Last week, I climbed to the top of a small mountain on the outskirts of the Arab village of Iksal (just south of Nazareth) and screamed. This was not something I would have considered doing before I met Nahlah, a 46-year-old woman who lives in Iksal with her husband and three children. Nahlah walks past that mountain every morning from 6 to 7 a.m., and for years, she has been dreaming of climbing to the peak and screaming at the top of her lungs. But she has not had the courage to actually do it. Until we climbed it together.
Nahlah was in a terrorist attack at a bus stop in Afulah in 1994. She was 20 years old then, working for Na’amat, and was with her best friend, Fadyah, who was 23. They had gone to Afulah so Nahlah could show her friend where she had bought a certain pair of jeans. They were on their way home, waiting for a bus, along with a group of children who had just been let out of school, when a bomb that had been planted in an approaching bus exploded. Nahlah lost consciousness. She was in a coma for two weeks. When she awoke from the coma in Ha-Emek Hospital in Afula hospital, they told her that Faydah was recovering in Rambam hospital in Haifa. But a few weeks later, they brought in a social worker to tell her that in fact her friend had died. Nahlah was in the hospital for 1.5 months, but she says she never really recovered from the trauma of the attack.
When Nahlah was interviewed by the press, they asked her how she felt about being an Arab citizen of Israel who was the victim of a terrorist attack perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists. She said she defines herself as a Palestinian living in Israel and that she is against terror and violence no matter who is the perpetrator, even if she supports the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees from 1948 and the existence of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. She became active in a Palestinian and Jewish Israeli women’s peace group called “Bat Shalom.” Although the group has since dissolved, she is still in touch with other women from the group, and she is still against violence. But she is also not hopeful.
I met Nahlah in a different group. A peace group, but not a women’s group. We are a non-gendered group, and we do not march or protest. We meet regularly to listen to one another’s — and visiting guests’ — stories in non-judgment. I call it sacred listening. It is an acquired skill, as the human inclination is to defend our own positions while we listen to others, think of how we want to react, process what they are saying, and compare it to our own thoughts. Sacred listening is about simply listening to the person talking, with nothing but curiosity and compassion.
It is an open group, so the members change and come and go. But it has been meeting for five years. The official name of the group is “Listening for Truth and Reconciliation,” and it was founded by Harduf Kibbutz member Hanna Agin, in the model of the commission formed in South Africa after Apartheid. But I call it my “Narrative Sharing Group,” as what we do, in essence, is sit and listen each meeting to a different person’s life story in the context of the Arab-Jewish conflict, that has been going on since Abraham and Sarah banished Hagar and Ishmael from their home to become a separate yet still blessed nation alongside Isaac’s nation (according to both the Jewish and Muslim traditions).
When Nahlah told her story last week in the group, she confessed that she does not feel at peace within herself. Not only does she live in fear — a common symptom of post-trauma — but she simply does not feel happy. She feels restless and longs for calm and peace, in her surroundings and inside herself. She is despairing of the future, and she does not feel at home. As a Palestinian-Israeli, she does not feel seen or heard. She feels at best invisible, and at worst unwanted. Especially since the recent “Nation-State Law” was passed, she not only feels like a second-class citizen, but knows she is one.
Nahlah’s feelings of alienation are not only due to her experiences as a Palestinian Israeli citizen; she admits that she does not feel she totally belongs in her village either. She critiques the homogeneity of the place, where anyone who acts or thinks differently from the religious Muslim norm or breaks social taboos is ostracized. For example, buying anti-depressant pills in the local pharmacy is not an option. Mental illness is a stain on your character in her culture, Nahlah explained — except, perhaps, for post-partum depression — so people who do need treatment go to doctors and pharmacies outside the village. As we stood on top of the mountain, Nahlah pointed to the forest below and told us of a man who had hanged himself out there. A 40-year-old lawyer with four children. I wondered if, had it been acceptable to seek psychiatric help in the village, this man’s life could have been saved.
“It is not easy to be different when you live in the village,” she said. It is especially hard for Lawrence, her husband (named after Lawrence of Arabia), who is not a practicing Muslim (she is) — although he believes in God and is a spiritual soul. He is studying Rudolph Steiner and permaculture and traveled to England for one night just to hear violinist and conductor Andrei Rieu in concert. Before marrying Nahlah, he traveled the world for 10 years. He is not typical of the men in the village — especially since he studied in a Christian school in Nazareth his whole childhood — although he grew up there. Every nook and cranny in their home is covered with intricate art pieces, lamps and furniture. Lawrence also loves to work with his hands. He creates sculptures out of branches and tree-trunks, and they are artfully placed around their house. He also built a bio-dynamic green house on their roof, with enough vegetables to feed themselves and their constant flow of guests all year-round.
