From Feb. 6 to 13, 2014, Anglican Video’s senior producer, Lisa Barry visited the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, along with the Anglican Church of Canada’s global relations director, Andrea Mann, Anglican Video’s production manager, Becky Boucher, and Scott Brown, a freelance cameraman. Barry kept a diary in which she shared not only the events of the day but insights gained from meeting the “living stones,” the people of the Holy Land who live their faith on the ground, where it matters most.
We awaken to yet another snowstorm in Toronto. Scheduled to fly to Tel Aviv, we hope our flight will not be delayed or cancelled. Flying with film equipment is always challenging-especially overseas.
After navigating customs and the forms needed to clear our equipment, we arrive at our gate. To my surprise, we see familiar faces-several Canadian Anglican bishops and their spouses. Bishop Sue Moxley and her husband, Bruce; Bishop David Torraville; Bishop Percy Coffin; Bishop Ron Cutler; and Archbishop Claude Miller and his wife, Sharon, are all heading to St. George’s College, an Anglican pilgrimage centre in Jerusalem, for a course called “Palestine of Jesus.”
A rabbi leads a group of men aside in the terminal and they begin to pray, bowing intermittently and quietly chanting. Prayer is not a common sight in a busy airport and this action seems to be a harbinger of the sights and sounds ahead.
Arrival in Tel Aviv
The Middle East is seven hours ahead of our time, so our second day starts without us. Our flight lands in bright sunshine in Tel Aviv, where we are warmly greeted by Canon John Organ, a former Canadian military chaplain and now chaplain to Bishop Suheil Dawani in Jerusalem, and the bishop’s driver, Abu John. They drive us to the Pilgrim Guesthouse at St. George’s College, our home for the next several days.
Pilgrim Guest House
The spirit of Palestine
After a typical Middle Eastern breakfast of cold meats, salads, fruit and hard-boiled eggs, we head out for our first interview-with Dr. Hisham Nassar, health consultant for the Diocese of Jerusalem. He explains that the diocese’s mission and focus are strongly centred on health care and education.
Interview with Dr. Hisham Nassar
On then to visit Christ School, the diocesan high school in Nazareth. The diocese’s several schools accept students from other faiths-predominantly Muslim. Christian and Muslim students work, pray and play together. “It is the same God,” points out Manal Shoufani, the school’s energetic headmistress.
The curriculum here is rigorous. University acceptance is granted in proportion to the population, so Palestinian students, who have access to only about 10 per cent of placements, must excel at their studies.
We meet bright, inquisitive students, energetic teachers and engaged administrators. The grounds are stunning, and the walls of the school are covered with artwork.
The number of young girls studying advanced mathematics impresses me. In Canada, girls drop advanced math studies far more frequently than boys do. A teenage Palestinian girl who is studying math and physics tells me that she wants to be a doctor. I remark that her English is very good and apologize for my limited knowledge of Arabic. She smiles brightly and says, “I will teach you.” I will encounter this attitude again and again in the days ahead-an eagerness to help, to welcome, to provide hospitality. This is the spirit of Palestine and Palestinians.
Tour of Christ School in Nazareth
Right next door to Christ School is St. Margaret’s Guesthouse-a welcoming spot for pilgrims to stay while visiting Nazareth.
Tour of St. Margaret’s Guesthouse
Before we leave, we are invited to a Palestinian feast, consisting of many fresh salads followed by steak and potatoes and rounded off with fresh oranges and figs. We learn to say zacki, the Arabic word for “delicious.”
Another sunny day in the Holy Land as we make an early start and head to the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. The West Bank is Palestinian land, yet we must get through an Israeli checkpoint to journey to Ramallah, because there are Israeli settlements close to it.
Our escort, Sawsan Aranki-Batato, the diocese’s head of development, tells us about the daily delays and humiliations suffered by Palestinians at Israeli security checkpoints, as they travel back and forth between work, school and home.
The impact of Israeli settlements and checkpoints
We pass a huge Israeli settlement just outside of Jerusalem called Pisgat Ze’ev. More like a small city, it spreads out over several kilometres. The settlement looks prosperous, clean and well tended; there are flowers planted throughout and houses are in pristine condition. In surrounding Palestinian villages, there are no flowers and many of the homes seem to be in disrepair. All of these communities fall under the jurisdiction of the same Israeli municipal authority.
