January 7, 2010 – part one

If only the Palestinians had a Gandhi
Part One

As I travel in the West Bank and see the ravages of the Israeli occupation and the disintegration of much of Palestinian hope as well as a functional political process, a question keeps haunting me. In the US, people who know only about suicide bombers and militant resistance, who only see Hamas violence on CNN and hear Israeli anxiety about the inexplicable rage of “those people,” often ask me, “Why don’t the Palestinians have a Gandhi? A Martin Luther King? A Mandela? Some civilized leadership committed to nonviolence?” But on the ground, I see a totally different picture that is much more from the grassroots and deeply woven into people’s consciousness.

At the Al Rowwad Children’s Theater in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, the founder Abed Abusour, talks determinedly of “beautiful resistance,” of fighting hopelessness and violence with childrens’ theater and dance, women’s sewing and embroidery groups, classes in aerobics and yoga, computer labs, a study hall and library. The center sits a few blocks from the grotesque separation wall with garbage piled high, skinny cats darting in and out. One entry to the camp is framed by an enormous key with the words in Arabic and English, “NOT FOR SALE.” Of the 4000 inhabitants, all descendants from the 1948 expulsion from Palestine, over half are children. There are no playgrounds or green spaces, the UNRWA school is poorly funded with often 40-50 children in a class, a lack of books and supplies, many of the men are unemployed. There are bumpy winding open streets and narrow alleyways, newer housing in pink/orange carved stone with wrought iron gates and graceful balconies, and more austere apartments desperately in need of repair with multiple families and generations living in close quarters. Bullet holes and fractured solar panels attest to earlier Israeli incursions. Al Rowwad has built an open air theater adjacent to the wall. At the base of the platform someone has spray painted a welcome sign to the Pope who recently came to see the children’s performance. The Israelis insisted the actual stage be located slightly distant from the wall, as if turning one’s head could possibly hide its ugliness and implications.

Abed refers to himself as “a social entrepreneur,” working 7 days a week, his desk piled with reports, several computer screens, and cups of tea. When we visit, he is meeting with accountants and bankers trying to plot the upcoming annual budget at a time when funding is scarce and an Ashoka grant has just ended. His business plan feels part hope, part luck, and mostly sheer perseverance. When he speaks, his vision of beautiful resistance is passionate and solid, but the desperation in the camp, his fear of losing another generation of children, and the crisis in funding are clearly weighing on his mind.

Abed’s wife, Nahil, a science teacher with an East Jerusalem ID and a second family home in East Jerusalem, is upstairs working with a group of women to create a display of the camp’s exquisite traditional embroidery: bags, jackets, small zippered cases with delicate stitchery in reds and blacks, deep blues, greens and yellows, patterns reflecting the Star of Bethlehem. There is a warm camaraderie amongst the women. They are clearly proud of their work.

My daughter and I stay with the Abusours in their newly built home about 1 1/2 miles from the camp, which is overcrowded with no room for growing families. Abed refers to the cluster of families in this new neighborhood as “the extraterrestrials, no one wants us.” The house was started 8 years ago and is not quite done; a full apartment on each floor, a modern kitchen with attractive cherry cabinets Nahil picked out of a US catalogue and then had built locally. There is heavy, dark upholstered Palestinian furniture and embroidered pillows. The house echoes with the sounds of five boisterous children, 1 1/2 to 9 years old, drawing, laughing, watching TV (Their favorite movie is “Shall We Dance?”) fighting, jumping on beds, and taking care of each other. The bathroom has a cup with 5 little toothbrushes and animal stickers on the mirror. The 1 1/2 year old toddles around pointing and chirping, wearing her coat most of the time, which seems to be her security blanket. We are presented with a collection of drawings: butterflies, neat houses with rows of flowers and a bright yellow sun, a boat in the sea surrounded by fish. I note that the children have never actually seen much of these scenes. This is the globalization of TV imagery, the Disneyfication of the childhood imagination, but as the parents remark, better than the drawings a few years ago, of guns and tanks.

Nahil maintains an incredible serenity in this organized chaos, chopping various greens, preparing traditionally spiced chicken and rice with toasted almonds and the ubiquitous olive oil, setting herbs to dry, throwing in yet another load of laundry. She sits for a moment to strategize how we could help to find catalogues to order experimental kits to start a science club at school, “bugs and things, no explosions.” Earlier in the day she tried a Flamenco class led by a Japanese volunteer, but she admits she really preferred the yoga class my daughter taught later. “More relaxing, less difficult.”

I am unprepared for how healthy and normal this family feels. They have an additional layer of stress beyond their refugee status. Due to Israeli family reunification laws, Abed was unable to obtain a permit to legally live with his wife and growing family in East Jerusalem for six years. His wife and children do not want to lose their precious Jerusalem IDs because it gives them access to better health care, schools, work, and extended family. Abed describes years of harrowing attempts to sneak into the city, beatings, and an occasional arrest. Now the family splits its time between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem but Abed has to travel separately through the Bethlehem Terminal while his wife can take the children through in her car with the yellow Israeli plates. At this point the children still think this is normal.

I can never fully walk in the shoes of the Palestinians who share their stories with me, but it seems obvious that Abed and Nahil, and the invisible people living in the Aida camp must make a powerful committment to nonviolent resistance every day of their lives under incredibly challenging and harsh conditions. CNN, when will this make headlines?