tea, leaving an enormous tip. He bowed gravely and then looked up, displaying his muscular neck where a tattooed flame licked the rim of his thorax. Imagining how it would have felt to receive the tattoo produced a pain in my chest. “What is that?” Feeling emboldened, I placed my finger on his skin where the flame concluded. He began to unbutton his shirt, four sharp, successive snaps before he flayed the collar and revealed his full, hirsute chest. Spread across his flat pectorals was a massive bird, its wings reaching on either side clear to the shoulder. The grand image of the Aramean Christian flag Charbel had shown me those years ago. His bare chest, or perhaps the bird’s flaming head, sent a shiver up my sweaty spine.

            “Tell me,” I said, keeping my hands in my pockets. “I’m feeling really awful about Charbel…I promised that I would speak with him for my article…but now…”

            “Your coffee blog,” he replied, putting me in my place. The barber buttoned up two of the snaps he’d pulled apart, leaving most of his impressive tattoo visible. I had no other answer for his implied disdain. With my hands in my pockets and his superior height, we looked like a truant schoolboy and the headmaster. I think he liked the implication. He ended the silence by smiling. “Tell me, where do you live?” he prompted. I told him about my small room in a very noisy building on a quiet street in East Jerusalem. “That’s good. You didn’t need to come here for your story.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “In your neighbourhood in Jerusalem ask for Father Paul,” he said. “Boulos in Arabic. Someone there will know him. And one more thing. When Paul invites you to his monastery—and he will—ask him how to reach Shadi Khalloul.” I pulled a pen and paper from my pocket and scribbled down the names.

It was just as he said. The man selling liquor at the corner of my street answered my question about “Father Paul” with an affirmative nod and set up the appointment. The next day, I followed a deserted alley toward St. Mark’s Monastery, which Syriac tradition holds to be the very first Christian church, dating back to the first century. The alleyway was quiet with only a few small hotels, and even these were shuttered now, due to Covid-19. As in all of Jerusalem, the street signs were trilingual—Hebrew, Arabic, and English. On every sign, the Arabic was defaced with blue spray-paint. Accompanying the vandalism were occasional posters or stickers with the mug shots of Israel’s most extreme right-wing politicians. It is an overwhelming fact of daily life in Israel that language, itself, is both the target of attack and a medium of political power. The tattooed barber knew more than he was saying. His reticence hinted at stakes unspeakably high.

Inside of an arch above a door there is an image of a beaded man sitting at a laptop.

            My body buzzed in a state of nerves when I knocked on the door of St. Marks, still thinking of the mythic Syriac bird engraved into the barber’s flesh and his frank unveiling of it. The image had spurred me into research, hoping that when I next encountered him I wouldn’t be a complete fool. It didn’t take long to learn the basics: Syriac-Aramaic is the language of liturgy and of heritage for the many sects of Syriac Christians with indigenous roots in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, today living mostly in diaspora. Syriac is a Levantine dialect of Aramaic, a language comparable in scope to English today from Babylon until Alexander the Great. It held on after that, almost certainly Jesus’ mother tongue. It persists in small communities among people who call themselves “Assyrian” or “Aramean.” One of the three major languages of early Christianity, its loss is unthinkable, and a handful of new prophets have taken it upon themselves to protect it. Father Paul is one of them.

            A cassocked monk answered and led me to the library, assuring me that Father Paul would arrive shortly. I kept quiet; it did not seem important to probe for explanations at that point. An acolyte delivered a tray of biscuits and a wood box bulging with exotic teas, followed by two steaming cups of water. Finally, a bearish man, his robes as black as his beard, appeared in the doorway and extended his hand. When he asked what kind of magazine was interested in Aramaic, I regurgitated my pitch, far better than I had for the barber or even my editor.

            I snacked on biscuits while Father Paul spoke of his seminary days in Saidnaya, Syria, where he became a fluent Aramaic speaker. I tried not to chew too loudly while he chanted the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer in show-stopping Syriac. (He has three albums out of his religious music.) He dramatically replayed the night when God told him in a dream to become a master calligrapher “in Jesus’ language.” Since then he’s copied out the Gospels over and over in Syriac-Aramaic. He also alluded to his growing list of celebrity and political contacts, supporters of the cause, he implied—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, foreign ambassadors, the British royals—to whom, using his calligraphy, he’s spread the good news that the language of Christ never died.

