Ever since I returned from Palestine and Israel a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of a summary post or report or analysis or something to kind of tie a nice little bow on my experience, to have some finished product to point to that summarizes the things I saw and experienced while over there.
But life got in the way, as it is in the habit of doing. There was an untended inbox which had gotten rather bloated as a result of ten days of inattention. And there were meetings and appointments to keep. And there was an out-of-town conference to attend. And there was Palm Sunday worship to prepare for. And then, of course, there was Brussels and all kinds of other stories whose badness and sadness are no less worthy of our collective attention for their not being headline news.
And gradually, the sights and sounds and smells and hopes and fears of ten days spent a world away began to recede into the rearview mirror. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, at the end of it all. Perhaps the last thing the world (or the internet, at least) needs is one more postcard from the well-worn trails of ethical/religious tourism. One more voice who happens to have seen a few things and now imagines that they understand things far too complex and painful to grasp on a ten-day tour. One more cause to line up with all the others. One more injustice to be righteously inflamed about. One more painful reality to jostle for a few scraps of compassion from the table. Maybe sometimes it’s not such a bad things that words fail.
Over the past few evenings, I will often just scroll through my photo album. Sometimes it is not words but images that speak the loudest or the truest or the most evocatively. Sometimes it is a picture, more than any analysis or statistics or data, that tells a story most poignantly. There are a number of photos that I took during my ten days that I regularly pause over, but none more than this one. This image speaks to my soul.
I took this picture one afternoon in Hebron. I snapped it quickly, with my camera down by my hip. I was trying to be discreet. I didn’t want her to see me seeing her.
We were heading back to our van after a sobering afternoon spent in a sobering place. Hebron is the site of the 1994 massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque (or, the Cave of the Patriarchs), the site where Abraham and Sarah (among others) are said to be buried. The story of Hebron since then has been one of increasing restrictions and repression endured by the Palestinian residents of the city, despite the fact that the massacre was perpetrated by an American-Israeli fanatic who opened fire in the mosque….
Never mind the analysis, the data, the statistics…
She was one of dozens of kids that we had encountered on our walk around Hebron that day. Most of them were trying to sell us trinkets, gum, bracelets, etc. They were desperate, but we were told not to buy things from them because if we did, there would soon be a hundred more following us around. So we kept our eyes determinedly fixed forward. At least, I did. I didn’t want to “encourage” them. God, wouldn’t that have been awful? So we ignored them. At least, I did.
But this girl… She was hard to ignore. She wasn’t trying to sell anything. She didn’t have the air of frantic desperation that the others did. She was just standing there. While the strange people with their cameras and their notebooks and their obvious wealth paraded around her neighbourhood, taking stock of the injustice, cataloguing the sorrow, she just stood. And watched. Looking at us. Looking past us. Hands folded… peacefully? Resignedly? Defiantly? Hopefully? Who knows?
What did those eyes see, I wondered. What had they seen? Did she have a father or a mother or a sibling who has been the victim of violence? Did her family have enough to eat? Did she go to school? Did she have friends? Was she ever on the receiving end of kindness? Did she like to write stories or fly kites or listen to music? Did she fight with her brothers? Or did she just stand there and watch as the ethical/religious tourists walked by, sadly shaking our heads, wiping our eyes, listening and learning, imagining that we were changing anything?
Such a beautiful little girl. But I couldn’t get behind those eyes, I couldn’t ask her to tell me her story. I couldn’t do anything but weakly walk on by. I didn’t, at least.
But even though I didn’t listen to this little girl in Hebron two weeks ago, I can try to listen to her now. I can gaze into this precious little face from a land characterized by so much that is unholy, and I can see the whole story of this week we call “holy.”
I can see the innocent victim, the one unjustly treated, the one who takes the blame for crimes never committed, the one who absorbs the misdirected wrath of the angry mob. I can see the scapegoat.
I can also see strength. I can see resilience, curiosity, even rumours of joy. I can see a future not yet scripted and a promise that might yet be fulfilled. I can see an openness to surprise—to the possibility of miracles coming out of the least likely places and being told through the unlikeliest people. I can see those little feet running and running as if from an unlikely gardener and an empty tomb.
I can see sorrow stretching out toward joy, despair stretching out toward hope, death stretching out toward life. Even with those arms folded. It might just be what I want to see. Or what I need to see. But maybe that’s at least part of what Holy Week is about—stretching out toward what we want and need and finding that these are the very things that are there to welcome us and guide us to new life.
I took the picture of the tree above as we were leaving Hebron. This image, too, speaks to me of death stretching out toward life.