My Travel Through Instagram: Recapping the Last Two Months in Israel-Palestine, Ireland, and South Africa
My international travel is drawing to an end, and I thought it might be helpful for those who follow the blog but do not have access to Instagram to see an overview of my Instagram posts and stories. Here are some highlights from each location.
August 7, 2015
Their bodies arose early so their hands could pick fresh figs. Here at Abdullah and Nuha Awwad’s beautiful home in Palestine, the fruits of the earth bloom as if it was the Garden of Eden. What once was a rocky barren hillside, they have turned into paradise. “Why would we leave?” Abdullah exclaims. “My ancestors were the shepherds in the fields!” (From the Jesus birth story). “This is our paradise. I prefer my rocks to even the mountains of Switzerland.” The Awwads love their home, and they love the people around them. They care for their home land, and their home land cares for them. The belief of Israel’s occupation is that they are dangerous people and should leave. But why would they leave? Here, they pick figs in the morning.
This is Jamil Abu Eid. In the late 60s, my grandfather, an archaeologist, befriended Jamil, an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem’s Old City. Their interactions were primarily professional, but the deep respect and affection they felt for each other was anything but. For 30 years, they visited each other every time my grandparents traveled to Jamil’s city. Jamil has not seen my grandfather John in years, but I’ve watched tears form in Jamil’s eyes whenever my grandfather’s name forms on his lips.
In February 2000, when my dad first met Jamil’s son Mahmoud, now like a brother to my dad, Mahmoud jumped to embrace my father, saying, “This very day your father’s name was spoken in my home. And because my father loves your father, it is your obligation to let me do everything I can to help you.” For Mahmoud, love created generous responsibilities.
When we arrived at Jamil’s home today for his grandson’s pre-wedding lunch, this smile beamed across his aging face. He clutched my grandmother’s hands: “John McRay! My friend John McRay. He is in my heart,” and he rested his hand on his chest. “Please tell my friend John McRay, he is in my heart.”
Jamil, a lifelong Muslim, leaned toward my father, a lifelong Christian. Having spent his whole life in a city where Christians, Muslims, and Jews have murdered and maimed each other for centuries, he simply said, “Why all this killing? This is nonsense. God is one, for all peoples.” I thought, “Amen.”
August 9, 2015
Today, I sat across from a #Muslim man with a Muslim name. He reminded me of someone I’ve read about.
The man told me a #story about his life. Once, he was recommended to a Christian company here in #Jerusalem for partnership on a short-term project. When he arrived at the office to speak about the project, he received harsh words from harsh prejudices. He had a Muslim name after all, and the owner of this #Christian company resented the expectation that she should need to work with a Muslim. “Her words pressed my nerves,” he said. “They hurt very much. I did not earn this harshness. I was sick for three days because of this.” The man said he wanted to lash back, refusing to ever work with them again. But he valued his relationship with those who had recommended him, and he did not want to disappoint. But there was another reason for his restraint: “I love Christianity, and I love Jesus,” he explained. “And I know from #Jesus that you can show people how their hurt only hurts themselves, if you be good to them.” He said that the heart of #Christianity was not the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye, and teeth for teeth,” but rather not seeking revenge when goodness can be extended instead.
Sometime later, this man’s family held a large celebration. Hundreds of people came. The man looked over at me and smiled. “I sent this woman a card,” he said. This very woman, who had degraded and dismissed this man for his Muslim name and Muslim faith, was now invited to be the guest at his family’s celebration.
Today, I sat in wonder next to a Muslim man with a Muslim name. He reminded me of Jesus, and I am grateful.
August 10, 2015
In #Hebron, the Palestinians must protect themselves from settlers with fencing above the marketplace. After #Israel conquered the #WestBank in the Six Day War in 1967, they began building settlements in the #Palestinian territories. Today, there are 600,000 Israeli settlers living in over 120 settlements. Many say this is the number one obstacle to #peace. In Hebron, the largest Palestinian city, around 600 settlers have established settlements *inside* the Palestinian neighborhoods. One, Avraham Avinu, is built on top of the Palestinian shops and homes in the old city. These settlers throw liquid, trash, and furniture down onto the Palestinians, so the Hebronites have erected fencing and wiring to keep themselves safe. This is where I worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Few places drain me of energy and joy like this place.