The Israeli soldier who stops us at the security checkpoint before Ramallah smiles at Abu John. “Bishop’s driver?” he asks, and waves us through without delay. We are aware that this is a special privilege not afforded to those who live here.
At the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, we film an interview with the director, Iyad Rafidi, then tour the school.
Interview and tour of the school
It is Saturday, but the children are in school. Unlike Canadian students, who are not in school on Saturdays and Sundays, Palestinian Muslim students don’t attend on Friday; Christians are absent on Sunday.
Meet some of the school children
We travel next to the diocese’s Episcopal Technological and Vocational Training Center. Students here are learning trades-with a particular focus on hotel and restaurant management. After a tour of the school we have a meal prepared and served by students. It’s a Palestinian pizza, fragrant with fresh herbs, onions and chicken, and it’s presented and served beautifully. It’s also very zacki.
Tour the Episcopal Technological and Vocational Training Center
At our next stop, the Arab Episcopal Medical Center for Diabetes and Cardiovascular Diseases-also supported by the diocese-we tour a clinic that is spotless and very well equipped, and clearly a source of great pride to our Palestinian hosts.
Tour of the clinic
I can’t help noticing that a gathering in the church hall directly under the clinic in the same building is quite literally blue with smoke. Smoking is still prevalent in Palestine and is just one of the many health challenges facing Palestinians in their daily lives. Statistics show that the average Palestinian lives 10 years less than the average Israeli, despite the fact that they breathe the same air and drink the same water. Back in Jerusalem at the end of the day, we are invited to attend mass at the Roman Catholic cathedral in the Notre Dame Center. The cathedral is lovely and peaceful. We then sit outside and enjoy the spectacular views of Jerusalem by night.
Scenes from the Old City
There is no formal filming agenda today, so we head into the Old City. In the heart of Jerusalem is an ancient city surrounded by stone walls, with seven entry gates at various points in the perimeter. There is an eighth gate, which remains closed and through which many believe the messiah will re-enter the city one day. The weather is cool and sunny-perfect for walking and filming on the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows), along which Jesus is said to have dragged the cross to his crucifixion.
There are many historic sites throughout the Old City and all manner of humankind-priests and nuns of various denominations, rabbis, sheiks and tourists from all over the world. The Old City evokes a time past when all humans shared common roots.
Footage of the Old City of Jerusalem
The bishop, his wife and his cat
Each day here in the Holy Land feels like two or three days rolled into one. On this morning, we rise early to attend a worship service at St. George’s Cathedral at 7 a.m. Bishop Suheil presides at a simple service in a cathedral, which is truly beautiful as the light of dawn filters through the stained-glass windows.
Today we film interviews one after the other-in the diocesan offices we talk to development head, Sawsan Aranki-Batato, and to Bishop Suheil.
Interview with Sawsan Aranki-Batato
Interview with Bishop Suheil Dawani
We dash across the street for a quick tour of St. George’s School,
Interview with Dean Hosam Naoum, St. George’s School in Jerusalem
where a Grade 3 class greets us by performing a song.
A song for visitors
Next on the agenda is Princess Basma School, named after HRH Princess Basma Bint Talal of Jordan (at left), a great patron of the diocese and apparently very supportive of the school named for her. This school caters to students with special needs and challenges of various kinds. We are deeply moved by the courage and perseverance of the students and their teachers.
Interview with the director of Princess Basma School
We dash back to St. George’s, where the bishop kindly arranges for lunch to be served in the beautiful courtyard of the Pilgrim Guesthouse (at right). We have been invited to the bishop’s private residence to interview his wife, Shafeeqa. Shafeeqa is eager to talk to us about the diocesan women’s program, in which women are encouraged to speak up and be heard.
Shafeeqa Dawani: ‘Our women are strong’
We are also delighted to meet Kuki (in photo at right), the bishop’s cat. Kuki often accompanies the bishop to the office. We have the sense that Kuki might be in charge of the diocese.