            Paul is one of the few people left in Jerusalem who speak Aramaic every day. When I asked what significance Aramaic holds for him, he mentioned his Turkish origins (verifying ancestral ties to the language) but he never personalized the passion he brought to it. His concerns always came back to the Lord Jesus. Paul writes his calligraphy on lambskin—because the lamb represents Jesus. Sometimes he uses olive wood—because Jesus blessed the olive tree—preferring pieces taken from the garden of Gethsemane (for obvious reasons). “Why is Aramaic endangered?” I asked more bluntly than I intended. He lowered his voice a bit and alluded to Islamic persecution of Christians, his tone delicate as if broaching an uncomfortable subject at a dinner party.

            My bag sat at my feet, and my eye caught the Paul Bowles volume sticking out of the front pocket, the corners creased and blackened. Is it possible that I envied the ill-fated linguist of “A Distant Episode?” While the professor was “standing there at the edge of the abyss which at each moment looked deeper,” I sat in a poorly ventilated library struggling to get a single spontaneous utterance from my source. The monotony of it put me into a frame of mind not unlike a routine medical appointment, both participants knowing exactly what the other is going to say and when it will end. The priest’s story was charming, feel-good, and apolitical—everything I’d promised not to deliver to my editor. The deceased café-keeper violently reappeared in my imagination once again. What was it I thought he could tell me? Like a deranged man, I said his name to myself three times, Charbel, Charbel, Charbel, repeatedly and in rhythm. Charbel’s raucous belly-laugh echoed in my head, drowning out the priest. “Are there any other teachers of Aramaic?” The question came out of my mouth automatically, as if beyond my control.

            “There is Shadi Khalloul in Galilee,” he said. Shadi Khalloul: I could feel the barber’s muted satisfaction as if he were in the room. I had completed his one demand of me with great ease. Paul scribbled Mister Khalloul’s phone number on a Post-It note. A draft in the monastery suddenly crept under the door of this little room, and some of the papers on Paul’s desk trembled.

            “Does he speak Syriac as well as you do?” The question was not really an inquiry, but a form of flattery.

            “Not really, no. There is literary Syriac, and there is spoken Syriac. He only knows the literary.” At the end of our meeting, he wrote “Ben Shields” in Aramaic letters with a calligraphic pen on a slab of lambskin leather and sent me away with a blessing.

            Outside the monastery, I dialed the number the priest had written down. A gruff greeting came over the line. “Mister Khalloul?” I was skeptical that any contacts from the priest would be useful but the barber had seemed convinced. Shadi Khalloul was openly reluctant to meet, though he seemed unsurprised to be fielding a call from a “freelance writer.” Soon he agreed, even offered to pick me up from the bus station next to his village. I thanked him and hung up, making a mental note to “be professional.” A little touch-up from my barber was surely the best place to start.

“You’re early.” He was waiting in the leather barber’s chair watching sports highlights on his phone. He offered me the seat and prepared a small tray of tea and Bisquik cookies. I partook obediently, dipping the airline treat in the bitter black liquid. His satisfaction that I’d so quickly secured an appointment with Shadi was evident in his wide smile. I watched him in the mirror massage my tense shoulders.

            “Time to fix your hair,” he said, grabbing a hairdressing gown from a nearby hook and swiftly spreading it over me without a further word. With great force, he shoved my neck forward and produced an electric razor, which he flicked on with his thumb before touching it to the nape of my neck. The whirring blade pressed on my scalp, even nicking me with sharp pinches. “Half an inch!” I cried, “only half an inch!” He steered it toward my right ear, where I felt it slice the skin under the lobe. I gasped, began to dissociate. My consciousness left my body to merge with the sound of the electric trimmer, which swelled in volume like an archaic instrument howling accompaniment to ritual slaughter. I saw a thin crimson trail on the barber’s thumb where he’d touched my scalp. Great sheafs of hair collected on the slick black sheet that covered me, cascading into a blonde pile at my feet. Invisible hairs slipped down the back of my shirt like termites burrowing into a hollow log. “No more,” I sputtered pathetically, a discarded wind-up doll running out of battery. “No more…” I doubt the barber heard me over the chorus of his instrument. The word “operation” kept going through my mind, and this calmed my terror enough to finally resign and let the barber have his way. From then until the end he was silent, intimate, steady, and assured. I dared not open my eyes until I felt it stop. The barber stood back and lit a cigarette, then returned and began to shampoo what remained, massaging my scalp even deeper than he had the first time. It felt gorgeous, like a season of love after a siege has been lifted. “It’s all right,” he said as if soothing a tired baby. “It’s all right.” He raised the seat and worked methodically around the remains of his destruction with a pair of scissors. There was just enough left to pull back into a tight bun, a crude copy of his own.

