This post was inspired by a particular exchange with a friend online, but is intended for every one of my friends who is tempted to respond to the violence in Paris by blocking all Syrian refugees from coming to the US, screening immigrants by religion, or painting all Muslims with the same brush.
We recently had a spirited exchange online about Syrian refugees and Islam. It started with me seeing a few anti-Muslim posts you shared. Then I shared this video with you and the conversation really got started:
I suspect the following exchange mirrors many that have taken place over the last few days.
You brought up some quotes from the Quran that incite violence. I pointed out that the Bible has similar verses, and a mutual friend of ours chimed in with some of these Bible quotes. We went back and forth. You questioned whether the refugees fleeing violence in Syria are really in need, using photo memes of what are apparently healthy-looking male refugees. Do these memes accurately represent the situation? Do a Google image search for “Syrian refugees” and you’ll find your answer. Include the words “boat”, “drown”, or “boy” and you’ll really have your heart broken.
You’ve only known me for a few years, so you don’t know much about the time I spent in the Muslim world in 2009 and 2011.
In 2009 I traveled to northwest India on a study abroad program with Principia College. We each designed our own ethnographic research project, and I chose to study Hindu-Muslim relations. India, the world’s largest democracy, is a Hindu-majority country, but also houses the world’s second largest Muslim population, approximately tying Pakistan and trailing only Indonesia. I got to interview many different people as I assembled a representative sample of Indians young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, Brahmin and lower class, female and male, Hindu and Muslim. Two people stood out.
Siraj was a thirty-year-old family man who hosted me and another American student for a short homestay. He was a Muslim living in Udaipur, a predominantly Hindu city. He was tremendously kind, warm, and talkative. We sat on his rooftop at night and he would philosophize in English about Gandhi, peace, love, his dreams for his children, and his hopes for India.
Kamil was a Muslim that a group of us met in the middle of the bustle of the Delhi train station. He was an impressive, inspiring, spiritual man who deeply affected all of us after just a short conversation. And he had no legs. Our encounter with him inspired the most thoughtful of my blog posts from that trip: Dignity On Two Arms.
In 2011 I got my second experience in Muslim society. I spent three months in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan, and traveled through a range of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. I was fed by Muslim cave-dwellers in the deserts of the West Bank, housed by Israeli Jews in several kibbutz (intentional communities), and educated in non-violent activism by Palestinian Christian leaders.
Together these experiences make it impossible for me to judge and condemn an entire religion of over 1 billion people because of the violence of a few.
Though I think some of what you’re sharing is misinformation and/or hateful propaganda, I don’t blame you for sharing it. I just wanted to explain the life experience I’m coming from. I also think I understand, at least in part, where you’re coming from.
I know when you come home at the end of a long day, you’re physically exhausted and emotionally drained, you’ve been dealing with other people’s problems, and you don’t have time to become an expert in both foreign policy and religion. The world is a vast, overwhelming place (for me, too), and your life is stressful enough as it is. For the few minutes you spend on the internet in the evening, you just want to enjoy a video of a puppy cuddling with a lion cub, a nice landscape scenery shot taken by an old high school buddy, and maybe a post with a minion in it. You want to laugh and be inspired. You want a diversion from the craziness of daily life. We probably all feel this way sometimes.
However, I also know that you’re a person, like me, with a full range of emotions, and sometimes the emotional outlet you need is not just a cat video but a channel for your more aggressive feelings. Sometimes you’re angry and BuzzFeed just isn’t enough to brighten your day. This is where the Islamophobic messages come in. They satisfy that little part of you that wants to feel outrage. It seems that most of us experience moments when it’s comforting to find an evil in the world and indulge in pure, uncomplicated anger. There are plenty of people, acts, and even countries worthy of outrage, after all. But in these meme-ified moments, complexity and compassion go by the wayside, and that’s where we go wrong.
