Monday, 12 March 2012

Girls, Sheikhs, Bombs

On Saturday I had an interesting day. First, I went down to Yatta to do an English conversation class for 15 and 16 year old girls at a school there. It’s not my thing, language-teaching, but I like the headmistress, Nofa, and Hope Flowers has worked with the school, and it feels right to do this. I see it not just as language teaching but helping these bright girls broaden their horizons – they live in an isolated part of the already-isolated West Bank.

Their English is good. I speak slowly and clearly, asking for questions from them, and we covered all sorts of subjects for two full hours. We talked about the Israeli incursion in Yatta, in which a young man was shot in the head. One of the girls said, perhaps without thinking, that the Palestinians would fight back. I let her say her bit, then gently confronted this way of thinking, pointing out how the Israelis always reply massively and punitively, the Palestinians always suffer more and it doesn’t really help the Palestinian cause.

By all means stand firm and look the Israelis four-square in the eyes, letting them know you’re not taking it lying down, but fighting back and revenge achieves little, and the girls’ parents and grandparents have plenty of experience of that. The Palestinians’ only real choice is to outlast the Israeli oppression and incursions, hanging in there until the tide turns. Which it will. I pointed out that, in my observation, Palestinians are marginally happier as a society than Israelis, which surprised them at first, but the teacher and Nofa agreed – so who is the winner, really, and what is victory? Israel has some of the developed world’s greatest income disparities, which is a sign of a society that doesn’t even really care about its own people.

One of the girls asked me what I thought about the Zionist saying of 50-80 years ago, told to European Jews to tempt them to emigrate to Palestine, referring to it as a ‘land without people awaiting a people without a land’. Well, it’s the other way round, I said: it’s a land with lots of people waiting for a land. While saying this I was aware I was healing a psychological wound in these girls’ minds, for it’s easy for them to gain the impression that Westerners are ranged against them. I was reminding them that, despite our alleged freedoms and democracy, people and ruling elites in the West are not singing from the same hymnbook.

The girls asked me about where live in Cornwall. I’m soon moving to an organic farm, and we launched into organics and sustainability. They’re aware of the idea of organics, but this is a big issue for Palestine. The country needs Green Intifada, a way of resisting by strengthening society, improving food security, re-fertilising the land, reducing dependency on imports, bypassing chemical fertilisers, getting people out of the towns (into which the Israelis are incrementally herding them) to work in the country, and making the land more pleasing to the eye and nourishing to the soul. One girl said, “But they’re taking our land from us”. “Yes they are, but you still have some land left, and this makes it even more important to care for it well.”

One girl asked me what ‘honing the soul’ means. She had looked up the verb ‘hone’ in a dictionary, and she couldn’t quite see the connection with sharpening knives. So we talked about adversity and the way it hones the soul, sharpening our perceptions. I mentioned the terms ‘treading the edge’ and ‘sharp perception’, and also talked about polishing, and how this involves repeated rubbing. We come to Earth to learn, and hardship can be, from this perspective, a gift, as long as we look hard for the gifts it brings. I advised them to go out into nature when they have problems, and about taking three deep breaths when we feel irritated or lost. I taught them to ask themselves what the gift is, whenever something tough happens, and to see their oppressors and adversaries as givers of gifts. This doesn’t mean we should seek trouble, but if we’re getting it anyway, this is a way we can take hold of a situation and turn it round. Seeing things this way gives us the power to change things, for our power lies in our responses to life’s challenges.

They asked me about my religion. I explained how, when I was their age, there was no flexibility in Christianity and how I dropped it. When I was eleven I asked a minister why, if God is love, we should fear God. He told me not to ask so many questions. From that moment I was no longer a Christian. Yet I still felt there was a spiritual reality. I read many teachings from different faiths and sources. I didn’t tell them this, but it was actually LSD that helped me answer the question, in 1967.

In the 1970s I was with Tibetan Lamas for some years, and they gave me many answers, with the gift of meditation. But they then dismissed me, saying that in this life I was not to be a Buddhist but to follow my own path. This is what I have done ever since. One girl asked, “But then you have no moral rules to follow?” I said we must create our own moral rules. “What do you mean?”. “Well, one rule I follow is the ‘golden rule’, to do to others as you want them to do to you”. Others are non-harming and non-violence.

We need to live with fewer rules and continually review our behaviour and beliefs, always reassessing our feelings about goodness and rightness. For, in the end, it is our real-life actions which count most. Being a Muslim or a Christian means little if your actions are questionable. There was a quiet, thoughtful response to this. Nofa, a woman whose actions I believe are admirable and courageous, piped up to say, “He’s right, and that’s why you like this man, even if he is not Muslim”. The girls stared at me, and I looked at them. This was a moment of silent communion and sharing. I could see that many of them were computing something they hadn’t quite clarified before.

“This is how I say to you that I am spiritual but not religious. This is the difference. You can be spiritual and religious, or spiritual or religious. But to be religious and not spiritual is… in the end it is dangerous.”

