A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
Abigail recently returned from a two-week-long Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME) human rights delegation to Israel and Palestine. UUJME’s mission is “to promote peace and justice in Israel-Palestine, including a settlement of the conflict affirming the equality, dignity, freedom and security of all peoples involved.”
“Be careful,” people told me. “It’s dangerous there.” Silent, but implicit, the message carried—they are dangerous there. The people. The children—“little snakes,” according to a recent post by Israel’s justice minister. Terrorists.
And then I went there. To Jerusalem. To the West Bank. To Palestine.
So many small cups of strong Arabic coffee, brought out on trays in an instant welcome wherever you go. Street food sellers who pinch fresh-fried balls of falafel into paper with a slap of tahini sauce and offer them over the counter, enticing people off the street and into their tiny shops. “Here, lady! Here, sir!” Warm bread and fresh hummus and again and again, the little Arabic I know—zaky, delicious. Shukran. Thank you.
Our Palestinian guide, who lost 29 family members in the massacre of the village of Deir Yassin by Zionist paramilitary groups. Who still remembers the 1967 War, growing up in Jerusalem and seeing the stark before and after of occupation, the dead bodies in the streets. Who still laughs and teaches us jokes in Arabic and leaves early for his nephew’s wedding one night, returning with stories of flowers and joy and life unfolding.
A birthday party we see one night in Bethlehem—balloons and cake and Palestinians and hijabs and babies. It is a young woman’s birthday, and as the people sing and she opens presents and they all laugh and clap and smoke hookah together, the joy is palpable. Life happens. Birthdays come. Babies grow. Cake is eaten. No people are inherently joyless or violent or vicious. They are naturally lovers and laughers and good. Later I write in my journal, This is the Palestine I wish the world could see.
Sitting in the small town of Bethlehem in the cool evening air with my Palestinian host family, drinking sweet mint tea. We are outside their little house overlooking the hills (where in the distance a settlement lies, separated by electric fences from the Palestinians), and our host father points out the houses around him, all belonging to family members. He tells us about the huge family reunions they have at Christmas—1,500 people!—and I ask him how long his family has been in Bethlehem. He laughs. “Forever! A long, long time—before Jesus Christ!” I think about what it must be like for a family to have been in a place for thousands of years, for so many generations (since, one might say, time immemorial). To have ancestors, perhaps, who listened to Jesus or walked past the ancient Temple. Then to be told that you do not belong—that the land is not yours.
Later in the evening, he shows us the view from the roof, where he is building a new floor with his own two hands. He gestures across the village and tells us about how, in their small town of Beit Sahour outside of Bethlehem, the families all form soccer teams every summer, holding a tournament (which his family has won for the past five years, he tells us proudly). “Christians and Muslims, we all play together. Here, we don’t ask about religion. We are together, friends, here in Beit Sahour.”
We drive to Tent of Nations, a West Bank farm owned by a Palestinian family who has been threatened by the Israeli military, who has tried to take their land. The Israeli army has blocked the road to their farm with toppled rocks, so we have to stop the bus on the dusty road (next to a field claimed by Israeli settlers and in sight of a hilltop Israeli settlement) and walk the rest of the way in the dry, hot air under a bright sun. When we get to the gate of Tent of Nations, a jovial Palestinian man hurries down the hill, waving. He opens the gate and greets us, shaking each of our hands. “Marhaba,” I say.
“You speak Arabic?!” Beaming.
“Only a little.”
But still it makes him happy, and as we walk, he tells me his name. Daher. That he was named after his grandfather. He asks me what I want to do. “I’m studying to become a minister. A religious leader.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Oh, you must come to my chapel! I built a church underground, in a cave. You must pray there. When do you become a pastor?”
“A few years?”
“Then you come back. A few years, you come back, you pray in my chapel.”
I make a promise I hope I can keep.
