I’ve been ill with a flu virus. An inconvenience, naturally, but it has given space for rumination, downtime, processing time on a deep level. Dreaming deeply, I’ve been unconsciously reorienting to returning to England in a few weeks’ time. More has been going on too, emotionally, psychologically and concerning the shape and direction of my life, my place in the world, my future. I’ve been wondering who and what I belong to.
I haven’t been wondering what I’m here for or who I am – this I’m clear about. Arising from the choices I’ve made in life, I’ve made progress on this front and, as a result, I have much to give and a fine stock of skills with which to do it. I’ve taken a dissident, alternative path through life and, though this has charged its price, I have few regrets. Except it has given me a good buffeting, at times painful, bringing me loss. Yet I’ve gained so much and, here I stand, qualified, trained and experienced in aspects of life which, in today’s world, are not conventionally valued.
Many people love me yet I’m strangely alone. I have no home or partner, I have money for now but it will not last. In my sixties with no pension, while I have plenty of work to do I have no job or security. I’m open-hearted but women perhaps wisely stand clear – perhaps my freedom and commitment to my path daunts them. This has mattered to me recently. Sometimes these facts are disheartening but I have deep trust in the benign support and protection of ‘providence’. I’m much blessed yet vulnerable. This is what has come up as I’ve been lying in bed aching, sweating and swirling with the bug that hit me on Saturday.
|One of the Yatta girls|
- ain't she sweet?
I was down in Yatta, south of Hebron, giving an English class to forty or so girls of fifteen, at Nofa’s school. Nofa was there too and couldn’t leave, for here was a guy telling the girls in clear, simple English about his country and his life, being quite risqué and political about it. I told them how, 1,500 years ago, my own country was subject to ethnic cleansing, land-clearance and destruction (by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans) just as theirs has been in recent times. I showed how these atrocities turned us into imperialists who came to occupy their own country from far away. I related this to the Jews occupying their country now. I told them of the attempted revolution I was a part of when just a bit older than they, relating this to the failed intifada their parents had been in. The girls were surprised when I told them my age. “But you are like a young man”, said one, and I nearly cried. Without knowing it I was already wobbling inside, surreptitiously being prised open by the flu bug.
I feel so close to these people yet the cultural distance between us is vast. In the preceding blog I wrote about Nofa and her recent personal crisis, and part of me would love to scoop her up, take her away and give balm to her heart and soul, but no, this is not possible – she or I could even be killed for it. While she and I are open people, serving humanity, she could not encompass a Western aged hippy on his radical, self-defined life-path and I could not encompass her life in a Muslim society in a relatively conservative area.
So we can but signal each other from afar, souls greeting each other across the void. This has been the case with so many people during this trip – so near yet so far. I recognise you, you recognise me, and may our souls bring solace in this brief encounter. For me, humanitarian work is precisely this, a heart-encounter, a touching of souls to say, it’s alright, somebody sees you, somebody loves you, go forth from here in faith and hope and, whatever happens, live out your life as best you can.
On the way back, Ishmael, who had driven me to Yatta, invited me to his home in Deheisheh for tea. I love his family and they have taken me in, this benign stranger. Ishmael has looked after me, thought of me, and his family have watched and taken note: perhaps there is hope if people like this exist. A while ago he shared his concerns, amongst other things about funding his son Tareq through university, following his time in Israeli jail. He was imprisoned for standing up for his right to a good life, for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who were breaking the Oslo Agreements and invading Deheisheh Camp to arrest people who, in the end, were standing up for the rights of their people against a military megamachine.
I rooted around in my bag and gave him leftover banknotes from countries I’ve recently visited – Euros, Swedish Kronor, Swiss Francs, Jordanian Dinars, British Pounds – and it probably amounted to £300/$400 once he’d been to the money-changer. With this he funded his son through catch-up classes to prepare him for Al Quds university. Well, Ishmael, people have helped me when I needed it, and this is why I help you. Keep the flow going when you have the power to give, for all things come from and return to Allah, and we are Allah’s hands and feet.
Then I went home and sat writing. My back was aching and I did my exercises, then I decided to go down to Beit Sahour for a lecture about the revitalisation of Hebron, a city under attack from Israeli settlers and soldiers. Standing outside in the cold, waiting for Ishmael to pick me up, I suddenly felt shivery and weak. By the time I got there I wondered whether I’d survive the lecture. I took notes to stay focused. When socialising time came afterwards, with the foreigners who gather at AIC on Saturday nights, I couldn’t stand any more.
