Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Night In Nazareth

“After all this Nabila told them at the end, ‘Despite what you did to us, nothing will budge me from my humanist principles; nothing will change the human side of me, and if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I will be the first to protect you.’”

We drove from Haifa through the Jordan valley, stopping to buy corn from a young Israeli Palestinian boy who responded cautiously to Hannah’s Arabic—here in this fertile plain, the remaining Palestinian farmers were being squeezed into smaller and smaller land areas with less and less access to the irrigation systems that made all possible while new Jewish Israeli housing was climbing up the hills—of course, he spoke fluent Hebrew as did all the Palestinian Israelis we met—why learn Hebrew, Hannah had said to me in her always turning-the-table vision, so many more people speak Arabic. There is no road taken in Israel, it seemed to me, that does not bring confrontation with loss—if you are willing to see it. We were on our way to meet with Hannah and Dalia’s friend, Nabila, who runs the Nazareth Women’s Center and who with Hannah and the Haifa’s Women’s Center is working to found the first Women’s History Archives in Israel.

Nazareth is a Christian Palestinian city, and I had already come to recognize when we were in a town where Palestinians were in the majority—it was dustier, poorer, lower down on the mountain but Nazareth also has the spirit of an international religious tourist destination; here on a town street was Mary’s Well, a small stone cave with a simple urn. Sitting in our hotel lobby waiting for our rooms, we witnessed bus loads of tourists from Vietnam and India pour through the door, medieval-looking religious banners flying from the handles of their luggage; these were relaxed pilgrims, chatting, sandaled, looking a little worn from their journey but eager for more, it seemed. Nabila would later explain to us that this influx of visitors brought very little money to Nazareth—the tourists were from poorer countries and they traveled in tour groups, bused into the town for one day and night and then right out again in the morning. Our perfectly modest and spare room had a small balcony and we looked out upon the hills of Nazareth and its winding streets. I still sometimes in this old land could not believe where I was, the shock of biblical place names and the reality of the political and social struggles of the people of Nazareth, of Bethlehem, of Jerusalem.

The four us, Hannah and her partner Dalia, and Di and I walked down the main street, past the well of Mary to greet Nabila, who was waiting to welcome us to Nazareth and take us to a newly opened restaurant for dinner. Nabila waved and grinned, a tall large woman comfortably dressed, who clearly was known in her city. No pretenses but powerful in her convictions, in her dedication to her projects, a woman who traveled to Europe frequently to garnish support for her Women’s Center and to speak about human rights and the struggles of Palestinian women. As for so much of this journey, I stood back and tried to understand what I was seeing. The three women friends embraced the embrace of comrades—laughs, kisses—friends of long standing yes, but also workers for a common goal who lived in different worlds. The closest I had come to this kind of intimate coalition was in 1965 in our late night meetings in Selma, Alabama after a long day of voter registration work in the back roads, a group of tired nervous men and women from all over the United States, black and white, drinking beer and talking about what had been survived that day and what lay ahead. But those intimate moments ended when I returned to the lower East Side, a month later. Dalia, Hannah and Nabila were working together for the long haul.

The hugs ended, the circle opened to include Di and me and we continued our walk up the twisting street. Coming out of the restaurant we were headed for was a group of dignified but animated matronly Palestinian women. They stopped to warmly greet Nabila. As they sailed past us, some of the life of the street went with them. I said, “They look like powerful women.” Nabila laughed and said they are the women of the Inner Wheel of the Rotary Club.

The restaurant, set in a beautiful old stone building, church-like, was filling up with diners. Di and I were given the seats that looked out the arched window into night time Nazareth. “My sister, Hala, will be joining us,” Nabila said, as she motioned to the waiter, an old friend too it seemed and in Arabic placed our communal order. The meal that ensued is one I will never forget—so much was going all at the same time and it all seemed so important—the talking, the listening—some of the most intense listening I had ever done—the texture and goodness of the food—the hardness of the stories—the shared laughter between the three old friends—as they mocked their mutual political situations with small games about swapping pieces of land represented by the salt and pepper shakers, but behind it all was Nabila’s intense desire that Di and I understand what was at stake, that we were not mere guests who could leave the table without involving ourselves in the question of how to proceed—not that she fed us answers or bullied us in anyway—this was a woman totally dedicated to her communal and political work—without guns or huge political machines at her disposal.

Shortly after we had stated eating, Hala joined us, dressed in her professional finery. Kisses, hugs across the table and then the return to eating and talking, catching up and introduction of Di and me. The same warmth of response. And then Nabila asked Hala to tell us what had happened to them on their last trip home from Jordan.

E-mail, June 4, 2007 from Hannah Safran:
Dear Joan, so good to know that you have arrived home safely, to be able to make new friends, and such dear friends, at our age and times is a special occurrence…Here you have, as a last course, the story we were told in the restaurant in Nazareth translated into English. Now the rest of the world will be able to read it and know something about the terrible state of affairs in the Israeli state.

Trying to Get Home
(translated from the Hebrew by Dana Ron)
Hello everyone,

I would like to share with you a very difficult experience that we had yesterday in the border crossing with Jordan. Yesterday, upon returning from Jordan, my sister, Nabila Espanioly and I met a person we know, who is responsible for a fundraising organization—Altawun Foundation—and he suggested to take us in his car to Nazareth. Nabila and I were checked, went out, and waited for him outside. He was delayed for a security interrogation. We waited for more than an hour, and then security people came to us and asked why we were waiting. We said our friend was delayed for an interrogation. They then asked us to return and be checked again. First we refused, but then, after pressure from the security people, we returned inside.

We underwent a humiliating security check, annoying and depressing. A very thorough search of our body and of every item we had with us. They left nothing unopened and unsearched. We had closed boxes of cookies that we had brought for our nephew’s wedding and we asked that they won’t be opened since they will spoil. But they were stubborn and opened everything and in particular the cookies got spoiled. This check took about four hours—we left the border at around 10pm. This was one of the worst experiences of my life. Even though we asked that they try and finish more quickly since we had a family gathering and all our family was waiting for us, this simple human request was ignored by them.

During this humiliating process, I asked to talk with the supervisor. I introduced myself and said that I was human rights and civil rights activist, that I am a lecturer in the academia and a board member of the Association for Civil Rights and several other organizations that promote democratic discourse. I asked her to apply some common sense and said if we had anything to hide then we wouldn’t have waited outside after undergoing the security checks, and we wouldn’t have told her truthfully that we are waiting for a friend that is delayed by security. Her answer was that there is no logic in security. She also said that knows that it is a humiliating and unpleasant check and she apologizes but there are the rules.

I wonder how it is possible that a “democratic” country will manage its security on an illogical basis? On humiliating its citizens for no reason only because they spoke the truth? Why is there no grain of humanity in the security people? How do they want to contribute to a common life together?

After all of this Nabila told them at the end, “Despite what you did to us, nothing will budge me from my humanist principles; nothing will change the human side in me, and if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I will be the first to protect you.”

Dr. Hala Espanioly

I must stop now—I know this is not the way a blog should be, but I am old and work slowly and there is so much pressing at my heart. I can still here Hala’s voice—the word she used was “the sweets,” this elegant woman pantomiming how the guard had dumped the wedding gift on the table, leaving the sweets in pieces. So much warmth was given us that night—and the question of how we keep the sweets alive in this racked country.