Friday, April 11, 2014

The choices of Mr. Sam Bahour

Ramallah is a city of surprises.  Barbed wire fences enclose massive refugee settlements on the outskirts while swanky cafes and restaurants boasting nouvelle Palestinian cuisine hug the hillsides and mountaintops.  Yasir Arafat’s tomb is a marble shrine with a reflecting pool behind it -- just above the street where Israeli forces besieged his headquarters for a month 12 years ago.  

How resilient human beings may be.



Sam  Bahour is a good example. The Youngstown, Ohio native now lives in Ramallah with his family. A hybrid American like so many of us, Sam was born to a Palestinian Muslim father and a Lebanese Maronite Christian mom.  Mother’s milk was concern for the homelands; he was weaned from American news coverage of the region to the reality of on-the-ground experiences beginning in 1987. As Americans, he and the interested personal and business colleagues who came with him were free to move from the Golan to Gaza. There were none of the checkpoints and walls that cripple crossover and contact today.  An IT professional he was particularly interested in opportunities for telecommunications as laid out by the Oslo accords.

“Read it,” he told our delegation from TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy and the Esalen Institute’s AbrahamicFamily Reunion project. “Olso stipulates (in an annex or appendix) a separate and independent telecommunications network” for the Palestinian territories,” Sam told us. That promise grabbed his attention and he set to work building one.  But he soon found out that the right to create a separate and independent network did not mean a right to the frequencies required for telecommunications to function. Frequencies were and are the purview of the Israeli government. Application process? A nightmare. Essential equipment? Waylaid at Israeli ports for two years.

Technology isn’t Sam’s only nightmare. When he came as a US citizen on an Israeli tourist visa he had to leave every three months, turn around, get a new visa and come back. This not only to maintain his economic development enterprise, but also to be with his family. Because he married a local Palestinian woman. 

After 15 years of three-month visas the Israeli government finally stamped “last permit” into his passport. Now it was time to get residency. Details of that pursuit I’ll save for a documentary film. Suffice it to say that finally he got his Palestinian ID – a guarantee as much as anything is guaranteed in this world to remain with his family. But the trade off is a new set of obstacles.

The Palestinian ID comes from the Israeli military. With it Sam can’t fly in or out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. His access to Jerusalem is restricted, meaning he can’t drive there any more. Like all residents of the occupied territories he had to leave his car at checkpoints and walk through a maze of gates, sometimes waiting hours on lines (see my April 4 blog), and take taxis on the other side. This makes regular business meetings difficult if not impossible.

He pulls his wallet out for show and tell: on any given day he needs to present up to five documents to go anywhere, conduct business, and validate his presence. That’s a tough row to hoe for an American accustomed to First Amendment rights.

“You can see the wall, the lines, the checkpoints, the soldiers,” he told us in an airy café atop a Ramallah hill.  During the evenings this place hosts poets and philosophers -- a wanna-be French Left Bank and New York’s Greenwich Village. “But you can’t see the restricted airwaves, aquifers, and administration.”


Ramallah is a town of visible dual and triple narratives; people finding, defining and fighting for identities; a town that’s hamstrung by past and present realities that yearns for a future it is just beginning to taste.




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Three lessons about Jesus on the Abraham Path

"It doesn't matter where it happened," says our guide as we looked across a wide West Bank valley toward Palestine's largest city, Nablus.  "People go to Bethlehem to see the place where Jesus was born. You see them kissing the mark.  I don't believe it myself," George Rishmawi, a native of Bethlehem, continues.  "I don't believe he was born there. He may have been born in Nazareth. What matters is that he was born."

The same goes for the stories George tells from this spot along the Abraham Path -- National Geographic Traveler's #1 rated new walking trail.  George points to two mountains on the other side of the valley. Nablus is tucked between them. To the north is Mount Ebal.  To the south is Mount Gerizim, the religious center of the Samaritans (yes, as in "the good one").  Joshua (who led the massacre of Jericho), and the family of Jacob (remember the "Technicolor Dreamcoat"?) are also associated with these two mountains.   Some say Abraham was about to sacrifice his son on Mount Gerizim. Readers familiar with my coverage of the hajj pilgrimage know that for Muslims, Abraham's great challenge took place at Mina, outside Mecca in today's Saudi Arabia. For others the rock under Jerusalem's great Dome of the Rock mosque is identified as the place of potential sacrifice. As George Rishmawi says, it doesn't matter where it was or even which son. It's the lessons you take from the story.


