Sunday, July 25, 2010

Week 32: Cairo

As can be seen from the photograph of the four of us here, Kris and I have reunited with our daughter Mira and her friend Naomi in Egypt! It had been six weeks since we were last together in Rome….

Kris and I took two days instead of one to travel to Cairo from Israel, arriving three days ahead of Mira and Naomi. Since we were traveling by bus (cheap, cheap!), we had to get our visas at the Egyptian consulate in Eilat. What we had been told would be a one hour procedure took all afternoon when a key official decided to go home early for the weekend. So we decided to stay the night in Eilat, a prime tourist vacation area on the Red Sea, and rest up for the second of two 5-hour bus rides. The first had taken us along the length of the Dead Sea. The second took us across the breadth of the Sinai Desert. Thank heaven that both buses were air-conditioned! Good conversations with two U.N. soldiers (from Chile, stationed on Cyprus) and a young student (Daniel) from the U.S. helped time pass quickly on day 2.

Our accommodation for the week was the Arabian Nights Hostel, located in an older area that was called Islamic Cairo. An incredibly small room, with a tiny refrigerator, AC, and private bathroom had no window and was a little on the smelly side. A very friendly staff provided a very poor breakfast as part of the $10/person/night price (cheap, cheap!). Visiting with other guests there was part of the benefit, as they could often provide tips about where to sight-see and how to do so with less hassle and expense. One such guest was Len who was with his two daughters Medea and Lena. These three came from Australia where Len had built a mud-brick home on 30 acres of land some 26 km from the coast near Brisbane. Len was a self-described old hippie who now produced his own electricity, living a simple life with his wife and occasional visitors – and without any nearby neighbors.

Len and his daughters joined the four of us on a dinner cruise on the Nile. $30/person seemed a good splurge for 2 hours, until we discovered the ship only traveled about one mile (very slowly) before it turned around and that we had to pay for any refreshment (including water – at ten times the street price)! Still, the views of downtown Cairo from the top deck were very fine, and the on board entertainment very bizarre: music so loud speech was nearly impossible, a belly dancer whose costume left little to the imagination, and a dancing male dwarf in a skirt (whirling dervish) with a companion able to pour and drink water while spinning himself in circles. Memorable. Strange, but memorable. Some older folks (including Kris and I) preferred the more quiet scene on the top deck, which also included having water poured on us by some pranksters as we passed with just inches of clearance under a bridge. Strange also, but memorable!

Our day at the Pyramids was the highlight of the week, as we hired a taxi to transport the 4 of us to three sites: Giza, Sakkara, and Dashur (14 pyramids in all!). At Giza we spent over two hours on horseback (Kris and I) and camel (Mira and Naomi) being guided around the three great pyramids and six smaller ones. Reaching into the sky nearly 1,000 feet, the two largest (shown in the picture) are breathtaking. Up close one can see that most of the building measure 10-12 cubic feet (small enough to make them manually moveable, with great difficulty. This is not to entirely discount the possibility of alien assistance (ha), as they were constructed with almost unbelievable mathematical precision – and 4,500 years ago!!! The Sphinx was also impressive (even without his nose), and gave us a little break from the riding. It may well be the camels will be remembered by us as fondly as these wonders of the world. When Naomi`s camel sneezed and nearly blew green slimy stuff all over Mira too, well, that was an event also for history to record! At Sakkara the girls and I were able to walk around inside several tombs with ancient hieroglyphics and paintings (sadly available to be touched and corrupted) and a smaller pyramid (through passageways not more than 4 feet high and not designed for the claustrophobic). There also was to Immotep Museum at Sakkara where photos were not allowed but where the one employee could not enforce the rule – and Mira and Naomi could see their first mummy! At Dashur Kris watched while the three of us climbed 200 steps (about 1/4th the way up a large pyramid) in hopes of being able to enter, only to find the door installed there to be locked! Still, the view was great from up there, and you know a great time is being had even when the disappointments are fantastic!

