Fiction. Based on a True Transition From Rome to Palestine.
“…basically an evolving project because it’s based on some of my own investigations into what makes us living and what makes us vibrant, happy, and connected.”
by Mingjie Zhai
You land with humility. You feel bad for Roxy who has to be tucked under your feet with the sherpa closed from Rome to Telaviv, but you leave some opening. The rule for a closed carrier during takeoff and landing seems kind of silly. Still, you respect it, because you are almost 9 months sober and you realize that some laws exist because people plan, with good intentions, for emergency scenarios that you are ignorant of.
At Tel Aviv airport you did not understand how to retrieve a baggage cart from the electronic dispensary. A Jewish man waits behind you. Maybe he was impatient with your process of figuring things out, but he tells you he will pull one out and you watch. You do watch and after he gets his cart, he leaves. You felt a bit cheated. It was as if he just said that so he can jump ahead of you. You manage to figure it out on your own.
You take the shuttle to the car rental area. You tell them that you are heading to Bethlehem—the Palestinian region, and automatically, they withdrawal your reservation. You text the host, Sahim, and he texted back, “You should not have told them you are staying here.”
Still, you don’t want to lie, but you should not have disclosed so much—you think of Vicktor Frankl’s strategy surviving in the concentration camps:
Don’t give more information than you need to.
Answer succinctly and truthfully.
It is too late for you to backpedal. Any backpedaling would make a liar out of you. For a moment, you think about going across to the other car rentals and getting away with driving through Palestinian region with a car that the company does not wish it to go to. But your conscience tugs at you.
“Be honest at all times.”
You told them that since you have the deposit already paid, you’d like to reserve the car for next month when you are not living in Palestine. They ignore you and two days later you find out that you were charged the deposit money anyway.
You begin feeling nervous. You then remember that you can give this to God. You recall Abe who is Sunni Muslim, telling you that taxis in Palestine are very affordable. So you take an Uber and the driver drops you off to where the border is. Right when you stop at the border, another taxi cabbie knocks on the window. This man specializes in helping people cross the border. He takes your three big luggages into his car and next thing you know, you’re in Palestine.
What stands out immediately is the difference in infrastructure quality, atmosphere, and energy. It is the difference between California and Mexico, between South Korea and North Korea, between West Germany and East Germany.
You are in the ghetto.
The taxi driver charges you 200 shekels for the 10 minute ride to the Church of the Nativity and you feel ripped off but there is this other part of you that realizes perhaps you are meant to give him extra—you don’t know what real struggles his family is going through just to eat.
Hunger is real in a world of abundance.
There, Sahim, the Airbnb host, meets you. You were nervous but you are calm now that you remember Abe telling you that it is Arab culture to welcome you as part of their family. And if all Arabic people were as cool and friendly as Abe, then there would truly be peace in the Middle East. Abe tells you that hospitality is part of their culture.
Sahim tells you that you are the first guest they are renting the place to. You are nervous about this. The roads are dilapidated and narrow, the shops are mom and pop, and there seems to be no real traffic rules. Sahim tells you there is an organic store just five minutes walk away from their place and a supermarket.
You walk in and the place is perfect—a desk for typing and another desk for books. A huge kitchen, two bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms. One room with two beds and the other bedroom with no beds. Your nerves are on edge because you just came from Rome a few hours ago and took the red eye. You need sleep.
As you are unpacking, water begins leaking from the sink and it begins flooding. You ask Dana, the wife of Sahim, for help and she begins mopping the floor while you continue unpacking. There is nothing you can do and there are too many cooks in the kitchen when there is only one mop handy so you stay calm and keep unpacking. When Sahim leaves his work to come back to help his wife with the plumping, he tells you that this flat is beginning to get adjusted for someone new after it had laid fallow since his brothers left Palestine to live and settle in other countries.
You are invited to lunch right when you arrive. The young wife bakes a pasta dish with meat. The husband tells you that if you need anything—dish-ware, water, cups, etc., don’t hesitate to ask, yet you still hesitate to ask.
You head to the organic food store first called Zuwaden where you buy nuts, almond milk, eggs, and chai tea. It has a young hipster Starbucks vibe to it. They also make organic juices. Then you head to a grocery store called Downtown Market that reminds you of a Dollar store in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest. You buy water and then Tom yum instant noodles while you silently tell yourself that this is not good for you but your temptation for noodles overpowers your instinct to take care of your body.
