Day trip to Zababdeh

On Wednesday I took a day trip with an American (actually she was from Madison, WI!) visitor named Joan and a member of Wi’am’s staff named Usama Nicola. The two of them were planning the details of a trip that Joan would lead from a Mennonite church in Madison. Joan was planning that after the group stayed in Bethlehem, they would visit a small village called Zababdeh, which is in the northern West Bank. On the way up and back, Usama gave us a brief history/culture lesson, answering whatever questions we asked as best he could. Since I’m pretty tired of writing lately, I’m going to detail as much as I can in the pictures I took.

“The majority of people don’t care if it’s a one-state or two-state solution. They just want to end this crazy situation” – Usama Nicola

Abuna Firas, priest of the church in Zababdeh, makes and sells olive oil soap to help support his aid programs.

His brother makes incense, which they sell locally and export mostly to places in Europe like Italy, where it is used in church ceremonies.

The father shows us even more of his soap, which he dries in the yard of the church, shown here.

I didn’t know any cars by Opel actually still existed!

We had coffee with Abuna Firas’ parents, and then lunch with his wife and kids (in the Melkite church, priests who are allowed to marry before ordination and remain married during priesthood).

On the way back, we passed much Palestinian farmland. Crops get the water they need during the winter, which is the rainy season.

From a distance it’s sometimes hard to distinguish (for foreigners) which villages are Palestinian from the ones that are Israeli settlements. However, you can always tell because Palestinian homes have these black water tanks on the roofs, while Israeli homes are linked to the main Israeli water grid.

We got lost on the way back, but got to see cool Palestinian villages. This hill is covered with terraces, constructed during the days when Romans ruled this land, and crowned with a mosque.

Another hill with terraces left over from the Romans. This land has been occupied by one power or another for nearly its entire history, but conditions have rarely been as bad as now.

This is Ma’ale Adumim, the biggest Israeli settlement in the West Bank with around 250,000 residents. It was built as a “security shield” for Jerusalem in case of invasion. Settlements like this are illegal under international law, and all the established laws of war.

Once we passed Ma’le Adumim, we were almost back in Bethlehem. Usama gave us some other interesting details, which I’ll get into briefly… Most settlers are economic settlers, to whom the Israeli government grants large subsidies to move into settlements. These settlers would leave if they had the economic incentive, as opposed to ideological settlers, who are the ones who you sometimes hear about perpetrating violence against Palestinians.

These and other things help show how the Israeli government is using settlers to do its “dirty work” of pushing Palestinians out of this land. And it goes deeper.. Usama told us a story of how before the First Intifada, one of his friends was a very successful Palestinian businessman, who had extensive connections among the Israeli power elite. In 1985, several of his Israeli friends met with him and warned him to leave the country and start business in America, because there would soon be an uprising and much violence. Four years later, the First Intifada started with an incident where an Israeli military truck crashed into a Palestinian car carrying four Palestinian laborers who had been working at an Israeli factory, killing them all. Before the Second Intifada, there was an influx of machine guns from Israel into the West Bank, which Usama reflects there was no way that the extensive Israeli intelligence network did not know about. Usama believes the violence in both intifadas was incited by Israelis. Both of these uprisings, in the end, benefited Israel, not Palestine, by allowing the Israelis to turn international opinion against the Palestinians, and expand their land grabbing efforts.

This is just one of the many competing narratives that battle in this land, and one interpretation of the events here. However, there is no way to dispute some of the facts in it.

Next time I’ll make a more personal blog post about my experiences and spirituality here, but I had to make sure I shared these pictures and lessons from the day trip on Wednesday. Any comments or reactions are welcomed.

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Bearing Witness

Besides furthering my education, the most important reason that I am spending a summer on the opposite side of the world from my home is to stand as a witness to the struggle of the Palestinian people. I have to say first that I have never met any people who, in general, are more resilient in the face of adversity, or have more mental fortitude and spiritual constitution than the Palestinian people.

