Tag Archives: Palestine

Christianity, Journalism and Gaza: I do not know it all; I know very little at all.

“When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener… The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.
—-

I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did – or, more to the point, more than they did… Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing.”

I loved reading this piece today by Adam Shatz, long-time reporter in the Middle East. Partly because he is an eloquent writer full of insight, and partly because the brash, youthful presumption he describes is so familiar to me. One year ago, I thought I had answers to all the hard questions, from “What’s going on in the Middle East?” to “Whose fault is it?” to the biggest of all, “Who is God?”

Graduating from Princeton, I was confidently groomed to analyze, critique and defend political and religious views. I had the perfect blend of sureness, urgency and occasional condescension. I’d only studied the Middle East for four years, mostly from outside the region, but felt justifiably self-righteous, often indignant, and obliged to jump into punditry and political debate.

That changed this year. It doesn’t matter how hard I studied at Princeton or Oxford, how many books I read on Islamism, Zionism or Orientalism, how well I presented at the State Department or how many drafts I wrote of my thesis. I did not know the sound of church bells and calls to prayer in the mornings of Jerusalem, the scorch of beating sun on your 400th day in a refugee camp, the jostling of bodies as soldiers herd you like cattle through a checkpoint, or the rush of Mediterranean blue along Beirut’s Corniche as you pass old men smoking argileh and toasting kaakeh on its coals.

Journalism is humbling, especially from abroad, because I realize that I do not know it all; I know very little at all. Thankfully, reporting is not about projecting my own opinions but gathering knowledge, walking the streets, drinking tea, making friends, asking questions, and most importantly, listening.

My best friends now are from Syria, Palestine and Sudan. I’ve never felt my heart swell with an entire region’s revolutionary promise, then break as my heroes were killed, arrested or forced to flee. I’ve never fled across a border. I’ve never watched anyone that I love die. I don’t know what it’s like to live through war, occupation or genocide. I barely dare to imagine. But I can ask.

As a journalist in the Middle East, the most foolish thing I can do is to assume I know what’s going on. As a Christian, the same mistake applies. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:9-12:

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

This passage used to confuse me. So am I a child or a man? Surely I’m a ‘man’ by now, I’d think. But the longer I’m a Christian, the clearer it becomes that I am but a child.

This year, God is suddenly very real. I talk to Him, ask questions, seek Him hungrily, because I find that I do not know. My quiet times of repeating religious adages to self have been replaced by what I call “faith like a crazy person.” It includes tumultuous emotion, exuberant bouts of joy, really cheesy moments and a lot of me just sitting on the floor yelling WTF ARE YOU DOING? Who ARE You!?

In journalism as in faith, we must listen humbly and ask hard questions. That includes “What’s going on in the Middle East?” “Why?” “Who is God?” and one more: “What would He have me do about it?”

In Gaza, for example, more than 2,000 people have been injured and 268 people killed from Israeli attacks this week. 70% of them were civilians. 1 in 4 were children. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations have all condemned the strikes as illegal human rights violations, but the killing continues.

Hard questions: Why is this happening? What role are America and Christian church playing in it? Who told me so? Why do I believe them? Could I be wrong?

Harder questions for Christians: What is justice? God, how am I to seek it?

Usual side question from me: Can we just avoid this topic? It’s so sensitive and contentious. Also I hate oppression and it’s easier to just pretend this isn’t happening.

Steady answer from Christ: No.

I bring up Israel specifically and intentionally because it’s a vortex of all the hardest questions of all. But dear friends, we must ask them.

People often ask me how to help refugees in Jordan and the Middle East. Donate to UNHCR and pray, I say, but also ask questions about the region’s current crises. Too often do we feel sad for innocent victims without realizing that our states and institutions are involved in ongoing injustices, ones that depend on constituents’ apathy and ignorance to continue.

