By: Maya Mineoi (Toledo, OH)
As we prepared to leave Palestine, Rev. Imad Haddad, pastor of Church of Hope in Ramallah, asked us if we would deliver a message of hope or a message of despair to our friends back home. I was struck by his question. I felt the responsibility to convey a message of accountability to the United States of America. Many of the other people we met turned the conversation back to the US. They reminded us that we are complicit in allowing Israeli occupation to continue through allowing human rights and international law violations to go unchecked and by providing defense support to Israel (which ultimately benefits US arms dealers). In addition, my American passport gave me privileged access through the land. It was emotionally draining to see over and over how the Israeli occupation limited Palestinian movement, economic ability and connection to land and to national identity. Although I can’t help but share this part of the equation with people in the States, I will also follow Pr. Haddad’s advice to speak of life and hope in Palestine.
Imagine walking through Jerusalem to holy sites from the three Abrahamic religions. You’re passing Jerusalemites, tourists and Israeli security forces that can erect barriers at a moment’s notice. While visiting, you might experience, like we did, the inconvenience of being told that the entrance is closed for security purposes. When this happened to us, we ended up sitting near a group of Palestinian teenagers waiting to get in. They weren’t on a 2 week international excursion like us, but rather just trying to get to the next place in their day. They seemed used to the interruption and sat talking and joking with each other. After access was opened up to the old city again, we continued our tour and coincidentally came across the same teenagers again during their dance practice. My God, they were incredibly life-giving and powerful.
Their dancing countered so much of what the occupation demanded of them. They reclaimed national identity by continuing the traditional “dabka” dance style. In a country that is divided by separation walls and Israeli-only roads that cut through Palestinian land, these young dancers expressed unity with the synchronization of their shouts, clapping and stomping. They created their own style with flow, suspension, and playing with timing. The dancers created these steps that showed freedom through the control of their bodies, a dichotomy that you can only fathom if you’ve lived under threat of violence. In contrast to the confinement of military occupation over land, sea and air space, they boldly filled their entire kinesphere. In just two weeks of witnessing occupation I felt overwhelmed, limited and responsible, and yet watching dance was refreshingly hopeful. The three dance groups we saw at various times throughout our trip have experienced a lifetime under occupation. From an outsider’s perspective, I assume that would lead to crippling despair. Given the difficulties of occupation for Palestinians, it was breathtaking to watch joy and empowerment of the young people dancing.
In the midst of barriers and armed soldiers, people we met have to carry on with their days, going to work, to school, taking care of family and taking time to pray. A 50-year occupation is awful. Yet our hosts reminded us not to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, but to tell the truth as we saw it. Many people we met said things like, “this is the case here” or “this is how it is”. In the midst of xenophobia and systems that value profit over people, US Americans still have to carry on with our days, working, learning, caring for family and taking time to rest. Continuing, as a country, to support a 50-year occupation is awful.
I write this post from an elementary school in Minneapolis on the last day of school before summer break and there are children laughing and dancing all around me. They’re blasting Bruno Mars “Just The Way You Are”, and I can’t help but think that maybe this is a taste of true freedom and joy. Maybe there is hope where children dance together, practicing and expressing their power and freedom. And who am I to say that when the Creating, Unifying, Freeing presence of Allah is stomping, jumping and spinning that there is room for lasting despair. Who am I to say that there is not hope in our need to continually join in this dance.