Take the Samaritan story George told us. Not the tale of "the good one" -- apparently there was more than one good Samaritan. Due to hostilities with other Jewish tribes the Samaritans got a bad rap, a fuss over land, construction, work force -- the usual. Bad rap, bad blood, bad relationship.  Most Jews avoided crossing Samaritan country, but Jesus, on his increasingly counterculture and inclusive mission, walked right through Samaria. On that day above Nablus, walking along the Abraham Path we could imagine just how thirsty Jesus may have been, traveling under the white bright sun. "There came a woman of Samaria to draw water," recounts John in the Bible, Chapter 4 Verse 7.  She offered Jesus water from the well of Jacob.  He accepted.  Culture clash number one: she was Samaritan and he, a Jew. Clash number two: she was a she and he was a he and Jewish men didn't speak to women in public. By saying "yes" Jesus decidedly demonstrates connection with "the other."

Up the road a good several days walk is the Sea of Galilee where much of Jesus's important work takes place. Like healing lepers. Heal them: heal the suffering, heal the sick. Jesus shows it's not just a good idea; it's a practice.

Down the road, in Jericho, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Jesus spies Zacchaeus, a tax collector who's climbed a tree in order to see Jesus above the crowds. Tax collectors then, like now, were not popular. Tax collecting was considered a sin. And Jesus says, c'mon down Zacchaeus, I'm having dinner at your house tonight. The story in Luke Chapter 19, Verses 7-10 continues, "All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'" But Zacchaeus renounces half of what he has and promises to pay back anyone he's cheated four times over.  Jesus declares that "salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." In the Book of Matthew, Chapter 9:11 Jesus explains "it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick." Jesus came to work with people who need work, not with the well ones.

These were three of the Abrahamic fables George Rishmawi shared as we walked together in the exquisite Palestinian countryside, where poppies bloom, the scent of jasmine is in the air, and almond trees are heavy with new fruit. The "fruit" of sheep lays on the land, too, so one must occasionally watch where the foot falls.

But feet fall on contested land regularly here. What I appreciate about the Abraham Path Initiative -- and why I sit on its board of directors -- is that our feet move forward in a purposeful direction as we walk together on land that really, if you ask it, belongs to no one. And as we walk in the same direction something figurative grows from the literal. Partnership. Vision. Hope. Step by step reconnecting the human family.  This project, that ABC News correspondent Christiane Amanpour calls "an unprecedented initiative," brings cultural tourism and economic development to this region. The Abraham Path or Masar Ibrahim in Arabic, aims to retrace the route of Abraham across Mesopotamia sometime between three and five thousand years ago.  It provides for an empirical knowledge of the people of this region by people from away (in Maine, where my husband's family is from, you're either local or you're from "away"). Currently, the Masar measures miles in the countryside and villages of southern Turkey, western Jordan, eastern Palestine, and its western neighbor. Eventually the Abraham Path may connect to even more places where the legends and lore of this fierce monotheist and gentle purveyor of hospitality wandered with family and flocks, live on, including present day Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

George Rishmawi is right: it doesn't matter where or in some cases even if a Biblical or Qur'anic story is true. What matter is what we get from the story and how we give it back into the world, upholding values of connection, healing, and transforming lives.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What's on the wall?

What's on the wall? I'm talking about Israel's separation or apartheid wall that is splitting an already split place into splinters. Construction began in 2002 after the intifada or "shake off" began in an effort to deter attacks from Palestinians on Israel.  As my colleagues and I travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah, to Bethlehem and Hebron we see breathtaking swaths of this barrier cutting through countryside, slicing cities, and intruding on towns. Bethlehem is a good example.  

The wall through Bethlehem (yes, the city of Jesus's birth) has become a mecca for public art. Fifteen to 20 feet high in some places it's covered in poignant graffiti and satirical comedy.  Huge murals depict the towns and villages from which Palestinians living in Bethlehem's refugee camp Aida have fled. Abu Ghosh, Beit Awn, Rafat ... They left home in the throes of war, expecting a short stay in UN emergency tents. WIthin three years the tents were replaced by clay and concrete.  Sixty years later there are schools, medical centers, grocery, antique and souvenir shops.  Vendors sell giant brass keys that used to open the doors of houses these refugees used to call home.