Accountability is harder than charity because it demands our effort to seek out truth, and then strength to acknowledge that we might have been wrong. But we needn’t be defensive or afraid of admitting mistake, because God is for us, not against us. He is gracious and ready to show us who He is – as long as we ask genuinely, surrendered, willing to drop our comfort and assumed righteousness.

I ask a lot of questions. I don’t have answers for all of them. Re: Israel and Christian Zionism, for example, I do not know what will happen in the “end times” with the Israelites, the state, the temple, etc. Based on Jesus’ words in the Bible, I don’t think I’m supposed to know. But I do know this:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

– 1 Corinthians 13:13

Faith and hope can be difficult. Last night I stayed up late writing about the refugee crisis in Jordan, thinking about the Syrians begging here in Beirut, scrolling through my Twitter feed to read about the plane shot down in Ukraine, fascist racism in Tel Aviv and children killed on the beach in Gaza. My mom sent me a text at one point: “I wish I can be next to you and hug you right now. Grieve the loss of a child’s innocent dream about the beautiful world.”

I closed my laptop and cried.

If I weren’t Christian, I would be scoffing at all the soft-hearted fools who believe in humanity and kindness and people’s rights. Obviously they haven’t read history or even current affairs. Obviously they don’t know that people just hate each other. In Darfur the paler Arabs hate the darker Africans, just like in Israel the Jews hate the Arabs, just like in Germany the Nazis hated the Jews, just like in America the whites hated the blacks, and so on. I’d be a skeptic and a realist, attributing everything to power and interests and safely removed from the foolishness of belief in compassion.

But I am a Christian, which means by the Holy Spirit and God’s grace I have this lunatic faith and hope that God is just, He is sovereign, He is for us, not against us, and He wins.

Meanwhile, I ask questions. I listen humbly. I pray for Christ-like love, which means to consider others above myself, resist violence and to seek the good of people that hurt me.

It means to keep my Twitter feed open, to look, read, listen and think long and hard, crying and feeling for children who play in the sand and dream of a beautiful world that suddenly stops.

It means ignoring the cynic that cries, “Fool!” in my head, insisting until the day I die that every human being is a human, Holy and Beloved, regardless of their color, race or religion.

We do not have all the answers. But we can and must ask the questions. In the meantime, we know enough to love.

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Christ at the Checkpoint

What would Jesus do if he were standing at a checkpoint in Israel/Palestine today? Asked that question one year ago, I would have given you a blank stare. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I thought of Israel only as a Bible-place of God’s chosen people, quaintly holy and surely blessed. Checkpoints, occupation, Palestine – these words meant nothing for most of my 22-year-old life.

Today I write from Bethlehem at the end of “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a Christian conference that asked “WWJD?” in context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have an answer.

The question is complicated, as is any discussion of Israel and Palestine in America. I studied the Middle East at Princeton and Oxford, where my classes were objective, historical and politically correct. I swallowed timelines and parsed narratives, but never wanted to make a value judgment on the situation. In my eyes, Tigers for Israel and the Princeton Committee on Palestine were akin to College Republicans and Democrats. Both had valid points and interesting arguments, but no one was right or wrong. Both groups also seemed very emotional, and I wasn’t one to get swept away with radical types.

Then I graduated and came to the Middle East. I first visited Israel and Palestine last August, after a summer of Arabic study in Oman and before moving to Jordan. I wanted to see things for myself but kept my eyes narrowed, wary of activists’ exaggerations.

Instead, I found an occupation; a deliberate power imbalance where the weak were daily stepped on by the strong. Israel’s being “chosen by God” somehow exempted it from international law, basic human rights and the command to love our neighbors. My church and state saw innocent people illegally hurt and beamed in approval.

This went against everything I knew about Christ’s teachings. I came expecting to find suffering but not systematic injustice, and never any Wrong in which my country, church and self were complicit. I felt shocked, confused, and used.

My friends in Jordan are always astonished to hear that I went to the best school in America, but never knew that there is ongoing oppression in Palestine. “I thought it was complicated,” I tell them.

