A solitary sight-seeing Shabbat
This week's portion: downside

The All Nations Café

Tonight I attended a gathering of the All Nations Café. It was extraordinary.

The All Nations Café is first and foremost a strong team of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals, who work together, visit each other's homes and see themselves as part of one family...It is [also] a physical place on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Located in a buffer zone between the Israeli Army checkpoint and the Palestinian Authority, the All Nations Café is easily reached by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and the villages and refugee camps that surround them. It is also a safe place for Israelis from Jerusalem, from the Galilee and from the West Bank settlement block of Gush Etzion to come. Internationals can reach it from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

(That's from the about page; you can get a full history of the enterprise at the page titled story.)

I caught a lift with one of the team members who organizes the gatherings, a woman named Daphna who is also involved with Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community here in Jerusalem. We picked up a woman named Simone and her beautiful three-month-old son, and drove through the Ein Yael checkpoint (near the municipal zoo and the train tracks) and then made a sharp turn onto a rutted dirt road. The land is beautiful: steep and rocky, speckled with scrub.

We drove up and around until we reached the top, and then parked. Before us was a panorama of hills with what looked like swank neighborhoods (settlements?) on top of them. In the valley below we could see the edge of Jerusalem. We were on the land of Abed Abd Raba, which is the current meeting-place of the All Nations Café.

We walked down a steep path, through a tidy garden festooned with tin cans (which serve as scarecrows) to a homemade tent attached to a small dwelling made of stone. Beneath the tent, people were clustered, sitting on chairs and mattresses, sipping coffee. A filmmaker (who I think was Dutch? I never got the chance to speak with him) was interviewing Abed, and a woman was translating from his fluid Arabic into English. I settled on a floor pillow and listened to the end of Abed's remarks, which were about his attachment to the land and included the story of how the government has tried to have him thrown off his land so a development can be built there.

I chatted for a while with a man named Nachman, and with an Englishman named David who has strong opinions indeed. I met Hamdan, president of Lighting Candles, and Chris (the other Englishman present) with whom I spoke about Catholicism and about what I think women bring to the rabbinate. Abed came and greeted me, clasped my hands, and wished me welcome; so did a man with a moustache whose name I never learned. I listened to stories told by a gentleman around my father's age, who wore a white dishdasha and red checkered kefiyyah and who proudly informed me that his family has lived on the Mount of Olives for generations, that he is a citizen of no land, and that he travels the world routinely without a passport (he has a document that serves in its stead, which he brandished proudly.) When he got up to leave someone respectfully called him Hajji. (ETA: His name is Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, and he's pretty remarkable. Thanks for the link, Pedantka!)

A doumbek and oud materialized, and there was some singing. Pots of strong coffee were made over the fire, and Abed made sure I was given a glass, which I sipped gratefully. Then Daphna suggested we go around the circle and each share a word or two about who we are and what we are feeling. Though someone complained half-jokingly that music is the true universal language, the instruments were set aside for the moment so we could each speak. About twenty of us were present at that point, and it took a while to go around the tent. Some of the Palestinians translated their own remarks into English, and some of the Israelis translated their own remarks into Arabic; Hamdan translated graciously for everyone else. One man, an artist and film student from Beit Jalla, recited a poem in Arabic.

When it came around to me, I introduced myself, said who I am and where I'm from. I thanked them for welcoming me into their gathering, and explained that I have been in Jerusalem for five weeks and have just under two weeks remaining. I said that I look forward, when I go home, to being able to tell my family and friends and community about this experience of Israelis and Palestinians and internationals sitting together and connecting with one another. And I said that I'm sorry that I didn't hear about All Nations Café sooner in my trip.

As I think about it, though, I think I'm grateful that I heard abut the group exactly when I did. Though I'm sorry I missed the chance to connect with these like-minded folks earlier in the summer, there's something especially sweet for me about finding this group in the immediate aftermath of my Bethlehem and Hebron visit. Coming face-to-face with the difficult realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation is emotionally challenging. Spending an evening with people who have made a conscious effort to connect across religious and ethnic lines gives me hope, and I needed that.

After we'd each spoken our piece, the drum and the oud reappeared, along with a tambourine, and soon people were dancing. Abed brought out mint tea and slices of watermelon, unbelievably sweet. After I ate mine, I stepped outside the tent and looked up at the stars -- the first time I've seen stars since I got here; in the city there's far too much light pollution for them to be visible, aside from one planet I suspect is Venus but can't be sure. I listened to the singing and clapping, the doumbek and the oud, and thought: my life is so amazing sometimes. I am so grateful.

Deep thanks to the All Nations Café folks for making me feel so welcome, and for doing their amazing work, one personal connection at a time.

Technorati tags: , , , .