Food will be a theme of this blog post! Zoughbi and I breakfast on fried eggs, labneh – a close relative of thick yoghurt or very gentle cream cheese – dried fruits, citrus fruits, and the flat breads called pitta (but they are more like dry cooked version of plain naan than the pitta breads we have back home). We have tea with sugar and lemon, and then I walk up to manger square to attend the 7:30 Catholic mass at the Church of the Nativity.
It’s a little daunting to join: there are about 30 worshippers gathered in the underground cave on squeaky collapsible wooden chairs, and the one I pick seems to be literally on its last legs. So each time we sit, I have to do it very carefully. The service is in Latin, and most people there are nuns or monks. But there is a youngish guy behind me in normal clothes, who helps me with page numbers. I realise fairly quickly that it’s better not to try to join in with the words, it’s much nicer to fall into a meditative state and half mouth, half hum along and watch the flickering of the lamps, forming my own prayers mentally.
The mass lasts a lot longer than I’d anticipated, so as I leave the church ducking under the ‘door of humility’ I don’t expect to find Zoughbi waiting for me: we’d arranged to wait for each other for 10 minutes either side of 8am to catch a ride to the office with a friend of his. But someone I don’t know – a Palestinian man with a flat black cap who looks like his job is a guide – shouts over, ‘Sophie?’ and so I go over and he explains that Zoughbi asked him to look out for me to give his apologies for not waiting. And so immediately there is rapport and he wants me to share his breakfast of sesame bread and falafel, so I eat breakfast number two, bantering with the guides, promising to get in touch with them if I need a guide in future. Then I set off to the Wiam office on foot. It’s about half an hour’s walk, and I stop on the way at a small sweet shop to buy some treats for Osama’s kids. The shop assistants are two scarf-clad women, mother and daughter, who have very basic English, but they are super-interested in me and where I am staying. The daughter asks to be my Facebook friend.
At the office I learn they had worried about me and even sent a search-party out in a car! I am introduced to Grace, an American Methodist student who has a two-year placement at Wiam. We both read Martin Luther King’s speeches that morning in preparation for an 11am team meeting to discuss his approaches to non-violent protest and what was achieved. Many people come and go at Wiam, some stay for tea or bitter coffee, chatting jovially in Arabic. Zoughbi leaves to sort out a neighbour dispute case (something to do with a leak dripping into a flat that turned violent). There is also a traffic accident that he helps mediate in some way. So the meeting gets put back to 1pm, which is to be expected. It’s the Arab style, very relaxed, nothing happens quickly, relationships are key. It’s incredible how much is organised and achieved via someone who knows someone. Wherever we go, Zoughbi greets every fourth person like an old friend!
For lunch, Grace and I are driven to the best falafel bar in town and I bring one back for Zoughbi. The falafel is shallow fried there and then, and put into a soft pitta bread with salad, hummus and hot sauces added as you wish. It tastes fantastic.
When the meeting finally happens at 2pm Grace shares her knowledge about Martin Luther King day (Monday), and the contrasts between King’s approach to combating segregation that is steadfastly non-violent (even in the face of having his house fire-bombed), and that of Malcolm X.
During our discussions I am struck by the similarity of the Palestinian situation with that of the indigenous Indian communities in Canada. Seeing their housing situation, and the money poured into trying to lift these communities, Grace tells us that someone asked her, “Why don’t they just get over it and stop acting like the victims all the time?”, but the trauma they experienced is still happening. Despite laws to prevent segregation, it happens anyway, the kids get bullied, the people don’t get highly-paid jobs, the structure of their society is destroyed and there is an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness, and without productive outlets for activity the people turn to alcohol etc. And the cycle goes on. In Palestine, replace the alcohol with extremism and there you have it. I am constantly hearing about this family or that family who used to live in a palatial house, and it was destroyed then or there, or land confiscated, or they left because of the violence, or in the Zoughbi’s case: it was shared out between 8 brothers, and Zoughbi has given away some of his land to the refugees.
I am also struck by a saying that Grace shares: that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America. How true. Zoughbi emphasises that it is the system that is evil, not the race. Many whites fought for justice and were such an important part of the 1960s civil rights movement. Yet many churches supported, or were complicit by their silence, the backlash against the Civil Rights movement.
