Letter from the Road #33

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


The Neighbor and the Pilgrim


In the sixties the poet Gary Snyder advised, “Find your place on the planet and dig in.” I took his advice seriously, digging out roots to clear gardens, digging holes to build fences, digging trenches for foundations, drainage pipes, and septic systems. The view from the handle of my shovel helped me love each place I made home, and the sound of my neighbors’ shovels working next to me did the same.

By learning to dig in—literally and figuratively—I became a neighbor. A neighbor is someone who offers help when you need it. Living under the same weather as you do, walking on the same ground, your neighbors share with you the patience needed to live in that place and care for it.

But the borders of my home-place have never remained secure. The fences I’ve built get climbed over, the gates left open, and the world finds its way in. Faces stare out from the newspaper page and TV news—the taut faces of hungry people half a world away. Children on street corners in desert towns watching soldiers pass by. Faces and voices and stories unknown to me. Who are these people? Whose neighbors are they? What is important to them? What do they have to do with me?

Questions like these have made me put down my shovel more than once and go on the road, not to frame the world with my camera but to seek it like a pilgrim seeks a path. Usually there is some outer, credible purpose that motivates my journey, but inside I seem to be waiting for certain small moments of humor or sadness or mutual recognition that make the distance between “my” world and “the” world vanish, at least for a moment.

For example, a few weeks ago I was in Bethlehem in the West Bank, invited for a mid-day meal to the home of a Palestinian family. Their flat was perched on top of a small building accessed by outside steps. For some time the place had been in the direct line of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters holed up in a nearby building, and it had been hit often by Israeli shells.

My host pointed to where the refrigerator was standing. He said the previous fridge had been hit by machine gun bullets (the family wasn’t home at the time), causing it to defrost and the meat in the freezer to thaw, leaking a red stain across the floor. When the family returned, their three year-old son pointed at the fridge and said, “Look Daddy, they killed the fridge!”

We all laughed. Then we were silent, our eyes turned to the new fridge, imagining the holes slicing into it and the brutal symbolism of that. This was one of those moments of sadness and humor I’m talking about, a moment of mutual recognition when you glimpse the world with new eyes like a three year-old.

At the time I was traveling throughout the Middle East with two colleagues introducing the Abraham Path Initiative (see Letter from the Road #31) to government ministers and religious leaders. Later on that same afternoon we drove to Ramallah to meet with the new Hamas Chairman of the Palestine Legislative Council, a twinkly-eyed man with a trim grey beard, avuncular and academic. Previously a professor of geography with his degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he showed great interest in the map of the proposed Abraham Path and regaled us with stories from Quranic and Biblical sources.

“We are all children of Abraham,” he said, musing on Abraham’s dysfunctional family. “Abraham was the most generous person of his time. He never ate alone, always inviting others to share his food.” The senator grew pensive for a moment, then exclaimed, “I hate politics!” and laughed. Another silence. Then he added, “No country wants to live in isolation.”

Here it was again, another moment with the world revealing a secret tenderness. Here, from a senior Hamas official, a glimpse into a field of sorrow and generosity.

In the book Friendly Fire, author Julia Sweig considers the reasons for the rise of anti-Americanism around the world. She speaks of America’s near inability “to see its power from the perspective of the powerless.” From our self-absorption a loss of neighborliness occurs, and worse. Perhaps this has something to do with my continual border crossings—miniscule attempts to expiate the arrogance of my country. There is a kind of medicine in these moments of revealed tenderness, the unexpected gifts of the pilgrim’s path. Will they heal anything? Who knows? I only know it’s better they happen than they don’t.

Leaving Ramallah we drove south, taking a wide detour around Jerusalem because our Palestinian colleague wasn’t allowed to pass there. Our journey was slowed by many checkpoints—borders within borders. It was evening by the time we left him at his home—he didn’t feel comfortable joining us for our final visit that night to an isolated hilltop enclave of orthodox Jewish settlers in the middle of the West Bank. I wanted to speak with the old rabbi and founder of the settlement, a well-known teacher of mystical Jewish texts. By the time we found the settlement it was dark, a cold wind blowing intermittent rain over the hills. We were met at the guardhouse by one of the rabbi’s sons and led to his house.

The house was unkempt and filled with young couples with little children fussing, ready for bed. The rabbi looked the part of an Old Testament prophet—long white hair and beard, bushy black eyebrows arching over kind, penetrating eyes. We were apologetic for barging into their family scene but were assured it was fine. The rabbi seemed genuinely disturbed that our Palestinian colleague had not felt comfortable visiting, even though he was his neighbor.

One by one the young families left. One couple asked for a blessing from the old man—he enveloped them with his arms and held his hands over their heads, his lips whispering the benediction. Again, a scene of great tenderness.

We spoke for some time about Abraham and the path we hoped to open. When it was time to leave, the rabbi put on his coat to walk us back to the guardhouse to meet our taxi, which it turned out hadn’t come. The cold wind was even stronger and we insisted he not wait with us. He asked the young soldier if we could wait in the little tin guardhouse. As he turned to leave, the old rabbi hesitated and then blessed the Abraham Path and us for our work for peace and reconciliation, and then disappeared into the night. (We learned later that his 27 year-old settlement is slated by Prime Minister Ohlmert for evacuation in the near future.)

The wind whistled through the squalid hut. There were Hebrew graffiti on the walls, and one in English that read: “What am I doing here? What am I doing here?” I watched the Israeli soldier standing there with his machine gun slung over his shoulder looking down the hill for approaching cars. It was cold.

Once again the anguish of the powerless touched me, this time including the anguish of those seemingly in power—America, Israel, Hamas, the soldier next to me—powerlessly in the grip of their position. I felt the neighbors here, so close, unmeeting, and the little orthodox children drifting off to sleep by now, and the child of my Palestinian friend dreaming of bleeding refrigerators. The graffiti taunted me: “What am I doing here? Why am I not in my cozy home far from here? What am I supposed to do?”

I knew the answer. I’m simply supposed to be here, feeling exactly this old bitter-sweet recognition: we are neighbors to each other, like it or not.

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