#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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#3 Reflection: Palestine through the sense doors—smelling and tasting

One:
Standing on the terrace of Yasser’s apartment I smell the aroma of food being prepared below—the spices and meats of traditional Palestinian cooking. Depending on the direction of the wind, the smells are more or less intense, and they become mixed with the smell of burning trash nearby.

Two:
Lama, Yasser’s niece, invites us to dinner—her four children greet us, at first with a reserved curiosity, but after we learn their names (and clumsily attempt to pronounce their Arabic names correctly: Dania, Carmel, Alama, Ahmad, Kenda) and ask them questions about school—their favorite subjects and activities—they relax and smile and talk with us in English far better spoken than we will likely ever be able to speak in Arabic. The table is set and a feast is served of chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and sumac and other spices; a chicken in a creamy sauce, and meatballs prepared with a mixture of spices traditionally used in Palestinian cooking; green salad; and rice with roasted almonds and vegetables. My taste buds receive the stimulation and my mind responds in the affirmative: “Yes—I like the taste of all of this! More, please!” The tastes experienced continue to please even while the body’s message—“Stop…enough already!” — is felt more and more. Arabic coffee, dark roasted and spiced with cardamom, is served along with a chocolate covered, chocolate mousse filled cake. While my body is full from an excess of food (and I’m not feeling so well), my heart is full in a different way– Lama’s love and her generosity are conditions that contribute to the arising of joy I am feeling in my mind, body, heart.

Three:
It’s early morning and I wait for Yasser to pick me up and take me to the bus station in West Jerusalem that will take me to Tel Aviv for a meeting with Buddhists in Israel (more about this later.) The sky is clear and the breeze is steady and cool—a pleasant sensation on my skin. I watch children walking, on their way to school, and many cars pass by with families and individuals heading somewhere. Dust clouds form and move into the air as tires make traction on the unpaved street. The trash pile (plastic bags, cardboard boxes, food waste, broken glass, aluminum cans) has become larger since we arrived in the neighborhood, and it has become more unpleasant—the sour smell of spoiled meat, feral cats eating from the trash, wind blowing the lighter trash around in the empty lot. Yasser said the town would be coming to take it away—but they haven’t arrived yet. Such a contrast to the neatness and cleanliness inside the apartments I’ve visited in this same area.

I see a well-dressed man leave his apartment across the street from where I am standing—he opens, then enters his garage, on the ground level of the apartment building, and when he backs his car out he is in a dusty, but otherwise very nice BMW. So close to the trash that all I need to do is turn my head slightly to see it. And, the continuing wafting of sour, spoiled meat. There is not adequate money available to the municipality here (and throughout Palestine) for necessary equipment or a proper facility for waste disposal and management. Sadly, this is another consequence of occupation and the restrictions Israel imposes on the people of Palestine.

As the week unfolds, I will experience pleasant and unpleasant sensations and joy alongside of deep sorrow as our journey takes us deeper into Palestine and the lives of the Palestinian people.

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#2 Reflection: Palestine through the sense doors—hearing and seeing (part one)

We are living in the top floor (6th) apartment belonging to our friend, Yasser, in a section of East Jerusalem known as Aram, a suburb of Beit Hanina. The apartment is situated on the highest point in the area, so the view is unobstructed—Jerusalem to the left, Ramallah slightly to the right. From the airport in Tel Aviv it is about a 45 minute drive. Bleached blue sky; bright white buildings; dusty dark green of trees, shrubs and the sparse smattering of grasses; and the light tan to white of sand, rocks, concrete and dried out branches of palm trees and grass.  Here and there are flowers—what look like yellow mustard and Queen Anne’s lace growing wild, and the various shades of pinks and reds of cultivated flowering bushes and flowers I don’t know the names of. Neat, trimmed, well organized, lovely to my eyes.

It is very clear where the boundaries are between Israel and Palestine, whether official and legally defined or illegal (settlements and outposts). Israel has the privilege of watered landscapes and well-financed infrastructure and public services, while Palestine does not. So, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, it is drier, dustier, trash-cluttered; many of the streets and roads are dirt, stones and rubble, narrow with potholes. Trash is burned in large rusty metal containers (dumpsters or barrels) placed along streets of neighborhoods–black smoke indicating the locations.

I stand on the terrace outside Yasser’s apartment and look over the neighborhood all the way to Jerusalem and Ramallah. Children are playing below—kicking a ball, chasing after one another, boys throwing rocks at a target they’ve constructed with rusted barrels and plastic bottles. I hear their voices, familiar child voices—yelling, laughing, high child voices, excited and playful. I also hear birds chirping, the distant sounds of cars nearby, and the wind. The Islāmic “call to prayer” –the voices of men (imams—Islamic worship leaders), song-like, reciting sections of the Koran– can be heard from minarets in various places around the area. There is a kind of sound-around effect—sometimes nearly synchronized, sometimes like a call and response—exotic to my ears that are unfamiliar with the Arabic language.   In the distance, I hear the sound of a siren.

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