Tuesday, May 28, 2013

First days of Bethlehem

I wasn't in Palestine alone. I was in the company of ten women - including my mama! - who all quickly became dear to me as we walked like a little line of ducklings through the streets of Bethlehem.  There were times I thought we would do well to have one of those long buddy ropes to hold onto, making our Fearless Leaders' jobs so much easier...(a tip for the next time, ladies).  We were the first all-women group Bonnie and Nancy have brought to the middle east, and we benefited greatly from their seven years of experience.  Their main connection to Palestine is the Christmas Lutheran Church (yes, Christmas! It was Bethlehem afterall) and its outreach organization, the Diyar Consortium.

We stayed in the guesthouse connected to the church, and it was wonderful. Simple accomodations, and amazing food.  The night we arrived - late and after 2 days of travel for some of us - there was a sumptuous meal of chicken flavored with sumac, pita, and salad and a local wine from the Cremisan winery.  (The winery is housed in a monastery which lies on one side of the divide between the West Bank and Jerusalem, and its storage facilities are on the other.  I wonder what their future will be? It was damn fine wine.)

Looking out the front door
My mom's UCC church has a partnership with Christmas Lutheran, and supports the work of Diyar through the Bright Stars of Bethlehem program, so we met with the visionary behind the programs, Rev. Mitri Raheb, and with several of the key people involved in this incredible organization.  In an effort to educate more Palestinian young people - many of whom are "blacklisted" because of their age and energy - and to create a whole support system for the community, in the hopes that these educated people will stay, Rev. Mitri has created intergenerational programs to focus on children and the arts, provide support for young families, and offer care for the elderly. They have created Dar Al-Kalima college - which offers majors in art, music, theater, documentary film making, education, and publishing - a health and wellness facility, and formed a women's soccer team!

The person who spoke most passionately about these offerings was one of the black-listed young people, whose name is Angie.  She studied communications in "Minnesnowta" and is a lively spark, just full of energy.  She opened her talk by saying "We don't do death here. The only option is life."  She echoed what we heard elsewhere from people working in the depths of an awful situation - they are building a culture of Doing Something About It.  

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On our first day in Bethlehem - after a church service in Arabic, and before a walking tour of the city - we took taxis to have lunch with Zoughbi Z., the director of Wi'am, a Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center located near one of the checkpoints in and out of the city.  The first thing we noticed as we walked down the steps to the front door was the wall, and the small playground located next to it.

After what we soon discovered was a "typical" and amazing lunch (homemade hummus, Greek-style salad, pita bread and mint tea), we sat down to talk to Zoughbi about Wi'am's work.  As you might imagine, all of the problems that any community faces - domestic violence, economic hardship, youth delinquency, drug abuse - are exaggerated in a place where there is such oppression and tension, like a city along the apartheid wall.  As Zoughbi laid all of this out for us, he talked about how the society as a whole is hostage to fear and paranoia; the children have what we would call PTSD (post-traumatic-stress disorder), except that there is no "post". It is on-going.  With the youth, they are working against a culture of victimhood and anger.  The work that Wi'am is doing is transforming the "garbage" of anger and hatred into compassion.  He used the words restorative justice, where the focus is on mending and creating a healthy situation, not on punishing the wrong-doer.  Zoughbi and his colleagues are interested in "empowering the weak and bringing the strong to their senses!"


Again we heard the refrain, hope is a form of non-violent struggle.  And as he served us small glasses of arabic coffee and sweet mint tea, he told us that the traditional way of mediation is to work through your differences, taking turns listening, and ending with a sharing of coffee.  The more cups of coffee you share, the more conflicts are solved and the more you see things in common.

We asked Zoughbi what it is he hopes for. He answered I hope for dignity. I hope for the freedom to travel.  I hope for hospitals, education, jobs...

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On our last day in Bethlehem, some of us spent an hour or so walking through the city to spend more time at the part of the wall that is next to Wi'am.  It is hard to describe how difficult it was for my brain to understand that this wall is not a part of old history, something that some misguided and delusional dictator ordered erected hundreds of years ago, before we "knew better", to keep two peoples apart, but that it is something that is still being built today, that there are people who will argue for its effectiveness and purpose.  It doesn't fit with the good I know in the world.  I don't understand how so much energy can go into such an anti-human project - it is embarrassing and wrong.  

The wall cuts through a Muslim cemetary, and I could see a soldier winding his way through the graves towards us.  I didn't realize that he was Palestinian - and very friendly - until he was talking to us.  He was glad we were there, looking at the wall.

He walked us through the cemetary to where we could look down the hill towards Aida, one of the three refugee camps in Bethlehem.  The large key you can see above the archway in the image below is a symbol we encountered a few times during our visit; it signifies the haste with which the Palestinians fled from their homes during the Nakba ("the catastrophe") in 1948.  Thinking they would be gone for just a short time, they took nothing with them but their keys, intending to return as soon as possible.

The wall drew me in.   It is such a physical representation of the huge efforts to keep the average Israeli and Palestinian people apart, the people without the power, the people who are not making policy.  I wanted to read everything, to see the moving outpouring of expression, but looking back at my photos, what I am thinking about is how focused the Palestinian people we met are on eliminating a culture of victimhood.  They state the facts and move on.  There is no dwelling on self-pity, no feeding of anger.  I read that when the graffiti artist Banksy was leaving his marks on the wall an old Palestinian man told him that his work was beautiful.  Banksy thanked him for the compliment, but the old man replied that he hated the wall, and didn't want it to be made beautiful, and to please go home.

I haven't quite yet gotten past the anger that I feel when I look at these photos, and the sadness.  You know that the people "on the street" - the people like you and me - are not so different from each other.  But they don't know that; they don't have the opportunity to find out for themselves what their neighbors on the other side of the wall are like.  This wall is a crime in and of itself.  I sat with the computer one night, trying to figure out exactly where all the wall has been erected.  As we drove around the countryside, we'd look for it and our guide would point it out to us.  I was shocked to learn that upon completion the wall will be 430 miles long.  So much energy, money and effort going into such a divisive project.

Wall construction behind Bedouin encampment

Thank you so much for reading more about this experience.  I've started a page, which you can find a tab for at the top of this blog, where I will collect the posts I write about this trip, along with resource information about Palestine/Israel: book lists, films, websites.  


merry said...

It's nice to see these pictures since I didn't go on the walk. Powerful! I'd like to wake up tomorrow morning to the sound of the call to prayer!

Bonnie said...

Thanks for using your gift for putti g experiences and feelings into words . It is powerful witness to the lives and hopes of te people we met.

Sonjia said...

Nicely said, Debbie. You've articulated much of what I've been thinking. Good job with the photos.

Kerry said...

Wow, that wall is symbolic of so much that's going on.

Helena said...

I have been really far away from blogs for a while, so am just catching up here. This is an amazing post. Seriously, thank you so much for writing it. Those photos make something that ordinarily feels very far away for me, and impossible to grasp, feel very, very real. Probably because you are a mom like I am, and you live in a world that seems much like mine, so to see this other (but not so "Other") place with your eyes makes it incredibly powerful for me.

Hope is a form of non-violent struggle…that's something I hugely believe in. I hope that Hope is providing some comfort, energy, empowerment over there? Wow, I would so love to sit with you and ask you a thousand questions. And I would love to respond to everything you've written here, but that's not possible without writing a whole blog post myself! So…I'll just thank you again for writing this. And go and read some more.