Christ Mass in Palestine

From a blog I wrote in 2011

Aisha and I went into Bethlehem. The town was crowded, mostly with Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, who come from around the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel, but also with a much larger number of foreigners than usual. Eventually 100,000 visitors hit Bethlehem by Christmas Eve, the largest turnout for at least a decade.

We went to the Nativity Church but it was packed with visitors. There are two halves to the church, Orthodox and Catholic, and the place was crowded mainly with Italians, flashing their cameras and forming long queues to visit the shrines. We didn’t stay long. I don’t think Jesus would have done so either – though I can’t really speak for him. I reflected on the strange fact that, whenever I come to this church, I seem to be brought here by Muslims.

Aisha, a British Muslim, had to go home to Ramallah where she lived, so we had hummus and falafel at a friend’s cafe and then trogged up through the Old Town to Bab-al-Sqaq where she caught the 21 bus to Jerusalem. She was trying out this route because, though it requires passing through two major checkpoints near Bethlehem and Ramallah, it’s shorter and cheaper than going along the circuitous Palestinian main route around Jerusalem, staying within the West Bank.

I walked back as darkness fell toward Manger Square, taking photos and chatting with people. The square was heaving by now, with people streaming in from all directions. I spent much of the time with an enterprising young coffee seller, Mahmoud, who places his big charcoal-fired coffee pot on a concrete pedestal and does a roaring trade, selling coffee for a shekel (20p). We have an ongoing dialogue, and he likes his pet Englishman – except that I don’t support Real Madrid, but no one is perfect. I somehow doubt that Jesus supports Real Madrid either, or Barcelona for that matter, and told him so. “Ah, but Mohammed the Prophet supports Madrid!”, he joked.

Indonesian evangelism, no less

Soon a weird and very loud concert cranked up, by an Indonesian Christian rock band. The concert was sponsored by an Indonesian evangelical foundation. I heard the best rendering of the Lord’s Prayer that I have ever heard, quite tastefully done. One of them gave a lovely rap about harmony between Christians and Muslims, and everyone cheered, even though there was an embarrassing moment when he asked Christians, then Muslims, to stick up their hands, and the Muslims outnumbered the Christians by three to one – oops!

Before long I had had enough of harking to herald angels, soon degenerating into Santa and sleighbell songs, even though the music was rocking and rolling with vigour and aplomb, Indonesian style. Do Indonesians, or Palestinians for that matter, actually know what sleighbells are? I took refuge at my friend Alaa ad-Din’s shop, sitting people-watching as the endless crowds streamed down the narrow street. An old taxi-driver I knew drove past and I asked him to return in twenty minutes to pick me up.

I’ve never been one for Christmas – usually I go quiet and into retreat. This year I have felt more sociable about it but, suddenly, I realised that Bethlehem was becoming a nightmare. Why, in this source-point of the Christmas tradition, do they have to import all the Santa razzmatazz, all the commercial crap that has so ruined the spirit of Christmas, burying peace and goodwill under a mountain of consumptive blindness and artifice? After all, this is Bethlehem, the home of Christmas – it doesn’t need to import anything, and in fact it should by rights set the tone. When I had mentioned this to Aisha, she had said I was welcome to come to Ramallah to escape. Suddenly I knew I was going to Ramallah tomorrow, on Christmas Eve.

The taximan never came. After an hour of waiting – allowing for Palestine Inshallah Time – I waved goodbye to my friends at the shop, who were duly worried that I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I was just fine. In truth, if they stopped deluding themselves, most people in these crowds didn’t seem too happy to me either. But then, as someone aptly wrote recently, if you live inside a myth it looks like reality – though the gentleman in question was referring to the growth-economics of recent decades. Yet this rendering of Christmas, in my judgement, has more to do with growth-economics than Jesus, peace and goodwill. Or perhaps I’m just being Scrooge-like and grumpy, or becoming jaded?

It took a while to find a taxi, and then we had to weave around backstreets dodging the traffic-jams. Looking out at the crowds, it’s rather tragic that the majority of people here were Muslims. This isn’t a problem – it’s a blessing, saving the Christmas celebrations from moribund decline. What’s sad is that the Christian presence is so thin. Most of Palestine’s Christians have emigrated.