The four of also took a day trip to Alexandria this week, with Mohammad (the same taxi driver who took us to the pyramids). During the 3 hour ride there (and 3 hours back) there were remnants of no fewer than 10 major accidents to be seen – including the burned out skeleton of a car still smoldering. Mohammad explained that too many people drive far too fast on this 6 lane highway, with too little sleep (especially truck drivers), often with either alcohol or drugs involved. I also learned from him that a monthly salary for a contracted driver like himself is about 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($240) – much better than what he made as a cook in a restaurant ($120), or what a fruit vendor on the street might earn (about $60: $2/day). Alexandria itself had a Mediterranean shoreline reminiscent of Chicago at Lake Michigan, only with literally tens of thousands of people packing the miles of sandy beaches! Walking the seaside promenade near the Citadel of Quast Bay (dating from the days of Alexander the Great), and viewing Pompey`s Pillar (from Roman Times), were also highlights.

Other activities worth mentioning would include Kris and I attending St. Joseph`s Catholic Church (on the Island of Zamalek in Cairo) for Sunday Mass (in French), the girls and I going to the Egyptian National Museum (while Kris was feeling ill for a day): there viewing a great many amazing displays including mummified crocodiles (20 feet long), King Tut`s 50 lb. golden mask/headpiece, thrones, chariots, and other artifacts too numerous to mention. Of course, there were also the hours spent shopping in the Khan el Khalily bazaar getting harassed by shopkeepers desperate for a sale and by men whose stereotypical humor too often included `` how many camels may I pay for your daughter``? Male expressions clearly crossed the line on at least two occasions when 1) an older man quietly proposed an encounter with Mira (receiving instead a severe scolding from me) and 2) a young man pulled down his pants and exposed himself (when I was not nearby the two girls). It would seem that in big cities like Cairo (20 million) and Alexandria (4 million), the behaviors of some Muslim men fall far short of what the Prophet would (an did) prescribe as honorable.

As we now approach Aswan by night train from Cairo (a 13 hour ride), the morning sun reveals a Nile river with date palms, stone rural homes, and people riding donkeys. Here is an ancient land now in economically hard times, where 137 pharaohs ruled during 300 dynasties for a period of 3,000 years. Humbled by Greek, Roma, and Turkish rule, by Napoleon and the supposedly civilized British, there remains a proud people who deserve to be proud of their past and are working together to build a better life for themselves and their children. Guided by Allah, there is no reason why they cannot succeed.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Week 31: Jerusalem

At Gethsemane a small grove of olive trees have been preserved with some, like the one featured here, now over 2,000 years old. This tree may well have known Jesus, as he prayed for guidance at this place prior to giving himself up for arrest and crucifixion. It has seen the passage of time from Roman rule, to the Byzantinian period, thru the Crusades, to Islamic rule and the Turkish Empire, thru the British, Jordanian, and Israeli rulers of the past 100 years.

For me this tree in the olive grove next to Church of Gethsemane has a spiritual significance beyond any other location Kris and I visited in Jerusalem during our seven days there. Sites holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are present throughout Old Jerusalem, as well as just outside the historic city walls. There is the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham is said to have been willing to sacrifice his son about 4,000 years ago), the Western Wall (what remains of the Second Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (built on the location where tradition says Jesus was both crucified and was buried), and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the third most holy place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina -- nearby the Dome of the Rock where Mohamed is believed to have been raised into heaven). Kris and I visited these places and many more, especially sites associated with Jesus` Stations of the Cross and his mother Mary (who, according to Orthodox Christians, has her remains at Mary`s Tomb). While the historical accuracy of many locations is questionable (the site said to be where the Last Supper occurred was located just above King David`s Tomb), the faith of believers is very real.

Sadly, this faith has made Jerusalem a battleground for centuries, with soldiers on the streets of the Old City even today. As told by excellent displays at the Museum at David`s Tower, Jerusalem has been destroyed six times and rebuilt seven. The blood of the innocent is everywhere -- shed, for example, by Christian Crusaders who conquered the city and slaughtered every Jewish and Muslim man, woman, and child while celebrating their victory. No such extreme brutality has been ever been manifest under either Islamic or Jewish rule. What might Jesus (with his message of suffering love) have to say about that? If we take a little time to ask the old olive tree, I think we can hear an answer....

