Every Thursday during the blistering months of July and August, I volunteer for a group known as Min el-Bahar which means “from the sea” in Arabic. Under the auspices of Min El Baher, Palestinian children from the occupied West Bank enjoy a day at the sea, followed by a boat cruise.
For most kids, its the first time at the sea, and their first encounter with Israelis who aren’t soldiers or settlers. The Palestinians are accompanied by either one of their parents, a teacher and at times a male chaperone from their village.
We volunteers stay very close to the kids to ensure their safety, serve them icy-icy, watermelon, and play ball with them in the water. We dance with them, sing, play drums and have a truly wonderful time.
Most of us know enough Arabic to get by, and some of the kids know English as well. Our professional life guard, an Arab Israeli, is perfectly bilingual.
So, I have been playing ball with this group for about half an hour. And joking around. Everyone is laughing. And this fully clad lady asks me as we toss the ball around in a circle, “are you Christian or Muslim”? This part I understand. I tell her “neither. I’m Jewish”.
“No you aren’t”, she semi defies me, in good humour. Then one of her daughters asks me a question in Arabic that I don’t understand. The lifeguard translates for me. “Where do you pray?” I tell the lifeguard that I don’t pray. He translates for them-they are bewildered. Absolutely shocked. As if I told them that I am from Mars.
For a few seconds, the happiness dissolves. All is quiet. Eyes drop. Contact is lost. Then joy returns as if all is set aside. All is back to “normal.”
My guess is that both sides have learned. They have learned that some nice people don’t pray. I have learned how far we all have to come before we eventually get to understand one another in this hot and humid, unholy land which no one will truly understand until all assumptions are set aside.