Book Review: No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

I’ve shared everyone’s joy as revolutions roll across North Africa into the Middle East, catching breathless reports and live feeds all hours of the night and day.  I have certainly been excited for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, shaking off brutal governments buttressed by US and other Western support.  I find myself quietly rooting for the protesters in Bahrain when circling a roundabout or grit my teeth as I pull into a gas station with reports of more dead in Yemen on the radio. One thing that seems lacking in Al Jazeera’s play-by-play approach is analysis of what might be next. Now what?

I’ve had “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam” by Genevieve Abdo on my shelf for a few years and my burning questions urged me to pick it up.  Published over 10 years ago from many years of research Abdo conducted in the mid-late 90’s, it explores the grassroots Islamist movement building in Egypt for decades.  As a Westerner, I know the average perception of political Islam is, as Abdo describes, ” a bearded man with a Kalashnikov.”  In extensive interviews and field research with common people, religious leaders, political officials and intellectuals across Egypt, Abdo meets the faces of political Islam in Egypt and sets them apart from terrorist movements or proponents of what she  calls “ideological societies” such as Iran.  Though the work is a few years old, when I think of what comes after Tahrir Square I am struck by her descriptions of how Islamists have built populist support in professional syndicates, offered social services for the underemployed middle class, and tapped dissatisfaction with a corrupt Western-backed government among all walks of life in Egyptian society.

Abdo explores the roots of Islamist identity as she meets key figures in the complex relationship between the state and religion.  She visits institutions like universities, the judicial system, and the prominent Al-Azhar religious school in Cairo.  She devotes chapters to how Islamist students shrewdly built support in student unions, winning hearts with buses separated by sex to deal with overcrowding on public transportation, or in professional syndicates historically organized as fronts for the state.  I was struck to be reminded Egypt has only had three presidents since it’s independence in 1952:  a socialist pan-Arab nationalist, an ambivilant “believer President”, and a iron-fisted Western puppet.  In her telling, none of these governments have truly “reached the people” and now each in turn have lost power in disgrace or assassination.  While extremism has been a common current since the 70’s, she believes that it will never be the guiding force in Egyptian society.

Despite being banned for decades as “radicals,” the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, are Egypt’s most established opposition group.  They represent a moderate Islamism familiar to a Turk perhaps but not the average American.  Abdo’s meetings with the Brotherhood strike me as very reminiscent of Turkey’s Ak Party: pro-“Modernity”(read: capitalism), socially conservative, and with just enough Islamic ideology thrown in to raise the hackles of any secularist.  Abdo’s tone fluctuates between triumphant and/or aloof as she describes a unique political movement that preaches moderation and piety but also advocates for female genital “circumcision” and censorship.

I know that the protests in Tahrir were largely organized by young, hep activists fed up with the Mubarak regime.  Now that those activist have met their goal, however, it seems likely the Islamist movement that has been building in Egypt will offer a welcome return to order and unity as the country looks to the future.  My experience in the Middle East is that it there is a pervasive value of order and social cohesion that we here in the West cannot fully understand.  Today that order and unity is provided by a transitional military government, but I am with Abdo in predicting a more religiously driven Egyptian society.  This book has expanded my understanding of what that would look like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olympia BDS- Coop Member Forum

I just returned from the Olympia Food Coop’s member forum to discuss its recent decision to join the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.  I was at the Coop’s board meeting on July 15th when they decided to join BDS, and they knew then this forum would be necessary to air concerns.  The forum this evening was very tense at times, with many people speaking emotionally both in support and in opposition to the boycott.    The thing that was hardest for me personally was to see so many members of the community I have known all my life, whom I know to be both for and against this issue, and to speak my truth in the midst of all of them.  I was at first very unhappy with what I could muster when I finally got my 1 minute in front of the microphone, but in retrospect I appreciate the fact it was entirely real and true for me.

