Tuesday, January 26, 2010

And the Muslim

When I finish for the day at the Musalaha office, I catch Bus 124 to the checkpoint. After quickly presenting my passport, I walk across a small empty parking lot and through the Wall. A hive of taxis constantly swarms like massive yellow bees around the point where the Wall severs Hebron Road. I’ve become friends with several of the taxi drivers, and they begin shouting greetings when they see me walking through the grated tunnel. They call me Hanna, Arabic for John, and they make sure every other driver gives me a fair price. He is a friend, they tell them, so do not cheat him.

Of all the taxi drivers, I’ve become closest to Walid. He first gave me a ride several months ago, before our first visa renewal trip to Jordan. Walid drove me all over Bethlehem looking for a bank that would give me Jordanian dinar. Now, he drives me near my house almost every time I come back to Bethlehem from the office. Most of the other drivers yell and beg, urging me toward their open doors. But Walid stands in the back with his hands in his pockets, a confident smile on his bearded face because he knows I’ll ride with him.

Not long ago, I came back early from the office. I’ve begun doing that much more frequently in the past few weeks. I write much better from the house. As I walked down to the buzzing taxis, I heard people calling my name and I saw Walid standing tall next to a fruit stand, a thick strand of dark hair curling naturally across his forehead. Before I had time to acknowledge him, he climbed into his car and waited for me to join.

Marhaba, Hanna,” he said after I closed the door. “Keyf halak? How are you?
“Ah tamam, okay,” I said, setting my backpack between my feet. “Inta? You?
Kowaies, kowaies,” he replied, speedily maneuvering the taxi within an inch of pedestrians and other cars. “Good, good.”

We drove out of the pocket formed by the Wall’s horseshoe-curve and soon turned down to Beit Sahour at a large roundabout built for the pope’s visit. A long line of clothing stores rushed by on the left, and behind them, across the valley, the Israeli settlement of Har Homa reached like a white hand over a once-forested hill. Trash swirled from the sidewalks and got sucked under our tires. Walid rotated the steering wheel with one broad brown hand, the other propped through the open window. He told me he was getting more and more excited with each passing day: his pregnant wife was expecting their first baby in less than a month. They had only been married for ten months, and apparently wasted absolutely no time in starting their family. Mabruk, I said to him. Congratulations. And he said Hamdullah, hamdulillah, praise be to God.

“Walid,” I said, watching the road bend in front of us so that I could see my house on a distant hill, “are you Muslim or Christian?” I didn’t hesitate in asking, because the strange Western taboo on discussing religion and politics doesn’t really exist here.
Ana?” he asked, slightly turning his head toward me, but keeping his eyes straight ahead. “Me? I am Muslim.”
“Are you very religious?”
Shu? What?”
“Do you fast or go to the mosque to pray?”
Walid clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth.
“Believe me, very very little,” he said. “Maybe I go after.”
He laughed and added, “After one month, one year, who knows?”
Lesh?” I asked. “Why?”
He shrugged. “Ma ba’raf. I don’t know.”

All around the hills and valleys, minarets pointed up like dozens of antennas searching for a heavenly signal. Several times a day, numerous calls to prayer from numerous mosques reverberate from every direction, overlapping like echoes in a still cave. I told Walid that there are almost as many mosques here as there are churches in East Tennessee, where I’m from. Steeples of some persuasion rise out of almost every street corner in Jellico, the little town in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. He asked if there were any mosques in East Tennessee. Not in Jellico, I said.

I told him I had heard of animosity between Muslims and Christians in the Bethlehem area. Walid looked at me with inquisitive eyes.
Weyn? Where?”
“In Beit Jala mostly. This is what I’ve heard. Have you felt this?”
Walid looked surprised and shook his head, sticking out his lower lip.
“No,” and he rubbed his forefingers together and said, “We are brothers.”