Thinking about this brings to mind an interaction I had recently with Zoughbi’s 15 year old son Rafik.. We were talking about showering and I told him that I hoped our water was not cut off over the summer. (For those who don’t know, precious water is rationed to the Palestinians by the Israelis and it is common over the summer for the water to be cut off to Palestinian cities when it is in high demand in the surrounding Israeli settlements.) Rafik responded, “Oh, come on.. The water has to get cut off.. It’s part of the culture!” Now, most of you reading my blog are Americans, right? Think seriously, how would you react if someone told you getting your running water cut off during the hottest part of the summer was a “normal part of the culture”? Remember, you’re living in a desert climate, with scenery around you like you see in this picture… Just let that one sink in for a second…

Note: not all of Palestine looks like this. Some of it is rolling hills with olive tree terraces. Those black tanks you see are water tanks for Palestinians while the houses in the backgrounds are part of an Israeli settlement.

Despite the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks since 2008, the Israeli government continues to construct the Annexation Wall, which is already over 700 km long and cuts villages in half in some places. Here is a picture from the Wi’am Center (the place at which I work) showing their playground, which is overshadowed by a section of the Wall surrounding Rachel’s Tomb, a holy site that was once part of Bethlehem.

In the face of the wall, the Palestinians continue to persevere and hope for a better tomorrow.

Because I disagree with these kinds of conditions, I attended three demonstrations against the occupation last week.

Last Tuesday was a special occasion because it was Nakba Day, the day when Palestinians mourn the day their land begun to be annexed, or the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’), while Israelis celebrate the day that their nation came into being. While protests in Ramallah escalated into clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli troops, and 13 Arabs were killed attempting to enter Israel from Lebanon and Syria, the scene in Bethlehem was peaceful as crowds chanted “unity” and prayed for the end of the occupation.

I also attended more regular demonstrations last Friday. One of them was in a village called Ma’asara. The villagers hold a protest every Friday because the land that they have traditionally farmed has been designated for annexation by the Israeli government. There is not yet a wall or checkpoint there, but if they were to simply inhabit the land that was historically part of their village, Israeli soldiers would come to arrest them. Here, one of the villagers stands in front of the line of Israeli soldiers there to keep demonstrators from proceeding along the road.








I like this picture because it demonstrates the senselessness of the force deployed by Israel.. Are all these soldiers really necessary to disrupt a nonviolent demonstration by unarmed villagers?

The Israeli soldiers were taking pictures and video to document the faces of demonstrators, because any Palestinian who is involved in protests will automatically be denied a permit for access to Jerusalem. Hopefully the government will soon realize how nonviolent all of these protests are and how stupid it is to deploy troops against them..












The other demonstration on Friday was actually in the form of a Catholic Mass at a monastery outside of Bethlehem called Cremisan. As I noted above, there have been no terrorist attacks since 2008, yet the Israeli government continues construction of the Wall. That construction is set to destroy the land on which the Cremisan Monastery is founded, which the Palestinians rely on for olive trees. Every Friday, the monks from the Monastery lead a mass in protest.

Taking communion outside must be a refreshing change..

In the background you can see the settlement that this wall is designed to protect. I’m not 100% sure, but I would venture to guess that they have never experienced a single security threat from the direction of Cremisan.

Despite the conditions of adversity, the Palestinian people remain strong. Below is a picture that I think really exemplifies this from my trip last year when we visited the Tent of Nations. The ToN is a family farm surrounded by 4 Israeli settlements and besieged with legal attempts by the Israeli government to strip the family of their land for another settlement. The family has held out for years and isn’t going anywhere soon. Even though they waste thousands of dollars and hours per year defending their right to their own property (they have land deeds dating back to when the Ottoman Empire controlled the land), the sign at the entrance reads, “we refuse to be enemies.”

I don’t know what the other sign in Hebrew says, but I am told that it is the same message, with a more detailed description.

This is my biggest lesson so far. No matter the conditions of adversity, no matter how hard things are and how tempting it is to blame the “other” for your suffering, refuse to be their enemy, hold them in the Light in the tradition of Quakers, and hope for a better tomorrow.

In the meantime, take joy from things in life that are good, like kittens!

