I finally found my rhythm

Posted by Han on Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

Joel, Dominic, and Carrie are a few months and eight countries into this enormous project. In Palestine now, I’m ten days and two countries into it. I feel like I finally found my rhythm. We left Maya and our friends in Israel on Monday for Jerusalem, where we spent a day fighting the urge to stay there absorbing the history, conflict, beauty, chaos, and spiritual power of that ancient and overwhelming place. Yesterday morning Usama, a friend of a friend with a car with Israeli plates, picked us up outside the Damascus Gate and brought us to Bethlehem - a trip that takes 20 minutes, several hours, or simply can’t be made, depending on the I.D. you carry.

It’s very nice to be back in Bethlehem. When I left just before the New Year, I told my friendly new acquaintances - at the hotel and bar, the falafel stand, the shop on the corner, the youth organization - that I would be back soon. I’m glad I was able to keep my word. And of course, this Listening Project has given me an excuse to meet new people like 21-year old Bethlehem University student Ahlam, and join her in her home for lively conversation with her two bright sisters, her proud and hospitable mom, and her friend and neighbor.

Like her sisters, Ahlam is very bright and serious, a student who wants to become a businesswoman in order to uplift her Palestinian community. We’re meeting with her later today. We made a deal. We’ll come over for a lunch of stuffed grape leaves - the leaves picked from the tree in Ahlam’s backyard - if I help her with her assignment for her advertising class. She has a paper due on Thursday. She has to present an advertising campaign and explain how and why she made the choices she did. She told me she’ll focus on promoting international tourism to Bethlehem. I’m interested to hear how she’ll try to draw Americans to visit Palestine with all the tumult and news about Hamas’ election victory on the news in the U.S.

Last night after returning to our hotel from Ahlam’s home, I took leave from my beer at the pilgrim-friendly bar just next to the Church of the Nativity. I walked out into Manger Square to call Maya. When we returned to Maya’s suburban home in Ra’anana on Sunday from our excursion into the West Bank, she had to run out immediately. She had given us a lot of time already and had a lot of studying to do as well as an audition for a “senior follies” musical-drama-sort-of-thing. Oh, and then a party… the life of a popular high school senior.

As I talked to Maya on the phone, I leaned against the wall of the Church that marks the birthplace of Jesus, and Franciscan monks passed by laughing and joking. Maya asked how I was enjoying it and told her it was lovely to be back here. I told her we had been spending time with people the way we had with her and she asked “do they have the same kinds of stories?” referring not to her stories but to the ones we listened to together in Palestinian villages on Sunday. It had been Maya’s first trip into the West Bank, or any Palestinian area. She talked with a man named Canaan who told heart-wrenching stories of humiliating and violent encounters with sadistic Israeli soldiers at checkpoints between his home and Nablus. “I’m afraid many of them do,” I told her. Like all 18-year old Israelis, Maya will enter the military when she graduates from high school in a few months.

We’ll be back in Tel Aviv Friday night before flying out on our way to India Saturday morning. Since we didn’t have a chance on Sunday evening, we’re going to sit down with Maya for a bit and talk about her thoughts on the day. I know it was eye-opening for her but like many Israelis, she has known of people who “took the wrong bus and didn’t come home that night.” Though she considers herself “left-wing,” she told me that serving in the army is a matter of duty and patriotism and that she looks forward to it in many ways.

I told Ahlam and her older sister a little bit about Maya last night and asked them if they would sit down and talk to her the way that Canaan and Noaf and the other Palestinians we met had on Sunday. “I don’t think so,” answered Ahlam’s sister. “I will talk to her today and in a few months she will be back here as a soldier, occupying our land.”

The conflict here is so intense and overwhelming. The fear of the average Israeli about a suicide bomber wandering into their coffee shop or wedding party and in a split second turning a pleasant day into hell is real. The anger of the average Palestinian at the soldiers, checkpoints, fences, and walls that choke every minute of their daily lives - not to mention the shootings and bombings of innocents - is real. On both sides, the people tell me that the politicians and the pundits don’t have the interests of the people at heart. And of course, it’s impossible not to notice that the young Israeli women giggling and posing for pictures in their Khaki uniforms before the Western Wall in Jerusalem have American-made M-16s slung around their backs. I hope this project - and the tiny piece of it that I’ve been a part of so far in Israel and Palestine - will help to illuminate for Americans the role the U.S. plays in this conflict.

The solution lies with the people. And somehow I am hopeful that the generation of Maya and her friends will be the ones to wake up to the reality of the occupation and force Israel down a true path of peace. And Ahlam and her friends will work to strengthen an impoverished and desperate Palestinian community for the sake of peace.

“But we want a strong peace, not a weak peace. Not a peace imposed on us by the Israelis and the Americans.”

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