Tuesday, September 29, 2009


The Alternative Information Center, as its website describes, is an “internationally oriented, progressive, joint Palestinian-Israeli activist organization. It is engaged in the dissemination of information, political advocacy, grassroots activism and critical analysis of the Palestinian and Israeli societies and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” and operates with the “awareness that local struggle must be practically and analytically situated within the framework of the global justice struggle.”

I visited the AIC in Beit Sahour several times when I lived in Ramallah during the summer of 2008. On Tuesday and Saturday nights the AIC hosts speakers or films that present a rarely-heard perspective in the conflict’s raging cacophony. Patrick, Paul, and I walked down the tall hill from our flat to a quiet alley off Suq Al-sha’ab, the center of Beit Sahour. The dim rooms sat slightly underground and burrowed back into parlors beneath low ceilings. A man walked down the stairs to the bar in the corner alcove. He welcomed us warmly, introducing himself as Steve from Wales, “which is the smallest and poorest country in Britain, rather like the Arkansas of the UK.” He invited us into an adjoining room with a small window opening to the entrance hallway. “Boycott Israel” and “Olive Tree Campaign: Keep Hope Alive” posters on the stone walls filled in the spaces not taken by wooden bookshelves. I scanned the diverse titles, ranging from books about the conflict to geography, from Edward Said to Norman Maclean’s rhythmic A River Runs Through It. Patrick, Paul, and I sat down at a large table in middle of the room.

Steve sat in a small corner with his long bony legs crossed. He had shaggy curly hair that was pulled away from his hawkish face and wispy goatee. He had dark crescent moons beneath the rims of his eyes. As we talked he rolled dozens of cigarettes, pausing his speech to lick and seal the paper and take a sip of Taybeh beer. Every now and then he gazed into the red ashes of his cigarette like he was looking for something he could never find because it kept disappearing in the flame. He came to Palestine six years ago, barely twenty years old, and married a Palestinian Christian girl from Beit Jala.

“My wife is very different from most Beit Jala Christians,” he explained in a thick Welsh accent. “Most Beit Jala Christians are very sectarian and condemning of their Muslim neighbors, which is a bit strange because they find themselves as a two percent minority in the Bethlehem area.” He paused his speech to blow into the end of his cigarette until it glowed, wiping away the gray ash that fell on his knees. “If you ever find yourself as two percent of any population the first rule is to keep your head down. You don’t stand up on a pedestal and say ‘You are alllll bastards!’”

Steve and his wife started a permaculture farm called Bustan Qaraaqa, the Tortoise Garden. They wanted to instigate a green movement in Palestine that would engage problems like food insecurity and environmental deprivation. The Palestinian Territories don’t have the resources for ecological welfare, which means recycling is nonexistent. Trash is dumped into large metal containers by roadsides and burned. Bustan Qaraaqa experiments with simple and inexpensive projects for sustainable living. He told us he was now preparing to move back home in order to create an eco-village in the rural farmland of Wales. He hopes to form connections with the farm he started here and with other similar places around the world to encourage and promote equitable and holistic farming.

“I’m a bit nervous about going back to my consumerist homeland,” he said, taking a larger sip from his glass of Taybeh beer. “This is where shopping centers are in buildings like B-52 hangars in complexes as big as the West Bank, where the good citizens go and push their carts with their heads cocked to one side, their eyes glazed over as the sweet music places like some Orwellian nightmare.”

He shivered and some of the ashes from his fifteenth cigarette fell to the stone floor and he took another sip of beer.

We told him some of our stories and he marveled that three graduates of a conservative Christian university in Arkansas were sitting with him in Palestine. Sometimes, I said, closed environments can be the most fertile places for radical transformation because once you start questioning one thing then everything is open to being reinterpreted. In such places you start to question because often the opposite is encouraged. And the conversion becomes more real because the initial desire for conversion has come from deep inside.

“You’ve made a point there, you have,” said Steve nodding. “Here you’ve got all these liberal hippie kids who grow up in the most open environments and they spit out platitudes about justice, but then they do nothing about it and are actually just as close-minded and hateful as the people they criticize. There’s nothing pushing them to be genuine.”

Our conversation diverged on a hundred little paths and we talked about the plight of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, the fact that the world’s headquarters for child sex-trafficking is Tel Aviv, and the complete history of the Texas comedian Bill Hicks. Before I left on this trip for the Middle East my family and I spent two weeks driving around the North American Midwest. Steve readily agreed when I pointed out that the way American Indians were forcefully moved and partitioned is eerily similar to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, almost like there’s a thinktank across the ocean and shady politicians in nice suits meet in Washington coffee ships and say “Oh that worked splendidly over here, you should give it a go where you are!”

The voices in the next room were getting louder as more people gathered around the small bar. Whatever activity that was scheduled for the night was about to start. Steve drained his glass and lit another cigarette.

“You know, you can find a worse example of anything happening here in Palestine somewhere else. Anything. Water crisis: somewhere else there is a far more severe shortage. Other places have more volatile social and religious conflicts. More land has been stolen in other parts of the world. And there are even worse military occupations than Israel’s.”

He leaned forward. “But the interesting thing about Palestine is that everything, all of those things, can be found right here, like it’s a microcosm of the entire world’s disasters.”

The air above Steve’s head was hazy as another puff of smoke assembled in the growing cloud. Paul held his chin and stared quietly at the table’s cracked surface. Patrick slowly nodded as he processed the conversation. Steve methodically rolled another cigarette and the dark crescent moons under his eyes began to grow as the room darkened and the shadows connected across his gaunt features.

“It’s a funny place here,” he said softly.
“To say the least.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Try to Follow

Patrick unhooked a ukulele from the straps of his backpack and Paul pulled a long travel guitar out of its black case. Their discordant plucking soon tuned into harmonic sounds and I tried to keep the beat by drumming on our wooden bench in Victoria Tower Gardens. Paul leaned forward as his fingers strummed faster. He usually looked more like a leprechaun with wavy red hair and a big red beard but he was neatly trimmed for our new journey. Paul is a natural musician and a clever engineer, which means he can make an instrument out of almost anything but the guitar would do for the moment. Patrick bent over his ukulele, his face distorted into grimaces and his body squirming. He always looks like he’s in pain when he’s making music, almost like music is too much a part of him to let go of too easily. “People walk a tightrope on a razor’s edge,” he cried with his eyes squinted and his legs kicking up, “Carry their hurt and hatred and weapons/It could be a bomb or a bullet or a pen/Or a thought or a word or a sentence.”

As our music got louder and our voices sang more freely, curious passersby briefly slowed down in order to catch a few chords in the breezy air. One smiling tourist snapped a few pictures of the three rugged bums on the park bench by the River Thames. Our voices mingled beneath the sound of footsteps on crunching leaves: “The wind blows wild and I may move/The politicians lie and I am not fooled/You don’t need no reason or a three-piece suit to argue the truth.”

Earlier the three of us walked out of a dark subway tunnel into the sunlight at Piccadilly Circus. Our journey from Houston to Tel Aviv was broken by a fifteen-hour layover in London and we decided to take advantage of it by spending the day in the city. We followed a map on a few pages cut from an old Lonely Planet guidebook, leading us past red telephone booths and statues of Lord Nelson. Parliament soon stood before us like a towering cathedral with hundreds of windows like eyes. Big Ben slowly wiped his face in time with each passing minute.

A row of dust-covered tents on the other side of the street paralleled the immense government house. A large sign was propped up next to the end of the tents: “On Strike for Peace: 24hr peace picket, parliament square,” and other protest signs lamented the disasters in Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Gaza. Stained and tattered flags struggled to rise even when the wind encouraged them.

A man stood in front of the tents. He leaned on a pair of metal crutches and his suntanned leathery hands were joined in front of him as he stared at the sidewalk. The three of us walked across the street toward him with Parliament in front of him and Westminster Abbey behind him. He greeted us with a thin smile framed by a greasy peppered beard. His bloodshot eyes were darkened beneath a deteriorating miner’s hat that disappeared beneath protest buttons. He spoke quietly, almost inaudibly, as if he was afraid Parliament would overhear. As he told us about the corruption of the British government and the complicity of churches in organized murder, he glanced over our shoulders at the bobbies patrolling the gates of the government seat. He seemed worn down by the authorities’ disregard of his protest. He stared at the parapets and spires but the hundreds of windows like eyes ignored him. No one was listening to his conversations and he spit out the word “Parliament” like it was bitter and burning his mouth. The lonely protester soon forgot we were there and began staring again, waiting for any hint of recognition. I noticed a small sign as we began to walk away: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do; Children forgive us for now we do.”