You head home with the groceries and the flooding is taken care of. You take a nap and when you wake up and open the door, there are a few bags filled with accommodations—an electric kettle to boil water to make tea, a six pack of water, toilet paper and napkins.
You start video editing for the next Vlogumentary, and you begin feeling guilty.
“Am I a narcissist for telling my story?” you question yourself.
Is this godly to be so exposed and expressive? What does the scripture say?
“…because I am naked.”
You think of the silver lining in Adam’s lie to God.
“I hid… because I am naked.”
Who said for you to hide?
Did God really say for you to hide?
Who said that you are naked.
Are you really naked?
Or are you just being vulnerable?
The psychological industry thinks religion is a mental illness. They won’t flat out say it, but it is obvious when they think they have evolved out of spiritual nonsense and now is fixated on all things natural and observable.
You think of God cursing the ground that Adam walked on. Why would God do that?
Perhaps, because of pretentious yale graduated psychologists who like to psychoanalyze Trump and everybody else thinking they know better with labels they cast onto someone, like a spell from a spellbook—except this spellbook is called the DSM-5.
If I deem you mentally ill, then I have more credibility than you. This means I will have the power to bind you, contain you, imprison you.
Your vlogumentary has been more of a first hand account of your spiritual maturation.
You’re calmer now.
Except when you are triggered.
Last Night in Rome
You begin clicking away at the keyboard at Fragrance St. Peter’s Hotel. It is a 12 minute walk from St. Peter’s Square. You click away till you get to a point where the temptation of food teases you. You are still powerless over the temptations of food.
When you were married, you had told Sonny that you would always choose food over him. Well, you’ve cursed yourself: Now you are a single woman who can go wherever and eat whatever she wants—just alone with Roxy.
Now that Sonny’s gone, and you’ve refrained from cigarettes, alcohol, and sex. All you have left is food for comfort. Carbs, coffee, and Roxy.
You’ve even stopped eating flaming hot Cheetos…because they don’t sell them on this side of the continent!
You now walk with Roxy in the late Sunday afternoon, realizing you can’t go inside the basilica on your last day in Rome because dogs are not allowed with the exception of certain St. Mary’s basilicas …and even then it depends on the person managing the place at the time.
Younger management more likely yes and older management, probably no.
As you walk en route, you see a few beggars on the street and this brings you deep sadness. How in the world can we allow this to happen—we have such abundance and opulence inside every grocery store, shopping malls, entertainment facilities…how can we allow people who are suffering in poverty to continue suffering on the street?
You are saddened.
99.9% of the time you pass through a beggar, you observe that tourists almost never tips. You remember reading Paul’s life inside the scripture of the Vatican and he used to reserve ⅓ of his tithing to the poor, ⅓ to the family and personal expenses , and invests ⅓ of the income towards his business. You thought this quite clever.
You give one Euro here and two Euros there.
You sit at a cafe, after going from one cafe to the next, reading their menu selection. People at the front, eagerly looking at you hoping you would pick them, like the ritual of picking teams in some softball game during P.E. (Physical Education) in elementary school.
It seems competition is pretty stiff and there isn’t much people walking by…it’s the end of July and this is as packed as it’s going to get. Not many people …where are they now? Scared by the terrorist attacks and at home hibernating? Or maybe people are just losing their faith? Can you blame them?
No, cause people suck, especially the religious types who don’t like dogs.
You observe that restaurant staff have to stand outside with menus and act friendly to get people to come in. One guy with a big fat pot belly is standing there. If it were not for the menu itself, you would have skipped this restaurant just because of his appearance.
You sit outside with Roxy. Another American tourist sits next to you and proceeds to order the waiter around. No greeting. They don’t look at each other in the eye. They are thirsty and need their cokes now. The waiter rushes off. You then see a family pass by with a 13 year old boy—plump and pot bellied as well. The pot bellied man still standing outside acts super warm to this family of tourists, and pinches the fat boy’s cheeks.
You hear your judgement screaming silently inside your head:
He’s only being nice because you are paying customers. If you were non paying customers, he would be walking right past you like the homeless people in the underpass a few yards away. He would probably look at you in disgust or apathy or both.
And you wonder if this judgement derives from your own character defects.
You had two days to research the sacred texts at the Vatican Library and most of your thumbing through of things were based on St. Joseph’s last scenes in life—specifically scenes of his dying with Jesus by his side.
There, you also researched the last days of Jesus Christ, when he was met by Pontius Pilate, who clearly could see that Jesus is a good man, but relented with the pressures of the Jewish leaders who insisted that Pontius Pilate crucify Jesus on three grounds:
Jesus healed on the Sabbath day.
Your mental notes:
The idea of doing good even if it is against the law is absurd to those whose eyes are blinded.
The idea of healing the sick against tradition is a hardened heart.
Any law that supersedes doing the right thing is now superseded by God himself in the act of breaking his own laws in the name of love.
2. Jesus establishes an intimate relationship with God by claiming himself to be God’s son.
Your mental notes:
The idea that God intimately knows you, cares about you, and wants you to help him establish his Kingdom—A family of those who truly love their neighbors and shows up for people in the way people need people to show up for them is revelational and yet paradoxically considered blasphemous by people of the high court, the elites, the ones who claim they are keeping the true word of God during a time when God was among their presence.
The idea that God’s love must be “brokered” by scholars, priests, and the elites of their time is now destroyed, thus threatening their job security.
The idea that God loves the humble and resists the proud is a direct threat to those who are proud (as in puffed up, thinking they did it all on their works when in fact they were blessed).
3. Jesus is God and fulfills the prophecy and the promise to Abraham.
The idea that the prophecy is being fulfilled leaves an illusory “void” to the “keepers” of God’s law. This creates a fear-based existential crisis for the “status” and job security of the scholars.
The idea that the grace of God and the Kingdom of Heaven is now open borders to gentiles, which is the rest of the world, gives an illusory perception that this means the Jewish people are no longer the special “chosen” ones, even though the concept of heaven is a non-zero-sum realm where everybody wins.
The idea that God is eager to listen, to please, to bless, to love, to direct, to heal, to right wrongs rather than a God that is fixated on having his children pass tests to prove their worth in the Old Testament, threatens the keepers of the Old Law. This was uncovered that sin has perverted the Laws of the Old Testament, because sin has the power to twist, manipulate, and make things perhaps worse with the presence of laws, even though the law by itself is good (it’s how man manipulates the law for self-serving purposes that is bad).
The Upside Down Chicken and Rice Dish
The Second Family Meal in Palestine
It is the second day in Palestine. A woman you met at St. Andrews Church of Scotland in Rome, Viviany, also happens to be in Palestine at the same time you are there. She has invited you to a Muslim family dinner.
You are on the second floor of a three story family home where five grandsons, a granddaughter, four sons and a daughter, and the head of household and his wife is hosting you and Viviany.
They put food on your plate first. They put water in your cup first. They served you coffee first, and kept feeding you fruit, chicken, and more. They offered you cigarettes. You told them you quit cigarettes when you quit alcohol. The head of household, while smoking, says he should quit too but it is hard. You told him everybody on his own time. You thanked them over and over again for their generosity.
You say little but listen a lot. Viviany, the Roman woman who invited you, has known the family for 15 years and she speaks and overspeaks—criticizing the dad in a joking way, criticizing the middle son that he should go back to college, and telling the husband to bring his wife to Rome next time.
You are a bit ashamed that she is the way she is because it reminds you of the way you have been in the presence of company in the heyday of when you were married, shamelessly criticizing your husband in front of friends, flaunting your boss lady status. You have judgements that she is being a bit arrogant but you accept this because you know that you’ve acted this way many times, especially when a new guest comes in the picture and you want to be the showrunner of the scene. You know that Viviany is your mirror darkly and you give grace to this very uncomfortable moment. Still, you feel a wave of energy being sucked out of you.
She’s an energy vampire.
You notice your own judgements of her getting in the way of embracing the miracle moment of the present perfect. It’s a miracle because two Christian women, who are both divorced, are now the welcomed guest inside the home of a Muslim family, getting the royal treatment from the entire family. You meet all their sons, their daughters, and Viviany has a kind of charasma that just creates more engagement and conversation while the rest of the famiy, including you, are more in the background listening and being in silence.
You are now comfortable with being in the silence.
There is a slight wonder and awe to just being in the moment.
The oldest son insists that you and Viviany visit their home only a few minutes drive away to see his newborn son—their first born.
On the way to the eldest son’s home where their first born son is sleeping, you notice that the roads are rough shod, mostly still unpaved, but the land is there, and the bricks of the foundations are laid in concrete.
While on the outside it looks rough and unfinished, once you walk inside their home, it is smooth, marble glazed, clean, and modern. They have a beautiful big kitchen, a marble floor marble, and on the wall is a painting of the blue Temple Mount. They offer you more Arabic coffee from the bronze Turkish coffee pot and ladle.
