by Eve Myonen Marko—–
We go to the West Bank on December 21. December 21 is Bernie’s and my anniversary. It’s also the winter solstice, and this year it marks the end of the Mayan calendar and the beginning of something new. I don’t think there’s an end without a beginning.
Our friends, Iris and Tani Katz, drive us from Jerusalem to meet up with Sami Awad, the head of Holy Land Trust and a nonviolence trainer and activist. Sami asked us not to go to his office in Bethlehem, but instead get to the Tent of Nations near the Palestinian village of Nahalin. He is serving as a Fire Guardian, building a fire at dawn of December 21 and keeping it going the entire day while holding ceremonies, chanting and praying on behalf of the earth and peace among people.
As is almost always the case, the journey is as interesting as the destination. We simply can’t find the Tent of Nations, located on top of a hill among many hills in the West Bank. I’ve never been there, though have heard much about it. It has belonged to a Palestinian family for generations, but falls victim to continuous forays by Jewish settlers who wish to take the land. The family has fought this in the Israeli courts, showing ownership papers that date back to the Ottoman Empire, but this doesn’t prevent ongoing violations. The Tent of Nations is always in danger.
To get there, we travel along the complicated road system found on the West Bank, including the Tunnel Road closed to Palestinians in this section, till we get off onto smaller arteries used almost exclusively by Palestinians. In the town of Husam we’re locked in a sea of cars outside a mosque calling out its Friday services. The young boys waiting outside enjoy the fact that our large SUV can’t move, but are not averse to helping us get unstuck, guiding us through very close spots. “Shukran, ya habib,” Tani says again and again. On this rainy, windy, cold day we also lose cell phone signal with Sami. Often we stop passers-by and they stand in the torrential rain speaking to him in Arabic on the phone, Tani rushing out with an umbrella to hold over them, till the signal is lost. But other than friendly waves and more “shukrans,” we come no closer to our destination.
Finally, Tani makes a friend. The owner of a car repair shop offers to take us to Nahalin himself and find the elusive Tent of Nations. We follow his large, old Impala up and down roads more suitable for donkeys and carts, and finally come to a stop at a barrier of boulders and rocks, created by an excavator to seal the local road.
“Sami says we should have passed a white fence,” Tani tells his friend after speaking on the phone. None of us saw a white fence.
But when we head back, there is it on the right, chained shut, and standing there in poncho camouflage is Sami. We thank our guide, who asks us to come and use his car repair shop at any time.
“Are these people enemies?” Iris asks rhetorically. “Is this how enemies behave?”
Sami unlocks the white gate and the car drives up. There’s a pause in the rain, but not in the wind and the cold. And there, atop the hilltop, is the fire begun at dawn. A short, stout tree trunk is slowly burning. Only the bottom part of it has turned black, the fire diverted by twigs fed from a big mound of wood that lies alongside. It should burn for 24 hours, Sami says, lowering the hood of his poncho, like other fires burning around the world. Our Israeli friend, Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi, is also guarding such a fire up north in Israel. Eilda, Sami’s assistant, is there, as is Dina, another activist we met over a year ago at Auschwitz, newly married.
The fire is small but ravenous. The ceremonies will only begin later in the afternoon, when we’ll be gone. We are surrounded by other hills, most topped by Jewish settlements that literally sprawl across the summit, leaving the smaller Palestinian villages to cling to the hillsides. For now, this hilltop is inhabited only by us and a half-burnt tree trunk. According to the Bible, Moses heard the voice of God from a bush that burned and was not consumed, and was told that His name was I Am That I Am. The mists roll in, covering the other hills, and if you just landed in a spaceship this moment you’d miss the big canvas, the settlements and villages, the gentle olive trees and the asphalt roads, those let in and those kept out, and see only a small group of people contemplating a fire that burns without end.
