Step-by-step شوية شوية

Camino map

Before the magic wears off, I must share “my Camino” experience in northern Spain.

I’ve been identifying myself as a pilgrim for the past couple of years on my quest for answers in the Middle East, but Israel, Egypt and the USA have denied me permission to return to the Gaza Strip so I decided to follow the path that thousands, maybe millions, of pilgrims have followed since the Middle Ages to St. James’ burial place in Santiago — looking for answers.

The most popular route is over 700 km long, but I didn’t have 4-5 weeks to walk it and probably didn’t have the stamina either, so I chose to begin my Camino at Leon. I walked six days to Pontferrada and then hopped the bus to Sarria, where I walked another 7 days to Santiago.  Step-by-step  شوية شوية.  In total, my feet carried me just over 200 km (about 125 miles) during the first two weeks in April. Believe me, I now have a heightened appreciation for my feet.

I averaged 18 km each day (about 11-12 miles) while most everyone else passed me going much faster and further, reminding me of the Aesop fable, the Tortoise and the Hare. I kept plodding along worried that I wouldn’t keep up. A few days into the walk, my concerns about the pace and whether I could finish the pilgrimage vanished when I realized — “This is MY Camino, not anyone else’s” — and dropping my competitive nature is part of the lesson I was meant to learn. This insight freed up my anxiety and I was able to appreciate just being on the Camino.

The numbers of pilgrims walking the Camino have skyrocketed in recent years, a local business owner in Leon told me. Good for the local economy, not so good for quiet introspection. They are coming from all over the world. I met pilgrims from Germany, France, Holland, the UK, Lithuania, Denmark, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Spain (of course) and yes! — a pilgrim from Hebron, Al-Khalil, Palestine.

Early April turned out to be a very good time for my Camino. Although it seems like pilgrims are nearly tripping over each other during the summer months, competing for a bunkbed in the albergue (Camino hostels) in the next village, more often than not I found myself alone on the path — following the yellow arrow and the boot tracks in front of me — with plenty of time to observe and think. Step-by-step  شوية شوية.

“Why are you walking the Camino?”  – the most frequent ice-breaker when pilgrims stopped for a meal, drink or a bed. Santiago is an important Christian pilgrimage destination, along with Rome and Jerusalem. (I actually met a young man on the path returning from Santiago and now walking to Rome and Jerusalem.) My sense, however, is that many of the pilgrims are not Christians or walking for a religious reason. Instead, they often cite a desire to “get away from real life” to think and find answers, or to challenge themselves physically, or to cross an item off their bucket list.

My American accent gave me away as soon as I opened my mouth, and the conversation inevitably turned to the U.S. elections and Donald Trump. I wasn’t surprised that foreigners are so well-informed about politics and the candidates in the United States, but time and again they shared their fears with me if Trump is elected. America’s power and influence worldwide has probably now exceeded our collective IQ. Several pilgrims — only half jesting — offered me a place to live overseas if I felt the need to emigrate.

I started thinking about walking the Camino after I saw Walking the Camino at The Guild in Albuquerque a few years ago. My interest increased after viewing Martin Sheen in The Way and reading about Ernest Hemingway’s connection to the Camino and his first novel The Sun Also Rises. Friends in Albuquerque who’ve walked the Camino were also very encouraging. Step-by-step  شوية شوية.

After waiting unsuccessfully in Egypt and Jordan for months (October 2015 – March 2016) for access to the Gaza Strip, and feeling angry, bitter and unsure about my next steps, I thought I might find my answers about Gaza on the Camino de Santiago.

I didn’t.

At least I didn’t find the answers I was searching for. How do I return to Gaza? Why is Gaza the faultline in the Middle East? What should I be doing personally to educate myself and other Americans about Gaza?

Instead, I found a beautiful landscape (walking is the best way to learn about a place). I met amazing people (gaining new insight about Yahweh, God, Allah in the process). And I found peace when I was able to say “goodbye” to loved ones who have died.

Landscape:  The photos don’t capture the beauty of sunrises, the ringing church bells, the treacherous descents, and the sound of running water everywhere. Nearly every house has a vegetable garden and small acequia, and every village has a church with above-ground burial crypts or nichos. The juxtaposition of the very old stone pathways with the ultra-modern windmills on the hilltops showed that Spain is adapting and transitioning into the future with a deep respect for its past.

