Saturday, August 28, 2004

Back from the Oasis

The weekend was at the village of Neve Shalom - Wahat al Salaam - which means Oasis of Peace. 50 Palestinian and 50 Jewish families live here side-by-side and it is a model of co-existence for the country. The place is definitely middle-upper middle class. We began with dinner, always a good start. At registration I saw familiar faces who go to all the meetings and some new faces. I got settled in my room with 3 other women, including 1 Palestinian woman from Bethlehem who was in the bed nearest to me. Geez. Should I warn them that I sometimes moan, groan and sometimes mumble incoherently (loud) in my sleep? Which I did, which probably set them all-a-worrying. Never mind. We set out to the introductory session, and introduced ourselves. We were about 40 - 50 people there. We were divided into small groups and our group headed for the grassy area outside. Our space was moonlight lit only. We each tried to keep our personal introductions short and related to prayer. I don't even remember what I said to the group because I was just so excited to be in my dream environment, that I was on a very natural elated high. But I remember it was something along the lines of being hopeful, having hope and I was interrupted by people lying on the grass - What hope? There'll never be hope. Geez. Isn't this what weekends like this are supposed to give you? I always get infused with hope after these retreats. Kamel from Um-el-Fahm in the north reiterated my thoughts and told the dubious-thinking Palestinians that they had to have hope. Without hope they have nothing and the conversation went on in English, Arabic and Hebrew. The Nablus Palestinians went off track and rather than discuss hope and prayer, told us some of their personal stories. We usually let them ride off track because they do have to get things off their chest and have not too many opportunities to do so. One of them was jailed for 8 months because he was caught in Tel Aviv without a permit to leave his city for greener pastures like Tel Aviv. Jailed for 8 months PLUS slapped with a fine of $10,000. For those of you people in the US, you know what a big sum that is. For regular Israelis, this is perhaps over 6 months in wages. For Palestinians the sum is at least a year's salary, if they are lucky enough to have a salary. But somehow it was paid, and he was released. He wanted to become Jewish - not because of a love for Judaism but because Jews have an easier life. The group was like - faggedaboutit kid. The rabbis won't convert you just like that. It's a pain for converts even if they love Judaism with all their heart and soul.

After our group dispersed I sat with the older guys from the Galilee. They had attended the Sulha gathering last week but were disturbed at the location. Jabotinsky Park in Binyamina. "Jabotinsky believed in a Greater Israel (including all of the West Bank and perhaps part of Jordan for a Jewish State)! What about us?? Where were we in the picture?" He had a difficult time being convinced that it was the right thing to go and camp out specifically in that park. I told him it was great that he did. Because you're giving Jabotinsky a message. And that message is "we have to live together and no one wants to move or leave or go anywhere except where we feel we belong."

At breakfast I sat with Suleiman who runs another dialogue group. The same group my Bethlehem roommate is in. I needed to begin with - Well, did I talk in my sleep? She told Suleiman I didn't talk in my sleep but insisted all the lights go off, which may have disturbed her somewhat. I think she's used to sleeping with some light on. I told him about our Jerusalem group and wanted to know if he could introduce Palestinians living in the Jerusalem area to it. When I told him where I was from - over the green line, he was asking me why I live there? I get this question once every retreat. I told him I'd be more disturbed at living in a place where an Arab village was destroyed to make way for a fancy Tel Aviv suburb, like Ramat Aviv Gimmel. But I believe Jews and Palestinians should have open borders and not have restrictions on where to live. He seemed to agree with me but said he wouldn't visit me where I live because he didn't want to give it legtitimacy. I explained that he's creating artificial borders by making these decisions. I'm trying to get my community to be more open to Palestinians and if you don't visit, they'll only think Palestinians are here to work in grocery stores or maintenance or constructions, not as friends. That's the barrier I'm trying to get through. But we agreed to meet somewhere, somehow in the very near future.

