Saturday, September 16, 2017

Checking the checkpoint

The alarm wakes me from a deep sleep. With my nose the only part of me not in the sleeping bag, I can almost smell how cold it is. I take a deep breath and reluctantly emerge from my cocoon. I can hear team-mates also stirring in the next room. It’s not long before we’re bundled into the car and hurtling down the highway towards the Israeli border at a roaring pace.

As an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine's South Hebron Hills, we rose at 3:30am once a month to monitor the treatment of Palestinians travelling into Israel through the Maitar checkpoint. Most of the people passing through this checkpoint between 4am and 7am are men on their way to work. Because work is difficult to come by in Palestine, people will go to great lengths to find work in Israel, even if it means waking at 3am, and staying most of the week away from their family.

By the time we arrive, the entry to the checkpoint is a bustling hive of activity. Stallholders litter the side street, offering warm coffee and tea, or food for the journey. We stake out a spot near the turnstile, where it’s possible to see the people lining up, and catch those rejected and on their way back home. Carrying sleeping gear, or food for the week, some hitch a ride with anyone else going the same way, and others park their car in what soon looks like a drive-in just ahead of the checkpoint.

As the morning wears on, and the sun’s first rays of light begin to appear, the numbers of people waiting to enter Israel increases, the line begins to spill out onto the road and those inside the caged maze find themselves at a complete standstill. Some, who become frustrated by the pace, climb the caged walls, in an attempt to cut in ahead of those who perhaps decide that they can afford to wait. Little tussles and arguments break out from time to time.

Credit: Peter Morgan, another EA
The process of lining up in a tin shed, presenting one’s work permit to an emotionless guard, and then travelling by foot in the harsh desert weather is dehumanising and would make anyone feel like cattle set for the slaughter. Yet there were so many ways that people quietly demonstrated their humanity, dignity and sense of humour. Many of the men wave at us as they pass through, and joke with friends as they wait their turn.

One man who was turned away was hanging around near us for a bit, assisting other rejectees in filling out our brief survey form. He told us his reason for refusal was “expired work permit”, which was the most common explanation. These workers are reliant on their boss going ahead with the necessary paperwork to extend the visa. After hanging around with us for half an hour or so and chatting in a good humoured way, he disappeared. About ten minutes later there he was in the queue again, smiling at us and sporting a different hat. He wasn’t rejected a second time.

Towards the end of our three hour shift, we start to see women and children appearing in the queue. We are told that they are usually headed to Israeli jails to visit sons and daughters doing time for minor crimes like “stone throwing” that they may or may not have committed. These travellers are laden with food and small gifts, a reminder of how important family and hospitality are to Palestinians. Eventually it’s time to wake up our driver, and begin the trip back to town. As we drift into a snoozy silence, I think of my own commute back in Sydney. It’s hard to believe that such a dehumanising commute is the norm on the other side of the world.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eid Marabak

Today is the last day of Ramadan. As Jess and I rode our bikes from her home in West Heidelberg to the nearby organic food markets, we passed a family getting in their car, in religious dress. Jess wished them Eid Marabak, and the older son’s face lit up. Waves and smiles, and cheerful greetings followed, as we peddled on our way. That's  interfaith dialogue, in my mind.

And I'm reminded of when I was in Yatta, a predominantly Muslim city, on Christmas night. We four internationals had been in Bethlehem for Christmas eve, and had just returned home. Our neighbour, Abed, turned up in his usual style, which was to knock loudly on the door while shouting out various names at the same time, and clad in a full-length fake-fur overcoat. I came to the door, and Abed marched into the lounge, announcing that he’d brought each of us a Christmas gift. There in his hand were 4 small wrist bands in Palestinian colours. He explained that he didn't really know what to give us on our religious festival, and hoped this was acceptable. I really appreciated the thought, and the act of interfaith generosity.

Abed, on the balcony of his guesthouse
My experience in this place where I was a religious minority, was of constant graciousness, generosity, hospitality and warmth. We were regularly invited into our neighbours’ homes, and fed bread, hummus and tea. Our cultural quirks and misdemeanours were graciously ignored, and attempts were made to understand our seemingly odd behaviour. And it's the same here in Australia. Visiting Lakemba the other night, shop-keepers were delighted to be able understand some of my broken Arabic, and share in the delight of delicious middle eastern food. I want to be able to give something of that generosity back to Muslims in Australia and elsewhere, who live as a religious minority, and/or whose difference is more often seen as a reason for suspicion and fear as opposed to an opportunity for connection or learning.

