When I arrived in Israel, little had I imagined that I would find myself being hosted in a Palestinian home one fine Thursday evening. In Jerusalem, neighbourhoods tend to be predominantly Jewish or predominantly Arab, with little interaction between the two. To add to this separation, in September, 2015, violence in the form of knifing attacks, was just beginning to take shape, and going out of the way to meet Palestinians seemed not worth the risk.
An Encounter trip changed my fortunes. We spent a day meeting Palestinian activists, women’s group pioneers, tourist guides and businessmen, listening to personal narratives that included terms such as ‘Israeli occupation’, and ‘IDF violence’. While personal narrative can sometimes be hard to believe or even feel repulsive to the listener, individuals lead life with a belief that his or her narrative is true. It is for this very reason that I think personal narratives are actually starting points in bridging the gaps. We ended the day with a visit to an Arab home.
Expecting some famed Arab hospitality I had only heard of, I took my seat on a comfortable living room sofa at the home in Beit Sahour, a predominantly Christian Palestinian town near Bethlehem. My host, Yunus, had other plans however. He took hold of the remote control to turn on the television. I intuited that this was his way of keeping a guest entertained. To my surprise, while scanning TV channels he skipped over Arabic channels ultimately settling down on a channel screening ‘Race 2′ – a Bollywood movie, with Arabic subtitles.
Bollywood holds a good share of my Indian identity. Hindi, and the larger than life dance arrangements are very familiar to me. After an entire day of listening to personal narratives that were not easy confronting, a shared interest in Bollywood hit home a sense of being at ease. Maryam, Yunus’ wife made sure that we were being fed even though we had just arrived home after a full meal! In honour of it being the eve of Yunus’ 60th birthday we were treated to delicious homemade Harissa — a sweet semolina cake, and Sage tea.
As I savoured the Harissa with tea, I could picture a Jewish Israeli family in their home, perhaps a twenty-minute drive away, in the settlement of Tekoa, sitting on their sofas enjoying Bollywood in Hebrew subtitles on Israeli cable network. Upon prior visits to my extended family’s homes in Israel, I had come to learn of the presence of Indian channels such as Zee TV, ‘HOT Bombay’ and ‘HOT Bollywood’ on Israeli cable network.
With the masses of Indian Christian groups visiting Bethlehem each year, Yunus and his family members were familiar with Indian travellers. I found myself politely answering their curiosities about the nature of Indian food and eating habits such as – eating with one’s hands.
After having enough Bollywood and Harissa, Yunus offered to show me around his workshop. As a professional sculptor of olive wood figurines Yunus’ workshop is conveniently situated in the basement of his four story house. While descending the stairs, Yunus informed me that his workshop has been his primary source of income for the last few decades. I asked Yunus if the vocation was passed on by his father to him, but that was not the case. Maryam, who also accompanied us, proudly, and with a sense of admiration for her husband, informed me of how Yunus had trained himself in this skill ever since his late – teens.
The factory was replete with mostly New Testament inspired sculptures and raw olive wood lying around. One could smell the distinct fragrance of freshly cut bark of olive wood in the dusty air that the room held. The figurines, all made from easily formable olive wood, were each in different stages of production. Some pieces were finished and ready to be sold, while some pieces were works — in — progress, awaiting finer details from the master that would decide whether it would be a Moses or Christ sculpture.
To a first time onlooker it seemed that Yunus was doing very well in business. But that wasn’t true. Yunus informed me that Christmas of 2014 (post Operation Protective Edge) and Christmas of 2015 (during the spate of stabbing attacks in nearby Jerusalem) had not received tourist and pilgrim footfall that the Bethlehem area economy is heavily dependent upon. So much so, that there have been talks of putting the brakes on the workshop.
After thanking Yunus and Maryam for their hospitality and wishing them well I found myself also thinking about the impact of this violence on the other side. In Israel and certainly in Jerusalem, restaurants were paying the price. A Ha’aretz report stated that in cities like Jerusalem and other mixed cities, restaurant revenues dropped anywhere between 50% – 85 %, since the violence broke out in October 2015.
Growing up, my father used to tell me that there are two kinds of people — those who work hard, and those who work smart. I began to realize however, that being a smart worker and hard worker was certainly the most ideal for one to be rewarded with the fruits of his labour. Yunus’ story of building a family estate through his smarts and hard work, and yet, facing the looming question regarding his olive — wood factory was not consistent with my conception of hard work. In addition to meeting Yunus and his family, meeting Palestinian activists, women’s group pioneers, tourist guides and businessmen made me realise that individuals’ hard work did not earn what it deserved.
We suffer pain and loss due to actions out of our control. This, I believe is the result of our lives being interconnected and dependent on one another. The lack of natural human ability to view the world without preconceived notions then gives birth to satisfaction and its dissonance that is its twin.
This passage in the Haggadah where we say “Let all who are hungry come and eat” carries the message that perhaps our ‘redemption’ is tied to the ‘redemption’ of the other in need, whoever it may be. That we as individuals and then as a collective, have some power to aid and bring about the redemption for one another.