Humans have found no shortage of ways to express hate for each other. But, the settlers there will say, God gave them this land, so the Palestinians must leave, by any means necessary, just as Joshua drove out the Canaanites. I must confess, we have different theologies…
August 11, 2015
Today I walked through streets and upon stones that millions upon millions before me have walked, for hundreds of years. I have been to few places in the world where I feel more tied to the long thread of history than here in Jerusalem’s Old City. So many stories converge and diverge here. People have come to this place for countless reasons: love, war, hate, greed, faith, certainty, wondering, wandering, tradition, longing, escape, belonging… They meet here in this city for moments, then continue on. All these lives, these journeys move and change, and this city with them. It’s been here thousands of years, yet it constantly changes. To allow the profundity of such a place to sink in is to be nearly overwhelmed. On my ninth trip to this land, I want still to be overwhelmed by it, and to one day see peace within its walls.
August 12, 2015
This morning I walked to St Anne’s #Church to pray through song. The acoustics there are breathtaking. When I was here in June co-leading a tour, we sang a round of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” that made me cry. In 2010, with my college friends Jon and Paul, the melodies of #U2 filled the chamber. Today, I listened to groups from around the world sing hymns in #French, #Spanish, #Swahili, #German, and #English. When the pews were empty of other people, I ventured to sing on my own. “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise.” Since it was morning, my voice was not warm, so I repeatedly looked around me to be sure I was still alone and not aching the ears of pilgrims.
Eventually, my eyes closed, and I became lost in the music. I could hear my voice growing louder as confidence was building and my vocal pipes loosened. Soon, I was singing from deep in my chest: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the #God I love.” It was then I realized people were filling in around me. I opened my eyes and looked to my right. An older man wearing a vest stood smiling at me as he motioned rows of children into the pews. “Canta!” he said. I chucked and declined. “No, canta!” He wanted the children to hear to hear the song of the church, and at that moment, the song of the church was mine. Sweat began dripping down my face as I glanced around at the 40-50 children and adults now looking to me, waiting for their St Anne experience. I knew I had to sing, so my mind searched frantically for a hymn that might please. At that moment, I thought of my mother. So I began to sing her favorite hymn, a melody that bring tears to her eyes as often she hears it: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” Only my voice sounded in the church, and I could taste the salt from the sweat on my lips. I sang two verses and then grew quiet. After a few moments of silence, the chorus of those children rang out. Having completed my task, I smiled and rose to leave.
I’m learning to greet, perhaps even welcome, those moments I have otherwise feared. Today was rich with beauty and discomfort.
Hello to both. Hello to the unexpected solo performance. Hello to courage.
August 13, 2015
Ricki Levi was close to her grandmother, even though they couldn’t communicate much. Ricki’s family moved to Israel from Morocco in the 60s. Growing up, she absorbed the cultural distaste of Arabs, and thus she felt ashamed of her parents and the Jewish Arab roots they represented. She didn’t want to learn their Moroccan language, the one her grandmother spoke.
One day, she visited a small village in Palestine and saw an old woman wearing a “handkerchief around her head.” It reminded Ricki of her grandmother. She wondered how she could be in Palestine, among the Arabs, and see someone who could be her grandmother. This was a “revelation,” she said, as she realized that being Arab was just as much part of her identity as being Jewish, Israeli, and a woman. She learned to embrace her Arab identity, and in turn, to embrace the Arab “other” around her. When she saw herself in her enemy, she began to learn that perhaps enemy was the wrong word.
Ricki was never really a combatant in the army. Instead, her war was between conflicting identifies. Once she made peace between the Arab and Jew inside her, she could seek peace between the Arabs and Jews outside.
August 14, 2015
Last night, a new #Israeli friend launched a fierce attack against the loneliness of my solo #travel. He arrived an hour late as he had pulled an all-nighter working in the ER and thereupon slept through his alarm. “Why so many in the ER?” I asked. “Diarrhea!” he exclaimed. “I think all of #Israel has diarrhea!” I found myself quickly checking the faces of passersby to see if they were in distress.