The way I see it, when you indulge in a simplistic message of hate, you’re being taken advantage of. Maybe by someone with a political agenda. Maybe by someone else who needs an emotional outlet. Maybe by someone trying to generate clicks and impressions for their “news” blog. They’re playing on your fatigue and your emotion and encouraging you to react in a simple, thoughtless way.
The need to express emotion
+ information overload
= inadvertent bigotry.
Don’t be taken advantage of. You can’t be blamed for the hateful messages, cherry-picked facts, circumstantial evidence, and photo-memes that fire up so many passionate Facebookers. You can’t really be blamed for believing it, either. It’s a problem much bigger than you and me. But you are at fault if you close your eyes and ears and resist reason and new information. Or if you refuse to let compassion into your outlook.
In March of this year, when Congressman Peter King (R-NY) held hearings about the professed increasing “radicalization of Muslim-Americans”, I was living in the West Bank. I first heard about the hearings through Al Jazeera’s English TV program. An Al Jazeera correspondent interviewed a woman who said that she is afraid of radical Islam, and that King’s exposure of the problem would be better than silence on the issue. Al Jazeera also cited Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected to the House of Representatives, who said that the hearings would increase fear instead of allaying it.
Rep. King’s hearings sparked a lot of controversy around the world. Al Jazeera host Riz Khan pointed out that countless Americans have made public statements about Islam and Muslims that would have gotten them fired if their subject had belonged to any other minority.
Why is this the case? Why do public figures and private individuals alike get away with using a less respectful tone when discussing the Muslim community? Most American newspeople and politicians do not hold any animosity toward Muslim Americans. However, they do sometimes make the mistake of telling stories about Islamist extremism in a manner that perpetuates fear within the US. This fabricated fear – distinct from the real sense of pain created by tragedies like 9/11 – combines with our inadequate understanding of Muslim societies around the world to create an atmosphere of distrust and misperception.
Ignorance is part of our problem. Al Jazeera reported that 45% of Americans believe they are well-informed about Islam. Muslims will only be fully enfranchised in American society when the public has embraced them and been educated about the cultures from which they come. Ignorance is a shared, societal problem, and tolerance will be a shared achievement. Still, ignorance is not the entire problem. One cannot in good faith claim that Americans collectively are ignorant. Furthermore, it would be unfair – perhaps offensive – to suggest that ignorance must by nature lead to prejudice. Such a claim certainly allows for little faith in the good nature of people. Therefore, to move beyond simple ignorance and fully understand the cause of Islamophobia in America, we must reckon with the fear people feel toward Muslims and the Islamic world. Where does this fear come from?
In some cases, ignorance itself can breed fear. Indeed, we see examples of this all over the world – places where misconceptions of the “Other” lead to tension and conflict. But the Islamophobia problem in the US – this open, pluralist, well-educated melting pot – has other causes.
Some people’s fear comes directly from September 11th, 2001. Those hurt by 9/11 – including the families and friends of victims, other New Yorkers, Pentagon employees, and Americans who watched the tragedy unfold on TV – cope with a tangible, rational fear that comes from a deep sense of pain and loss. Some of them may still feel this pain and this fear every day, even a decade after the largest ever attack on US soil. If some of these people have come to fear Muslims or Islam itself, one cannot, with any compassion, suggest that they need to “stop being so ignorant”. However, our problem with Islamophobia goes beyond those still reeling from 9/11. In fact, fear of Islam is a problem in the US because it occurs in people who have no rational reason to harbor that indiscriminate fear of one of the world’s largest religions.
Much of the fear felt in the US arose from the way that the Bush administration responded to the terror attack. Two elements of that response specifically had this effect.
First, recall when President Bush famously declared on national TV, “if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists”. This was an attempt to show strength and to build consensus before the upcoming war, and it was an utterly incorrect and distorted assertion. For someone to oppose the war in Iraq or Afghanistan does not make that person an Al Queda sympathizer.
Bush’s statement created a new “us versus them” global conflict that filled a void left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It provided a symbolic enemy, it engendered Islamophobia, and it led to Abu Ghraib and questionable detainments at Guantanamo Bay.