For more pictures, see my photobucket, which I am continuing to update:

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Getting started

Well, that was interesting. I drafted a post last night but it didn’t save, so here we are starting fresh. I’m pretty much settled in my apartment in Bethlehem, which is in the same complex that Zoughbi Zoughbi (the director of Wi’am) and his family live, which is how I get the wifi that I am using to post this blog.

The trip here was relatively uneventful. A long flight from Chicago to Poland, followed by a 13 hour layover in Warsaw put me on the edge a bit. Hardly a single person on the plane spoke English, and our plane touched down at 10:00 am in Poland, which is 4:00 am in home time. I found some American tourists in the airport, who let me talk with their Polish guide about the best way to get into the city. After taking a nap in the airport (which was scary, but necessary) I took a casual jaunt into downtown Warsaw for some cheap Polish food and pretty good beer.

Warsaw was cool, a nice mix of old-fashioned and modern architecture. Right here is where I would upload a picture, but it’s not working at all for some reason so I must leave you disappointed.

My flight to Tel Aviv was punctuated by some obnoxious loud young people on the plane, who bragged about being able to stay up late (the flight was at 10:55 pm, arriving in Tel Aviv at 3:55 am), promply passed out when the plane took off, then broke into noise again as the plane landed. Apparently Americans are the only people who don’t cheer when planes land because both the Polish and Israeli flights were filled with applause and exuberant yells as soon as we hit solid ground.

In the airport, I was immediately pulled aside by a stern-faced Israeli soldier who interrogated me about my purpose and intentions in visiting Israel. When I told her I was studying conflict resolution in Bethlehem, she gave me a puzzled look and asked me, “why Bethlehem?” Well, I didn’t tell her that I thought her country was perpetrating apartheid, so she didn’t arrest me. Instead I told her about my connections through school and specifically Max Carter to the Wi’am Center, and she asked to see my school ID. She looked at my Quaker card for a good 30 seconds with yet another puzzled look on her face. Way to go, Guilford.

I was interrogated yet again at passport control. Being a single male traveler in this part of the world causes a great deal of suspicion, but I made it through with no problems. I took a taxi to Bethlehem and was picked up by Zoughbi.

We spent the morning cleaning the apartment (which was inhabited previously by the last intern who had to leave because Israel only issued him a 10-day visa) and I spent the afternoon fighting a losing battle against jet lag and sleep deprivation.

My apartment is great and has a lovely balcony overlooking Bethlehem. Again, here is where a picture would be if they were working. It must have something to do with the router here.

Today was my first day working at Wi’am, which was really more of an orientation than a work day. I also got an Arabic cell phone, so if you’re in the area you can message me for my number. Until next time, mar-salaam.

Posted in Summer 2012 Bethlehem | 2 Comments

The Eve of Departure

So it’s been about a year since I updated this blog, and I’ve done a lot of growing and changing since then. Stephen and I had big plans for our respective wordpresses at the beginning of the year, which turned into the idea for the Collectives, which fell victim to schoolwork and time pressures. Anyhow, this is where I’ll be documenting my summer 2012 in Palestine. I’m leaving this afternoon on Polish Airlines to fly to Tel Aviv, Israel via Warsaw, Poland. Once there I will make my way across the checkpoints to Bethlehem, taking advantage of the privileges that come with an American passport.

The purposes of the trip this summer are religious and educational. I am pursuing an unpaid internship at the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, a nonprofit organization that does small scale mediation work using the traditional Arabicsulha style of mediation, as well as advocacy on a larger scale. I’ll be helping them improve their English-language communication through their website and newsletter and teaching a class in conversational English for the staff. I’ll also be teaching a class about how to use the Internet to communicate and organize. For this, I’m receiving credit in the Peace and Conflict Studies 390 internship class.

Enough boring stuff, though. Spiritually, I hope to explore my own faith while working with Wi’am, which is a faith-based Christian organization. How does faith affect organizing work? What role does Christianity play in a non-Western country as opposed to America, especially a country where Christianity is not the dominant religion. How does Islam play a part in nonviolent social movements? I have many more questions than answers, which is a good starting place. My head is in a jumble right now and I have to finish packing!

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Why did the world stop?

