Blog Post #21

Friday, 2 September

Five days without a blog post.  So now, a very long one!  Well, after all, this is a SABBATICAL!

I am writing this as I sit in the concourse of Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.  I have a few hours to kill before boarding the flight home.  I’m a little excited, but also depressed, that this five week adventure is over.

On Sunday, I worshipped one last time with the good people of Good Shepherd Church, Rafidiah.  Then I walked up to An-Najah, where I bid a tearful farewell to all my colleagues there.  It was surreal to walk out of the campus one last time, this place where so many friendships and important learnings happened.  Where did the time go?

Later in the afternoon, I paid a nursing home visit upon the grandmother of Nadia Dorenkott (St. Peter’s parishioner).   I visited along with Nadia’s uncle Sami Dawani, and we walked back to the old city by a route I had not taken before.  He gave me a walking history and genealogy seminar as we went.  We stopped briefly at Saint Luke’s Hospital, one of the institutions of the Episcopal Diocese here.  An amazing operation.  They are in the hunt right now for a CAT scanner, a piece of equipment that is standard fare in any American hospital, but that is very hard to come by in Palestine.

The most interesting thing about the day was how many people in Nablus asked me about all of you back in America.  Even a taxi driver, who spoke no English, managed to convey to me his concern.  The east coast hurricane and earthquake were front page news in Palestine.   Many people in church and at the university asked after my family and friends.  Prayers were offered during the Eucharist.  I was impressed once again how interested people are about our lives in the States.

On Monday, I faced a conundrum.  The new moon was not spotted on Sunday night, so Eid Al-Fitr did not commence on Monday.  Nor was there any guarantee that it would commence on Tuesday.  It could be Wednesday, and some folks even speculated the Eid might not come until Thursday.  Everyone I spoke with cautioned me that transportation on the first day of the Eid would be iffy, and that on subsequent days the buses would be crammed with people.  I had a dinner date for Tuesday night and a meeting on Wednesday in Jerusalem.  So, reluctantly, I decided to return to Jerusalem on Monday afternoon.   Seems alot of people had the same idea, because the traffic jam to get through the Ramallah checkpoint was massive.

It turned out to be the tactically correct decision.  Almost the moment I sat down to dinner in the Christmas Hotel in Jerusalem, the night was shattered by the sound of cannon fire.  Thereupon, car horns all over the neighborhood began blaring and fireworks popping.  Ramadan had come to its joyful conclusion.  I, however, felt very sad that I was not sharing this joy with my friends in Nablus.  I walked around the streets of east Jerusalem, which were filling with people walking around to begin visiting of friends and family.  I was feeling very lonely.  Fortunately, I was able to conclude the evening with a midnight Skype session with Monica and the kids.  That lifted my spirits.

Tuesday morning was eerily quiet.  Jerusalem is almost never quiet, but the first day of Eid Al-Fitr is a mighty exception.   On this day, all Muslims wake up early and go to mosque for the special prayers that mark the beginning of the Eid.  Then, gifts are shared among family.  Eating and relaxing and enjoyment continues throughout the day as people walk about the city visiting one another.  Some travel to visit relatives in other parts of the country (again, is this sounding familiar to you Christians?).

On Tuesday evening, I shared dinner with an old friend, Iyad Qumri.  Iyad is probably one of the best tour guides in Palestine/Israel.  He knows more people in the United States than I do!  He was also a little lonely, as his wife Simone is in the United States depositing their son at Brevard College in North Carolina.   Iyad and I talked at length about the possibility of a St. Peter’s group pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the Spring of 2013.  Saint Peter’s folk, you will hear about this soon.  Start saving now!

Wednesday morning I slept late (6:45 a.m!), then attended morning Eucharist at the Cathedral.  I had a nice chat with Bishop Dawani, then a luxurious breakfast outdoors in the courtyard.  Shortly thereafter, I had a reunion with a friend whom I had not seen since 1987.  Fr. Samueel Fanous spent a summer in the Diocese of Southern Virginia in 1984 as a seminarian intern at Camp Chanco, my beloved summer camp.  Samueel and I hit it off immediately, and three years later, when I made my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he was there to greet me.  In the intervening years, he was married, had three children, and was widowed.  He serves as the priest in Ramlah, an exurb of Tel Aviv where the population is about 50% Israeli, 25% Muslim Arab, and 25% Christian Arab.

The 24 years since last we talked melted away as we caught up with one another and talked about our ministries.  Samueel provided me yet another insight into the crazy quilt mental world that is Israel/Palestine.  In 1948, when the Israeli army AND the Arab armies ordered Palestinians to leave their homes as war erupted, Samueel’s grandfather refused.  He sat in his olive grove and basically declared he would die if necessary, but he was not leaving his ancestral home.  When the war ended, the Fanous family found itself inside the borders of Israel.  They were herded into an Arab “ghetto” (believe it or not, this was the word the Israelis actually used, a mere 3 years after the holocaust!).  Their home and lands were confiscated.  The Arabs of Ramlah who DID flee became the first generation of “Palestinian refugees.”  Their descendants remain scattered about the Middle East in refugee camps, and have no country, no citizenship, and no rights.

