The past several days Jared, Dara and I have been working with the UNWRA girls schools associated with Balata Refugee Camp on the first stage of the mural project. We asked the group of young women about 13 years old chosen to work with us to share with us what is beautiful in their lives, and then to render their thoughts into images. They drew images of nature as well as of themselves in their school uniforms and in traditional dress. Clearly, they are deeply connected to the land. We identified common themes and then went home and put all the images together to create the mural which we, along with the girls, will paint in the large inner court yard of the school. We found a way to put all their images into one mural…a young woman with roots of a tree against the landscape with one arm holding the flame of knowledge, and the other a dove in flight. There is a ribbon of the colors of Palestine, red, white and green, flowing from the mountains and wrapping itself around the tree into her roots. In the distance is a village with many of their images woven into the scene, including the woman below in traditional dress. The image reflects their hope for the future and their central place within it. The girls, teacher and headmaster were so pleased with the image we created, they want to enter it into a national contest, and so, will create a smaller version tomorrow. Practice for the mural we begin in two days.
They are extremely curious about us. Miryam, Miriyam they call to me, how old are you, what religion are you, where are you from, why did you come? Play the tabla for us! I already have a nickname given to me by Majdi, and everyone now calls me Haji Miryam. Haji Miryam was an elder woman healer who used to live in the neighborhood. Whenever children were sick, Haji Miryam would come with just the right dose of medicene to make them well. When I play the tabla, the girls sing traditional songs, and then I offer them the drum and several play beautifully, and dance.
Staying in one place is a wonderful experience, after years of leading delegations that move from place to place every single day. We are slowly learning the stories of the women of the center and of our amazing guide Majdi and the young girls who surround us with enthusiasm. Each day, as we walk to center city, and then through the old city toward Balata, Majdi knows exactly from whom and where to buy or pick up exactly what we need, from stirring sticks for the paints from a wood worker, to the best olives and lebne to the spice dealer. Every two steps, he is stopped by a familiar face and once again, explains who were are and what we are doing here.
Stories of the occupation are never far away. Majdi spent several Fridays in Bilin several months ago and almost died from the effect of the tear gas. When he returned home, his friends noticed he was turning red, he went to the hospital and the doctor quickly treated him for blood poisoning, saying, he had about two days to live if his condition went untreated. What hurts everyone the inability to enjoy the holy land’s beauty, feeling confined, feeling on edge from the settlers. Clearly, at some point in the future, the Jewish community will have to give Palestinians the freedom they crave, the freedom to move without restraint. The young women whose faces shine with hope and smiles from their crowded classroom are a clear sign that living together in friendship is better than living apart in fear and suspicion. The future belongs to them.
Blog written by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb