Across the valley from my bedroom window in Beit Sahour, there is a massive Israeli settlement. It's not fully inhabited, but the idea is that if a building is put up and two families live there, then possession is 9/10ths of the law. Irregardless, the settlements are illegal. Surrounding the settlement is a wall. In fact, everywhere one looks, there is a wall or a fence with ominous wiring that tells insiders to keep in and outsiders to stay out. It amazes me that in a place of such spiritual inclusion there is so much physical separation. It also amazes me that while I am truly an outsider, I have never felt so warmly welcomed as I have by the people within these walls.
Life in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour is made both simple and complex by the politics of this region. The way I see it, politics builds these walls, within and around which the people must learn to live. In one way, what results is a convulted, piece-meal way of life, where, for example, men are forced to navigate beyond the walls and around the checkpoints of the West Bank in order to find better work in Israel so that they can feed their families. The man-made imposition of this reality makes for so many layers of complexity because it raises the stakes and imposes a dire level of unpredictability for the lives of the people within it. Because Palestinians do not have control of their own borders, they also lack control of their livelihoods and, therefore, their own lives.
At the same time, there is also a simplicity imposed by the ominous barrier around us. But perhaps simplicity isn't the right word. Rather, I think the right way to put it is that there is a simple purity felt from within the community. Everyone knows their neighbor, they all say hello on the street, and the family is the central unit of life. Contained within the bleak buildings of the rutted and poorly cared for streets is a richness of love and warmth that I'm yet to experience elsewhere. It's a pure sense of welcoming that cannot come from old stone walls, but from the people living within them. It's a place where childhood is revered and babies are showered with more kisses in an hour by 3o relatives than some American children see in a lifetime. It's a place where men hold hands and women dance freely amongst each other.
Behind these walls, I already feel my own walls coming down. I've seen what it's like to live on the other side of the check point line, and now I'm seeing it from within. A year ago, I knew that living on the Jewish side of Jerusalem would change me. If anything, it deepened my spiritual connection to the human condition. Among the Israelis, I was intricately exposed the level of fear in which they live, where there is a constant edginess that one's life my be eclipsed. Either this, or we will all be pushed into the sea. But rather than being scared about taking that next breath, the experience made me sweeter, kinder, more patient and much more gentle with myself and others. It's only when you are in that much darkness that you can see the stars.
But when I say that my walls are coming down, I'm realizing that there is a level of resistance that we all are capable of putting up against ourselves, if not our 'others'. I'm learning not to focus so much on what I don't have, but on what I have right now. At the moment, this would entail two large duffle bags, a lovely new computer, hair that is in the process of becoming long again, and a spirit ready to take on the world.