With an Open Heart: photos & stories from Palestine & Israel: A providential conversation

Leaving Boston Massachusetts

George Amer, baker and painter, with his painting, Jerusalem

Excerpts from my journal as I examine and portray the troubles in the Levant

March 23, 2012, Friday, Bethlehem

Over Newark New Jersey

I sit in my kitchen, in my apartment, in my home, morning sun streaming in, writing. One large space punctuated by a wardrobe about 6 ft. high and 10 ft. long which divides the space into bedroom (3 small beds, one will contain me for the night, the other two are my staging areas, one for photo and computer equipment, the other for everything else) and living area. The kitchen merges into the living space and contains not only the expected fridge but a gas-powered single burner stove, small washing machine, cabinetry, and ample counter space for the minimal cooking I plan to do. J, the landlady’s elder son, brought me to the market last night for staples, produce, eggs, chicken, and the necessary beer—thank god Beit Sahour is a Christian town.

I live next to Shepherds’ Fields Orthodox, not far from the Greek Orthodox church I visited in 2007 when I stayed here for a few days before Christmas after I’d walked the 3 or so miles from Jerusalem. This time I rode the bus, 7 shekels ($2), 1 hour, leaving from Damascus Gate and cruising thru different regions of Bethlehem, including Beit Jala. By the end of my one-month tour of duty with Holy Land Trust and the Palestine News Network (PNN), I hope to have explored all this area more fully. In 2007 I was here on a delegation organized by the Cambridge Bethlehem People to People project and I stayed a few months more.

Light rail in Jerusalem

My landlady S dropped in last night to meet me. Earlier her daughter in law, M, had greeted and introduced me to my new home. Followed by M’s husband B, the plumber, and his brother J, the carpenter, who tried to help me connect with wi-fi (eventually my computer succeeded, and now I do not turn it off from fear that I will lose this invaluable connection to the outer world, including family, friends, and most especially M). Out to market with J last night who told me that unlike the Egyptians who are always looking for financial gain, Palestinians act from the heart. Plus he wants me to recommend this facility to other volunteers.

A most providential conversation with my landlady. Her husband died about 4 months ago, heart attack, age about 62. He’d been living in New Jersey for 9 years, she for 4, until she returned home to be with her kids. Shortly after his arrival home his heart attack. He needed angioplasty which wasn’t available in Bethlehem so they brought him by ambulance to Hebron. During the operation—which would have included a stent, much the same operation Y had a few months ago—he died. She appeared deeply troubled by this. I told her my father had also died relatively young from a heart attack and stroke, followed by my mother from cancer within 9 months.

S took this in deeply, seemed especially troubled and then revealed, I have breast cancer. I have it checked regularly, I’ve undergone operations and chemo. I told her that after my father died my mother had wished to die, to join her husband. S looked especially troubled by this, perhaps thinking I might feel the same way and suffer the same fate.

Amal Sabawi, director of Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza, undergoing financial training in Jerusalem

She said one of her main reasons to return home to Bethlehem was family unity. In New Jersey all I did was sit at home, no friends, no family. You in America live so detached from your families. I couldn’t stand it. I told her that I’d neglected to tell my elder daughter Joey goodbye and she’d called me on it. Something like that would rarely occur in Palestine, I suspect. She told me that life is hard here. First the occupation and with it all the restrictions, then the loss of her husband.

Not sure how far to proceed with this conversation I then told her about my mother announcing to Elaine and me that my death will be a gift to you but you’ll need many years to understand why. I told S that indeed a central gift is diminishment of my fear of death. One reason, I told her, I can do what I do, endanger myself while  photographing, is that I’ve detached from survival. I value life, all life, but feel less attached to my own. (I didn’t tell her that this might be changing now that I have such an intense love in my life as M.)

How fortuitous that S and I met last night, that I am residing in her home compound, with her sons and extended family. Already I feel a slight part of this family. Confirming this minimally, last night J offered to be my friend on Facebook. We friended each other and then discovered we have 4 mutual friends including H. H and another Interfaith Peacebuilder’s delegate stayed with J and family a few years ago. I shall write H with this good news.

I’ve proposed the story of S, my landlady and the matriarch of my host extended family to the Palestine News Network, so I might make photographs.


Walk Jerusalem to Bethlehem, December 25, 2007

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby,” December 27, 2007

4 thoughts on “With an Open Heart: photos & stories from Palestine & Israel: A providential conversation

  1. I am surpirsed to know that Gaza let the AFSC woman go to Jerusalem for training. How did she manage this? Is this easier to do now that two years ago?

    News from Jerusalem last night forecast train worker strike over labor issues today. And strike also by delivery workers from the giant diary so that no yogurt or cottage cheese dellivered to grocery shelves.

    Betsy Brinson


  2. Your ruminations on fear of death or lack thereof reminded me of a talk Jesuit peace activist John Dear gave here in Fremont last weekend. He used the Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus (subject of his latest book) as a metaphor for approaching and overcoming the death-dealing powers in our own societies. He emphasized that we do indeed need to overcome our own fear of death in order to resist those powers–part and parcel of the meaning of the central Christian mystery of “victory over death”–although rarely understood (or taught) that way, I think.


  3. In reading

    This I feel I am there with you in your new old home. I can hear your voice and hers. I can even hear the white noise outside. I remember pearls death. I wonder if now you understand how it was a gift to you? My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year after I left John. He was given a year. He lasted five. No one my age had had a patent die except bob. The pain evoked in him a desire to end his life. He used to call me late at night to say he needed to end it with cyanide. I would go to work at the mfa, later the ica wondering was that our last conversation? Why is it me he is calling? Where am I supposed to go with his need to connect with me in life around his need to end the pain? I thought often if what you shared with me and John sitting on the roof top in Watertown. I wanted someone to tell me how to respond to him? His to neither rescue him or impede what he like your. Mother felt he needed to do. It has taken mr since his death in 1985 to understand that it was his love for me that kept him from ending his life. Somehow though I merged with him do that when he died ..the day bob and I were to be married..I developed panic disorder.

    Which without mediation, music, breathwork, dance, my faith in higher power and writing would have forever trapped me into feeling I was myself dying. It took many years to o dr one this. It left me with a knowledge of death as my greatest teacher about life. I am nit afraid of death; I am afraid of dying without having lived into what my anxiety taught me; namely, love and knowledge are all matter . Thank you for bringing these stories to my present consciousness. You Are a gift. With heart, Shawn. Ps I am


  4. thanks betsy, josie, and shawn for your comments. i’m so happy to know you read my blog.

    betsy, males no, females yes, from gaza or the west bank to jerusalem. why? some vague sense of security i guess. even tho islam from gaza is married with one infant and thus an unlikely violent operative, that’s current policy. and of course, there’s no questioning of it, no appeal process that i know of. easier now than a few yrs ago possibly.

    josie, thanks for the lazarus metaphor from john dear. i guess it is apt. the way i read it is we are all capable of rising from the dead. for me that means our lives and works possibly live on, depending on how well we live and make them.

    shawn, love is indeed strange. how we cling to it and to those we love, esp in our most troubled times. good for you bearing up to bob’s deepest needs—and then your panic attacks. your list of survival mechanisms may be of value to others, they match some of mine. and good for him to survive a terrible loss. i have no idea how i’d react if one of my daughters died, esp if they died painfully or futilly, same for anyone close to me, my much beloved m in particular.


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