It seems fitting that I begin to resurrect this blog by referring back to my experiences in Jerusalem, almost sixteen months ago. A lot has happened since then, both personally and in the life and landscape of Jerusalem and the occupied territories.
Arriving into Jerusalem after an early morning journey from Nazareth, I was exhausted but excited to see this city that up until this point in my life, had only ever been captured by BBC news for all the wrong reasons. Yet here I was, confronted by the sights, sounds and smells of East Jerusalem at Damascus Gate which was a stone’s throw away from our hotel.
Unpacking quickly, we shut the door of our room, handed in the key at reception and walked into the old city. For those of you who know Damascus Gate it is a cacauphony of noise and smells – it was fantastic! Walking through the streets I was met with vendors vying for my business and tourists that were determined not to lose their tour guide. The alleys were packed. Herbs, spices and tobacco smoke filled the air. Orthodox Jews walked with determination in getting to the Western Wall, Arabs jostled their way towards prayers, tourists scrambled over one another to follow the via delarosa. Thankfully I wasn’t in Jerusalem to buy goods and services nor there to be a tourist and follow some random guy with a pink umbrella claiming Jesus put his hand here, or walked the very cobbled streets you are now walking on trivia. My pilgrimage was different. I wanted to get to know Jerusalem, its heart and its people… oh, and try their shawarma.
I soon got my fix of shawarma and continued to walk the streets of Jerusalem and head towards the Western Wall. I have always been fascinated by the history of the Jewish people but now that I was looking out across the vast square towards the last remaining wall of Solomon’s Temple I was left with no sense of awe and wonder as I expected. The place was filled with contradictions. I had been unaffectionately allowed in through the check-point accessed from East Jerusalem by a young soldier who looked at me with distain that just got my back up. I walked past posters and plaques claiming God’s presence as still in/near/at the wall, which all seemed rather strange to me – talk about iconography! As far as the eye could see, I saw: young groups of soldiers no older than 18 or 19 some praying with Torah and gun; others smoking and flirting with the young women who didn’t know better; groups of Jews talking and discussing about the business of the day; others handing out the obligatory kippas for the gents; children running around and of course, swarms of tourists. I was numb. Something just didn’t seem right. I couldn’t put my finger on it… but somehow, in the midst of my emotion I was reminded of Jesus, as he looked out over Jerusalem and wept.
Jerusalem served as a base to see some of the projects that ‘Embrace www.embraceme.org‘ partner with in East Jerusalem and in Bethlehem. The Princess Basma Centre is a wonderful school and rehabilitation centre for Palestinian and Israeli Arab children. My time there with the staff and the children was one of the most meaningful times I had. I plan to dedicate a post on the Princess Basma Centre later so I’ll keep this experience short.
One of the most significant and eye-opening experiences I had was the time I spent in Bethlehem and visiting Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation (BASR). Our journey began by riding through confiscated Palestinian land in the shadows of massive settlements that were being constructed. We had, of course, to enter Bethlehem via a check-point at the wall – the physical reminder that the divisions in the land are far, far deeper than the concrete on shameful display. Not knowing how long the wait at the crossing would be, we packed some extra food just in case we were kept a while. As it turned out we got through quite quickly. Despite that, the whole experience left me uneasy. How on earth could Palestinians endure the humiliating experience of check-points in their daily life when one trip could take a matter of minutes or hours on end, dependant on whether the young soldiers fancied a tea break or not? What a brutal existence. The wall itself is monstrous, dividing families, access to the olive trees that have been in families for generations, or even dividing areas of a house. I kid ye not! Anyway, I digress…
BASR was an incredible place. It is a hospital that serves some of the most vulnerable Palestinian people in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Sitting down in the office of the founder and CEO Edmund, I saw a glimpse into the beauty that occurs when we respect people regardless of creed, colour, ability, disability or economic standing. What a visionary. A driven man whose ministry to the able bodied and disabled population was remarkable. I will write more about my experience here at a later date but again, I was deeply moved and challenged.
My time in Israel and Palestine went far too quickly. The landscape and the people I met in my short time there have left their mark. It has taken me over a year to process my experiences and to come to terms with some of the harsh realities of life in the Middle East. It is divided, complex and brutal. Yet with faint sprigs of hope for the future. This blog will be a place for me to unpack some of those thoughts. Primarily though I will be using this medium to inform and educate those that are unfamiliar with the complexities of the conflict of the Middle East. More importantly however I hope that this blog becomes a place where you and I can strive after peaceful resolution. I’m under no illusion that what I share and those that journey with me will come up with any solutions. Greater people than you and I have failed. There are broken promises and deep divisions. Yet, despit this we simply must pursue peace. So, I hope you will join me as I look to grapple with a land that has gotten under my skin and a people whom I want to journey with.