            “Get up,” he commanded. “Now we have to hurry.”

On the road to Jish, a Christian-majority village in northern Israel, I was still in a stuporous state. The bus driver played songs by Fairouz, the beloved Lebanese singer, while slowly we mounted the gentle slopes that led up into the Galilee. The barber had accompanied me this far, but he stayed on the bus to return home when I alighted at Gush Halav Intersection. I waited alone in the sun, the rays burning my face through the glass shelter. Shadi was half an hour behind schedule it turned out, yet time seemed frozen.

            A car emerged in the distance on the meandering highway, coming in and out of view in the wave-like hills until it stopped before me. Shadi Khalloul, a broad-shouldered middle-aged man who looked in prime health, shook my hand and welcomed me to Galilee. “Please get in,” he said. “We’re running tight on time this morning.”

            As Father Paul had asked before him, Shadi wanted to know how Aramaic caught my attention. My rote answer about geopolitics and their intersection with language spilled out in its most polished form to date. As if I were a distant onlooker beholding a dance routine, I impressed myself with a syntactical choreography that I had no memory of ever conceiving on my own.

            Shadi is a Maronite, a Lebanese sect of Syriac Christianity. He found his passion for Aramaic as a college student in Nevada, when a Biblical studies professor alluded to the “now-dead” language of Jesus, and Shadi raised his hand to object. The professor invited him to lecture the class about Syriac-Aramaic as a living tongue. In the process he experienced a calling to “do everything I could to bolster my people’s heritage and language.” He abandoned his plans to remain in America after college and returned to Israel, where he founded the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association.

            Rather than pulling into Jish, we seemed to be leaving it in the rearview mirror. “Where are we going?” I asked.

            “Kfar Biram,” he said. “Our ancestral village.”

Alphabets in four different languages swirl around a portrait of a bald man.

            Kfar Biram, less than a ten-minute drive from Jish, is a loaded topic in the history of Israeli-Palestinian politics. It is the “Biram” in Black September’s “Operation Iqrit and Biram.” Both the mostly-Maronite Kfar Biram and its Greek Catholic neighbour, Iqrit, were “depopulated” by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Arab-Israel War of 1948, their Christian inhabitants moved into refugee camps. The initial depopulation—and the Israeli military’s refusal to obey later supreme court orders to restore the residents to their villages—is recognized as illegal even in most of Israel’s right-wing leadership. Neither village fought against IDF forces, and according to one historian, “they expected to be welcome in the new Jewish state.” A former resident of Iqrit told Israeli author David Grossman: “The army came, was our guest, ate of our bread, drank of our water, and promised to let us return…They don’t want to return us, because that will reveal the truth about what happened in 1948.”  The legal fight for Kfar Barim continues today. When Shadi parked the car and opened the passenger door for me, I began to realize that my host was ushering me into something much bigger than Father Paul’s program.

            Right behind us, three enormous tour buses pulled into the parking lot. One had a sign in the window reading SOUTHERN BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY (LOUISVILLE, KY). “It’s been a busy week getting ready for this,” Shadi said, as if I were in on it all. “Especially with my assistant out of town.” Streams of students poured from the narrow doors of the idling buses, many swiftly applying aerosol sunscreen on their arms and decolletages. Everyone looked happy; the weather was cooler than it had been all summer, and the Israeli national parks flag that billowed in the wind suggested a seldom frequented nature trail rather than a razed Palestinian village.

            “Your assistant?” I parroted back to him.

            “Yes, she’s attending a conference in America, on my behalf. The Summit for Religious Freedom.”

            The Summit for Religious Freedom, I would learn later that evening, is a high-profile secular event with stamps of approval from Nancy Pelosi, the Dalai Lama, and the Church of Scientology, to name a few. Shadi, however, was eager to emphasize the participation of co-chair Sam Brownback, a former Kansas governor and Donald Trump’s “Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.” He made no mention of the event’s Democratic co-chair.