They took all this in. Their questions were very intelligent. They were attentive and participated well. I hoiked a shy girl out of the corner and got her speaking, and then kidded Nofa in front of them, saying that Nofa was a good student – top of the class. She’ll do well when she grows up. There was a lot of tittering at that, and Nofa giggled at the irreverence. I wanted to stretch and jiggle them all, to give them plenty to think about and reflect on. They loved it. It was a great honour. At the end, one of the girls gave an impromptu speech thanking me, saying she wished me a long life, and that my family didn’t miss me too much. “When you come back, please visit us again – and our younger sisters. We need you.”

I went back to Bethlehem with Ishmael, dropped into his place in Deheisheh for coffee and then proceded into town to meet Sheikh Mohammed. It was a warm, sunny day – I was down to my shirt. He was sitting on a seat in Manger Square talking into his phone, with a young man next to him who turned out to be studying English at Bethlehem university and a religious student of the sheikh’s. “You’re punctual”, said Sheikh Mohammed. “No Mohammed, I’m British.” “Yes, I had to learn that when I was in Britain.” He offered a choice, to go down to the family land near Beit Sahour or to go to Irtas. Hmmm, tricky choice. “Allah knows best”, said I, tossing a coin. It was Irtas.

We set off. He’s an avid walker, Mohammed. It was 4km, but pleasant in the warm sun. The south edge of Bethlehem is historic, hilly, a ragtag of joined-up villages with terraced fields between, with olive and nut trees and vines growing. Mohammed must be a Gemini – he’s continually darting here and there saying hello and exchanging words with people, obviously well known and respected. I just kept on motoring along in my Virgoid way – I guess I got stuck in that habit when I was a mountaineer. “Ten years older than me”, he said, “And I can’t keep up with you!”. “No, Mohammed, I just keep on my path”.

I said this several times that afternoon. Mohammed wants me to convert to Islam, but I just say “God is too great to fit within one faith, Mohammed, and I just keep on my path. It’s Allah that matters, not mosques, churches and holy books”. He can’t answer that – he’s the sheikh, but I keep raising the level of the discussion another notch. He’s stretchy too, accepting my word. I think he knows instinctively that I’d be like a bull in a china shop if I became a Muslim.

His young friend wanted to talk. He cleared a dumped tomato box from the path. “Know where tomatoes originated, Daoud?” “Er, Greece, Egypt?” “The Mayans in Mexico. They did a lot of plant husbandry – what we now call genetic manipulation – not in laboratories but by selective plant-breeding. And they prayed, asking the gods to help. The first tomatoes were the size of grapes, and they grew them larger. And, do you know what? When the Israelis developed small tomatoes again, they did it in a laboratory with genetic manipulation and no prayers.” He was blown away by that. “Do you know what the Mayans also gave us? Potatoes, maize, tobacco, many beans, cucumbers, squashes – many Palestinian foods come from Mexico.”

“It’s good to study history, Daoud.” “Did you learn in in university?”, he asked. “No, I studied social sciences. But I’ve read history books for forty years. That’s what you should do, Daoud: when you finish university, keep studying. It gives you something no one can take away. It gives knowledge, understanding.” “But you don’t get a degree, Mr Balden.” “No, you get knowledge, and a man of knowledge walks ahead of people with degrees. Real knowledge you can use in real life.” Palestinians believe almost religiously in getting qualifications, and I was questioning this somewhat.

We were walking past some apple orchards. “Bethlehem apples are special, Daoud, with some of the oldest species here. Down in Beit Ummar and Halhul (on the road between Bethlehem and Hebron) is where the species are even older. Do you know where apples come from? Afghanistan. Apricots, peaches, melons, cashews, cherries…”. Again, these are common Palestinian fruits. “Seven thousand years ago, the people of Afghanistan were like the Mayans, breeding new plants. Over half of the foods we eat come from the Mayans and the Afghans.”

This was relevant to our trip because local tradition has it that Irtas (aka Artas) is the second oldest continually inhabited place in the world, after Jericho. I can see why. It’s a benign village, nestled in an enclosed valley. Sheikh Mohammed said the name comes from the Arabic for ‘protected paradise’, though official sources say it comes from the Greek Hortas, meaning ‘plants’. Take your pick. The village has a Catholic monastery and in the valley bottom are a long green string of fertile market gardens.

Eventually we got there – to be honest, I was worn out by now – and entered a house to meet Sheikh Hajjani. We were welcomed and a late lunch was served. When I refused the chicken legs, Sheikh Mohammed raised his eyes to heaven, as if to say ‘What’s up this time?’. “Is it your religion?”, asked Sheikh Hajjani. “He has no religion”, said Mohammed. “I think he must talk to the djinns” – the spirits of the land and of places.