As a white, owning class, straight, Christian, able-bodied man, I was sure I came to this event prepared tonight.  Despite the fact I am struggling to find work right now, despite the fact I have yet to find a place to hang my hat, despite all the other self-imposed inconvieniences my lifestyle choices impose on my way of life  I thought I had myself and the room under control.  My privileged opinion of myself and the weight of my words told me I could wait to the end of a 2 hour emotionally charged forum and speak pure gold to sum up my feelings and address the loose ends of others.  I have been humbled.  When I reached the mic, much of what came to me as I stood before the Board was my sense of connection to this community, my appreciation for their courage in making a difficult decision and standing by it, and my tremendous sense of fear and personal vulnerability.

I rarely feel truly vulnerable in front of others.  Many of the difficulties in my life are directly traceable to my own ego, hurt or fear.  When I feel pain and trace it back to these sources within myself,  I  seek spiritual comfort and I feel freed of myself and forgiven for my tresspasses.  This is my privilege and I enjoy it quietly.

Eid, who’s bulldozed home I visited in the West Bank, does not have this privilege.  When he calmly looked me in the eye and asked me what Israeli settlers tell their children when they tuck them into bed at night with an M-16 on their shoulder,  I could not answer.  I could not answer his father who asked “what person wants to live on the broken scraps of their neighbors houses?”    These men are so vulnerable they are forced to ask  existential questions of themselves AND of their oppressors every day.  My experiences in Palestine tought me that it is neither useful nor possible to compare pain.  In this case, however, in a very rare instance of tables turning, I as the privileged was forced to sit with difficult questions about someone else’s decisions, and ultimately my complacency in them.  It is the decisions of my government, my culture, and the price tag of my way of life that destroyed Eid’s family’s home.  I truly believe that and it makes me incredible uncomfortable.

People at the forum tonight discussed frustration with the Co-op’s process for deciding to support this boycott, for its “divisiveness in our community.”   These words ring hollow in my ears as I remember themeasured storytelling of a Palestinian woman in Hebron speaking about the Israeli settler who entered the mosque in which she was praying, killed over 50 people in her community, and in doing so forced the hand of the complacent Israeli authorities to divide the mosque in two to make one half a synagogue.  What evil logic supports that kind of “process”, what sick “divisiveness”? How often are we forced to reconcile internal doubts or consider personal process for people that destroy our houses, kill our livestock, burn our harvest, poison our wells, steal our water and humiliate us in front of our families? How do we in Olympia look beyond our own identities and allegiances, our own hurts and fears, to truly get inside the hearts of the people who our foreign aid oppresses?  When we feel comfortable and they are far away, we cannot.

I am made vulnerable and uncomfortable by my decision to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.  I am unsure whether I will lose friends, misrepresent the voiceless in my rush to speak or lose sense of my own needs as I plunge into the fray.  But I believe this discomfort is an act of God in my life, an opportunity to have solidarity in my own community with Palestinians in their struggle for self determination and freedom on their native lands.  Palestinians have offered me a gift today, an opportunity to liberate my heart, if not entirely my mind or my body, from seeing only the pain I stand to feel in my own community today.   By supporting BDS, I have seen my privilege reflected back at me, been asked the difficult questions I might not ask if I wanted to feel comfortable.   I seek only to act justify, love mercy and walk humbly with my God.

Rest in peace

I mentioned the Freedom Flotilla in my last post, before anyone who wasn’t interested in Israel or Palestine or justice was paying much attention to it.  In my last days in Turkey, as I’m sure most people know by now, Israel attacked the Turkish ship in the flotilla and killed nine Turkish activists on board, the youngest of whom was a 19 year old high school student.  Turks, needless to say, were furious, and in a totally different way than my shrill liberal internet community.

On the bus to the beautiful town of Amasra the night before the attack, I read the proud account in a Islamist newspaper of some British guys’ conversion to Islam while aboard the flotilla.  They lingered on the details and his rather inarticulate explanation of his convincement. “Well, I thought a lot about it and it seemed like the thing I wanted to do” (as best I could translate from Turkish) An early victory!

