Abdullah and Noha Awwad live in paradise. That’s what they tell anyone who pulls into their driveway in Beit Sahour, a small town next to Bethlehem “Welcome to my paradise!” Abdullah calls, arms outstretched. I’m happy to be back in this place that feels so much like home. The Awwads’ paradise has been my Palestinian home for years. I’ve stayed with them at least once on every trip over the past decade.
After years of the Israeli government denying access to their birthland, and finding steady employment abroad, how easy it might have been to stay gone.They could have let go of Palestine and moved on, as so much of the world did. But unfortunately, it was paradise.
“I wanted to do something for reconciliation,” Abdullah says. “So I helped start a center called the Palestine Centre for Rapprochement between People. Between the Israelis and Palestinians. And we invited many Israelis to come. ‘Let’s talk.’ And many of them came.”
“Believe me, my friend, I’ll tell you very frankly: as long as there is occupation, as long as there are settlements, as long as there is annexation of the land, there will be no peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. Peace comes when each party takes what it deserves: its rights. And I think we have the right in Jerusalem, we have the right in the West Bank, we have the right to live a decent life. I built my house with my own sweat, and I think I have the right to live in it.”
“Israel must realize,” he goes on, “that building walls eight meters high will not bring her peace. The only way to bring peace is to build bridges of friendship, of peace, between Israel and its neighbors. That is the only way.”
“I am a Christian believer,” he says, his voice full of conviction, “and my Lord told me, ‘Love your enemy.’ I am a pacifist. I taught my children to be pacifists. I don’t like bloodshed. I don’t like anybody to be killed, whether Palestinian or Israeli. We are all the children of God. And I think that God loves me as he loves any Israeli. So we want to live together, side by side.” He’s preaching now, and it’s a sermon I’d listen to every Sunday. Especially because I share his faith, his conviction to love enemies, his commitment to nonviolence.
There are many places I love in Israel and Palestine But my favorite place of all is the Al Basma Centre, which Abdullah founded.
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When Abdullah returned to Palestine after working in Libya, he paid attention to the unmet needs of his hometown. And he decided to “do something.” So a few years after his return, he formed and led a committee to address the high rate of developmental disabilities in and around his community of Beit Sahour.
Today, the Al Basma Special Rehabilitation Centre welcomes upward of thirty-five to forty “students,” as they’re called. Some are teenagers; others are middle-aged. I’ve visited Al Basma on every trip I’ve made to Palestine since 2007. In the summer of 2010, I volunteered for two months at the center with two college friends. It was one of my most meaningful summers.
I’ve never been part of anything that contained as much joy as Al Basma. It will forever hold a special place in my heart. It is where I learned that intimacy doesn’t need conversation. It is where I learned the depth of forms of communication other than language, and of languages other than those spoken or written. It is where I learned that all one really needs for soul connection is presence, attention, and affection. And it’s where I learned that without the ability to speak a full sentence to one another, you can build trust simply by showing up and coming back.
And every time I come back, I am wrapped in the arms of humans who have resurrected, like Issa. People previously considered useless, embarrassing, and unnecessary are now full of life. They feel as if they are contributing to their community, to a better Beit Sahour, a better Palestine, a better world. At Al Basma, I am held by the hands of beautiful people who just needed room to realize they are acceptable just as they are. I feel at home in their company. And through all the kisses and saliva, each visit is like another baptism into hope and love.
It’s not only the work of the center that is remarkable; it’s also who is doing it. The center is run by a small group of inspirational women, both Christian and Muslim. Many months of the year, the center falls short of the funds needed to operate. Rather than risk shutting it all down, the women volunteer to take pay cuts from already thin salaries. “What will happen to the students if they can’t come here?” Basma, the director, asked me one day. “They need this place.”
And I’ve seen what she means. The students love the center. “It’s like a beehive,” Abdullah tells me. “Everybody’s working, everybody’s smiling.” To see such community, such collaboration, is good news in times of such fear and animosity. Because Al Basma tells me that religion and difference need not be markers of division. It’s not written in stone anywhere that hospitality and affection shall be suspended in the company of difference. In fact, it’s in the presence of difference that hospitality is often most needed.
Excerpt adapted from I Am Not Your Enemy: Stories to Transform a Divided World by Michael T. McRay. © 2020 by Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Used with permission. www.heraldpress.com.