            Shadi mingled for a while with what I took to be professors and administrators, the grown-ups accompanying the students, anyway. I walked with the crowd into the village. It was immediately clear that they were all in some sort of ministry training. One woman about my age told me she recently completed her studies in Christian-oriented psychotherapy. Others spoke of “bringing these good lessons back home.” Later, when Shadi began his presentation, I stood next to a lecturer in worship music.

            The program began at the ruins of a Byzantine era synagogue of the fourth century. While he spoke, Shadi held an enormous volume under his arm that could only have been a Bible. His link to the soil where we stood was as strong as to that of his ancestral language: his family has lived in this area for centuries. He is part of the Maronite Christian church, a Lebanese sect that, though it joined the Catholic Church during the Crusades, is part of the Syriac Christian tradition. Historically Syriac speakers, by the nineteenth century Maronite’s had adopted Arabic as their primary language. Shadi, however, calls his mother tongue “Lebanese.” “It’s not pure Arabic,” he said. “It borrows heavily from Aramaic.” The synagogue where we stood has yielded numerous Aramaic inscriptions in archaeological excavations, Shadi pointed out, implicitly linking his Syriac identity with the ancient Jewish population.

            Shadi described architectural elements of the synagogue, particularly certain anomalies that archaeologists believe may have been strategies for Jewish discretion. For the first time, he drew a blank, his fluent English suddenly giving way to Hebrew. “And that is the, um, mazbeah…” He looked at the crowd, waiting for the word to come.

            “The altar,” I called out from the back. Shadi looked at me, and I saw in his eyes a reassessment taking place, for until then we had only used English. “We have a journalist here,” he told his audience, “So I have to be on good behaviour.” The remark earned some chuckles. I easily fell in with the banter.

            The students filed into St. Mary’s Maronite Church. It is the only remaining structure from Kfar Biram after the village’s destruction in 1953 by the Israeli Air Force. I took to the back row on the side. Shadi ascended the three steps to the altar and put the door-stopping Bible on a wooden table. His figure is muscular and fit, perhaps dating to his days in an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. His shoulders and biceps bulged in a tight polo shirt with the blue and white Israeli flag sewn on the right sleeve. Patched over the breast pocket was the Syriac flag, featuring the image from the barber’s chest tattoo. Traditionally red and yellow, on Shadi’s shirt it was adjusted to the blue and white of the Israeli flag. His clothes associated Syriac and Israeli nationhood in the same way that he had equated Jewish and Christian uses of Aramaic a moment earlier.

            Shadi is a gifted orator. Speaking with the measured confidence of a university lecturer, he began to elaborate on his Maronite Aramaean identity. The sect takes its name from Saint Maron, venerated for his simple asceticism. After his death in the early fifth century, his followers formed a movement that became the Maronite sect. Shadi speaks about antiquity as if discussing present day politics. “We would not agree to the Muslim tax on Christians,” he said referring to a dozen or so centuries ago.

            He grew emotional describing the Ottoman Empire’s persecution of Christians, including his ancestor, Khalloul Jacob, who paid with his life after refusing to convert to Islam. In the nineteenth century, Maronites began to settle in Mount Lebanon and found themselves in a devastating conflict with the Druze population, who decimated them. France, and to a lesser extent Britain, came to the Maronites’ aid and kept close tabs on the region. “It is thanks to the intervention of Western powers that we survived,” he said. This is more than giving credit where it’s due: it’s Shadi’s retort to the conventional wisdom—particularly among Israel’s Arab population—that Western meddling has cost Middle Easterners dearly.

            It was hard for me to gauge the students’ reaction to Shadi’s captivating speech. Even those who appeared to be listening intently didn’t look surprised. Then again, as evangelical Christians, most of them probably just felt validated. As for me, I marvelled both at our host’s charisma and my own misjudgment of where my journey was heading.

Shadi speaks about antiquity as if discussing present day politics.