Second, the framing of the War on Terror probably contributed to fear in the US, and it certainly did not help us understand our foreign targets or the places where we were sending our young service members. The use of the term “war” implied that there were forces amassed, ready to attack if we did not repel their advance. There is and was no such army. The terrorist threat remains a covert, complicated array of extreme groups and individuals, and it must be countered by an equally covert and sophisticated cooperation between our intelligence community and special military forces. The use of this terminology fell conveniently within the mold of previous initiatives like the War on Poverty and the War on Crime, but where those “wars” were strategic in nature, arguably designed to counteract the causes of poverty and crime, the War on Terror tragically failed to target the actual causes of terrorism.
In its response to 9/11, the US squandered a unique moment in history when our people had the sympathies of almost the entire world. Muslims around the globe demonstrated and spoke out against Al Queda and the terrorist attack. Instead of embracing this sympathy, we launched a divisive campaign that earned us more enemies and further widened the divide between Islam and the West.
The US government has moved past the Bush era by eliminating the term “War on Terror” from its vernacular. It should continue that progress by using deliberate, focused approaches to national security threats. Meanwhile, the American people should move past the era of misunderstanding into an era of enlightened pluralism.
While traveling in India in 2009, I met a turban-clad Sikh man who quit his job as a taxi driver in New York City after 9/11 because people would mistake him for a Muslim and verbally harass him. One can understand how those angry New Yorkers, trying to cope with the pain, fear and anger that make them human, misplaced their anger. But at the same time we cannot be happy about driving a ten-year legal resident of the United States to leave the country simply because we did not understand him. We also cannot be satisfied with our inability to comprehend the sources of our own fear.
There are signs that fear of Islam is ebbing in the US. After the death of Osama bin Laden, the Monitor’s Peter Grier wrote that “Americans may realize not that they have less to fear, but that their fear of what he represented had begun to subside long ago”. A report last month by the Pew Research Center showed that Muslims in the US are happy with the country, reject extremism (both of which have been true for years), and have not become alienated since the King hearings. David Rothkopt, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote the following in a Foreign Policy blog after bin Laden’s death:
“for this success to be truly worthy of celebration, we must bury with him the confusion and disorienting anger that has distorted our world view for a decade. We must recast the real terrorist threat in proper size — eliminate it wherever we can — and remember that what’s greatest about America can’t be brought down by bombs or hijacked aircraft or by an amoral hate-monger furtively holed up in a walled compound in North Central Pakistan.”
As we reflect on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, let us embrace with compassion the pain that emanates from our past and also work to close the gaps in our understanding of the world and country we live in.
In the words of Sami Awad, an American-born Palestinian peace activist, “The biggest opportunity now, after the death of Bin Laden, is for Americans to consciously and collectively free themselves fully from the domain of fear and those who manipulate it for their own agendas…You are not free until you eliminate all your fear.”
As our 12 American friends boarded a flight from Amman back to Boston, Ezra and I turned toward the West Bank, ready to implement the planned final stage of our journey. We had spent the last 11 weeks on a whirlwind travel study tour that brought us through Israel, Palestine, and Jordan studying peace and sustainability at the community level. Now, with about two weeks at our disposal, a long list of contacts and ambitious goals, we returned to Bethlehem, prepared to give back to the communities that had taught us about their homeland.
* * *
Ten weeks earlier – fresh off the plane, eyes still wide with wonder – I had met a man named Yair Teller. Yair is a thirty-year-old Israeli born to American parents. He wears long dreadlocks and enjoys attending rainbow gatherings in the States. I met Yair at Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an outstanding school that brings together students from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, the US, and around the world. Yair graduated from Arava a few years ago and now works for the school developing small-scale biodigester technology especially for use by the Bedouin and other poor rural communities of Israel and Palestine. The systems he builds turn manure and water into methane gas for cooking and into nutrient-rich fertilizer. These biodigesters can include a system to filter grey water, so that families with low water resources can recycle the water they use for cleaning and cooking. They can be made from materials readily available in any major town. I got to help Yair build one of these systems for a family of sheep and goat herders in the southern West Bank village of Susya.