Today over 80% of Old Jerusalem (within the walls) is Palestinian Muslim, with Jewish immigrants forming a majority of the population in the areas of the city built since the 1860s. These Muslims, as well as those residing in East Jerusalem, are in territory occupied militarily by Israel since the 1967 War. No nation (other than Israel) recognizes this occupation as legal under international law (though both major parties in the U.S. consistently support it with military aid that has now reached record levels). Soldiers armed with automatic rifles are stationed throughout the Old City, but not elsewhere in Jerusalem: Here the Muslims are seen as an ongoing security threat. Although they were allowed to remain after the 1967 War (and were even given Israel citizenship), not one Muslim I spoke with on the streets will vote, and all call themselves Palestinian (not Israeli).

Zahir, our Muslim guide while visiting Mt. Moriah (The Temple Mount which includes the Western Wall and Al Aqsa Mosque), showed us the bullet holes in the Dome of the Rock (sacred to all three religions) made as Israeli soldiers entered the holy place in 1967 killing many who had taken refuge there. With our own eyes Kris and I then observed armed Israeli soldiers enter the Dome (now a mosque), completely violating its sanctuary even now. Witnessing this intrusion, Zahir went on to tell us how he, as a Muslim of under 50 years of age, is not allowed to worship inside Dome. Prior to the year 2000, Muslim policy allowed Christians and Jews to freely enter this site that is sacred also to their faiths. Israeli state policy now limits entry to the Dome by anyone they choose to exclude, including all tourists, Christians, and Jews. Any complaint can lead to arrest and detention without trial.

Random conversations with Israeli soldiers and many others continue to blame such policies on security concerns caused by terrorism. They often see Zionism (which requires Israel to be a majority Jewish state with its capital a united Jerusalem) as the only protection against an historically hostile world. I am reminded of an aspiring actor on a bus who told Kris and I that even the United Nations supports the terrorists. This otherwise very rational person would agree with the man I talked to while he played with his dog: ``the entire world is critical of us, and the whole world is wrong``. The roots of such statements run deep into the anti-antisemitism of Crusaders who labeled Jews as Christ killers, the pogroms common through hundreds of years in Europe and Russia, and could be easily felt by Kris and I as we walked through the Holocaust Cellar (near the Tomb of David) where pictures abound of Nazi brutality and one can see soap made from the bodies of those exterminated in German concentration camps.

At Ecce Homo (a former Franciscan convent where we stayed in Jerusalem), a conversation over dinner one night might also provide insight. ``Ecce Homo`` refers to a statement made by Pontius Pilot (at this location long ago) in which he presented Jesus to those present by saying ``Behold the Man``. Catherine (a black woman from Cameroon now living in Atlanta) observed how unkind mankind is – and that is just the way it IS. I responding by asking whether what ``is`` always ought to be. Aisha (a civilian employee of U. S. Department of Defense working with the Air Force) felt that there must be a better way of resolving problems than by always returning violence for violence. Following a discussion with references to Jesus, Gandhi, and Buddha, I then invited all at the table to join Kris and I as we were to say goodbye to our friends in Bethlehem the next day.

Only Aisha came with us to see the folks at Wi`Am (a Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution referred to my accounts of earlier weeks). While we were able to share briefly with Hope, most other folks at Wi`Am were bust elsewhere that day. Yet Mazin Qumsiyeh (a U.S. citizen born in Bethlehem) and his wife Jesse (a native of Taiwan who met Mazin while both were students at Texas Tech) were there. I had arranged, by email, to see them as they had just returned from speaking engagements in Europe relating to Palestinian human rights concerns. What was expected to be an hour at most turned into three, as Mazin took us on a tour of Bethlehem which included where he works in the Science Department at the University, as well as where he was arrested while seeking to block an Israeli bulldozer (in an area where The Wall continues to be built.

We observed the construction workers using heavy equipment where homes had been cleared (a practice which has been publicly proclaimed to be on moratorium), and he showed us a detailed map of the area which shows how The Wall literally surrounds pockets of land for future annexation to Israel (as a buffer area intended to protect their hold over Jerusalem). While only Aisha was shocked by what she saw, the reality of seeing more of what we had known about still impact Kris and I. There is the Muslim home, being surrounded by fence and The Wall on all sides (clearly conveying the message to MOVE OUT). There is the barren land where only a few olive trees remain of the bounty that once was. There is The Wall, symbolic of what IS but showing no indication of what OUGHT TO BE.

