Monday, February 8, 2010

Reflection of Return

On my last day in Jerusalem, I walked through the open air Souk in the old city. It was a Sunday, and the streets were bustling and filled with vibrant colors. Fabrics, people, smiles, music, shouting, smoke. I pushed my way through the crowd, laughing at myself and my inability to even then make my way politely. I turned the corner abruptly and entered into a cloud of smoke. A man burning frankincense was shouting into the crowd in various languages: "Welcome to Jerusalem! Welcome to Jerusalem!" The smoke cleared briefly and I caught a glimpse of him. With twinkling almond eyes and grin made wise by the lines mapping his face, he looked right at me. He looked right through me. "Welcome to Jerusalem" he said again, softly this time. "Welcome home."

I don't know what it is that draws me. I have no blood, religious, political or emotional ties to this region. This place is not my home. It is not the home of anyone I knew before I arrived. I should be, by all accounts, apathetic. And yet, for some strange reason, the suffering of the people in this region resonated so profoundly within me: the fear, the hatred, the pain. The whole land vibrates with tension and sadness and I can't help but feel it.

I will be honest. When I first arrived, I had no intention of further studying this conflict, or anything to do with the Middle East at all. I had decided a long time ago that the conflict was too multidimensional, too emotional and too protracted for me to get involved. I longed for a smaller conflict, or better yet, a post-conflict area where I could make a difference in people's lives. But after meeting such incredible people on both sides of the barrier, after listening their stories and seeing their daily lives, I cannot but help to emerge with a changed perspective.

When I tell people about what I saw (and what I'm doing now), they often reply with something along the lines of "That's great, except do you really think you can make a difference in such a huge conflict?" Yes. I. do. Skepticism is a peace activist's biggest yet most predictable nemesis.

I want to post a youtube clip that I had seen before, but never really paid such close attention to. It's a poem by Suheir Hammad, called "On the Brink Of"

For me, what is the most powerful part is at 3:58 "It is hard not to hate, right now. But I have been loved. I have loved. and I know that those who dehumanize their enemies are only doing so to themselves."

It sums it up perfectly. I try to tell my stories, I try to paint a clearer picture, but Americans need to go. They need to see it for themselves and make their own judgments. They need to deem it productive or unproductive use of our tax dollars. They need to understand why we are targeted (and it's not because terrorists hate freedom). This conflict affects all of us.

Upon returning to the US, I've been thinking a lot about privilege. What does this word mean? It's a word that's haunted me throughout my life: first I was oblivious, then I was angry, then I denied it and finally I've accepted it. But we as a nation are privileged too, unfairly so. And as I often say-- it is the responsibility of those who are privileged to engage in dialogue to stop injustice from continuing. On an international scale, we are as privileged as it gets. And we as a nations people have untapped potential to make real change in this world. I'm not talking about governments. I'm talking about you. Personally. Even something as small as reading personal accounts of the situation, learning about history from multiple sources. Taking a trip to Israel and the West Bank (and, God willing, Gaza), and telling people what you've seen. Our silence is being interpreted as denial. And I don't know about you, but I was not built to deny the obvious.

There were many incredible people I met. So many warmhearted, caring, beautiful people on both sides of the border, living in such a horrible situation filled with fear and hatred. So many people manipulated by politicians. So many people who won't talk to each other, who refuse to look beyond the wall. So many people building more walls, physical and psychological. At the same time, there is hope. There are so many people ready for a real change. There are people who want to coexist. They choose peace every day, in a place that only seems to reward violence. Hope is one of those interesting things that seems to emerge in the most unexpected of places. We need to acknowledge the hope, not just the violence.

As a powerful party to this conflict (American), it's our responsibility to stop this cycle of fear. It's time to stop being skeptical and stop relying on other people to do what we as privileged international individuals can accomplish.

It's time to start a conversation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Golan Heights

“That's it, right over there.” We were standing in the middle of a half-constructed house with no walls, looking out over the misty mountains of the golan heights. Not 800 meters away stood the syrian flag. Tauntingly close, yet separated by a barrier terrifyingly complex.

“Thats a military road for the israeli military. No one can drive on it. Then, there's about 300 or 400 meters of mine field. Behind it you can see the syrian flag. You can see the red white and black, there's two flags. And you see the UN observation tower, since 1974. The families in my village are divided since 1967. We have no possibility to visit family in Demascus. Almost every family has a father or brother on the other side, and there's no way to see them. I mean, I myself have 3 brothers and since 1967 I've never seen them again. I'm now about 50 years old. I dont know my brothers.”

The history of the Golan Heights as occupied territory is exceedingly complex, and-- not surprisingly-- disputed. For the sake of neutrality, I won't be discussing what actually happened there, since there are many strong opinions on the subject, and it's not really my goal to be giving opinions-- rather, I simply want to relay what I saw and what was told to me.

What was most interesting to me, however, was getting the chance to speak with a resident of the area who lived through the disputes and lives in this state of political limbo now. Perhaps the most shocking part was the way in which he described their state of living. Pointing out mine fields behind people's houses, the military base in the middle of the town-- his tone did not match his words. In short, he should've been much angrier. When asked about it, he replied:

“I mean, of course we understand. It's a conflict. There are conflicts all over the world. It is an occupation. It happens. We understand. But to limit the rights of the people under occupation, to prohibit them from their own land, from visiting their families, I mean, it's a violation for all the human rights issues and other conventions. Surely, if any one of the people in Golan was a risk for the israeli's, I understand why they won't let them go. But people who are old, who have spent 40 years not knowing their sons-- this is not right."

He walked to the other side of the house, where we all followed, and gestured to a point along the border.

"On the syrian day of independence, you'll find thousands of people on this side, and also thousands of people on the other side, singing and dancing and giving speeches and other thigns. And also, we have families here and there. We speak with each other using megaphones. In some cases, that is the only communication we have with our loved ones."

Once we reached the top of the hill, we entered a community center. This center, open only for residents of the Golan heights, provides the townspeople with cutting-edge healthcare facilities, a community gathering space, practice rooms with lessons and musical instruments, a community theater troupe, art studios and more.

The space glowed like a beacon of hope in my mind. Rehabilitation through arts and community building. It was beautiful, and I began to think about the importance of community in conflict, and the need for art and routine to feel human again. It won't solve anything, but perhaps that touch of normalcy brings comfort to those living in desperation.