Saturday, April 21, 2012

Smiling Arabs

I didn't let my son-in-law crush me with his usual anti-Arab rants. After all, missionaries, no matter what their agenda is, have to remain steadfast in their beliefs and withstand all sorts of stumbling blocks - and racist people are included in those blocks. Needless to say, I consider myself a missionary in my work for peace. He and my daughter picked me up from the International Convention Center after I had just returned from a lovely trip to the Caesarea area with a group of Israeli and Palestinian women this past Friday evening, after the Sabbath came in and no buses ran, to take me home for Friday night dinner. "You don't know Arabs" he ranted on to me. "You only meet the smiling Arabs." I sighed..."Well since I've been doing this for 10 years and pretty much every week I go to one peace activity or another, I meet new faces all the time. So that makes for a lot more 'smiling Arabs' than you think." I've tried telling him various reasons why I do what I do - and thought of telling him that today I went on an intercultural picnic with Arab women because their food is so much better than Israeli food, but I let it go. The trip began from Jerusalem at 8:00 am. There was an Arab woman from Hebron who covered her hair in a cap instead of a hijab. It reminded me of the Jewish Orthodox men we used to see in Toronto who would take their families on excursions into the countryside and cover their heads with a cap instead of a kippa, so you couldn't really tell if they were Jewish or not. It served us well passing a checkpoint and the driver telling the soldiers we're all from Jerusalem. She did have a legitimate permit to get into Israel proper, but we just didn't want to be held up more than we had to. On the way we picked up more people and then picked up Palestinians from Tulkarem and Nablus at the Sha'ar Efraim checkpoint. We waited and we waited. The women finally came and told us how difficult that particular checkpoint was. They were made to stand for an hour before the soldiers at the checkpoint finally let them through (from what I saw, it's not a busy checkpoint like many others - it seemed like a very small, quiet one); then they had to go through about 10 gates, each time showing their permits and listening to soldiers shouting at them. Why do they have to shout at them, I thought to myself. After nearly two hours they came through, exhausted but relieved and thrilled at the prospect of going to see the beach which is so close, yet so difficult, if not impossible to get to for them. We tried to go to the Caesarea port and discovered the cost was 35 shekels per person (even as a group). That was a lot of money for some of the Palestinians who had brought their children with them. I wished I had had enough money to pay for them to see the beautiful port with its boutique restaurants, shops and picturesque antiquities. We boarded back onto the bus and got off at Beit Yannai beach, which was a lovely beach with picnic tables. Tons of food on the table -the Palestinian women made their stuffed bread with a variety of stuffings - cheese or meat or zaatar (hyssop) and stuffed grape leaves which were better than anything I had tasted in any restaurant. There's something very connecting about sharing food together.

The kids ran to the water, and though it was quite chilly, that didn't faze them one bit. For them, a trip to the sea is one of the biggest thrills in their lives and it was a joy for me to watch their happiness as they screamed with delight at each rough wave thrashing through.
We let the kids and a few adults stay on the beach while we returned to Caesarea's shopping mall for a workshop and to view a short film made by an organization called Peace It Together. One woman from Nablus had never been to a dialogue with Israelis before and came out of curiosity. One of the Israeli women said "next time you see a soldier, you'll realize that we are their mothers" which prompted a rather harsh conversation between the two - but then one of the coordinators stepped in to say it was much too early for a political dialogue. Eventually, perhaps, but now we women have to get to know one another as humans, as friends, and that will exclude political dialogue for now. On the way back to the checkpoint near Tulkarem the Palestinians asked for a pitstop at McDonalds. For them, it's another treat in a world of theirs which feels boxed in and to which they have rare access to what we Israelis take for granted. The smiling faces of these women with their happy kids with their happy meals, made me feel more patient than usual, even though I knew I was going to come into Jerusalem after the buses would already have stopped running because of the Sabbath. We hugged and kissed each other goodbye and explained to the soldiers at the checkpoint about our special group of women, as "missionaries" love to do. I thought what a great way to start the Sabbath - seeing so many Smiling Arabs.