The older women are wearing the hijab despite the fact that there are no outside men, but only two westernized women inside their home. You wonder if they look at you and Viviany as two lost souls or barbarians —the devil’s women.
Well, by the way Viviany runs the entire conversation and knowing your history of being a self-deluded postmodern playboy, it may certainly give that impression.
“Next time I’m going to Rome, I’m only taking Sookie,” Viviany says half-jokingly and teases the husband.
“No,” Sookie protests, then she says something in Arabic which the husband translates, “she says she wants me to come because she does not speak the language.”
Viviany shows pictures of her son and daughter and for a moment you feel a tinge of jealousy. She runs her own business that allows her to travel and work, she has two children, and now she is going back and forth half business and half pleasure, but you know that God’s design for you is precious, unique and different.
Stay in your lane.
Covetousness is the number one weapon of the enemy to distract you from appreciating and growing your blessing—you feel it in your heart of hearts that God’s seed planted inside The Love Story will bear lots of fruit —peace, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love.
Millions of hearts.
At least that’s the prayer you have.
You wonder if you need to pray this every day or if one prayer is enough?
Are you paying attention to the signs? Holy Spirit whispers.
I Love Beit Sahour
The city you are staying at is The Good Shepherd’s place and this is the place where the shepherds traveled to meet Mary right after she gave birth to God incarnate, Jesus Christ. This is the place where the commoners, the people who live humbly and simply in the eyes of the world, made their journey to visit God because they were divinely appointed to be the first witnesses.
You realize you are now the shepherd of one sheep—in the form of a cute dog named Roxy, a dog that looks like a Fox.
You are exactly where you are supposed to be.
The oldest son drives you home in his Taxi. You oblige. On his way, he honks and people wave. He does this about five or six times throughout the journey, just honking at people, and every time, the person he honks to turns to him, then waves, smiles, and empahtically says hello.
This seems so absurd to you—you’re used to people honking at people in Los Angeles with angry scowls, and people reciprocating the favor with a middle finger.
Here, there is none of that.
The scene reminds you of the opening scene of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when Belle greets the villagers—bonjour!
Everyone is smiling, honking, and waving at each other and you feel like you’re in the twilight zone with a Disney spin.
In fact, you have not seen anybody with guns here at all.
The only sound that sounds like guns are fireworks to celebrate weddings, graduation and more weddings during July, which is a peak wedding season.
Tea with Grandma
Grandma invited you to tea this morning on the first floor of her room. She says she is widowed some five years ago. Two of her sons and one daughter has settled in other countries. She feels longing and sadness and you could feel this from her. You tell her that after your divorce, you found traveling to be a good medicine. You try the traditional cucumber that is only grown here in Palestine that she has pickled. It is perfect, with just the right amount of spice. She tells you that she is visiting her sister in Minnosota for a month. She tells you that her sons have been encouraging her to get out of the house and explore.
The five year old boy shows up and stares at you and smiles. His mother later comes and you are happy that she is there. You are fascinated by her beauty. She reminds you of Jasmine in Aladdin.
You share how you went to Mostar where you saw Christian and Muslims recovering together, where tourists are coming in, where peace and healing is beginning once again. The bronze making, the silver making, the paintings, and more. Crosses and the half moon with the star here and there. People saying hi to each other. You tell her this when she tells you that people here—the Christians and the Muslims get along pretty well as well.
You wonder if Christians like her could cross the checkpoint where the Israelis have built a wall to prevent Palestinians from crossing but you don’t want to bring heaviness to where there are many.
She tells you of how all her sons are good men. Her husband was a smart banker and during the Kuwait war, they became refugees, and settled here in the West Bank, except they don’t call it that. They call this place, Beit Sahour, the village where the Good Shepherds tend to their goats and sheep, and pray to God 5 times a day.
Now they are being walled—their freedoms being encroached upon by some ideology.
It is the wound festering.
Wounds from trauma.
The Gift of Bread
You tell Sahin, the head of household that you want to get Roxy a leash since you lost the one you had in the airport. He offers to take you and lo, the entire family goes with you. His wife in the front seat with their two year old, and granny in between you and the five year old son.
Arabic music is playing while the cool July breeze blows through your face and you look out across the sunset and see on the horizon outlining Bethlehem and further down, you can see the entire city of Jerusalem.
