Revelations and realisation in the Holy Lands

Although our stay in Palestine was ten days brief, articulating my travels in just one thousand words is perhaps akin to panning for gold with a comically large colander, one punched mischievously with holes the size of mini-discs (should anyone care to remember that poorly-marketed victim of time’s ruthless march): many nuggets of travel-literature gold will pass through. My depiction, like hearing the beautiful “Alone In Kyoto” by Air in mono because of broken headphones, is therefore frustratingly limited. It could be said, in summation, that it was an unusual and very enjoyable journey, both surprising and shocking, and painfully sobering.

The mission was a brave undertaking organised largely by the Methodist Church, but made of more ecumenical matter. Two disparate groups of six students from The Queen’s University of Belfast and our own college came together under the tutelage of three chaplains. The Rev. Julian Hamilton of Trinity, well known and loved by those who enjoy the serene quiet and Tuesday’s complimentary lunches in the Chaplaincy, was one of these three. They held together a rag-tag bunch of sporting vagrants to rival even the men of Inglorious Basterds in eclectic nature, subscribing to varying degrees of both faith and tact.

Our hosts were the East Jerusalem YMCA based in a surprisingly large and modern building in Beit Sahour, a mostly Christian town near Bethlehem. The weather, firstly, was seriously hot. Hotter than jalapeños dipped in a sharp wasabi sauce, served by Scarlett Johansson in a leather corset. We were housed in a spartan but obliging Greek Melkite hostel – there were no grumbles about some very rowdy returns in the wee hours. In our mission of Christian solidarity we would be aiding their efforts in the West Bank: educating, rebuilding and helping to reintegrate those affected by the unending violence.

None of us arrived with any assured expectations of what exactly this would entail, although I think we all imagined social and structural building work of a kind: many smiling faces to see us off at the end, grateful for the Western hands that humbly deigned to aid their isolated community. Four days were set aside for hard labour as we would be toiling in their “Shepherd’s Grotto”; one of several insalubrious sites in the area where the heavenly host serenaded crook-carrying men of the Nativity. Different churches lay claim to differing dusty caves, such is the case with many of the holy sites in the Levantine lands. In two thousand years knowledge is lost and the landscape altered (one Calvary is now a handy bus station), and it seems all denominations have their slice of pious pie.

Renovations were needed here, so we ardently stripped unsightly pillars of their plaster and shovelled dirt to clear the floor, keeping spirits bobbing with synchronised hammering, harmonised sing-songs and by wearing the buckets on our heads. We warmed greatly to our task-master Rami, an energetic and  burly man I dubbed – I shall type phonetically – the “merciful Malik (King)”, and who called me his princess. He never tired of the mamelukes (slaves), pointing and asking “shoe ha?” (what is that?), nor equally of requests for coffee breaks. I cannot speak for all, but although hilariously pointless, I found the work satisfying and therapeutic. Perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight, this was not, however, to be our main task.

So dire is the situation and entrenched the conflict in the Middle East, that it fully permeates all areas of daily life. Religious institutions are absolutely no exception, as can be imagined given the significance of faith in the Holy Lands, and given religion’s importance in establishing identity, even national identity, in the region. The itinerary for the trip took in many of the spectacular holy places. In Jerusalem I was astounded by the spiritual fervour inspired by the Wailing Wall as some Hassidic Jews danced. We were granted a private mass in the Holy Sepulchre by an Irish Franciscan monk, but even here it is inescapable. It is a maddening political maze. There were the callous massacres of Muslims near the Dome of the Rock’s sappharine marble walls at Al-Aqsa, perhaps the third holiest site in Islam, and inside the ancient Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Muslims are now frisked by gruff soldiers before entry. There was the thirty-nine day siege at the Church of the Nativity – dead bodies were piled in the Catholic church built on the ground of Christ’s birth.

We were eyewitness to the mild but constant degradation that native Palestinians are subjected to every moment they remain in the West Bank. A school for young Palestinian girls, refugees in their own homeland, peppered casually with bullets by Israeli soldiers. A city older than ages, Hebron, the third oldest in the world, divided and occupied by aggressive and often violent Israeli settlers. They are protected by a growing army who destroy six millennia-old archaeological sites to build brutalist watch towers and actively discourage Palestinian trade, condemning entire markets with dripping-red aerosol Xs and dropping their stinking refuse into Palestinian streets and homes with sinister purpose from above. To cross the street here is to pass a checkpoint. “If a bomb goes off in London they impose a curfew” was how one exasperated Palestinian put it. From Herodium, where Herod the Great, Herod Antipas’s father, flattened the peak of a mountain to build his palace, one can clearly see the plans of growing Israeli settlements. They are cancerous. They choke Palestinian villages, stealing land and olive groves with high fences and motorised check points. Many have rebuilt their homes two or three times. The stories of abuse from new friends were raw and harrowing. We were left in a dark mood after intransigent discussions with an Israeli settler on the third day and later subjected to systemic unpleasantries ourselves with customs and border control guards.

This was, of course, completely orchestrated by our hosts. This is what they wanted from us: for our tongues to be touched by the same fires of hatred; to bear torches; to carry their story to world powers. Some felt manipulated. There was little word of the Israeli world view, though I doubt it could have assuaged our troubled minds. There are some similarities with Northern Ireland: people’s truculent ideas of religion and identity are a great cause of their “troubles”. But here, as we were constantly reminded, comparisons end. What is happening is so consciously unjust it physically pains to see it. Jewish Israelis have made comparisons with their own people’s tragic history, and the oppressive organs are funded by American, European and Irish money. It is a travesty of which, in fifty or a hundred years time, a popular book will be written or a movie made and everyone will ask how we let an entire nation and diverse culture be forced from their home.

Upon arrival we were whipped into a tornado of violent emotion, carried on wings of angry polemic and harried by the often depressing reality of the Middle East. It was tiring, and being flung out of it, dumped home to normal life of banter with mates and familial chores was, as one put it, “a reverse culture-shock”. My presence made no difference, but it forced a change in me. Or at least a realisation of a need for change. Although I and many others may enjoy the laissez-faire and luxurious life of the modern student bon vivants, this is not an excuse for indifference to suffering, or for inaction.