Friday, 9 March 2012

Watershed at Fullmoon

The sun came out on Monday and the temperature has been rising daily after a period of gales, rain, snow and cold – the weather systems blasting us moved back up north, where they belong. The weather this week has been benign, forgiving, allowing us to stretch and open out again after a gruelling two months.

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.

This deep rumbling process has been a background issue underlying the many events of late. One has been a new friendship with Sheikh Mohammed Ibrahim Sobeh, a former engineering entrepreneur, then Nestlé's representative in Palestine in the early 1990s, of Bedouin stock, who is now a sheikh (cleric and social leader) and the chairman of 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.

Mohammed has asked me to find ways of having up to twenty children adopted or temporarily fostered in Britain. Some of them need medical operations. Palestine does not have the medical or educational facilities to handle complex cases such as these. Many of these children are products of the malnourishment, trauma and rigours of the intifada ten years ago.

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.

Some responded when I extended my hand and talked to them, while others didn’t respond or were wary. I watched one autistic kid doing colouring-in, carving the paper and breaking the pencils one by one but so very intent on what he was doing that he wasn’t at all interested in relating to me. One little girl clearly saw my aura and clung to me, and I rubbed her back and ran my fingers through her hair – she loved that.

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.

But I can seek out contacts, brief Brits on the conditions and cultural issues in Palestine and get things going, then monitor and assist the interaction between the two countries. If, that is, anything of this project actually works. I explained that, in the first instance, Brits will need to know three major questions. Who are these people? Can they be relied on? And, will it work? In my assessment, the answer is Yes to the second two questions.

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.

They need to have certain key qualities, such as realism, simplicity reliability, good English, Internet skills (e-mail, attachments, Skype, images and PDFs), and also a grasp of what life is like in the West. Too many Palestinians wishfully believe we’re rich, free and powerful and that life in the West is easy – so they have unrealistic expectations of what’s possible and what’s involved. If they have a ‘We’re suffering Palestinians and you must save us’ mentality, it’s not going to work.

Mohammed and his daughter have been to the West and they know roughly what it’s like, in real terms. They are also competent realists who aren’t interested in exporting souls to the West except in those difficult cases where Palestine just can’t do anything for them, or where a few years in the West would make a big difference for the children. It can be medically and nutritionally advantageous, educationally helpful and empowering for the children – though of course each child must be assessed individually by qualified people and, for some kids, it might not be the best strategy, since it’s a big cultural jump and distance means there’s no easy going back – there’s no running home to the family.

One of the teachers at Nur al Bara'h
So I am starting to put out signals seeking advice and contacts, primarily to find someone in Britain who will take on this project and run with it. It will involve Palestinians visiting Britain and Brits visiting Palestine, serious discussions, funding, negotiations and visas, and no doubt much more. If you have any concrete clues, you know how to find me.

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.

I had some strong words for a good friend of mine called Adnan. It’s a long story, but he’s having financial problems ultimately to do with the situation here in Palestine, but they are also very much of his own making. He vainly believes things will magically get better if only he just does this or that, which they won’t, and I told him so ages ago. He over-invests, goes too big, and now he has debt-collectors and lawyers on his tail. He tries blagging money from me, projecting the usual ‘rich Westerner’ image on me, and I’m fed up with it. He uses emotional blackmail, so caught up in his issues as he is, and his pride blocks him from learning.

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 saw his son Adam yesterday. Adam had been ill too, with a stomach problem which causes him to throw up, unable to eat. I did some psychic healing with him when he had a crisis in January, and he got better the very next day. I knew Allah was teaching him something, giving him a spiritual initiation. But he still needed his guardian angels to be brought closer to him, and I did that. (I was very ill myself as a child, and lying ill in bed brought me my first spiritual experiences and gave me a sense of mission in life, a sense of how to turn adversity into advantage). Adam is really special: I know he will do something great with his life and, in a previous year, I paid his school fees. I’ve promised Adnan I’ll keep my eye on him as he grows up. I have a feeling Adam might lose his Dad before long. I can’t bring healing to Adnan because he fails to open up – I’ve tried and dropped 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
He sat quietly for a while and then said: “Yes, you are right. I shall think on your words. God bless you. Today I am reminded that Muslims are not the only holders of truth. Sometimes we have heads of stone”. Anyone who stretches beyond their own narrownesses is a friend of mine.

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.

Later I was standing with Jane waiting for Ishmael the taxi-driver in Manger Square. The full moon was slowly rising above the Church of the Nativity and the square was humming with people, including a large number of Westerners, here for a conference called ‘Christ at the Checkpoint’. These are Christians I can relate to – people who truly follow the teachings of their master, people of conscience, people prepared like Jesus to step out of line. Ijtihad. All of us need to practise it, for the world is changing, changing more than we can know, and a new time of history is beginning, right now.

We went for tea and sweets with Ishmael’s family in Deheisheh camp. His wife is delightful and his family of seven is warm and welcoming. They are upset that I am leaving soon (end of March), but they know that I have family too, and a life in Britain, and that I’m invited to Kosovo and Chechnya. “We shall miss you”, said Fatema, the eldest daughter. “When will you return?”, asked Doha, third daughter.

“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.