The descendants of Mr. Fanous, and several hundred thousand other Arabs who did not flee the war, today comprise 20% of Israel’s population.  They are “Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.”  DO NOT call them “Israeli Arabs,” in spite of our media’s predilection to do just that.  They are Israeli citizens, hold Israeli passports, vote in Israeli elections (Arab parties hold 5 seats in the 120 seat Knesset), move about freely, and enjoy the material prosperity of Israel.  However, Samueel can tell story after story of being treated as a second class citizen, even suffering mild persecution, as an Arab and a Christian.  Samueel also speaks of having a problematic relationship with West Bank Palestinians, who often look upon their cousins within Israel as collaborators or worse.  It is a precarious life.  The identity of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, especially Christians, is fragmented.   They want a Palestinian state, and fear it at the same time!

I spent the whole day Wednesday with Samueel.  He showed me some remarkable things and introduced me to some wonderful people.  We visited the beautiful Trappist Monastery in Latrun, one of the possible sites of Emmaus (see the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24).  Then, Samueel introduced me to a place that I will have to mark as the most hopeful place of my visit here.  Neve Shalom/Wahat As-Salaam/Oasis of Peace is a village that sits where until 1967 was the no-man’s land between Israel and the West Bank.  It is populated by 90 families, half Israeli, half Arab, who made an intentional decision to create a mixed village.  They run a primary school, an annual “Peace School,” and host international programs and conferences aimed at bridging the divide between Israeli and Arab.  They also run a beautiful hostel on a breath-taking spot of land.  In his youth, Samueel was a summer camp counselor here.  He knows everyone.  He was invited to move in and become part of the community, but opted to remain among his family in Ramlah (15 kilometers away).   We spent several hours here, walking and visiting.  Check out the place at http://www.nswas.com/

Then we went to Ramlah, where Samueel showed me around his church and his town.  Ramlah is proof that Israelis and Arabs can live together, albeit somewhat suspiciously.  We had lunch in a delightful little restaurant that served Arabic food to a mostly Israeli crowd.  We had a huge lunch.  After lunch, I felt a little nauseous and realized it was the first mid-day meal I had eaten in 31 days!   My fast-conditioned stomach had rebelled against this onslaught of food.

As we walked about the city something else occurred to me.  I was seeing flesh!  Lots of it!   In Nablus, even the most westernized women dressed modestly, and males all wore shirts with sleeves and long pants.   A flash of ankle, a little bare neck, that was the most I saw for a month.  But in Ramlah, oh my!  Short shorts, halter tops, tank tops and busting sags, evidenced a decided LACK of modesty.  At one point on the sidewalk I saw a Hasidic Jewish couple in their traditional clothes, some Arab women in hijab and long robes, an extraordinary mini-skirt that revealed as much as it concealed, and some guys who looked like they got off the grunge express from Seattle!   I don’t know the equivalent Middle Eastern platitude, but I wasn’t in Kansas anymore!

And then, kind Samueel drove me to my hotel in Tel Aviv, via the old city of Jaffa, jammed with people celebrating Eid.  We stopped in and visited Tabitha School, where Dr. Tayyara had taught Samueel’s children.   I hope it will not be another 24 years before I see Samueel again!

My journey ended with 36 absurdly luxurious (and expensive!) hours here in Tel Aviv.  I got a room on the beach and spent the better part of Thursday lounging in the sun and swimming in the clear, warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  Tel Aviv is a thoroughly European city.  It is beautiful.  The Israelis have created a miracle here.  Yet, it is hard to believe that a mere 50 kilometers away lie Jerusalem, Nablus, and little Yanoun.  They feel like different universes, and in a way they are.  I enjoyed the sun and sea and the western opulence to which I am accustomed, but I kept thinking of my students in Nablus, none of whom can swim in this water or travel to this city.   It is sad, and it is wrong.

And now the sun sets in Tel Aviv.  The taxi driver who brought me here wished me “shabbat shalom,” a peaceful sabbath.   I’m not sure these five weeks have been “peaceful.”  I have seen and experienced too many painful things, alongside hopeful things, alongside infuriating things, alongside beautiful things, alongside crazy things, to feel “peaceful.”  But it has definitely, most definitely, been a “sabbath.”  It has been a time given over to God, for God to teach and guide me.  In ways I haven’t in years, I feel “rested.”  My body feels better, my mind feels clearer, and my soul feels fuller for this experience.

And so, as the sabbath sun sets in Tel Aviv, I am almost choking with gratitude.  Thank you to the people in Nablus, and Jerusalem, and Yanoun, and Neve Shalom/Wahat As-Salaam, Balata Camp, An-Najah University, St. Phillip’s/Good Shepherd Churches, Ramlah, who welcomed me in the ways that only Palestinians can.  Thank you to the people of St. Peter’s, Lakewood, who gave me the time and the funds to make this journey.  Thank you to my family, and especially to Monica, who let me go for five weeks.  And thanks be to God, to Allah, to Adonai, for this Holy and heartbreaking land, for these passionate, faithful, and confusing people, and for this powerful and mystical experience.

Shabbat shalom!  Hamdulillah!  Thanks be to God!

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