People:  Before I left Cairo on April 1, a devout Muslim friend urged me to continue reading about the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. While I was on the Camino in northern Spain, a devout Christian missionary from Canada asked if she could pray for me. Holding me, she asked Jesus to provide the answers I was seeking.

While I was walking, I thought alot about the people I’ve met in recent years who possess such certainty about their faith and their deity, Yahweh for the Jews, God for the Christians and Allah for the Muslims. Religion binds people into groups, or as Jonathan Haidt writes (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – 2012): ‘Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities.’ I respect their certainty and their devotion but I question whether Yahweh, God or Allah would approve of the divisions that have evolved – “Us and Them” or put another way, the people like us and the people not like us. Does the dehumanization of the “other” — which we find so much evidence of in the world today from believers of all three faiths — really win the blessing from Yahweh, God and Allah?

Certainly not.

During my solitude, walking the Camino, I found the profound spirit of the diety in the people I met. This was truly a personal revelation — that the diety is not outside of us, not sitting on a throne or in a Mosque or in heaven. Yahweh, God, Allah is not apart from us, but inside each living creature, including me.

This insight gives new relevancy to the rule I try to follow — the Golden Rule — to treat others as I wish they would treat me, because when the spirit of the diety is in each person, I must treat each person with respect, honor and love to manifest my respect, honor and love for Yahweh, God, Allah.

Easier said than done. Can I really respect, honor and love the fat man waddling down the village lane? or the young boy who wears his pants below his buttocks? or the wino sleeping on the park bench?  The faithful might find it easier to rock and pray at the Wailing Wall while wearing their tefillin, or prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca, or kneel in church with hands clasped in prayer, but I believe that Yahweh/God/Allah is sprawled on that park bench. Step-by-step  شوية شوية

Goodbye:  My Camino was an unexpected place for me to say “goodbye” to loved ones who have died. Some were family members I never got the chance to see when they passed. Others were special people whom I’ve carried with me for many years with great sorrow. On my Camino, I thought about each.  Step-by-step  شوية شوية

At some point along the way I realized that each spirit is with me, and will always be with me. I was able to say “goodbye” and ended my Camino on Sunday, April 17th in Santiago with greater peace. Watching the botafumeiro swinging in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was very special. The following day, I returned to the Cathedral and joined a mass honoring new Spanish Naval graduates.

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I’m not pro-Palestinian

“I’m not pro-Palestinian.”

I uttered those words a few nights ago in response to a very good friend from Gaza who was sharing his thoughts about the characteristics of the activists who are “pro-Palestinian.”

I realized right away how provocative my words sounded, and how they might be misunderstood.  I also knew why my friend from Gaza labeled me “pro-Palestinian.” He’s like a son to me.  If I could shield him from the atrocities he and his family have experienced at the hands of the Israelis, and particularly the Israeli military, I would.

But my love, concern and compassion for my Palestinian friend, and many other Palestinians, doesn’t make me “pro-Palestinian.”  The label doesn’t fit me because being “pro” anything often implies one is also against something, in this case Israel and Israelis.  The world is not black/white, good/evil, wrong/right.  It’s so much more complex than that.

Being “pro-Palestinian” might imply I’ve selected a tribe to cheer for — the Palestinians — and rejected the other tribe.  In fact, I reject tribal allegiances altogether.

Being “pro-Palestinian” often raises issues of “loyalty” and “deference” and “submission” to the Palestinians and to whatever framing of the “conflict” they’ve chosen.  I’ve learned this by watching and listening to self-identified “pro-Palestinian” activists over the years.  My loyalty is not to Palestinians or to any of their many factions. I will learn from them, but I won’t defer or submit to their framing of the “conflict.”

On the other side ….

Friends, family and colleagues who self-identify themselves as Zionists or “pro-Israel” are hurt and angry that I’m not in their camp. I don’t accept their framing of the “conflict” and I reject their tribal loyalties. If I’m not with them, I must be against them, is the subtle message they often share with me.

One Jewish “pro-Israel” American rationalizes my odd opinions about Israel-Palestine by telling me — “You’re not Jewish, you’re not Palestinian, so of course you can’t understand what’s really going on over there.” — That compartmentalizing might comfort her unease but it only demonstrates how people need to understand the world by putting people in boxes.  I refuse to do that.

Instead, I seek to understand the complexities and the gray shadows cast in the region.  I try to shine a light on the things I learn, and on the things that the mainstream media callously and deliberately ignores.