Nahlah has a beautiful home, a supportive and loving husband, goes on at least one trip abroad per year, and yet, when she spoke in our group, she said she had a constant discomfort in her throat, a feeling that something was stuck there, a pain that she wanted to release. “Illness, accidents, those are decrees from God. Those I can take,” she explained. “Those I am even prepared to accept with surrender. But when we hurt each other because of hate and fear, it makes me so angry I want to scream.” Yet she said she couldn’t bring herself to actually climb to the top of that mountain she passes every day and let it all out.
When I heard I had to return to Iksal a few days later to bring my son to a soccer game (his team, Maccabi Haifa, was playing Iksal’s team of his age group), I knew I could not argue with synchronicity. It was now or never. So I called Nahlah and said, “I am coming to Iksal today. We are going up to your mountain together to scream.” She agreed. But when I called to say I had arrived in the village, Nahlah seemed to be having second thoughts. “Oh, it’s getting cold outside. Maybe you’ll just come into the house to sit and talk and drink tea?” I did not relent. “No,” I insisted. “You said you want to climb a mountain and scream, and that is what we are going to do.”
I had brought along another woman from the group, Diane Kaplan, who is a musician. She sings for peace. She is part of a musical threesome, called “3 Women, 3 Mother Tongues,” which consists of: Diane, an American-born second-generation-Holocaust-survivor who moved to Israel over 40 years ago; Meera Eilabouni, a Palestinian-Israeli woman from the village of Eilaboun where the Haganah massacred villagers in the village church in 1948; and Dana Keren, a Jewish Israeli born woman of Yemenite parents (a population that still suffers discrimination in Israel) . The three women travel the country and even abroad singing in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Diane and I dropped my son at his game, picked up Nahlah from her home, headed to the mountain and started to climb, walking and talking along the way.
We were an interesting sight. I live with a form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD, a genetic neuromuscular disorder, so they each held my hands to help me balance and climb, and we walked up that mountain with a clear sense of purpose, hands in hands. When we reached the top, there was a clear view of Iksal below, and beyond that a view of Nazareth and its surrounding hills, Afula and the valley with its farmland, and Jewish kibbutzim and towns.
I understood then why Nahlah wanted to scream from up there. It was the ideal way to let out her anger and frustrations. She could scream as loudly as she wanted, directed at her village, her country, the world, and no one would hear. No emotional/psychological/spiritual health-care professional could have created for her a more appropriate form of therapy. It was perfect. Proof of how we each contain inside ourselves the “medicine” to heal ourselves. In her scream, she was releasing the pain and hurt of an inner wound she had bandaged over but that had not healed since she had become a victim of terror. Her glowing smile after our scream showed how well her own medicine had worked.
Although I did not think I was doing this for me, when I was actually doing it, it was an amazingly powerful and cleansing experience. I am not a screamer. This is not something I would ever have dreamed of doing. I did not even know how to scream, apparently, because the first time we tried, it hurt my throat. (It seems screaming is something one does from the belly.) But once I got it right, it was a great way to prepare for the Passover holiday — a body cleanse from the inside out — and Tuesday’s upcoming Israeli elections. Screaming from up on top of that mountain gave me some insight into a question that had been plaguing me for weeks.
I had been vacillating about whether or not to vote for the revolutionary new “Pashut Ahavah — Mibasata Mahaba — Simply Love” party. My heart is with that party, whose list is made up of 50 percent Palestinian Israelis and 50% Jewish Israelis (and 80% women, which to me is not so important, as long as the energy balances masculine and feminine, and the approach is out-of-the-current-Israeli-macho-corrupt-box), and whose platform comes from a place of love not fear. But my head has been fighting against my heart, telling me that it will be a wasted vote. If the nascent party does not pass the percent needed to get into Knesset, my voice might not be heard.
But even if no one else heard our screams from the top of that mountain, our act was not a waste. We heard one another. There was something about doing this act together, the three of us, that gave us the courage to do it. Perhaps knowing there are others who invested the time and effort to create such a party will give me the courage to vote for it, because I know I am not alone. There is strength in numbers, even if those numbers are not considered significant enough to be “counted” by the majority culture. If we mute our voices, change our message to be more “acceptable,” then our voices are still not truly being heard. Revolutions do not happen by swimming with the current or perpetuating the status quo. And the situation here is such that a revolution is truly in order.
Our act last week may have been a scream into the wind, but I have to believe it was healing not just for us, but for the universe in general. Perhaps if enough people believe in the power of these scattered voices of love and peace, the wind will carry our voices and unite them into one huge SCREAM that will be loud enough to not only be heard, but to shatter the boxes that keep us from thinking outside of them, and maybe even break some of our hearts open so we can let out the fear and welcome in the love. Because fear has gotten us as far as it could in its appropriate time. But it is time to move past that now. Enough is truly enough.
When we finished screaming, there was a moment of silence, after which we simultaneously burst out into laughter. Then we descended the mountain, giddy and with spirits renewed, hand in hand in hand.
I am still not sure for whom I will vote on Tuesday, but if I have the courage to scream out into the wind, I hope others will be doing the same with virtual hands clasped, and that our act will bring healing revolutionary energies into the universe. Inshallah.