I had an image of Jesus coming down the street ranting at the desecration of his memory, vaulting onto the stage in Manger Square to unplug the amps and tell the privileged visitors in their allocated seats in front of the stage to yield them up to the poor and needy. Or perhaps just to go home and get on with the job of building Heaven on Earth and acting on His teachings. I’m sure there are spiritual moments for many people here, when they contemplate the tender meaning of the Christ Mass, of the shepherds who came up from Beit Sahour to see the newborn babe and of the Holy Mother and Child, but this… this is something else. I was glad to get out.

So, to all my dear readers, my apologies for omitting to give you a warm and toasty image of Christmas in Bethlehem! I’m sure it has its finer side, and it certainly puts this walled-in city on the world map, at least for a few days each year. It’s good to make a bit of a fuss about peace and goodwill, but why don’t we do this all year?

Ismael

Next day I pottered around the apartment tidying up and exercising my fingers on my computer keyboard, then I rang Ismael and left with him for the service-taxi station, to go to Ramallah. Ismael was a happy man today – his son Tareq had just been released early from jail, thanks to Hamas’ clever politics in exchanging a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one woe-begotten Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. This says something about Hamas’ strategy: they doggedly hold out for their principles without budging an inch, and this time it worked. Israel, which desperately believes Hamas is a bunch of terrorists, did the deal and paid the price. Ismael’s son was free.

Ismael had driven with his wife to the prison near Ramallah to meet him, but the Israelis kept everyone waiting until late into the night, to prevent an outburst of celebration and protest – though it hadn’t worked. There had been a near-riot outside the jail, and Ismael and his wife had beaten a retreat until things calmed down. Ismael is a respectable gentleman, by profession a surveyor but now redundant and a taxi-driver, and quite poor. But they found Tareq and brought him home at last. Their house had since then been busy for some days as people came by to congratulate the son and family, bringing gifts and partying. Released prisoners are heroes in Palestine. Tareq had been jailed for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who were raiding Deheisheh refugee camp, themselves breaking the rules of the Oslo Accords.

Ismael is trying to get Tareq into Abu Dis university. But he’s worried because the jail term has delayed his son’s entry into university, meaning that one of his daughters has reached the age for university too. He can’t afford to pay for both of them. This is deeply vexing to him, because Palestinians value education very highly. A while ago I had given Ismael 400 shekels toward the 8,000 shekel (£1,600 or $2,000) fine he would have to pay for his son on release in about nine months’ time, except the Hamas deal had cut this short and saved the fine, so I told him to put it in Tareq’s self-help fund. He was so grateful, it was touching, and we both cried a few tears together.

Bethlehem was choked with traffic. The place was crawling with armed security men because Abu Mazen, the president, and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, were on their way here to deliver annual Christmas speeches – a tradition started by Yasser Arafat. There were loads of big SUVs everywhere, the cars of privileged members of the PA hierarchy – people who have done well from Western and Gulf subsidies that support this nation. Unfortunately these subsidies support the hierarchy more than the nation. There’s no major crime in Palestine except for this.

Eventually we reached the service-taxi station. I bundled into a van and we were soon off, down through Beit Sahour and onto the main trunk road northwards. Most of the traffic was coming the other way – not least the armed motorcade of the president and prime minister, with flashing blue lights and a swarm of big motorbikes out in front and in the rear.

This is a trunk road not because of its quality – in British terms it’s a bumpy old ‘B’ road – but because it’s the only road from the southern to the northern West Bank, from Bethlehem to Ramallah, avoiding Israeli controls. Most Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israel proper or Jerusalem, which would be the shortest route – 25km instead of 70km – so they have to go round Jerusalem along this convoluted mountain route.

