#6 Reflection: The roads, the car, the driver & the passenger

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Yasser’s car


“My students want to learn about Buddhism. Will you come and talk to them?” The invitation Yasser’s invitation to speak to a classroom of young Palestinian women about Buddhism delights me. So, on Saturday morning (not considered the weekend here) I have my simple breakfast of coffee, toast and banana; get dressed for the day in light-colored linens—loose fitting pants and a long-sleeved blouse—appropriate for and respectful of the more conservative aspects of the culture; gather together what I will take with me; and wait with Bob outside the apartment building for Yasser to pick us up. (We pack carefully since neither of us is eager to climb twelve flights of stairs to retrieve what might have been forgotten.) As we wait alongside the dusty, dirt road near the apartment building, we watch children of all ages, boys and girls, neatly dressed in their school uniforms and carrying backpacks walk towards school. Some are in cars driven by a parent. This is final exam time, and a few of the children carry an open book and appear to be doing some last-minute review of whatever subject they will be tested on today. We are greeted with smiles from most who pass us, and, with glances back over the shoulder, several of the children get another look at these foreigners standing on their street. I wonder what they see through their eyes as they look at us.

We see Yasser’s dark maroon Opel coming up the hill, a cloud of dust billowing behind it. Yasser loves this car—he says it is like a good friend: familiar and reliable. While it is well-worn (windows that won’t close completely, a back door that when closed has a space around the edges allowing air to blow inside, dents in various places on the body of the car, the absence of hubcaps), it is well cared for, too. Yasser keeps it very clean and maintains it properly with regular check-ups and servicing.

We climb into the car, Bob in the front seat and I in the back—definitely my preference since Yasser drives fast and hard and the roads are rough. And, there are no clear rules about driving here, so at times the movement of traffic seems chaotic and scary (to me). He is a competent driver, however, and his demeanor is calm and steady (betrayed only by his regular little toots of the horn as he maneuvers in and around and through the driving terrain). I refrain from back-seat driving tendencies—although it is hard for me—and breathe through anxiety that arises. While I am not in control of the driving, I can influence how I respond to it. I am aware that this is a very good “letting-go” practice, and I feel moments of calmness and an easing of tension in my body.

As I sit in the back seat mindful of my breathing and the tightening and relaxing of my body, I look out the rattling (but clean) window and begin to think of the condition of cars and roads and how they tell a story of life here in Palestine. People here do the best they can with what they have. On a daily basis, they negotiate rough, unpaved roads; respond to omnipresent potholes; wait for long periods of time at check points while breathing in dust and exhaust fumes, all the while uncertain about how the 19-year-old Israeli soldier will respond to them when they are (and sometimes are not) allowed through. And, a 5-minute drive takes up to an hour or more. With few exceptions, their cars are old, battered and worn.

This is the way it is: at least how it has been for many years and how it will be for who knows how much longer. The Palestinian people have learned to practice restraint and samoud, steadfastness, as they live with knowing they have little power in this Holy Land that has been their home for hundreds of years. Like us all, they are not in control of the unfolding of their lives; and, like us all, they can influence the ways in which they respond to their lives. But, while it is true that we all experience the gritty and unsatisfactory inevitabilities of life—loss, sickness, aging, death—it is also true that we are not all living by the same set of rules.

Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are denied many of the human rights I have taken for granted in my life. Living in a Palestinian community, I am seeing this more than ever before—and there are times in the seeing when I feel deep shame. I am learning from the Palestinian people in ways I hadn’t expected. While the practice of and experience of restraint and patience in the mind-body-heart may be similarly felt, the “normal” circumstances for practice in many ways are vastly different. I have a day-to-day ease in living circumstances they do not have. I live with the fundamental privilege of knowing that—while exceptions are always possible—for all intents and purposes, my human rights are protected. Such is not the case for the Palestinian people.  And, knowing this I wonder—what would it feel like and how would I do with these added layers of loss in the inevitability of life experience?

Rights denied to Palestinians:

  • The right to marry and live with the person they choose, regardless of where that person might presently live, and to bring their family together in the home of their choice;
  • The right to live without fear of their homes being arbitrarily demolished by bulldozers;
  • The right to dig wells on their own land or otherwise gain access to adequate clean water;
  • The right to protection against unreasonable intrusions and searches, and against arrest and imprisonment without due process of law;
  • The right to own property that cannot be seized and given to others on the basis of religion or ethnicity;
  • The right to their children’s protection from unwarranted arrest, abuse and imprisonment;
  • The right to freedom of movement throughout the Palestinian territories;
  • The right to non-discriminatory planning, zoning, construction, development, provision of public services, and use of scarce area resources;
  • The right to protection & redress against discriminatory racism, including denial of educational opportunities as well as abusive and violent actions by military, police, and hostile settlers;
  • The right to nonviolent protest against unfair laws and policies without state harassment, arrest, & imprisonment;
  • The right, internationally guaranteed by UN Resolution 194, “to return to their homes [from which they have been expelled from 1947 to the present] and live in peace with their neighbors”. (Resolution 194 has been affirmed over 110 times since it was approved in 1948.);
  • The right to national self-determination within their own land.

