Home – in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Wow! I was so nervous about heading to the other side of the green line, thanks to all the fear mongering from the media and people I had met. Boy, were they wrong. The people of Palestine were amongst the warmest I have ever met. I stayed with Ibrahim and his wife Aya in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Gotta love Airbnb, they really do give you the local experience. This couple bent over backwards for me and ensured my every need was met.


Ibrahim was also a driver and he took me exploring to Jericho, the Dead Sea and St George Monastery. He also wandered the streets of Bethlehem with me for hours to show me the other camps, the wall and some other key places that highlight the history and struggle of this region. Upon arriving, Ibrahim met me at the checkpoint where the other taxi drivers had rustled me up a seat in the shade while I waited – far from the harassment promised by the naysayers.


Aya had gone out so I was dropped to her at her mum Afaf’s house, where the whole family greeted me. Shisha, tea and cake, it was Abdallah’s (Aya’s brother) birthday and I slotted in like I always belonged there. No sign of feeling like an outsider, no awkward stares or questions on why I wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Just warm Palestinian hospitality from a wonderful woman and her tribe.


I asked probing questions on the occupation and their thoughts behind that. Speaking freely Ibrahim and his family (he is one of 14!) told me of the struggle of their family after his mother died when he and his siblings were still little and how the Christian brothers and sisters had taken a few of them in to school them and shelter them too. They told me about their land and villages that have since been occupied by illegal Jewish settlements and how they wish to return Insha’Allah (God Willing) and that that day will come.


The Dheisheh Refugee Camp came into existence 70 years ago when the UN leased the land for the displaced Palestinians and hosts 13,000 people today. Ibrahim advised that the UN holds a 99-year lease to this place so they feel secure for now. “But what happens after that?” I ask. “No one knows,” is his reply, with a distant hint of defeat. Aws and Ayham, his beautiful boys, greeted me daily with kisses and cuddles and loved to sit with me as I wrote in my room in the mornings.


There was a family get together nearly every night, one evening Ibrahim parked the car and ushered me in. I waltzed in to the house of his brother whom I had not yet met, I did meet about 30 members the day before at dinner but not this one. As I entered, a band of men looked up at me (the blonde stranger). I uttered a confident Salam Alaikom and one of the women from the day before came out to greet me with a joyous and enthusiastic smile. I felt like I could read the minds of the men (who is this chick, oh well she’s here now… tea?).
We sat in the back room (the second lounge, and as in all Arab households) and the food just kept coming and the giggling and chatter of the women competed with the stories and laughter of the men in the other room. Not segregated on purpose or for tradition, more like when you’re at a barbeque and the men stand by the fire with their beers and the women chatter by the salads. Same thing here, men and women float between the two rooms casually. I’m happy to be in my section, because we’ve got the kids and they are so adorable.


I was so impressed with the openness of this family and the no-nonsense approach to their lives. They are not in the best situation; they are treated as second class citizens in their own land. Aya is not permitted to enter Israel. No explanation, just not permitted, and Afaf explained to me the heartache of losing her husband due to the restriction on his identity card which resulted in him succumbing to his heart attack at the checkpoint whilst the soldiers held back his ambulance. It’s a total breach of human rights here yet no one can enforce the law which has many infringements here. Despite all that, they laugh, play and crack on the best they can and I admire that greatly.


A Muslim family who hold their belief in Allah and the teachings of Mohammed proudly whilst not being dogmatic followers, they discussed religion openly with me and took me to meet a Christian Brother, Joe a founding member of the Bethlehem University among others for my Faith Chat collection for YouTube. Nothing was a bother and I still chat to them every week.


If you want to go to Palestine, my advice is: don’t hesitate. Go. It’s safe, it’s beautiful, the people are amazing and the food is to die for.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Pilgrim of the Week – Brother Joe

An American Brother who first came to Palestine in the 80s, Brother Joe was instrumental in the set up and evolution of the Bethlehem University. A Christian University, first of its kind in Palestine. Today it caters to the higher education needs of a 70% Muslim majority student body. Brother Joe explained to me how the uni continued to educate through the intifada by congregating and teaching in groups of less than 10 so as to not be accused of being a ‘political group’. A modest and humble man who has contributed so much to this community and the people in it. What a legend! Keep your eye out for my Faith Chat with Brother Joe on YouTube in the coming weeks.

Holy Land #2 – Mohammed on the Hill

The second of the Abrahamic religion is of course Islam. And similarly with Christianity and Judaism, some seriously important stuff went down in Jerusalem for Muslims. The foundation stone for starters, the holiest site on earth, enshrined by the Dome of the Rock. An impressive building on top of what remains of the Western Wall. It was built in the 7th century when Umayyad rule came through.


