Beauty, Variety, and Conformity

Mosaic of Peace Reflection – Day 5

by Rebecca Segers

I have news for you. The land of milk and honey is incredibly inhospitable. It is hilly and rocky and arid. It is also stunningly beautiful, but it is not what I think the average American would imagine when faced with this opening phrase, the description of the land to which the Israelite people were guided by God after escaping slavery.

The predominant colors are shades of brown and white, as far as the eye can see. There are hills and wadis – the Arabic word for valley – in desert shades of brown on brown on brown. There are pockets of human life: villages, and towns, and cities.

I have often noted with delight that wherever I go, the architecture is dependent upon the land. In my home state of Arkansas, the buildings are mostly made of brick, due to the high content and availability of clay in the earth. In my adopted state of New York, the buildings are mostly clapboard because of the heavy forestation in the area. In Israel/Palestine, the buildings are mostly made of a white or pale brownish yellow stone, or concrete blocks, sometimes plastered over with a smooth white coating. They are of a symmetrical blocky design, with arches and domes as a primary decorative feature. So it is that even today, the familiar “shape” of Bethlehem at night on a Christmas card is not so different now than in Jesus’ time (if much more populated).

The interior of the city is much as the exterior would suggest. The streets are sometimes paved but often stone as well. In Jerusalem, signage is in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English. In Bethlehem, it is mostly in two: Arabic and English. So while things look foreign, they also are navigable.

Then there are the people. Unlike many tropical countries, even the people seem to dress in muted colors, the women often in the black hijab, particularly older women. Younger women might be seen in jeans and long-sleeved shirts or sweaters with a paler headscarf covering their hair. Men’s garb is more western in tone, most often jeans with a brown or gray shirt and jacket.

This is not to suggest that the people themselves are drab. There is a great deal of life and joy and resilience and hope and frustration and every imaginable emotion in those who live here. But it is not what I visually expected.

What my eye has begun to do is to pick out shapes that please it: the crescent atop the mosque across the street from the Church of the Nativity, the bright green olives peeking from behind the bushy leaves on gnarled trunks, the flutter of the deep maroon scarf thrown over the traditional Palestinian dancer’s shoulder. I see the variety in the conformity. The moments of respite in the sameness. Perhaps this is not unlike what it is to be a Palestinian resisting in the midst of massive odds.

We have met many people who have told us their stories. Yahav Zohar, an Israeli-Jew who is an historian and advocate for the Palestinian people, took us from vista to vista overlooking Jerusalem, showing us the ways that the Israeli government has used the land to separate and deny the Palestinian people their rights. Israel has put up a “temporary separation fence,” which is actually a very tall, very permanent structure that has been up and growing since 1999. Palestinian resisters have covered it in graffiti that calls out the injustice in painful but also often humorous ways, a testament to the resilience of a people living in a colorless emotional landscape, while imbuing it with vitality.

I look out upon this country of such beauty and such challenge and cannot help but be moved by the rocky terrain. There are rocks upon rocks upon rocks everywhere you look. The buildings and roads are made of stone. There are stones covering the land and under the land. The history of this land is layered in stone. The archeological sites we have visited have shown this abundantly.

As I write, the church bells in Bethlehem are clanging, dancing with the message of God’s presence and hope. It reminds me of Jesus proclaiming upon his descent from the Mount of Olives when told to silence his disciples that were he to do so, “the stones themselves would shout!” (Luke 19:40) This is a land of shouting stones, living and not. The cacophonous cry to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) surrounds me here. Oh, that it might be heard.


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