I've been working in Israel for three weeks now. I have learned the value of paying attention by putting my own reactions and feelings aside. Without understanding what is going on around me, there is no way I can work for positive changes here, and the best way to do that is quiet down, sit still, and listen.
In that spirit, here is a cocktail blender drink of the experiences I remember most.
I stood with Muslim and Christian Arabs and tourists on the harbor dock at Old Jaffa, watching the sunset. There were families all around me, and everyone was quiet, even the babies.
I went to the border of Jordan in the Golan Heights, and the only person whose eyes I could meet and whose eyes would meet mine was the 19 year old soldier with whom I lunched on olives and pita and coke. He spoke admiringly of Bedouin trackers working for the military, joked about animals triggering the border sensors, and looked relaxed and confident. He carried a machine gun, like the other soldiers I've seen. A United Nations van pulled up and seven men exited, five of whom unrolled prayer rugs and performed their midday prayer towards Mecca.
There was a little swallow nest at the small shawarma shop where a suburban Jewish Israeli family and I stopped, owned by Palestinian Arabs. I was terribly hungry and the swallows were silent, flying back and forth to feed their young. We (the Arabs, the Jews, and I) were also quiet while we waited.
I visited a 16th century Jewish bakery in Tzfat, recently unearthed and in the process of being excavated. They pointed out the tiny skylight in the corner of the Mikva (ritual bath), where they had entered the place after so many years. It smelled like river stones and dry earth.
I had jet lag for two weeks, and heard the birds that sing in Tel Aviv at dawn as a result. There are different stages of birds, and the last birds of morning are swallows, which have a sad, distant cry, even though they are right next to the window. The first ones, who sing when it is still dark, sound like Kurt Vonnegut's birds from Slaughterhouse Five: po-tee-weet?
I ate lunch with my co-workers on a trip to Tzfat at a Yemeni cafe, where an old man with a white beard cooked the most perfect food, a little like crepes with freshly made Za'atar, goat cheese, vegetables, and smothered in new olive oil.
I saw graffiti on a corporate building in Tel Aviv. It said, across the whole building, "WHOSE STREETS?" I saw other graffiti art, anarchy symbols, bits of poetry, racial slurs against Arabs, drawings of women and rabbits and popular cartoons.
Independence Day in Israel was a big outdoor party. Everyone was walking down the middle of the streets, there were singers and electronic music on stages in Rabin Square, children were screaming and playing. I went to an alternate event, where protestors from the Occupy movement in Israel last summer came out and spoke, and lit torches together. There were teachers, artists, journalists, photographers, and social workers. They smiled at one another, but there was no joy, no dancing. Afterwards I walked through the streets filled with people dancing and laughing and spent the entire rest of the night reading "I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity" by Izzeldin Abuelaish. I read the last sentence as Vonnegut's birds were beginning to sing.
I sat in Old Jaffa in the mid-afternoon sun, listening quietly to a Russian man playing folk songs on his guitar, in the shadow of one of Jaffa's elegant minarets, while sailboats glided through the blue Mediterranean Sea and the sea wind blew steadily from the west.
I saw a medical researcher's laboratory in Tzfat, and the large, empty faculty of medicine, where many Jews and Arabs will study together to save people's lives someday. The faculty is new and kept echoing. I kept on thinking I heard voices all around me, but there was no one except for us.
I saw the tiny neighborhood of Achbara, at the southernmost section of Tzfat, a beautiful Arab village, very pastoral, with goats and horses and cows, and a pine forest around it, with a view of the mountain bridge to the main township, and a mosque with a golden dome and its soaring white minaret in the very heart of the neighborhood.
There's more, of course. The human mind and its animal and philosophical tendencies, and its mystical inclination to describe the indescribable and so gain power over all it perceives, is the cage, and all the ghostly dreams it solipsistically encounters along its way are the birds. But the key to open the cage exists, though it's hard to find.
This is where we begin.