If your first response to the question is “but uh, the world didn’t stop, it’s still spinning like everr!! duhh!!” then this question is not for you. In fact, questions in general are probably not for you and you should probably go back to just getting answers from Faux News.

Now that we’ve gotten all the ignoramus out of the way, we can tackle what really makes this question important to me. First of all, it’s from a song I like – “F(r)iend” by the metal band “In Flames.” A scratchy voice in the intro says, “Some might think the most daunting question is, why did the world stop?”

And I think that is the most daunting question. Let me explain what I mean by the world stopping. Think back to the Industrial Revolution, and all the inventions/advances in technology that made the world a better place in the 19th and early 20th century. Lightbulbs, cheap electricity, the assembly line and cars, cheap plumbing, airplanes, (mostly) easily available food… So the list goes on. Until we reach World War 2, right? We invented nuclear energy, and turned it into a destructive force. We tried to harness it for energy, and didn’t think about whether we could control it or not (the reactors will be safe on fault lines, right?!) and it’s ended up really doing more harm than good. You could say the same about cars and the agricultural system…

But those arguments aside, what do we have to show for ourselves since the end of WW2? Cell phones, color TV, Computers, Video Games, the Internet.. Great communication tools, yea.. Then think about Smart bombs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles… Deep sea oil drills.. Ecstasy and other “club drugs..” I can’t think of many things we’ve created that actually help to make the world a better place. Well, actually, I went to a presentation last year about newly invented ceramic water filters, that are easy to make for folks in developing countries and provide potable water for the town. But, cmon, in the 21st century couldn’t we invent robots that find and filter water? And, sure, we’ve made great progress in eliminating certain diseases, we’ve invented retro-virals for HIV/AIDS and vaccines for malaria… But then why are these diseases still devastating rural nations? I mean come on, diarrhea is responsible for over 3% of ALL the deaths per year in the world. We don’t even think about that here in the US.

Thus my assertion: the world has stopped. Progress to make the world a better place has all but halted. If you want to argue about medicine, then my proof in the medical world is the ratio of money spent to develop and spread (not to mention provide free on insurance policies) drugs like Viagra vs. the money spent to spread the HIV/AIDS retrovirals. Think about the money spent on new weapons vs. the money spent on training community leaders in conflict resolution. The list goes on.

Why has our species’ brilliance and innovation seemingly been commandeered by people who don’t care about progress? Why did the world stop? Well, the simple answer is money. But there is no answer to this question right now – mine is, I don’t know. If I knew the answer, then I wouldn’t have to spend my life driven by this question. If anyone can tell me, I’m all ears to an answer. But I don’t think there’s a simple answer, and my life’s project is to explore this question.


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Heaven’s not a place that you go when you die, it’s that moment in life when you actually feel alive

I was looking through old, old friends’ pages on facebook tonight (morning?) and I was so happy to have all these old memories come back, to see these people that I remember from my childhood and adolescence. Social networks are such a powerful thing!
Then I came across another memory: That of Seagar Degen. I’m sure most of you won’t know who Seagar is. He was my friend who commited suicide in 2007, I believe his junior year at West High. I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten what he looked like – only the friend from my early early childhood whom I remember him resembling. I managed to find the group his dad, Pete, started on Facebook and refresh my memory. I can’t believe it’s been so long. I still remember my first orchestra performance freshman year, when I was so nervous I could have cried, and he helped me tie my tie.
I read and cried over the comments on the page for a good minute. I came across one that struck me, a friend who wrote to him that whatever pain he had been through, it’s over now. But I disagree. That is our pain now. This is the burden we share in this world: working to heal the suffering that goes unspoken for so long.
Whether there is a heaven or not is a question we literally die to answer. Those who pretend to know are charlatans. Those who have faith are beautiful. But what resonates with me is life. This was put most eloquently for me by my friend Nat, speaking about why he is an atheist (bear in mind I can’t speak his words for him, but I’ll try to sum them up). A physics student, he has faith in what he can touch, problems he can solve. An existentialist, he believes this life is all we have. As a UU, he believes we must make the best of it – we must strive to do our best in this world. He likened this to the Christian idea of building a kingdom of heaven on earth.
See, whatever our religion, this Spirit must guide us. That is why at this point I can only put my faith in humanity. We are all we have. Sure, it’s comforting to believe that we continue to exist somewhere. I even have faith that the connections we build live on after we’re gone. How can I not, given that Seagar lives on in my heart and so many others’ and even on Facebook?
I cannot put my faith in heaven, filled with cloudy pillars, and hell, filled with flames, because I don’t believe the universe works that way. But I can trust in the human spirit, the love we build and the connections in our souls.
That’s why these song lyrics resonate so much with me (from The Tide by the Spill Canvas):
Heaven’s not a place that you go when you die, it’s that moment in life when you actually feel alive..
So live for the moment, now.