We were astonished and amused to see advertisements, too! Restaurant menus. Furniture stores. s. The Caritas Hospital promoting its excellent care. Sarcastic street signs proclaim "Wall Street" and "Apartheid Avenue." There are the requisite protest paintings. And then there's this little guy.  A cartoon character called "Handala," (accent on the first syllable) that has charmed this part of western Mesopotamia with its simple message of patience, resistance and resilience.  Handala is the creation of Naji Al Ali, an Arab Garry Trudeau, who used his art to core regional politics with acerbic intent. Handala's back is always to you.  His face searches his homeland.  "I drew him a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who use hs thorns as a weapon," writes the late Naji Al Ali.  "He is barefooted like the refugee camp children … His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way."


Handala "was born" ten years old Al Ali says. That's how old the cartoonist was when his family fled their town of Ash Sharjara to the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon. Al Ali never shows us Handala's face; the cartoon won't turn around until he returns to Palestine. "When he returns, Handala will still be ten," says his creator, "and then he will start growing up." 

You'll be interested to know that the wall is about 60% complete. They say it will be 700-800 km long when it's done. That's 450 to 500 miles of wall in a country less than 300 miles long. Where do the extra 200 miles go? They wind in and out of towns, up and down hills, and ring circles around refugee centers. The wall runs through a gas station along its route, leaving the pumps on one side and lanes for cars on the other.  There are homes sliced in half. It's quite a feat of engineering. 

Naji Al Ali never saw the wall. Nor did he see Handala grow up -- not just because of the ongoing occupation. Al Ali was assassinated in London in 1987, just as the first "shake off" began. His little hedgehog-haired pencil drawing now stands sentry along the wall, as if waiting at a gate for an invitation.

Friday, April 4, 2014

More than a tour

We were enjoying nouvelle Palestinian cuisine at Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel when the text came from Huda.  "The checkpoint was horrible."

Silence descended on the table.

We'd spent the day together with Huda.  She was our interpreter and guide.  She'd set up our appointments for the day.  A teacher and interfaith activist, Huda was our friend and a core member of our team.  The checkpoint was horrible.

Huda, Palestinian, had to return home to Hebron that night.  Huda, Palestinian, was not allowed by Israeli law to spend the night with in Jerusalem without a special permit. It took three hours that Tuesday night for her to get through the check point between Jerusalem and Bethlehem -- crossing with thousands of workers returning at the end of the work day.  For years Palestinians crossing into "Area A" have had to take cars, cabs or public busses to a wall of chain link fences, then on foot get channeled like cattle through mazes of gates (picture a Disney-prison entrance), show identity papers and answer questions about who what where when and why, and once processed, then walk, or find wheels on the "occupied" side to finally get home.  It's a commute from hell.  A red sign posted on approach to the check point warns the that "The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law." (I didn't invent the capitalizations.)

Area A at checkpoint
Buried in newspaper articles on the Israeli occupation of Palestine are references to the checkpoints and concomitant indignities, but as any story to which one has a personal connection, it really hits home when your friend is subjected to a social injustice.

I get to be in Jerusalem for almost two weeks on a study tour with members of the Esalen Institute's Center for Theory and Research and TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy. We are immersed in questions of the Abrahamic family and the role religious actors play in conflict resolution. Two weeks is not a long time to absorb the complexities and nuances of the people on this land but we're doing our best by scheduling jam-packed days of looking and listening. Huda is key to making this happen.

Beyond "fixing" our journey she is on a remarkable journey of her own these two weeks.  Like me she is one of Esalen's minority Muslim devotees. Several times she's been to Esalen's piece-of-paradise campus in Big Sur, California.  But it's 20 years since she's been to Jerusalem or Ramallah -- only 25 minutes as the dove flies from Hebron. These past three days she's seen the exclusive for-Israelis-only highways and the "separation" wall that cuts through townships in person for the very first time.  She was thrilled to return to Jerusalem's famous Damascus Gate; she bought us tea where she used to sit with her grandfather at a street corner cafe nearby.  She brought us to her mother's favorite bakery where the aroma of anise on a special pastry left her eyes shimmering with tears. "She used to buy those for us every week."

According to Abraham Maslow, the great social psychologist who spent time at Esalen Institute in the 1960s, only about two percent of the human population has the luxury of wrestling with the higher values of social justice, individual wholeness, and self-expression. The rest wrestle with finding food, clothing and shelter.  Huda's reality bridges those worlds.