Turks, in my general experience, are terribly fatalistic.   I’ll try to justify that sweepingly general statement in the context of this event.  People were pissed, sure.  People did not see any reason, as a confirmed pacifist such as myself deigned suggest, why the activists on board shouldn’t have tried to kick the shit out of soldiers landing on their boat at 4 in the morning because……why should they? Weren’t they going to get shot at and killed anyway?  Didn’t they realize this was probably, in some ways, the most spectacular outcome they could hope for out of their whole hopeless effort?  Ok, maybe that’s a bit of overkill, but I’m shocked that despite tremendous effort on the part of the activists, and complete tacit approval of their cause in the media, in my conversations with friends, etc. NOBODY seemed to think their efforts nor their horrible deaths would change much.  How depressing.

At some point in the last few months, mom recounted a story of one of the conversations she had had with a Turkish friend. They were talking about death, and the best ways to go.  Mom’s friend suggested that, for a Turk, the best way to go was in a blaze of glory, ideally in violent defeat.  Mom’s look as she recounted the story told me she shared my desire for a quiet, peaceful death after a sense of glorious accomplishment, concluded nonviolently years earlier.   Has this got something to do with Turkey’s cultural connections to Islam, often portrayed as bloodthirsty and harsh?  Maybe our disconnect comes from naive Western optimism that believes results come from a stoic protestant work ethic?  Perhaps it’s about a sense of personal fulfillment and differing cultural myths of sacrifice? Regardless, it is clear in the bloodthirsty, Western-sponsored and USA-protestant-approved actions of Israel on Monday that the real problem is not culture, religion, whatever.  The problem is national pride. Nation is identifying so heavily with a collectively-enforced wrong headed hammer that everything looks like a nail.  Those Turks were killed because Israel didn’t want egg on its face for it’s unjust blockade of Gaza.  Life is so cheap in the borders we build around ourselves.  My only hope is that those folks that died felt they went out in the way they wanted.  May they rest in peace, and may their work not be in vane.

Fishing

I’m in my last week in Turkey now, returned to Istanbul to pick up my brother on Friday night.  I missed the departure of the Freedom Flotilla, a massive blockade-running project bringing aid to Gaza on ships.  I am not participating in anything massive, though I went down to the Bosphorus today and watched the ships churn by. I sat on an empty bench, undesirable for its place in the blazing sun, and watched old men fish in the ships’ wake.  I’m always amazed how they can cast over and around each other and rarely get their lines tangled.  I felt awfully lazy, knowing that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do and remembering the ball of knotted line I created the last time I fished with these guys.

One man in particular staked out the little platform built over the surf.  He found a sweet spot, where the wake hit a crosscurrent and swirled up and around a rock wall, and pulled in string after string of little writhing bodies.  Their tackle is a long string of decorated hooks with a sinker that each man has a different technique for jerking and and reeling through the surf.  If I didn’t know any better I’d see it as semi-sexual, especially when they yell “You’re on fire!” after particularly good casts with a rod between their legs and a cigarette on their lips.

I spent my last days in Ankara doling out spiritual advice to everyone, trying not to sound overly qualified but also casting about for my own comfort.  I’m want my own flotilla, but I still feel caught watching folks troll the wake without so much as a fish to show for it.  It’s my chronic obsession with doing something grand and notable that’s keeping me from getting my feet wet as a first step to anything.  Perhaps I really need to be appreciating my own peace of mind, warm sunshine and new adventures ahead as a first step to everything.

The fish in question, "İstavrit" from wikipedia

The Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival

I mentioned that I was working for the festival, but I didn’t talk about what that was like.  It’s been oddly familiar in the “chaotic NGO atmosphere” sense, but oddly unfamiliar in the “getting death threats from a radical newspaper” sense.