Palestine Route One

This road is dramatic, a tremendous ride. At first it weaves along the top of the limestone plateaux east and north of Bethlehem, where there’s a view down into a deep valley and then, on the other side, high up, the walled-off outskirts of East Jerusalem. This is vivid enough in itself, but then it suddenly plunges dramatically 1,000ft (300m) down a steep switchback into Wadi Nar, the Valley of Fire, where it changes from a winding old road into a new USAid-modernised dual carriageway heading north to Abu Dis and Al Azariyah, through more wild semi-desert mountain landscape, and winding tortuously through Wadi Nar until it eventually joins the Israeli east-west Route 1 from Jerusalem to the King Hussein Bridge and Jordan. This is a full-scale modern dual carriageway, financed in the 1990s by the Japanese government as a peace road linking Jerusalem and Amman – except peace never came. As far as I know the Japanese never asked for their money back.

We cannonaded down this road, past the Ma’ale Adumim Israeli settlement, perched on a hilltop to the right, then we turned left toward Ramallah. More dramatic landscape, and a few impoverished Bedouin shack-villages. This certainly is a memorable trip, this road. It weaves around hither and thither, and the service-taxi drivers do it at breakneck speed – mercifully they seem to be good drivers. Eventually we reached Ramallah – and it suddenly started raining! This was the first rain for over a month. It was tipping down. I waited to meet Aisha at Manara Circle, the centre of town – a funny bi-directional roundabout with a monument in the middle, dating back to British Mandate times. The British used to come here to get out of Jerusalem and enjoy themselves – rather like a hill-station in the Indian Raj.

Aisha took me to a Latin (Catholic) church for the Christ Mass. It’s the first time I’ve been to a church service for, er, well, must be over a decade, heathen that I am. The service was in Arabic and the church was packed. I floated off into another world, standing up and sitting down when required, looking as if I knew what I was doing. I had been in rather an altered, spaced-out state during the day, so it was rather nice to let myself drift along with the choral singing.

Again, I was taken to a church by a Muslim. I didn’t understand a word of the sermon, but the priest, dressed in white robes with lovely embroidery on it, spoke quite clearly and slowly – useful to listen to, picking up Arabic words I’m beginning to recognise. I hadn’t realised until now that Christians also use the term ‘Allah’ in Arabic. But then, he’s the One God, so why shouldn’t they? For your interest, Allah means ‘The God’ – it has a slightly different nuance to the Western personalisation of ‘God’ as a name, while the Arabic term is a noun.

Ramallah – where the foreign money is

We emerged from the church into the pouring rain, dodging torrents of water, and found a taxi to take us to the village outside town where Aisha and her husband Ahmed live. He’s a web-designer and film-maker, and we had lots to chatter about. They’re moving to England in a few months’ time to work and study (inshallah, if the British do the right thing with his visa, at a cost of £800). Ahmed likes the relatively high educational and intellectual standards of the English. The idea of living in London gives me a sinking feeling, but they’re excited about it. Perhaps I’m just a provincial country bumpkin with moss in my brains.

Next morning, Christmas Day, I sat writing my blog – I was falling behind – while Aisha went out and Ahmed updated websites. It was raining hard – not a day for sightseeing or footling around outside. It was a slow, do-nothing-much day. The calling to prayers at the local mosque was particularly tuneful – though Aisha later told me that, unlike in Bethlehem where it is sung by live singers and therefore quite variable in quality, this was pre-recorded by star muezzin from Mecca or Medina, and pumped out through sound systems paid for by Saudi sheikhs. Then we had a chat and a late lunch, and I bade them farewell to return to Bethlehem. I was still feeling rather wobbly, and wanted to get home to be in my own space.

At the service-taxi station I had to wait some time for the taxi to fill up – it has space for eight passengers. The driver thought I was German, but when I told him in German that I wasn’t, and came from Britaniyya, he didn’t understand, so I stuttered it in Arabic. He was fascinated when I stood outside smoking my pipe – around here, the only pipe-smokers are wizened old Bedouin out in the hills. Eventually people came and we started out.

It was still swilling down with rain and progress was slow. Palestinian roads aren’t built for handling rain, so there were massive pools and floods, and we had some great moments of aquaplaning. Heavy rain in a desert landscape is quite paradoxical. When eventually we reached the steep, winding switchback at the far end of Wadi Nar there was a big traffic jam. People had ground to a halt on the 1-in-3 hill and, the road being covered with a film of rubber and oil from the customarily hot weather, they couldn’t get up. Neither could they back down because of the traffic jam behind them. But Palestinians are good at crises, and it sorted itself out in due course.