As first posted, this entry neglected to mention that my birthday was celebrated in Jerusalem (on July 11th). Ought THAT to be?! At age 30, I never thought I would make it to 60 – yet here I 61. Kris and I attended church in the morning with an Armenian congregation totaling 7 people (and Kris was asked to do some of the readings)! In the afternoon we were joined by Laura, Ryan, and Hope (from Wi`am) and they treated us to a very pleasant dinner out! My late evening was spent watching the World Cup Final soccer game with about 20 people crowded around a small TV outside a Palestinian drinking spot with me sitting between a Polish national (fan of Spain) and a Norwegian (fan of the Netherlands). Sipping mango juice and not caring much about the game outcome, my attention focused more on those around me: internationals from 5 nations, Muslim Palestinians bitter about the occupation, Zionist Jews dressed in distinctive black coats, and even three Israeli soldiers with their machine guns hanging loose. Although a full picture of a peace will not likely come in my lifetime, this day certainly provided glimpses of what is possible when people put differences aside and show the humanity that is theirs in common.

As Kristine and I have now departed to Egypt from what should be a more holy land. We have journeyed the length of the land and seen where Jesus taught his message of love. We walked on via Dolorosa (the route where Jesus carried his cross), and have seen how his pain continues in the lives of those being judged and punished today. Perhaps it would be well for us all to consider both what IS and what OUGHT TO BE. What would Jesus have us do? Perhaps listening to the old olive tree may still be helpful?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Week 30: Sea of Galilee

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee.

For nearly a week this was the sight that greeted us each morning from the balcony outside our room at the Oasis Emmanuel Pilgrimage Guest House in Tiberias. Breathtakingly beautiful. Perhaps such scenes as this helped inspire Jesus to see the Love that is God in every person and throughout all of creation. Located on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee, the kind staff at the Guest House helped Kris and I discover the many places to see and appreciate all around this freshwater lake where Jesus found his twelve disciples, preached his Gospel, and performed many signs of the powers embodied in him.

On a Sunday Kris and I went to the Church of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. Sunday Mass is celebrated outside right next to the water. This is reputed to be near the place where Jesus took a 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and fed 5,000 people, having baskets of food left over after all hunger was past. A day later it was pointed out to me that we had 2 fish and 5 loaves (plus salad and watermelon!) with a young couple we had met in Bethlehem, with Ryan cooking the fish (from the lake) over charcoal eagle-scout style! While not miraculous, the watermelon was the best I have ever tasted, richly red with no dark seeds.

Being joined for two nights and a day by Ryan and Hope was a real blessing. Their good company (and rental car!) greatly facilitated our seeing places that would have not otherwise been very possible. We drove together to the Church of the Beatitudes where Jesus is thought to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount, to the Church of the Primacy of Peter built among among the ruins of Capernaum at the location where Peter`s home is reputed to be, and to a museum that contains the remains of a 2,000 year old fisherman`s boat that was discovered buried along the shore of Galilee. All of these places, however, seemed strangely uninspiring to me. The location of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, was beautifully developed (very developed) as a place of contemplation – but all I really wanted was to sit on a nearby hill and imagine the scene as it was before: I could not, because lunchtime was upon us and those who maintain the place were closing it down within 30 minutes of our arrival! For me these holy sites were now more tourist locations than centers for spirituality.

My most spiritual moment, surprisingly, came as Ryan, Hope, and I decided to go exploring for a cave while Kris rested in Tiberias. Within ten miles of the Guest House are the Hamud Caves. I had read that in one cave called Zuttiyeh, evidence of human habitation had been discovered dating back 250,000 years! A complete skeleton of a Neanderthal man (aged only 10,000) had also been found there. Had I not taken note of directions to the place from the book, we would not have found it – as there were no on site markers or signs of any kind and its main entrance was not visible from the road. At Zuttiyeh there were no people. Livestock had produced the path we took to it. Once there, it was as if we had been transported back in time – so far back that even Jesus was recent history! Here had been our ancestors. Their presence could still be felt.

The Zuttiyeh Cave required about a 100 yard steep hike upwards to reach it. Once there one is met by an oval entrance at last 40 feet high and 60 feet wide. Inside is a fairly flat interior floor space of at least 1,000 square feet, complete with nooks and crannys some of which seem fairly deep. Out of respect for a rare species of bat which now inhabit this cave, a posted sign discouraged further exploration. From the backside of what had once been the large common space, one can look out of the cave entrance to see the small valley below, another large hill just across that valley, and (that day) a sunny blue sky. Looking to the left from the cave entrance the valley clearly flows down to the Sea of Galilee (near Capernaum) perhaps 3 miles away. I wonder whether Jesus ever came to this spot. Odds are he must have known of it. Had he known of the cave`s ancient history as we now do, I have no doubt that he would have appreciated it also....