Coffee in Lakemba
So, whether it’s across the street in West Heidelberg in Victoria, over a cup of coffee in Lakemba in Sydney, between neighbours in Yatta, Ramallah, or Jerusalem or across the wires of the internet, the faith divide is only as wide as we wish it to be. I wish my Muslim brothers and sister Eid Marabak and hope for more opportunities for connection and understanding in the future.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Resistence shepherding

Seated on a bag of flour placed on top of an upturned bucket in an isolated tent on the rocky fields of the West Bank I listen as Jibrin, a kind-faced Palestinian man, talks of his religious convictions and his troubles. I’m in the West Bank as part of a World Council of Churches program, to provide protective presence and monitor human rights.

Jibrin’s tent is all he has in the way of shelter. His grazing fields, crucial to his livelihood, stand less than a kilometre from the Israeli settlement of Susya. Frustrated by settlers who set fire to barley and wheat fields and attack his sheep, soldiers who turn a blind eye, and unjust arrests for crimes he didn’t commit, this shepherd is determined to remain on his land, no matter the cost.

Jibreen in his tent
And the costs have been significant. I wept as he spoke of his brother's death at the hands of Israelis in the late 1960’s. Ever since, his life has been marred by violence, injustice and fear. One nearby settler, who goes by the name Son of Mudahai, had come by just two days earlier with a gun and a big knife. A while back a neighbour was arrested and given a 20,000 shekel fine and 7 months jail time. Yet, Jibrin, a Muslim man, remembers a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived happily alongside one another. Despite everything he has experienced since the occupation began, he still believes in the inherent goodness in others. His faith seems to give him courage and hope.

Jibrin’s home is in the Palestinian village of Qwawis where less than half a dozen families remain. In order for his sheep to have a healthy diet, he must regularly take them out to his fields for the day. What was once a relatively straightforward journey is now fraught with danger. Multi-lane highways connecting settlements with cities now cut through Jibrin’s usual shepherding route, and I hold my breath as the sheep veer perilously onto the road. Settlements have appeared atop the hills where his sheep are accustomed to graze. As he speaks the odd and abrupt directives to his beloved sheep, Jibrin always has one eye on the settlement nearby.

My role as a human rights monitor and accompanier was to provide protective presence to people like Jibrin. During those three months I accompanied a number of shepherds, and activists, and children, all of whom were seeking to have their basic rights observed. And in many ways, they accompanied me on my own journey of understanding and insight. As I wandered alongside a flock of sheep, or carried trees to be planted by activists, or walked with children to and from school, I reflected on what it must be like to continually live under occupation and with human rights denied.

Jibreen and his sheep

In my final week in Palestine, the worst happened. Jibrin was arrested on my watch. The ordeal began with the arrival of a settler who with a mobile phone in one hand and a pistol in his back pocket began hurling abuse at Jibrin. Jibrin remained firm. Our visitor retreated, only to make some calls, and not long afterwards the army showed up. Three army jeeps, plus the Israeli police and the civil administration appeared to respond to an unarmed shepherd whose only crime was to defiantly and persistently watch his flock on his family land that the administration seem to have now declared a closed military zone.

Suddenly I was receiving calls from our field officer and a local activist, both of whom were advising me to leave the scene, and advising Jibrin to leave too. We were both hesitant to follow those orders, but in the end I left and Jibrin remained. As his sheep meandered back onto the road, and had to be rounded up by his wife, I looked on helplessly as Jibrin was taken into the police vehicle and detained for the rest of the day. It felt as if I had failed him.

Jibrin is someone that I think of as a resistance shepherd, because the simple act of taking his sheep out to graze is his way of nonviolently resisting the occupation and all its impacts on the existing inhabitants. Each time he goes out, he doesn’t know what troubles he will face, but he sees it as a small but important role that he plays in nonviolently resisting an unjust system. Up until his recent arrest he was determined to continue shepherding on his land until they killed him. Now his sumud (steadfast persistence) is somewhat deflated. The last time I saw him, he told me he'd rather be killed quickly in Syria than slowly in this way. Then he burst into tears.