When we reached Bethlehem the taxi-station was closed. Since it was still bucketing down the passengers nagged the driver to take them up toward Manger Square, which he duly did, and we tipped out into the monsoon, running everywhichway. By now I was not just wobbly and vulnerable but cold and wet and, being a thin pile of bones, I decided to run for the nearest shelter to ring Ismael, to ask him to come and rescue me. The nearest shelter was a coffee bar called – wait for it – Stars and Bucks, a Palestinian chain that has taken this name to dig Starbucks in the ribs for avoiding setting up in Palestine. Some global corporations (such as Coca Cola, Wall’s ice cream or Nestle) come to Palestine and others, such as Starbucks, don’t. So it looks like Starbucks has lost its chance for business in Palestine – though they probably don’t care.

Whatever, Stars and Bucks had a heater on and served a good cup of tea, and I waited for Ismael. The guys there interviewed me about what I am doing in Palestine: Palestinians are so interested in foreigners, especially the ones who stay a long time and return repeatedly. The usual questions came about my family, my wife (haha), with the customary expression of surprise when I said I had grandchildren (to them I look young), and the questions about my work, where I was staying, and then the riveted attention watching me lighting my pipe.

Bethlehem Old Town

Ismael arrived at last and off we went, weaving around the Old Town, slowing for the virulent speed-bumps, stopping at a shop to get a few provisions and then water-skiing back to Al Khader. I promised to come to visit his son soon. We waved goodbye. Ismael and I are getting like brothers of the soul – he looks my age but he’s ten years younger. I’ll miss him when I go back to Britain, since it’s so good having someone who thinks of me and rings me regularly to make sure I’m alright. He also knows that, as an old revolutionary and dissident who has had his own problems with police and authorities, I understand his son and I have a few survival secrets to share with him.

The apartment was quiet and cold but, once I’d had a bite to eat and a cuppa, I put my hot water bottle on my lap and wrapped a big blanket around myself, finished and uploaded my blog about Hebron, processed my latest photos, did a few e-mails, did my meditation and then staggered off to bed.

So much for Christmas 2011. I went back to Britain in late March 2012.

If you enjoyed this, then take a look at my book Pictures of Palestine.

Back Roads

A place I love that I can’t return to

Recently I haven’t been in the best of health and spirits and I shall write a blog about that soon, when my energy is right. But if you want clues, listen to my last podcast Popping Clogs and Kicking Buckets.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun a kind of preliminary goodbyeing process, and in the last 24 hours I’ve been wishing I could be back in Palestine, with friends and ‘family’ there. So I was moved this morning to post a chapter from Pictures of Palestine, to share this feeling with you.

(If you like this chapter, you can download a free PDF or e-book version on the site, or order the print version.)

It was written in 2009 but, while details in Palestine have changed, the situation has not, and this chapter in essence has not dated.


The Back-Roads of Palestine – arriving in Bethlehem

“Where you want go?” “Beit Lahem”.

“Where you from?” “Britaniyya.”

“Ah, my son, he in Leicester, doctor in hospital.” I’m never sure whether to be happy or sad when they say things like this, but most Palestinians seem quite happy that at least someone in the family is chasing a future abroad. It’s their family insurance policy.

I was the first to the yellow eight-seater VW service bus, so I would have to wait for more passengers to appear. That was fine – I wanted to assimilate being in Jericho again. Everyone was friendly. If ever you come to Palestine, be ready to be overwhelmed with hospitality – it’s quite moving and takes a while to get used to. It’s not a front. People come up and shake your hand, saying “Wilcome, wilcome to Falastin”, and they really mean it. They know it takes some resolve to get here.

I went off and found some Egyptian mango juice and Jericho springwater to guzzle. The dense Jordan valley heat was like an engulfing blanket but, being thin, I’m fine with that – it’s chilly, damp British weather I have a problem with! I went over to some guys standing around talking. The usual friendly questions. Where you from? What your name? Where you going? How many children you have? What you doing here? They’re often interested in my age, and eyebrows raise when I tell them – Palestinian men of my age often look older and more worn than I do.