The Islamic rulers wanted to ensure the grandeur of the place where it is said that Mohammed not only ascended to heaven, but also where he received the instructions for Muslim prayer (salat) after his famous night journey that is celebrated every year. These instructions are still practiced today by Muslims globally. I was surprised to learn that in fact originally Muslims faced Jerusalem when they prayed before changing to Mecca in 623 CE.

(Not in Israel. Just a beautiful shot from India)

Of course, this site is a bone of contention because the Christians believe that this is where Adam was created from the earth and therefore the beginning of creation of all humanity. Also it is said that this is the place of the sacrifice of Abraham according to Jewish belief. Further the Temple of Solomon and the second temple once stood in this place. So, if the Romans destroyed the temple and the Jews rebuilt despite them and then the Muslims came through and honoured the site but in a different way, why do we have to fight over it? The building that stands is incredible and next to it is the Al Asqa Mosque.


Like everywhere in Jerusalem, there is tight security entering the Dome of the Rock and strict observance of modest dress is enforced (similar to that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall). Thousands of Muslims come to pray every day and when I was there a wedding was in full swing with the happy couple posing for photos on the steps of the dome.

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Unfortunately non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter anymore, but that’s only because a Christian extremist try to burn it down once so they pulled the pin. Fair enough.
Wandering the Muslim quarter daily (that’s where all the best shawarma is), what I loved was seeing women in hijabs selling crucifixes, skull caps and prayer beads! The population of Muslims in the old city is twice that of the Jewish, Armenian and Christian quarters put together, and right in the centre of the Jewish quarter is a mosque that was rebuilt by a Jewish family whose son died and had converted. These little glimpses of unity are inspiring and show the potential for harmony in this land.


For centuries, the Islamic community here has co-existed with Jews and Christians alike. Like previously mentioned it is the Holy Land – not the land of Jews, not the land of Jesus, not Muslim’s centrepiece and the people I spoke to both on the Palestinian side and Israel side just want to live their lives. This land is not up for sale, it belongs to the people who have occupied it for centuries. Just like the conquered predominantly Christian west or the predominantly Islamic Middle East and North Africa or the Hindu and Buddhist conquests in Asia.


That’s history. Must we still fight? Have we learnt nothing from our forefathers?

To divide and conquer is a thing of the past and I hope the powers that be see that because as far as Islam is concerned the Dome is not going anywhere. And why should it? We won’t destroy Roman buildings from their conquests?
Yours in faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim

Holy Land #1 – Jewish Extremism

Let’s get this straight. Zionism is a movement for extremist Jews from all over the world to occupy a land that isn’t necessarily rightfully theirs. Yes? I’m gonna find out.
This article is NOT an attack on Judaism or Jewish people; it is part of a series of ALL religious extremist groups. This is my perspective after spending time in the country known as Israel or Occupied Palestine, depending on who you ask.
I spent seven days on the Israel side of the green line and seven days in Palestine. I stayed with Jews, Christians and Muslims who were mostly born in the area. 

Fact Check! 

  • Pre-1948 the entire area was called Palestine. A name that dates back to the biblical term of the people who lived there: Philistines.
  • This region has been occupied for centuries by the Romans, Ottomans, Umayyad, British and others; now by the Zionists (Israel)
  • In 1948 the British Empire ‘gave’ this land to the Zionist movement, it was:
  1. Not theirs to give – kind of like Pakistan. (I’ll let you know how that trip goes). Or Australia for that matter. That’s politics for ya.
  2. Propagated with the lie that this was “A land without people for a people without land” – there were people, they’re called Palestinians. They’ve lived here for centuries and many of them still have the key to their old homes

  • Israeli (Zionist) leaders then opened the door for any person of Jewish descent to come here and have citizenship – Aliyah they call it (Google it if you want to learn more). So the majority of these people actually already have a home country. I’m confused, as a Catholic do I get automatic citizenship in the Vatican? 

Don’t be fooled with the ‘persecuted Jews needed a homeland’ bollocks either. Israel in 2017 is not populated with descendants of European holocaust survivors. It’s crammed full of Russian, American and Canadians among others from very safe and inclusive countries, all of which are happy to have them. Hence why no one gives up their original passport. 

Note: I met a Canadian woman who had been living in Jerusalem for 37 years and was just going to pick up her renewed Canadian passport. Interesting.

