Many people dream of visiting the central biblical lands of Israel, Jordan and Palestine and perhaps also Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, which also feature in the Bible.
For most people this desire is connected with the places where the events in the Bible happened.
There are so many places that resonate with history, identity and faith, but it is the people — rather than the places — who especially capture my heart. The lives they create and sustain in this most edgy of places engage me profoundly. Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, their hospitality is both generous and transforming.
Let me share the stories of meeting a handful of remarkable people over several decades of visiting, working and living in Palestine and its adjacent lands.
One woman who stands out from the crowd is Violette from Nazareth. After running a pharmacy in the centre of town for more than 40 years, she knows almost everyone in Nazareth. More recently Violette has established Nasijuna (“Our Stitching”), a project that brings together women from the area to preserve traditional arts and crafts, and to pass their culture onto to younger people.
While wandering through the Old City markets of Nazareth in 2012, I came across the owner of the Dewan al-Saraya restaurant, Abu Ashraf. We have been great friends ever since, because I stopped to say hello and because he is the very embodiment of hospitality. He also makes the delicious katayef sweets — an Arab stuffed pancake filled with white creamy cheese or nuts and aromatic spices that is fried and served with rose water syrup. A table outside his café serves as my local office when I am in town.
Since my first visit to Jerusalem in 1990, Ibrahim from the gift shop opposite St George’s Anglican Cathedral has been a valued friend. It is a delight to watch him switch from one language to another as customers enter his small shop. He tells me that the sun shines over Jerusalem whenever I am in town, so how could I not love this man?
In the crowd of tourists at Petra one summer day, I met Leila. She and her friends persuaded me to part with several US dollars in return for trinkets and a lesson in how to wear my keffiyeh (a woven cotton scarf) properly. Over the years we became friends during my several visits to the Rose Red City. She was about 14 when we first met and never seemed to be in school, but her English was impressive. By now she would be in her early 20s and may well be married with children of her own. I hope to catch up with her when I am back in Petra this December.
Yuval is an Israeli filmmaker whom I met at an archaeology dig at Bethsaida when he was making a documentary about the excavations. We became friends and stay in touch between my visits. When I am there, Yuval likes to take me to some of his favourite cafes. Sometimes these are Israeli and sometimes they are Palestinian. What matters is the enjoyment of good food and the genial banter with the hosts, as well as the delight of hanging out with a good friend.
There are so many other people — Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians — who come to mind as I reflect on my travels in this place where history, identity and religion intersect in a unique way. There are so many others, but one group of people is easily overlooked. These are the people with whom we travel. None of us leave Jerusalem the same people that we were when we arrived, and that is also true for the people who share the journey with us. We may have known each other for many years, but we are changed by the time shared in this place and with each other. The time together may be brief, but we share significant moments and develop a depth of friendship that may not have happened otherwise.
All of us find that the Bible comes alive after we have been in the land. We have a sense of the landscape and the place names tug at our hearts. While listening to a Bible reading in church or during our daily prayers, even long after our return home, when we hear the name of a place where we have been a deep connection is made and refreshed.
We also come back with an awareness of the struggle for justice, peace and reconciliation. We do not just learn to read the rocks, but we also learn how to recognise an illegal Israel settlement on stolen Palestinian land and to identify the Palestinian houses by the black plastic water tanks on their roof. We notice the green grass in the middle of the streets in Jewish neighbourhoods and the lack of amenities in Palestinian suburbs.
In December this year I, along with tour guide Bishara Khoury, will be leading another group of people on a study tour of Jordan, Israel and Palestine as we explore the intersection of history, identity and religion in these places that are central to our own faith story. I look forward to catching up with old friends and to the opportunity of introducing them to my companions on the journey.
If you would like to register for the 2023 study tour or more information, please visit my Intersections website.Jump to next article