A few weeks after meeting Yair, I got a second chance to work with this biogas technology. A friend of a friend set me up with TH Culhane, a biogas expert who was making a brief trip through the West Bank. TH describes himself as an Iraqi-Lebanese-French-German-American. He is a science educator and entertainer who has worked for National Geographic and now runs a project called Solar Cities from his home in Germany. I helped him build a biogas digester for a school in Bethlehem.
With two biogas projects under my belt, I began to look for a way to share this knowledge with my American friends. The opportunity presented itself when our experiential education program brought us very close to Susya. We visited a family of cave-dwellers in a village called Ghwein. They cooked us a delicious traditional meal and served us ceramic cup after ceramic cup of freshly ground Arabic coffee. When we left Ghwein, I arranged with our tour guides to stop in Susya to see the biodigester I had helped build. We made a surprise visit to the family and I explained the system to my friends. When they saw the installation in Susya, it occurred to our Palestinian guides that the biodigester would do a lot of good for the Ghwein family we had just visited. In that moment a plan was born. Ezra and I took note, and weeks later when we returned to Palestine on our own, the plan came to life.
* * *
Bringing biogas to Ghwein started with fund raising. We sent a Facebook message to our group telling them we were going forward with the project and asking for their financial support. Within three days six people had pledged a total of $600, exactly what we needed to buy materials. We called Yair to ask if he could donate a day of his time to lead the project. He agreed without hesitation and sent us a list of materials. We then called Nayef Hashlamoun, one of our tour guides from the first trip to Ghwein. Nayef is president of the Alwatan Center, a non-profit in the major Palestinian town of Hebron that works on peace-building, conflict resolution, and community development in the southern West Bank. He recently retired from a 20-year career as a photojournalist for Reuters. We asked him if he could help us acquire materials and communicate with the community. Nayef agreed, and we set a date to meet and begin planning.
Two days before we were to build the biodigester, Ezra and I rented a car and drove south to prepare. We picked up Nayef in Hebron and continued toward Ghwein and Susya. We spent the day surveying potential sites, talking with families, judging the need for the biogas system, and gauging their interest in the concept. Nayef knew the community well, so he identified two families for us to choose between.
The first family we visited lived on the side of an Israeli settler highway about fifteen minutes from the family that had hosted us and our friends before. The family included a mother and her five children, most of them grown. They owned a few concrete buildings that made up the living quarters, a greenhouse full of vegetables, a herd of sheep, a small outhouse, and a large meetinghouse that served as a women’s center for the surrounding community. This family was not one of the most poor in the area, but Nayef thought it might provide a good location because the women’s center would give the biogas digester exposure to the community and get more families interested in the technology. We sat in their home and drank tea while Nayef explained the concept of biogas and translated our questions about water, livestock, and manure. They explained that they had tried to filter their grey water so that they could use it in the gardens. They poured it through a material like cheesecloth, but this did not sufficiently filter out the soaps and oils, so they could not reuse it. Their experimentation showed, however, that this family would benefit from the biodigester and understand the principles behind it. Ezra and I felt that this would be a great place to introduce the biodigester, but we decided to visit the other family before making a final decision. We jumped in the car and drove down the road to the village of Ghwein itself.
As we moved from one family to the next, Nayef raised an important concern: if we told both families about our plans, the one who did not get the biodigester might be disappointed. He hoped to maintain a relationship with both families, so he wanted to avoid any hurt feelings. We agreed to ask the second family only basic questions instead of explaining that we might build this system for them.