    • Palestinians are now trapped in their allocated section most of which is controlled by the Zionists anyway, sorry, Israeli forces. Treated as second class citizens in their homeland (because they are from here and so were their grandparents and their great great grandparents.) Subjected to difficult economic situations, limited services and many in makeshift neighbourhoods (camps) set up by the UN. 

    Note: I met a woman whose husband died because he did not have ‘permission’ to enter Jerusalem. Not cool!

      • Yes the Palestinians left their properties, in fear that they would be killed. Not just because they fancied a change. So that’s not a green light to bulldoze homes and build illegal Jewish settlements.

       Note: The Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal and against international law! Yet they’re still there. Why? Because Israel has all the guns, literally. They distribute the ammunition to the Palestinian Authority. What the?

        I could go on and on. Spend an hour and do some research. It’s not black and white.


              What’s happening in the Holy Land is not dissimilar to the Nazi regime in WW2 Europe in principal. Okay, there are no gas chambers. But Palestinians are fenced in to their territory like a prison; guarded day and night with less rights and freedom of movement than those with an Israeli passport. Sound familiar? This ethnicity gets this ‘badge’ while the others get another. Shall we get the tattoo gun out (too soon?). 

              Even I know what that discrimination feels like after being subject to an excessive search resulting in my human rights being violated at the hands of the arrogant and disgraceful airport security. As I watched those on an Israeli passport or notably dressed in Jewish manner waved through to a much more lenient check. What, so no Israeli is a risk to terrorism? Wow. Reverse racial profiling? Let’s talk about that later.

              The chosen ones. Really?

              Now let’s talk locals. I spoke to many Jewish people, loads in fact. I did find it difficult to talk to anyone who was actually born in Israel though. But alas they do exist.
              I had dinner at a Rabbi’s house, prayed at the Western Wall, celebrated Mimouna and participated in a Seder dinner. A Seder dinner is an annual celebration of the exodus of the Jews from being enslaved and treated like second class citizens by the Egyptians (oh the irony). I got into quite a hot debate with a Moroccan Jew (not born in Israel), an American Christian, and a Russian Jew residing in Jerusalem.(I know sounds like a joke, a Jew, Russian and a Christian walk into a bar). They continued to throw scripture at me and the old line – the Jews were promised this land from God. Ah, okay, so God said you could break the commandments and steal, murder and dishonour your neighbour. Why didn’t you say so? Jesus said that he died for my sins so can I just go on a rampage then…

              I did have a lengthy conversation with a few Israeli-born men. When I challenged them on their thoughts about the Palestinian people and whether they should be treated with such contempt, they all sung from the same hymn sheet like brainwashed robots. They said that it is written that this land would be returned to the Jewish people. Also that God was protecting the Jewish people to enable this prophecy to come true. Okay great. I thought he protected everyone and that wasn’t the question that I asked.


              Don’t get me wrong. I understand that thousands of years ago the land of Israel existed and was a Jewish centre.But that’s the history of the world. Do we want to erase centuries of conquests and reclaim ancient lands? If that’s the case the whole planet has a refugee problem, from Australia, to Europe, South America, the US and beyond.


              Anyhoo I’m off to read Ezekiel; apparently it’s all in there. Stay tuned, I intend on getting to the bottom of this.
              Yours ‘very confused’ in faith,

              The Unlikely Pilgrim

              Varanasi – Spiritual Enlightenment or Soul Destroying?

              I know, heavy title, right. Hear me out.

              India always presents such stark contrasts, but Varanasi is a paradox to me. It is a holy place. It is a sacred city on the banks of the holiest of holy Mama Ganga, goddess of the Hindus. It is a giver of life and sanctuary for the soul in more ways than one.

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              Wandering the endless narrow streets (much like Venice without the canals) and the addition of countless cows and consequent cow shit (holy land mines, as per my host). I came across temple after temple after temple. On every corner there was a shrine to Shiva, the creator of this town. Or the telling orange clothes of an approaching sadhu. They are holy men who have dedicated their lives to God. Not to be confused with a priest; only a Brahmin can be a priest (their caste system is a whole other post).  But a holy man, who eats, sleeps and breathes prayer whilst sitting for hours chanting Sanskrit scriptures. He relies on the kindness of others for food. He is happy to offer advice and counsel if asked, but more so a man of solitary devotion to God. 


              Then there is the river itself, a holy living Goddess flowing for 2500 kilometres providing life and spiritual hope to all those who adorn her banks. Or better yet to bathe in this mighty river is said to cleanse the soul. Of course, I indulged in this opportunity to cleanse some sins away. I’m the Unlikely Pilgrim after all. Holy yes, pure … not the word that comes to mind when submerged in this water, especially with a buffalo within spitting distance. 


