Friends, I must apologise again for such a long silence.
Work has been busy, but also the temperatures have finally dropped (to upper 20s / low 30s celsius) so I’ve tried to spend more time away from my computer taking advantage of the nice weather. We even had our first rain of the season just over a week ago — a full morning of torrential downpours that flooded the streets and washed the layers of summer dust away.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Hebron with a Church of Scotland minister who has been here on study leave. It had been a year since I was last there, and sadly little has improved. Because of the way the city was divided in 1997 into areas which are under Palestinian Authority control (H1) and Israeli control (H2), the closure of Al-Shahuda Street (a main thoroughfare) to Palestinians, and restrictions on movement of Palestinian residents, there are families who can only access their homes through a back window or via a neighbour’s roof because they are forbidden to walk down the street leading to their front door. The souk is nearly empty. And what should have been a packed city feels more like a ghost town. It is a heartbreaking place to visit.
We then traveled down to Umm Al-Khair, a Beduin village in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank, neighboured by an Israeli settlement. Umm Al-Khair has no running water or electricity. Carmel settlement next door has both and their electric wires run over the village to connect to the settlement chicken farm on the other side. Over and over, Umm Al-Khair’s buildings and homes — including their taboun oven, animal pens, and EU-funded structures — have been demolished because they failed to receive planning permission from the Israeli Civil Administration (even though these are lands in the West Bank, Israel controls security and land-management).
It was a harrowing day of disturbing sights and stories of remarkable resilience.
And as night fell, we made our way back to Bethlehem, and then onwards, through the checkpoint at Rachel’s Tomb, and up along ever-widening highways towards Jaffa, where I was to lead two school assemblies at Tabeetha school the next day. We arrived late to lively bars and packed restaurants, as laughter and conversations in English, Hebrew and Arabic drifted into the street. Tea and toast with marmalade awaited us when we finally made it to our hosts’ flat.
We’d barely driven an hour, and yet we were in a different world. As I lay in bed that night thinking about the pain we humans are capable of inflicting upon one another, my heart was heavy with all that we’d witnessed throughout the day.
Also, over the past weeks, I’ve begun hiking parts of the Israel National Trail with a friend. It winds 1100km across the land from Dan Kibbutz near the Lebanese border in the north down to Eilat on the Red Sea in the south.
On Saturday we did a relatively easy 16km in the central part of the country, ending up in Jisr az-Zarka, the only remaining Arab town on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. As we reached the beach, the smell of barbecue tempted us along to a series of ramshackle shelters that reminded me of some of the seafood shacks along America’s eastern shore. There was no menu, only freshly grilled fish and salad, with a view to die for, and a sandy beach — almost empty but for a few boys fishing — perfect for resting and cloud watching.
And after that day, I found myself driving home with tired legs and a full heart thinking: ‘I love living here’.
And I do. I love the weather. I love the people. I love the diversity of the landscape and the cultures. I love the stories. I love the fact that a 16km walk can take you past a 1st century CE bathhouse, a graveyard dating to 2000 BCE, and an ancient Roman aqueduct. It is a truly spectacular place to live.
But, you know? There are times when life here feels overwhelming. I realised as I was driving the other day that I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read since I moved here nearly two years ago. The thing is, just by doing my job, just by living, I learn something new every day, am surrounded by two foreign languages, dozens of different cultures, and a low-level political tension which means I live in a near-continual state of over-stimulation. Reading no longer focuses my mind or calms me down; it just adds to the swirling thoughts and emotions.
That is life in this land.
So much cause for lament, so great a need for justice and peace and mercy and truth. Yet so much reason for praise, for celebration of resilience and courage and vision and beauty.
It strikes me that much of our dialogue about this part of the world forces us to choose one or the other, lament or praise (or worse, anger or triumphalism).
It would be easy, living where I do, to escape into relative comfort or use it as cause for complacency. But equally, given the nature of my work, it would be easy to lose myself in the darkness of fear and injustice and become blind to the abundant beauty — in both nature and the people I encounter — which surrounds me.
The continual challenge, with the help of God, is to tread the middle way:
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12.15-18)