The village of Ghwein consisted of four or five families living together about ten minutes down a dirt road from the main settler highway. From the hill they occupied, one could see – about a kilometer away – the forested edge of the Green Line, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank. For generations, this community lived in caves beneath the rolling desert hills of Palestine. However, a few years ago they moved above ground when the head of the family narrowly escaped a collapsing cave. They moved into tent-like structures made of canvas stretched over a frame of metal pipes. The people of Ghwein raised sheep and goats for a living. Most of their land was dry and rocky, with a few scattered olive trees. Some younger members of the family had once held paying jobs in Israel, but when we visited it appeared everyone stayed home.
When we arrived in Ghwein, the family sat us inside for tea. Nayef explained the concept of biogas and asked the same lifestyle questions we had presented to the first family. As Ezra and I got some of our questions answered, we started weighing our two options. It was clear to us that this family – with more mouths to feed and less resources – had the greater need. But we were not sure if they would be able to fully implement the system. They did not at that time grow any of their own food, so it seemed they would not be able to utilize the fertilizer created by the biodigester. We desperately wanted to give back to this poorest of families, but we also needed to build the system for people who would benefit from every aspect of the technology. We could not let our efforts go to waste; we had put together this project so that it could have a real and lasting impact. We found ourselves in a difficult, emotional position as we contemplated the possibility that we might not be able to do anything for those who needed the most help.
After tea, we got a tour of their property. They showed us a pen that housed about fifteen sheep, whose milk they used to make yogurt and cheese. At the uphill end of their property, two cisterns collected rainwater from an area of several square meters. Just down the hill from the main building and the sheep pen, they had a cistern full of water that was too dirty to drink. We realized this would provide a great input for the biodigester. Then we walked a little further downhill and found the turning point.
Just below the dirty cistern lay three freshly tilled fields with fertile soil and no crops growing in them. This was the missing piece Ezra and I were looking for. If the fertilizer created by our biodigester could encourage these people to begin growing some of their own food, then the technology would indeed change their lifestyle. Although we suspended the final decision for another 24 hours, in this moment our minds were made up and our hearts were satisfied.
Before leaving that day, we decided to orchestrate a modest community-building event. In two trips in the rental car, we shuttled two or three members of each potential recipient family a few kilometers down the road to Susya, so they could see a biodigester in action. This proved to be an inspired idea, we realized, as we watched these three families interact. The Susya family showed the other two families the biodigester, and explained how it worked. Then we all sat inside, and they talked for at least an hour. We realized during this conversation that any family with a new biodigester could benefit a lot by communicating with the families that already had it. These families would be able to share knowledge about how to use and maintain the system. This meeting also had the powerful effect of showing the new families firsthand the effect that the biodigester could have on their lifestyle. We envisioned a local network for biodigesting families, and the potential scope of our project began to widen.
* * *
At about noon on the day we had planned to build the biodigester, the hardest step in the process emerged, and it was finished before the materials had been unloaded from the truck.
At 7:30am, Ezra and I left Bethlehem in our rented car. We brought with us two young American women and an Englishman of Algerian descent, friends we had met in Bethlehem. At about 9:45 we arrived at the dirt road that led to Ghwein. A few minutes later, Yair the biogas expert showed up with two friends in tow – a Canadian man with red dreadlocks and an Israeli woman wearing her nine-month old baby on her back. Nayef was supposed to meet us there at 10 with the supplies, but he called to say he would arrive around 12 instead. When Yair heard this, he began to doubt that we could finish the installation in one day. Regardless, we brought him into the village and started talking with the family. Yair quickly found a man his own age who spoke Hebrew because he had worked in Israel. He gave everyone a tour of the village and began talking with Yair about where they should install the system. The woman with the baby sat inside with the Palestinian grandmother, and they both played with her tiny son.
A few minutes before he arrived, Nayef called me with some troubling news. The leader of one of the neighboring Ghwein families had called him to try to stop the project. He told Nayef that he had thought the system was going to be available for the whole village, when in fact it was only for one family. He wanted us to stop because it was unfair. He also mentioned that the presence of Israelis in his village was making people uncomfortable. Our experience in the first hour contradicted this claim, but the call made it clear nonetheless that we had more work to do in laying the groundwork for the project.
