By Mahmoud, Palestine
It was the end of January 2018, the time of year that people in the Middle East expect snow. Alone in my studio apartment in Bethlehem, I remembered images of family gatherings, wearing our warmest clothes, enjoying creatively prepared sweet warm dishes, gathering around a wood stove. We took the warmth from each other while the fire, food, and sweets were just an excuse to gather. I wasn’t sure if family winters really were as cosy and picturesque as I recall them or if that’s just how I need to remember them, while I’m away from home on cold nights.
On the other side of the world, in Myanmar, the weather was exactly the opposite. As a group of Palestinians and Israelis, we were about to fly to Myanmar, in southern Asia, to share ideas of peace and reconciliation between fighting ethnicities in the region. We went as one family, not just one team. We came from one of the most intense, intractable, conflicted regions of all time to a modern conflict zone that had been dominating newspaper headlines.
At the time I was packing, to contextualize, I didn’t just leave my warm clothes behind. I also shaved my beard for security reasons – I usually take good care of my beard by shaping and trimming it – and I left my hipster clothes to wear sandals and shorts. We had protein bars, and pills for diarrhoea.
I was expecting the worst. I imagined a developing country fresh out of a clash between the military rule and the people. I pictured their social problems. They had held the first democratic elections just 2 years previously. Over half a million refugees had fled and they had suffered a terrible hurricane resulting in the death of over 300,000 people. All this weighed on me on one side of the scale, and on the other side, I wondered how our team would overcome the cultural differences in Myanmar.
I was concerned about how to deliver the message of reconciliation to different Burmese ethnic groups. I hoped that the love, unity, and peace that we had within our team would give us the strength to be an honest, real-life example. Hopefully, our message would reach people’s hearts and would build a bridge between the different cultures. As I reflected on this, I was no longer expecting the worst, but I was open to what this experience and culture were going to teach me.
A day before reaching our destination city, a bus with Muslim passengers was burned. Three were dead, ten injured. They said that a terrorist Buddhist group did it as revenge for houses that had been burned, and for three Buddhist girls who were raped by Muslims in a Burmese village. The situation felt even more intense.
For one activity, we were supposed to meet with a group of Muslims in a hotel. However, once the hotel management realized that they were Muslims, their reservations were cancelled and they were kicked out. Even though it was hot that day, I felt cold remembering how in my own life, stereotyping can let people see faith (or any other differences) as betrayal. My own cozy home, that used to accommodate many people, had no room for my differences and the sweet dishes became bitter when my family framed my loyalty to humanity as a betrayal to tribalism. I started wondering: will Myanmar avoid racism?!
Bethlehem is sometimes called the City of Peace – where Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who set himself the task of reconciling the world, ironically couldn’t find a place in an inn. Maybe instead he could find a place in people’s hearts, so that my new Muslim friends could live a life without stereotyping, as I have been welcomed in the City of Peace.
Afterwards, we met in the hotel’s patio. We started sharing stories and having discussions. We shared what brought us together; it wasn’t an ethnicity, colour, country, political views, religion, or even our theological beliefs, but rather the love we had from God for each one of us equally, that could heal not only our emotional or physical sufferings, but also our differences. The love of God helps me see people not just as equals, but as precious individuals. All the stereotyping, classifications, images, are mud to be washed away to see a golden ring.
Through this experience, I had so much joy to know that the Muslim and Buddhist workers in the hotel were able to see, probably for the first time, a group of Muslims and Buddhists together who love each other with no barriers. The Muslim hotel workers had been persecuted and isolated there. But now they could see a real example of going beyond coexistence to the deeper principals of love and compassion.
After the amazing time we had at the hotel, watching stereotypes being broken, something very different lay ahead of us. We trucked six hours to the Delta area, which is located exactly in the middle of nowhere.
On our way back to the capital, I was hanging on to a metal bar in the back of the pick-up truck which had an open door to fit our mattresses. The driver was eating betel nuts, which gave him a feeling of being high to make the 10 days drive more bearable over the bumpy, dilapidated roads. I felt that I might slip down into the street, and die at any moment. I was so terrified that I called my mom to tell her, “Mom, I am in Myanmar,” which I had been keeping a secret as I had told her that I was going to Thailand. I felt that she wouldn’t understand me risking my life for the work of reconciliation, but I was trying to deliver a last-minute message to my mother. It took a car accident to inspire the driver to slow down.
All that couldn’t stop me from smiling when I saw a flock of ducks swimming in a stream crossing the rice fields – knowing that one day, people will care more about the human ‘living’ stones, and use the concrete stones to build stronger houses for the people, people who go to the still-standing golden concrete temples to grieve for their loved ones they lost in the bamboo huts.
One day they will know that real worship is taking care of people based on love, not on ethnicity or religion. One day we will take a plane together from the same airport, and one day we will be able to look at each other as if we are looking into a mirror.