Actually that’s not true, the RCF has been threatened plenty of times, but usually those threats are vague intellectual blatherings or clearly idiotic rants. This time I couldn’t really tell, because it was in Turkish and I certainly wasn’t going to go out and BUY a copy anyway.  I was busily doing this or that in the office last week when I overheard people talking about threats being made against the organization because of the film festival.   It seems one of the radical Islamist newspapers in town has taken offense at the pornstars-turned-serial killers content of one of the films (really). Even some of the festival organizers have admitted the film in question is a bit extreme; by their descriptions I would assume even our radical American fundamentalists would take offense.  But suddenly one can feel very exposed and vulnerable when the threats are coming from the much demonized, but often disembodied and distant seeming, “Islamists” who are openly doing their thing across town.  As a bleeding heart, prone to questioning venom spitters from WITHIN my own country first and challenging their constructions of who my enemies are, this gives me pause.  Apparently both film festivals and newspapers enjoy similar free speech protections here as they do in the US. Too bad the same can’t be said for “the only democracy in the Middle East”(my apologies if you’re not already familiar with this case)  I didn’t really want to see the movie anyway though, which is also my right in this Islamic republic.

Interview: Najwa Najjar

I’ve been working the last few weeks in Ankara for the  13th annual Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival. Flying Broom is a small women’s rights NGO that hosts a flagship festival each year juried by European film honchos.  Because of my interest in the subject, they asked me to work on gathering content for the two Palestinian films being shown this year, “Amreeka” by Cherien Dabis and “Pomegranates and Myrrh” by Najwa Najjar. “Pomegranates and Myrrh” follows the story of newlywed Kamar as her husband Zaid is taken and held in administrative detention.  While her new family’s olive orchards are occupied by Israeli settlers and threatened with unjust confiscation, Kamar learns about the land and returns to her own passion of dance to reclaim her life.  Her interest in a diaspora dance director, Kais, and her visits to Zaid in ‘prison’ underscore her personal struggle with the complexity of the occupation.  I interview the filmmaker by Skype from Ramallah yesterday.

What inspired you to make Pomegranates and Myrrh?

It’s been an idea in the making for a long time. During the second uprising in Palestine, it was a really really difficult time for us. It was very dark and it was my first real experience of being in prison. We couldn’t move, we were locked in the the house. From that place, where do you find the will and the desire to continue life, where do you get that spirit? Where do you get hope? The violence was everywhere, there was so much violence. It was a pretty black time. People were being killed all the time. Not being able to move, being locked in. And then you slowly see how, despite the curfew, despite everything, people go out. You go out even if it means staying at a checkpoint for 8 hours. You are careful of course, but I guess it’s just of way of resistance. That’s maybe where the hope comes from, that you continue your life. I would go to this dance studio, where this troupe that I love, Al Founon, practiced. They’re the dance group in Palestine that crosses the traditional with the contemporary. I’d see that they would cross the road where there was shooting from the settlements and they’d go into the studio, close the shutters, put on the music and life would start again. That was very inspirational. In that period, seeing people’s resilience and desire to continue life fed my own desire. If you give in it’s like what’s happening to you has won, but if you continue loving and dancing and singing and being happy, then you’re alive and that’s crucial.

Do you hope to inspire other Palestinian filmmakers, especially artists or women or young people, through making this film?

I think it’s inherent. I don’t have to do it, they do it by themselves. But yes, this film has been around to all the major festivals, about 60+, and I’ve gotten a lot of good response. At the Edinburgh film festival a woman came up to me, held me really close and said “Thank you, now I know that your people will survive” In Dubai a Kuwaiti actress came up to me and said “You’ve shown us how people live” So the reactions outside, whether inspiring or whatever, at least show an understanding of the situation. But like I said, inspiration is often inherent in the people, they’ve got it and it’s something that can help them continue on with life.