When Nayef arrived at midday with the truck full of supplies, he suggested we pack up and move everyone down the road to the family we had first visited to avoid causing any trouble in the Ghwein community. Yair disagreed, and the two of them and I launched into a debate about the pros and cons of building at each site. Yair thought we had already spent too much time preparing this site, and that if we moved down the road we could not finish the project in a day. He also argued that we should not give in to the selfish stubbornness of our chosen family’s neighbor. Nayef wanted to avoid introducing any conflict into the Ghwein family at all costs. I did not want to simply give up because the neighbors were jealous, but I also felt that it would not be right for us – as foreigners with good intentions but no real business in this land – to step into this community and bring any problems with us.
When the three of us had nearly decided to pack up, Nayef walked off to have a conversation with the leaders of each family. I asked him to urge them that this was intended to be the first of many similar projects – a beginning. About fifteen minutes later, Nayef returned and directed our volunteers to begin unloading materials. Somehow his negotiations had changed the elders’ minds. He explained to me later that he had asserted to them that as the leaders, they should not get in the way of any project that brought progress. In a moment, our project lept from the back of a truck, its destination finally decided, into the backyard of the poor Palestinian family that had captured our hearts.
With the groundwork finally completed, several Palestinians and two Israelis put their hands together with four Americans, a Brit and a Canadian, and built a biodigester. The young American women played with children when they weren’t hauling manure from the sheep pen and depositing it into the two 1500-liter water tanks that made up the main section of the biodigester. Yair, his new Palestinian friend, Ezra and a team of zealous volunteers did most of the work cutting pipe to fit and piecing together the system. Nayef took photos and smiled. I mostly walked around marveling at what had unfolded before us. Four hours later, the magic was complete.
We packed up quickly, and Yair drove off with his friends. I piled into the rental car with Ezra, Nayef, and two of our friends. On the way out, we decided to meet with the family that owned the women’s center. We parked our car on the side of the highway and walked up to meet them. Once seated inside, tea at our feet, we told the matron and her eldest son that we had built the system for the other family down the road. We explained that they had a greater need for it. Nayef spoke with them about this for a few minutes, and then we asked him to translate. The mother, a large, warm woman with a round, young face, said that she understood why we had chosen the other family. She was even glad that they got it first. Her son agreed. Nayef urged her that he hoped to build another biodigester, and that hers would be the next family to receive one. “Inshallah”, she replied, with a furrowed brow, sparkling eyes, and smiling lips. God willing. Nasser, the volunteer from London, turned to us and said that her face made him want to come back immediately and build another one.
We left the woman’s family and drove north to drop Nayef at home and continue to Bethlehem. On the way, he told us that the family had just told him that the Israeli Defense Force had recently declared a demolition order for that home. A demolition order does not necessarily mean the IDF will actually come and destroy their home, but it puts them in a position of fear and uncertainty, and it illustrates the power that Israel has over these people’s destiny.
* * *
As we drove back to Bethlehem that night and processed the experience over the next two days, Ezra and I reflected on what we had accomplished. This project provided our entire three-month trip with a sense of closure and fulfillment. We had found a tangible way to better a few people’s lives. In the process, we raised awareness about an innovative sustainable technology and we forged connections between people, which might allow them to work together and accomplish more in the future. We did not change the world. We simply brought the right people together, and together they gave a gift. Our biodigester will save one poor Palestinian family $20 a week in fuel costs, but as an Israeli environmentalist and peace advocate posited to Ezra and me, our project also showed these people that they deserve progress.
The Alwatan Center now has a program called “Alwatan BioGas”.
Nasser returned to England, but told us he would like to fund another biodigester out of his own pocket.
Ruth, another British volunteer we met in Bethlehem, did not get to visit Ghwein or see a biodigester. However, after hearing our story, she pledged to raise funds in the UK and send them back to Palestine.