I took photos of some of them – they seemed to love it. But some didn’t want it, gesticulating ‘No’ with a quick wave of the finger, and I knew why. It’s politics and security: they or their family have had trouble with the Israelis, or they supported Hamas or another faction, or they had a history, or their brother was in jail, or… Long ago I had been in similar straits and I know what it’s like: it’s not just that you want to avoid the gaze of the powers that be, but also that you don’t want to keep reminding your friends or even yourself that, rightly or wrongly, you’re toxic property.

Eventually the service taxi-van was full and we were off through the streets of Jericho, an ancient city with an 8,000 year history. We left the town, driving some miles up to the main Jerusalem highway and then turning right, following the road as it ascends through the Judean desert hills. It sweeps through the valleys, climbing up and up just to reach sea level, marked by a sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English. After making good progress, still uphill, we suddenly slowed down and pulled off near the Ma’ale Adumim interchange onto a bumpy, crowded road and into a scrappy Palestinian township near Al Azariya.

Ma’ale Adumim is one of the biggest Israeli West Bank settlements, a Jerusalem orbital town and an asset Israel is unlikely to abandon, whatever foreign politicians want. This new town and the roads servicing it, built on confiscated Palestinian land, split the West Bank into northern and southern halves, rendering Palestine territorially sub-functional as a nation.

But we were not going to Ma’ale Adumim. Instead, we hit a bumpy side-road which, for Palestinians, is a key trunk road linking the northern and southern West Bank. It weaves through a small town, then weaving along valleys and up and down the high hills, with sharp switchbacks, steep inclines and loads of traffic. In Britain we’d regard it as a back-country ‘B’ road, but actually it is ‘Palestine Route One’. Nowadays it is being modernised but in 2009 the only sign of its trunk road status was the density of traffic.

Some of the areas it drives through are poor and dilapidated, the houses quite scrappy, the land stony and dry. Garbage, wrecks and piles of rubble are heaped here and there – an alienated landscape where the locals have lost their care and pride. They’re probably rural refugees, thrown off land the Israelis have taken, such as at Ma’ale Adumim. It’s one of the tragic aspects of this country. But then, many Palestinians harbour little hope, so they’re unlikely to invest in longterm improvements. They half-expect the Israelis to come in some day, wreck everything again or drive them out, and they do have reason to anticipate that.

Yet there are some pretty nice houses along the road too, in other locations. Palestinians who are go-getters or beneficiaries of the PA or foreign agencies take great pride in their new-builds, many of which have a fine vista and attractive courtyards with flowering trees and bushes. It’s as if their optimism compensates for their others’ lack of it. It also reveals an emerging class divide between those who benefit from foreign subsidies and advantages and those who do not. Palestine has its haves and have-nots and they nowadays live in quite distinct economies.

The road is exciting to travel as it climbs up steep hills and tips into deep valleys, weaving through an impressive limestone upland landscape, passing through hilltop villages with prominent mosques and affording views stretching many miles. Yes, this is a trunk road – but it’s heartbreaking too. Privileged Israelis drive along their fast, wide highways while Palestinians have to heave up, down and around on side-roads like this: transportation apartheid. Although the West Bank is occupied by Israel, its cars have different number-plates from those of Israelis, conferring different driving and access rights. Go up the wrong road and you could, on a bad day, experience a sudden hail of bullets at worst, or interrogation at best.

It’s not easy, living under military occupation

We passed through only one checkpoint, which today was open. The Israeli soldiers leaned against their booths and bollards, talking to each other and idly gazing at passing traffic. Poor guys – what a job. There they stood sweating, posted in an unfriendly spot next to a Palestinian hilltop village, perpetually on guard against a foe who nowadays rarely materialises and might hardly exist.