              Nonetheless I cleansed, I bathed, and I even headed to the temple to be blessed.
              Like my previous entry (Cremations and Corpses) describes. There is commitment to the ceremony of this place. The dedication to rituals in ensuring the soul is clean is paramount. Pilgrims from all over India, and in fact the world, come in the millions to soak up the energy of Varanasi. In theory it is beautiful and spiritually charged. 


              However both times I’ve been here I’ve felt an underlying sadness; not a surface bad feeling, but a deep sorrow in my heart.
              A sorrow for the conditions here: the streets are filthy with animal mess, rubbish and general grime. Children as young as three years old beg on the streets well into the night.

               Seedy and uneasy feelings down by the river after dark surrounds me and the lower castes are avoided and disregarded. An example, the Aghori the men who work down at the cremation sites to ensure the masses get their golden ticket to heaven work tirelessly, yet I’m advised not to talk to them or risk being tainted by someone else’s woes. Superstition or discrimination? I’m undecided.


              With all the colour and spirituality, Varanasi is certainly an incredible place to visit. I can’t help but invoke feelings of helplessness when I think of Varanasi though. A place so full of hope and maybe that’s why the poverty is more obvious to me here than in other parts of India. Albeit the divide is everywhere in India. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life here, because all the people need is their God. 


              Find out for yourself.

              http://www.visitvaranasi.com

              Yours in faith,

              The Unlikely Pilgrim

               

              Cremations and Corpses.

              Got your attention! Well the cremation Ghats in Varanasi certainly had mine. Having visited this chaotic city before, I opted for a guide this time round. I had limited time and didn’t want to miss anything. Thank the Lord for Rohit, such an endearing, kind and super knowledgeable guy.

              (Checkout my FaithChat with Rohit here  https://youtu.be/XfOb42mYDWA )

              We headed to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation Ghat. There were to be no photos, I was advised (fair enough). Here the pyres burn 24 hours a day with a constant stream of bodies (people) arriving to have their life’s dream realised. For Hindus, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi is said to break the cycle of reincarnation. You are no longer a product of your karma and no longer a victim of deeds of past lives, but on a one-way ticket to heaven.

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              It is men only in this place. Women are deemed too emotional, too overcome with grief to be still and quiet as to not disturb the souls of the dead. Therefore, the men carry the corpse through the streets down to the Ghat and immerse the body in the river. A series of rituals unfold. The eldest man is shaved: head, face and neck. Various oils, herbs and specific fabrics are sourced and all have their place.

              When the body is fully cleansed and prepared, it is placed upon 200 to 300 kilos of wood and set alight with a special flame. There is no fixed price for, it fluctuates by the minute 200-500 1000 rupee. Whatever the price, dependant on the day the family pays willingly.

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              I watched five corpses arrive and be prepared. I witnessed the men as the family members chatted amongst themselves and oversaw proceedings in such an official and disconnected way. I bet within their hearts the grief was screaming.

              But it is for the good of the soul of their loved one. An outward calm sits upon their faces. I’m not sure I could contain my grief with such control and dignity. No girls allowed; a smart move.

              The sobering realisation is that in fact I’m surrounded by death, and that that stick is a leg burning before me evaporated my feelings of admiration for the families. This prompted a quick departure to the famous Blue Lassi Cafe to collect my thoughts and process what I had just seen. In my reflection, I do admire the ritual, the steadfastness of the men and the commitment of the Hindu people to journey here to die and reach salvation. I wonder if other religions were given just one act to attain salvation would our commitment be as strong and as widespread?

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              I visited the Ghats just once as I felt within myself a need to respect the process that was occurring and not overstep my privilege to be part of it. The families happily allow us tourists to stop by and witness their culture and it’s up to us to do this respectfully by not making it a spectator sport.
              Yours in faith,

              The Unlikely Pilgrim

              Harassed and Man Handled at Holi.

              I have two tales to tell of Holi celebrations in India. I opted for Vrindivan, the home of Holi and the birthplace of Krishna to play Holi. Here thousands of people descend to celebrate the colours and chaos of Holi; the festival of love or the festival of colour. A commemoration of Krishna and Radha’s love (his girlfriend, not his wife). A two-day festival; but in this area celebrations start well before the actual Holi day and extend a couple of days afterwards.

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              Day 1 – Mathura

              I wanted the whole experience so I checked into the ashram and headed down town. Day one was quite tame; visiting the local temples I experienced the fanfare of the festival with people approaching to smear coloured chalk on my face and give me a hug. Others playfully threw colour from tuk-tuks and rooftops while hollering – Hare Hare or Happy Holi.  Fun, playful, festive.