We also traveled in Israel proper, continuing Bernie’s exploration of how to bring the Greyston community model to an Israeli town in need. We visited with the head of the Municipal Council in Jisr al-Zarqa, Israel’s poorest village. One issue he mentioned is that Jisr does not have an industrial zone at present.
I was especially fascinated by the fishing huts on the Mediterranean. Since Israel’s War of Independence, Jisr is the only Arab town that’s right on the sea, and while other Israeli cities, towns and kibbutzim have taken advantage of their venue, building sea resorts, hotels, restaurants and commercial beaches, Jisr has not. But individual fishermen have built some makeshift huts and have spread their nets. The beach was littered with empty soda bottles, old newspapers and falafel wrappers, sniffed hopefully by two yellow/white dogs. The smell was of dead fish.
A group of senior citizens had come by tourist bus. They’d probably visited neighboring Caesaria and enjoyed its restaurants and shops overlooking the remains of Herod’s constructions, and admired the fancy condominiums open to the sunset over the Mediterranean. And then someone might had said, let’s go to the fishing village next door. Only they couldn’t go directly because a wall separates Caesaria and Jisr al-Zarqa, nor is there a direct exit from the main highway to Jisr. But the bus made it in a roundabout way and discharged its older passengers, who were instantly slapped by the smell of dead fish and seaweed clinging to the nets, the sand covered with trash. But when I saw them they seemed happy, maybe a little fatigued, ready to go in from the biting, salty wind at sunset.
Sometime around then was when I felt how tiring it can be to go beyond clichés, to bear witness to each and every person, to the multiple lives each one of us lives, the universe that each one represents where he or she is not wrong and not right, just living cause to effect to the next effect and the one after that. There is freedom there, I knew that, but you have to watch for it carefully, the tiny sea crabs scampering over advertisements, the shifts in the sand, the spacious beach, sand and sky. Yes, political freedom is important, but so is the other kind, the individual kind that won’t give up.
Jisr al-Zarqa has its back to the sea; that’s also its exit out of poverty. That afternoon I saw it, heard it, smelled it. Will it happen?
We also went to Baqa al-Gharbiyye, a much bigger Arab town further south and inland, by Highway 6. Our hosts were Michal Fox and Jamal Mejadla, who had opened up a leadership institute at Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Jamal is also a prominent member of the municipal council and highly involved in civic affairs. Baqa al-Gharbiyye has a population of some 27,000 and a defined industrial zone. It also has the beautiful Al-Qasemi College of Education, once a Muslim educational institute and now a fully-accredited college whose student body consists mostly of religious and nonreligious women.
They mixed so smoothly and easily that one would not know the difficulty of their lives. Hanin Abi-Wasel , a young, scarf-covered woman, is an attorney. Highly educated and articulate, at an early age she was part of an Israeli-Arab delegation to the United States. But she has trouble finding work in Israel proper. “We women face the most discrimination,” she said. “We are Arab, we are Moslem, we are women, and we are mothers.” A lot of her work at – is to empower young women to search for jobs and not leave their work even when they get married, so that marriage not come at the expense of their independence. “When I couldn’t find work as a lawyer in the Israeli society, I became very pessimistic. Then I decided to work with other Arab women who face the same hardships I face.”
As in many parts of the world, providing education and job opportunities for women becomes the key to transforming families and community.
One of the most interesting things about Baqa al-Gharbiyye is that it’s adjacent not only to various kibbutzim, but also touches on the wall and fence that now separate the West Bank from Israel. Before the wall went up thousands of Palestinians would come through Baqa al-Gharbiyye every day to work in Israel. Now only a few with special permits can do that, though young people cross from one side to the other to go to school. In some places that separation is a fence that goes down the side of one street, while several yards away the other side of the street is considered Israel. Jamal tells us that a neighbor of his comes here to shout to her mother, who is on the other side, to find out how she is. So Baqa al-Gharbiyye is an intersection for Israeli Arabs, Israeli Jews, and Palestinians.
What would it be like for all three to work together in a factory—or a bakery?