In the distance I could see the Herodeon, near Bethlehem, a prominent conical hill and ancient site going back millennia. It looks like a volcano but it was shape-enhanced in ancient times and contains, allegedly, the tomb of Herod the king. Naturally, we didn’t head straight toward it – our route was still sinuous and tortuous. After another twenty minutes we pulled into Beit Sahour – Shepherds’ Fields, referring to the Christmas story – near Bethlehem. The family that made up most of the passengers in the bus was dropped off right outside their gate. The remaining woman asked me, on behalf of the driver, where I wanted to be dropped. I decided to go to Manger Square in central Bethlehem to catch some food, take a rest and ascertain where Ibrahim Issa was to be found.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

There I bundled out of the bus dragging my wheeled bag, my precious technology bag over my shoulder. Containing a netbook computer, camera and lenses, digital sound recording equipment, DVD and card readers, cables, plugs and adaptors, with room for travel papers, passport and a bottle of water, this technology bag is neat – but rather a wrench on the shoulder muscles.

The Christian taxi-drivers near the Nativity Church, seeing a Westerner – who of course must be rich – started hollering at me for my custom. You learn how to gesticulate ‘No’. One bright young driver with a pleasant face got my attention, though I still said no to him. I wanted to sit down and have something to eat. He shepherded me to a nearby café and within seconds a pitta stuffed with salad and falafel was set in front of me, along with fresh carrot juice. What a relief! All the taxi-drivers stood round asking questions and smiling, all very amiable once they’d realised I was no source of business for them right now.

I rang Ibrahim, but no answer. Did I have the right number? Hmmm, what next? Leaving my bag at the café, I went wandering. As I returned, the young taxi-driver signalled me: “I help you. What your name?”

He took me to the Hope Flowers School at the far end of Al Khader, west of Bethlehem, but it was locked and deserted. On the way I noticed that the town was in visibly better shape than on my last trip in 2005, just after the second intifada, during which the Israelis had wrecked Bethlehem and still then staged periodic incursions and searches. But now the separation wall had been built and Bethlehem, imprisoned behind it, was safer and more relaxed. The security wall protects Palestinians from Israelis as well as vice versa. This relaxation of tension was visible on the streets. Another sign of progress was the condition of the trees in the central reservation of the Hebron road leading to Al Khader.

These trees, planted in 2005 by the Earth Stewards, were all intact and growing! I had joined them – mostly Dutch, German and Austrian green activists – in a tree-planting project organised by Hope Flowers. Ibrahim had known the Earth Stewards when he lived in Holland in the 1990s and he had organised PeaceTrees as a joint project with them in Bethlehem, not just as an ecological but also as a social empowerment project. The trees’ continued existence showed that something had worked – the locals had got the message.

During the intifada people had lost hope. It had followed a period in the 1990s when peace and progress came close and then ebbed away, prompting the uprising, a mass expression of sheer frustration. Israeli measures taken against Palestinians were terrible and Bethlehem had been an epicentre of conflict – remember the shoot-out at the Church of the Nativity in 2002? By 2005, when the intifada had subsided, the locals needed jump-starting with initiatives to help them improve their lives and encourage them to invest energy in the future. The regular experience of seeing houses demolished, parts of town wrecked, buildings shelled and people carted off had given Bethlehemites a feeling of futility and pointlessness.

By planting a large number of trees in a very visible place – the main road’s central reservation – we caused mild fascination at first, followed by interest and questions. Then people joined in, then energy and enthusiasm grew. We wrapped up the project by saying, “If you don’t look after these trees, they will die, so it’s up to you” – and we left. The trees survived: someone had made sure they were watered and cared for. PeaceTrees had worked.

The Old Town of Bethlehem

As the young taxi-driver and I returned to central Bethlehem, he told me that he was a student of accountancy in Hebron and drove his uncle’s taxi to pay his way. He wanted to be my friend and I promised I would find him again. Subsequently I had a number of lifts with him, and only half the time did he charge me. He dropped me off and I headed up to Manger Square, standing there awhile, taking it all in. A wide, large square, milling with people.

A man approached, asking in quite good English whether he could help me. Adnan took me to his shop near the square, where he sold souvenirs – olive-wood religious objects, Arabic dresses, Bedouin rugs, decorative inlaid boxes and allsorts. Some of the woodwork was exquisitely carved and the rugs and clothing came in lovely colours, all with a very hand-made feel to them. Mint tea appeared and people came and went as we talked. Adnan discovered I was a webmaster and asked if I would help him make a website – I said I would consider it. He rang a friend who knew Ibrahim – an answer would come soon about where to find him.