Later, as I sit there, in a tent, sipping fresh grapefruit juice and seeing the laundry flapping in the wind and the grapes growing in the sun, the call to prayer echoes up from the Palestinian village below. Dasher’s brother Dawud speaks, with deep pain on his face, about the thousands of their trees which had been uprooted by Israeli settlers and the army. “Who would hurt so many innocent trees?” he asks. And then he tells us how they have replanted the trees, how they hand-water them. A prayer of hands. So much prayer, in this one place. So much faith. A blessing. A place where I can feel God.
I meet a beautiful young Palestinian woman working with with our tour company. She and I connect, and she opens up to me with unexpected candor. About her hopelessness for the future of her children. About her longing for them to know Arabic and love their culture. About her frustration with how Israel has tried to present the Middle East as broken, “like we are all trying to kill each other.”
“I think my life has been very sad,” she confides in me somberly, putting her beautiful face in her delicate hands.
We go to the Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank.
The camp itself is very powerful. In some ways, bleak—concrete structures growing floors as families expand. Very little greenery. Narrow pathways between crowded buildings. No playground for the many children we pass. And yet, there is a steadfast spirit—what the Aida guide calls “beautiful resistance.” Art covers the gray concrete walls, promising return and resilience and calling for justice.
The children also surprised me. They laugh and play games and run, finding joy even with concrete walls closing in on them from all sides. Many of them speak to us in English—“Hello!” “What is your name?”
One sucks on a popsicle, wide-eyed. Another starts saying her ABCs. One little girl, all in pink with brown hair and browner eyes, comes smiling toward me. “Hello,” I say. She doesn’t reply by saying anything, but she smiles and comes up to me. Placing her open hand on my forearm to hold it, she looks into my eyes. Her face is bright and alive. Then she lets go and skips away up the alleyway. An instant of truly seeing one another. The divine spark of one connecting to that of another. Infinite possibility.
In Nazareth, at the bar of an Arab-Palestinian hotel, the bartender is friendly, pouring us shots of tequila as well as ones for himself and the chef. We clink, and he says, “Welcome to Nazareth.” Then the shot, the lime, the burn, and the laughter.
Another young man comes up later to man the bar, refilling our beers for free (“For you, it’s free refills—like McDonald’s”) and teaching us the differences between Palestinian and classical Arabic (as well as all the other area dialects). He tells us that even a few years ago, the guests who came to the hotel were mostly evangelical Christians who didn’t know about the conflict—and didn’t care to learn or even hear about it. But, recently, he’s started to meet more people who care. Americans who want to change things. When it finally gets too late and we decide to head to bed, he says to us, “I’m glad you all are here. This is the movement we’ve been waiting for.”
The next morning in Nazareth, I sneak out early in the morning to wander the Old City. It is magical, wandering through the sandstone streets with patterned paving stones and bougainvillea spilling over the edges of walls. The market is just coming alive, men hauling crates of vegetables and calling out “As-salamu alaykum” to each other while wizened women set up shop with clothing and other wares. When I pass a shop where I decide to buy something, they are excited to see me, ushering me in and serving the traditional small cup of scorching hot Arabic coffee. I talk with the shopkeeper, telling him how much I’ve loved the trip so far, where we’ve been, where we are going. I find out his family is Armenian—that they’d fled the genocide 100 years ago.
“We need more people like you,” he tells me, “always smiling.”
“It’s a beautiful place. I can’t help but smile.”
“Then you should stay.”
And I want to. I tell him I am considering coming back for volunteer programs, and he encourages me to. When I leave, I say, “I hope to see you again!”
“You can come here and have coffee every day!” he promises.
Even before we get to the West Bank city of Nablus, our guide tells us it is his favorite city because the people there are so warm and welcoming. And, when we get into the Old City, we see this firsthand. Everyone greets us, smiling. We can see the warmth in the way they greet our guide, all clasped hands and kisses and “habibi”s.
He had explained to us the night before how “habibi” is used, scattered across conversations between friends, whether greeting or arguing or joking. “It is a way,” he said, “to show: ‘You are so close to my heart.’” I love it—being so unafraid of being intimate. Being open to your friends about how much they mean to you. Being able to openly express one’s affection. And express they do, exclaiming to each other from across the marketplace and out of doorways.