Osama voices his feeling that the churches are culpable in promoting the building of settlements in Palestine by supporting – through funding and assent – the movements of Jews to Palestine. I think back to when I was a teenager: we once had a collection at church for ‘passports for Jews’ that paid for Jewish Russians to emigrate to Israel, which I supported (more on this later). And then Zoughbi points out that the Arabs were colonialists in Europe for many years and are culpable for that. Another Wiam worker asks, ‘are non-violent means as useful now as then?’ and there is no confidence among them that it is. But here there is an exhaustion with violence, and a realisation that violence is useless. Zoughbi hopes that if nothing else, the exhaustion might lead the Middle East to peace.
So I leave the meeting with a heavy heart, wanting to make amends for my part in this mess, but perhaps my presence here to listen to the stories is somehow helping.
Happily there is no gunfire this afternoon. At 4pm a large pilgrimage group arrive to hear ‘the Palestinian perspective’ from Zoughbi, which I join. He talks about the clash of narratives in the land: there is no single narrative about Israel/Palestine. There are various religious perspectives, political, historical, a security narrative…it goes on and on. Amongst the historical narratives much is made of priority: who came first? But we must work towards an inclusive narrative, and most importantly, listen, he tells us.
The West Bank statistics aren’t good: one third of the population has been in jail at some point, there is restricted movement, Palestinians in area C (controlled by Israeli army) cannot get a licence to build anything. “For us, it is not a benign occupation, it is evil and demoralises Jews all over the world. If you want to save the soul of Israel, help it to get rid of the occupied territories.” Equally, he doesn’t want to create any more victims. At the same time it is not right to absolve the world’s guilt for the holocaust at the expense of the Palestinians. “We want a deal that enables co-existence and good relationships.”
I am interested to hear that Jerusalem is such a sticking point, it is a key area for negotiation because all religions need access to its Holy sites, but Israel it trying to cut it off from Palestine through the Wall and continuous settlement building. The group ask questions about leadership in Palestine, so it is interesting to hear Zoughbi on this: he has confidence in the elected PLO representative for Bethlehem to negotiate a deal. “We need to stop saying, ‘there is no leadership’ and negotiate in good faith” he says. At the moment, he thinks the bulk of the people still believe in the leadership. And there is faith that Netanyahu is a good man to negotiate a deal. But there is a growing minority in Palestine who feel that they have so little left now, that they want a one-state solution. Whether it is called Israel, or Israel/Palestine, or the Holy Lands, it doesn’t matter to Zoughbi. However, he doesn’t believe the Israelis will accept that. “But there is something cooking,”he says. He hopes a win-win deal will be struck soon from the negotiations happening now. Central to his message is that he doesn’t want people to be ‘pro-Palestinian’ or ‘pro-Israel’, he wants ‘pro-justice’ – for all.
To get home we catch a lift with Adnan and stop off at various shops to buy ingredients for lasagna: I have promised to cook for the Zoughbi’s tonight. This, like most things, is a group affair and we all hang about chatting in each shop. I enjoy choosing lovely plump aubergines and an enormous lettuce half the length of my arm while Zoughbi negotiates the mincing and price of the meat. Cooking the lasagna takes a while because I don’t know where anything in the kitchen is located, we can’t open Marcelle’s jar of preserved tomatoes, and the oven doesn’t work. So I make repeated trips down to her aunt’s house at the base of the compound for help with opening the jar and the cooking of it. We end up opting to use her Palestinian oven, which is a metal box with shelves attached to a large gas canister.
Eventually it is all sorted out, and the aunt and uncle and 2-year-old grandson join us all, with Grace, in the Zoughbi’s kitchen. We have freshly juiced lemons to drink, courtesy of the Aunt, and everyone says they enjoy the food, it’s not the best lasagna I’ve ever made but it’s not half bad. We have a lovely evening that involves a lot of teasing for the little toddler who braves the “Do you love me?” questions (I think the Arabic is ‘Habibe?’, it’s a greeting you can say to people of the same sex) until he gets too tired. It’s my last evening in Bethlehem.