Sabbatical Blog Post #16

Friday, 19 August, 1:00 a.m.

Thursday happened with only 3 hours of sleep, because last night I did what most Palestinians do in Ramadan: I stayed up all night. Tonight, I am doing the same thing. There will also be a phone call from home at 2:00 a.m.. After suhour at 3:00 and prayers, I will hit the hay. However, since today is Yom Aj-Juma this is okay, because I can sleep as late as I want.

Thursday was another rich day, with a cascade of unexpected experiences. I will be exhausted when this is over, because so much is pouring into my mind and soul. I can barely process it all.

After the normal morning at An-Najah, I caught up with one of my young babysitters, Muhannad. He took me on a visit to the Balata refugee camp. And here, I had the most sobering experience so far in this journey. I met and chatted at length with a profoundly passionate and eloquent man named Mahmoud, who works for an organization called “Yafa.” His job is to help the residents of this tiny, claustrophobic, and deeply demoralized place to hang onto their identity and to keep from going completely crazy. The cost of this work has been to make Mahmoud cynical, pessimistic about the future of Israel/Palestine, and contemptuous of the rest of the world for doing nothing about the absurd injustices that pervade this place. Yet he persists in the hope that justice will prevail, Insha-allah. He is a hero. Please pray for him.

Balata is one of four refugee camps on the outskirts of Nablus. It is operated by the United Nations. It was opened in 1950 to provide shelter for some of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 in the first Arab-Israeli war. These people lived in villages all over what is now Israel proper. When the war ended, they were not allowed to return to their homes. Israel seized the lands and new Israeli immigrants moved into the villages. The question of the “right of return” of these refugees to their ancestral homes is perhaps the single most intractable difficulty for any peace settlement.

Balata is one square kilometer. Originally, 5000 refugees lived here in a squalid but functional tent city. Now, three generations later, there are 25,000 people living in that same square kilometer. For comparison, Lakewood is about 8 square kilometers, and has about 50,000 people. So Balata has gone vertical, a square kilometer of cheaply built concrete apartment buildings. It is crowded, noisy, and dirty. I did not see a single square meter of grass or even bare dirt. The place is full of children, the great grand-children of the original refugees. Many people give up and leave Balata. But most stay, because that is the only way they can maintain their “refugee status” and the hope of someday returning to their villages, farms, and homes. These refugee camps, harassed regularly by Israeli troops, have historically been the breeding ground of “terrorists.” Walk through these streets, look into the eyes of the people here, and that makes total sense. It arouses a certain terrifying rage in me!

After this depressing visit, Muhannad and I returned to Nablus. We walked around a bit in the city center and old city. Things are starting to ramp up here. The last 10 days of Ramadan are especially intense spiritually. Some Muslims will “retreat” into a mosque, and stay there the entire 10 days. The mosque prepares meals and makes wash facilities available. It is a time of intensified prayer, in which the first revelation of Quran to prophet Muhammad is recalled. And these 10 days are also the biggest shopping days in Muslim culture. It is customary to buy new clothes for Eid Al-Fitr, to buy gifts for friends and family, and for children to get toys. Sound familiar? So the stores are open throughout the night and everyone is shopping. I, too, will join the fray next week as I try to get some things for the beloveds in my life.

As we walked, Muhannad discerned that I planned to have iftar alone in my flat. This is almost incomprehensible to Arabs, who do not do anything alone. Everything is done with friends or family, so Muhannad was almost offended. He spontaneously invited me to his father’s home for iftar. There was no declining, even though I was really looking forward to a long nap and a quiet evening. So off I went with Muhannad to his home, where the first thing he did was offer me his own bed for an afternoon nap. When iftar came, I had a delightful meal with Muhannad, his sister, father, and stepmother. Delicious home-cooking! When I departed, Muhannad’s father gently demanded that I come again. Hospitality in this country is kind of fierce!

After a long rest in front of the television, where I first learned about the rocket attack on a bus in Eilat (150 miles away), Muhannad and his sister Malik got ready to go out. I went with them to the city center, where they hooked up with friends and headed off into their all-night socializing. I enjoyed a walk through the city center, which was JAMMED with people. I hope the video of this comes through on my Facebook page. It was AWESOME! The streets were filled with music and light, and with people enjoying one another, eating, shopping, and just walking about.

In one curious moment, I stepped into a shop to buy an ice cream. Some fast, huh? As usual, my Arabic and English fought for dominance. Standing next to me was a man who said, “Hi there, where are you from?” “America,” I replied. “Hey, so am I. I live in Minnesota. My name is Osama.” Turns out, Osama lived in Mayfield Heights for many years. He asked how the Indians are doing. He was in Nablus to visit with his family.

God, what a small and extravagantly confusing world you have made!


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