As Hope and Ryan drove back to their volunteer work at Wi`am in Bethlehem, they dropped Kris and I off in Nazareth. There she and I walked around the grounds of the Basilica of the Annuciation until the doors were opened – and we found a morning Mass is process. We sat through a pleasant ceremony, though I confess paying more attention to the architecture of the building than to the service (in Italian, I think). There was the original wall of a crusanter church destroyed 900 years ago. There were portions of the Franciscan rebuild in 1620 (when Christians became saf ely able to return after an absence of 450 years). Now in a central area built below the entry floor was the sacred place revered as the location where the Angel informed Mary that she would become pregnant with a child to be named Jesus. In the same compound as the Basilica is the Church of St. Joseph, constructed over a site thought to be the homw and workshop of Jesus` family. Archeological uncovering of housing, to be seen in the downstairs are of tis church, seem to give plausibility to the claim. One explanatory panel makes mention of a brother to Jesus (named Jude). Curious: maybe Jesus had brothers and sisters! Much has been lost to the shadows of time….

Upon returning to Tiberias, our final activity was to go out onto the Sea of Galilee (really a lake about 15 miles long N/S and 7 miles wide, E/W) in a ``Jesus`` boat (constructed as a facsimile of boats in Jesus`s time). We were allowed to join a tourist group of 28 persons on pilgrimage from Quwait: ethnic Indians mostly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu! Kristine smiled as she knew this was exactly the company I would have preferred had I a choice. My conversations revealed that an organizer of the group is a relative of Dr. Mahajan, a respected Gandhi Scholar I had met with several times while visiting the Gandhi Studies Program at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala. It is quite amazing how very small the world can seem at times. Small in a good way!

After five days with Tiberias as our home base, we traveled back to Bethlehem for one night (as we had no other accommodation booked). God would provide, Kris had told me. Well God set us up with our friend Zoughbi Zoughbi as he set us up in the empty apartment previously occupied by him with his wife and children. He stayed behind (a stateless person, and committed to work for change here), when she left for the U.S. (where she is a citizen). The children are with her, as a son was in need of special medical treatment for an imperfectly healed broken leg. To stay the night in his former apartment was most generous of Zhoughbi, but it also served to remind us of how families are often divided by the circumstances of life here.

Today we go through the military checkpoint through which Zhoughbi has no permission to pass – into Jerusalem where he, as a Palestian Christian, cannot freely worship. It is my hope that I may come back and forth into Bethlehem at least once this coming week to share more with this wonderful man. Let us all become more conscious of how privileged we are to move as freely as we may. As Kris and I go through the gate in The Wall which divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem, however, I will be thinking also of another Wall (built by the U.S.) designed to separate us from Latino immigrants. That Wall, also, must one day be dismantled and the immigration laws in the U.S. reformed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Week 29: The West Bank

The West Bank of the Jordan River is an area (along with the Gaza Strip) that has been militarily occupied by the government of Israel since 1967.

The photo above was taken in Bethlehem, a city included in the West Bank. It is a study in contrasts: Built by Zionists currently controlling state policy in Israel, the ``Security Fence`` (known as The Wall by Palestinian Christians and Muslims) is in the left background. Where it divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem here, it is 30 feet high and full of protest graffiti on the Bethlehem side. On the right in the picture is the building housing Wi`am (``cordial relationships`` in Arabic), a Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center devoted to nurturing a just peace among the peoples of the Holy Land. In the left foreground a playground for children has been built by Wi`am as one of many projects serving a refugee camp where oppressive circumstances are a normal presence. The Wall is a dramatic symbol of this oppression. The playground is a sign of hope that nonviolent action may overcome all that divides the human family.