We’re particularly interested in your experience as a female director in Palestine. Do you receive more attention and curiosity as a woman doing what you do in Palestine or abroad?

I’ve been kind of careful because I think that sometimes this point could be used [in a negative way]. You know, I’m a woman and I’m doing this and I think that being a filmmaker under occupation is much more challenging than being a woman filmmaker. I know that only 7% of filmmakers in the world are women and by itself that is something to be commended because women have double and triple jobs as they enter filmmaking. It’s not like they can pursue filmmaking by itself. In Palestine, women have always had a pretty strong role because men are in prison or they’re killed. It’s a situation where women have always had a big role. So I didn’t find that I was particularly looked upon in a special way, but in some ways it could be easier because you can ask someone and say “do you mind doing this?” and things can get done. In outside festivals it was asked quite a bit, it was one of the first questions usually. The important thing is the conception. It is the conception of the Arab world. It is the stereotypical conception that Arab women don’t do much, that they’re just subservient, docile, have no opinion of their own, can’t run a crew, can’t deal with men. With that also comes the perception of terrorism, like for all Muslims of the Arab world. There’s also big interest in the fact that it’s a Christian woman from a Christian family. I found that really a lot of the questions that came out of international festivals where questions of people’s own stereotypes, of women in the Arab world, Christians in the Arab World. But I think these are all really important issues: being a woman filmmaker, and having a strong woman character in my movie, actually a lot of strong woman characters in my movie. It’s been an interesting kind of journey actually. But I found that these were the things that were really brought up in festivals outside.

Please tell us more about your background and family. Is your family anything like either of the ones shown in the film?

The film was based on a lot of research,and people around me. There are things that come through, things that you’ve lived, though of course it’s not a documentary. Research, what you know, your experiences, other peoples experiences and what you’re trying to say all come together in a fictional movie. But for example I was questioned about the men in the movie and I said “I can’t give you what you want to see, these stereotypical aggressive men, because for me personally, I’ve never experienced this” I had a dad who was just an amazing man, he’s kind of like her (Kamar’s) dad. My brothers and the men in my life are just not the stereotypical men that have been portrayed forever in Western media. So yes, the families are similar, the customs that take place, the weddings, the relationships, it’s all very familiar to me.

In the film, Kamar and her mother-in-law visit Zaid in prison in Israel and say that they represent the whole town because the others were not permitted to come. It is Kamar who has most of the conversations with the lawyer about Zaid’s case. While Palestinian men are singled out by Israeli authorities as political or ideological threats to the state, do women have more opportunity to directly confront the occupation or communicate across its barriers?

Well this is a very obvious case of course because it’s imprisonment, it’s dealing with the lawyer. But confrontation with the occupation is on a daily level. In one way or another, whether it’s the patrols of the roads, children, young men and women being shot, arrests on whim, it’s violence against everybody. It’s everywhere in the West Bank. You know when you’re confined to a Bantustan, we’re in a completely confined area. Whether it’s Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, wherever it is, every small town is completely closed in. The roads between them are patrolled by Israelis. If you want to go to a village near Ramallah you have to pass through what’s become an Israeli patrolled road. Or course that doesn’t mean that Ramallah is safe from any kind of incursion, or Jenin, or Nablus. So there’s a daily confrontation with the occupation. Whether it’s soldiers, whether it’s things like your electricity being cut off (note: Our interview was interrupted four times in 40 minutes by power cuts) or your water being taken, whether it’s the wall that you have to pass, whether it’s your crops being taken, I mean it’s every single day. It’s a confrontation every day with the occupation. And it can vary from different levels but it’s there all the time. In the movie it’s very direct and obvious where she has to take an active role now that her husband is not there, the town can’t come. She’s the one that’s in charge because the mother’s too old and she’s the wife and she has to take care of things. And for me that was also just a development of the story, it wasn’t just to tell what’s going on. For me it was this woman that comes from Jerusalem, this city, to Ramallah, which is more rural, and she doesn’t understand the land much and he doesn’t understand her dance much. For me it was her going back and fighting for his case and fighting for the land and working the land which made her understand him more. And him being in prison, being away from everything that he loved, that made him understand her more. So I didn’t want to just keep the story on the very political in terms of Palestine and the country but connecting it within the arc of a story. It was important for me, the relationship, and to survive these circumstances were also important to me. It’s that combination of the two.