Living here, I’ve learned that injustice is only complicated to those who don’t suffer from it. In faraway America, I’d confused myself with semantics and details on who shot what or signed which treaties when and where, and why this or that made occupation reasonable.

But nothing is complicated to my arbitrarily detained friend in solitary confinement, to the mother whose baby cries from tear gas, to the man who has lost three daughters in a second’s bombing, or to the child who is afraid. Nitpicky suspicions fall apart when I face their eyes and stories. I am ashamed that I ever thought violence might be justified in the ostensible name of God.

At the conference, one older British woman told me she was a Christian Zionist.

“It’s wonderful that Jesus said we are to be peacemakers,” the woman said, brushing white hair back with wrinkled hands. “But I’m afraid.” How can we give up land to Arabs who are bloodthirsty terrorists, she asked? There are too many Muslims wanting to destroy the West, she said, in Israel and in Europe, feeding off welfare systems to plot suicide bombings behind closed doors.

“I like this conference but have trouble applying what we hear,” the woman said. She’d lived in an Israeli settlement for 10 years, working for Christian Friends of Israel. “I want to feel for Palestinians as I do for Jews when they are dying or hurt. I want to feel for children, women, civilians…” Suddenly she was crying. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. I’m not quite there, but I want to be. Do you understand?”

I did. It can’t be easy to stake your life on something and see it flipped inside out, I thought, remembering an Israeli friend who’d changed his thinking after a gap year in Tibet. “The Tibetans live there with their language, religion and culture. It’s all Tibetan,” he’d told me, face wrenched, words slow. “But the people in control are all Chinese. Another race is in charge. I thought that was so wrong. Then I felt upset, because like, you know, it was sort of, it reminded me of what we have here.”

Questioning one’s belief system hurts. An Omani friend once told me that he’d woken up every night at 4 a.m. for two weeks, crying, when he converted to Christianity. “It felt like I was ripping off my own skin,” he said.

“Can we pray together?” I asked the woman, and we did.

Globalization is a gift to my generation. We don’t believe people in other countries are so different that we can treat them as lesser humans. A surfer friend in Tel Aviv once asked me: “What are the Arabs like? Do they drink? Smoke?” I laughed, telling him about my Jordanian friends who Instagram their parties, struggle with their sexual orientations, play flamenco guitar and wish they could just make music instead of being engineers and accountants. We are young, we are the same, we all just want to live. Our generation knows this.

Yet relating to one another is not enough. Before coming to the Middle East, my American millennial privilege had made me globalized but desensitized to suffering. I knew injustices existed but was too busy writing Facebook statuses about my thesis to examine them. I enjoyed feeling like a generally good person and skirted around sensitive questions that might threaten my career or upset my worldview.

Here, I’ve learned that people suffer when the privileged are ignorant or apathetic. Millennials like humanitarianism. We Tweet about Syria, work for nonprofits and glory in social entrepreneurship, all of which I love. But what if we microfinance a rural woman’s handicraft business, and then a drone kills her and her children? Seeking justice must extend beyond doing Good to also checking ourselves for Bad. We must ask harder questions, dig deeper into our state and military’s actions, not to undermine America but because we love her.

Having seen the occupation, I believe it is unjust and must end. I am not against Israel, America, or evangelicals. I just don’t want policies that hurt people in my church and nation’s name without our understanding or consent.

Conservative evangelicals may call me naïve. My response is not argument but invitation. I grew up in Asia, so when Americans ask if Shanghai is a Communist rice field, I laugh and ask them to come look around for themselves. When others say Palestinians are hateful and all Arabs want to push Israel into the sea, I again say, come and see.

As a follower of Christ, I believe that God stands with the oppressed. But oppressors are themselves oppressed by insecurity and fear. I’ve heard many Israeli and American friends speak out of terror: the Communists will get us! The jihadis will bomb us! The non-Western world lives in cultures of hate that will crush us the moment we let them, so we’d better crush them first!