I got out my computer and skyped my cousin, then my son and then my ladyfriend back in England, to tell them I’d got here. I wanted to share it with them. A small crowd gathered round, goggling at this visitor’s neat technology, and they said hello on Skype, all very thrilled. My son just said, “Cool”, and carried on tapping on his computer. Then he looked up and suddenly saw several faces looking at him through the screen.

“Who’re they?” “I’ve finally got to Bethlehem, and these are some of the kids here”. “Cool”, he repeated, in his perpetually unfazed way, still tapping keys.

My ladyfriend was dumbstruck at talking live to some real Palestinians. Palestinians are people you hear about on the news, you don’t expect to talk personally with them on Skype. Everyone helloed, and she helloed back. While I was talking to her, the calling to prayers started up – really loud, since we were right next to the Omar Mosque. She was visibly moved at the sound, as it hit her that I was really there. She and my cousin were serving as ‘ground control’ back in England, and it was fitting to share with them my first taste of returning.

Eventually the grapevine worked and Ibrahim Issa came to fetch me. I’d last seen him five months earlier in England during one of his speaking tours. He had looked tired, not really wanting to stand on stages giving speeches, and I was concerned about him, wondering whether he was burning out. But today he was his sprightly self, at ease, smiling. He’s rotund, like a cuddly bear, with a character-filled face and a bright countenance.

I feel brotherly toward him, as if we had made some mutual contract way back in the mists of time, yet I’m old enough to be his father. We hugged in the middle of the street – much to the interest of onlookers – and looked at each other for a long moment. I knew he felt some relief that I was back and had probably wondered whether he would see me here again. Foreigners come and go, saying they will return, but only a few reappear.

Hope Flowers had started as a kindergarten in 1984 and by the late 1990s it was a school with 500 pupils. It shrank after 2000 during the second intifada, as the Palestinian economy tanked and hardship set in, but now the school is growing again and a community development centre was started in 2004. I’d been working with the school from Britain, running its website, writing and editing grant proposals, newsletters and outreach material. Now, one aim of my trip to the school was to re-work the website, then perhaps to edit some teacher-training manuals, possibly even help Ibrahim start writing a book about peace education. That was the idea.

The story of the Issa family and Hope Flowers is poignant. Ibrahim’s father Hussein, an advocate of non-violence, found himself in a dilemma some years ago when Ibrahim narrowly escaped paralysis, shot through the back by Israeli soldiers. Later, Ibrahim saw Palestinian radicals accuse his father of treason because of his commitment to reconciliation. The family was under attack from both Israeli troops and Palestinian radicals. Ibrahim knew the situation was complex but, to quote him, “The most painful thing for me as a child was that I couldn’t recognise the difference between a peace activist and a collaborator – it took years until I did. Palestinian radical groups also couldn’t recognise it. When I grew up I started to see the difference”. But some Palestinian radicals and Israeli Zionists still don’t see that difference, and this makes life risky for people who work for reconciliation.

In 1991 Ibrahim moved to Holland to get out of harm’s way. He studied engineering, got a job and became a permanent émigré. He attended courses on ecology, non-violence, community-building and psychotherapy too, mixing with interesting people, some of whom later came to do stints as volunteers at the school in Palestine. Then his father died unexpectedly in 1999 and Ibrahim was asked to return. This involved leaving a secure, promising Dutch life to jump back into the Palestinian frying pan, taking on a burden most sane people would turn down flat. I greatly admire his steadfastness.

Hope Flowers

Returning to Bethlehem in the midst of the second intifada, Ibrahim joined his sister and his mother in running the school. Later another sister, a teacher, joined them, as did Ibrahim’s new wife, once a kid at the kindergarten. They run the school with a remarkable team of teachers, managers and supporters. It felt right to work with these people – I like them all very much.

Now Ibrahim and I went to a café, had a drink and munched nuts, smoking apple-flavoured hubble-bubble from an ornate water pipe. We discussed what I would do during my three months’ stay. There was certainly a lot to be done and three months might not be long enough.