Blessed be.


Posted in Spirituality | 3 Comments

First World Problems

Boy, life sure is tough for us folks on this end of the economic spectrum. Perhaps this kid sums it up best:

I thought of this because I was thinking, oh, what a hassle it is to update my blog, I have a million things to say but none of them are ready yet – and if I start on one, I’ll have to finish it. Which is of course impossible, because there are other priorities – like going on vacation. Is it sick to live this kind of life?
Hopefully not, and hopefully that cognitive dissonance (first world terminology, anyone?) isn’t the reason I can’t sleep right now, despite having to get up early. What a hassle to have a doctor’s appointment at 9 in the morning, rudely interrupting my carefree summer schedule!

I think we all take things for granted, especially when we live in such comfort without noticing it. What would we do if it was all taken away? God forbid the debt ceiling crashes down and we have to find out sooner than later. I realize that I’m blessed to lead a life where I even have access to a doctor, regardless of time of day. We all need to take stock and examine our surroundings.

So do we really suffer when our computers crash? When our coffee spills on the way out of the Starbucks drive through? When *shudder* our iPhones lose that little 3G symbol, and we are stuck with the “E” symbol, signaling less than ideal broadband data access? Well, maybe we don’t truly suffer in that last one. But certainly it can cause us stress when our computers crash and pain when our coffee spills. Who is there to tell us that pain is in any way less real than the pain suffered by those who can’t even imagine a computer, until they can provide enough food for their family?

In other words, is suffering relative? Is the suffering as much when something is taken away in my world, full of creature comforts, as it is in someone in the so-called “third world” when they are denied a similar comfort that they have never had? For example, not being able to have lunch one day. For someone in Somalia, this may be a daily reality, the amount of food limiting folks to two meals a day (probably less, now, if you’ve read the news about the region…). For me, it would be hard to get through the afternoon, I would really struggle with it. Now whose suffering is more real?!

Well, the person in Somalia’s suffering is truly worse. One day without lunch cannot be compared to a lifetime with too little food, too much fear. However, that’s just the problem. As humans, we cannot go around every day contemplating the destructive conditions others live in. It would ultimately be self-destructive, so our brains block it out. We adapt to the conditions around us, then become comfortable with that level and strive for better things. We tend not to think about the conditions of those at a more unfortunate position than us, even when they are right in front of us!

I think the same applies on every level of the economic ladder. Hence why we think of people who are richer than us as greedy and selfish when they try to advance their positions. Don’t we all live with at least a little greed and selfishness? Some more than others, certainly.

Oh, life is complicated. Maybe I can finally go to sleep now. I think that in life, what we have to do is recognize our human imperfections. We can certainly appreciate our surroundings, living in the “first world,” and recognize the selfishness that is part of that appreciation. However, in order to cultivate compassion, we have to recognize the conditions of others less fortunate, and help them to elevate themselves into places where they too can be comfortable. Another day I’ll deal with how we cultivate compassion towards people who seem to be selfish, greedy, ignorant and worst of all, undeserving (people who inherit their money, for example, then do nothing productive with it). Until then, maybe we can recognize that our first-world-problems are only problems because we have such incredible things to begin with.

Oh, and food for thought, why didn’t Michelle Bachmann ever have to debate that high schooler that challenged her? I feel like when you’re running for president, you’re required to accept a debate challenge from a high schooler, no questions asked. Hmm.

Also, kitty!

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