As we bid goodbye under these traumatic circumstances, I promised to share Jibrin’s story with others. I was struck by the differences between our two life journeys, and yet how we are forever connected through this shared traumatic experience. As Jibrin’s journey will inevitably take him and his sheep along that well-trodden path between his tent and the grazing land where he never knows what kinds of challenges he will face, my journey has taken me back to the familiarity and comfort of a home not under threat. But I will never forget Jibrin, or the way that he saw the world.

This article was recently published in The Australian Friend

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On being and doing

Many years ago I read Peace Comes Walking, the biography of Donald Groom, an English Quaker peace activist who had lived in India in the 1940s and followed the example of Gandhi. As I was ensconced in my Masters degree in peace and conflict studies at the time, I was intrigued by the life of a peace worker. I had been struck by the tension between Donald’s commitment to live his life in the pursuit of a just peace, and his attempts to maintain inner peace and peace with his family.

In the years since, I have held this tension in my mind as I forge out my own work for peace and justice. Another aspect of peace activism that I drew from Donald Groom’s biography and from writings about Gandhi’s life was the balance, or sometimes tension, between “being” and “doing”. Or, to put it another way, between the inner world and action in the wider world. Much of what is written about Gandhi suggests that he took time out from his activism (the doing) to nourish his spiritual soul, and to seek divine guidance (the being). It was during a time of deep contemplation (being) that the idea of the salt march (doing) occurred to him.


Jerusalem - where spirituality abounds
I wanted to explore this idea of how to incorporate the being into the doing as I prepared for 3 months as an ecumenical accompanier in Palestine. This role was to be a very active and potentially stressful one, where I was to accompany those working nonviolently to end the occupation and monitor human rights abuses. I was aware I would need to be grounded and comfortable in myself in order to do this work effectively. Where would I seek spiritual guidance in this context? How would I find the time and space to nurture my inner world? And what effect would it have on the “doing”, if any?


After my first support group meeting, it was decided that I would explore creative ways of engaging with Spirit, as the idea of reading lots of texts didn't seem to bring me particular joy. I began with watercolour painting as my main way to nurture the “being” side. I had packed a travel sized watercolour set, and began painting the washing lines visible from the roof of our house, and loved the vibrant colours of the clothing that shone against the backdrop of mainly cream coloured houses and dusty earth. One evening I tried to capture the sunset, but the sky darkened so quickly that my painting looked more like a confused prawn as I played catch up with the changing hues of the night sky.


Rooftop washing
As winter lifted and we began to accompany shepherds much more frequently during their days of meandering and grazing, I found myself using this quiet, meditative time to centre down. Since my only obligation in this particular job was to simply ‘be there’, it seemed appropriate to take the time to practise ‘being’ in a more intentional way. Sometimes I would allow thoughts to wander about in the corners of my mind, grazing on a matter that might have been troubling me. At other times, I would, like our shepherding friends, gently direct those thoughts to move on.

One of the shepherds, Jibreen, who is a muslim, would often invite us to his tent at the end of the day for a meal or cup of tea. He liked to speak about peace. As his gentle, lilting voice would wax lyrical about his vision of the world’s faiths getting along, and about forgiveness, and his troubles, I felt so moved that on a couple of occasions I just wept. Although we didn’t share a language, it was through a mixture of gestures, translation and the inexplicable kindness in his eyes that I understood most of what he was saying. His perspective sat comfortably alongside those of Gandhi and Jesus and so many other people whose faith informed their actions and whose ministry described a peaceful future free from injustice.


Jibreen and his flock
During my last week in the job, Jibreen was arrested and detained. In the confusion of numerous phone calls from those who knew the context better than I and competing directives leading up to his arrest, I felt incredibly torn, and ultimately that I had let him down. I wondered whether a more deeply spiritual person, or alternatively a more practical person, would have handled things differently and better. And yet, I was somehow able to pick myself up from these feelings, and make attempts to right any wrongs. I made the promise to share Jibreen’s story far and wide.

