February 1, 2011 by Andy Dreitcer
From what we hear from outside sources, things are a bit exciting in the region around us. Up to 1 million people are marching against Mubarak in Egypt right now, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has fired his government, Syria protests are growing, and Yemen’s unrest is continuing. I say we hear this from “outside sources” because here, on the ground in Israel and Palestine, things are calm; there’s no hint of disruption, even though (as I just learned) the Palestinian Authority has called for immediate elections, with no word of a buy-in from Hamas. Since all of those things have been developing within a couple of hours from us in 3 directions, friends and family who are thinking of us might be interested to know that we are feeling safe. Nothing seems to have changed here, as far as we can tell. We’ll definitely let you know if it does. Though I imagine you may hear of it before we do.
In the midst of all of that, our “alternative tour” continues – and sometimes through walls. Over the past two days the walls came in 3 forms.
Yesterday we began the day crossing from the West Bank (in Bethlehem) back into Israel (into Jerusalem), through the incredibly imposing concrete wall meant to protect Israel from what the country experiences as Arab aggression – especially in the shape of suicide bombers. We walked through the checkpoint that Palestinians are required to use. The other checkpoint, the one for tourists, is a 5-10-minute wait in a traffic line, with a quick walk-through-the-bus by M-16-toting teenaged soldiers. The Palestinian checkpoint is hundreds of yards from that spot, a long 4-foot-wide, 8-foot-high metal cage that snakes for perhaps 100 yards. When we crossed, there was no line; it was late morning. But between 7 and 9, when the Palestinian workers are allowed to cross to work in Jerusalem, there are hundreds and hundreds of people, filling that snaking cage 4-people across. After the cage-line come 3 permits/papers checkpoints. All we had to do was flash our passports; the Palestinians around us took a bit longer, but they had the correct papers, so there was not much of a pause – though I can imagine the morning rush-hour could be more than frustrating. Above all of this is the wall (30 ft. high? 40 feet?). In some places, we have learned (heard and seen) it is a “fence”: a 100-yard-wide combination of electrical razor wire, asphalted and gravel roadways, a ditch, and a no-build zone. But at this checkpoint there is only a vast expanse of graffiti-covered concrete. On one side is the world of Palestinians, afraid their lives are being squeezed away by strangling occupiers. On the other, the world of the Israelis, fearing that if they let down their guard their lives will be blown to bits. That was the first wall.
The second wall confronted us at the end of a switch-back trail many hundreds of feet above Jericho. This wall was even higher than the first. Fifty feet? A hundred? More? Hard to tell. It was solid. Rock blocks? Rough concrete? And the path was only 15 feet wide, dirt, with a sheer drop on the left side and a cliff face with no top edge in sight. There in that wall ahead of Frank and me was a 4-foot-wide, black, wooden, arched door with a handle and large steel knocking-bar — and no sign of a peep-hole, let alone a window. Frank raised the knocking-bar just to see what it was, and set it down to a gentle tap. We stood and looked around. Now what? And then the door opened. A small man stood there, in black robe, rope waist belt, sandals. Very quietly: “How many are you?” “Two,” we said, with raised fingers. He motioned us in. And in we went. He waved us to follow him. Up steps, turn right, more steps, left, down a “corridor.” This corridor was 4 feet wide at our feet, but 2 feet wide at our heads. The left wall held a row of doors. On the right was the rock cliff-wall bending toward our heads, curving and bulging over us until above our heads it almost touched the wall of doors on our left. Not a word from the monk we followed. One of the doors was open. Passing it we glimpsed a very old brother eating at his table, his back to a windowed door leading to a balcony that looked out over the wilderness and Jericho to the Dead Sea. Then we were stopped in front of a large wooden door. The monk we followed unlocked it and motioned us inside. The chapel: compact, perhaps 20 feet by 20 feet by 20 feet. Icons and frescoes covered every inch. We sat. We looked. At the images. Wide-eyed at each other. Wondering. Stunned. The monk disappeared. Silence. Silence. Then again the monk….motioning us to the far end of the chapel, to stairs that led up to a small tower room. His gestures were insistent. We had to go up. We must. There, in that round room, in a small grotto at the bottom of the inside wall, was a grey rock. The rock where Jesus, it is said, was tempted during 40 days in the wilderness. We were in the monastery of the Mount of Temptation. We sat, looking at the rock. Not moving. Beyond the wall at our backs was a vertical drop hundreds and hundreds of feet to sharp rocks. Through the open window above our heads came the screams of birds. Hawks? Vultures? We sat. We barely breathed. We heard our own occasional whispered astonishment. In the gospel story, Temptation seems so close to overcoming what is good and true. In the story, Jesus just might leap off that cliff-wall to the rocks below…. Here, behind this wall, lies another world: without time as we know time, silent, insisting that we cannot escape from the truth of ourselves. Beyond the wall, outside, lies our life: will we carry our selves in truth?
The third wall is the kind that is built within us. Today as I began to reflect some more on monastery wall and the Wall, I realized that new questions are coming up in me – for example: I live on land taken generations ago from the Ohlone or Miwok tribes, so what if their descendants demanded that my family return to them the land our house is on? How would I feel? Would I resist as the Palestinians and Israelis do? Would I identify with the Palestinians or with the Israelis? Is it a matter of who was “here first”? (Palestinians and Israelis both make some version of a case for historical primacy, but I certainly have no claim.) Or is it a matter of strength? Or length of time passed? Why am I so concerned about this issue in Israel/Palestine, yet have never worked for the rights of First Nation peoples in my own country? The walls I’ve encountered in the last 48 hours have begun to crumble a wall that has blocked my vision of truths such as these.
In the meantime, I just checked the news, and I see that now the U.S. is strongly urging Mubarak not to run in the next Egyptian elections. Yes, in countries not far from here, all kinds of walls are coming down….
(P.S. Frank told me that just as we were leaving the monastery, the monk, who’d been there for 48 years, whispered to him, “Just one word: have the Giants ever won the Series?”)