3 Different Books That Make Me Feel the Holy Land in my Bones

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Note: The “Holy Land” is made up of the countries that are currently known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel, and Palestine. 

Outcasts United, by Warren St. John

(creative nonfiction, new journalism)

I cannot remember how I discovered this book, but I love it for both the framework through which the story is told and the story it tells.  Outcasts United is written by Warren St. John, a reporter, who spent months “imbedded” with the soccer team “The Fugees” and their families. 

 It seems to me that a lot of people have an image of immigrants as a group of poor people that are either to be pitied or suspicious of.  They don’t seem to realize that “immigrants” are all over, in every facet of society.  The only difference with most is money.  Wealthier “immigrants” probably learned English in their home country, very possibly went to school in English rather than their native language, and outwardly merge fairly seamlessly with “native born” Americans.   

Luma Mufleh, the team’s coach, is just this type of immigrant, a soccer-loving product of an American school in Jordan, where she studied alongside the children of American diplomats and business people.  In the book, she ventures into Clarkston, Georgia, a designated resettlement location for refugees on a hunt for some authentic Arab groceries and finds her mission: starting a soccer team.  Along the way, she helps the players and their families assimilate with each other and with their new home. 

I’m not particularly a sports lover, but I enjoyed the tension of the games and also the chance to learn the various stories that brought the families to the United States.  It’s a glimpse into the lives of people we might never know, or do know and want to understand better.

This book is written in a style called “new journalism”.  To some, it may appear to ramble as St. John weaves the stories of the individual families into the main narrative about the team.  I love this type of storytelling (I’m the annoying person who talks this way), but if you need to, make some notes when the chapters skip subjects, or if you want to, just skip the backstories.  Do what works for you.  There is also a “Young Readers” (Young Adult) edition of this book written by the same author, which is a good option if you don’t like the details or want to save time.  Make sure that you are getting the version you want; it’s difficult to tell them apart.

More information and teaching materials here.


Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye (young adult novel) 

“Habibi” means “my dear” in Arabic, but if you’ve spent a significant amount of time among Arabic-speaking people, the connotations are so much more than the English phrase “my dear” conveys.  It is a term of affection that is used for anyone you care about, and let me tell you, Arab people are emotional, so there is a lot of caring. I love that about them.  Tempers flare quickly, but compassion and concern for others are even more abundant.  That’s why Habibi is the perfect title for the story Naomi Shihab Nye wants to tell. 

Nye no doubt draws on her personal experiences in telling the story of Liyana, an American-born Palestinian who moves back with her family.  I respect Nye’s approach because she makes what I consider a Herculean effort to approach the Jewish side of the issues in Palestine as fairly as she does the Palestinian, which considering the history, can’t be an easy thing to do.   

Habibi was published in 1993, and I have tried and failed to read it several times before seeing the Middle East.  I think I really didn’t understand the context.  But after having spent a lot of time in the Middle East and making several visits to Jerusalem, I can attest that this is exactly what it is like.  As Liyana goes to school in old (walled) city, and I can sometimes picture even the street corners she describes.  

Since Nye is also a poet, she has a special way of expressing details.  I was struck by the description, “Her throat felt shaky” (212) because I have certainly felt that, but have never seen it written down.  Later on, Liyana comments, “The whole day tasted wonderful” (246). 

My difficulty with this book is a good example of how much we need to picture what we read.  I consider myself good at that, but even given the amount of time I spent in Sunday school as a child, Jerusalem and the modern Holy Land were just too much for me. I just didn’t have the context for it. If you have the same problem, take some time to watch some videos first.  Maybe someday Habibi will be reprinted in an collector’s edition with photos; meanwhile, we have the Internet!

A History of God, by Karen Armstrong (nonfiction) 

Attending a service in the Chapel of the Nativity in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem, where Jesus was born (February, 2019)

I originally read this book during my first year living in the Middle East because I wanted to understand the relationship between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  I knew that Islam’s Allah is the same God that Christians and Jewish people worship, but during my first months in the Middle East, I was surprised to discover how much of Islam is familiar.  Discussions with friends and colleagues revealed that many stories in the Bible are also in the Quran.   

Street sign for Via Dolorosa, where Jesus is believed to have walked to his crucifixion, in the three main languages used in Jerusalem.

I wanted to understand the complete picture, so I picked up this book. Although I originally wanted to understand more about Islam, I found myself fascinated by the analysis of God as depicted through the books of the Bible from a historical perspective. If you are religious, you may well disagree with a lot of what Armstrong says because Armstrong’s main thesis is that God changes.  I cope with that idea as a Christian by accepting that humans change, and everything we know about God is mediated through humans.  Anything further I will leave for the afterlife when, God willing, I have more information.  

What is believed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses found in the Sinai region of Egypt

My question regarding the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was answered, and set the stage for my time in the part of the world where all three faiths began and my understanding of all of them.  

The old city of Jerusalem as seen from the controversial excavation of the “City of David”