More than halfway through my time in Palestine, I finally made it to Quaker meeting and met Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker who writes and speaks often about nonviolence as a way of life and the struggle for justice for Palestinians. She's been influenced by liberation theology. I’d never met her before, and yet saw her as a bit of a spiritual mentor. Over a cup of tea and biscuit after meeting, I made a thoughtless comment about the call to prayer interrupting Meeting for Worship and she gently eldered me. Jean reminded me that, in the face of Israeli attempts to deny access to worship and ban the call to prayer, Christians and Muslims in the holy land needed to band together in solidarity. For her, the call to prayer during our worship was a beautiful reminder of their common struggle.


Jean and me
I found myself part of a small group of international visitors who joined Jean for lunch after Meeting for Worship. We all wanted to know more about the challenges facing Palestinian Quakers, and how they see the occupation ending. As we discussed interfaith relations, the commitment to nonviolence that we all share, and the everyday struggle for justice, I wondered how Jean blends the being and the doing in her life? How does she seek nourishment of the soul when she faces the “doing” every day? It was clear to me that a deep connection to spirit directed her activism and ministry in the wider world.

The third spiritual mentor during my time in the holy land was a fellow accompanier called Carole. She was an Australian Christian based in Hebron, working with a different organisation. Since we’d met back in Australia, and were now so physically close, she was the person I turned to when things got tough and everyone in Australia was either asleep or busy at work. Carole had a way of blending the practical and the spiritual, and would know which kind of support was needed. Sometimes she provided a compassionate ear when I needed to vent about difficult personalities, and at other times she offered a gentle nudge to encourage me to think differently about a situation. And sometimes we’d meet in Hebron for shisha. Much needed hugs and laughter would abound.


Carole and me, surrounded by friends in Hebron
So, as I entered the final weeks of my time in the holy land, I continued with my watercolour - painting neighbours, more of the countryside, tractors, and sometimes just colours on the page. I found it difficult to be stressed when painting, as it gave me a focus other than circular thoughts. I also found it helpful to write letters and blog pieces in an attempt to collect my thoughts and prepare for the advocacy work when I returned. On days off, I would sit for hours in a cafe in Ramallah nurturing my impressions into a reasonable story for others to read.

Sooner than expected, it was time to leave. A week spent partly with friends and partly alone in Europe after leaving Palestine gave me distance from the events of the previous few months, without having to face the well-intentioned questions and company of friends and family just yet. I found myself again taking time during that week to wander and wonder - writing and watercolouring, exploring and capturing the aesthetic cityscape of Prague and the parks of busy London. I took a boat ride on the lake in Geneva, as being by water always calms me.


Prague at night
As I reflect on those three months, and my attempts to find the right balance of being and doing, I realise that even those I greatly admire are struggling with these things as well. It feels as if being and doing become so intertwined that it's difficult to work out which one influences the other. I found that spirit and meaning was to be found in the unexpected - the call to prayer during silent Quaker meeting, the unjust arrest of a resistence shepherd, and the everyday reality of washing hanging on the line, flying freely while its occupants remain occupied.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A sign

I’ve been discussing Palestine quite a bit lately. I recently gave a talk on the topic to a group of Masters students, two of whom were Israeli. The subject has also come up in conversation with friends, on dates, and during a 15 minute segment with my federal MP. I've also found myself randomly sharing my views with people I don't know on facebook. Sometimes these conversations end in me losing my cool and sometimes I manage to maintain the illusion of the gentle Quaker.

Because I’ve been engaging with people who have personal or religious links to Israel, or who have visited the holy land on a trip funded by the Israel lobby, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach the topic in a constructive way. It’s also caused me to consider what my objective is in having these conversations. Do I want to encourage people to question their bias, change their minds completely, or simply hear some of what I witnessed? Is a rant directed at a stranger really going to change their mind, no matter how factual and well considered?

A few days ago I came upon a news item about an Israeli tourist in Australia who was refused service in a piercing studio. Directed to a sign up in the shop which said “no Israelis served here”, she described feeling shocked and hurt. And I could see why she’d feel that way. I can only imagine what it would be like to be denied a service because of your nationality.

