Not your Grandmother’s pilgrimage

Entrance to Aida Refugee Camp.

By Rosalyn Elm

Packed into a tight airplane seat, excitement was building as we woke from our slumber, touching down in Tel Aviv. It was uneventful as we breezed through security and customs, and were greeted by our driver, Nassar. The drive through this ancient land of rolling hills, olive trees and hillside formations, begged the question, “what is it about these lands?” The ancient Pilistu, The ancient Bedouins, The Israelites, here in these lands long before the “those in power” governments that influence them now. These ancient legacies all very much alive today.

There were ten of us. Varying in Christian background and coming from various socio-political contexts and geographical environments, we were traveling together; pilgrims not to the Holy Sites, per se, but to the very locations of Israeli-Palestinian tension and conflict. Giving ourselves to this experience that would wholly transform us.

Mr. Zoughbi, the founder and director of Wi’am, (Arabic for Agape) was our guide. A tall, gruff-looking Palestinian man with an outgoing personality, a teddy bear with a deep passion for his people, he was to introduce us to a Palestine none of us expected. This was not going to be like my grandmother’s pilgrimage in a slick hotel and a giant tour bus. He wound us through Beit Jala to the Aida refugee camp.

This Palestine was devastated by the 1948 war that uprooted and displaced almost a million Palestinians from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that is still not resolved. The people call this mass eviction the Nakba or “catastrophe” in Arabic and its legacy remains one of the most difficult issues in the peace process.

A principle Palestinian demand is the “right of return” to the homes their families abandoned in 1948. The giant metal key in Aida camp represents the keys that the people took with them so that they may return to their homes.

Israel, however, fears that accepting the right of return will result in the loss of its Jewish identity. Adding 7 million Palestinians to Israel’s population would make Jews a minority – Israel’s total population is about 8 million, a number which includes the 1.5 million Arabs who already live there. Thus, Israeli has refused to even consider including the right to return in any deal.

The women’s groups that we would visit would prove that through peace and courage they would lead their families through occupation. Their hope in a return to home bubbles up, their dreams of a future return from their displacement keeps them strong. Everywhere we would go, their focus was always on peace.

For me as an Indigenous person, these complicated issues bring to light many problems that we in North America are also dealing with–structural implications of colonialism, nationalistic understandings of land and identity, and the interplay of religion and politics–yet, walking on the soil of Moses, Jesus and Mohammad (PBUH), connecting with the land they lived in, brings what we could possibly see as a way forward. The transforming power of promise of relationship of umma (community) and recognition of other; the radical ethic of self-emptying, of power. What we would find together as a diverse group in the Territories was the emptying of self-preservation and of all that keeps us separate, and instead the willingness to engage and love the ‘the other’. This is hard, perhaps the hardest thing we can do, but it is the work of reconciliation as people of the land, which I believe we all realized is what and who we were. There was a strange comfort as we began our goodbyes and our way home, those governmental powers so engaged with the clocks of our age…may never understand that the time will always belong to the people of the land.

Filed in: Gender Justice/Women of Courage, Middle East


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