I try to understand the “other” — both Israelis and Palestinians. I try to learn empathy.

This 28 minute NPR broadcast (March 22, 2016) “What happens when you empathize with the enemy?” is powerful. My Palestinian friends who reject “normalization” may reject the ideas shared by the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian professor regarding empathy but for everyone else, I think there is alot of wisdom here for open minds on both sides.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/471283599/471350322

This week on Hidden Brain we ask, what happens when you empathize with your enemy? Why does reaching out to another tribe make our tribe so angry? We talk to Avner Gvaryahu, a former paratrooper in the Israeli army, who angered his fellow Israelis for talking about his work as a soldier. And we talk with Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor who now lives in the United States out of fear for his life. His crime? He led a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz to try to help them understand the Holocaust. We also share an excerpt of a one-man play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Aaron Davidman.

 

Thanks to Libby and Len Traubman from Palo Alto, California for alerting me to this NPR broadcast.

 

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Gideon Levy: Americans “Are Supporting the First Signs of Fascism in Israel”

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My two cents – take them or leave them

 

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It happened again.

I shared my opinion on Facebook about violence and was told I should keep my opinion to myself (in a nice sorta way).

Here’s my original post.

Day #565 – Violence is a no-win option in every case. Whether it’s political factions vying for power or revenge (Palestine). Whether it’s fans @ a soccer stadium. Everyone is a loser when violence is the option chosen. Egypt no longer allows Egyptians to attend soccer games @ the stadium. They must watch on TV and players must play to an empty stadium because some people resorted to violence following a game a couple of years ago resulting in many deaths. ‪#‎Everyoneloses‬.
‪#‎GoingtoGaza‬

The response came from a pro-Palestine activist from America who counseled me not to “lecture the oppressed” about violence from my “privileged, white status.” He went on to tell me that “no tyranny, no occupation, no colonialising power has ever been solely defeated by non-violent means. i feel it´s not upon us to lecture the oppressed how to resist.”

I’ve heard the same (or very similar) response from others in the past. They’ve all given me pause. Should I keep quiet about my opinions on the subject of violence?

No, I can’t.

I won’t keep silent.

People can take or discard anything I say, and I won’t take offense. I certainly don’t try to hide my “privileged, white status.”  If that disqualifies me in the eyes of the oppressed, then they can toss my thoughts into the trash. But I respect their intelligence and I respect them to make that determination for themselves.

On the subject of violence, maybe my friend is correct that “no tyranny, no occupation, no colonialising power has ever been solely defeated by non-violent means.” But then again, that’s not the point of my post.

Survival requires evolution.  Evolution requires growth and rejection of what has failed.

Violence represents failure on a profound level.

When we’re watching presidential candidates goad supporters to commit violence; when children are killed in their beds by a missile attack on their home; when men jump out of their cars on a busy Cairo street and start pummeling each other —- it’s time for everyone (including the “privileged, white Westerners”) to speak up.

So I’ll keep voicing my opinions about violence.

Even today we raise our hand against our brother… We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death. — Pope Francis

 

 

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Egyptian postal service doesn’t serve Palestine

“We don’t have any service to Gaza or Ramallah,” two different government clerks told me today at the main post office in Cairo. “Remove Palestine from the mailing label and replace it with Israel.”

Egyptian policy has changed since the first time I mailed a box from Cairo to Gaza in 2011.

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Walking to the main post office in Cairo

As the crow flies, Gaza is only 346.29 km (215.17 miles) from Cairo, but they are the longest miles I’ve ever traveled. I haven’t succeeded in crossing that distance in the past six months I’ve been in the Middle East.

Politics.  Just stupid politics, and the Israeli-Egyptian-U.S. blockade of Gaza.

In 2011, I sent a similar box of books and small gifts to Gaza from the very same post office a few blocks from my hotel in Cairo. I couldn’t have managed that transaction without the capable assistance of Eid who navigated us from one part of the complex to another, up staircases, through noisy lines, and finally to the clerk who dutifully inspected everything in the box and then processed the delivery instructions to Gaza, Palestine.  No questions asked.

Five years later, Eid helped me again.  In 2016, the first postal clerk told us that there are no post offices in Gaza. No postal service in either direction — from Cairo to Gaza or from Gaza to Cairo, he said.

We walked across the street to another office within the same complex.