I also think it’s counterproductive to the Palestinian cause to alienate Israeli backpackers. This young woman - bless her little cotton socks - seems blissfully ignorant as to why anyone would want to boycott Israel. To make matters worse, she now has a whole bunch of supporters affirming her point of view and assuring her that not all Australians are racist. This experience has most probably further entrenched her previously-held views that anyone who questions Israel is an ignorant, anti-semitic leftie who supports terrorists.

So, what to do? I’d love to call her up and explain why her Government has a bit to answer for. I’d love to frame it in the context of MY Government also having a lot to answer for when it comes to human rights. I’d like to tell her about the courageous and well-informed Israelis who I met in Palestine. People who give up every Saturday morning to stand in solidarity with Palestinians whose homes are being destroyed and land taken. People who risk arrest and harassment because they have bothered to read and learn, and now they can’t NOT be involved.

I’d also like to tell her that the left don’t hate Israelis, or Jews. What we hate is injustice and oppression and persecution. We are the same people who were involved in the underground railraid to assist African American slaves to freedom, and who protected Jews during the holocaust, and who boycotted South Africa in a bid to end apartheid. These injustices make us really angry. Sometimes when we get angry we do silly things. We become antagonistic, and end up sabotaging the cause we feel so passionately about. 

Palestinian cat
That sign wasn’t the right or helpful thing to do. Nor are my random attacks on facebook strangers. But these mistakes are small compared to the impact that 50 years of military occupation has had on the Palestinian people. If this young woman feels discriminated against, violated, and unjustly treated, she might have gained some small insight into what life every day is like for Palestinians. I just hope this experience makes her more compassionate, and more open to joining those courageous and committed Israelis who are on the right side of history.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

At the end of the week

Last week began with a dear friend's wedding. Family and friends were gathered to share in the joy and love encircled the room. Then over the next few days I was witness to three pieces of very sad news. Finally, at the end of the week, I farewelled my brother as he plans to set off on a new life adventure.

As I responded to these events, and made attempts to support those most affected, it occurred to me that the celebration of love and the acknowledgement of loss are closely intertwined. In both these circumstances there are expressions of tenderness, resilience, vulnerability and of course, love. We who are close, are welcomed into the intimacy of our friends and family members' most emotional moments. 

And the emotions expressed at the range of occasions are interchangeable. It's not uncommon to see tears shed during wedding festivities and moments of roll on the floor laughter during times of grief.

Wedding joy

Somehow I am reminded of an old folk story. As I remember it, a man goes to a wise religious leader and speaks of his problems and sorrow. The wise man listens quietly and then says "this shall pass". The troubled man is a bit confused but goes away to consider this message. He returns some time later with a new problem and is given the same response - "This shall pass". The man returns a third time, blissfully happy, and wishing to thank the wise man for his counsel. "This too shall pass" is the consistent reply.

We never know quite when we will fall in love, or lose a loved one or experience deep joy or sadness. I guess what I take away from this week is that it is the relationships we have with the people in our lives - friends and family - that are most important. They give life its meaning and enable us to cope with adversity. I hope I can live as much in the moment as is possible, knowing that each moment, whether one of joy or grief, is precious.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The suspicious bag

Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv looks like any European airport, except for the general atmosphere of suspicion and higher-than-normal security. Even before I reach the check-in counter I am greeted by an expressionless trainee security guard who has a set list of questions to ask.

'Three months is a long time. Can you tell us what you were doing in Israel for all that time?" I peer over at my team-mates at the adjacent counters, who don’t seem to be receiving quite the same grilling. “I was part of a Church Initiative”, I say, as per security instructions, trying to look relaxed. Three different security officers then separately question me about this initiative until I feel weak and sweat covers my brow.

The truth is that I was sent by the World Council of Churches to monitor human rights and provide protective presence to people affected by the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, but I couldn’t tell that to the airport security. The feeling of being continually under suspicion for the last three months had taken its toll. I had passed through numerous Israeli-controlled checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers questioned me about what I was doing, took photographs of my passport, and viewed any interactions I had with Palestinians as deeply worrying.

Israel is clamping down on any behaviour it sees as threatening, which includes speaking up about human rights. Not long ago its Parliament passed a law banning entry to their country anybody involved in boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS). This will almost certainly mean that anybody who even dares to question Israel’s actions in the West Bank will be seen as a security threat, be denied entry and sent on the next flight home.

