Tuesday, November 1, 2011

an oasis of peace

If love manifests itself in you,
it has its orgins in beauty.
You are nothing but a mirror
in which beauty is reflected.

When we left Jerusalem we headed straight to Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. The name means "Oasis of Peace." It is a fascinating and hopeful experiment: an intentional community, a village, of Jews and Palestinian Arabs (all Israeli citizens) living together. Its orgins actually lie in an interfaith group that met in Jerusalem in the early 1970s led by a Hungarian-Italian Franciscan friar named Bruno Hussar. His interfaith gatherings drew more and more people, many of them who were more interested in talking about the political situation than about religious issues. As our host, Daoud, explained to us, one day somebody said, "Well then, why don't we live together?" And so they did. Bruno got the French Trappist monks of Letroun Abbey, who were very well off (according to Daoud), to donate 100 acres of their land, which is conveniently locatred between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Two familes moved onto the property right away, living in campers trailers in the beginning. By 2010, some 60 families had come to live in the village, with an equal number of Jews and Arabs. Daoud told us that they always maintain the equal balance; the Arabs are divied between Christians and Muslims but there is not quota for those two groups. Eventually the village plans to have 140 homes. There are over 100 families signed up wanting to be a part of it, which is a sign of even more hope, that so many Israelites would be interested. Daoud explained to us the rigorous application and acceptance process that includes psychological tests and handwriting analysis(!). As their literature says:
The members of WAS-NS are demonstrating the possiblity of coexistence between Jews and Palesitianians by developing a community based on mutual acceptance, repsect and cooperation. Democratically governed and owned by its members, the community is not affiitiaed with any political party or movement. WAS-NS gives practical expression to its vision through various branches.

Daoud also told us that everything in the community is geared toward education. There is a school, and many more families even outside the village want their children to be a part of that, more than the school can accomodate. The school has a fascinating format. It is totally bi-national and bi-lingual. Jewish and Palestinian teachers each speak exclusively in their own langauges to all of the children. So from an early age "the children begin to develop an awareness of their identity, culture and traditions." In this they also aim "to create an atmosphere of openness and tolerance that encourages children to understand, accept and appreciate each other." There is also The School for Peace there that sponsors international conferences, often focusing on formation of youth and women's issues. And then there is the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre in memory of fra Bruno, and with it an interesting globe of a building called the Doumia-Sakinah, this latter being specifically Bruno's brainchild. The Doumi has no religious markings at all, just an open lightsome space with carpets on the ground. Several people in our group asked about shared spiritual practice. There doesn't seem to be any in the community itself; folks go to nearby towns or all the way into Jerusalem for the mosque or synagogue, but this space can be utilized for anything.

Unfortunately we had little time there at Neve Shalom. We had arrived just before dinner on Sunday night, and only had our meeting and a tour with Daoud the next morning before leaving again. So we only got a little taste, but we were all in agreement that if there were another trip we'd like to begin and end there.

As we left Neve Shalom, a few of the folks asked if we could stop at Letroun monastery to shop in their wine store. It was a convenient stop right off the road, so we did. I didn't need to shop and I've seen plenty of monks and monasteries, so I wandered down to an outdoor plaza where there was a good sized group of students hanging out. I was mainly attracted to the sound of a drum and some singing. Some of the kids looked up as I approached, maybe a little warily, but I waved and smiled. They weren't really singing anything particular, just kind of goofing around. I went back up to where our driver Mahmoud was and asked him to ask them if they would sing something for me. He yelled down to one of the girls something like, "Tell them to sing something in Arabic for this American guy, he's a musician..." and the girls led me back over to the group and explained to them. Some of the kids greeted me and some asked my name and where I was from in English, and then they launched into song with the guys passing the dumbek around one to another. What an experience to be standing in the middle of these kids, the unabashed joy and abandon as they were singing and waving their arms and clapping. It was like being in the middle of an Arabic music video. They were very forward and friendly. At one point a tall guy grabbed my hips and started moving them to encourage me to loosen up and dance, I guess, and then a girl grabbed me by the hands amd pulled me into the middle of the circle and made me dance with her. At one point one of the girls said, "Now you sing!" I was trying to think what I would possibly do to match that energy, and I wasn't sure if they were Muslim or Christian at that point, though eventually one of the girls said, "Now we sing something in English," and launched into a Praise and Worship song that seemed pretty anemic by comparison to what they had been doing.(We later ascertained that they were Palestinian Baptists from Nazareth.) Anyway, they got distracted by their own exuberance at one point and I never had to do anything.

