By Turning You Upside Down

 I’ve been spending my Wednesday afternoons hanging upside down from a trapeze, trying to catch juggling balls being tossed my direction, and flinging myself at a giant crash pad in attempts to do handsprings.  And I’ve also spent those precious hours every week playing team-building games with ten-year-olds, cheering on the classmate who doesn’t think she can, and getting to know the talented folks behind an amazing artistic endeavor.

Yes, friends.  The Palestinian Circus School is a real thing, and it’s been one of the things that’s given me the most hope and joy while I’ve been in Palestine.

The School offers classes [for kids, mostly] in a handful of cities and refugee camps around the West Bank.  The trainers not only teach basic circus skills, but they also impart values of teamwork, confidence, and self-expression.  And more radical than your basic after-school program–the Circus School encourages Palestinian youth to become self-aware in body and mind, and to creatively and collectively problem-solve and tell stories.

Some of these stories are told in professional productions that the Palestinian Circus School tours both locally and internationally.  In 2006 the School first performed ‘Circus Behind the Wall’, a production about life in occupied Palestine.  And nearly every summer the School puts on a Mobile Circus, touring in several Palestinian cities and refugee camps.

 I feel like I found my place in Palestine at the Circus School. Every week I bring my baggage to class–and somehow by laughing, challenging, smiling, straining, I let my body work through the anxieties.  I learn to sense my limits, support my partner when they fall, and laugh through my challenges.  What good lessons to practice–in the circus and in peacemaking!

The Palestinian Circus School — video clip

 By turning you upside down, we teach you to stand on your own two feet.  By dropping objects, we teach you to catch them.  By having you walk all over someone, we teach you to take care of them.  By having you clown around, we teach you to take yourself seriously.

~Bob Sugarman

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A Time for Harvest

The October olive harvest stays with me still.  In the bottle of olive oil sitting on my kitchen counter that was a gift from a neighbor.  In how I see people out pruning their olive trees as the weather cools down.  In the way my bar of olive oil soap softens my skin.  And in the bowls of pickled eating olives that are continually set before me at dinner tables.

During the olive harvest season, many Palestinian families spend their weekend days in their olive groves.  I had the blessing of being able to accompany a couple families for this yearly practice.  First, we picked up the olives that had already fallen from the tree and set them apart are to be made into soap.  Then, we spread a tarp beneath the tree and strategically positioned our ladders.  Climbing into the olive branches, I dropped the dark purple olives down onto the tarp.  After each tree was thoroughly picked of its olives–even the tiny ones, the dried ones, and the not-quite-ripe ones–we gathered them up from the tarp, picking through leaves and debris, and collected the olives into large sacks.

Each tree would typically fill a large sack half-way full of olives.  And it usually takes two olive trees to make a gallon of olive oil.  Most families take their olives to a local press and pay a small fee to have their olives pressed into oil that they will use for the coming year.  Different varieties of olives are used for different purposes.  I was told that green olives are typically pickled for eating [although I’ve also eaten black olives], and oil is made from the darker purple olives.

Not all Palestinian families have land with olive trees, and in certain areas, some of their land has been confiscated by Israel.  It’s also not uncommon to hear stories of Israeli settlers harassing Palestinians during their olive harvest, and sometimes even setting fire to groves of olive trees.

But I find it fascinating the way a culture evolves with a certain crop–the people-plant relationship, the identity found in a particular tree.  For Palestine, the olive tree is a symbol of steadfast resistance, of life in a dry and rocky place.  Of a fruit that requires much labour, but sustains a family.

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Stay Human

These pictures capture moments in Palestine that are all too normal.

And on a recent trip to Israel, I was surprised to find scenes like these:

And I asked: How has militarization become so normalized?  Why are we so used to it?

I call the United States out on this, too.  The oppression of a military-normalizing empire might be more physically felt here in Palestine, but it exists in the States–often unrecognized, and perhaps just as dangerous.

