Something deep and profound is shifting for me: I’m placing my bets on things working out in future and, personally, while the stakes are high I have faith it will work. I hope to continue my humanitarian work but I don’t know how. Please don’t make the usual suggestion about getting a job with an NGO: I’m a hands-on worker with heart and soul, not a desk-working report-writer and meetings-junkie with an aid-and-development degree, constrained to professional rules and practices. Acting as a freelance, on-the-ground type with a magic touch is my strong point. I break too many of the professional rules. But the outcomes is that magic can happen, and occasionally it’s big magic.
Nur al Bara’h rehabilitation school for children with learning difficulties and disabilities. His daughter, a charming woman with bright eyes and very good English, runs it.
I visited the school, getting down on my knees to talk with some of the kids and photograph them. They are autistic, retarded, speech or hearing-impaired, or simply educationally and socially challenged, all of them lovely kids who are being treated well in small classes of five to seven in size. It was moving to meet them.
I explained to Mohammed Ibrahim and his daughter that I can act only as an ambassador, connector and overseer of whatever relationships evolve between Palestine and Britain. Adoption and fostering aren’t my field and I can’t manage the bureaucracy and technicalities involved.
I’ve learned something about taking on projects like this. The big decider is not the worthiness of the project. The clincher is whether I like the people and can work with them. When doing voluntary, unsupported work you just can’t afford to get into complex situations – there has to be synergy and a feeling of connectedness and personal commitment with the people involved.
|One of the teachers at Nur al Bara'h|
Jane Ozanne has been over here too. She’s the coordinator for Spirit of Peace, the UK support charity for Jerusalem Peacemakers and Hope Flowers School. She’s had a busy schedule – she’s here for only a fortnight – but we’ve had some good discussions and moments of friendship. She has a lot of challenges running the charity, including a need for practical help with admin and other issues. Funding issues are getting tighter in UK, the aid and support business is shifting, there are complexities in the Holy Land, and she has a lot to handle. She’s been wondering how much it’s all worth it, and whether she’s beating her head against a brick wall. This happens when the going gets rough. The answer is: rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.
This is the shadow aspect of sumud (steadfastness), which is the way Palestinians have survived adversity for so long. But sometimes it turns into dogged, inflexible resistance – resistance even to wisdom. Adnan is suffers this, then he cries out for help. I’ve had to put my foot down. It’s not nice to do but, if I helped him, I would not only drain my resources into a black hole, cutting my own chances, but also it would be the wrong kind of helping. I’m not happy about this.
Alaa Din, his nephew (though a similar age), has difficulties too, but he takes a different approach. He’s in the same trade of tourist souvenirs, yet he keeps his expenditure down, works diligently instead of doing a headless chicken act, tells me about his situation but rarely asks for help, and he doesn’t get wound up and frantic. He trusts in Allah and usually makes it through his crises.
So there’s an interesting difference between the two. Alaa Din knows that, if you’re poor, it’s best to keep your life and dealings simple, ticking over in basic survival mode without beating yourself up, but Adnan goes into a frenetic whirlwind of increasing complexity, making promises he cannot keep and digging himself deeper into the mud.
Yesterday I was drinking tea with Alaa Din in his shop. His sister came in and borrowed the last money he had. He simply looked up to heaven and said, “Allah will look after me”, and we carried on talking. Later, on the way out, I slipped 50 shekels (£10) into his hand to help him get by – and I know he will use it well. When he shares his problems and asks my advice, he thinks about it and often acts on it. He really values my insights and tips. That’s why it’s worth slipping him 50 shekels. He has integrity.
Adnan has basic integrity, as do all Bedouin I know, but he gets lost and frantic, wearing himself out, revving his car engine because of his impatience and burning up gas and brake-pads unnecessarily. He was even in hospital with heart problems recently, and he’s only 41. He won’t learn.
|Adam. This man will go far - I know it.|
I’ve become an informal counsellor and mentor to many people here. Mohammed Ibrahim added the honorific sheikh to my Bedouin name, Salah abu Sabr (Giving, Father of Fortitude), saying that, though I am no Muslim, I behave like a sheikh. He had been muttering on about gays and I stopped him, saying that, in my experience, gay and lesbian people can be people of high integrity because of the struggles they have been through with themselves and society. This struggle is jihad, the inner struggle that brings us to truth (often misunderstood as fighting and bombing). Jihad is all about putting yourself on the line, and gay people do this when ‘coming out’.
I told Mohammed what Sheikh Bukhari of East Jerusalem used to say: God is too great to fit within one faith – and its rules. I spoke of how the world is changing and we must make full use of ijtihad, or free-thinking, to free ourselves of dogma and the rigid aspect of tradition and received wisdom, for rigidity is a form of ignorance, resistance to the power of Allah.
I said that Westerners need to do this too because our situation is changing fast – we are no longer the monopoly-holders of modernity and new thinking. I spoke of my own involvement with criminals, dissenters, terrorists and people judged to be ‘wrong’, and I too have for decades been judged by conventional society as ‘wrong’ – yet those who search their souls and transform their lives come through with an insight and truth that ordinary, comfortable, line-toeing people miss.
|Israeli watchtower glowering over |
a Bethlehem street - we're all suspects
Later he took me to a mosque for afternoon prayers. I sat at the back meditating while he led prayers. A man was sitting not far away, chanting from the Qur’an – his voice was resonant, lilting. He was channelling holy sounds – it vibrated through my cells. At the end, Sheikh Mohammed brought the twelve men who had been praying with him over to me. “This man has today taught me a truth I needed to learn. Truth comes to us in strange ways. Remember to listen for truth from any direction – even from Jews. Allahu Akbar (God is Great).” I can’t remember the other invocation he made, but I emerged with him from the mosque feeling blessed and at peace.
We went to a cafe for falafel, hummus and salad. The TV was blaring pop music with writhing Lebanese girls dancing on the screen. I asked Mohammed whether he thought I could switch it off. “I shall defend you!”, he said. The waiter came over to find out what was going on, saw the sheikh and said “Shukran jazeelan (thanks a lot). I wanted to do it myself but I didn’t have the courage”, (so Mohammed translated it). I have made a new soul-friend in Mohammed Ibrahim Soboh – he’s a man after my own heart.
“I shall return. I love you all too much. I don’t know how, but I shall return.” They saw the tear in my eye and knew what I said to be true. Inshallah, I shall return.