Ezra and I are creating a non-profit called the Green Diplomacy Corps, which will raise funds for projects like Alwatan BioGas and send people over to the Middle East to work on small-scale renewable energy and other environmental projects. See more at greendiplomacycorps.org.
A couple of weeks ago, I got to hike through the beautiful desert of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. My friends and I hiked through sand for eight hours the first day, slept under the full moon, and climbed a rock mountain the second day.
At one point during the trip, our tour guide asked us to spent half an hour in total silence while we hiked. During this time I began to think about the value of moments.
I have always been one to reflect on my experiences and deliberately analyze the value they have for me. I think of specific lessons learned or skills acquired. I think of how good cultural exposure is for us. As I explore new corners of the world, I ponder how these experiences add to my worldly wisdom. I consider any time spent doing something new a deposit into the bank account that is my lifelong education.
I had some different thoughts about the Wadi Rum trip, however. Typically, I would look at a trip like this and think of how it was something new – I’ve never been to a desert like this before; I’ve never seen rocks like these before. In the past, I might have found value in the trip based on these facts – that it is time spent outdoors (a deposit into this nature-lover’s account in the Bank of Sanity) and time in a new place.
Let me provide another example of this kind of thinking. At the end of my sophomore year of college, right after finals, I went on a three-day backpacking trip in New Hampshire. When I returned to my desk in my dorm at Tufts, I felt a wave of guiltlessness pass over me as I opened the lid of my laptop. Because I had spent three days totally immersed in nature, I felt much better about sitting at the computer. This made me realize that I normally do feel guilty – on a subconscious level – about sitting at the computer. I saw the trip into the mountains as a deposit into the Bank of Sanity mentioned above. It allowed me to carry on with life a little saner, a little happier.
This Wadi Rum trip was something different, though. As I contemplated the value of these desert moments, I was not satisfied thinking that it would just allow me to carry on with my life a little happier. I didn’t want this trip to seem anything like a check mark on a to do list. I didn’t want it to simply enable or justify more time spent in urbanized, modern, technologized captivity. I began to ponder the potential for this time to have inherent value. Maybe trekking through Wadi Rum is simply good for my soul. I like this conclusion better than those I’ve come to before. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what I do after this, it doesn’t even matter that I’m in Jordan, in the Middle East, doing something new and exciting. Perhaps all that matters is that crumbling rock, this soft dune, that hearty flower, this scuttling beetle. Perhaps all that matters is the peace growing in my heart, accountable only to the quality of this particular moment.
“I’d prefer you call it a village, not a settlement,” our host requested. “I think if you just call us ‘settlers’ it’s kind of dehumanizing,” he explained.
A few minutes earlier, this American-Israeli father had invited a group of 15 American students and adults into his home. He lives in the village of Efrat, which most people would call a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. His community of about 8500 sits atop a hill just south of Bethlehem and looks down on ancient terraces populated by silver-green olive groves.
We sat in the cozy living room while our warm, rotund host told us the story of moving his family here from Chicago in the early 80s. When he completed his family’s tale, he moved on to the story of Israel and Palestine. We heard about the Jews’ ancient connection to this holy land. He pointed out that no empire in the history of the Middle East ever bore the name Palestine. This land has hosted rulers with names such as Roman, Ottoman and Israelite, but not Palestinian.
To describe life as a settler in the West Bank – or “a villager in the land of Israel” – the man provided an anecdote. He described this story as the “first violence of the Oslo peace process”. In 1993, shortly after the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, our middle-aged friend’s family was driving home from Israel proper. A car full of Palestinians approached from the opposite direction. As they passed, a man in the other car opened fire with a machine gun, spraying the Israeli car with bullets. In what the Israeli man described as God’s protection, the shooter aimed too low, and no one was injured.
Throughout our visit with the settler, the students offered intelligent, unoffending, but sometimes challenging questions, which he answered willingly. We left his home with gratitude, hoping to maintain a relationship that would allow us to learn more from him in the future.