``WE ARE IN A LARGE PRISON`` was the message of Syed, a Palestinian Muslim who I had randomly met at a tiny restaurant in Bethlehem after my exploration of a wonderful public marketplace. As a citizen of no state, Syed is at the mercy of the Israeli government as well as other governments who decide whether he is worthy of traveling abroad -- or even if he can walk into Jerusalem, less than 100 yards away. For years both he and his Christian friend (also named Syed) have been denied permission to leave the West Bank. Both Syeds have quite muscular bodies (they desire to be personal fitness trainers) and are visually perceived as dangerous persons by Israeli authorities. Both have family members in the U.S. who were allowed to relocate there prior to 9/11/2001. The Christian Syed is unable to see his father, mother, sister, and brother who are legal residents of New York since he has no right to travel beyond the West Bank, and if they come to see him they fear being denied exit again themselves....

The Muslim Syed is a trained sightseeing tour operator, but has been unable to find any steady employment. Most tours of the Holy Land hire no Muslims out of concern that the Israeli government might restrict their operations. So it is that most tours come to Bethlehem (for example) to see religious sites -- and avoid even the public markets, let alone accept invitations to visit one of the many refugee camps. Our 4 day stay at a favorite tour accommodation, Casa Nova, allowed Kris and I to confirm how carefully scripted most tours are -- as we talked with the tourists! So it is that I hired the Muslim Syed to show us around his city, including at least one refugee camp. He happily obliged, and by cell phone secured a taxi (as Syed cannot afford a car) and arranged for us to visit the home of one of many refugee families know to him.

The refugee family included Jamal who, together with his wife, six children, and two young nephews from Gaza, share a small three bedroom and one bath second story flat. As the breadwinner for 10 persons, Jamal has had no employment for 4 years. They are all dependent upon such charity as the underfunded Palestinian Authority and various U.N. agencies and NGOs provide. Their most basic physical need are met (though water pipes are turned on only two days a month) -- but what he most wants is the ability to freely walk back to Jerusalem where before he had ample employment. Like the Syed friends, Jamal is denied such freedom: he (and his entire family) ARE treated like prisoners. Still, he and his smiling wife served us tea and cookies and we also talked about his favorite world cup soccer team (whose flag he had flying from his roof): Brazil. No doubt he is today quite sad as that team lost its game to the Dutch yesterday. Trivial things like sports become more important when there is little else is none`s life to look forward to....

After some effort we made contact with Wi`am and its founder/director Zoughbi Zoughbi who is several full-time people rolled into one: A Christian member of the City Council of Bethlehem (a city which is 2% Christian and 98% Moslem), he also coordinates the staff and volunteers at Wi`am, a speaker expert on the Middle East, and a mediator with an M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Notre Dame (U.S.A.), and a part-time professor at Bethlehem University. For the better part of two days Kris and I observed activities at Wi`am ranging from children`s programs to seminars on Nonviolence, to selling crafts as a means of income for refugees, to simply greeting guests who randomly drop in. One such guest we all quickly suspected of being an Israeli undercover operator, though she might have been better coached in her response to the question: ``Are you from Gaza?`` ``No, I am not a terrorist`` was a little too obvious display of her bias.

One of the more interesting forays into the community occurred when I accompanied Zoughbi to a Muslim home, a child from which had been hit by an automobile driven by a Christian. About 10 Palestinian Christians came as witness to one side, matched by a similar number of Palestinian Muslim observers for the plaintiff. We were all cordially greeted at the door and offered coffee. My presence was accepted without any question and soon advocates from the two sides outlined their concerns. The child was brought in sitting in a wheelchair, his right leg in a cast. His parents wanted any decision on compensation to be postponed until September 1st so as to know in full measure what medical costs might amount to. After about 30 minutes of occasionally passionate verbal exchange, the September 1st date was accepted and the groundwork for reconciliation of the families had been laid. There would be no lawyers involved, no expensive court battles, just people working out their differences in a civil manner. Very impressive, yes? At one point someone had remarked that perhaps they could bring Barach Obama in to resolve their dispute (and the joke was met by chuckles from all sides).

Several good conversations were had with staff and volunteers at Wi`am. Laura, a elementary school teacher from South Carolina, is spending here summer vacation working with the Wi`am summer program for children in Bethlehem. Ryan and Hope, a young couple from Birmingham, Alabama (and friends with our friends Jim and Shelley Douglass there), are working with Janet and other Wi`am volunteers relating to political education and action. Lucy, a staff person who translated for me to communicate well with a group of teenagers at Wi`am one afternoon, told me how her father had died as a result of being beaten by the butt of an Israeli soldier`s rifle, and other family members had been killed when her grandmother`s home had been bombed. Many intense sharing opportunities left Kris and I often in need of the quiet sanctuary provided by our inexpensive lodging at Casa Nova.