He took me to a #beer festival near the old #Jaffa harbor. Live music, myriad beers, food, friends, and flirting couples hovered all around. Aside from the Hebrew and the #beach just beyond, I felt I could be home in #Nashville. We wandered through the crowds, down by the beach, and up through Old Jaffa. For four and a half hours, we blistered our sandaled feet and started a friendship. We talked of the joy of new romantic relationships, the curious country of marriage, travel, religion, beer, war, teaching, medicine, militarism, patriotism, culture, and more. He asked me about life in Palestine, and I listened to his stories of fighting in Gaza. We were both learning. Drinking beer seems to make room for all sorts of conversation.
As we stood by the sea, looking at the #TelAviv coastline, he said he recently realized there is only one thing he could not live without: freedom. For him, the sea is the symbol of ultimate freedom. “If you take the sea away from me, I die,” he confessed. I told him there are #Palestinians living in #Nablus who can see the #sea from their hills, but may never experience it. “Imagine this,” I said. “It’s torture.” “I cannot imagine,” he said, shaking his head heavily. “It is terrible. It is not right.” And I was reminded then of the power of empathy.
Hello to new friendships. Hello to beer stories. Hello to sadness. Hello to freedom. Hello to imagining our enemies’ lives as our own.
My grandmother often says it is hard to be enemies with someone when you eat with your feet under the same table. Certainly, one could eat with an enemy while secretly pointing a gun under the table. But I believe she is right. There is something both disarming and unifying about breaking bread together. Here, we are equals. We both have our feet under the table, and we both need nourishment. We are feeding ourselves, which, in reality, is a vulnerable act, as it acknowledges that we need things to keep us alive and well.
At this table, we had three generations, three languages, three cultures, and two religions. But when we eat, there is only one table and one meal. Though certainly sharing meals isn’t the only way to peace, it may well be a good way to start.
Muhammad makes sand art. When I worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams here in #Hebron in 2012, I often sat with him while we drank #tea. Over those two months, he taught me to make the sand art bottles, and I designed one for my sister as a gift. When he draws with sand, his movements are smooth; when we try to talk, our communication is not. But we manage. Even when we grow tired of speaking in broken tongues, we just sit in silence, sipping scalding tea out of plastic cups.
When I entered his shop today, he rose quickly, hand extended. “Nice to meet you again,” he always says. “Have some tea.” The electric tea pot came to a boil and he poured the copious amounts of sugar into the cups. His son was there too, but he poured tea into six cups. His son then took the remaining three cups to the shopkeepers nearby. When one person drinks tea, everyone drinks tea. #Hospitality is broad and generous.
August 17, 2015
“We’ve done very well,” he told me, as we gathered the#almonds from the ground. Even at 70 years old, he still
climbs his almond trees. My grandmother warned me not to let Abdullah on the ladders. “It is too dangerous,” she cautioned. But he still climbs.
He must have sensed my unease through the leaves. “Experience, Michael,” he encouraged. “Lots of experience.” He has been picking almonds on his land here for 40 years. He moved from branch to branch, dropping almonds on my head like hail stones. “Sorry,” he’d say. “Not intentional.” I smiled, shook the dust off my #tilleyhat, and dusted the fire ants off his feet.
Yes, we did very well.
Yesterday, I took a taxi van from #Bethlehem toward #Hebron. I wasn’t going to Hebron, though–I was stopping at Gush Etzyon, a collection of #Israeli settlements in the #WestBank, to speak with members of the new organization Roots. This organization had been described to me as a “#reconciliation organization between #Palestinians and settler peace activists.” This piqued both my curiosity and skepticism. How can there be settler peace activists when the settlements are one of, if not the, most significant obstacle to political #peace? My intrigue compelled a visit.
In the taxi, I sat next to a young #Muslim woman, studying for summer exams. She reached in her purse to retrieve money for the taxi. When she saw me remove my wallet, she told me the fare was 5 shekels. All I had was a 100. “No change?” she asked. “Unfortunately not,” I answered, and asked her if the driver would take a 100. She asked me how far I was going, and I told her: the settlement. At this moment, all she knew of me was that I was a white Westerner traveling to a #settlement, a community responsible for taking land from her people. She would have been within her rights to spit vitriol at me.
