Sunday, July 15, 2007

Kristi Assaly reports on her return to Jerusalem

Kristi Assaly returned to Jerusalem as a volunteer, sponsored by Canadian Friends of Sabeel - [], the Anglican Church of Canada, and other groups. She spent part of her childhood there. Kristi later participated in the Sabeel Youth Conference -
She sent home to Ottawa this report of her time in the region prior to the conference.

Weeks 1 & 2
As of yesterday morning, I have been in Palestine for two weeks, and yet the variety and multitude of experiences I have had thus far make it seem as if I've been here for far longer. The last week in particular has been busy.

I arrived in Tel Aviv at 4 am Sunday, June 2nd, where I went through the typical 2 hour-or-so Israeli border control hassle. They seemed to be particularly concerned with the origins of my last name and with whether I had ever been to Lebanon. When they finally finished with me, my suitcase was the only one remaining on the luggage conveyor belt, as the rest of the people on the flight were Israeli-Jewish, and consequently passed through security with ease.

I traveled to Jerusalem, by Sherut (shared taxi), and attended mass at St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, where I was greeted by many old friends. In the afternoon, I was taken to A-Ram, to the home of my former neighbour, Im Habib, where I am staying. I spent four years of my childhood living in this town, a suburb of Jerusalem. When I lived here, over ten years ago, my family and I frequently made the trip to Jerusalem from Ram. During my last visit, four years ago, I felt a strong familiarity with this road.

I felt this same familiarity this passed week, as I traveled to Ram, but only for the first part of the journey. The road, as we approached closer to Ram, became completely unrecognizable. There is now a giant concrete wall running through the middle of the main road in Ram, enclosing the town and the rest of West Bank. There is a checkpoint just outside of the Wall, on the Jerusalem side. There is a massive steel gate which seals the entrance of the Wall into Ram.

This gate has been opened since my arrival. Today they closed it. Im Habib received a call from her son, Fadi, who lives in the Jerusalem area but works in Ram, early this morning. He told her the gate had been sealed, along with the other gate along the Wall in a different part of Ram. Im Habib quickly gave him instructions of another way in, far out of the way, narrow, and winding. Fadi made it to work this morning, but he heard they will be closing this other gate today as well . Im Habib tells me there had been rumors they would close all entrances/exists to the Wall once school was out for the summer. She turned to me and said, "We are in a prison".

I, myself, need to go to Jerusalem today to go to my work at the Edward Said National Music Conservatory. Now there is only one way to get there, through the only opening in the Wall, the Qalandiya checkpoint. As the only exit from the West Bank for people in this area and the
Ramallah area, I expect it will take hours of waiting in line to pass through.

My work at the Conservatory has been going well, aside from the difficult commute. The Conservatory has three branches in Palestine: Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. I have been spending most of my time in Jerusalem, but also in Ramallah. I have been giving singing lessons, accompanying students on the piano for their end of year recitals, and directing the Jerusalem Chorus in the absence of their director. On Wednesday, the Chorus will perform Faure's Requiem at the Latin Church in Ramallah. It is an adult choir with both Palestinian and International members.

Last night we rehearsed in Birzeit. During a break, I joined several choristers for coffee at a local cafe. One of the women had just returned from a weekend in Nablus, where her family lives. She is an ethnomusicologist who studied at the Conservatory in Cairo, and who works at a Folklore Centre in Ramallah. She usually returns home, to Nablus, on the weekends to visit her parents and brother. She said that this weekend, for the first time in her life, she felt scared at home. Her and her brother, a devout Muslim, were harassed on the streets as they drove through the city because her brother wears the beard of a strict Muslim. She told me, "He is not a member of Hamas. He loves God and the Prophet Mohammad, but he is not a member of Hamas." She described the growing hatred between people as the struggle between Hamas and Fatah escalates.

Last weekend, I went with a Sabeel youth group to Jericho for a conference and workshop. A group from Nazareth joined us there. The weekend's discussions had an interesting dynamic as they incorporated the thoughts of both Christian Palestinian youth living under occupation and those living in the State of Israel. I became friends with a girl my age from Nazareth. She told me that the youth of the Galilee are not as active in their churches as those youth in the West Bank. She told me that once a nun came to speak to her church youth group and told them that although Palestinians living under occupation deal with physical checkpoints, those living in Israel have checkpoints in their minds. They have a more acute identity crisis, for they cannot find a place or a sense of acceptance in the predominantly Jewish culture of Israeli society.

One of the themed talks of the weekend discussed how Palestinian Christians can define themselves: Are they Arabs? Are they Christians? Are they Palestinians? Are they Israelis? A young man from the Jerusalem area offered the thought that they should see themselves as humans first. He said that although the Christian Palestinian community is becoming "like one drop of water in the Ocean", they must first recognize the humanity each person shares in common in order to live in peace with Jews and Muslims.

I have noticed the decrease in the Christian population, even since my last visit four years ago. I visited the home of a friend in Jifnah, a historically Christian village, near Birzeit and Jalazone Refugee Camp, the other night. For the first time, I witnessed many woman wearing Hijab, the Muslim headress. My friend, Jennifer, confirmed that this is not unusual anymore. Even her family, of Catholic background, moved from the village to Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem outside of the Wall. They seldom return to Jifnah, only some weekends. Even Im Habib's building, were I am staying and where my family used to live, no longer houses any Christian families. Im Habib, the Christian owner of the property, stays in Ram only a few nights a week. She usually stays in an apartment in Jerusalem, to avoid the Wall and the humiliation of passing through the checkpoint every time she wants to leave the town.

I have already met many new and interesting people from all parts of Palestine and Israel, as well as reconnecting with old friends. My work with the Conservatory ends at the end of the month. I will spend the rest of my time here working at Sabeel, helping with the organization of their Youth Conference.

Kristi Assaly

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