How would I do with these added layers of loss in the inevitability of life experience?

May my heart know your heart…May we be free from the delusion of separateness.

 

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#5 Reflection: The Three Jewels– Teachers, Teachings, Community

A high school graduation in Palestine: it never entered my mind to seek out such an opportunity, but here we are with our friend, Yasser, one of the teachers at the Rosary Sisters’ High School, a private Catholic girls’ school in Beit Hanina. It is near 5:00 PM on a Thursday evening—we’re not late, but we arrive later than scores of students and their families, so parking is a problem. Cars are tightly parked in every available space and are angled this way and that. Yasser is unable to park in the faculty lot because it is already filled…so he drops us off and goes searching for a space. When we enter the auditorium, it is already filled with people holding balloons and flowers and cameras. All ages of people are dressed up for this celebratory occasion—suits and ties, colorful dresses and hijabs.*

We are seated in the front of the room, just behind Yasser, in a place reserved for “special guests.” I am the only blond-haired person in the room—casually dressed, too (we thought we were going to a party—a problem in translation), so I feel a bit obvious. We are in an auditorium with a balcony at the back of the room and a stage in the front of the room. The school’s logo is projected onto a screen, high up on a curtain at the back of the stage, in a “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” kind of rotation. A set of bleachers frames each side of the stage at 45-degree angles. There is laughter and excited chatter of voices speaking a language I can’t understand, so I experience the voices as percolating sounds bubbling around me. It is interesting to be immersed in a room filled with voices and not understand what is being said—to just listen without word-meaning distraction.

As the young women enter the room in a procession with their teachers, there is excitement and joy: clapping, cheers, smiles and the flashing of cameras. The young women are dressed in their school uniform—a red and blue plaid jumper with a long-sleeved cotton white blouse—and, with the exception of two (one with dark blond hair, the other with red hair), they have long, dark and carefully styled hair. Ninety-four young women file onto the bleachers, and their faces are beaming.

During the next two hours, we hear selected students presenting their parting thoughts in three languages: English, French and Arabic. We observe underclasswomen dancing—their bodies held straight and strong: classical ballet, contemporary modern, and the dubka, a traditional Arab folk dance. We hear singing of the national anthem of Palestine and see pride in the countenance of these young women.  And, finally, we watch each student being acknowledged as she receives her diploma from the principal of the school, Sister_____.

The room is significantly warmer than it was earlier and on the stage where the young women who have received their diplomas are standing, even warmer. About mid-way through the awarding of diplomas there is the sound of something dropping on the stage, followed by alarmed voices, a break in the composure of students standing there, and a rush of movement towards the back of the stage. A student has dropped to the floor. Then, from another section of the stage, another student drops to the floor. A doctor in the audience rushes to the students, as do several parents concerned for their daughters. After he checks them out and they are helped off the stage, we learn that they have fainted–probably an effect of the heat and insufficient intake of water–and are otherwise OK.  As the room’s anxious energy calms, the ceremony continues.

Later that evening, as we return home to our apartment, Yasser tells us that before the graduation ceremony there had been a protest outside the school. This year, like the many years before, the principal has not allowed Muslim girls who wear the hajib to do so at graduation. They either comply with this restriction or not participate in the ceremony. So, sixteen girls this year did not participate. (The nuns, including the principal, however, have always worn their head coverings, as they did this evening. I find this curious.)

Teachers, teachings and a supportive community—The Buddha understood the importance of these three elements (referred to as the “Three Jewels”) in following a spiritual path. Aren’t these elements, too, important on the entirety of the journey that is our life? Couldn’t living life be described as a spiritual journey—a seeking of meaning and purpose and happiness?   All are present here this evening.

These young women manifest the fruits of the teachings provided by their teachers and the love and support they have received from their community. Seeds not yet sprouted have been planted, too. Just as soil is prepared to nourish and sustain the growth of flowers and plants and trees, so the minds and hearts of these young women have been prepared to grow in wisdom, strength and compassion.   Life’s roughness and richness and sorrows and joys will be the nutrients; and the “three jewels,” the soil and the seeds.

In occupied Palestine, the roots of life and connection to the land are strong.  With continued nourishment and proper conditions, these young women will grow and flourish— May their lives be of benefit to the people of Palestine and to all beings near and far.

 


 

*Headscarves covering the hair of Muslim woman. (Contrary to what many people believe, not all Palestinians are Muslim and not all Muslim women choose to wear the hijab. Also, the hijab is not the same as a burka, which is a full face and body covering.)

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