Social madness like checkpoints, walls, and identity cards, is not sustainable. We're not in a brave new world -- not yet. And here, on the western edge of Mesopotamia, Huda is one of a growing number of Palestinians and Israelis that we are meeting who are determined to apply the luxury values of the two percent (self-awareness and social justice) while they stand with thousands of others who are dazed in the maze of a checkpoint, waiting at the bottom of the pyramid to put food on the table for their families.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Actually, this is a letter from South Orange, New Jersey.  January 14, 2013.  First day of classes this semester at Seton Hall University where I am teaching Documentary Film again.  It's a genre study course; a look at the history of this kind of filmmaking, from the silent black and whites of Robert Flaherty and Leni Riefenstahl to Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon Tiki," CBS Reports news docs, cinema vérité, and the mixed media films we see today.

We began today with a conversation about relevance.  Why do we watch these films? Why do we care? What can we learn?  What does, for example, Michael Moore's 2002 Academy Award winning "Bowling for Columbine" tell us about ourselves, our society, the events of 1999 and the events of December 21, 2012?

Granted, Moore wanders in the course of this two-hour film; some of his vérité seems to me vain and gratuitous.  He is charming.  Seeing his approach to journalism (soft opening leading to ambush) is useful for students of filmmaking as well as for viewers to appreciate the art.  And were I his editor 13 years later I would cut some of that and delete some redundancies.

On the other hand I wouldn't touch the clean, cold reality of the security camera footage inside Columbine High School.  Four squares of screen with the 9-11 audio actuality for extended time, drawing viewers in to the heartless horror of the event.

I wouldn't alter his breezy interview with James Nichols, the brother of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.  Our home grown terrorists.  Moore never says a word of condemnation; the conversation does it all.

And his montage homage to Robin Williams' use of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" ... spectacular.  My hands went involuntarily to prayer position: Please, Omnipotence, forgive our awful arrogance, our interference with other nations' birth and growth; forgive the death and carnage we Americans have caused in Kosovo, El Salvador, Iran, Japan ... My heart was racing at the end of that section.  I wonder: were my students so viscerally affected?

We discussed one of his recurring themes: we live in a society blanketed in fear, courted with fear, married to fear.  What are the benefits of a fear-based society?

Control, they said.
Increased consumption.  (Shop, President Bush told us.)
Capitalism
Conformity

(An alliteration!  I commended them.  I could write a book with your analyses!)

Brainwashing.

Ever hear of 1984 or Brave New World?

Maybe I won't write a book.

But I will write a blog.

They are wise, these young men and women.

And I want to share their wisdom weekly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dateline: September 19, 2001, Newark Star Ledger

What I wrote a year ago remains all-too-relevant today. On the 10th anniversary I am proud to have generated a great team and implemented a powerful step toward reconnecting the human family: www.911Walks.org


Date: 2001/09/19 Published in the Newark Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest daily newspaper

We are Americans, too

Arab community and Islam are not to blame for attacks
By ANISA MEHDI


I sat on the left side of the NJ Transit train escaping New York City that Tuesday. Like so many of us, I needed to see the smoking towers with my own eyes to shake the disbelief from my senses.

Commuters, ordinarily strangers to one another, talked all the way home. The man next to me and I shared our astonishment and sorrow, wondering what the horrible events might portend. He asked why I had gone to New York that morning, and I said that, ironically, I was producing a television documentary aimed at helping Americans understand Islam better. He shook his head grimly and said, "This is going to help."

I asked why he thought everyone was pointing blame at Muslims at a time like this. "Racism," was his simple and precise response. I trembled involuntarily.

You can't tell I am Muslim just by looking at me. I do not cover my hair. My eyebrows are waxed back to dark, defined, dramatic lines, that don't shout, "I'm an Arab!" Not anymore.

Gone are the painful days of a schoolgirl called "terrorist." No one asks about the camels in my yard anymore, or about the bomb in my backpack. My friend's parents can't forbid me to play with them because now I'm grown up. Not that I ever was a threat. I was just a kid who happened to have a different background, trying to peacefully share the same American playground as everyone else.

I grew up in Queens, and there, as anywhere in the metropolitan area, people of Arab, South Asian or homegrown Muslim roots learned to steel themselves against prejudice.

Until last Tuesday I'd forgotten how much armor I'd been wearing in emotional self-defense. What started in school evolved into decades of explaining oppressed people's frustration in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran. I'd get the evil eye when I suggested that maybe people in other countries might not see our government as the same "good guy" we may consider it to be.

But Sept. 11 shattered my shields and silenced my historical clarifications. Nothing explains this. Nothing justifies this outrageous attack. We are all horrified beyond expression at the evil we have witnessed. This assault is on upright people everywhere: Muslims, Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and people of no faith.

