"If there were a party of those who aren't sure they're right, I'd belong to it." Albert Camus
I cannot believe how hot the “Holy Land” is. Not just the heat, the climate and the environment was such a surprise to me while I was in Israel and Palestine! Apart from a brief time in Vegas, I’ve never experienced such dry weather, hard, rocky earth, cool nights, and clear, waterless skies. That’s how it is near Jerusalem in the middle of the region. Galilee, in the north, is far more humid and lush. But the weather in Jerusalem, and the surrounding areas, took me by surprise.
Not only that, but entire region seemed a lot smaller than I had imagined. I remember reading in the Bible about various cities, locations, mountains, and what-not, which all seemed distant… not only from me, but from each other. From the Augusta Victoria Hospital campus where we stayed on the Mount of Olives, we could look out to see the Temple Mount in one direction, Jordan River and the Dead Sea in another, and what could be the remains of Jericho in yet another direction. Land. Space. Location. Earth. During my time in Israel and Palestine, I learned how inseparable these things are from the lives of those who live there.
Even religion, for example, is not just a belief, but is a matter of spaces, locations, and the stories that go with them.
One of the many holy sites we visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a dim and contemplative space—cavernous, yet filled with religious icons and candles lit by pilgrims who have made the journey there. The Church is built over the places where Jesus is said to have to been crucified and buried. Inside, there were lines of people waiting to touch the place where Jesus’ cross dug into the earth or to see the tomb where Jesus was buried. Sites like these scatter the region from one end to the other. The Church of the Nativity (where Jesus was born), the Dome of the Rock (the site where the Prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven in the Muslim tradition), the Western Wall (the remaining wall of the Jewish Temple Mount).
Being a westerner, faith can at times be more gnostic—a mental opinion separated from the concrete world; maybe, that’s why I found it so strange that people would travel so far and wait so long just to touch this or that particular piece of rock, land. But in Israel and Palestine, faith is tactile, it’s spacial, and it’s connected to land, and, thereby, it’s also connected to culture, to stories, and to certain cities.
However land, space, and earth are also essential to the conflict and political strife that ravages the Israel and Palestine. Before I even left the airport, I could not help but be aware of the intense degree of monitoring, control, and boundaries that are part of life under occupation. Watchtowers along the streets; checkpoints that divide cities; concrete barriers that separate people, control identities, and regulate movement. Young soldiers with rifles over their shoulders frequently walked by in common areas. “What’s your religion?” “Why are you here?” “Where are you going and why?” The weight of Israel’s military control and presence were impossible to ignore.
Again, this is a matter of land, of space, and all that comes with it. I learned that Palestinian territories do not have regular access to water, so it must be stored in large containers while its running. I learned that Palestinians are prohibited from building any new structures; neither new homes nor an addition onto an already existing home. I learned that Palestinians are liable to suffer extended harassment at checkpoints which prevent them from getting to work, to school, and to the Holy Sites which are essential to their faith. I learned that many Palestinians have been displaced from their family’s ancestral land and still keep the keys to the homes they lost in hopes of returning to it one day.
Our time in Hebron, and in the surrounding South Hebron Hills, were particularly memorable. In the South Hebron Hills, a rural, dessert region, we visited the home of a Bedouin gentleman. Only a few days before our arrival, Israeli forces had issued him a demolition order for the humble stone oven and goat pen he had built.
Again, to my western sensibilities, this all seemed strange. But then again, maybe I’ve just taken land for granted—the food it produces which nourish me, my access to space so I can have a home, my ability to commute to work, to church, and to visit friends—and in all of this I forget that it is land that gives me life.