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A section of the Main Post Office in Cairo

The second clerk we spoke with was sitting beneath a sign that read “Customs Office” in English and Arabic.  He looked inside the box, asked if there was any medicine inside, seemed satisfied with the contents, and directed us to tape up the box. Al-hamdulillah! We were making progress.

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Taping up the box following inspection

Then we proceeded to another line and waited to complete the shipment with the third clerk. He looked at the label, saw “Gaza, Palestine” and directed us to cross out Palestine, and insert Israel. Eid and the clerk exchanged a few words, but it didn’t seem that the clerk would budge.

Eid asked me if I had a pen.  “None of my pens will erase Palestine,” I told him.  He replied, “We’re not going to be able to send the box unless we write Israel.”

So we left and Eid was kind enough to carry the box back to the hotel. Maybe there’s another way to skin this cat.

Shame on Egypt for collaborating with Israel on this economic, social and political siege of Gaza.  Shame on you President El-Sisi.

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President El-Sisi

March 20, 2016 UPDATE

I returned to the main post office in Cairo today with a smaller package addressed to my friend in Jericho, Palestine.  I capitulated and wrote “Israel” on the label.  The address was written in Arabic on one side and in English on the other.  Small, innocuous, and clearly labelled. There should have been no problems.

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Inside the main post office in downtown Cairo

Again, the postal clerk told me he would not accept my package for Jericho. He spoke good English and I showed him where I printed “Israel” on the label, but he said there is no service to Palestine. Instead, the package would go to Tel Aviv and sit there for 3 weeks, he thought, and then the Israeli officials would return the package to Egypt. I asked him how I could send anything to friends in Palestine and he just shrugged and threw up his arms. My gut told me he was as frustrated with the stupid politics as I was —- and that he wished he could have helped me.

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Lora in front of the main post office in Cairo on March 20, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gideon Levy: Does unconditional support for Israel endanger Israeli voices?

“Israel has lost connection with the world.”

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Israeli journalist Gideon Levy

In April 2015, Gideon Levy (the Haaretz columnist who writes frankly about Israel’s occupation of Palestine) spoke in Washington, DC with the same clarity and honesty about the change needed to save Israel from itself.

“Israel is surrounded by walls; not only concrete walls but mental walls.”

Levy shared extremely important insights about the State of Israel and Israelis.  A must watch (21 minutes) for Americans and others who wish to understand the “situation” in Israel-Palestine. There is very little hope that change will occur as long as the U.S. enables Israel’s occupation.

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Oil addiction and US foreign policy

Late in life (sadly too late I fear) I’ve learned to question the conventional orthodoxy I was raised on by a western liberal education and western media. Yes, I certainly received an excellent education in Minnesota in the 1950s-1960s, and I was encouraged by family and mentors to think for myself. Only through travel and experiencing the “other” firsthand, however, did I really learn to question many preconceived notions that shaped my understanding of the “truth.”

One example.

If Americans care at all about the turmoils and regime changes that seem to plague the Middle East, we simplistically chalk it up to “their problems” – “their inability to support stable, democratic governments” – “their backwardness” – “their failures to promote progress despite all of our good intentions and interventions to help.”  (Sound familiar?)

I’m now convinced that the editors at the New York Times (Washington Post, etc.), the news managers at CNN (NBC, ABC, etc.), the Big Oil and Arms industry, AND OUR GOVERNMENT have deliberately fostered this skewed worldview among Americans to support (or at least not to oppose) their opportunistic foreign policy agendas.

Decade upon decade of complacency and our unquestioning allegiance to American exceptionalism has neutered the public’s ability to grasp what’s really going on in the Middle East. We remain oblivious to our peril.

We have a chance now to correct our misconceptions. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has written a thorough but digestible history of U.S. interventions and covert actions in the Middle East leading up to the current debacle in Syria.  Syria: Another Pipeline War, February 25, 2016 published online at Ecowatch. He connects the dots with names, dates, facts and resources to make this a MUST READ for Americans and anyone else who wishes to grasp the current realities on the ground today.

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Many people in the Middle East understand this history all too well, and they view current events through this lens. If Americans don’t wake up and grasp this reality, we’ll pay the price in lost lives, treasure and our own moral compass (to say nothing of the dead and wreckage we leave behind in these countries).

Please suspend your disbelief and read Robert F. Kennedy’s article. Then share it far and wide.

 

 

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