The guys and I sometimes buy groceries from a small store partially underground, in a side alley in the old city of Beit Sahour. During one shopping venture, Patrick and Paul struck up a conversation with the shopkeeper, who said he was Christian. Patrick said we are here to help make justice and peace, adaala and salaam, in whatever small way we can. The Christian shopkeeper then said, If it weren’t for the Muslims we would not have all these violent problems. Patrick and Paul were stunned. Well, Patrick slowly began, maybe Christians and Muslims should all be working together to end what they both share in common, the Israeli Occupation. No no, the shopkeeper interrupted, the Muslims are the cause of all these problems. They always have been. In every sermon, the Muslims preach destruction of Christianity. And the Crusades didn’t even happen. The Crusades are Islamic propaganda to turn Christians into the bad guys and to give Muslims an excuse to persecute Christians. No, he insisted, Muslims are the real problem and the real enemy.

Shu inta?” Walid asked. “Ortodox? Latin?”
I shrugged. “Ma ba’raf.”
He laughed, and nodded.
“I was raised as Christian,” I continued. “But I have many problems with Christianity. There can be many bad things.”
He nodded in acknowledgement, his face turning serious.
“But, I do feel called by the way of Issa the prophet, who said to love your enemies.”
Walid put his hand over his heart and looked at me and said, “Issa, Muhammad, Musa, all this I believe.”
“Yes,” I said, and I put my hand over my heart, and in that moment we seemed like we were pledging allegiance.
“Issa and the prophets teach and live love and justice, and this is what I believe. They teach to serve the poor and the sick, the Jew and the Christian and . . .”
He broke in: “And the Muslim!”
“Yes, and the Muslim, sahibi.”
Walid shook my hand with a firm slap.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Let Freedom Ring

"We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, JR Day. Dr. King was a prophet who spoke to the particularity of his experience and the oppressed experience of his people in the United States. But his words do not just belong to the Civil Rights Movement of the United States. Exactly through his particularity, exactly because he spoke to his small corner of the world, his message has achieved a universality that speaks to everyone, everywhere. And Dr. King paid for his words and his actions with his life. He paid for his cry for justice and nonviolence and recogniition of humanity. He paid, because the adherents to the religion of empire know their enemies. They know those who house events capable of shattering violence, hatred, and exclusive ideologies. Those who can change their situation, and thus the world. Those who sow the seeds of liberation, justice, and peace must be prepared to find a cross, or a bullet, down the road. And even if those seeds may never grow, even if they fall on rocky ground or are choked by weeds, they are still worth sowing and that message is still worth announcing even though it might never be realized. Because "a time comes when silence is betrayal.” Perhaps announcing, and living that announcement, is the fullest realization we can expect. Dr. King walked in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and prophetesses who sang and danced before him. Now, let's go after them.

"I have a dream that one day on the pallid hills of Israel and Palestine the sons of soldiers and the sons of suicide bombers will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . .

I have a dream that one day even the State of Israel, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice . . .

I have a dream that one day, down in Hebron, with its vicious settlers, and in Gaza with its rocket-launchers, who all have their lips dripping with the words of terror and expulsion; one day right there in Jerusalem, little Palestinian boys and Palestinian girls will be able to join hands with little Israeli boys and Israeli girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the breath that fills us all shall be revealed, and all flesh shall breathe it together . . .

And if the world is to be healed and made whole, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the ashen hilltops of the occupied West Bank. Let freedom ring from the desert places of the Negev. Let freedom ring from the fertile valleys of the Galilee!

Let freedom ring from the cosmopolitan streets of Tel Aviv!

Let freedom ring from the open-air prison of Gaza!

But not only that; let freedom ring from the fear-ravaged homes in Sderot!

Let freedom ring from the Temple Mount, from Haram ash-Sharif, in Jerusalem!