              I got swept up in the dancing at the temple as the bells and drums played, chanting echoed the walls and even the constant request for selfies with the locals was palpable at this stage. I explored the temple in Mathura and attended the Holika ritual, the ceremonious burning of an effigy. Holika was a demoness who tried to kill a young Prahlad and in an elaborate attempt to burn him, she herself went up in flames. A great start to my Holi experience and feeling a little coloured out but still excited, I was ready for the big Holi day.

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              Day 2 – Vrindivan

              Day two was a completely different experience. All ‘saried up’ and feeling very Indian, my new friend Alessandro and I headed to the Banke Bihari temple in town that is said to have the best celebrations in town. Not that I would know as we never made it … and that’s where the dark side of the story starts.

              Like the day before we were assaulted with colour from every angle and today the coloured water was also out in force. What started out quite fun rapidly deteriorated into a nightmare the closer we got to the temple. The streets were jam packed and as very few foreigners were around I felt like we had massive targets on our back. The boys were either stoned on Bhang or drunk and seemed incredibly rowdy compared to the day before. And if the constant battery of coloured chalk in your every crevice, ears, eyes, mouth, wasn’t enough, the wandering hands in the crowd started. Not fucking cool!

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              As we approached the temple we got caught in what can only be described as a stampede of people. The type of situation that ends in headlines ‘10 Killed in Crush During Holi Celebrations.’ Thank God for Alessandro. His quick thinking swept us onto a little ledge where others were seeking refuge and he protected me like a bull and kept me safe.

               

              Once the crowd dispersed we both agreed: fuck the temple, let’s get out of here. But it was not as easy as it sounds. Wandering the labyrinth of laneways, we were battered again and I copped a massive handful of chalk directly in my eye, not to mention opportunistic grabby hands in the crowd, resulting in more than one Indian boy copping an earful from me. Cheeky little shits.

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              Exhausted, feeling completely harassed we eventually found our way and sought refuge in a more subdued street. We massively overpaid for a tuk-tuk to escape, which at this point did not bother me. I was tired, violated and soaked to the skin. We were still attacked intermittently on the ride home from the street whilst in motion, including an entire bucket of water as we slowed for a cow just to ensure the small dry bits were now drenched.

               

              As a final gift some little bastard threw cow shit at us. The driver went nuts but it didn’t stop the shit from being on my sari now, did it. Safely back at the sanctuary of the ashram a few teens were out the front and attempted to colour me and they copped all the wrath from the morning and backed off very slowly. I felt like as soldier retuning from battle being safe in the barracks as we debriefed with the staff who said the centre of town wasn’t the smartest idea. Well, no shit (pardon the pun). Now you tell us. I was left feeling quite violated and wondering why people would come here and hoped that the next day would be less violent … it was. Thank God!

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              Day 3 – Barsana

              I welcomed day three with stained pink and blue skin and hair. We headed to Stick Holi (Haurunga); a tradition celebrated in a town 50 kilometres from Mathura where it is said Krishna made fun of Radha and her friends, so they beat him up. So, to commemorate that, men parade through the Dauji temple and get covered in red water and the women rip the men’s clothes off and beat them withtheir clothes. We managed to score a spot on the roof with the soldiers and had a bird’s eye view of the whole event which was incredible.

              The fanfare was again chaotic and colourful, however this time I was safe out of harm’s way. Thousands of people participate and it felt vibrant and light. The chalk was still freely thrown but with care and playfulness, not malice, and my personal space today remained intact. I really enjoyed the celebrations at Barsana and highly recommend making the trip if you’re here for Holi, I even got interviewed for Indian television. Bonus!

              In the evenings, everything calms down and I had the opportunity to explore the many temples of the area and chat to some Hare Krishna’s who explained to me the importance of Holi. In summary, I think Holi is well worth the visit and the rituals at the temples, Barsana and Mathura, on the peripheral days are enjoyable. My tip would be to stick to the back streets if you’re in Vrindivan and you will enjoy it a lot more.

              Girls, don’t go alone. I rarely say that as I traipse around the world on my own, but I am so thankful for having Alessandro by my side because it was quite a difficult situation to be in alone and he deterred a lot of the carry on, and still it was rowdy and unacceptable.

              So was it Happy Holi – I think yes but I’ll be rethinking my plans for Deepvali to ensure my safety and comfort during these mass celebrations.

               

              Yours in Faith,

              The Unlikely Pilgrim