Instead, she said with a smile, “Here, I will pay for yours.” I strongly protested, but to no avail. The hospitality of Palestinians is fierce.
Hello to curiosity. Hello to stubborn generosity. Hello to humbling hospitality.
In the summer of 2010, I volunteered here, with the Al Basma Center for the Developmentally Disabled. #Christian and #Muslim #women devote themselves to teaching and loving 36 social outcasts in the greater #Bethlehem society. Here the students play #music, #dance, perform plays, learn #arts and #crafts, and smile. In Arabic, “Al Basma” means “the smile.” It is aptly named, and the joy is here contagious.
I have returned to Al Basma four or five times since then, and every time, the students rush to hug me, even tackle me, calling, “Mike! Mike” and covering my face with slobbery kisses. Today, we took selfies, danced, high-fived, and of course, smiled.
This place often survives month to month. The women all have families, but they take pay cuts from already insufficient salaries in order to keep the center going. “What will happen to the students if they can’t come here?” the women ask me. And I begin to wonder what might happen to any of us without houses of healing and love.
The Wi’am Center for Palestinian Conflict Resolution sits here, where I’m standing. From its roof, I could see the Separation #Wall, an #Israeli #settlement on the far hill, and a #Palestinian #refugee camp to the left. Under the direction of Zoughbi Zoughbi, the center exhausts itself in fostering#conflict transformation among the Palestinian people. Through #storytelling, #gardening, mediation training, #play, lectures, tours, dialogue, and much more, they “keep hope alive” by promoting the traditional Palestinian method of sulha, seeking to dismantle the #occupation and secure #freedom through #nonviolence. Usama, one of the coordinators said to me, “What you take for granted in #America, we die for here.” I was reminded of my Israeli friend’s desire for death if the freedom of the sea was ever denied him.
But Palestinians are not #free. “Here we teach #trauma coping, not trauma healing,” Zoughbi said. “For we do not have *Post* Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is no post. The trauma is ongoing, daily.” I believe it. I’ve seen it. The resilience of Palestinians living daily under such #oppression is humbling. But, as Zoughbi reminded me, there is collective responsibility. “Some are guilty, all are responsible,” a famous quote goes. As I walk around that wall, I see the words “Made in the #USA” stamped on the base. To be silent is to be complicit.
How then shall we speak?
Yelling. That’s all I could hear as I passed through the humiliating#Bethlehem #checkpoint to #Jerusalem. My blue #US passport spared me the harassment; their green #Palestinian IDs did not. After a long wait in a zig-zagging line, I finally reached the metal detector, where an angry young #Israeli #soldiershouted order behinds a bullet-proof glass container. An old man was next to me, wearing traditional #Arabic #dressand head covering. I removed my metal, as did he, but he was not allowed to continue until he removed his headdress, ensuring he was without explosives. His eyes were sad and his head was shaking.
When we arrived to the final check, another soldier examined the green IDs and permission papers, allowing some through and turning others away. A child wept next to me as he learned he would not be allowed to go to Jerusalem. Each Palestinian in the line before me placed their fingers on a scanner. The soldier searched their fingerprints in his computer. Then he waved them forward or back. When he waved me through, I saw each of the posters pictured above, welcoming me to Israel: “The roots of#peace.” Once, I too went to a building to be fingerprinted. I was doing the necessary background check to become a volunteer. Like the checkpoint, this building had concrete #walls, steel and razor wire, #armed guards, and dull colors. I did not think much of it, though. After all, it was a #prison, and that’s what prisons do.
Rami Elhanan’s father survived #Auschwitz, but his fourteen year-old daughter did not survive 1997. Smadar–a
vivacious, artistic young girl–left her home for Ben Yehuda Street, a popular #Jewish area in West #Jerusalem. But when a suicide bomber detonated his vest, Rami’s “world exploded into a thousand pieces.” In desperation, looking for Smadar, Rami and his wife ran through the streets; then in terror, they crawled into the morgue, where they saw “this sight that you will never ever be able to forget for the rest of your life.” The finger of death was “pointing right between our eyes.”
