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.