One of the most stunning things about being in Israel and the West Bank — as opposed to merely hearing about these places on the news — is how the very language used to describe these places, people, and cultures obscure some basic realities. For example, the vocabulary of Israeli “settlements” and Palestinian “refugee camps.” It would be reasonable to imagine makeshift shelters, tent cities — the kind of pictures we see from natural disasters or the ragged borders of war.
But settlements are more like suburban condominium developments. And Palestinian refugee camps are neighborhoods — some terribly overcrowded, some more comfortable — but all places where people live. The apartment buildings in Aida camp in Bethlehem, where we set up our microphones and cameras for a half day, have literally grown taller with added floors as new generations of extended families have come along in the years since 1948.
I myself am being careful with language here, touching on sensitive and tragic territory I know. I’m desiring, as an exception to what usually happens when people write about such things, to shine a light in human rather than political terms. Humanity and politics are entangled here, as in few other places, of course. But being in this place on this day, sitting with young people of calm, creativity, and dignity, leaves me emphatic that they are more than merely refugees.
We came to Aida camp trailing a Palestinian-American anthropologist, Amahl Bishara, whom we had met in Jerusalem earlier in the week. She’s a professor at Tufts and is living on the edges of Aida camp for six months. But she’s known this place long and intimately. Her husband, Nidal, grew up here and has spent much of his life working with its children and teenagers. On this trip, they are new parents, introducing their infant daughter to this side of her family.
Amahl has done some fascinating research on how Western journalism about Palestinians informs Palestinians’ sense of themselves. I thought I wanted to hear about that. But when we met her at the appointed place and time, we found ourselves in the Lajee Center, a youth center, a center of community. And I ended up interviewing Amahl as a bridge person between life in Aida camp and us and our listeners far from Bethlehem.
The phrase with which we’ve titled the show, “pleasure more than hope,” was part of her answer when I asked about her sources of despair and her sources of hope. Hope, she said honestly, is in short supply, but pleasure in daily life, in the change of seasons, in family and friends, in the energy and dreams of the young is abundant. What a refreshing way above, inside, and out of the narrow lens the news has offered me on this part of the world for as long as I can remember.
And from his personal history closer to the raw and violent heart of that news across time, Nidal Al-Azraq, Amahl’s husband, put his own words to her image of pleasure more than hope: “It’s one of the resistance elements. Even though you feel the pain inside you, you need to laugh and you need to smile, and you need to play, you need to move in your life.”
Amahl and Nidal, and two members of the Lajee Center’s arts and media program with whom I also spoke, impressed me deeply with their grace and honesty, their visceral everyday courage. It strikes me that this elemental “courage to be,” to quote the theologian / philosopher Paul Tillich, is almost always missing in news of faraway tragedy and conflict. We experience pictures of people frozen in the worst moments of their lives. We have no sense of what will help them get out of bed the next morning, and still live and love and even take pleasure, even know joy.
There are hard stories told in this hour. Pain is given voice. But so, insistently, is life — life that is not captured in refugee status or defined by politics alone. It is this courage to be, we come to understand very clearly and poignantly, that will nourish an Israeli-Palestinian future beyond conflict if such a future is to be. What a gift we received in the utter ordinariness of this place, on this day.