I join Muslims all over the world recoiling in disgust that anyone could remotely associate this brutality with Islam. With Arab-Americans I weep for the children of Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq who have already suffered extreme deprivation and stand now to suffer even more. I weep for the young Americans who will be taunted and ostracized, as I once was, for crimes they would never commit.

Americans, all of us, are stunned by this act of violence.

Yes, it's imperative to find the guilty parties, try them, convict them and punish them. But it's also imperative that we do not blame the innocent and curse a whole community unfairly. The world is home to 1 1/2 billion Muslims - an estimated 7 million in this country. The overwhelming majority are good, decent people.

Islam is a faith based on peaceful submission to the will of God. Muslims are commanded to respect the faiths of others. We are instructed to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Chapter 35, verse 10 of the Quran says: "If any do seek for glory and power, to God belongs all glory and power. To him mount up all words of purity. It is he who exalts each deed of righteousness. Those that lay plots of evil, for them is a penalty terrible; and the plotting of such will be void of result."

Islam allows no excuse for the killing of innocent people.

So why are some Americans reacting so forcefully against Muslims? To take blind vengeance on Muslims or Arabs is another kind of evil that we, as Americans, have been fighting for decades. That evil is bigotry, so starkly stated by my fellow commuter in the shadow of the smoke last Tuesday.

Bigotry and racism won't help: not locally, not globally.

It will take years, perhaps generations, for all the emotional and political dust to settle from the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. For Muslims the pain and politics are multilayered. We have not only suffered the loss of loved ones but also are suddenly suspect - guilt by association. Numerous acts of violence against Muslim businesses have been reported around the country. Mobs have menaced mosques; women in traditional Islamic dress have been beaten. Many shudder with the knowledge that their homelands may soon come under attack.

I am heartened by what I've seen in many New Jersey towns: calls for solidarity among all our diverse communities and measured military response. The guideposts for action are in our great Constitution and the prayerful words of "America, the Beautiful": "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."

What your Muslim and Arab neighbors, your doctors, your students and classmates, coffee-shop owners and gas station attendants need now is to be embraced, not rejected. We are not the "them" or the "they" that did it. We are part of "us." We stand with other Americans. Together we can build a more stable and understanding tomorrow.

###

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Groundswelling

On September 6 an inspired audience sat in the Greene Space at WNYC, as Valarie Kaur and fellow panelists Hussein Rashid, Ari Wallach and Beth Zemsky laid out a foundation for a hopeful new social movement for the 21st century. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already pumped, primed, and part of it … Certainly the 9/11 Walks project embodies it … Auburn Seminary, hosting of the event, took the brave step of naming it something: “Groundswell.” Kaur is the project director as it is conceived by Auburn.

The event was an opportunity for the audience, mostly from the “progressive left,” to learn how to make something of “collective intentional action,” as Zemsky, a social change strategy expert explained. It was a chance to c

onsciously frame a conversation for the future that goes beyond “rights” and “tolerance” to an age of welcome and partnership. It is a time for turning “campaigns” into lasting aspirational world views. It is also a time to include faith.

“Our generation, the Millennials,” said Kaur, “doesn’t see ourselves as black or white, Asian or American, Muslim or Sikh, straight or gay.” (I, who am of another generation with more years here deeply appreciate that sentiment, yet I wonder, who DO they see? We all see someone. Is it possible simply to see character and qualities like honesty, honor, intelligence and humility?)

I went to the microphone at the appointed time, and spoke of the 9/11 Walks. ”We are one way to connect with another person. we are decentralized. We ask people to ‘see no strangers,’” I said, referencing key points made by Hussein, Wallach, and Kaur respectively. ”And we are motivated by the enlightened longings and bold visions expressed here tonight. But we’re responding to one thing more that hasn’t been mentioned. Fear. An underlying fear of another, the other, existing today that makes all of our efforts essential. Fear of Muslims, fear of “crusaders,” fear of terrorists, fear of drones and fighters jets, fear of cyberattack, fear of occupation, fear of physical and cultural annihilation, fear of flying, fear of worshipping false idols, false leaders, and false pretenses. We, the 9/11 Walks, are taking our small steps as an act of hope and courage to make a mark of kindness on the face of fear. What else do YOU see as possible. What else can people do, what else can we do to face and diminish fear?”

One good answer was to make sure to tell your story to another and to hear the other’s tale, too. That makes the other person multi-dimensional.

Another good answer was to keep hope and your aspirational world view front and center.

What do YOU think we can do? We are already on this Walk together … Share what you think.