Yes, I am outraged.  But I’m also sad and yearning for a day when our children feel that they have options aside from joining the military.  When young people will be hired for decent work, even if they didn’t spend two years in the Israeli military.  When poor high school students in the States can find college, community, and courage without having to talk to the recruiters.  And I do believe that there will be a day when Palestinian children won’t have their play interrupted by Israeli soldiers–a day when all children won’t have their youth intruded on by the military.

Our liberation truly is bound up together.

If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time.  But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

~Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder & activist


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Come Have a Seat at the Table

The food words are the ones that stick with me the best.  It’s easier to remember new vocabulary when I have a flavour-feel to go along with my new Arabic word.

Every Monday through Thursday, I spend four hours in Arabic class at Birzeit University.  [Birzeit: Well of Oil]  I’m building my vocabulary bank of colloquial Arabic and slowly sounding out words as I learn the alphabet.   But the real practice comes outside of class when I can visit new friends and places.  And as a culinary admirer, I love asking about what I’m eating and how to prepare it.

Recently, my friend invited me to her family’s hometown of Beitin [literally: House of Figs].  This town is unique in that the majority of inhabitants have North American passports and have spent years living as refugees in Canada or the United States.  There’s also quite a bit of religious history in Beitin.  What is now the mosque in the middle of the town was at one point a synagogue, and at yet another time, a church.  In the Old Testament, Beitin [or Bethel] is where Jacob encountered God and dreamed about a stairway of angels.  And it’s one of the main cities where the prophet Amos delivered his messages.

In Beitin, I took a seat at the kitchen table of my friend’s aunt [affectionately known as khaalti], where I apprenticed in the making of maqlooba.  This traditional Palestinian rice dish literally means ‘upside-down’ because it’s flipped over right before serving.  Maqlooba is often made for festive occasions, like birthday parties and special guests, and I’ve been treated to it a few times since I’ve been in Palestine.  It’s typically served with chicken, but is easily made vegetarian.  My meticulous recipe notes are as follows:

Maqlooba with Khaalti

1.  Soak the rice [ruzz] in salted water for 30 minutes.  Pre-soaking the rice like this helps it become soft.

2.  Fry pieces of eggplant, potatoes, onions, and carrots.  Or try a different combination of veggies.

3.  Cover the bottom of a pot with the cooked vegetables and slices of fresh tomatoes [banduura].  Make sure that the bottom is completely covered with layers of veggies so that the rice won’t fall through.

4.  Drain the salted water from the rice, and mix in spices: allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, turmeric, and cardamom.

5.  Spoon the rice into the pot, on top of the vegetables.  Place a ceramic plate in the pot, on top of the rice.

6.  Add hot water [maay sukhun] or broth into the pot, until it covers the rice by one inch.

7.  Bring to a quick boil, and then remove the plate and turn the heat to low.  Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed.

8.  Once the rice is cooked through, turn the pot upside down onto a large serving platter.  Slowly pull the pot away, so the rice keeps its form and the veggies end up on top.

I think one of the best things I can do while I’m in Palestine is to pull up a chair in someone’s kitchen and listen–to the sounds of food being prepared, to fresh phrases, and to snippets of conversations.  I’ve come here primarily to listen, and not to fix.  To build relationships founded on humanity, and not colonization.  I find it easy for international visitors to Palestine to come with an Authoritative Opinion on The Situation–and I keep reminding myself to check my passport privilege at the door, and come have a seat at the table.

Words can enrich and be as wonderful spices mixed into the days we imbibe with all our senses.

~Meister Eckhart

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Eyes of the Olive Trees

Thousand year-old olive trees overlook the city of Hebron / Al-Khalil

These images come from my first two weeks spent in Palestine and Israel–where I traveled with a delegation from Christian Peacemaker Teams to hear stories, see realities, and taste hope.

Lifta was deserted by its Palestinian residents during the 1948 Nakba [or ‘Catastrophe’].  This ghost town sits on the edge of Jerusalem and sees occasional visitors who come to the fresh spring at the old town centre.

Fruit trees and fennel bushes overtake Lifta’s crumbling stone buildings–houses whose inhabitants one day thought they would return.


