Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Picking olives in Israel/Palestine

"Everyone has conscience enough to hate: few have religion enough to love."
 ~ Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1887

Insert my standard [why-I-haven't-written] nonsense followed by my [I won't do it again] blather. Consider the [I-can't-be-trusted] warning.

After three lovely months in France with a few days in Switzerland and Italy, I decided to join my friends Nathan and Zohar on their annual Being Peace work retreat in Israel and Palestine. The short summary, from their non-profit's website: "The aim of this retreat is to bring love, compassion, and an openness of heart and mind to a place of pain, suffering and confusion." The full description, recommended, is here.  They also run the annual Anandwan retreat at the leprosy community in India.

I flew from Paris to Tel Aviv, via Athens, and after a late-night arrival, made my way to Jerusalem the next day. I'd been once to Israel in 1992, and was reminded of why I always said it was one of the most amazing places I've ever been. "Indian chaos at European prices" probably isn't going to grace the tourist brochures, but wow - the old city of Jerusalem is an overwhelming concoction of history, smells, propaganda, wardrobes, foods, skin colors, hair styles, tension and young people with guns. As I wandered through the narrow lanes I had the thought that not only do I not have any idea of what goes on here, but that it's actually unknowable. Even if you grew up here and were a scholar on the topic, you can't know it all: you can't know how That Guy feels, because you don't know him. (It is also impossible to separate your perceptions from your biases.) It seems so unbearably complex that it makes India feel simple in comparison. So you make an effort to learn some history and not pick sides - but for criminy sakes, people, just don't get to the point where you think something about this place is simple.

I had a day of walking around Jerusalem before joining the rest of the group. We went out yesterday for our first day of picking olives with a lovely Palestinian family that appreciates our presence more than our help with picking. Our group of 12 split into three areas, one of which went to a particularly tense area. Only two months ago the nearby Israeli settlers had come down from their hilltop (they're almost always on a hilltop) and set fire to about 50 ancient olive trees, burning them to the ground. (At least some of the settlers are convinced that God has granted them this land, so they are only claiming what is theirs. The Palestinians, not surprisingly, feel differently.) Some of the Israelis in our group have been doing this kind of volunteer work for 10 years, and much of our role is to simply support the olive picking and hopefully defuse the tension or potential for conflict by being there. Nothing dramatic happened this day, although lunch was dramatically delicious. It's a two week retreat, and we're just getting started, so we'll see what happens. Towards the end of our time we have a visit planned to Hebron, which is a traumatized and painful area to see, or so I'm told. ("The streets cry out," Nathan says.) We'll be lead by former Israeli soldiers who had been stationed there and are now working for human rights and justice. I really look forward to that.

Much love to you all,

The view from the roof of the beautiful Ecce Homo Convent in the Old City of Jerusalem, where I spent the night.

There are endless covered markets in the Old City - they're called souks.

The top of Damascus gate, one of the ancient entrances to the Old City.

The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, at night.

Kids walk down a closed market lane.

A view from the convent roof in the morning. The golden dome is the famous Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, “the most contested piece of real estate on earth,” if you believe Wikipedia.

The main function of the roofs of the Old City is for supporting crosses and satellite dishes. I have no Wikipedia page to support my theory, but look for yourself.

I watched these kids playing it cool like they were just hanging out on a step when the garbage man stopped, then take off running after the truck as it drove off, jumping on the back for a free ride.

I could watch people come and go for days in the lanes of the Old City.

A vendor hangs his clothes high up above his shop.

A Jewish man paces in front of the Western Wall as he reads scripture.

This guy walks faster than I can run.

Muslims sell baked goods in the lanes.

A popular t-shirt I saw in several shops.

Shops and more shops.

Olive picking day. As we arrive in the olive orchard, our host Jammal asks his wife to make us tea using the fire, not the gas stove.

Marcea from England, one of our group of volunteers.

The owner of the particular olive trees we were picking this day.

The extended family having a laugh.

This is Jammal, who has known Zohar and Nathan for several years.

Jess from London scoping out the olive tree.

Picking methods: by hand, shaking the branch, using a stick, climbing up in the tree, using ladders - all are acceptable. You discover quickly that covering the ground with tarps is critical.

Sumptuous lunch, including some wicked hummus - and everything drenched in olive oil. In conversation it came up that a family of seven Palestinians goes through about 200 liters of olive oil in a year.

Jammal's beautiful daughter Rian.

The team fans out for this olive tree.

In this game, you try to throw olives down the shirt of your friends. Tsalia from France 19, who by the way also speaks English, German and Japanese, makes fast friends with the young Palestinian girls.

Palestinian Jammal in conversation with Israeli Moran, who I met on the Dharma Yatra in France two years ago. Seems easy enough, no?

(The End)