It started with Israelis, Palestinians, American Jews, Europeans, one guy from Japan, and me standing around a bonfire…
Once a month an organization called Sulha, made up of Israelis and Palestinians, gathers together to practice peace and “meet to encounter the other in our full humanity.” At each meeting they choose a topic, this month was gender, and have Israelis, Palestinians, and whomever else is there discuss. It is mostly in Hebrew and Arabic, but normally there are a few people there who translate it to English if necessary. Sulha aims to create peace between Israelis and Palestinians by fostering dialogue, confronting the conflict, healing and “struggling together for freedom,” as one Palestinian man said. This same man also said that without French people protesting in France, Algeria wouldn’t have gotten its independence and without Americans protesting in the United States against the Vietnam War–the war would not have ended. Thus, from my view, Sulha believes that without Israeli resistance to the occupation there will never be peace and Palestinians will never be free. I tend to agree.
After an opening circle in Arabic and Hebrew, the men and women were separated. All the women got into small groups of about six. We went around in a circle talking about two questions: 1) What is your personal experience being a woman? and 2) what is your experience being a woman in your society? People answered in whatever language they felt comfortable and responses were translated to English for those of us who don’t understand Hebrew or Arabic. In my group a common theme was not really knowing what it means to be a woman and having many things externally defining our womanhood. Many women in my group talked about men over stepping boundaries whether it be their husbands or strangers. In general we all seemed to agree that becoming a woman was a process and whether you are Arab, Jewish, or Christian you will experience challenges. I talked about the multilayered reality of being both Black and a woman. I spoke about my experiences traveling alone and gendered racism in Europe and the United States. Most of the women in my group seemed to understand this experience, because in some way all of us were minorities.
After these conversations we had a wonderful vegetarian multicultural dinner with Arabic and Jewish foods, talking and meeting people. Before we ate the food was blessed in Hebrew and Arabic. Also an offering, of a few small pieces of all the food, was made for the ancestors in the garden of EcoMe. This offering is a daily tradition at EcoMe. While having dinner I met a 23 year old Israeli young woman who was helping to organize the Sulha event. She told me she was feeling very nervous all night because she wanted to make sure everyone felt safe and welcome. I told her everyone seemed open and happy so she should be pleased. After eating we all gathered back around the bonfire, where we started. A Hebrew band played Arabic and Jewish music, and a Palestinian woman named Manar got up and sang beautifully in Arabic. The night ended around a fire with music, dancing, and all of us hand in hand chanting: Shalom, Salaam, Peace! Although this sounds very ideal and romantic, to me it was exactly this.
I have met many unique people in my life and Manar is no exception. She is a Palestinian Christian born in Jerusalem, raised in Bethlehem, married to an Armenian Catholic Palestinian, and she is a ginger: she has pale skin, freckles, and orange hair. Her family are Palestinians as far back as they know and yet her, her older sister, and one cousin are gingers. Her and her husband co-founded an organization called Vision Association for Culture and Arts in Bethany in the West Bank. Their organization does community-based projects with Palestinian women and has a kindergarten. Although she has thought about moving to the U.S. where she can be free she still feels like she has more work to do here in Palestine: empowering and inspiring women, making music, and working with children.
I met Manar around the bonfire at the Sulha and complimented her singing, which was truly mesmerizing. We began talking and clicked quickly. Before I went to sleep she said “tomorrow I want to take you to Bethlehem and show you my home.” The next morning Manar, her three year old daughter, and I went first to Bethany to see her organization & kindergarten, and then to Bethlehem.
She showed me her high school, we walked through the old city, and saw the nativity church. She pointed out Shepherds Field and other points of interest for people, unlike me, who know the Bible.
She also showed me the wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank. This experience was overwhelming to say the least; in some areas the wall was nine meters (29 feet) high.
There was lots of graffiti and drawings on the wall, on that alone I can do a whole project. Some parts of the wall were black from being burned and chipped from stones being thrown. She remembers when the wall was completed in 2003. She remembers the clashes with police and tear gas and families being separated and displaced. At her home in Bethany she lives next to the wall, her family home in Bethlehem is next to a refugee settlement. Wherever she is she cannot escape the occupation or reality that she is not free and cannot go wherever she wants to go. Even though she was born in Jerusalem before the wall was built, she has limited access to go there. She cannot drive her own car there because it has Palestinian plates and she is only allowed this limited access because she is Christian and her husband is Armenian Catholic.
I am so grateful to Manar for trusting me and be-friending me in such a short time. Because of her I was able to see parts of the West Bank I would not have travelled to and hear the experiences of some Palestinians. In the midst of all this, we can still drive through the West Bank with her six year old son dancing to Hip-Hop from the Gulf region and singing along to Hakuna Matata in Arabic. Even in such gross injustice she finds moments of joy and inspiration in music, women, Sulha, and her family.
Meet Me at the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, literally. It is called the Dead Sea because there is nothing alive in it. This is probably because it is about 35% salt; for reference, the Caribbean Sea is about 3.6% salinity. When you go into the Dead Sea you float because there is more salt in the Dead Sea than in your body. It is truly a sight to see, an oasis in the desert, in-between Israel/Palestine and Jordan. From the point where I was, I could see across to Jordan even though it was a bit foggy.
At the Sulha I met a young Palestinian man who is a lifeguard at the Dead Sea. He was telling me that he’s had to do CPR a number of times because people have swallowed a bit of water and because of its salinity it is very dangerous. He’s had to go out to get people who have drifted off while floating. He has quite some stories so I enjoyed seeing him in his natural habitat.
I had intended to walk to the Dead Sea, not realizing how far it was. After five minutes of walking a young Israeli man offered me a ride. Hitchhiking is very common and safe, many people do it and pick up strangers. He told me he had just gotten out of the army, that it’s too far to walk and Arabic men will harass me. I told him I’ve been around Arabic men, walked alone in this area before and no one has harassed me. He then went on to say that I should be with an Israeli man because they are the “manliest men” since they all go to the army even though they are such a small country, etc. I was glad when we reached the Dead Sea after ten minutes. It was clear this boy–no older than 20–was proud of his culture and his military contribution to his country. Though a few Israelis stressed to me that many Israelis feel guilty about their time in the military.
On my way back from the Dead Sea, an older Israeli man offered me a ride and began to ask me about my time in Israel. He wanted to make sure I was having fun and Israelis had been nice to me. I assured him they were very welcoming. He told me Israel is a place to “get crazy and not be so serious.” I tried to be very clear that I was not serious and enjoying my time. He then proceeds to take out a rather large spliff (weed mixed with tobacco) and asks me if I’d like to partake. I respectfully declined, thanked him for the ride, and arrived back at EcoME at sunset–hearing in the distance the call to prayer beginning in Jericho.