The trees in the park reached over the stone wall and dipped their fingers into the water. Shadows and sunlight conversed above fallen leaves on the pavement. We wiped the crumbs of our trail mix onto the ground and Patrick and Paul began strumming again: “The air on my skin and the world under my toes/Slavery stitched into the fabric of my clothes/Chaos and commotion wherever I go, love I try to follow/Love will come set me free.” Paul put his guitar back in its black case and Patrick strapped the ukulele to his backpack. We sat silently and looked at the boats speeding under bridges on the river. We listened, but all we heard was the whispering call of love and justice, which “is what love looks like in public,” and it was calling us to chaos and commotion. So we stood up and followed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Stories of Paradox

The door to our flat on the hill is open and the space serves as a funnel for occasional breaths of wind. A few branches from the tree on the concrete patio dip beneath the mantle and are nodding with the call to prayer that rises from the village of Beit Sahour, the House of Vigilance. The slow, undulating chant hits me like a surging wave against a shoreline and I can’t tell whether the call is adding to me or eroding me, or both happening together. I feel like maybe I should stand up in respect or lie down in assent, so instead I just sit and listen to the deep-voiced reverence and feel the breeze of Palestine that cools the room.

For the next six months I will be working with an organization called Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which is committed to uniting Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, as they dismantle barriers and deconstruct worldviews. I was given a list of forty Israelis and Palestinians to interview and then incarnate my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other and events of reconciliation. And I will help the Al Basma Center, a facility for developmentally disabled youth in Beit Sahour. Working in orphanages in India and Nepal during March and April waits in a possible future.

Patrick Covert and Paul Elliott, two of the closest friends I have ever had, are with me and I am so excited, because living alone in the midst of oppression and violence and hatred and poverty is not easy. I was nervous, almost hesitant, about putting my feet down again in this place for the fifth time (for seven stories about my most recent trip in March, please visit www.globalshift.org). But my nervousness made me want to come even more and I felt hesitant and anxious at the same time: hesitant to go and anxious to get there. I realized that I wasn’t coming to Israel and Palestine for comfort or safety or an easy chance to travel. I wanted to come because I want to do good work, with my words and with my hands. Here I am almost forced to live more deeply and more fully because I am completely emptied as I wonder and wander. Tolkien said “Not all those who wander are lost,” and few words contain so much meaning for me, both spiritually and geographically. This blog is a place where I hope to share some of my wonderings and wanderings.

The first blog I kept, called “The Wanderer,” was during a semester abroad in China, Australia, New Zealand, and a few South Pacific islands. I started the second one last summer while working as a journalist for the Palestine Monitor in Ramallah; I didn’t stress myself too much looking for a new name, because the title of the second one was “The Wanderer: Part Two.” So for the third round I wanted something a little different, but a name that still found itself within the recurring theme. I wrote an article for a website about a worldview of travel rooted in wondering and wandering. The word wonder can mean “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe,” but it can also mean “to doubt” or “to question.” To wander is “to travel about, on, or through,” and not only geographically. The W(a/o)nderer is my attempt to see the two as inseparably one.

Frederick Buechner wrote that “In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’ Thus to say something is to do something . . . Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.” Words and actions create stories and stories create meaning.

We are saved by stories. Truth is discovered, created, given room to happen in stories. But stories are only true if they inhabit the “paradoxical between,” wrestling in the tense coexistence between hope and despair, order and chaos, joy and sorrow, absence and presence. In stories we live out the questions. We become part of a transforming, resurrecting story that doesn’t necessarily seek to answer the questions, but instead presents a Way in which to live them. I am beginning to have eyes to see that truth, whatever that is, is a paradox, because if I want to be found I have to be lost, if I want to be filled I have to be emptied, and if I want to live I have to first die.

The stories I want to share are about life in the paradoxical struggle and tension. I hope they will be true. And maybe these stories can create an open space for the sacred event of what seems like the impossible to happen, because stories not only describe reality, they transform it. Stories say something and do something.