Could you speak more about the significance the harvest as a symbol of Palestine and connection to the land? How common is land confiscation as it’s depicted in scenes in the film, where settlers move onto the land and the military supports the action with a confiscation order?

That’s exactly how it happens. Palestine generally is a rural society. It’s mostly a peasant-based society. Historically if you went through the streets there were merchants, there was commerce, but the bulk of the population were peasants. That means that they lived by the land which is their whole livelihood. Now from original Palestine we are left with 8% and the 8% is dwindling into this little cut up pieces of land that are connected by these roads that I’m telling you about. And then there are these Israeli settlements. The settlements are there for two reasons. One, they are there to take the water. And even the way that the wall is built, the wall is built around the area’s major aquifers which are mostly in the West Bank. You see the wall goes in a very funny way, it’s not right on the 1967 borders. It’s done in a way where Israelis can get at our aquifers and suck all our water and sell it back to us. The settlements are built on hilltops and it’s one, to take our water, and two, to take more land. And actually it’s that simple. And Lea Tsmeal, who is our Israeli lawyer in the film, deals with administrative detention and land confiscation cases. We were very precise, and we had Lea say it, because we wanted this to be very precise. And it’s exactly how it’s done. I mean it’s all they have to do, they can come in with a confiscation order and they can say ANYTHING for security and take the land exactly like it happened in the movie.

You’ve mentioned that you intentionally meant to downplay the “spectacle” of Kamar’s final dance performance. Dabke has been portrayed as a reclamation of Palestinian heritage and culture, though the final performance’s score wasn’t a traditional composition for example. Are you saying that even within Palestinian society reclaiming culture doesn’t have to be spectacular or explicitly traditional to be important?

The whole subtext of the dancing for me was a place of freedom of expression, a place where you can move yourself and you can create. The person who’s in charge [the older dance director] is kind of a bureaucrat, you know, he doesn’t want change, he’s very stiff. And that’s were you have Dabke shown in this very kind of militant way, stomping and following orders and things like this. The troupe:wanted to change the steps and make them fit more for today, maybe more fit for this generation. That doesn’t mean that you lose that tradition or essence, but it also means that it’s conforming to today’s way of life. It’s having the freedom, the place where you are free to do whatever you want. So for me the last dance was more about the relationship which developed within the dancing. It was where Kamar was at first part of a troupe, very rigid, very regimented, even though she wanted to make change. And when this other dancer came in, what drew her to him was his ability to create something new. That’s what she wanted to do. And then when you see her at the end and she looks… you know, happy. She’s dancing and there’s this kind of happiness about it, Zaid comes and he sees this. That last dance wasn’t that much about the dance itself, it was more about what was going on in the dance. Zaid sees and understands her, he understood what she was going through. When she leaves Kais in the final scene, this is the freedom that’s needed and the understanding that that triangle has come to a close.

It also wasn’t entirely my choice. I worked with Michal Danna and Amertha Vaz. Michal’s one of the top cinema composers in the world. He’s done Little Miss Sunshine, Kaputt, 500 Days of Summer; he’s pretty major and we were very lucky to have him. In our discussion we were looking for more of an emotional piece at the end and I think it works for what I was trying to say in the story. I know that the expectation was to have a fabulous, all out dance, and that just wasn’t the story.

Kais seems to represent a diaspora voice that is more interested in modern forms and only does the “traditional moves” because he’s asked to in the dance studio. Are we reading too much into that?