#After the traditional seven days of mourning and visitors, the eighth day came, and Rami had to face himself and confront the anger. How to keep living with this loss? “There are two paths,” he told me. “Most choose the one toward hatred and revenge. That is natural. The pain is completely overwhelming. But I knew I had to choose different; I knew I had the responsibility to do whatever was within my power to make sure no one else ever had to feel the same pain I was.” Rami is a member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, speaking with other bereaved#Israeli and #Palestinian families about #reconciliation, humanizing the other, recognizing shared suffering, and ending #oppression. He openly challenges the #occupation, knowing that in the end, it bears responsibility for his daughter’s death. As he said, we must look “not only to the mosquito but to the swamp.” Out of the worst grief has come the best pursuit: toward #peace, equity, #justice, and right relationships.
The other day I heard a #Jewish man say that, in #Hebrew and #Arabic, the words for womb and compassion are from the same root. Just as the woman’s womb carries someone else inside, so compassion allows us to make space for someone else inside ourselves. Rami has created this space, for as he has learned, the ability of his country to exist “lies not in its military power, but in its ability to lend a hand and communicate with the other side.”
#Flags in #Belfast are a curious thing. They seem to be a way for drawing boundaries. When walking through streets and neighborhoods here, flags often serve as clear indicators whether the area is Unionist/Protestant/British or Nationalist/Catholic/Irish (though these dichotomies aren’t without exception). Flags seem to be a simple way to discern who’s out and who’s in, whose #territory this is, which identity is being claimed.
In some areas, like along the very #Catholic Falls Road, the Irish tricolor flag flaps beside the #Palestinian flag, while in some very #Protestant areas, like the Shankill Road, the Union Jack (#UK flag) flies next to the #Israeli flag. The Irish Catholic Nationalists, like the Palestinians, seem to have a #narrative of colonialism, of living as a native people who were displaced and oppressed by military occupation and settlers. The British Protestant Unionists, on the other hand, like Israelis, seem to tell a story of being a small band of a particular people who are surrounded by a hostile “other,” whether Catholics or Arabs, who want to drive them into the sea.
It’s interesting how the #stories we tell, and the way we tell them, unite us–or divide us.
“I’m just gonna say it. I’m not proud of this,” Tim Page confessed. “It felt to me, at that point in my life…#God forgive me…it felt to me that #Catholic people–there was a kind of sub-standard aspect to them.” He shook his head again. “I’m not proud of that.” Such #narratives of “other” are always present in conflict, and Tim’s #Protestant #Unionist youth in #NorthernIreland during the period of the #Troubles was no exception. But there were counter narratives as well.
When Tim was 20, his dad contracted cancer from “smoking 80 a day.” In his final days, a Catholic man with an #Irish Catholic name came to visit this dying Protestant salesman. As this man’s visit ended and he walked back out into the night, he said to Tim, “I will light a #candle for your dad tonight.” This struck Tim as an “antidote” to a great many other cultural poisons he’d received. “In my experience,” he reflected, “a single small gesture or word can challenge years of background prejudice. Because in that moment, you’re in need, and somebody shows up at a #human level … When everything is stripped away, you don’t forget that kind of thing.”
Hello to simple gestures and lingering words. Hello to prejudice and counter narratives. Hello to conflict. Hello to #Belfast. Hello to Tim.
Walls mark the landscapes of both #Palestine and #Belfast. In Palestine, the wall started going up in the midst of the Second Intifada. In Belfast, as I understand it, the “Peace Walls” have gone up after the signing of the Good Friday Accords in 1998. Both are built using concrete and fencing. And both were built with fear. (I’m well aware, however, of the arguments for Israel’s wall as a land grab, and would in fact make those arguments myself.) Fear is palpable in both these places. “Any of them could be a terrorist,” I’ve heard Israelis say. “Whatever you say, say nothing,” the saying goes in Northern Ireland. You don’t know who to trust. We have a need to feel safe, and we fear that which threatens our safety. Then we start hating it–or them.
Build us walls, we tell our leaders. Keep us safe.