For the four days in Bethlehem Kris and I stayed at Casa Nova Pilgrim Guest House, located literally right next to the Church of the Nativity. Tradition says that this church was built on the site of the stable where the baby Jesus was born. Archeologists agree that its foundations date from the 3rd century (making it the oldest church still in existence). A narrow passage of stairs underneath the altar go down to a small room where a star on the floor marks the believed birthplace. It was in this small room that Kris and I were surprised the next day to find ourselves celebrating a morning mass at 6am. Only twelve were in attendance, including two priests and three sisters. That mass would have to count as one of the most beautiful (and simple) religious services I have been associated with… It was in stark contrast to the Sunday Mass the next day at St. Catherine`s (next door) where most pews were full and professional video cameras and sound equipment were apparently recording the event for broadcasting.

So it is that our time in Bethlehem was exceptionally eventful. Our visit to the Shepherd`s Field (where angels are said to have proclaimed the birth), multiple meals with Hatam at the Al Sufara Restaurant off Manger Square, many excellent conversations with staff and other people at Wi`am, as well as other experiences are here neglected. One thing, however, is in great need of mentioning: Tourist Groups. Most stay only a few hours, and few longer than one night in Bethlehem. Talking with these folks indicates what most Palestinians in Bethlehem confirm: Internationals almost always enjoy scripted tours with no significant free time, visit religious sites and a few sanctioned stores for gifts, and depart. Almost no contact with locals occurs – and normally none with refugees or human rights activists that might help them understand realities felt by most Christian and Muslim Palestinians. If ignorance contributes to bliss, most tour groups work well to promote a blissful experience.

From Bethlehem we traveled by minibus to Ramallah, traveling through West Bank (territory militarily occupied by Israel since the 1967 War) to Ramallah (now headquarters for the Palestinian Authority to which very limited autonomy has been granted in preparation for an anticipated future separate state of Palestine). Near the Ramallah bus station Kris and I were picked up by Issa Khouriya who, with his wife Rawda, established the first Palestinian Family Guest House on the West Bank just over a year ago in the small village of Jifna. There their guests enjoy the privacy of well-furnished rooms in their home, and are treated as family by this lovely couple and their daughter Ragat (age 14) and son Hannah (age 15). So it is we ate breakfast together, watched world cup soccer together, had many excellent conversations, and were given guided tours of surrounding areas in the family car (with our insisting upon at least paying for the gasoline). Together, our three days with this Christian Palestinian family taught us much about life under the Israeli occupation.

A most touching story involved an attempt by a local Catholic family to celebrate Mass at a church in Jerusalem on Easter of 2008. This family had all been given papers granting them permission to enter Israeli controlled Jerusalem (special permission being necessary for stateless persons from Israeli occupied territories). They were very excited as they had been given no such permission for many years. After waiting two hours in line with others at the military checkpoint , the grandfather was allowed to pass, along with the wife, husband, and daughter – but the son (aged 13) was refused entry. In spite of attempts by the parents to convince the female soldier that their son was only 13 (showing the birth certificate) and no danger to anyone, the young soldier (arbitrarily, on her own authority) categorically refused to change her mind and threatened to call the police and have them arrested. Under the State of Emergency declared in 1948 (and continuously in effect since then) any person here can be arrested and jailed (without charge or trial) indefinitely. So it was that the entire family returned to their home together, unable to worship in Jerusalem. They are still bitter about this humiliating experience and have no plans to be enticed by permission papers to travel anywhere in Israel in the future. Like so many others, they feel like prisoners in their own land. Unlike refugees displaced when Israel seized lands now within Israel (in 1948 and thereafter), the Khouriya family have had homes in various locations near to Ramallah for many generations. They own their own home now. Yet in the occupied West Bank they, like millions of others, have citizenship in no country, and have few rights nor equality under Israeli law.

