For those readers unfamiliar with the dynamic, self-contained universe that is Old City Jerusalem, allow me to explain a few of its more rewarding opportunities should you come to visit in the future. First, I assume what brings you to such a place is an insatiable curiosity and strong desire to wander. Well, you won’t find a more perfect place than the Old City. Despite jam-packed days filled with meetings, West Bank adventures or settlement excursions, I have found sufficient time to spare. This spare time is as valuable as whatever you have planned on your schedule, so I suggest you use it wisely.
Whether with a friend or by yourself (personally, I suggest the latter), wandering aimlessly throughout the four quarters of the Old City provides you with an opportunity to reflect much more deeply than you would have initially intended upon arrival. I found myself engaging in conversation with some of the most random, fascinating people whose personalities painted a vibrant color on the canvas of my life, regardless of how brief or trivial they might have been. It is rather easy to get lost in this maze of streets (names of which I cannot pronounce, let alone remember), bordered by vendors which all seem to blend together in predictable patterns. Faced with left or right turns, I made impulse decisions based on factors I can only attempt to explain (colors, foot traffic, etc.). Each led me within a new world, with new faces, smells and sounds. As I wove my way through the crowd, clueless as to where I was headed, I began to think about how this reflected the greater, collective wandering of which we are all a part. Life, unique to you, is, I would be willing to guess, not so different in mine in that we are each wandering rather aimlessly. We are guided by a seemingly infinite number of factors which lie outside of our control, and though we think our choices and actions lead us deliberately down our path to our desired outcomes, we only fool ourselves in thinking so. We are shaped by our environment, learning to move and survive in it, helplessly conforming to it despite our best efforts, and at the end of the day we crave to have our existence validated by another wandering soul. The Old City offers this experience, to which the wanderer is attracted, and one cannot help but reflect on the many random events in life that brought them to this extraordinary place.
Our visits to the West Bank have provided their own reflections, though not as curiously hopeful as what is contained within the ancient walls of the Old City. Visits to Sebastia, Nablus, East Jerusalem and Bethlehem have thus far left me racked with a shared suffering and frustration for the Palestinian people. For decades these desperate people have been bludgeoned by the force of the occupying power, their hopes routinely crushed whenever their masters felt necessary. Of course, we arrived with all sorts of preconceptions of Arab culture. But once immersed in it, one can’t help but admire the ancient beauty which remains intact after centuries of foreign threats. The Arab hospitality which my friend Caroline spoke of previously in this blog is undeniably real. Unfortunately, equally as undeniable, is the underlying motive of mere survival. Their persistence in extracting sheckels from you, despite their best intentions, is not born of a deceitful, disingenuous attitude, but rather a desperation only truly understood by those who are faced with a similar daily struggle under the weight of oppression.
It was until today that this painful desperation weighed so heavily on my conscience–until we had the privilege of visiting the Diyar organization in Bethlehem. Diyar, in its mission statement, pronounces its emphasis “on children, youth, women and the elderly through unique programs that are contextual and holistic in nature.” Ambiguous language aside, what is immediately apparent once you walk into their beautiful facility is that Diyar is an invaluable outlet for the oppressed, mainly through their encouragement of the arts. It was inspiring to see the arts truly flourishing in such an environment; one can imagine with the struggle to survive each day so central and profound to the average Palestanian, the personality is stifled and left with little opportunity to express itself. Though we each do what we must to afford what tomorrow brings, there is little in life that is more valuable than experiencing and expressing oneself creatively. Palestinians, from my observations, typically view themselves as insignificant and without a voice, reduced to utterly plain duplicates of the same unfortunate person trapped within the walls of fear. To see what creative beauty these Palestinians were allowed to share through the Diyar organization was truly inspiring, lightening the burdensome load that each of us had been lugging around as we debated the moral dilemmas this conflict is ripe with.
Tomorrow we head off to Hebron, the largest of the Palestinian towns, and I expect to see more suffering and desperate frustration. However, I will also be more attuned to the glimmers of hope and creative expression, however concealed they may be amidst the chaos. Israel is certainly a magical place, whether or not one is moved by religion; the history itself provides something palpable, a connectedness to which even I feel a part. For those moved by curiosity, aware of their own wandering in this maze called life, I suggest you take a visit and stay in Old City, Jerusalem; the experience will allow you to reflect deeply upon your place in thousands of years of human history, unfolding in ways which we can’t always predict, but originating in lands which provide clues to life’s most puzzling questions.