But walls, it seems to me, then become self-fulfilling prophecies, so to speak. We put up walls because we fear an “other.” Then, years go by, and new generations rise in the shadow of these barriers. But the walls can’t come down now, because the nature of their existence has taught those living nearby that there is indeed something or someone to be feared on the other side. The walls create their need to exist by simply existing. They end up perpetuating the fear and therefore the conflicts.
I’ve been told that along the wall between the US and Mexico, Christians from both countries meet on Sunday’s and throw the Eucharistic elements over the wall to each other, refusing to give in to the fear the Wall tries to instill. As my Palestinian friend Abdullah told me, “Our true enemy is not Israel. Our true enemies are fear and poverty.”
September 13, 2015
On October 12, 1984, Jo Berry’s world exploded when an IRA bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel in Brighton. The hours passed like days until the news finally came: her father, a British MP, was among the dead.
Before that moment, Jo was a care-free spirit, but that changed. She wondered how to deal with such devastating violence. Three months later, she shared a taxi with a man from Belfast whose brother had been in the IRA before being killed by a British soldier. “We should have been enemies,” she said, “but instead we spoke of a world where people didn’t kill each other.” She left knowing she needed to “bridge the divide…to try to understand those that killed him.” During the next fifteen years, Jo attended conferences on “finishing unfinished business,” forgiveness, and telling the painful stories of our lives. She found places to share, cry, rage, laugh, and heal, and even began to understand why someone might join the IRA.
In 1999, her life changed again when Patrick Magee, the IRA man responsible for her father’s death, walked out of prison as part of the Good Friday Agreement. One year later, a meeting was arranged at a friend’s home in Ireland, and at the “dot of 7:30,” Patrick walked through the door.
Jo shook his hand and thanked him for coming. During the next three hours, they talked alone. “I didn’t want to blame him. I needed to hear his story.” But initially, all she heard was “political justification,” so she planned to end the meeting. But then, Pat said something different. “I don’t know what to say anymore or even who I am. Can I hear your rage? What can I do to help you?” The conversation changed, and Jo knew this wouldn’t be their only meeting.
As they parted ways, he apologized “with great feeling” for killing her father. He’d been “disarmed,” changed by her empathy, she said.
Jo felt disoriented. “I’ve just met the enemy, and I’ve seen his humanity.” Now what?
To date, Pat and Jo have spoken together over 100 times around the world. He is no longer just the IRA man who killed her father; he’s also the friend who teaches her to solve cryptic crossword puzzles on the plane. “I care about him,” she said.
I have left Ireland. My month there was filled with interviews, travel, reunions, meetings, and curious conversations. I spoke with people who endured Belfast during the Troubles, who left Belfast to escape the Troubles, who moved to Belfast to engage the Troubles. I heard stories of bereavement, fear, resistance, normalizing violence, riots, escape, shelter, politics, peace initiatives, and more. Flags marked territory and identified tribes; street names and soccer jerseys indicated where to go and not go and who to befriend or hate. The history is as complex and contested as that in Israel-Palestine. Each side has their story, and they hold to it passionately. The work of reconciliation must address the narratives, which is precisely why the work is exhausting and overwhelming. But the lessons I’m learning of reconciliation are growing, and I continue to find ways the experiences of those in divided societies abroad may give us in the States insight on how to reconcile our own injustices.
As I sit now in Cape Town, South Africa, I am aware of another lesson many of us in the U.S. can learn from Northern Ireland: terrorism is not an Arab, “third world,” non-European, “oh that’s just people of color” phenomenon. White European Christians in Ireland blew each other up for 30 years. The Europa Hotel in Belfast is regarded as the most bombed hotel in Europe. The Shankill Butchers would kidnap Catholics off the Falls Road and mutilate them to the point they could only be recognized by their watch or shoes. The violence of terror and the terror of violence are not Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim problems; they are human problems, and all humans must work to promote peace and justice.
September 29, 2015
Arrested for his part in the violent resistance of the #ANC to the#apartheid regime in #SouthAfrica, #Mandela spent 18 years of his life in this cell on #RobbenIsland. These were all the furnishings given him: a bowl, cup, thin mat and blanket for sleeping on floor, and bucket for a toilet. He kept his body and his mind active, holding fiercely to the belief that the tide would turn and their #freedom would come with the freedom of all those #oppressed in South Africa.
