by Andy Dreitcer
We’re half way through the 12-hour flight to Newark, before I catch my plane to California. It’s the middle of Continental Airline’s night (in the sense that it’s dark and most people are sleeping), and as I ponder what to write about in this (final?) travel post, two memories come to mind. The first tells a story of just how confusing and hopeless the situation in this land can be for its people. The second offers, for me, a possibility of hope.
This past afternoon Frank and I stood next to a building off the corner of the square in an ancient town in the Bethlehem area. The most important thing about that spot at that moment: it was right across the street from the tiny old shop that unfailingly had the right kind of Coke for Frank (and at 3 shekels instead of 6!) and equally inexpensive water for me. We were huddled just far enough under the eaves that we were out of the rain. As Frank drank his Diet Coke and I drank my water, a man walked hesitantly up to us, greeted us, and slowly began a conversation. He was in his late 50’s, maybe, had the ubiquitous Palestinian scarf around his neck, and looked like he worked hard. I took him to be Muslim, but only because we were in a largely Muslim area. Like most of the people we met in casual settings in the West Bank, his religious identity didn’t seem to be something that needed to be mentioned. (If we wanted to know someone’s tradition, we always had to ask. We stopped asking.) Mohammed (since we met many men with that name, I’ll use it here) teaches in a local school in the morning and drives a taxi the rest of the day. In fact, his taxi was a hundred feet away, idling with the other yellow cabs. Business is slow until tourist season starts “in 20 days.” He explained that with 7 sons and a $7200-per-year teaching salary (“after 20 years!”), he needs the extra job. His cousin, who works for the U.S. space industry, lives in California, which basically made us part of Mohammed’s family. After sharing small talk for a while, we turned the conversation to the situation in his village near Bethlehem. He told us this story:
One night I was sleeping. And then there was a knocking on the door. It was loud and kept going. I got up and went to the door and there was my son. He was very upset. He said, ‘The soldiers are coming!’ I could hear much noise in the village. I ran upstairs to look out. And I could see the soldiers knocking down doors. And women crying and begging them not to hurt their sons. And I saw that and I started laughing. Just laughing. Very hard laughing. My son looked at me. Very upset. Crying. There were tears down his face. He said, “Why are you laughing?!’ I said, ‘Because now we have THREE cages: Hamas, Fatah, and now the Israelis.’ Yes, each one makes a cage for us. Three cages. I do not see a way out.
At this point, another cabby called out to Mohammed to move his taxi. He rushed off to do that. But not before he gave us his card and told us that the next time we are in the area we are to contact him and he’ll take us to his visit his home. We were left with his invitation – and the sense that for many of the people here the 3-way struggle between military-political factions is simply out of their control. They live at the mercy of the powers.
And is there hope? Is Mohammed’s story all there is? It seems cliché to say it, but the fact is, from what I could see the deepest hope seems to lie with what some brave, creative, committed souls are doing for the children. Children are being traumatized daily on a massive scale, but there are heroic efforts (inter-religious and cross-cultural) not only to heal that trauma but to cultivate young lives of resilience and hope that can become adult lives of wise, skillful, empowered compassion, devoted to fashioning a land of peace.
What form are these efforts taking? Two stand out for me:
- Trauma care: More and more people are being trained in how to address the ravages of trauma – not only in the children themselves, but in the adults who care for them. Therapeutic approaches drawn from the world of psychological care are crucial in what is essentially a situation of emotional triage. But religious leaders also offer trauma care to the extent that they teach those spiritual practices and understandings from their traditions that cultivate inner freedom and a sense of genuine compassion for self (which, in turn, serves as the foundation for a true compassion lived out for others).
- Creative expression: Again and again, we saw how schools (e.g., Rawdat El Zuhur elementary school) and community centers (e.g., the YMCA in Bethlehem and Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center in Aida refugee camp) are turning to the visual arts (including film-making and photography), drama, music, writing (poetry and prose), and dance to help form lives that contain joy and love. We saw how engaging in these art forms gives children and youth a chance to play (not easy for most kids, since there are no playgrounds, parks, or yards) and to express the things within them that have been inexpressible. Yes, this is another form of trauma care – but it is not triage. When a group of children – of multiple religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds – sing and dance and laugh together in the midst of the horrors that surround them, a new model for living is being created in the world, not only for them, but for us, for everyone.
A final story comes from the history of Rawdat El Zuhur (“Garden of Flowers”) school. (Frank has already described this school, but another mention is not too much.) Its founder, Elizabeth Nasser, looked around in 1952 and saw how a war-torn land had ravaged the lives of the children in her community. So she gathered some girls (without regard for their religious and cultural traditions) into a school and taught them to dance, and to sing, and to become poets and actors. And in the midst of religious and cultural opposition these children sang and danced and acted their way together into a next generation and then another – until today boys and girls in the school are children and grandchildren of the girls who first danced and sang in its courtyard, many of whom are the courageous women who now help lead their communities.
I can’t help but believe that only this kind of commitment – the kind alive in Rawdat El Zuhur’s founder – will bring true peace to this land. Such a path does not depend on military and political solutions, but looks to how to notice and name and cultivate the yearning for wholeness and peace and compassion that lies in the depths of the human spirit – no matter what religion or culture express that spirit.
As for myself, I can barely glimpse how such a thing can be possible in this land I left 8 hours ago. The tragedy I have seen there evokes feelings I’ve not experienced before – even though I’d already been introduced to some extremely tragic situations in the world (e.g., current Zimbabwe and El Salvador in the 1980’s). I want to believe in a happy ending in this land called Holy, but to be honest, hope is hard to hold for a place as traumatized as this one. So many people we met noted that much of the population is worse off than it was 10 years ago, and 10 years before that, and 10 years before that.
Still, in Israel and in Palestine people do carry hope. Somehow it does not get snuffed out. If the stories I’ve tried to re-tell show that, I will be grateful. And I will need to keep listening and learning if I’m to fully grasp what it means to cultivate such hope. Finally, I will try to do at least what the people of this land kept asking us to do: “Hope for us. And tell as many people as possible what you have seen and heard.”