Monday, October 26, 2009

Dust and Dirt

The greenhouse at the Al-Basma Center was barren. The crumbling rows were empty and lifeless. Patrick, Paul, and I took our pickaxes and hoes inside and began to churn the clotted earth. Basma, the acting director who has been with the Center since its beginning, sent us out in hesitant English to “break up the ground so the farmer can bring the planets”; Patrick later drew a picture explaining the difference. Soon, the cucumber plants would be placed in the ground. Soon, the water in the drip-irrigation pipes that rested on the rows would seep into the ground and the plants would grow. Soon, we would be wrapping strings, tied between the ceiling’s spines and the pipes, around the growing plants. And soon, we would be picking the cucumbers from the whiskery leaves and eating them with pita, tomatoes, and rice. But now, rocks needed to be sifted from the soil and weeds needed to be pulled and composted. This small patch of earth needed to be healed before it could give.

Aside from Musalaha, I spend some time each week working with the Al-Basma Center (to see my short story about the Center for the Palestine Monitor, go to Patrick has worked fulltime with the Center because the organization he spoke to before coming never confirmed a possible job for him. Something about the Center spoke to him that first day he visited, so he never left. My family has been close friends with the Center’s founder and director, Abdullah Awwad, for several years. The three of us planned on living with Abdullah and his wife, but just before we came he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Because of his call for justice and the end of the Israeli Occupation, Abu Shahdi has been barred from entering Jerusalem. However, he somehow gained permission to go for treatment and before we arrived he left for surgery in Germany. Palestine hasn’t been the same for me without him here.

Like Jemima, the Al-Basma Center, which is in a building connected to the Arab Women’s Union, takes care of developmentally disabled youth. Through activities like olivewood carving, recycled card-making, weaving, and creating fuel from sawdust, the youth are taught practical skills and the belief that they are capable of contributing to society. Six incredibly devoted and sacrificial women are paid next to nothing so the Center can continue. Each month is a struggle to survive. And yet, even with the Center’s severe financial problems, the place is filled with laughter and the obvious love the workers have for the students. On occasion they give us their needed leftover food to take back to our flat on the hill. Noor cooks and dumps the food into plastic containers and orders us to take it; we say “Shukran, Noor,” and she replies “Aufwan, habibi.” She cackled through her crooked teeth when she first saw me, exclaiming, through translation, that I looked like Mohanned, the star of an insanely popular Turkish soap opera called Noor, which made her cackle all the more. Last summer, every conservative Muslim woman whispered Mohanned’s name as I walked past. I’ve never received more lauding attention than when I’m in Palestine and people beg to take their pictures with “Mohanned.”

Whenever the students arrive at the Center, Patrick and I come out of the little office to greet them. Nisal excitedly crouches down and shouts “Habibi!” and spreads his arms out to hug me. He began calling me “Mohanned” and somehow that became “Abu-hanned.” Sometimes, he seems to forget our names, or plays a guessing game, because every now and then he calls Patrick “John.” Nisal frequently comes through the small patio to the open pink door of the office, sometimes dancing as he comes, watching as Patrick prints words on the recycled cards after I’ve cut them to size. Nisal repeats our names (“Abu-hanned? Ah, John? Batrick?”) over and over until we finally look up at him. Then he raises his hand dramatically and begins belting operatic undulations and then whispering falsetto melodies. Khalil is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. His face displays the characteristics of Down’s syndrome; I have never seen him stop smiling. His short, stubby body shuffles toward me and his innocent, illuminated eyes stare up at me as he takes my hand, saying nothing, smiling. I’ve watched Khalil regularly push another student in a wheelchair up the ramp to the Center’s entrance; Khalil bends down to talk with his friend but the wheelchair starts swerving and they almost run into the railing. He blows kisses at Patrick through the window of the bus as he leaves in the afternoon.

Abdullah is tall with cropped hair and he waddles around on his tiptoes with his shirt tucked in. His brow and eyes always look worried as he hurries from group to group, like he’s afraid he’s been excluded somewhere. About a hundred times a day he races toward Patrick until their noses almost touch, pointing his forefinger in Patrick’s face and crying with exploding intensity “Batrick! Inte sahibi! You are my friend! Innnnte, inte sahibi!” Sana is spry and thin, a perpetual mischievous and salivating smile beneath his scruffy unibrow. He knows everyone in Beit Sahour and he enters every room saying his name as a greeting. He sits quietly outside of the kitchen whenever we eat breakfast, his ferret-like features intensely watching the diminishing pita and eggs. Then he swoops in and snatches a piece of bread from the table, scurrying out with crumbs falling from his mouth.

The three of us bent down to our knees and began ripping out weeds along the far translucent wall of the greenhouse. Somehow this particular area became extremely infested. The strong roots of the weeds were deep and connected like a web, twisted around larges clumps of dirt. My hands were soon blistered and bleeding as I ripped the weeds from the rocky soil. My hands felt good. Sitting in front of a computer in an industrial zone in Jerusalem depressed me and I needed to get my hands back in the dirt. There is goodness in dust and dirt. And in people who come from dust and dirt and breath, which is everyone. I am happier under an open sky with no concrete under my feet. I am happier when I feel connected with people and with the earth, with the sacred. I want relationship with life.

The land is a gift, and it gives gifts because it gives life. Wendell Berry, a poet and a farmer (which go together so naturally), said “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” Much of creation is stolen in Palestine through a spreading colonialism until eventually only patches like the greenhouse will be left for the people who live here. And water is being stolen as well. Water and land mean life. I recently heard about a family in Beit Sahour who, like many families, has not had water for five days, and their reserve tank is running low, because the irrigation systems favor the web of illegal settlements that twist around the clumped hilltops. The family once relied on an old well on their land when the water was shut off, but they returned home one day to find the Israeli army digging up the pipes and rerouting them toward the settlements for the swimming pools and gardens. This is a desecration to dust and dirt, and breath.

Wendell Berry also wrote this in a poem: “There are no unsacred places:/There are only sacred places/and desecrated places.” This is a sacred place and a desecrated place and somehow the two are more visible because they reside in and as the same land. The sacred burns beneath the desecrated and, like sparks, every now and then flickers through.


  1. Michael (aka your brother)October 26, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    Good stuff. Wish I could get involved right now with what's going on over there. Glad I have this to read, though. Wendell Berry just makes everything in life relevant. Love the references to that Mad Farmer.

  2. Caleb (aka your other brother)
    I love your thoughts Jonathan. I can't help but thank God that there are people like you and Patric and Paul and Nisal and Abdulla and Sana. Keep planting sequoias.