During their imprisonment, Mandela and his fellow political #prisoners worked at this Lime Quarry, brutalizing their bodies under the sun’s unrelenting gaze. The light reflecting from the stone and the dust from their chipping damaged their eyes, some even going blind. Mandela himself underwent multiple eye operations, and even into his eventual presidency, the media could not use flash photography. In the cave on the left, Mandela and others prepared their fellow prisoners for the day a new dawn would come to their country and they would be the leaders. They knew #education would be essential to transition from apartheid to #democracy, and so they taught their fellow countryman: “Each one teach one.” They called this cave the University of Robben Island.
In the right foreground, a pile of rocks rests. In 1995, when the freed political prisoners returned to Robben Island with the media, #President Mandela spontaneously broke from the crowd, lifted a rock from the quarry, and placed it on the ground in silence. Each of the other freedmen followed suit and the rock pile grew: a silent memorial to the #suffering endured and the #liberation achieved.
“They would beat us here,” our guide said. Overlapping for five years with
Mandela’s sentence on Robben Island, he
described the agony. “Once they made a lash, they focused all their strikes on that first lash. They made us bleed. Then they poured iodine on it.” I grimaced. “We would cry,” he continued. “We would call for our mothers to rescue us, but our mothers never came.” He paused. “We do not forgive for the sake of the men that did this to us. We forgive for the sake of our children. We must create a new future for them.”
The #Langa #township, my local guide Zandi told me, has over 150,000 people living in 3.9 square kilometers. In the “informal settlements” within the township, residents live with no electricity or running #water, and thousands of people must share a handful of dilapidated public toilets, like those pictured above. Hand-emptying buckets is the form of flushing. Some of these communities are built in the marshes (see bottom picture) as they have nowhere else to build homes.
Such conditions were created by #apartheid, and the repressive social structures created by apartheid still haunt and hold back these communities. Like in the#U.S., the foundations of #racial #oppression are so firmly embedded in the make-up of this country that the dehumanizing effects of its #injustice still control the daily lives of the people, despite its official political overturning. “The #ANC came to power,” many here say. “Apartheid has ended.” In the U.S.: “We have a #black #president. #Racism and Jim Crow are gone. We’re colorblind.”
Yet, despite some movement toward a more just society in both places, “if you go twenty miles into the woods, you gotta go twenty miles back out.” The history of slavery and apartheid runs deep in the U.S. and South Africa, and the work of undoing and unlearning these oppressions will be long and difficult. We are dangerously naive when we too soon claim our task to be completed.
In 1993, as #SouthAfrica prepared for its transition out of #apartheid into the Mandela-led #ANC government, tensions rose, violence increased, and white security forces continued killing people. #American #Fulbright scholar #AmyBiehl lived in South Africa during this time. An outspoken, passionate #activist for equal rights and #racial #justice, Amy refused to attend an all-white university during her time in Cape Town.
One day, she visited the #township of #Gugulethu with some friends. Amidst the deep and justiable anger toward apartheid, several young black men attacked and stabbed Amy to death, her whiteness representing in their mind the structures and people oppressing and killing them. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, these men, then incarcerated for her murder, applied for amnesty. Amy’s parents found a voice and place in the hearings, and the footage of those interactions is powerful. As the men listened to Amy’s parents speak of their daughter, they soon acknowledged that they did not know the woman they killed. They thought she was another white oppressor. Had they known what kind of person she was, they confessed they would not have killed her.
These men eventually received amnesty, and Amy’s parents established the Amy Biehl Foundation, hoping to carry on the good work to which Amy had been dedicating her life. A few of the men who killed Amy now work for the foundation.
Because so many in #Langa are crammed into such small spaces, multiple families live in a single structure. In places called “hostels,” as many as sixteen families may share three rooms, one shower and toilet, one kitchen, and, until 2002, no electricity. He showed us one of the rooms, and I dodged a swarm of flies as the door opened. Three families lived in a room no more than 12×15 feet, with three bunks, a microwave, TV, refrigerator, stove-oven, dishes, et al crowding the walls. Each family slept on a bottom bunk with their belongings hanging on the bunk above. The women and children slept on the twin bed, and the men slept in another room. “This is for practical space reasons,” Zandi explained when he saw my quizzical look. I decided to ask the question: “I don’t mean to be crass, but where exactly do you all make all the children…?” He laughed and answered that with no privacy in the houses, couples must scout out random areas in the community to have brief intimate moments.
