Greetings of love and peace from Ben Gurion Airport at 3 AM Monday, 5 April 2010, the early morning after Easter, where I wait to board a plane and begin my long homeward journey at the end of what has been a remarkable trip that began on 19 March with a flight to Doha, Qatar.
Saturday, I arrived in Fureidis, a Muslim village nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the low mountains of Northern Israel. I had been looking forward to this visit since Ibtisam Mahameed and her husband, Subchri, who were in San Francisco a year-plus ago for Ibtisam to receive the Dalai Lama’s Unsung Hero of Compassion Award, invited me to their home in Fureidis.
I don’t believe that you could find two more gracious hosts. Not long ago, Ibtisam and Subchri moved into a new home they are building, which looks out across the green and rocky countryside where a few cows forage to low mountains in the distance. The main living floor is completed, but two floors above, which one day will provide homes that will allow their sons to marry, and one floor down, which will be the Sarah and Hagar Centerfor Ibtisam’s work on women’s empowerment, are still under construction.
Not long after I arrived, I shared a delicious and abundant vegetarian meal with Ibtisam and many of her friends and colleagues. Nearly everyone present is active in either Palestinian/Jewish dialogue and/or the empowerment of women. I was impressed by the affectionate friendship and shared commitment of this diverse group of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women and men. To be with them was to experience the future so many are struggling to create. On Friday in Bethlehem, Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust spoke about creating the future from the future. In Fureidis, they are creating the future from the present.
I compare what I experienced with the description, by Tim Sebastian, Chairman of the Doha Debates, I read in the International Herald Tribune in the airport on my way home:
Put two warring Palestinian factions in a room together, park the six bodyguards outside, feed and water them all and after two hours you’ll be amazed at what they’ve agreed on. Absolutely nothing….Major absentee at the dinner: the Palestinian people – barely mentioned.
The one thing that nearly everyone I’ve spoken with on this trip agrees on is that the people of the Middle East do not have political leaders who serve their best interests. On the other hand, everywhere I have been I have had the privilege of experiencing visionary, courageous, quietly heroic, practical grassroots leaders who are working to change the present into a better future.
In this context, I think it’s fair to say that Ibtisam is at the center of a quiet revolution in Fureidis. With her husband’s unswerving support, she has defied the gender expectations of a traditional Muslim woman and created a program that is helping multiple generations of Muslim women develop independent identities, claim control of their lives and create a diverse community of mutual caring and support that crosses all boundaries. This is not to say that their work is always easy. The larger political realities can create tension, but their bonds of affection and commitment to building a better future help them to deal with this tension positively.
Beginning with courses in Women’s Empowerment, the work at the Sarah and HagarCenter has expanded to teach the women the skills they need – from glass painting to jewelry making to confectionary – to open their own small businesses. To help the women gain the funding they need to open a business and the skills they need to manage the finances, Ibtisam engaged a woman in the government who will teach finance and who has access to some funding that might flow to the women she teaches. I met one woman who does beautiful work painting glass, which she sells and, for the first time in her life, has a source of income independent of a man. Another woman brought display cases of the jewelry she designs, makes and now markets through another company. Yet another woman dreams of opening the first coffee shop / bakery that would be for women and families. There are plenty of places for men to gather outside the home, but there is no place for women to gather on their own.
It was a privilege to sit with these women, both in a circle after lunch and then in the evening when the rest of the guests had gone home and I was the lone man in a circle of women who shared their stories of how this work had transformed their lives. I remember particularly a woman who had first attended the Women’s Empowerment workshop with her sisters-in-law. She knew that this course was critical for her personal development, but she also felt constrained by the presence of her relatives, all the more so because her husband’s business had recently gone bankrupt, plunging what had been an economically comfortable family into poverty and forcing their oldest daughter to defer her dream of going to the university so she could work to help support the family.
After the first course, this woman enrolled to take the course again, without her in-laws but with her daughter. The course had a powerful healing impact on their strained relationship, and gave them both a powerful determination to not be victims, but to take control of their lives. Though she isn’t clear how the women can accomplish it, Ibtisam is committed to finding the resources needed for the daughter to go to university. Let this story of solidarity, hope and determination stand for many I was privileged to hear as the lone man in a circle of remarkable women.
Another recent activity was a Mother’s Day gathering where certificates were given to honor four mothers in Fureidis. This event was described as the first ever event created by women, with women and for women in the history of Fureidis. Those attending ranged from the oldest grandmothers to a group of young girls who sang and danced to honor their elders. In the video I saw of the event, there were only two men in attendance. One was the mayor, whose election startled the community because he didn’t fit the usual political profile. His election was made possible in large part because of the support of Ibtisam and her women colleagues.
One of the mayor’s popular accomplishments is the creation of a beautiful garden / playground on a piece of land overlooking the sparkling, green-blue Mediterranean. Ibtisam took me for a walk through the park. Everywhere we went people greeted her with smiles and conversation. It wasn’t that many years ago, Ibtisam told me, that she was considered crazy and maybe even a little dangerous because of her independent ways. She also told me, again and again, that she could not have accomplished what she has without the remarkable support of her husband, who is as staunch and loving a supporter and ally as anyone could wish for. It is a sad sign of misplaced priorities that the extraordinary work she leads struggles for even the most basic funding.
We finished the night with Ibtisam as the only woman in a circle of men, sitting out under the stars of Fureidis, being serenaded by a pack of coyotes. The people here are so friendly, so engaged, living in a peaceable way with external circumstances they are committed to changing for the better.
I woke up well before dawn on Easter morning and sat looking out over the rocky land to the distant silhouettes of mountains as the moon grew fainter and the sky brighter. A rooster crowed to welcome the growing light. A lone cow lowed out in the field. The small birds began to sing.
When it grew light enough, I opened my Bible and read the resurrection stories from Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, bought spice, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. (from Mark’s Gospel)
In that place, I felt more keenly than ever the power of the faithful, courageous women in this narrative that has transformed the world. And I felt that in the work of the extraordinary women at the Sarah and Hagar Center I was witnessing God’s power, proclaimed in the gospel narratives, to reach even into the depth of death and bring new life.
May it be.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing, swimming in the sea, and then journeying to spend the evening with Sarin Angel, one of Ibtisam’s Jewish colleagues, who lives near Tel Aviv. Sarin had been a gracious help in arranging some of the details of my trip, and she kindly brought me to the airport at 1 AM.
There’s so much more I could write, and perhaps I will. But for now I finish and prepare to board my flight, weary but filled with the light of so many people I have been privileged to meet on this trip. In a world in the shadow of fear, greed and violence, may that light shine ever brighter. That light beckons each of us. And, in the phrase I heard more than any other on this trip, You are welcome.