            Multiple times, Shadi emphasized his Israeli citizenship. “Maronite Christians have supported the Zionist project from the very beginning,” he said. He described documents in the Zionist archives that reveal correspondence between early Zionist olim and Lebanon’s Maronite community. One Maronite leader submitted a request to the United Nations for the establishment of a binational state for the new Jewish immigrants and Lebanese Maronites. Clearly the vision still appeals to Shadi: “The Jews’ fathers are our fathers.” Just as some Zionist arguments for the Jewish state cite the archaeological record, Shadi points to evidence of the Aramaean people in this land dating before their conversion to Christianity. A statue of the chief Aramaean god Hadad discovered in the Golan Heights stands in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

            A few years ago, Shadi helped lead a successful initiative for the recognition of “Aramaean” as an official ethnic identity in the state of Israel. Before that, Syriac Christians were registered as Arab. One result was to generate funding for Aramaic language instruction in Jish’s elementary schools. Students learn the language beginning in first grade. Shadi offers this as evidence of Israel’s commitment to diversity and the recognition of its minorities, which he contrasts to their Muslim neighbours.

            Reaching the finale, Shadi advocated for Christians to enlist in the Israeli army, the IDF, in which Shadi himself serves as a reserve captain. They have a responsibility, he said, to help defend the state that is protecting them, unlike the hostile Muslim governments of the region that continue to persecute Christians. “There was never a nation here by the name of Palestine,” he said. “Before Israel, it was the British, before that, the Ottomans, and so on. The Palestinian cause was only invented to oppose the Zionist project. In fact, Palestinians were originally just settlers from the island of Crete.” Shadi alludes to the genetic origins of the Philistines, Biblical-era invaders of Gaza whose name passed into the modern word “Palestine” via Greco-Roman administrations. Their commonalities pretty much stop at that. Shadi frequently criticizes “Islamic pan-Arabists” for brainwashing children to turn against their Aramaic heritage, yet he facetiously implies to his audiences that Bronze Age archaeology holds answers to Palestinian land claims. The basis of his advocacy work seems to rely largely on the same distortion of history that he accuses Islamic culture of harbouring. “Palestinians think they have a right to get back the villages they lost when they decided to fight Israel?” Shadi put his hands in the air, momentarily at a loss for words, so overcome was he by the absurdity of the idea. Finally, he held up the enormous Bible and unveiled the ornate Syriac script inside. The lecture concluded with Shadi teaching us, line by line, how to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac.

            The students and professors applauded, and one of the organizers said a few words thanking Shadi before outlining the rest of the day’s agenda. Everyone meandered back in the direction of the buses for the next phase of their Galilee field trip. I lagged behind, walked all around the church and took a few pictures. Shadi was still on the altar going through a briefcase. “Can you carry this please?” he asked. Before him he held the Syriac scriptures. I accepted, holding it awkwardly while I passed through the church doors and Shadi remained within. Alone, I walked among the students and faculty. By inviting me to the program in Kfar Biram, Shadi made it clear that he expected me, the journalist, to be the carrier of his version of Syriac heritage, and now I was literally complying, though I had my doubts. I’d stumbled upon a Netanyahu-aligned Christian-Zionist, who presented himself as a saviour of a dying language. Was I just a tongueless marionette, unable to voice my objections? I took solace in finding this thought at least—my skepticism in my own mind—even if I said nothing like it at the time. Everyone turned to look at me with amusement and apprehension. “Does Shadi know you’re carrying that?” someone asked only half-joking. I turned around: Shadi had still not reappeared. I found myself at the centre of the crowd, parading the holy book with no destination in sight. Until then, I had been an anonymous member of the press. Now I was the prophet’s water carrier. When he finally emerged from the church, I quickly returned the book to him. The group gathered before the synagogue to pose for a photo. I waited in the shade.

            Soon Shadi and I were alone in the car again, driving back to Jish. He was on the phone, switching from Arabic (Lebanese) to Hebrew and then back again. When he finished I asked, “So, you and your family mix languages freely?” He nodded yes. “But your dream is for Jish to become an Aramaic-speaking village?”

            “My goal is to build our own village, Biram, not Jish. To rebuild this town as a community, like a kibbutz, according to the Aramaic language, heritage, and culture as it was supposed to be in the past. I want to build a hub for Aramaic international heritage.”

            I remembered what I’d thought only two hours earlier, that I was headed for a Palestinian history lesson on Iqrit and Biram. I decided to risk my good standing with Shadi and ask: how had his beloved Biram fallen into the ideological toolbox of Black September?

