Monday, June 05, 2006

Tent of Nations

"Where did you just come from?" asked the soldier around midnight at the checkpoint from Gush Etzion going into the tunnels leading to Jerusalem. We were a group of 6 people piled into a car that could only hold 5.

Our driver answered "From a picnic".

"A picnic?" the soldier asked incredulously. How many people picnic when it's not a holiday in the midnight hours.

He got sterner.

"Where do you live?"

"In Jerusalem."

"Where in Jerusalem?"

And three people rattled off the neighborhoods they live in Jerusalem. There were a couple of "internationals" with us - from Netherlands, Germany and a nun in the back seat.

The soldier peered into the back seat to see our smiling faces and let us go.

I just caught the last bus to where I live and saw an old friend I met at Israeli dancing years ago.

She was curious too.

"Where are you coming from?"

"From a party in Gush Etzion" I told her. The bus was crowded. I was standing. She was sitting. I didn't have the energy to explain to her where I really was. If you say "Gush Etzion" you really mean the Jewish part of the area, not the Palestinian part, where I had been.

I joined up with a group of Jewish Jerusalemites and others to this remote hilltop across from the settlement of Neve Daniel. The place has a name. The Tent of Nations. All I saw were acres of groves of a little bit of everything - oak trees, olive trees, grape vines - on freshly plowed land. The view from the top was spectacular. On one side you can see Neve Daniel and on the other the large Ultra Orthodox enclave of Beitar and the Palestinian village of Nahalin.

Two Christian-Arab brothers, Daher and Daoud Nasser and their families have been here since 1918. Their grandfather lived in a cave and farmed this area. They have been fighting in the Israeli Higher Courts since 1991 because the government claims the land they are on is State land. They have ownership papers to prove that it isn't. There were plans to build a road cutting through the lush terraces or perhaps build another settlement on this hilltop.

So the brothers decided to open up their space to people from everywhere to help them plant trees, harvest the crops, etc. and they attract groups of people internationally and locally. Of course, before today, I had no idea this place existed.

We brought food to share and took a tour of the area, including the cave where the family once lived, and watched the sun set over the hills. They are preparing a summer camp for children and the bed frames are in place, just the mattresses and tent covers aren't.

As the night went on, we sang songs with guitar, darbouka and tambourine accompaniment, teaching songs in Hebrew and English to the young kids there. I learned a new word in Arabic - hess hess (mosquitos) - as there were tons of them there but thankfully they bypassed me for some of the younger blood around. A bonfire was built by the brothers for us and they brought out potatoes to roast in the fire. We sat around quietly and the organizer of this event, Dhyon, spoke:

"I invite the angel of Gabriel to come down and protect this land that no government should take it away from this family and that it should continue to be a place of peace..."

"AMEN" said a few of us loudly.

It dawned on me that it was hitting 10:00 pm. There was no easy way out of this place - no bus stops and the Palestinians would have offered to drive me back but they don't have permits to enter Israel, so they couldn't. And looking at the crowd it seemed that all of them didn't have the slave day jobs that I held. They could camp out here if they liked - it was so peaceful that the thought did cross my mind more than once - had I not had to wake up at 6:00 am and hop on a bus 45 minutes later and be fully alert from 7:30 for 10 hours. I started to panic and vented quietly to a German photographer staying at Ibrahim's house on the Mt. of Olives.

"You're not going to die if you don't come home tonight." she tried to explain to me logically.

"And you're children won't die if you don't come home tonight." she continued.

But Hubby was off to Haifa before daybreak in the morning and I really didn't want to go to work smelling like I'd been at a bonfire all night wearing the same clothes I did the day before only a lot dirtier.

She noticed my nervousness and was sympathetic and squeezed my hand, asking people who would be driving back to Jerusalem. Not too many people were into going back right away.

I compromised and said as long as I get to Jerusalem before the last bus back to the 'burbs, I'd be happy. This means leaving around 11:30 pm.

I relaxed and so did the person who drove me here who seemed to have found his Nirvana at this place.

The Nasser brothers young kids were there.

"Don't you kids have school?"

The kid shook his head.

Their father told me they have three months summer vacation. Ouch. Imagine being home with your children for 3 months instead of two. Jewish Israeli kids have two months vacation. I don't understand why the Palestinian children get 3 months vacation. Perhaps because of their much lower budget for education. I can't think of any other reason.

They brought their car to the bonfire and played some Arabic music. I recognized the singer.

"Wow! Fairouz!!" I exclaimed.

"AIWA" smiled the brother, probably surprised that I would know Arabic singers.

Cheese and watermelon was passed around as well as sweet mint tea. The campfire was simmering down and about 11:30 the people began to get up all at once to go back to Jerusalem. I thought they'd stay the night. We walked to where the cars were parked - about 1/2 kilometer down the moon-stars-lit dirt paths all together, with Fairuz still singing in the background.

No comments: