Saturday, May 30, 2009

Palestinian smiles that touch the heart

“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all embracing and unconditional love of all mankind. … When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principal of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality. … Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”
Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York

May 30, 2009

We arrived in Gaza about mid afternoon yesterday. The world there was transformed by the smiling faces of the Palestinian people. But I didn’t have to look to see them. My eyes could feel the way they softened the air while at the same time they charged it with affection that touched my heart. It lasted through the rest of the evening, and made me wonder how close a human can be to the door of King’s ultimate reality.

The day needed the props of uncertainty to set the stage. That would come at Rafah; would the Egyptians let us through. We reached the border by 10:00 and quickly learned we would be allowed to cross into Gaza. Then we encountered a setback. Only two of the three buses and the truckload of playground equipment were allowed past the first checkpoint without any delay. The third bus was detained because there were two Egyptian women on board.

Ann Wright was with them negotiating with the authorities while we all waited inside the customs building. Our hopes that she’d prevail weren’t realized.
Both women were denied passage. They were to be taken back to Al Arish and would plan to try again the next day. The rest of us settled in for what became a four hour wait to cross the imaginary line drawn between Egypt and Gaza.

When we finally stepped into the zone between the two places, we loaded new buses for the short drive to the Gaza customs office. There we had disembarked into an atmosphere lit by the cheers and vibrant Gazan smiles.

Inside we received a brief but incredibly warm welcome and witnessed a Palestinian/Canadian wedding that had been waiting eight years to happen. We turned in our passports one more time, hauled all the luggage to the three air conditioned buses waiting on the other side, then began our drive through Rafah to Gaza City. This time our motorcade escort wasn’t armed as it had been coming from Cairo. Two UN cars with flags flapping in the wind led the way.

On the bus with us were four young Palestinians, two men and two women. Holding a microphone, one of the men welcomed us again over the intercom.
Mazen Naim's face was lit by the same heartwarming smile of everyone who greeted us. All four of them shared this powerful energy, as did everyone we met upon our arrival at the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) vocational and technical training center where Israeli fire wounded three people in January. No one drew our attention to this fact though. It simply didn’t seem to belong.

We went inside where John Ging, the agency’s Irish director, spoke to us. “You are actually doing something that is massively appreciated” he told us before explaining the emptiness of promises from governments of the international community since the Israeli attacks ended four months ago. “Your coming here is action which gives us hope.”

He then defined our mission of helping get the true story of the people of Gaza out to the world. “The people of Gaza need to see action which actually is a basis for them to believe that something good is going to happen” he told us. “In the coming days you’re going to be interacting with these people, and you will come to realize the people here are a good and decent people. They are misrepresented in terms of their international reputation which is very devastating to them.”

Ging talked for about 15 minutes before answering several questions. Then people full of smiles mingled before we went outside for a superb dinner. Afterward, the festive mood led several Palestinian men to begin dancing at the edge of the pavilion. They were joined by members of our delegation and the circle grew wider until the evening sun began to lower itself on the western horizon.

We boarded the buses and headed for the Commodore Gaza Hotel. On the way there we stopped to make sure the entire delegation was with us. The sun became a bright red ball getting ready to touch the Mediterranean. I opened the window to take a picture and a man outside pointed and proclaimed “the sun shines on Palestine.”

Twenty minutes later we were paralleling the shoreline in the dark bluish dusk. Lights became visible far out on the water. Someone from the delegation inquired about them and Mazen simply said “Israeli navy”.

It brought me back to our mission, so succinctly explained by Ging, to tell the world these good people must not be imprisoned. The blockade must end now.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Reading your post brought tears to my eyes for all the unnecessary violence that occurs all around the world, and because there are so many people who simply shrug their shoulders in helplessness, apathy, selfishness, thinking "What can I do? I'm only one person."

But, of course, one person plus one person equals two people, and two more people equals four people, and two more people equals six people, etc. The numbers add up. The trick is to find those people who will accept the responsibility, not because he or she hopes to change things, but because it's the right thing to do.

Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights.

by Rich in Juneau