Before coming to #SouthAfrica, I had heard of this kind of poverty, too often explained away as “#T.I.A. This is #Africa.” It almost seemed the implication was, “That’s just how African people live,” implicit judgments on a presumed lack of initiative, civility, or capability among #black Africans. But having some knowledge of the history of #colonialism and the #European rape of this continent (and I use “rape” carefully and intentionally), I knew the problem was not “African culture” or blackness; the problem rather is whiteness.
White supremacy devastated the lives of black and brown people in Africa, and the inhumane conditions in which many here live can be traced back to the oppression of slavery and apartheid. “Don’t educate the blacks,” the Dutch colonizers told the British colonizers. “It’s too risky.” White slave owners in the#American South feared teaching their slaves to read too: education could lead to organizing and revolt. To keep the population subjugated, keep them uneducated–or so the logic went. I do not accept that the poverty here is inherent to Africa, but rather that suppressing black and brown bodies is inherent to white supremacy.
Today I took a walking tour of a South African #township with a guide reared on its streets and among its people.
The #Langa township was built for migrant male workers in 1901, just on the outskirts of Cape Town. When the#apartheid legislation “Group Areas Act” became law in 1950, numerous mixed racial communities in Cape Town were divided, houses bulldozed, and many black families were displaced into townships in what became known as “bantustans,” or homelands. To leave your racial homeland–the boundaries of which were constructed and determined by the apartheid government–you had to receive permission from the proclaimed authorities and carry an identification passbook. Failure to obey such rules could result in beatings, exile, and/or imprisonment.
The apartheid government patrolled these townships like watchdogs, my guide Zandi told me. Black inhabitants could not use the streets and sidewalks at certain times and could only travel in ones or twos. The white authorities stationed themselves through these communities to find the “lawbreakers” and “bring them to justice.” Every aspect of their life was controlled by the apartheid government: living conditions and locations, access to mobility, public demographic identity (whether a person was African, Coloured, Indian, or White, and the corresponding privileges), demographic category of legally-recognized spouse (forbidding mixed marriages), access to employment, freedom to gather, freedom of speech, etc.
Walking in Langa listening to Zandi describe the conditions of his people under apartheid in the 1940s-80s, I felt like I was back in the West Bank hearing stories of the conditions of Palestinians in 2015, where the effects of Israeli occupation control Palestinian life. At nearly every turn, I found myself thinking, “I’ve seen this in Palestine.” I understand more fully now why the language of apartheid has emerged in #Israel and #Palestine, and why, when Naomi Tutu spoke in my class at Lipscomb, she said, “After visiting Israel, I realized that the South Africans were amateurs at apartheid compared to Israel.”
October 6, 2015
His left arm rested across his lap. Our group at this symposium had been divided into pairs to talk about the challenges facing #peace and #democracy. Saul was my partner, and the challenges for him were personal.
“I was told I needed to make myself qualified. As a #black man, I have a hard time, so I knew I had to make myself competitive. So I went to university. I got qualified. I got the resume and skills. But it’s been six years now and I still can’t get a job. I did what they said I needed to do and nothing has changed.” He stopped talking as tears filled his eyes and then streaked down his cheeks. “And the worst part is, this government that said it was for us does nothing to help.”
Within five minutes, a #white woman in the group offered her story of pain and courage in the hopes of “providing inspiration to those at the table.” She had no idea what Saul and I had spoken about. She told of leaving her abusive husband after seventeen years as a “house wife.” She said, “I had no qualifications. I was 40. Everyone said I could never get a job. But I tried anyway. I had to, for my kids. So with no qualifications, I applied to a job at the bank. And I got it! I then moved up the ladder and was very successful. And if I can do it, you can too.”
What she didn’t know was that not only was her story not universally applicable, it didn’t even apply to the table.
Hello to truth. Hello to different truths. Hello to competing truths. Hello to courage. Hello to disappointment. Hello to tears.