While I was in Bethlehem a couple days ago, a tour group was expected at dinner time and I was invited by management to eat at the hotel. I was traveling alone, and wasn’t going to know anyone in any case, so it seemed like a good plan.
So putting on my clean shirt and my best extrovert manners, I went to dine. The diners, speaking Italian, all had space at their tables, so I went around to introduce myself and see if I might join a table. After all, I am well groomed and essentially nice. And it could have been a pleasant and enriching encounter. But it wasn’t long before I had gathered that I was not welcome. “Groupa”, I was told as if that explained my unwanted status. In other words, “we are a group and who are you?”
I took a seat at an empty table and chose a reflective attitude. I ate and watched.
And as I watched, I couldn’t help but recall the thousand times I had recently been told I was welcome in the city of Yatta. “Wallah! Double welcome really!” people would exclaim in broken English. In Yatta, I couldn’t even hang out the laundry on the roof without being invited for tea, despite the fact that everyone knew we didn’t speak any kind of even minimally passable Arabic in our house. Language is not a barrier when good will is involved.
But it’s part of the human condition to be suspicious of strangers. Yatta doesn’t usually see internationals, so at first, small boys tossed a few pebbles in our direction, but they were corrected by their elders. After that, they preferred to swarm us to practice their one or two phrases of English. “What’s your name?” “How old are you?”
At the moment, our team is not living in Yatta. There was some civil unrest, a quarrel between families. Some stones were thrown between factions, so we are in Hebron in a temporary arrangement while the local peace process goes forward.
Our temporary “digs” are with the United Nations, or rather, in a house that UN representative Hamed and two former Ecumenical Accompaniers, Marte and Aster, are putting together on a shoestring budget as a place of international encounter for people of peace. It is called the Hebron International Resource Network, HIRN.
The house wasn’t ready when we became “internally displaced”, but the welcome mat was rolled out anyway. We were given mattresses on the floor, blankets and towels. We were given basic plumbing and a shelf in the communal refrigerator. We were given internet, that essential food of the modern mind. And we were asked repeatedly to say what we needed. Anything. A generous hand was extended to us.
We needed one. We had left most of our stuff behind. It is useful for us to have the embodied experience of temporary internal displacement because so many of the Bedouin and Palestinian people we meet have been deeply formed by having to leave their homes or by having them demolished in the conflict. Our experience really cannot be compared to theirs precisely because it is a temporary inconvenience. Nevertheless, this minor disruption and confusion are worth knowing personally, even if only for a few days.
I don’t know why we human beings must keep returning to “us versus them” instead of “you and me”. We do it in all cultures. No one can deny that we see it everywhere, from the cliques in our schools that lead to exclusion and bullying, to the gangs we see in our cities. I do it too, hesitant sometimes to engage in street conversation, using selective attention or even turning my back. Sometimes my internal house is not ready to be open to someone new or different. Sometimes I pull in the welcome mat, circling the wagons of the familiar against the stranger, shutting the door.
I don’t know why we must keep building walls around us and putting razor wire up around our hearts. In reflective moments I see how little a distance it is, when fear rules, from building a wall to throwing a stone. I understand how, when people are excluded systematically, and taught that they are unwanted, unwelcome, and unworthy, over and over, a message sinks in that this is not a friendly world. In some ways, we get what we ask for.
I’m missing Yatta. It’s a different society than the one I am used to, but its hospitality is unbeatable even if, like the rest of us, it doesn’t have everything figured out. Hopefully the peace process there will go forward, and we will be able to return “home” soon. May the same peace process happen everywhere. May it transform us….. may it transform me. Amen.