#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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#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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