Planting Figs; Crossing Borders

Recently, I came across this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian American poet. It’s a poem about her father, a Palestinian who lost his home in Jerusalem in the war of 1948 and came to the United States:

My Father and the Fig Tree

For other fruits, my father was indifferent.
He’d point at the cherry trees and say,
“See those? I wish they were figs.”
In the evening he sat by my bed
weaving folktales like vivid little scarves.
They always involved a figtree.
Even when it didn’t fit, he’d stick it in.
Once Joha
was walking down the road
and he saw a fig tree.
Or, he tied his camel to a fig tree and went to sleep.
Or, later when they caught and arrested him,
his pockets were full of figs.

At age six I ate a dried fig and shrugged.
“That’s not what I’m talking about!” he said,
“I’m talking about a fig straight from the earth –
gift of Allah! — on a branch so heavy
it touches the ground.
I’m talking about picking the largest, fattest,
     sweetest fig
in the world and putting it in my mouth.”
(Here he’d stop and close his eyes.)

Years passed, we lived in many houses,
none had figtrees.
We had lima beans, zucchini, parsley, beets.
“Plant one!” my mother said.
but my father never did.
He tended garden half-heartedly, forgot to water,
let the okra get too big.
“What a dreamer he is,” she’d say. “Look how many
things he starts and doesn’t finish.”

The last time he moved, I got a phone call,
My father, in Arabic, chanting a song
I’d never heard. “What’s that?”
He took me out back to the new yard.
There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas,
a tree with the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig in the world.
“It’s a figtree song!” he said,
plucking his fruits like ripe tokens,
emblems, assurance
of a world that was always his own.

It’s a lovely poem, and it got me to thinking about the many immigrants and refugees in our world today, experiencing the same longing for a taste of home as the father in the poem—the many people who have crossed borders and left homes behind and are now trying to forge new ones. The people living in the “in-between” spaces.

One of the first words you learn in any college class on religion is “liminality.” I majored in religion in undergrad, and this vocabulary word was crucial. It comes from the Latin word līmen, which means “threshold.” To be in liminality is to be on the threshold, to be “in between.” It’s a common theme in many human rituals. The Aboriginal people of Australia send their young men on a “walkabout,” where they go alone into the wilderness for months to make the transition from the settled state of “child” to that of “man.” There are many other examples from the world’s religions, too.

When we covered liminality, we’d also learn that those in a liminal state are often treated with fear or bigotry. Intersex or transgender folks, in the liminal place between the gender binary. For racists, biracial people who threaten the strict separation they want between the races. Even the lowly pig is dangerously liminal—the Hebrew Bible forbids Jewish people from eating pork because pigs have cloven hooves (like a cow) but do not chew cud like a cow, so they are “in-between” and therefore taboo.

Which brings me to borders—and those who cross them.

The border is the ultimate “liminal” space. It is inherently a threshold, a crossing-place between one location and another. People who have crossed a border, then, are in a liminal state. I don’t mean just a crossing for tourism, a quick check of the passport. I mean those who have left the place they call home—one settled, permanent place—to transition to a whole new land. People for whom crossing a border meant a huge change of life. I mean immigrants, I mean refugees—those who have been “in between.” Who have known the mystery of that transition, that change of identity. Like Naomi Shihab Nye’s father in the poem, who came to the United States, a place with none of the fig trees of his homeland, and spent his life longing for them.

And, like others in liminal states, they face fear. Fear of those who cross borders. Fear of those who have known the in-between spaces. We hear politicians calling for a ban on Syrian Muslim refugees from entering the country. And the same politicians calling Latino immigrants rapists and criminals. We find people in our society wanting to “Make America Great Again” by building walls and shutting borders. And it’s not just in the United States. Across the world, there are countries who think things will be better if we shut people up within walls and allow no crossings. No thresholds. They believe the refrain that “good fences make good neighbors,” even though poet Robert Frost once wrote in retort to that, “Something there is”—something deep in nature—“that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

If borders are liminal, walls are the opposite.

Walls prevent us from the gift of border crossings. They are ugly—concrete and metal and coldness. Looming barbed wire and searchlights and oppression. Like the wall between us and Mexico. Or the wall closing Palestine’s West Bank off from Israel. Walls manned by soldiers, guns in hand.

If open borders promise life, a wall speaks of death. But if we can get beyond the wall—if we can cross a border—we come to new understandings of our humanity.

I’m thinking of Machsom Watch, a group I met when I was in Israel and Palestine this past summer. They’re a group of Jewish grandmothers who show up every day to stand witness at the checkpoints in the wall between Israel and Palestine, reporting human rights abuses against Palestinians. They also lead Israeli groups into the West Bank, across the border, in a chance to connect with Palestinian activists.

I think, now, about one of those Palestinian activists. Mazin Qumsiyeh, founder of the Palestine Museum of Natural History. I met him in Bethlehem when I was there. He always signs his emails with: “Come visit us in Palestine, and stay human.” Because he knows that when you cross that ugly concrete wall, and when you meet the people on the other side, you do stay human. It is that crossing that makes us human.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most holy places in the world are the liminal ones. Pilgrimages, where the sacred happens when you are on the journey, neither at the beginning nor the end. The baptismal font or the Jewish mikvah bath, where a plunge underwater changes you from one religious status to another.

And borders, too, can be holy spaces.

People who cross borders remind us what it is to be truly human. That it’s not about these constructed countries and nations and maps that we’ve created, but that all of us are inherently, irrevocably interconnected. That the so-called “status quo” is only maintained because we ignore what happens outside our walls—forgetting that we are, all of us, connected.

Crossing a border can be an ultimate act of civil disobedience, a protest against unjust laws that keep those experiencing violence and oppression and poverty from having a chance at a better life.

Crossing a border is an act of unspeakable courage. It means leaving so much behind, and coming to a place that is so often inhospitable—which is tragic, because those who have crossed borders bring all of humankind a gift. The reminder that we human beings are varied and different and yet interconnected.

And so, as interfaith activists and religious leaders, I hope we can honor those who cross borders. Be in solidarity. Create spaces where, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem, people have the assurance that the world they are in was always their own. How can we make us all feel ready to plant our own fig trees, whatever form that may take? How can we value liminal states when so many in our society want to fear it?

Let’s realize our intersections. Let’s partner with other border-crossers. Let’s embrace the liminal, the unknown, the mystery. Let’s plant fig trees, claiming this world as our own. And then, let us sing—as in the poem—a fig tree song together.

Image: Pixabay. Public Domain. 

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