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 cafĂ© 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.