Issa and Rawda drove us to visit several places within a few kilometers of their home: to the refugee camp of Al Jalazun (where 14,000 people reside in poor conditions that include no comprehensive sewer system and platooned classrooms to allow some time in school for most children), to Taybeh (where a relative operates Taybeh Brewing Co. , the first microbrew operation in Palestine – with non-alcoholic as well as several varieties of alcoholic beer), thru Bir Zeit where crusader ruins are being renovated in hopes of future tourism, and to pay a social call to Issa`s aging mother and other family members. Time was also spent in nearby Ramallah, seeing the tomb of Yasir Arafat (founding leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its political party Fatah) as well as various other parts of the city including the Quaker Meeting House (home to the Friends International Center in Ramallah: FICR with its Director, Kathy Bergen).

On Thursday evening, July 1st, Kathy Bergen organized an evening event at the Quaker Meeting House featuring me speaking about ``Understanding some Misunderstandings of Gandhi``. Responding to my presentation were Thuqan Qishawi (American Friends Service Committee Middle East Regional Coordinator for Youth Programs) and Zoughbi Zoughbi, travelling over an hour from Bethlehem with Janet, Ryan, and Hope who we had met there. 40-50 people were in attendance (maybe to hear Thuqan & Zoughbi?) and all went quite well. Several people seemed to enjoy my more animated style of speaking and I was especially happy that Kathy Bergen seemed pleased. A well-known Palestinian businessman, Sam Bahour, was impressed enough to ask if I might be able to come back to Ramallah in October to speak again – but it seems silly to me to have any group pay my airfare for such an event, when the money spent could be so much better used to help people in need here.

One of many indications of need, I am embarrassed to say, was quite unknown to me before this week. Since 1997 (by law) and 1967 (by conquest) all water relating to the West Bank (including the Jordan River and underground sources) have been declared the property of Israel. While a new well may be drilled for individual family use, no organization can do so without the expressed permission of the Israeli Government. So it is that 9 million Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) receive only 15% of the water (and the pipes are turned on for purchase only once per week in Ramallah, only twice a month in some other areas), while 500,000 Settlers (Israeli citizens) use 85% of the water allocated (and never have their pipes turned off). Most Palestinian homes and businesses can easily be distinguished by the multiple water storage tanks clearly visible on their rooftops: these store water for daily use when the pipes are turned off. A little reflection concludes the obvious: the poorer you are, the fewer water tanks you have, the less water you can buy, the more difficult is your life. Even our host family, the Khouriyas, ran out of water on the last day of our stay with them. They, like so many others, are not really in control of their lives. The Israelis are. Palestinians are subject not only to the military occupation, but to water dependency…. It would seem that water is to them what the issue of salt was to Gandhi and the people of India under British colonial rule….

On the last day of this week in the West Bank, we accepted transportation to Bin`In, a small town with a checkpoint at The Wall separating Israel from some of its occupied territories. Regular Friday afternoon protest marches occur here. Kris and I visited with some of the 40 internationals and others (Palestinian Christians as well as some Jewish Israeli citizens who came this day). We learned that while Israeli`s are ``not allowed`` to travel to the West Bank (unless they are settlers), no soldiers prevent them from doing so. Those who drive their cars are aware that auto insurance coverage ends at the checkpoint and that they could we subject to arrest if caught demonstrating – and these factors among others deter most from such travel. Still, there are some who attend these events in solidarity with civil rights concerns and a vision of harmony that transcends religious and political divisions. With the completion of Friday prayers at the nearby mosque, those who are assembled swell to over 200 in number. Sadly, Kris and I could not stay to the end of the demonstration as the Jewish Sabbath will end all public bus transportation from Jerusalem to Tiberias after 4pm and this timing requires us to depart for Jerusalem.

We catch a ride to another, less protested checkpoint and from there take an unmarked taxi (a private car, which, it turns out, is driven by a Christian Israeli settler from Ramallah)! Our conversation with this driver is cordial on the superficial side until I raise the issue of water. After confirming that he and his family receive fresh water from the tap every day, I asked him what he thought about Issa and his family (who the driver knows) running out of water the day before. After a tense moment, the driver just shrugged and said nothing. While it was then possible to return to less controversial subjects, his silence about the water issue told me much. Perhaps such silence is more the enemy than even the discriminatory policies themselves, or even the military presence. It is the silence of many that allows injustice to flourish.

Next week we will be more religious than political pilgrims. Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee should be a good base from which to visit Nazareth, Capernum, and other areas where Jesus lived, developed, and delivered his message of love…