            “Very simple,” he said. It was clearly a question he’d graced before and thought through in every detail. “Until today, Islamists try to adopt this story, which has nothing to do with them, in order to make the Christian world sympathize with them. Without asking us, let me emphasize. Some people in the Muslim and Arab world try to use our case in order to fight the Jews—on the back of Christians. In Arabic mixed towns…they want to impose a new Arabism. They don’t appreciate diversity and pluralistic societies.” He bemoaned the way that, as Shadi saw it, the Muslim school principal in Jish poo-pooed the Syriac language classes, treating them as a kind of sideshow.

            We arrived in Jish for a reception with the same people that had been Shadi’s audience in Kafr Biram. I sat among the students at a long banquet table outside, our places set with paper plates. A wait staff refilled coffee and apple juice throughout the meal. I eavesdropped on my neighbours. Most of what the students talked about were their lives back in the States, inside jokes concerning teachers and places, until finally I grew bored and took my leave. Shadi was gracious, busy making rounds up and down the table, often bringing up Sam Brownback while he worked the crowd.

At the bus stop, I waited in silence with a young woman for a half-hour, until she grew impatient and asked me to help her read the Hebrew bus schedule on her phone. When the bus finally showed up it was almost full and we had to sit next to one another. “What were you doing in Jish?” Her bemused tone suggested that, being foreign, I had no business there. I told her I was a writer, then rolling right along into my familiar routine something within me cried out in rage and stopped me. “I went there to interview Shadi Khalloul. Have you heard of him?”

            “Shadi?” She turned toward me in the seat, raising her eyebrows. Her makeup was impeccable, her subtle pink lipstick doing some thankless background work while the Amy Winehouse cat-eyes stole the show. I nodded.

            “You know Israel is paying him to say all that stuff, right?” By ‘all that stuff,’ I took it she meant that she knew Shadi’s schtick without my explaining it. She offered as little evidence for her accusation as Shadi had for his absurd Palestinian genealogy. “I’m part of the Syriac community in Jerusalem,” she said instead. “We keep our distance from Shadi. We’ve never asked Israel for any favours, but Shadi’s totally with them. And he’s guiding the people of Jish in that same direction. We think differently here than he does. In Palestine they have guns and rockets. In Israel they have guns, rockets, and money. Shadi chose a side. Us, we just have our Bibles. It’s the long view. Was he wearing that shirt?” she asked with an eye roll.

            “The one with the Syriac and Israeli flags?”

            “He’d put the Syriac flag on an M16 rifle if Israel told him to. Some of us from Jerusalem tried to talk to him about it. We said Shadi, what about your Christian brothers in the West Bank? There are Christian students at Berzeit and Bethlehem universities but he’s just abandoned them. We asked him—how can you abandon them? And since then, he hasn’t had much to do with us.”

            Of course she knew Father Paul, an “acquaintance” of hers. She knows people who take Paul’s Syriac class every week at St. Marks. I asked her if Paul shared Shadi’s worldview, even if he kept it quiet.

            “Paul is nothing like Shadi,” she corrected me. “He grew up in Bethlehem—he saw the second intifada. He knows what’s at stake. He’s very careful to stay out of politics. I admire that. The moment you get into politics, you’ve sold your soul.” She pulled out her phone and showed me a series of pictures of Shadi posing with a few conservative Israeli politicians. “Shadi and his militia,” she said.

“We asked him—how can you abandon them? And since then, he hasn’t had much to do with us.”

            Eventually, the conversation petered off and she fell asleep with headphones on. For the rest of the journey, I read Jackie Collins’s Chances. In addition to exaggerating my knowledge of Syriac culture, I’d also misled the editor about my literary influences.

            At Jerusalem’s central bus station we parted. I decided to make the nearly one-hour walk home. The cool night air was refreshing. Free as I now was from the barber’s stringent directives, a kind of music of feeling began to play in my head while I wandered toward the Damascus Gate, enjoying a brief aimlessness. I had the feeling that I was performing what had been written for me long ago.

A dark silhouette walks towards a large stone gate with a question mark above their head.

            I stood in a long cue to pass the arched gate: the police were checking passports, turning most people away. They accused me of lying when I recited my address. My heavily accented Hebrew only intensified their suspicion. Eventually they let me pass. Once inside the gate I cavorted away from a growing skirmish between soldiers and local Palestinians. Both the main roads were packed with protesters, and I raced up an unfamiliar alley instead. The noise of the conflict swelled even as I wound further away from it. The alley ended on the empty Via Dolorosa, which I followed all the way home. There the distant unrest became part of the old city’s great silence, the lunar chill growing in the air.

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