Our exact schedule was a bit up in the air due to some communication problems, but we pulled into Bethlehem, moved into our hotel (The Shepherd's House) and then piled right back into the bus so that Mahmoud could take us to someplace to eat. It was after 2 by that time and we were getting a little crabby, but still polite. Mahmoud loaded us into the top floor of a restaurant, which at first seemed a little overhwhelmed by the onslaught but stepped up to the plate and spread quite a banquet for us. We relaxed over the meal and then started drifting out of the resturant. I was among the last to leave because I didn't want to wander around the streets carrying the guitar, and the waiters were already cleaning up. When one of them saw the guitar case in the corner, he said, "Who's is this?" And he was very anxious to see it, so I pulled it out. He had his and his friend's picture taken posing with it, and then Lori and I sang "The Drink Sent Down" for them. Another wonderful moment.

But the best was last. We visited the Catholic Relief Services youth center in Bethlehem, called Youth Voices for Community Action. The woman with whom Ziggy had had contact, Hanna, was not there when we first showed up, and it was quite impressive that the kids stepped up and took right over. There was one young man a little older who was in charge, Basir, I believe his name was, and was shuffling kids around to do what had to be done. There were several young folks standing at the entrance to the second story room to greet us in English and tell us their names, and as soon as they got us seated, they read to us some introductory remarks from their brochure about CRS, and then announced that they had a program for us and then we would sing for them. Lori and I were prepared for this, but what we weren't prepared for was what they had to offer us. Someone pressed "play" on a huge boombox, some very loud Arabic music started playing and the kids launched into a folk dance, totally choreographed, that must have lasted over 10 minutes. And they were wonderful, just jubilant and beautiful. And there were more boys than girls dancing! Part of it seemed to be a kind of courtship dance, some parts just guys, some just girls. It was wonderful. Then Lori and I got out two chairs and sat in the middle of the semi-circle. We first sang "The Ground We Share" for them, which I thought would change the pace a little. They liked it a lot. But then we did "Bismillah" and as soon as Lori opened her mouth, they were in love, and they clapped and sang along and smiled. It was surely the best performance of that song we have ever had. When it finished, one of the young guys asked me, "Why did you decide to use these words 'Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim'?" so I got to tell the story of Francis and the Sultan again.

By this time Hanna had arrived. She gave us another little talk about CRS and her work, and then asked one of the young men to come up and talk about the specific work of this particular center. He spoke about cultural things, treatment of women, promoting Palestinian folk culture and non-violent approaches to addressing conflict, and one other thing he kept mentioing over and over again--trying to get young kids not to use bad language, as I understood, because of its connection to violence. We had a little bit of time for questions and answers both ways. One in particular stuck out. Ziggy asked them why they were so commited to their education, and one of the young women answered straight-away, "For the future and developement of our country." I have come to find out that Palestine has a very high rate of educational level, and also make a high percentage per capita of the PhDs in the US. The problem here in Palestine is the "brain drain," educated people leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. If these kids stick around, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Then they asked us for another song. I got them in a circle and taught them "Pray Peace." It was a blast. And then they danced for us again. This dance was even more exuberant, if possible. These kinds of musical encounters--in parks, in restaurants, in upper rooms of youth centers--are as good as, maybe even better than, performing on stages in front of large audiences, the interaction person to person, the cultural exchange. It was even more deprerssing to hear then on the news last night that after Palestine was officially accepted into UNESCO, the United Nations cultural arm, the US backed up Israel in cutting off funding. That news was so real to me that I took it personally. All I could see were those kids' exuberant faces and wonder what was going to be accomplished by them getting punished.