After questioning of my movements eased off, I was given a sticker for my passport and bags, and directed through check-in. But at security the guard took one look at the bright yellow sticker on my passport and promptly escorted me to a different line, where I was one of just a handful with white skin. The others, who had most likely been racially profiled, looked at me with bemusement. They were used to this kind of treatment. I wasn’t.

First my carry-on bag was upturned, and a number of female security officers scrutinised the contents. My electrical devices, personal journal, travel paint set, tampons, reading material, spare underwear, lip balm and other personal effects littered the bench. Meanwhile, I was dragged off to a separate room for a more intense body search using an x-ray machine.

Back at the security counter, a young woman approached, and introduced herself as a senior security officer. She asked again the questions about who I had met and where I had been. As the questioning became more intense, I developed a desperate urge to use the bathroom. Thankfully, I was escorted off to a toilet and by the time we returned, the interrogation was marginally less scary.

Suddenly, with only ten minutes remaining until my flight was due to close, it was announced that I would be allowed to join the flight, but that my carry-on bag would not. “There isn’t enough time for us to properly check it for explosives” one of them carelessly told me. “But don’t worry, we’ll give you a replacement bag, and your bag will be on the next flight to Zurich”. Hmmm. So, the more than two hours that I had been in the security area and the hour or so that my bag and its contents have been strewn across the counter in front of them somehow wasn’t enough time to conduct a simple swab test?

Without the energy to argue out loud, I grabbed the replacement luggage, a large blue sports bag, and began urgently bundling my belongings into it. It became apparent that the zippers didn’t work, and so no sooner had I placed items inside the bag then they would simply slide out the other end, a problem which only added to my stress levels. Somehow I gathered everything together, and after being given the go-ahead to depart I was escorted right up to the gate.

As I marched down the aisle of the plane, with my new, oversized duffle bag clumsily banging back and forth into almost every seat along the way, the feeling of anger began to rise. I had been made to feel as if I had done something wrong, and my bag was being punished for it. This anger remained with me for the 5 hour flight to Zurich.

The indignation that I felt gave me some inkling of what it might be like to be treated with this kind of contempt every day. Such humiliation, indignity and denial of basic rights are the daily experience of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. In order to pass through the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem Palestinians must shuffle off the bus and await humiliating examination of their ID cards and permits before re-entering or being detained, depending on the whim of the soldier on duty. Young people are regularly arrested for minor crimes such as 'throwing stones', and then denied adequate legal representation. And bedouin families face military incursions late at night for little or no reason. All this behaviour, like my treatment at the airport, seems designed to create feelings of anxiety, anger and depression in a whole population who haven't actually done anything wrong.

So, as the plane touched down at Zurich Airport, I grabbed my ridiculously impractical carry-on bag and slung it determinedly over my shoulder. As a few items spilled out and I had to bend and retrieve them, it occurred to me that perhaps this unwanted gift was actually a blessing in disguise. If anybody asked why I had such a stupid carry-on bag, I would take the opportunity to tell them about arbitrary detention, the inhumanity of checkpoints, and the culture of fear that has been created by the occupation. Nobody should have to live like this.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

I am not a robot

Lately I've had numerous opportunities to connect with the strata manager of my building at home. It's been an opportunity to, ahem, bond. First I leave a message on his phone, and nothing happens. Then I leave a second and third message, and eventually receive a short email reply. I figure Martin* is just not a "chatting on the phone" kind of person so I laboriously type up the details of my slightly complicated situation, and he replies in a very formal and factual manner. And so on continues the correspondence.

The most recent message I received was a very legalese reply from "the committee" seeking the consent of Lot 3 to proceed with plumbing works, to be paid for by strata if a common issue and by Lot 3 if not. Blah blah blah. While the actual proposal was reasonable, I found myself almost unreasonably angry at what I perceived as a stubborn refusal to relate to me as a person. I wanted to scream at top volume in the train carriage where I was sitting that "I am not just Lot 3 - I am a HUMAN BEING".

Do we take the time to smell the flowers?

