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The human gesture

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 28.06.2016:

By Toine van Teeffelen


At a moment that “exiting the other” receives much public attention, I am invited to help editing a book with stories by Palestinian school students on the subject of Moslem-Christian living together. It is in the framework of a project of the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem that has run for years and which aims, in the words of its leader Fuad Giacaman, to work on ‘preventive education’ in Palestine; that is, preventing that Moslem-Christian relations are kidnapped by fear, prejudice and exclusivist policies.

At some 30 schools in the districts Bethlehem and Ramallah Christian and Moslem students receive a few times per month or semester joint religious education lessons (normally they are held separately), in order to know more about each other’s religions and to deepen mutual respect. There is actually a long tradition of inter-religious living together in Palestine which is however at times under pressure because of the Israeli occupation, which may pit Moslems and Christians against each other, as well as because of the emergence of Daesh (ISIS) and repressive and exclusivist practices in neighboring countries in general. As part of the project students between 12 and 17 years old are annually asked to collect and write down inspiring stories about Moslem-Christian living together. Now there will be two books published in September with such stories, one in Arabic and another in English.

What is remarkable in those stories is the power of the human gesture. Not the force of instutionalized practice but rather the influence of disrupting ‘normal’ expectation patterns. There is of course an Arab tradition of generous gestures in the form of Arab hospitality. In general, the human gesture extended at the right moment is much appreciated in Arab culture – as well as in many other cultures, to be sure.

It often is about support in times of need. A Moslem woman tells that once at the primary school in Nablous she gave her Christian classmate Therese five shekel because the last did not have money to take the bus home. They became friends. Many years later Therese gave her, in remniscence of the gift during primary school, her kidney. This saved the Moslem woman’s life though her beloved Therese lost her own life as the medical interventian had mortal side effects.

Some years before the Nakbeh [‘disaster’ – the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948], two children of neighboring Moslem and Christian families in Lydda grew up together. In 1948 Mohammed and Tony fled with their families to Syria and remained there for decades in or near a refugee camp. Two years ago Tony, the Palestinian Christian now over 70 years old, was threatened by a Daesh soldier. His friend Mohammed protected him. Both were killed. Many stories tell about how Moslem and Christian families protected each other during Intifadas and political repression.

There are also interesting stories of support for customs or prescriptions of the other religion. On the streets of Ramallah, Palestinian-Christian youth distributed water and dates just before the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. When an imam became ill the priest tolled the church bells to announce the end of the fasting. In a similar case, a Christian man took over the role of mousharater, the one who wakes up the Moslem believers to take early breakfast before the fasting starts.

Christian families and a church collected funds to allow needy, pious Moslems to make the haj to Mecca. Moslems helped in rebuilding a church heavily damaged after an attack by the occupation forces. Examples come also from outside Palestine. Jordanians named a new mosque in Madaba after ‘Issa, the son of Miriam – Jesus, the son of Mary – as a gesture to Christians.

Actually, there are numerous examples of such gestures in the Middle East which in the present atmosphere are threatened to be forgotten but which are worth to be documented and disseminated in the service of inclusive education.


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