If you’d told us a year ago that we would end up in Palestine to help facilitate a 10-day meditation retreat for Arabic-speaking students I wouldn’t have believed you. In our planning for this long sabbatical, we considered many places. The Middle East was never on the agenda.
For the most part, Vipassana retreats are conducted in purpose-built centres all over the world that offer courses all year round [link to the map of all the Vipassana Meditation Center locations in the world]. In countries that do not have a dedicated meditation centre, local people must find a rental facility and adapt the place to the unique requirements of a Vipassana course. There are countries that offer courses several times a year using rented locations. Everywhere courses are conducted free of charge by unpaid volunteers. The costs of providing food and lodging for ten days are covered strictly by local donations by previous students.
The situation in Palestine is unique. Vipassana is very new to the region. There have been just three courses offered thus far. This is not an easy place to reach. It is the first time we’ve ever volunteered on a course in a place where Vipassana was just starting out. It’s a special opportunity for us. There are yet few resources here for people interested in learning the technique. There are not many volunteers.
Tensions in the region are normally very high. For almost a century, this has been a place of difficult cultural, political and religious conflict. The dates for this course were set a few months ago amid the usual state of tensions. However, in the weeks leading up to the course start a couple of events conspired to ramp up tensions between Arabs and Israelis across the region. Celebrations planned for the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation coincide with the annual marking by Palestinians of Nakba Day (Day of Catastrophe). This was made much more complicated by the American decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 15th.
We are not going to share any thoughts on these events or comment on the political context here. Instead, we’re going to show you the small part of Palestine we visited, the meditation course we conducted, and the people we met in our time here.
For those of you that don’t know, Palestine is currently divided into two areas, Gaza and the West Bank.
The Vipassana course was held in a small rural agricultural village called Zababdeh in the northern part of the West Bank.
Getting there is always half the fun.
We flew to Tel Aviv from Bangkok. Arriving at the El Al check-in counter, we were met by a security agent and subjected to a tough interview. How do we know each other? When we were married? Where? How many people attended our wedding? What about the party afterward? I was of particular interest to them. My last name is Armenian, but could possibly be mistaken for Iranian origin, or might be complicated by the fact that many Armenians have family origins and connections to Muslim countries. They asked about my family name. Did I travel on other passports? Where did my family come from? Our extensive travel experience and the extended length of our sabbaticals raised more questions. We answered queries about our visits to countries that we made more than a decade ago. We spoke with three different security agents.
Finally, one last question: Are you carrying any firecrackers? Um, no. They issued each of us with a coded slip of paper and told us not to lose it. Then we were allowed to check in our bags.
The flight was long and delayed. We were met at Ben Gurion Airport by Israeli meditators who took us to a Palestinian taxi driver who then took us across the checkpoint to Palestine. We drove to Ramallah where we met the Palestinian organizers for the course. Together we drove in another taxi up north to the rented site in Zababdeh.
We spent the next thirteen days preparing and then facilitating a meditation course for 19 people. Here are the photos from our time there.
Everything must be set up from scratch at a site like this, all the kitchen tools, spices, pots and pans are packed and transported to the site and then must be set up and organized before the start of the course.
The only stove is essentially a camp stove, and all the food is cooked on these two gas burners. Volunteers serving the course have to be very organized.
Fruits and vegetables are ordered for the course and stored in organized sections inside the tiny kitchen.
Somehow, simple yet magnificent food comes out of the kitchen.
One of the course servers makes soup for the meditators.
Each person sitting the course either gets their own room or shares a room with one other person.
Each room has its own bathroom.
Gongs are used to let meditators know when it is time to meditate, eat, and rest.
After the course is over, everything needs to be cleaned up and packed away again.
The students were on hand to help clean up.
Students and servers who participated in the course. Ten days of silence are over. Smiles all around.
When the course ended, we took a long taxi ride south through Jericho and on to Bethlehem.
I have always wanted to visit Bethlehem. This town has loomed very large in my imagination ever since I was a child. O Little Town of Bethlehem was my favourite Christmas song. As a little girl, secretly I used to hope I’d be the one chosen to sing a solo version of the opening verse without accompaniment in our Anglican church choir. I imagined the hushed audience and the darkened church. My voice singing out in clear, quiet single notes. I would imagine the ancient landscape in my mind and wonder what it was like for Mary: No proper place to give birth, alone under the stars, perhaps afraid.
Bethlehem. Not such a little town any more
As I have aged, and the deeper I explore my own spiritual beliefs, I feel we all have more in common with each other than the things that separate us. I grew up Anglican, baptized and confirmed. I went to Sunday school and learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart. It has been many years since I attended church, but I have come to hold a very deep respect for religious people, for every faith that is firmly rooted in ethical values. Of course, my own journey has drawn me to the non-sectarian tradition based on the Buddha’s teaching of meditation. This doesn’t remove my faith but instead strengthens it in living a moral life, in being kind while being of service to others. It works for both Scott and I. But that experience has also taught me respect for all figures of deep saintliness, people who obviously were direct expressions of a universal truth.