Ishmael, a Bedouin from the Negev desert, walks his traditional land that is constantly under threat of demolition by Israeli authorities.


This Bedouin community, Al-Arakib, was bulldozed just two days before our visit.  But there is vigorous life in this desert, as the Bedouins rebuild their homes with steadfast perseverance.


Alsira is a Bedouin town that is unrecognized by Israel, and therefore, under threat of demolition.  The community put this sign up themselves as a witness to their existence and struggle.

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Israeli settlers occupy the upper floors of many historic structures in the Old City of Hebron / Al-Khalil.  The souq continues its business below, but shopkeepers have installed wire netting over their shops to protect themselves, their customers, and their goods from garbage and stones thrown down on them by settlers.

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Militarism becomes normalized during frequent patrols and searches.  Hebron / Al-Khalil is known as one of the places where the Israeli occupation of Palestine is most blatant and physical.  Many of the Israeli soldiers are 18 to 20 years-old, serving in the military by requirement.

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After his land was confiscated to build an Israeli settlement, Abda, a resident of Hebron / Al-Khalil, lived in a bus for ten years.  Now 80 years-old, and due to health reasons, he recently moved into a house that is surrounded on three sides by Israeli settlements.

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 In the South Hebron Hills, the village of Al-Fakheit has been designated as part of Israeli Firing Zone 918.  Eight Palestinian villages and 1,500 residents are at risk of being expelled from their traditional lands.

If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.’

~Mahmoud Darwish

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Memory & Steadfastness

After just ten days in Palestine, it’s hard to put words to many of the things that I have seen and heard.  The stories will work their way out, when and how I can.  For now, this is a report that my CPT delegation wrote together, and it gives a glimpse into some of our experiences.

In our journey to understand the reality of life in present day Palestine / Israel, two themes have captured us: memory and steadfast resistance–or samood (Arabic).

During our first days in Jerusalem, we visited Yad Vashem–the Holocaust museum that attempts to reconstruct the daily lives and suffering of the Jewish people murdered in Nazi death camps.  The museum ‘re-membered’ those lost lives and communities, while calling on all the world to witness what occurred.

Our Jewish tour guide, Tamar, who accompanied us to Yad Vashem, took us that same day to Lifta.  This 800 year-old Palestinian town has been abandoned since 1948 when a Zionist assassination squad killed several villagers and frightened the inhabitants into a ‘temporary’ flight from which they never returned.  Tamar told us that her 15 years of work recovering the memories of the Holocaust for Yad Vashem gave her the eyes to see that all memories of the history of the Israeli return to Palestine need to be preserved.

Another day we visited Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian Liberation Theology centre.  There we heard from Christian Palestinians about both the personal and social disintegration of the Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe’ of the 1948 Zionist invasion that drove Palestinians from their homes.  We also learned about the theological disruption that came from their understanding that in the Zionist [both Jewish and Christian] reading of the Bible, Palestine is a land given by God to the Jews.  Our host, Cedar, raised the questions ‘How do I, a Palestinian Christian, read the Bible in the face of my family’s displacement?  What do I pray for?’  Remembering their own losses to the Zionist attacks of 1948, these Palestinian Christians call us to an open and accepting reading of God’s intention for all people and religions to live together in the Holy Land.

The theme of resistance, perseverance, and steadfastness was underlined for us in our visits later in the week.  We traveled to Al-Arakib, a Bedouin town in the Negev desert that has been demolished again and again by Israeli authorities, as part of Israel’s attempt to force Bedouin people from their traditional homes and way of life.  Al-Arakib has been destroyed so often that the site of the village has been bulldozed completely flat, and only a persistent reconstruction of symbolic shelters and repeated legal challenges have kept the Jewish National Fund [JNF] from planting a forest to completely eradicate the village.  We were introduced to this Bedouin community by Amos, a self-described Israeli ‘professional traitor’ who continually pressed on us his conviction that when legal action leads to immoral acts, a citizen must resist in the name of morality.