That morning we heard a lecture from Rabbi Baruch Brenner of Jerusalem who explained that only with prayer will change happen. He told the story of Maimonides who was very close with the Sufi community in particular. Maimonides' son even took out the seats in his synagogue to be able to pray similar to Moslems - in that they prostrate themselves on the floor during prayers because Jews prayed that way a thousand years before too. We broke up in individual groups afterwards and I gave our small group a talk on when everything feels hopeless, the grateful list has to come out. Think of 20 things to be grateful for and list them and write them down for God. I think it was appropriate because the Nablus men usually find themselves believing everything is hopeless because the hardships seem endless. That's when you get the suicide bombers who just don't give a shit - because to them the situation is simply hopeless.

In the afternoon we discussed the Moslem perspective and a young woman visiting from Turkey joined us in an animated discussion on prayer. We had seen the Juma prayers and it is always fascinating to watch others praying to God. Some of it was familiar and some of it was not, but the direction is the same and I felt an even greater intimacy with my Moslem brothers and sisters watching them pray.

Hubby decided to join me for Shabbat and came right before the Shabbat Jewish prayers. We gathered on the grass to pray. I decided to be a spectator because there was no light outside and the print was too small in my prayer book. But it was nevertheless a highlight. I never know what to expect on these weekends, because it may start off slow in the beginning or I may not have connected to any one in particular, but there is always someone or something that makes it THE highlight of the weekend, and it's always something I hadn't experienced before. After dinner we celebrated Ida's daughter's 3rd birthday and danced for a few hours. Unfortunately, the batteries in my camera went on the blink as soon as the lively debkas started. Figures. I going to have to have an extra batch of batteries on hand, if I'm going to photograph fast and furious.

At midnight after the party came to a halt, a group of us left for the Dome. I had been to Neve Shalom perhaps 4 times previously, but never saw the Dome because I could never find it. There we were - a group of some funky Jewish hippies and the older guys from the Israeli-Palestinian town of Umm-el-Fahm sauntering down the quiet lanes of the village, making the local dogs howl. We went on to a gravel path for quite a way until I saw a domed building in the distance. I held on to the person in front of me, one of the older guys who seemed to see everything in the dark. "That's an olive tree above you, and be careful, don't bump into the fig tree!" he warned. We got to this space-ship like structure with stone floors, carpets and wicker benches with a breathtaking view of the countryside from the floor to ceiling glass windows and sat in silence. Someone lit two candles. Another person began playing a Halil - a Middle-Eastern flute with haunting melodies and the entire mood seemed other worldly. We sang, we chanted, and I led some Shalom/Salaam chantings for a bit though I felt self-conscious about it at first but everything was spontaneous. After about an hour, no one really wanted to leave but we did. I would have stayed until dawn but Hubby would have worried and it wasn't so easy to find the way by oneself. The flute player told us a story about King Solomon and 2 brothers who were fighting about contested land. He listed to what the earth had to say about the conflict and told them what he had heard - "The earth laughed and said it doesn't matter because in the end "I" get both of the brothers!"

I woke up at 6:00 am and the sun was new and I urged Hubby to see this magical place I had been to during the night. We walked slowly, looking at the fig trees and pomegrante trees whose fruit was ripe. It was almost as magical in the quiet early morning.

The sessions ended with Deacon Gerius from the Galilee doing the Christian perspective on prayer and I took notes for the Interfaith Encounter minutes. The Deacon invited us to visit him when we're in the north, and I would love to visit him if only to find out what a Deacon is. Our group for the discussion after the lecture had Karmela the nun in it. Were we lucky. Hubby began a lively discussion on celibacy and the Church and everyone really perked up, especially Karmela. "She's hot" Hubby mentioned later on to me. "You're calling a nun HOT?" thinking how scandalous it is to think of a nun as Hot. But I knew what he really meant. She's learned and interesting and knows how to run a group discussion.

We left each other with hugs and kisses even though we were strangers more than 48 hours ago. We bond quickly because we want to. The quicker we bond, the quicker peace will come.


lisoosh said...

This post is so beautiful. Thank you so much for doing what you are doing and for making the effort. The story of the Nablus man made me want to cry.


Anonymous said...

Glad to read this and see the photos...thanks for sharing. Glad to hear your hubby joined in with you some too.

Hans said...

With you around peace definitely has a chance

Blanche and Guy said...

You should never stop writing! Everyone who lands here will be touched and that's how it's going to change.. one person at a time! Hakol hakavod!