He takes you first to the pet store nearest the checkpoint and there, you pick up a leash for Roxy and some dental snacks. Stores are lit and throughout the drive, sure enough, Sahin begins honking his horn and people he passes by—people in cars and on the streets smile and wave back.
“So is everybody just saying hi when you honk?”
At this question, the family laughs.
After the pet store, he stops at a bakery where falafel bread is being sold.
“Can I buy you bread?” Sahin asks.
“Yes,” you say.
“What do you want?” the wife asks.
“Anything,” you say.
Sahim comes back with three bags of falafel bread, one for his wife, one for his mother, and one for you.
The grandmother breaks off a piece of her bread and gives it to her five year old grandson and and then to you, then to her daughter in law, and on. You are eating in the car while the music is blasting in Arabic, and for a split second, you feel like part of their family.
You smile. God is asking you to get comfortable with family.
You know you’ve left Los Angeles to avoid the lovey dovey stuff, and here you are in the family car, eating home cooked dinners in Christian and Muslim families the first two nights in Bethlehem.
You all head to Downtown Supermarket, the grocery store nearest the home.
“Give her a discount,” Sahin tells the store owner, who is a friend. He looks at you and then nods his head.
It’s a small town here.
Everybody knows everybody.
Word spreads fast. Perhaps you had to pay 200 shekels to the taxi driver because you lied to him that you were only here for three days. In some ways, you get this sense that Sahim is responsible for you in this town— you get this feeling that you need a man to guide you through this city or it leaves you vulnerable for the picking.
The time you walked from Beit Sahour to Bethlehem and Back, you were wearing a dress and carrying a red umbrella that Smartie had bought for you in Rome.
“Ni hao!” you hear Arabic men say while they honk at you.
Except you don’t smile back and you don’t wave back.
Instead, you act like a typical American.
You act annoyed and harassed.
That’s right, you are Chinese…you almost forgot…and attractive walking by yourself in a dress with a big red Chinese umbrella Smartie has bought for you at the Spanish Steps and now it’s an attention grabber.
The Two Mohammad Taxi Drivers
The first Mohammad pulls over with a passenger already inside but takes you in anyway for the next ride. He drops off the older man at Downtown supermarket, and he comes back with two giant lollipops, which he gives you one lollipop and you gladly take it because it is rude not to take a gift. When people offer—you say yes. Perhaps that’s another lesson on humility. You remember Tim Ringgold telling you before that humility is actually accepting help from people.
Then Mohammad tells you take down his number and offers to drive you around different places to see all the Banksy spots. You oblige. When he drops you off, you ask him how much and he says, “as you like.” You give him a 20 and he says it’s too little, so you double it to 40 shekels.
Later, Viviany asks you how much you paid and you tell her. She tells you that you were ripped off. You don’t think that way. You think of it as gifting. You think about how Candice Owens was told she was a victim by Al Sharpton when she first reported the racist words of a white boy who used to like her but was bitter and drunk when she found a boyfriend. He had left a super angry and racist remarks in her voicemail while he and his buddies were drunk.
You had also told Vivany that the first Arabic taxi driver had charged you 200 shekels when you crossed and you regretted it right when you said it.
She calls these men thieves and you are embarrassed for her and for yourself for even mentioning the incident. You are okay with giving above market rate, but to say that people here are thieves hurt you.
Sure, the guy overcharged you but to call him a thief may be a stretch. He’s a hustler. Perhaps a man who needed to provide for a family who is in a very tough spot and you happen to be in a position to give. You can’t steal something that you willingly give.
The Last Sermon at St. Andrews
The last sermon at St. Andrews in Rome is about a woman named Ruth, a foreigner who searches in Bethlehem, to make right for her family. Her name is Ruth—the woman with no husband and children, a foreigner in a land she is not familiar with, and under the protection of a godly man who tells the men in the land of law to not lay a hand on her. As Ruth gleans in other people’s fields to make money for her and her mother, she one day comes across a man named Boaz, who owns the field where she gleans. They have chemistry, but it isn’t until when Ruth worked up the courage to approach Boaz in the middle of the night to proposition marriage which he agreed. They have children and down the line, their great grandson is David who later becomes King David.
The First Night in Bethlehem, West Bank
You hear laughter, clapping, family singing, and music.
The next morning, granny tells you that it is a wedding. In fact, in July, there is a wedding every weekend and the village comes together and celebrates. The entire village is invited.
And you are invited too.