He’s a character and that character is part of what makes him who he is, living in the diaspora, never coming to the country. When he comes he shows a common feeling, that feeling of love for a country you’ve grown up so far away from and you’ve only heard about from your parents. Maybe being outside, living between Lebanon and Paris, having that exposure to something that develops more can make it really hard when you get here…. (laughs) I mean, we do live in a very closed environment. You have that right though, it’s something about the diaspora and the things that they can bring with them, it’s that as well.

We’re curious to learn a little more about the logistics of casting and filming. You clearly chose your cast very intentionally. Does the occupation force you to make certain decisions about cast based on who has access to various locations?

The auditions yes, I was extremely careful. If I wanted to bring a Tunisian actor, an Egyptian actress, no way. Syrian, no way. Getting actors from outside the country was very difficult unless they had the foreign [Western] passport. But even, for example, if I wanted a Lebanese with a foreign passport then their being Lebanese would create difficulties. It’s all kinds of things, there’s a lot of considerations that you have to take into account. I wanted a lot of Palestinian actors of course because it’s a Palestinian movie. We did maybe 100 auditions, from everywhere in the country to Jordan, Egypt, New York, Paris. I cast it fairly wide but ultimately even the Palestinians that live in Haifa, Yaffe, Jerusalem have blue ID cards and a blue ID card cannot enter Ramallah. Ramallah has a green ID card. Green ID cards can’t go to Jerusalem where we were going to do some of the location scouting. We had some people from Gaza, they have orange ID cards. They’re not allowed in Ramallah and they’re not allowed anywhere like Haifa, Yaffe, or Jerusalem. So where we were going to shoot was very critical. We had six members who came from Europe and there was a question about whether they could enter the country or not. It was just…Ah!.. a logistics nightmare. But ultimately everyone came in and we had to be very very careful. We had to tip toe and do whatever we needed to do. It totally affected everything.

Have you received feedback from Israeli audiences or been invited to screen P&M at Israeli film festivals?

We decided to do distribution a little bit differently. We opened the film in the Palestinian theaters in Haifa. So it was available. I’m sure some progressive Israelis did go to see it. I think it’s really important to support the Palestinian institutions that exist because they receive very little funding. A lot of these Israeli festivals have government spending from a government which occupies Palestine, so it’s difficult to go to them, and it’s a bit ridiculous to take our movie to Israeli festivals when people who live in the West Bank can’t go to see it, have never been to Jerusalem, can’t go to their original hometowns. So the way that I see this is that cultural cooperation is not going to end the occupation, but maybe the end of occupation will make it possible to cooperate culturally. But to go to these places that everybody can’t access, supported by a government that has occupied so many people, that just seems illogical and unacceptable.


Book Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness

 

In my last few days in Jerusalem I had one of those dangerous freetime windows on Ben Yehuda street. It’s the busiest pedestrian street in downtown West Jerusalem and idle hands quickly found diversion. Down a little side street marked with the graffiti of a Hasid changing into a punk rocker, I ducked into the used English bookstore. Feeling broke but dangerously committed now that I was inside, I asked the nice lady behind the counter if she could recommend a book by an Israeli author. She informed me that her boss threatened fire any staff who didn’t read A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz.

She said she liked it, and I loved it. Oz is one of Israel’s most respected authors and part of what made this memoir so amazing was how much of modern Israeli history Oz has experienced firsthand. Besides being born shortly before the end of the British Mandate and witnessing the creation of the State of Israel, Oz’s family were connected with many of the important historical figures that shaped the new country. (Yet the nation building he describes seems almost like a village meeting) His descriptions of his family and the strange people in his childhood are both touching and very sad. He places his present perspective in the narrative and often looks back on his idealistic and difficult childhood with profound insight into the worldwide importance of that time. The valiant Jewish victories he imagines with matchsticks and cutlery as a child are mournfully reflected in glimpses of Israel in 2000.