If Jesus were here today, I believe he would pierce these lies in a second. They are so flimsy against the truth that man is man, filled with dignity, and no one is less human or less fiercely loved by our God than another. I believe Christ can and will free the oppressed by freeing their oppressors from fear.

But we must first commit to seek truth, relentlessly and humbly. I speak to Americans, Christians, and especially my generation: friends, political vitriol and religious rhetoric are distractions. Let us choose honesty over comfort. Let us ask questions even if they lead us to give up our privileges. Let us be smart and let us be brave – above all, let us be human.

I originally wrote this piece for +972, an independent online magazine focusing on Israel and Palestine, after I spent last week in Bethlehem at Christ at the Checkpoint. I volunteered on the media team doing FB, Twitter and their blog posts (learned a lot about ignoring Internet haters and trolls, haha). For those who want to learn more about Christian Zionism, I HIGHLY recommend watching this documentary (use code CATC2014 to get it for free this week). I also found this dialogue on replacement theology, between a Wheaton prof and Messianic Jew, really helpful. Also loved Princeton alum Joseph Cumming on Christian response to rise of religious (Islamist and Jewish) states, and Munther Isaac on neighbors.

(Ekuo I’ll also write another normal blog post! But wanted to share this as well.)

I Don’t Know How to Tell this Story

Which is ironic, since I’m supposedly the journalist in the Middle East, intrepid and articulate, spinning narrative for a living.

OK.
Hi.
My name is Alice and I live in Amman, Jordan. I graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School in June 2013 with a certificate in Near Eastern Studies. I’d written a thesis on Sino-U.S. soft power competition in Egypt, aka an excuse to indulge in Chinese/Arabic and get funding to traipse around Beijing, Cairo and D.C. My adviser was a former U.S. Ambassador, and I harbored vaguely fancy dreams of working at the intersection of journalism and diplomacy, bringing the public back into public diplomacy by helping Chinese, Arab and Western media spheres to talk to, not at, one another (so I wrote on my Rhodes application, ha).

I spent two months after graduation in Oman, studying intensive Arabic on a scholarship from the State Department. Then I moved here to intern unpaid at a Jordanian news network, translating reports and helping with a program that trains Syrian and Palestinian refugees to be citizen journalists. I had $10,000 of personal savings that I’d decided I could spend if Jesus wanted me to come to Jordan, and I hoped to find some kind of part-time job on the side. That would be enough to stay a year, insha’allah, which was fine! Even though I didn’t really like the Middle East and remembered losing 7 pounds from food poisoning and being harassed on the streets every day when I was in Morocco two years earlier, I was going to come, based mostly on the intense heart-gripping “I MUST COME HERE I MUST GO” feelings I had whenever I seriously prayed about it.

I moved to Jordan like a psycho because I thought God wanted me to – and because I was interested in refugee policy, journalism and Arabic, and this unpaid project had dropped from the sky with all my interests rolled into one (another story for later). I started volunteering with a Jesuit group, teaching English literacy on weeknights to some 40 adult refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I sent out journalism pitches too, cold emailing story ideas to editors without expecting any reply.

To my surprise, they took my ideas. Better yet, they paid! I wrote a story for the Atlantic about a Chinese product fair, then one for Columbia Journalism Review on Syrian journalists, then another for Al-Monitor on Islamist dissent. I went to Palestine for a WIRED profile on this guy who’d hacked Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. One day, the Guardian called me asking for coverage of a terrorist trial. By Christmas, I’d published 12-13 stories on refugees, nuclear programs and protests. I’d made more than enough to cover my rent and food. I never had to dip into my $10,000, and people were asking me for pitching advice.

But listen. Friends. I’m not some path blazer who went out and “made it” as a freelancer. I am no change maker writing stories that stir hearts and inspire action. I am just here. I try to be all here. Mostly, I feel very small.