Ibrahim told me of difficulties he currently had with a faction in the Palestine Authority (PA). It was the product of an awkward public debate concerning the value of negotiating with the Israelis. Ibrahim, a committed peacemaker and bridge-builder who had had regular contact with peace-oriented Israelis, was under suspicion as a collaborator, and this was complex. The PA, seeking to establish control over an ungoverned non-country, had applied a mixture of Western regulations and Arabic bureaucracy, with not a few personal fiefdom issues thrown in, making life difficult for ordinary people. A peacemaker in a conflict-polarised society is susceptible to accusations of collaboration.

The discussion in Palestine about how to relate to the Israelis was heated and ongoing. Palestinians had bent over backwards to comply with international agreements as part of the 1990s peace process, and yet in Palestinians’ perception the Israelis hadn’t budged an inch on crucial issues such as settlement-building, land-seizures, Jerusalem or refugees. The result had been continued losses for Palestinians and a growing number of them were now convinced that negotiation and accommodation were pointless, even though very few wanted any return to conflict. Negotiation had been worth trying in the 1990s, but it had not delivered. It’s a tragic predicament: if you neither want to negotiate nor to fight, what do you do?

Hope Flowers had been teaching the kids Hebrew to help them understand the Israeli mindset. When the kids were older, this would help them deal with Israeli people and officials. The school set out to help the kids understand the perspectives of the very people who had killed or jailed their own fathers, uncles and relatives. This was not a matter of agreeing with or sucking up to the Israelis, as some suspected. It was a matter of following the old military adage, ‘know your enemy’. It was a key issue in preparing Palestinian children for a time when the nightmare of conflict ends – which it shall and must do one day. But in 2009 that day was receding and there was simmering frustration in the air.

Some Palestinian officials didn’t like what the school was doing and didn’t want Palestinians having connections with Israelis. Ibrahim, who had learned to be patient with Israeli arbitrariness and obstructionism, even having been arrested by them for allegedly harbouring terrorists, understood this viewpoint well. But as an educationalist and peace-builder, he stood up for dialogue with people on the other side just as his father had done.

Westerners, with a tendency to see things in black-and-white terms, oversimplify the intricacies of this situation, failing to understand such sharp dilemmas. “Why don’t Israelis and Palestinians just make peace?” Well, as Rabbi Lerner, a Jewish-American thinker, once pointed out, both sides suffer from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder – they’re super-touchy, super-reactive and suspicious – and untangling this mess isn’t as simple as outsiders would like it to be.

It had taken me some 20 years to understand the intricacies of the Israel-Palestine situation, and only visiting the place had brought better comprehension. I started as a peacemaker working on both sides, with the best of neutral intents, but found myself gravitating to the Palestinian cause. I was not turning against Israel, but I felt that they shot themselves in the foot by the hostile attitude they took toward Palestinians. I work where I can most assist, and while Palestinians seemed to appreciate my input many Israelis didn’t seem to think there was a need for me to be there. So I ended up working with Hope Flowers.

That’s also why I had sobbed from the soul when I arrived in Jericho earlier that day – there was something personal and emotional about all this. As a British dissident, I had had nonsensical and painful experiences that would shock many people, so I could empathise with the Palestinians’ dilemma. I saw Ibrahim’s dilemma too – that of a peace-bringer whose work is regularly screwed up, not just by Israelis but also by the double-standards of Westerners and the militancy of some Palestinians.

Perhaps Palestinians embody something that exists within many of us when we are repeatedly let down by forces beyond our control, when Murphy’s Law applies itself over and over, or when the narrow interests of the powerful few prevail incessantly over the needs of the majority. It’s a futile feeling that, whatever one does, nothing will really progress. This kind of thing happens everywhere but, in Palestine, people have internalised it and adapted to it more than is healthy for them.

I stayed at the Issa family’s place that night and next day Ibrahim took me to the school, where I was to stay in the volunteers’ accommodation on the top floor. Back again – and now to work.


Things don’t change a lot in Palestine, but one good thing that has changed is that Hope Flowers’ methods and philosophy is now being replicated across the Palestinian school system in the West Bank – this was a major breakthrough a few years ago. However, the school still struggles on financially under, as always, difficult constraints.

The book’s website is here: www.palden.co.uk/pop