One of the most amazing passages is when he describes the walk he, his mother and his father took every Sabbath to the home of his famous Uncle Klausner in Talpiot. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem in Talpiot, now a quiet residential neighborhood on the way to Bethlehem that before 1948 was home to intellectuals and authors. He talks about walking to the edge of Jerusalem and looking out across the “wild frontier” beyond, where between British barracks and “Arab villas” lay Talpiot.  Just past that, the romanticized Kibbutzniks were “carving out a new nation.” He gives such amazing details of the sights and sounds of a journey that now breezes past in a 20 minute bus ride from Ben Yahuda.   When they finally reach Talpiot, it is remarkable how much is still recognizable. He even mentions that after his uncle’s death a street was named after him, the street I passed while walking to the bus. When the buses started again on Saturday evening after the Sabbath in the 1940’s, the family would take the number 7 bus back to the city center. The number 7 bus still follows that route.

While this living history may seem inconsequential compared to the ancient stories that make up Israel and Palestine, I am so moved by a person who can so eloquently share their place on that continuum.

Easter

I’ve decided I really enjoy places that show their seasons. Being from the Northwest, which does have distinct seasons but doesn’t always display them nicely, the dormant/cold to lush/warm cycle I first discovered in North Carolina has become a spiritual ritual for me. I travel so much I miss it by default but this year has been awesome.

I arrived in Italy this time from the cold in Washington, only to find an even colder and barer landscape. Everyone was hunkered down for the winter and by arriving in January I almost feel like I disturbed their hibernation. In the Villagio della Gioia, we shuffled through the mud because we had too. Arriving in Israel I could see they were just breaking free of winter, the tail ends of rain for them brought another meter of snow in Italy I missed completely.

Now I come back and it’s Gorgeous. Spring is gorgeous. Villafranca, the area around the villagio, is full of orchards now in bloom. Cherries and apples and many things I don’t recognize. One of my favorite things is to see the pruned branches blooming in the grass below the riot of blossoms above. It reminds me of the image of Christ, cut from humanity but still with us in spirit, expending all His earthly energy in Love.

I ate rabbit for an easter meal today. It’s part of a balanced Romangolo diet; they think more about doves than rabbits at this time of year. I enjoyed it, symbolism be damned.

The last month

I’ve been completely lax on updates and can’t even use the excuse of being to busy. It’s actually been rather relaxed the last week in preparation for the Ben Gurion gamut coming up here shortly.

This trip has been completely different than my last here. Last time I visited, I saw some of the most traumatic places and heard some of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever come across. I returned home shocked and shaken.

I can’t say that the reality I experienced then is somehow different or even better now, so I’m convinced that a part of the change has been in me. I’m much more solid now than I was just a little more than a year ago. I’m still not sure exactly what I’m doing with my life. I’m still not sure how I might choose to plug into this part of the world, for sure. But I’m not scared, withdrawn… on guard in the same way I have been.

I realize that on my last trip I made an incredible effort to stay open and attentive to what I was experiencing, placing all that I saw onto a heart already broken. My instinct was retreat, but I forced myself head first into a situation with no more space for the broken hearted. It tore me up and it’s taken me a while to recover.

I cannot deny the injustice that I see here. I cannot forget what I have seen and heard. But by healing my hurt and letting go of some of my own pain in the last year, I truly believe I am more able to responsibly move in this land of hurt.

 

Happy International Women’s Day

I was quizzed first thing this morning about what day it was and what that meant to me. Blank stare. Bad answer. All three of the Italians in the apartment, including the man, gave me shameful glances.

Sitting in traffic later in the day for the big rally in the square downtown, I realized just how out of the loop I am. Again. As I wondered through the throng, backpacked and blond, as covered and uncovered women waved banners and took pictures I felt a lot of gratitude for being along for the ride. Later, in our Friends gathering, a local matriarch spoke passionately about her experience of our faith and apologized profusely for questioning how we have been involved over the years.