This is Part Three of a 4-part series which documents the recent first-hand experiences of this author inhabiting the West Bank of Palestine, Jerusalem, Israel, and The Dead Sea area of the Middle East.
My first ten days in the West Bank of Palestine were mind shattering. Contrary to many preconceptions about this region, I never felt unsafe or unwelcome.
During the second part of my stay, I rented an apartment in a quiet neighborhood of Bethlehem. One day I stepped inside a tiny local shop. I felt an immediate connection with Jackleen, the woman working the store.
“I only slept one hour,” she said. Jakleen was the shop owner, and she had been up all night working her other job as a nurse at the hospital.
I was intrigued by her. The media I had been exposed to about Palestine had suggested that women do not have many rights. Some people had even told me that Palestinians may throw rocks at me if they thought I, as a woman, were dressed inappropriately. However, here I was face-to-face with a Palestinian woman who wears modern clothes similar to mine, who is well-educated, owns a business, and helps save the lives of children - all while wearing an exuberant smile.
Jakleen must have been equally intrigued with me because an hour later, I was riding as the front passenger in her SUV. We drove by Shepherd’s Field, where Catholics believe angels announced the birth of Jesus (or “Yeshua” as commonly pronounced in the Middle East).
Jakleen opened my eyes, just like so many other Palestinians, to the fact that multiple faiths harmoniously co-exist in Palestine.
A well-researched local artist and activist told me, “Before the Israeli military occupation, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other ideologies co-existed here with no problem. In pure Islam, we believe all of these religions are true as each prophet came to deliver the same loving message from God in a way that could be digested by the people of that region. We do not hate people of other religions. We believe in live and let live.”
This reminded me of the statistics on recent terrorist activity in the United States (see previous installments of this story), which indicate that over seventy percent of terrorist acts have been committed by right wing extremists, including white supremacists. This is an example of how extremism can exist within any country or ethnic group. The heinous acts of the few can give a bad name to the whole - if we allow superficial identity and bias to cloud our perception. Let this be proof of the fallacy in judging a book by its cover (how we hate it when it happens to us).
Over the next few days, Jakleen grew very dear to my heart. I met her husband, her in-laws, her children and grandchildren. We ate several homemade meals together, and somehow I gained their trust.
One day, while interviewing the family for an article to be featured on my website, Jakleen said, “I see you, Amanda. When I look into a person’s eyes, I can see if they have a good heart.”
For two whole weeks, I had been roaming the streets of the West Bank alone – a petite blonde American woman in the “warring” Middle East. I had encountered so much local appreciation for being open to experiencing this land for myself.
Most of the Palestinians with whom I interacted were well aware of how the media has portrayed people of their skin color and ethnicity. Yet they did not project any resentment onto me. I could, however, feel their sadness – a sadness with which I can relate: the sadness which arises when you clearly see how so much of the information fed to the public does not honestly represent who and what we are as common folk. As one Palestinian man said to me, “The government is not the people. The governments can be at war with each other, when the people are not.”
The silence of the next several moments was accompanied by a palpable feeling of connection and coherence that I can never forget. He and I were kindred hearts beneath the contrast of our superficial identities.
By the end of two weeks, I had been surrounded by so much warmth in Palestine that I wondered about all the chaos, violence, and rage that I had heard about in the media.
Then, Jakleen’s family shared the disturbing details of enduring the extreme conditions of the Second Intifada between 2000-2005. According to Israeli media (and other international media), the conflict was to crackdown on Palestinian terrorism. The youth of Palestine remember it differently.
Jakleen’s daughter, Diana, shared the following:
“I still remember I was only four years old. We played in the street … and then the Jewish Military called curfew on a loud speaker and everyone is running, scared. The fear was they would maybe shoot you. My father was holding my baby brother, running to go inside for curfew. He slipped and fell, and the military was pointing the gun at him and told him he had two minutes to go in the house … He pointed the gun and was five meters away. He was pointing it at us. I peed myself...”
My father was holding my baby brother, running to go inside for curfew. He slipped and fell, and the military was pointing the gun at him and told him he had two minutes to go in the house … He pointed the gun and was five meters away. He was pointing it at us. I peed myself...”
Living in a state of fear would become the norm for Diana. At around eight-years-old, she witnessed the murder of her neighbor, who was like a member of her own family.
She said, “They had a big tank. They called curfew, and our neighbor tried to open the door for another man to get inside for curfew. They shot him right in front of us. They killed him. He was my classmate’s dad.”
Diana remembers how her mother, Jakleen, used to sequester the children in secluded areas of the family home to muffle the noise of the guns being shot outside their windows. On some occasions, the windows were shattered by gunfire.
Jakleen said, “Day after day, I got used to it. It’s going to happen, we should just get used to living like that. Being terrified and scared was not a big thing because you were always crying from fear. I made up stories, jokes, and made fun playing with the kids to keep them distracted.”
Diana interjected at this time to explain that her mother used to create stories about what was happening outside the confines of their home during military patrols – stories which would help calm the children’s nerves, and shield them from the perilous reality.
Diana said, “Then as you grow up and everyone is talking at school you learn the stories are not true. Like the neighbor who was killed. The family told his son that his father was traveling. The child was always calling for his dad.”
Years later the child was informed that his father had been killed during the Intifada.
When asked how Jakleen and her husband were able to survive such horrifying times to become the smiling, cohesive family they are today, Jakleen said, “We do exercise, dance, and laugh when we feel stress. I was in a situation that I had to be strong. It wasn’t a decision to make. I had to raise my children with strength.”
“We believe in God. He give us something. He give us our children. So I have to give Him some faith back.”
“I believe that one day this will be over … God owns us. If he takes us, he takes us. It is destiny.”
After the interview, we shared some laughter, enjoyed some tea, and reveled in the gift of life in the present moment.
Jakleen then prepared herself for a volunteer engagement. Like the American doctor known as “Patch Adams,” Jakleen volunteers as “Doctor Clown” to bring smiles to sick children and lonely elderly.
Her days of meeting the sad realities of life with courage, cheer, and an exuberant smile are not over yet.
Click here to read the next installment of this series.