We also visited the house of Salim in Anata, within sight of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  His terraced home site has been destroyed by Israeli authorities six times since 1998.  Salim is working with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions [ICAHD], turning his land into an exhibition site to show international visitors the reality of living under fear of demolition.  He says, ‘As long as I live, I will not sell or abandon this land.  I will be a bone in their throats–they can’t swallow me down, and they can’t cough me up.’

This same samood,or steadfastness, is present in the ancient city of Hebron.  Here, Israeli settlers, supported by constant patrols of Israeli soldiers, have literally inhabited buildings in Palestinian territory.  In many parts of the Old City, Israeli settlers live in the upper floors of historic structures while the ground level houses the stalls of the local Palestinian market.  The shopkeepers have had to install a haphazard network of wire netting to protect themselves, their customers, and their goods from garbage and stones thrown down on them from above.  This daily threat and the random insistent patrols of the Israeli Defense Force have all but destroyed the business of the market.  Despite this occupation, we walked through the tunnel-like streets of the Old City with Walid, a Palestinian working to physically restore the market and encourage business people to stay.  For every time a Palestinian abandons a house, a market stall or a plot of land, Israel confiscates it.

In hearing the stories of our Israeli and Palestinian sisters and brothers, Tamar showed us that it’s important we remember.  But the memories themselves aren’t enough–how we remember is also critical, as well as what becomes of our memories.

In our own families we tell the stories of our ancestors.  We pass down mementos–jewelry, furniture, or pictures–to help construct the memories that make us who we are.  These memories impact the way we live our lives–they change us.  In the same way, the stories of our Palestinian friends are changing us.  Inspired by their samood, we commit to remembering and telling their stories when we return.  And we commit to remembering that our friends’ lives are impacted by our governments–everyone from Walid to Salim, from the Bedouins in the Negev to the shepherds in the hills of South Hebron, from the Palestinians in refugee camps in Bethlehem to the Palestinians in Hebron and Jerusalem–they all are impacted by our complicity with our governments’ actions.

Let us together remember the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, and be moved to act for peace with justice.


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Moving is good practice in holding my possessions more lightly and my people more closely.

I’m leaving my solid community in North Carolina to spend the next three and a half months in Palestine.  While it might not make sense to the voices that tell me to settle down, establish a career, and boost my bank account–this trip has been a long time coming and couldn’t feel more right.

On August 13, I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Tel Aviv (let’s hope that I arrive okay after 17 hours in flight and unpredictable customs officials).  Once I’m in the Holy Land, I’ll join Christian Peacemaker Teams for two weeks in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron.  CPT has had a continuous presence in the West Bank since 1995, and their work includes supporting Palestinian nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation, accompanying Palestinians in daily tasks, and documenting human rights violations.  The delegation that I will be participating in has several purposes: to educate participants through first-hand experience about the situation in Palestine / Israel, to support CPT’s long-term staff in Hebron, and to empower participants to return home, share stories, and continue the work of peacemaking.

After the CPT delegation, I will be staying in the West Bank to study Arabic at Birzeit University.  The first university to be established in Palestine, Birzeit University has over 8,000 students from the West Bank and Gaza.  I’ll be participating in the Palestine and Arabic Studies Program, which is specifically designed for international students to take classes at the university, and I plan on taking two language classes: Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial Arabic.  I learned about this program thanks to a dear friend of mine–both of her parents were university students at Birzeit decades ago–and I’m thrilled that she’ll be taking classes along with me.

I’m going into this journey being open to the possibility of long-term work with CPT in the future.  And I’m also choosing to stay beyond the delegation to learn Arabic, in part because of its usefulness, but largely because I think that learning a language is an excellent way to be somewhere.  It puts me in a place of vulnerability and shows my intention of building relationships.

And it’s through relationships that I’ve been seeded with what I need to take this step.  My family gave me the seed of cross-cultural curiosity, my friends: the seeds of compassion and understanding, my faith community: the seed of peace with justice, and my God has given me a holy, wild seed that is still unfolding.  For these, I am most grateful.

‘The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future.’ ~Brennan Manning


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