Old men totter out to greet us. One old couple, sitting as we passed by, call out a word in Arabic to us as we walk by. Our guide tells us that it’s the Arabic word for “light.” He says, “They are telling you that you bring light to their city.”
Children wander up, saying, “Hello” and “What is your name?” One cool kid walks by and simply says, “‘Sup?” Another one, his hair slicked back, does tricks for us on his roller skates and preens. A little girl proudly tells Mohammad she has the highest marks in her class.
We go into a traditional olive oil soap factory and then a tiny candy shop, tucked away under Ottoman stone arches. The workers there are ecstatic to see us, one young man keeping me for five minutes while he tries to get the perfect selfie with me, both of us laughing like crazy the whole time in the sugar-scented air.
Our guide keeps saying the same phrase to people, and I ask what it means. A traditional Arabic phrase said to people who are working: “May God bless your hands.” A beautiful sacrament, seeing the sacred in the work. Bestowing blessing upon others.
Eventually, we get to the place in Nablus which, according to our guide, sells the best kanafeh (a dessert speciality of Nablus). A jovial old man with a bristly mustache is just pulling out a hot, huge tray of it, which he flips over (in a majestic feat), then pours sugar syrup over it. Then he carries it, aloft, out into a table in the street, where a crowd of hungry Palestinians (and our group) wait. He slices it up, slapping generous servings of beautiful, golden crust and melted sweet cheese, all glistening with sweet syrup, on plates and passing them around. Heavenly. A moment of sweet fellowship, all of us blissful and blessed in that moment.
On our last day, we are in Jaffa, hearing from an Arab-Palestinian doctoral student about the history of the place. He and our guide are joking in Arabic, and the student explains a phrase they are using—an Arabic word that means “okay, alright, keep going.” A way to tell someone to continue, but to go slowly. Our guide laughs and says, “Arabic is a language of patience, you see. That’s why we Palestinians have been so patient with the occupation.”
We laugh, but weakly. A language of patience. A language of love. A language of humanity, of spirit.
I come away filled with such love, such joy, for the people and culture.
Then it is the end of the trip. We go back to the Tel Aviv airport, weary, past checkpoints and airport security and questioning and biometric passport scans until finally I am near my gate for boarding. I realize I need another souvenir for my young cousin. Among the duty-free shops and food places, I find a gift shop and started browsing.
I feel bothered. At first, I don’t realize why, as I look through menorahs and kippas and postcards of the Jerusalem skyline. Then I start to notice the maps, included on guidebooks and pillows and t-shirts: the entire land mass of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza drawn as one piece of land, no borders, with the word “Israel” superimposed over it. The Hebrew everywhere, and not one word of Arabic. No Palestinian embroidery among the handicrafts. No Arabic calligraphy among the art.
I think about all the beauty I have seen in my travels through Israel and the West Bank. The artistry and skills. I think about how Arab-Palestinians, whose culture and connection to the land runs deep in their veins, make up 20% of Israeli citizens. How one out of every five Israelis who might be walking through this airport, statistically, would be Arab-Palestinian. How it would feel to walk into this gift shop and see your language, your religion, your culture completely absent.
My heart hurts. I don’t want to buy anything at this point, but then I find something—a hamsa, made of clay, with no writing in any language on it. A five-fingered hand. A familiar sight across the Holy Land, hanging from the doors of homes, warding off the evil eye and blessing the house.
So I buy it. I will send it to my little cousin. And I will tell her, in the letter I send with it, how it is a Muslim symbol which also came to be used by the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East—and adopted by Christians in the region, who call it “The Hand of Mary.” An open hand, shared by many faiths. I will tell her how all peoples, at their core, hope for peace and life abundant, free from the evil eye of oppression.
I will tell her the story of those “dangerous” people they warned me about, the Palestinians, so that she knows the truth.
And I will keep on telling that story—these stories—for the rest of my life. For they deserve to be known, to be heard, to be remembered. They, too, are a part of this land.
All images: Abigail Clauhs.