Much preparation has been made for us to be able to enter Gaza. We applied for permits some months before our trip and only recently were our permits approved. We were told, though, that permission can be revoked arbitrarily and without warning. In fact, the day before our trip, the bishop’s office received a call that the authorities did not want us carrying in so much gear. The challenge was that we had to list every single piece-even the tiniest microphone-so although it seemed like a lot of equipment, we could carry it ourselves. Nonetheless, we pared down, taking only what we absolutely needed to get our footage.
We set out at dawn, determined to get into Gaza so that we could tell the important story of the vital ministry of the diocese in this difficult region. As we drive along the “new highway”-an ultra-modern, multi-lane freeway-a mist hangs over the passing hills and valleys.
From Abu Gosh to Tel Aviv, the highway is lined with flowering almond trees and vineyards. We pass the scene of a horrific battle that took place in 1967 between the Israelis and Palestinians. The site is lined with old military trucks. We soon pass a famous Trappist monastery, Latrun, known for its wine. The monastery overlooks a military tank holding area.
Footage of the outskirts of Gaza
We arrive at a concrete structure with checkpoint kiosks in front of it. It looks like a huge prison-stark and forbidding.
The security checkpoint is not yet open for the day. Our driver approaches a guard and shows our credentials. We are told to wait until 8 a.m. Abu John has brought lunch for himself. We will be leaving him here as we head into Gaza-as a Palestinian, he is not permitted free access to this area.
We are finally waved in and enter the cavernous structure, passing numerous Israeli military and intelligence personnel, all holding semi-automatic weapons. They carry these weapons the way we might carry disposable coffee cups-their casual attitude makes it seem even scarier.
We enter a continuum of corridors and doors and checkpoints. We show our passports and credentials a few times, answering questions when asked. All of our things are searched.
Watch rare footage from inside the Israeli crossing building
When we are finally spat out on the other side of the Israeli area, it is as if we have entered the wilderness. There is a long, long corridor from the last Israeli point to the checkpoint run by Palestine’s Fatah organization. The checkpoint is open-air, with a roof-like structure over the full length. By eye, I would judge this walk to be close to half a kilometre. We are told that a cart may come by to collect us. We start walking, carrying our equipment. After a few minutes, the cart comes along and we hop on.
The Fatah checkpoint is calm and simple. We meet our driver for the Gaza side, who warns us not to take pictures yet. We climb in and approach the checkpoint operated by Fatah’s militant rival, Hamas-our last before entering Gaza. Our passports are carefully inspected at this final checkpoint, and things seem very tense. We assumed all of our bags would be opened again, but after lots of talk with our driver in Arabic and a cursory check, we are released and proceed into Gaza.
Warned not to take pictures until well away from the checkpoint, we drive through a forlorn stretch of tin shacks and dilapidated sheds. We see the odd skinny goat and a few people riding carts pulled by donkeys. The terrain is littered with old car parts-a tire here, a bumper there, a back seat on the other side of the road. The scene is a stark contrast to the slick superhighway and lush meadows of flowering trees on the other side.
Driving tour of Gaza
As we approach the city, the shacks turn into houses-still run-down, but larger and possibly nice at one time. Many of the houses look abandoned, and yet I see laundry hanging on clotheslines near some.
We arrive at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, a diocesan ministry, and meet Dr. Suheila Tarazi, a force of a woman who runs the hospital and is clearly held in high esteem in the community.
An interview with Suheila and a tour of the Al Ahli Arab hospital
In a way that succinctly captures the Palestinian spirit, she tells us, “We can fix anything. If it’s broken, we can fix it.” I have the impression that fixing things is key to survival in Gaza, since much is not readily available-there is limited electricity, limited access to all the essentials of life.
We are hosted at another wonderful luncheon, shared by some key hospital staff and visitors from Australia. Once again, we are the recipients of Palestinian hospitality, with fine food and lively conversation. We are served fresh and lovely strawberries, which can be bought in the market for five shekels ($1.60 Canadian) per kilo. The price is ridiculously low, but the farmers are not allowed to sell their produce outside of Gaza, and no one here can afford to buy them for more. The frustration of trying to provide for one’s family is clear as we hear stories of local life.