In the afternoon, we got to tour a tiny fenced-in Israeli kindergarten in the settlement. A young Israeli teacher unlocked the gate for us. We walked across the threshold and into a world of innocence, bliss, and beauty. I noticed a large compost bin sitting in a garden near the entrance and lamented the scarcity of such features in America’s schools. A friendly sign stood over the bin, explaining in Hebrew how to use the compost.
The teacher explained that this school teaches its students to develop a relationship with nature. She led us into the school’s small greenhouse, tucked between the building and the surrounding fence. Inside, three rows of pots provided soil for tomatoes, basil, lettuce, cucumber, thyme, and other vegetables and herbs. The children all tend to these plants themselves, their teacher explained. Just outside the greenhouse, she pointed out old drawers, thermoses, street lamps, and 5-liter beer containers filled with soil and their own array of vegetables and herbs. She proudly reported that students from her school frequently go home and teach their parents how to live more sustainably.
After a survey of the greenhouse and gardens, our guide brought us inside to see the space where the children spend most of their time. Just beyond the entrance, clear plastic spheres hung from the ceiling, each filled with a different grain or seed: lentils, chick peas, cardamom, beans, sunflower seeds, and others. Inside the first classroom, large cardboard flowers hung from the ceiling. Real, dried sunflowers sat on red knee-high wooden shelves, with half of their seeds removed. Wall decorations included a variety of recycled and reused goods. In the second classroom, five-year-old Israeli children sat at tiny tables making prints on paper using leaves dipped in paint.
I found myself thinking – this is a place I would love to send my kids. These children will grow up with an appreciation for the earth and a knowledge of how to interact with it. Unlike most of the developed world, they will both observe and engage in the process that creates their food.
As we prepared to leave the school grounds, I walked outside and around the side of the building to the playground in the back. They had the sort of jungle gym I would have loved as a child: swings and slides in abundance, with ample structures to climb.
I paused and took it all in: the playscape, the adults sitting alone waiting for younger versions of themselves to scamper out and disport themselves, the mulch beneath their feet. Finally my gaze fell on the wire fence – the barrier that encloses this small benevolent compound.
Suddenly this fence sparked a flashback that transported me to Delhi, India.
Fourteen months ago, while studying in the land of Gandhi and Ganesh, I visited an embassy school in the nation’s capital. My group had eaten lunch with a British family that lived in the gated community that incorporated the school. We sat in their dining room, ate Subway sandwiches with Sprite and Lays potato chips, and played with their children. After swimming in the community pool, we continued on our way. We walked out of the gate, crossed the street, and entered the toughest slum in all of Delhi.
In the midst of a city of 12 million, across the street from a wealthy international community, lie 3000 of the most destitute people on earth. We walked between patchwork shanties, dumbfounded by the juxtaposition presented by these two neighboring blocks. One man we met had not left his cot in years.
Why would the pristine school in Efrat remind me of the embassy school in Delhi? There is no squalid, overcrowded slum in or near Efrat. So what sparked the connection?
Let’s say you did decide to peer through those chain links and down into the valley – what will you see?
It might not come into focus at first. You might have to venture downhill somewhat, to get a better look. You might have to squint. You might have to listen very carefully, just to catch a whisper as it passed on the wind. If you do these things, however, what will you find?
You might find people whose homes have been displaced by massive roads built to connect settlements with Israel. You might find livelihoods lost on the hundreds of acres of olive trees bulldozed to make way for a wall twice as high as the one that fell in Berlin 22 years ago. You might find men and women in Bethlehem who once drove twenty minutes to visit their families in Ramallah, and now must take a circuitous route through checkpoints and over mountains, with a travel time that is impossible to predict. You might find a peaceful protester whose unarmed brother was killed by an Israeli rubber-coated bullet.
If these images sound troubling, however, you don’t have to put yourself through it. You don’t need to come down from the hill. It’s awfully hard to make out that sound on the wind, anyway.