Let freedom ring from every ghetto and every city in the Middle East. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every synagogue and every mosque, from every country and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians and everyone, yes, everyone else, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Mighty Stream

The students pushed their way into the bursting van, pressing their faces against the windows and waving as they disappeared around the gate. Patrick, Paul, and I grabbed our backpacks from the office, said bye to Basma and the remaining teachers, and started the long trudge uphill to our house. I slapped my knees to knock off caked dirt; we spent most of the afternoon pulling weeds around the budding cucumber plants. The road from the Al-Basma Center threaded through the old clustered homes, stacking upwards in layers and rising like artificial hills. Patrick said we didn’t have any more pita, so we cut over a gravelly embankment to a large grocery store on Wad Abu Sada, the street that runs to the foot of our jabal, hill. We have to buy pita and hoummus every few days, because in our house they evaporate with each meal.

I stood on the front steps while Patrick and Paul went inside. I hate shopping; perusing through used bookstores doesn’t count. Admittedly, I get too easily irritated with shopping, but when I need something from the store, I go in, find what I came for, buy it, and leave. Patrick and Paul like to browse, deliberating over every different brand of an item. So I let them browse, instead opting to wait outside. No sense in intentionally ruffling my own feathers.

Several kids ran up the gradual incline of the street, kicking a deflated soccer ball. I sat on the steps, my head resting on my knees. I was tired, but not necessarily from ripping weeds. This place tired me. I was tired of sarcastic teenagers howling profanities in English when I walked past, tired of seeing six-year-old boys playing with toy M-16s, tired of the incessant discord of car horns at any stall in traffic, tired of passing through checkpoints every morning to sit in an office in an industrial zone, tired of feeling like I wasn’t doing what I came here to do. I was tired of feeling like I wasn’t making any difference. I wasn’t na├»ve enough to come here thinking that the Occupation would end during this eight months. But I was drained, and the exhaustion agitated me.

I was concerned, too. There is a fine line between confronting dehumanization and dehumanizing those you confront. I have to take sides, because neutrality is voting for the oppressor. That fine line is a tightrope that must be walked. But I’ve never been convinced that joining the oppressed and actively condemning injustice mean that I must see the oppressors as something other than what I am. People dehumanize themselves with violence and hatred, but I don’t have to encourage them. I was concerned, because I don’t want to trip over the razor-edge of that line. For a lot of activists, I’ve noticed, that line is nonexistent: the other side deserves to be dehumanized, because they’ve forfeited their humanity by their actions. A love of justice isn’t always wedded to a love of the breath that fills us all. Because the others aren’t breathing the same air. They couldn’t be. The soldiers who come to villages in the middle of night to beat and arrest protest leaders don’t breathe the same way I do. Fanatical settlers drive Palestinians out of their generational homes in East Jerusalem, where homelessness is coincidentally illegal, and they can’t be like me. I’m nothing like the teenaged military recruits, away from homes and schools for the first time, pumped full of fear and nationalism and the need for defense. And I have nothing in common with citizens who praise the heroism of their armed forces, with government leaders who think strength and war will make peace, with adherents to exclusive religious ideologies, with families who go about their normal lives, intentionally or unintentionally oblivious about what their money supports or the costs of their allegiances. I could never be made to believe that my country was God-ordained, that my nation was morally superior, that my humanity was more important. I could never be made to believe such propaganda.

I looked up at the sky, and suddenly the dark clouds opened into light-laced holes and rain poured down. I jumped up the steps to the patio underneath the balcony that formed an awning. Dust spread like steam as the raindrops hit the pavement. The drenched kids abandoned their soccer ball and danced through the street, laughing with heads up in the air and fingers pointing to the leaking sky. The old man on the patio next to me took off his glasses and whispered “Hamdullah. Thanks to God.” Grayish white-water rapids turned the corner and rushed down the scarred streets. Waves lapped over one another and carried stones and pebbles that somersaulted with the rolling tide, singing like a Native American rainmaker. I cupped my hand and held it out beneath the fresh cascades. Raindrops splashed on my fingertips and trickled down the lines of my palm like a tributary.

Walter Wink wrote: “Every drop of water in me has been in every spring, stream, river, lake, and ocean in the world during our earth’s billions of years of existence. We are related to every other self in the universe.”

I’ve heard that justice, like water, rolls down like a mighty stream. Maybe that’s because they both give us our humanity back. Water and justice announce that we are all related.