After lunch, we visit with a family living in a local cemetery. Quite literally, this family lives with tombstones, which form a part of the structure of the lean-to they call home. They have set up a primitive lavatory. They have jugs of water to drink and to wash with, and they cook on an open fire. Several generations are living like this-we meet the bedridden grandfather and the three-week-old infant, all part of the same extended family.
As we talk with these people and film them, we realize that the cemetery has been filling with more and more people. Soon a crowd surrounds us, begging for anything we can give them. It is heart-wrenching, as well as a bit frightening. They have so little and yet we dare not give away what little cash we carry to one or two people-we are warned that serious trouble could erupt.
I tell one mother, through quiet gestures, that I will leave money for her with one of our guides, a staff member from the hospital. When we get back to our vehicle, I slip him the U.S. dollars I have and ask him to give them to her. I will never know if he did, but I hope so. She had so many mouths to feed, and a look of such desperation.
When it’s time for us to leave, Suheila arrives from the hospital. Everyone seems to know her, and the children run to greet her.
A video tour of the family in the cemetery in Gaza
After the cemetery, we take a “scenic route,” driving through Gaza and heading back to the checkpoint. We pass a refugee camp that has existed since 1948. Generations of Palestinians have been refugees all their lives.
As we finally exit Gaza, we find ourselves behind a young Palestinian man, lugging his suitcases, at the Israeli security compound. He has a permit to leave Gaza in his hand, but the Israeli security team turns him away. No reason is given. The young man is polite, but you can see his frustration. In fact, I find myself wondering how he can stay so courteous under such duress.
We are told to put everything we are carrying into large, dirty plastic bins. The bins disappear on a conveyor belt. There are no people, only voices commanding our actions, with red lights signalling us to stop, green lights to proceed.
When it is my turn to enter the scanning chamber, I place my feet on the yellow footmarks and raise my hands. I am scanned and the light indicates I should leave. I move to the next steel cubicle.
A voice starts shouting commands at me. I cannot understand. I look around for a person. Finally, high above me, behind bulletproof glass, I see a team of security personnel in Israeli uniforms. I see a young woman; she is not looking at me, but I can tell she is the one shouting instructions at me. I think she is looking at me on a monitor in front of her. I am to return to the scanner. I do so, then more shouting and another round in the scanner. I am finally released.
The voice stops shouting and the green light comes on, telling me to move forward. As I proceed to the next area, I realize my hands are shaking. I want very badly to leave this place, to breathe fresh air and to be free of these concrete walls and steel barriers and weapons everywhere.
Exhausted but invigorated
We head to the West Bank by travelling to Nablus City and the Al-Zababdeh. Once again, we drive past huge Israeli settlements.
At the hospital in Nablus, another ministry of the diocese, we meet its director, Dr. Walid Kerry. We are served Middle Eastern coffee in tiny golden cups. I don’t drink coffee, but from what I can smell, this is a very strong brew.
Interview with Dr. Walid Kerry
Touring the hospital, we meet a young mother whose baby was born at the 30th week of her pregnancy. A normal pregnancy is around 42 weeks, so this little one is struggling. The young woman is so open and so cheerful, despite her obvious worry for her baby. I am struck by her courage, and we chat briefly.
Meet the young mother whose baby is in the hospital.
Al-Zababdeh has one of the largest Christian populations in Palestine, but many residents have fled due to persecution and war. We visit the Penman Clinic, which is cramped and filled with mothers and babies. It is the only one that serves all of Al-Zababdeh and many surrounding villages.
Tour of the Penman Clinic
At St. Matthew’s Church, we interview the Rev. Saleem Dawani, a young priest who ministers to the local people of Al-Zababdeh. He is full of ideas and dreams for his congregation. Engaged to be married, he tells us how difficult it is to visit his fiancée, who lives in Jerusalem. The security checkpoints make the short drive very difficult, and at times he cannot gain access to the area.
Interview with the Rev. Saleem Dawani
As our time in the Diocese of Jerusalem winds down, we prepare to leave. We are exhausted but invigorated. The faith of the people we have met is so strong and their stories so inspiring, we only hope we can do justice to them in the work we produce.