This problem is not just to do with Martin. It seems to me that relating to people as human beings and making connections with one another is an increasingly lost art. Some of my neighbours also prefer to leave notes under people's doors than knock and express their grievances face to face. We are invited to prove we are not robots when filling out online forms. And surrounding me on the train is a collection of so-called humans staring at their phones or devices, seemingly oblivious to one another.

The most I tend to raise from my fellow passengers would be a politely mumbled "sorry" when a bag bumps against my arm. Occasionally I will encounter someone willing to laugh together about our close shave with the doors closing, or mutually raised eyebrows when the kids don't stand for their elders. Sometimes the guard will make a brief detour from his usual script to inform us about the weather, or make a little joke. Those attempts to appeal to our human-ness always make me smile.

Perhaps a reason I am so affected by the humanity void in these circumstances is that I've observed what happens when it is taken to the extreme. I've seen ex-soldiers break down in tears of regret and shame for the things they did to their fellow human beings in the course of a working day, because they were trained to dehumanise the other. And I've seen the vacant look that takes hold when they're 'on duty'.

Obviously, there are times when it is appropriate to retain a professional distance in order to 'cover our arses'. But at what point can we well and truly say that we have taken it too far? In the case of Martin, it would make such a difference to me if he expressed just a smidgen of personality. And a quick chat on the blower can go such a long way to ironing out simple misunderstandings.

So, as Martin continues with his busy day - drafting email replies that won't get him into legal trouble, and arranging fire safety assessments - I like to imagine that he stops to smell the flowers, or help an old lady across the road, or smile at a child. At the end of the day, surely these are the things that make us human, and the other stuff is secondary.

*not his real name

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The sleepover


We scramble over rocks on the dusty earth, carrying sleeping bags and essentials for the night ahead. Three of us from my team are arriving for a weekly 'sleepover', one form of protective presence that we provide to families in the South Hebron Hills. As Mohammed's tent emerges into view our pace quickens. Some of Mohammed's seven children are playing by a small cave. A dog barks, and we can hear chickens squawking nearby. Shardi, who is about 8 years old, races towards my team-mate, Leo, and offers him a warm hug. The other children smil and wave at us as we approach.
Mohammed's tent, with the settlement behind.
Our first task of the late afternoon is to take a walk along the ridge-tops, in full view of nearby Israeli settlements. We make sure our presence is noted. Since we are wearing our jackets, it is clear to any settlers watching with binoculars that we are here, and that we are witness to their behaviour. One of the biggest concerns facing Mohammed and his wife Ensaf is harassment from settlers and soldiers at night. One of the first incidents that our team responded to was a call from Mohammed to inform us that 8 settlers had approached his tent in the middle of the night, shouting angrily and accusing him of causing trouble. He feels safer when we are there.
Ensaf has spoken in detail with us about the fear she battles on a daily basis. When half a dozen jeeps of soldiers encircled their tent the other night she was too afraid to come out to investigate. Her husband, Mohammed, faced the music. Mohammed’s father, who lives in the next valley, had called to alert them to the intrusion. After three hours of tossing bedding around in search of “evidence” of an intruder to the nearby settlement, and angry accusations hurled at her husband, they ran out of reasons to stay. After advising her father in law not to pay evening visits to his neighbours without a large spot-light, the soldiers went back to their jeeps and made their departure in the early hours of the morning.

The evening walk
It’s difficult for Mohammed not to assume that the regular visits are part of a larger plan to force him to give up his vigil on the land his family has inhabited for generations. Many have given up the struggle and abandoned their homes in favour of a more settled life in town, freer from harassment. For those who remain, the struggle is harder each year. The last of Mohammed’s neighbours departed about 3 months ago when the husband was sent to prison and his wife and children retreated to town. Yet, those who remain have more at stake if they leave. It’s almost certain that an abandoned farm like Mohammed’s would be quickly snatched up by settlers looking to expand their estate. The Palestinian quality of ‘sumud’ (steadfast perseverance) is increasingly important now.
We settle ourselves into the lounge room end of the family tent and are immediately served tea. After being introduced to some of Mohammed’s brothers who are visiting for the evening, a discussion ensues in a mixture of broken English and very broken Arabic about how old everyone is and how many children we all have. To us, some of Mohammed’s brothers appear older than their years, and we no doubt seem horribly young, single and childless for our advanced age. Before the visitors leave, dinner is served. We enjoy freshly baked bread, hummus, and a delicious tomato and eggplant dish before settling into an evening of watching horror movies on Mohammed’s television, assisting children with their homework, and sharing photos of our families on our phones. Eventually, everyone drifts off to sleep. The light on the other side of the tent remains on, a reminder that like a dog that sleeps with one ear slightly open, it’s not possible to fully relax when living under occupation.
Fog in the morning in Sh'b Il Butum
At first light the animals and children begin to stir. The children set off for school in the brisk morning while we are being served tea and breakfast, still under the warmth of our blankets. It occurs to me that, under very different circumstances, I would consider it a privilege and joy to awake to the sound of a rooster crowing and sheep bleating on an idyllic hillside in the desert. But as we pack our sleeping bags and prepare to do a final lap of the ridge-tops, we remember that for Mohammed and Ensaf, reality is far from ideal. They have no idea what difficulties they will face today.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Pilgrim's place