Bethlehem really is a holy place. Our guesthouse was a beautiful renovated Hosh or traditional family complex, inside the old city of Bethlehem. Each morning and evening we would listen to the bells peel from the Church of the Nativity and to the incredibly beautiful Adhin or call to prayer that echoes across the city from the mosques nearby.
There’s no denying the sincerely felt devotion of the pilgrims who visit the birthplace of Jesus. The Church of the Nativity feels holy. It’s spiritually and emotionally moving. We arrived early to find ourselves among a large group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims. We waited in line for quite a while with them, until one of the Greek Orthodox priests gently approached us and politely ejected us from the area that separates the church from the grotto entrance. It was time for the Orthodox Mass. He shut the door behind us.
We waited by walking around to the main part of the Church and watched the service. Then we decided to return after breakfast. When we again got back in line, we made it all the way to the steps leading down to the grotto that encloses the location of Jesus’ birth – a small cave. Across from this is the site of the manger, a larger cave that at the time was used to house mules, camels and sheep at night. As were about to descend into the grotto, more commotion started below and we were told to wait. We stood there for nearly two hours while the Armenians held their Orthodox Mass.
The site is shared among the Greek, Armenian and Catholic churches. The Greek Orthodox church is responsible for the entrance side of the grotto, the Armenian Orthodox and the Catholics are responsible for the exit side of the grotto. We had to wait for the Armenians to complete their Mass. We waited with a group of twenty Hindu visitors from Bangalore and one Chinese couple. A very large crowd continued to build behind us, beyond a barricade of chairs. We would be the first group allowed inside.
Indians waiting on the steps that lead to the grotto of the Nativity.
Inside is the spot believed to be where Mary gave birth to Jesus
We listened to the beautiful Armenian liturgy and enjoyed watching the Indians as they tried to grasp what they were witnessing. Occasionally, one of them would ask Scott a question:
“What does Hallelujah mean?”
“Is there food?”
“What happens now? Cleaning?”
They had watched the Armenians taking Communion and the priests administering the sacrament. Hence, the food question.
At the end of Mass, one of the Greek fathers emerged with a broom and a bucket. He began to sweep and clean the steps into the grotto.
When he was finished, we were allowed in. After a few seconds, a group of pilgrims led by a Franciscan friar came down the stairs from the exit side and kicked everybody out. It was time, he said, for a private Catholic Mass. People had waited up to the three hours for a chance to enter. But were now told to go back out and wait. Again.
We had also watched a local tout leading an American group into the grotto from the exit side just before the Catholics descended. “You see?” He said to them. “I told you. You get to skip the line and get here before everyone else.” None of the security guards, the Catholic, Orthodox Greeks or Armenians objected to this. It was clear there’s an unwritten system of access. And money would change hands all along the way. Such is the rest of the world, why would things be different at Jesus’ grotto? We have experienced similar petty corruption at every holy site we’ve been to, including the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and at the holiest places in Tibet and China. Human suffering is universal. And you can watch it play out anywhere.
But, we were also fortunate. Scott was the first person inside the grotto and got a nice photo of the spot before people crammed themselves inside. I was able to pay my respects at the site on behalf of my mother, a devout Christian who would very much wished to see this place.
Despite the small outrages, it was still a very moving place to be. There is a devout sincerity among the faithful here and it shows. Clearly, coming to this place is a very special journey for millions of people.
Having experienced Bethlehem’s holy places, we spent the next day exploring it’s more profane ones. A local Vipassana student named Riham and two others from Ramallah joined us and took us on a little tour.
Riham (centre) is a local artist in Bethlehem. She introduced us to this man during our tea. His family is very well known in Bethlehem.
We enjoyed tea at what is locally understood to be the best in the country, had lunch at Afteem, a restaurant famous since 1948 for foul, hummus and falafel, and spent a couple of hours at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel near the security wall that separates Palestine from Israel, and ended with a visit to Riham’s art studio in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. We could smell and taste the acrid smoke of tear gas, and we saw tires burning near a checkpoint, so we knew there were clashes occurring. But we never felt insecure about our safety.
Indeed, despite all the heightened tensions – Israel and Iran trading missile attacks, protests and violence in Gaza and a few places in the West Bank, and the needless provocations of the U.S. in the region – what will dominate our memory of our time here are the peace and beauty of Palestine and the gentle, polite and welcoming embrace of every Palestinian we have met.
As it is with all things in life, direct experience is everything. Allowing yourself to experience the world through the deeply coloured lens of what we watch or read in the news or social media will sink you in a sea of fear and negativity. In fact, we noticed that those who worried most about our safety here were the people furthest away from us who had to rely on CNN or Facebook for information. The reality here on the ground was very different.
It’s not easy to describe our experiences here in Palestine, but it was definitely one of the unplanned and unexpected events that arise during our journeys and that turns out to be among the most profound and meaningful to us. We will return here when we get the chance.
After a couple of days of fretting about how to cross back into Israel, our actual journey was short and absurdly quiet. We were not stopped or questioned by anyone at the security checkpoints. Now at the home of friends in a neighbourhood a few minutes outside of Jerusalem, we are resting here for a few days. Then we plan to visit the Old City, including the Armenian Quarter, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the East Jersusalem before we move on to see other parts of Israel.
We’ll post one more time with a short account of our time in Israel and to post some photos.