Ishmael goes to bed early so I rang Mohammed (no, not that one, another one), an all-night taxi-driver who does it to fund his own studies at Al Quds. He couldn’t come. “I need help, Mohammed – I’m unwell.” “Just wait, Balden.” He rang back soon. “My friend, he meet you at Souk Shahab, three minutes.” Bless you, Mohammed. I got home and fell into bed for a night of sweating and virulent dreams. Next day I just sat it out, doing a bit of writing. A friend from England skyped and started rattling on about this and that and I had to say, look, I can’t do it – I’m ill. “Oh, well, goodbye then”, as if I’d hurt her. I fell back into bed.
Next day I’d burned much of it through but still felt weak. The wind was howling around the school and the sound of the kids downstairs echoed around my psyche as if in an acid trip. I felt like an ET dropped on the wrong planet. I steadied myself and worked on completing the website for myforthcoming book. The results were surprisingly inspirational. I even managed to crack some knotty technical issues.
My heart was aching and in some ways I felt lost. I love many people yet they are far away, culturally, like the Palestinians around me, or circumstantially, like my family and friends in Europe. Two loving relationships in succession have failed in recent years and, while I’m doing my best to let go, I miss these dear women and wish it had been otherwise, in both cases. Perhaps it’s my inner feminine I’m struggling to merge with and, had this not happened, I probably wouldn’t be here. Or perhaps this is simply the flipside of open-heartedness.
Last week I was sitting at my desk working and looked up. It was raining, softly and quietly. There’s lovely view from my window over the monastery village of Artas, with the Judaean Desert behind. A wonderful, clear, bright rainbow was sitting there. It was there for twenty minutes, at times becoming a double rainbow. A rainbow of blessing, it brought a message: all is well, all is well. Posting a photo of it on Facebook I added a comment adapted from that of an Israeli healer and friend, Jeff Goldstein: the Holy Land is already at peace – it’s just that most people are stuck in the past and haven’t realised it. Yes indeed.
The day before, my friend Alaa Din had scooped me up when I was down in town, taking me to a village south of Bethlehem to meet a friend of his. We landed up at a place with big USAID signs and a high fence and security cameras. It was a water pumping station. That’s nice, I thought. Being in a Palestinian area, I thought this must be an aid project to help Palestinians deal with their water shortages.
We went inside. His friend guards the place overnight and oversees the pumping controls. The station draws water from an underground water source there. He had lived in America, and we had a good conversation. But soon a distasteful truth emerged. Eighty percent of the water goes to the Israeli settlements north of Bethlehem – Har Homa, Gilo and Har Gilo. Twenty percent supplies the Palestinians.
So here we have it, plain as daylight. American aid supporting Israeli settlement-building, with a token 20% for the Palestinians. They pay a higher price for their water to subsidise Israeli settlers’ water bills. Israelis are drawn to the settlements by cheap housing, reduced bills, good facilities, tax breaks and other advantages, and the cost is covered by Palestinians and American taxpayers. Yes, this is the way of the world around here.
American aid finances the settlements and also embeds the occupation – what Jeff Halper of ICAHD calls the warehousing of Palestinians. European aid comes in to soften the blow of the occupation, keeping Palestinians quiet and prevent a humanitarian disaster or an uprising which would compromise the occupation. Meanwhile people like Ishmael and his family in the refugee camps are provided with cheap and free power, water, rents and facilities by UNRWA, making them dependent on aid. Leaving the camps thus involves a big climb out of a poverty trap and losing the solidarity of fellow refugees. Generous aid from America, Europe and the wider world thus legitimises an outrage. We Westerners all partake in a crime against humanity – and this isn’t the only one.
That’s why Tareq, Ishmael’s son, threw stones at Israeli soldiers. He expressed his youthful rage at a situation that he and his people are locked into. He saw these soldiers, many of them roughly his age, as oppressors – and indeed they are. Like the Nazis in the Nuremberg Trials, they are just obeying orders, just doing their national service, yet they have moral choice too, a choice before their God. Yet they too are victims.
So many former Israeli soldiers end up in India getting out of their brains on drugs after military service – three years of it, a long time at age 18. Others internalise their anger and become right-wing, or they get into family violence or become go-getters, shutting down their hearts because they can’t stand the pain of opening them up. These people are fed illusions and lies as they grow up, about being endangered chosen people persecuted by the rest of humanity, about the rightness of the Israeli mission and how this justifies everything. They’re told that, to protect their people, it’s legitimate to oppress and to kill because Jews suffer more than anyone and thus their security is more important than anyone else’s. Some are taken to Poland on school trips, manipulated emotionally to see the world as Jew-hating and the Jewish mission as one of survival at all costs.