It's breakfast and I glance around the dining room of the re-purposed convent where I am guest for two nights. All the tables seem to be reserved for groups, so I ask an English speaking volunteer in an apron where I sit if I'm not part of a group. "Why, the pilgrims' table, of course. We are all pilgrims, aren't we?" I settle myself into a place at the almost empty table.

Breakfast at the pilgrims' table
If a pilgrim is a traveller in search of a holy place, then I do seem to fit the description lately, both in a figurative and more literal sense. A metaphor of valleys and hills has been the theme of the past year, which began with moving to the vibrant Dulwich hill community in Sydney's inner west, and ended with (temporarily) moving to the stark, yet magnificent South Hebron hills. Throughout the year there have been some really special visits to my favourite valley in the whole wide world. In all of these hills and valleys friendships new and old have been incredibly important to me. Travel and visiting, usually in beautiful landscapes and always with cups of tea, have been a big part of the journey. Contemplation and creativity has also been key, as I have dipped my toe into collective music making, continued with my writing and pursued my "only as a hobby" water colour painting.

My emotional journey has been one of peaks and troughs as well. I reached almost rock bottom earlier in the year and cannot thank enough the small band of close friends who supported me as I clawwed my way back up to a higher place. I'm particularly grateful, in no special order, for motivational mindmaps, tough love, sing-alongs, supportive presence in the rain, cuddling under a blanket, forgiveness and apologies, road trips, folk music and a lift to the airport when said I didn't need it but actually kindof did.

View from current rooftop

This year I've also embarked on a journey called "Meeting for Learning", a Quaker process of personal reflection and discovery. The rolling green hills beyond the Don Bosco Retreat Centre were the backdrop for the commencement of the personal contemplation and "inner work" that I have sought to undertake. I would like to share some of my insights so far:

1. That strong female companions and role models are as important for the journey of the soul as swiss army knives are for hiking expeditions. Through crafternoons, mindmap-ernoons, music making, music appreciation, wine appreciation, serendipitous meetings on buses and many delightful house-guest experiences, I've learnt to trust, confide in, really listen to, stand up to, call out, cry with and laugh with the many incredible women in my life.

A few of the amazing women in my life

2. That boundary setting is not being mean. It's actually being kind - to myself and to others - because it shows self respect and gives people (who are not mind readers) a guide as to how I want to be treated. The alternative options - passive aggressive behaviour or glum silence - are not nearly as effective despite being easier to implement. This past year I have been provided with numerous opportunities to set boundaries and gently demand respect. I'm pleased to say that in most cases, including a quick final test the universe thought it would offer me right before Australian midnight, I have remained steadfast to my intended message, expressed it kindly, and the relationship with the other person has only improved as a result.


Music making in my favourite valley

3. That there is a time to be brutally honest with and a time to show unconditional support for the people we love. This past year I have been the recipient of tough love, and of consistent reassurance in the face of self-doubt. Both were appropriate to the context and significant moments in my journey. My challenge to myself going forward is to be wise enough to know when which approach is appropriate so that I can repay the favour for those I care about.

So, as the new year kicks into gear, my personal pilgrimage continues. There are no new resolutions or intentions, but rather a renewed focus on the journey I am already on. Thank you to everyone who has been with me so far.