The scary yet good thing about being in the Middle East is that Death stares me in the face. I spend much of my time with refugees. Many of my friends are from Darfur, Iraq or Syria. They tell me about their brothers being tortured in jail, knives twisting into their guts. They say, my husband was kidnapped by extremists, or I don’t know if my mother is alive, or I watched my baby burn. I see our world and it’s splattered with blood. I want to look away but I can’t. Sometimes I want to get a flight and just leave, peace out, go back to my comfort bubble and pretend I never came to Jordan or had to deal with the reality of everything here.

Or I grit my teeth and think, I’ll write a story about this! If I just write a really good story, things will change. Maybe a few stories. A book! A book, and I will save the world. My Princeton self is prone to the delusion that life is basically under control. If I try hard enough at anything, I can make it happen. When things are beyond me, that just means I haven’t tried hard enough. I drive harder. Push more.

Eventually I had to stop. Girl. Who are you kidding? You think your book will end war in Sudan? And Syria? And Iraq? And everywhere in the world once and for all?

Many people think journalism is a magical tool that can humanize foreign policy, bring faces and voices back into our understanding of faraway wars, show the world that we are all ONE brotherhood and that it is foolish, ridiculous, dark and dirty and wrong to hate and kill one another. Many people think we can use journalism to make a difference.

The question Jesus asked me this year, quietly, gently, was:
What if it doesn’t?

One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and cried for 3 hours. I was gasping from a nightmare, head and heart swirling from too many stories too many people had told me of too much hunger and pain. That’s when I realized it was silly to pretend that I’m not sad. I am sad, I prayed. Jesus, damn it, I am sad.

Suddenly honesty was howling from my veins. GOD. YOUR CHILDREN ARE DROWNING. GOD! I cried like a lunatic. I prayed without words. I felt like the very bottom of my heart had dropped out, turned into a cavern, flooding and splitting with a cry, GOD. Save us. We are crumbling, twisted, poisoned, struck – Jesus! Lord, SAVE.

Two things happened when I prayed that morning:
a) I stopped being in denial about the world.
b) I stopped trying to save it – and found hope in doing so. When I stopped trying so hard, I was suddenly, freakishly, unnaturally able to hope.

Journalism has taught me that in the Gospel, effort doesn’t save.

More importantly, it’s taught me that I don’t save.

Let me share this video with you. It’s from an amazing thing that happened when I wrote a story about my Sudanese friends: kind-hearted Americans across the world read my article, started a fundraising campaign and sent more than $5000 to help them. I went out with the Sudanese community leader and bought heaters for ~900 members of the refugee community here.

It’s beautiful, right? I was so moved when this happened. I cried. It was incredible, the kind of impact journalism I’d always dreamed of.

But I’m under no delusion. War goes on. My friends remain refugees, mistreated and forgotten, the system rigged against them for no particular reason at all. A heater is great,  but it’s a fist-sized sponge trying to sop up an ocean of need. My results-oriented self cringes, annoyed at its insufficiency, and looks for a way to leave.

My LORD says, Hush. Beloved. Stay.

I am terrified to love people when I feel like I can’t take them out of their suffering. Yet Jesus is teaching me this, to love without saving. I’m learning to accompany, to just be a friend and sister, to say I have no solutions for your problems, but I’ll stick with you anyway. I’m learning to love even when I can’t make pain stop. I’m learning, I think, to just carry pain alongside my brothers.

The tearful-lunatic-prayer thing has only grown, not stopped – but it always ends in praise. It always ends in hope, inexplicable but firm. I feel like I know God more because of it, like I know the Gospel better as a message not that pain has gone from the world, but that God loved us enough to come and bear pain alongside us. Maybe all He wants us to do is love each other enough to do likewise. Instead of straining to stop suffering, we step into it, offer a shoulder, we say, Dear friend, I can’t save you, but
I’m here,
I care,
I’m listening.

Tell me your story.

You are not alone.