Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Almond Tree

Ra’ed Hanania sped through the serpentine roads of Beit Jala, haphazardly shifting the gears without completely pushing down the clutch. He honked as we rounded every turn so that anyone on the other side knew we were coming, or maybe because everyone honks here, and everyone honks here constantly: people drive with one with hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on the horn. Stoplights haven’t changed from red to green before someone pounds the horn fifteen cars back.

Patrick and I met Ra’ed earlier that morning at the Talitha Qumi School in Beit Jala, where Musalaha held a monthly curriculum teaching seminar. Ra’ed’s name was on my list of forty people to interview. We stood together in line for lunch and talked about a possible meeting time. Ra’ed was incredibly friendly, and he spoke quickly and laughed spiritedly. He had very short, curly, gelled hair and his hand occasionally reached up to scratch his scruffy chin. Between mouthfuls of pita and hoummus, we talked about Musalaha, and I confessed to him that I had some questions about the organization and if, in all the needed talk about reconciliation, justice was ignored. He thought for a minute and looked around, his head lowering between his shoulders as we hovered over the table.

“Musalaha does many great things and I think it is so good to try and bring people from both sides together through, you know, a shared faith. But, sometimes, I think they try to say that we are equal, and we are not. In the eyes of God, yes, we are equal, but in the eyes of the people, the Israeli government, we are not equal. One side is occupying and oppressing the other and this we cannot forget.”

Ra’ed then told us about his job as management deputy for Jemima, a home in Beit Jala for physically and mentally disabled children. He was excited when he learned that Patrick and I were working with the Al-Basma Center and he immediately invited us to come and see Jemima. We soon jumped into his little car with worn-out gears and drove to the complex which cuts into the side of a steep hill. As we pulled in on a small driveway between a playground and rock face, Ra’ed said that Jemima was the name of one of Job’s daughters. I didn’t remember Job’s daughters having names. Maybe the children who live at Jemima are like the daughters of Job, forgotten in the midst of some sick cosmic test.

A Dutch couple founded Jemima in 1982 and the place now contains a small school and a living facility for the children. Jemima provides physical and speech therapy and care-workers are on 24-hour shifts so that someone is always present. Last year, I wrote a story for the Palestine Monitor about the Al-Basma Center, and this applies to the children involved with Jemima: “A large number of mental disabilities among youth in the area are the result of the close marriages prevalent within Palestinian culture . . . [S]tigmas resulting from a lack of awareness are associated with disabilities.” A family abandoning their child because of disabilities is not unheard of. Some are left on the doorstep or in hospitals. Jemima and the Al-Basma Center welcome the marginalized of the marginalized.

Ra’ed began working with Jemima while he was a student at Bethlehem Bible College. He wanted to do something helpful even if he wouldn’t be paid, something good because he said “Not doing something bad is not the same as doing something for God.” Jemima needed volunteers and so the BBC put him to work there.

“I was always scared of handicapped people,” he said with a shamed smile. “I would go to the other side of the street because I was afraid to walk past them.”
We entered the several-storey living facility and got the elevator to the third floor.

“My first job was a care-worker, so I was changing diapers, giving showers, and this, this changed me . . . it changed me a lot. I was touching them.”

Francis of Assisi was the rich son of a prominent cloth merchant. He was deathly afraid of lepers and would walk in another direction in order to avoid meeting one. But Francis slowly began to reject the wealth and comfort of his life. In order to master his overwhelming fear of lepers, he decided to give to any poor person who asked for alms. One day soon after this, Francis met a leper on the road. He passed the outcast as quickly as possible, still gripped with terror. But then he stopped, turned around, and grabbed the outstretched hand of the disfigured beggar and kissed it and filled it with money. Francis gave away all of his money and returned all of his clothes to his affluent father, marching naked out of the city center to spend the rest of his life in simplicity and devotion to the lepers near Assisi. Ra’ed’s conversion reminded me of one of my greatest heroes.

As we entered one of the living facilities the children greeted Ra’ed with enthusiastic shouts. He hugged them and kissed them on their heads. A little boy with knobby knees repeatedly exclaimed “Aghhh!” as he threw his toys into a big metal bowl. He looked at the collection for a few seconds before throwing them all back on the floor and picking them up again. Another boy named Anwar stumbled toward us and gave us fives. He wore a Finding Nemo t-shirt and had a Winnie-the-Pooh sticker on his forehead. He grabbed my arm and dragged me down the hall toward his small room saying “Yallah! Yallah! Let’s go! Hurry!” Ra’ed and Patrick laughed and ran after us. Anwar began jumping up and down, clapping his hands as he proudly pointed out his bed and a few toys scattered on a shelf. Then he snuck out of the room with a huge grin and tried to leave us inside. Patrick and I cried for help and pounded on the door with feigned despair before Anwar burst through and doubled over with laughter.

One of the little boys was three-years-old and still unable to talk. His head was almost as big as the rest of his body and very misshapen, like it had been squeezed in a vice. He couldn’t focus his eyes to look at us and they kept rolling around. But he smiled. Another boy sat in a wheelchair. His legs were severely underdeveloped and his head was like an over-inflated balloon. His face couldn’t fill up all the open space and so he tried to smile even wider. I looked around the room and I felt like I was watching God, whatever that means. I was watching the absence and presence of God in the same moment in the pure faces and broken bodies of those children who smiled. G-o-d-i-s-n-o-w-h-e-r-e lives in Jemima. A holy damned mess of the world’s suffering beauty.

One story about Francis of Assisi says that he looked with frantic intentness at an old almond tree in the dead of winter and cried “Speak to me of God!” And the tree immediately began to bloom.


  1. Fantastic. Such poetry, especially there at the end. "A holy damned mess of the world's suffering beauty." Brilliantly and joyfully sorrowful. More evidence of the paradox of God and the Gospel of God's Kingdom/Community/Reality.

  2. Insightful as always. You allow us to travel with you and to see through your eyes. Thanks.