Disrupting the Narrative: Israel and Palestine (Part II)

Abigail recently returned from a two-week-long Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME)  human rights delegation to Israel and Palestine. UUJME’s mission is “to promote peace and justice in Israel-Palestine, including a settlement of the conflict affirming the equality, dignity, freedom and security of all peoples involved.”

Continued from “Disrupting the Narrative: Israel and Palestine (Part I)”:

The journey through the West Bank continues, through checkpoints and rough roads and red signs that warn Israeli citizens they are not allowed in.

Even before we get to the West Bank city of Nablus, our guide tells us it is his favorite city because the people there are so warm and welcoming. And, when we get into the Old City, we see this firsthand. Everyone greets us, smiling. We can see the warmth in the way they greet our guide, all clasped hands and kisses and “habibi”s.

He had explained to us the night before how “habibi” is used, scattered across conversations between friends, whether greeting or arguing or joking. “It is a way,” he said, “to show: ‘You are so close to my heart.’” I love it—being so unafraid of being intimate. Being open to your friends about how much they mean to you. Being able to openly express one’s affection. And express they do, exclaiming to each other from across the marketplace and out of doorways.

Old men totter out to greet us. One old couple, sitting as we passed by, call out a word in Arabic to us as we walk by. Our guide tells us that it’s the Arabic word for “light.” He says, “They are telling you that you bring light to their city.”

Children wander up, saying, “Hello” and “What is your name?” One cool kid walks by and simply says, “‘Sup?” Another one, his hair slicked back, does tricks for us on his roller skates and preens. A little girl proudly tells Mohammad she has the highest marks in her class.

We go into a traditional olive oil soap factory and then a tiny candy shop, tucked away under Ottoman stone arches. The workers there are ecstatic to see us, one young man keeping me for five minutes while he tries to get the perfect selfie with me, both of us laughing like crazy the whole time in the sugar-scented air.

Our guide keeps saying the same phrase to people, and I ask what it means. A traditional Arabic phrase said to people who are working: “May God bless your hands.” A beautiful sacrament, seeing the sacred in the work. Bestowing blessing upon others.

Fresh kanafeh

Eventually, we get to the place in Nablus which, according to our guide, sells the best kanafeh (a dessert speciality of Nablus). A jovial old man with a bristly mustache is just pulling out a hot, huge tray of it, which he flips over (in a majestic feat), then pours sugar syrup over it. Then he carries it, aloft, out into a table in the street, where a crowd of hungry Palestinians (and our group) wait. He slices it up, slapping generous servings of beautiful, golden crust and melted sweet cheese, all glistening with sweet syrup, on plates and passing them around. Heavenly. A moment of sweet fellowship, all of us blissful and blessed in that moment.

On our last day, we are in Jaffa, hearing from an Arab-Palestinian doctoral student about the history of the place. He and our guide are joking in Arabic, and the student explains a phrase they are using—an Arabic word that means “okay, alright, keep going.” A way to tell someone to continue, but to go slowly. Our guide laughs and says, “Arabic is a language of patience, you see. That’s why we Palestinians have been so patient with the occupation.”

We laugh, but weakly. A language of patience. A language of love. A language of humanity, of spirit.

I come away filled with such love, such joy, for the people and culture.

Then it is the end of the trip. We go back to the Tel Aviv airport, weary, past checkpoints and airport security and questioning and biometric passport scans until finally I am near my gate for boarding. I realize I need another souvenir for my young cousin. Among the duty-free shops and food places, I find a gift shop and started browsing.

I feel bothered. At first, I don’t realize why, as I look through menorahs and kippas and postcards of the Jerusalem skyline. Then I start to notice the maps, included on guidebooks and pillows and t-shirts: the entire land mass of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza drawn as one piece of land, no borders, with the word “Israel” superimposed over it. The Hebrew everywhere, and not one word of Arabic. No Palestinian embroidery among the handicrafts. No Arabic calligraphy among the art.

Map of Israel without the West Bank or Gaza borders in gift shop.

I think about all the beauty I have seen in my travels through Israel and the West Bank. The artistry and skills. I think about how Arab-Palestinians, whose culture and connection to the land runs deep in their veins, make up 20% of Israeli citizens. How one out of every five Israelis who might be walking through this airport, statistically, would be Arab-Palestinian. How it would feel to walk into this gift shop and see your language, your religion, your culture completely absent.

My heart hurts. I don’t want to buy anything at this point, but then I find something—a hamsa, made of clay, with no writing in any language on it.  A five-fingered hand. A familiar sight across the Holy Land, hanging from the doors of homes, warding off the evil eye and blessing the house.

So I buy it. I will send it to my little cousin. And I will tell her, in the letter I send with it, how it is a Muslim symbol which also came to be used by the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East—and adopted by Christians in the region, who call it “The Hand of Mary.” An open hand, shared by many faiths. I will tell her how all peoples, at their core, hope for peace and life abundant, free from the evil eye of oppression.

I will tell her the story of those “dangerous” people they warned me about, the Palestinians, so that she knows the truth.

And I will keep on telling that story—these stories—for the rest of my life. For they deserve to be known, to be heard, to be remembered. They, too, are a part of this land.

All images: Abigail Clauhs.

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3 thoughts on “Disrupting the Narrative: Israel and Palestine (Part II)

  1. Hi Abigail, Thanks for a lovely reflection on what was surely a life-changing trip. I feel compelled to respond to one particular part of your essay, though–your discomfort with postcards and other paraphernalia that labels this hostly contested piece of land as “Israel.” I won’t pretend that doesn’t disturb me, either, but what I find equally disturbing are the postcards, keychains, T-shirts etc. that you can find that label the land “Palestine.” Both sides are guilty of propaganda that lacks nuance–neither are innocent of attempting to make their version of borders, and their narrative, the only one.

  2. Maps tell us a lot, to be sure. Some Israeli maps fail to delineate the Green Line. The fact is, Palestinian maps, as well as those published in Arab countries, don’t label Israel as such. There is so much distrust–and worse–all around.

  3. This is quite evocative and very well-written. Thank you for your poignant portrayal of the wonderful people and culture of Palestine–and their invisibility in the eyes of Israel. When I am there I always hear Palestinians say, “tell our story!” That is one way we can help–by making them visible.

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