These people are oppressed too, though only some see it and only some of these can stand acknowledging it. But they aren’t too different from you and I. We Brits are told that it’s okay to bomb Libyans, Afghans and Iraqis for the cause of peace, freedom and democracy. We’re told that nuclear power is necessary to keep the machinery running, to keep our TVs pumping crap at us. We’re told that pharmaceutical medicines will save us, that pensions and insurances will protect us, that qualifications will make us good citizens, that supermarkets and corporations care for our very need. We’re told that endless economic growth and development are the only way, and we sign up to the deal or at least yield to the pressure – what else can we do?
I’m one of the many, yet so few, who have shone a light on this, rendering myself into an outsider, an irritant, a subversive, a security risk, a time-waster. I’ve lost much for it and thereby, as Ibrahim Issa puts it, become an ‘honorary Palestinian’. Like many of my colleagues, I could have been a high-flyer – when I was twelve I aspired briefly to become prime minister until I started seeing what was truly going on.
I’m glad I did it, even if the battle ultimately is lost. It won’t be lost. But as the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan once put it, one must do one’s dance as if one will succeed while knowing that all could be lost. The bit he didn’t say was that, with this attitude, a nugget of strength is generated within, a ‘cubic centimetre of consciousness’ which nothing and no one can take away. In doing so, a mountain can be made to rumble, and the impossible can become possible.
Open-heartedness and vulnerability aren’t there to be protected – they’re there to help us step forward and take a big risk. I’m by no means perfect at this. When I was with the Tibetan Lamas in my twenties, I sought enlightenment in this lifetime yet, here I am, in my sixties, lost and found, weak and strong, thoroughly screwed-up yet rather clear, and the dance of life continues. It doesn’t even end at death’s door. Joy and sorrow, these are the nutrients of life on Earth, and I’m glad to be here.
For me, life’s task is to make good out of a dire situation. Hence I come to Palestine. I’ve become a pathological servant of humanity and it’s dreadful and blissful simultaneously. I’m much loved yet a person to hold at a distance. Yet were this not so, I’d have missed that rainbow that gave a message of blessing, that flu virus that gave a gift of truth. I’d be a slave to success and prosperity with a doctorate and six-figure salary, afraid that it all could end.
Influenza is a catalyst of transformation, an attack on our precious immunity. Israeli soldiers are catalysts of awakening, bless them every one. The phantasmagorical terrorists they fight are bringers of peace. Corporate executives are agents of truth. Yes, we’re in a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity and remember, you might sometimes feel you’re a pawn in somebody else’s chessgame but you’re a radiant sun too, it all revolves around you, and together we’re a universe created to allow the Unspeakable, the Unborn and Undying, to find out what it truly is. This is the stuff of life and, believe me, if you were up with the angels in heaven, you’d want to come down here for a slice of it, a taste of the chocolate, available only here on Planet Earth.
Yet we’re heading for a new world, and this stuff going on around us is not all that can happen here on Earth. There’s more, and we know it. It’s all going to change: it’s just that life is asking us are you sure? Are you sure you really want happiness? Are you ready to really exercise your free will, to create it with your hands? One reason I work in Palestine is that I feel they’re closer here to making that choice than many other people – it’s being wrung out of them relentlessly. This is what’s holy here. Amidst this tragedy is deep spirituality, a proximity to truth. The possibility of escapism and denial is reduced here. In this sense, doing humanitarian work accelerates my growth and the risks and insecurities are well worth it.
When I return to Britain and catch the train back to Cornwall, people will be busy reading the newspaper and twiddling their smart phones. I’ll pity them as much as I pity Palestinians, for all of us are oppressed and only some of us see it. We’re self-oppressed, permitting oppression and going along with it. In the end, we do this to learn the value of true freedom, true love, true smartness, to get ourselves to a stage where we’ve really had enough. We don’t need to rise up against the bankers, the Israeli soldiers, the Illuminati, since the uprising, the throwing-off, the intifada of justice and peace arises within ourselves. When we’ve got this clear, the world will change. It’s wonderful. We’re on the edge of something.
There are a lot of Mohammeds around here in Palestine, and this afternoon I’m going to meet one of them. I met him in Manger Square when the people from the War Trauma Foundation were visiting. He’s a Bedouin and an anglophile. We’re becoming friends. A lot of people have had the flu, he said on the phone yesterday – it comes on the wind. Well, I hope they get some of the insights I’ve been getting. And Allahu Akbar, God is Great, for now I’ve at last finished this rather gruelled blog, and Allah is about to give me a cup of tea. Thanks for listening. You can have one too! We're all in this together.