“Not quite, but that’s true too”, said I. “No, it’s simple. When I was young I was involved in the rescue of lots of birds from the sea, which had been affected by oil from a tanker, a big ship. A team of us had to kill thousands of birds.” I did a neck-twisting action to emphasise my point. “After that, I decided never to kill anything again. I decided that other people shouldn’t kill them for me either. So I eat no dead animals”, pointing to the chicken leg. At the end of the meal, I noticed the chicken leg still there.

We sat talking and then went out. I had asked where the site of the oldest settlement of Irtas was. I should have guessed. They took me along to the spring, near the mosque. Ishmael had taken me there two months earlier. During the Six Day War, when Ishmael was eleven, his family fled to Irtas over the hill to Deheisheh to hide from the Israelis, who were rampaging through the refugee camp and driving people out, hoping to force them to leave the West Bank for Jordan. Irtas certainly is a refuge and a blessed little place.

We took off our shoes and dangled them in the flowing water, drinking from the outflow of the spring. It was delightful. We just loitered, sitting silently in the sun. The two sheikhs sat together while a gaggle of village children hung around Daoud and me, watching the water. Then the calling to prayers rang out from the mosque and we went over to it for prayers.

I sat in the back while the men came in, chattered a while, then started their prayers, led by Sheikh Hajjani. I was off with the fairies, crown chakra wide open, listening to the resonant prayer chant and glowing quietly. When they finished, some of them sat reading from and discussing the Qur’an. I was still ‘out of it’ but I was very aware of people in Gaza, just 50km away, quaking at the onslaught besetting them as we sat here in peace, here in this protected paradise.

But even here they have had their problems. We wandered through the village – some boys booted a football to me and we kicked it back and forth in a small exchange of boyishness – then we cut down a track by the side of the sluice leading from the spring into the market gardens. Sitting there in a patch of chamomile, Sheikh Hajjani told me that, back in the first intifada, the Israeli armed forces flew down this valley spraying defoliants to kill the plants and ruin the crops. Children of a vengeful god, when they’re worked up they seem to know no limits.

Later, in the evening I stood outside the school quietly reflecting on things, looking at the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, the planets of love and beneficence, radiant in the clear sky. Even so, there’s thunderbolt-throwing going on, not far away. I could hear the jets not far away. Whatever the excuses being used, I prayed for ultimate good to be born of such human error, and that innocent victims be protected or find true mercy. War achieves little except perhaps, eventually, the honing of souls, but there are far better ways to hone the soul. This is human error at its worst.

In the gardens and poly-tunnels we pottered around in the rows of thyme, chamomile and mint, losing ourselves, at peace. Then we climbed up to visit the village museum. In halting English, the keeper explained that the site of this house was 5,000 years old. He showed me pots, sickles and embroidery from centuries past, and I sat on a stool two centuries old. He led me down into a cave where people had hidden from many different wars.

Then Sheikh Mohammed was suddenly in a hurry. Where’s my mobile phone? Could I fix a taxi? His daughter was waiting to take him to Hebron. My phone was back at Sheikh Hajjani’s – who needs one on a tranquil day like this? We walked back, I rang Ishmael, and we stood in the road chatting with a few villagers on the sinking golden sun.

Eventually Ishmael arrived. I was looking forward to introducing Ishmael and Mohammed, but suddenly Mohammed, agitated, was laying into Ishmael, saying that he had taken half an hour to get here (he’d actually taken fifteen minutes – it takes five minutes to get out of Deheisheh Camp, so narrow, bumpy and convoluted are the streets there). Ishmael held his ground but he was quietly seething. We dropped off Sheikh Mohammed in Bethlehem and Ishmael asked Daoud, “Is he usually like this?” “Sometimes, yes, but he is the sheikh…” – as if that explained things.

When Daoud had got out, Ishmael turned to me to say, “You have never been like this to me. So who in this car is the sheikh this afternoon?”. I held my silence. So rattled was he that Ishmael said, “Let us go to The Tent”. So we went to The Tent, a cafe down in Beit Sahour, and talked over tea. Ishmael was troubled. “A sheikh is a man we should respect, but he must also deserve respect. I hope it is only me he treats like this.”

“Well, Ishmael, we all have our moments. We come to Earth to learn, and I believe Mohammed Ibrahim does learn from his mistakes.” Or perhaps Sheikh Mohammed was feeling hypoglycaemic without knowing it.

“You are very understanding, Mr Balden.”

“If I weren’t, Ishmael, I’d have given up long ago. To survive in a mad world, you have to stretch further than you ever think you could. Otherwise you just shut down to protect yourself and hide away. This is our choice.”

Ishmael is troubled that I am leaving soon – we have become deep friends, mutual protectors and supporters. I’m pensive about the irony of leaving this country just when things seem to be getting serious, leaving people to fend for themselves. Well, sometimes we just have to go forward in faith, without really knowing why. It’s time to go soon.

And sometimes, especially when you work psychically and spiritually with difficult situations, it’s necessary to do it from a distance as well as close-in, because actually you can get even closer in that way. Then you can come back when the time is right to help heal the damage. Inshallah.