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In Which I Wish I’d Paid More Attention in Arabic

May 13, 2009

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Wednesday, 9:43 am local time

Humbling.

First graders laughed at me this morning, and it was amazing.

The Mar Elias Educational Institution is a Kindergarten-12th Grade Catholic school in the hills above Ibillin. The complex includes an elementary school, high school, church and a few basketball courts and serves something on the order of 3000 students, only 30% of whom are Christian. The director of the complex is Elias Aragabouna (whose last name I’m sure I’ve completely butchered), and he is a Palestinian Arab Christian and the grandson of Archbishop Elias Chacour, the prominent Catholic Palestinian apologist.

The Israeli government subsidizes only 60% of the school, and none of its building projects; Gordon tells me that Jewish schools are fully financed. The missing 40% is paid through some tuition (most students pay $180 for the full year) but mostly through fundraising. I met the fundraiser on staff for Gordon’s non-profit, The Pilgrims of Ibillin , this morning. She’s a former Methodist pastor out of Wisconsin who felt called to fundraising after retiring from pastoral ministry and fell in love with the mission of the Pilgrims of Ibillin; this is her ministry now.

Elias invited us to attend first period classes this morning. We split into pairs or trios, and Elias divided us among some of the high school classes. Kathy (God love her) asked Gordon to take me to the elementary school instead, and he was only too happy to oblige – and that’s how I found myself loving a class full of first graders who were laughing at me.

What you have to understand is that Ibillin is inside the borders of the state of Israel. This is not the West Bank; this is not Gaza – this territory is not ‘occupied’ as such. This is Israel. The problem is that Ibillin is one of the Arab Israeli towns, meaning that the population is overwhelmingly Palestinian-Arabs who are citizens of Israel. Last night, though, Elias told us that Arabs are subtle second-class citizens. They are denied entry into Jewish pools. Their passports have lines underneath their surnames to indicate their non-Judaic status. The students at this school are automatically afforded less respect in the country of their birth by accident of race. The work that is going on at this school, then, is no small miracle.

I briefly met the director of the lower school, Noar, and she told me that there are 900 students in the elementary building. To put that in perspective, the entire student population of Princeton Seminary is only about 840. She let me sit in on a class of first grade Arabic writing students, 34 of them, boys and girls. The class was conducted entirely in Arabic, so I only caught a few words here and there, but it was probably the best class I could have been in; I took a semester of Arabic a year and a half ago, and my professor at the University was a stickler for grammar. Thus, when the teacher asked the class what kinds of words the words were in the sentence she wrote for them on the whiteboard, I was able to say with them, “Ism, ism, harif.” Noun, noun, preposition. Making kids learn grammar is apparently universal.

The miracle of the class is that all 34 of the first graders were completely focused on the teacher, insofar as first graders can focus on anything. The kid behind me wore a crucifix (and the most rocking haircut I’ve ever seen), but if the school is only 30% Christian, the class must have been predominately Muslim. The teacher explained the difference between the taa marbuta (the circle with two dots at the end of a word that denotes the feminine form) and the final haa (the plain circle that’s just the ‘h’ sound) and asked the class to find the taa marbutas on their worksheets; I watched a girl in my row point with stubby fingers at the taa marbutas on the worksheet of the boy next to her, helping him along.

Elias says that the school is built on the idea of reconciliation. The Jews have every right to be in this land, he says, but so do we, the Palestinians. There has to be a way not just to co-exist, but to live together. Mar Elias might be the way to do it. The disruption in the classroom was the foreigner, not a difference of religion. The people who went to the high school classrooms reported much the same. Archbishop Chacour says that vision without action is a dead dream, and action without vision is a nightmare; this is a vision on the move.

As I watched the girl help the boy with his taa marbutas, I remember something that Elias told us when he met with us last night. He looks to the work of reconciliation that is going on in South Africa, and he said that it worked because de Klerk was able to say, “I’m sorry,” and Madela was able to say, “I forgive you.” The kids in the class laughed at me not because they’re intrinsically bad, but because that’s what first graders do. They laugh. I laughed with them, because I knew no harm was meant, and I knew my pale skin and shaggy hair and thick glasses and gangly limbs were new and funny. The laughter was not malicious; these children are not malicious. They are not terrorists, they are Palestinians, and their voices deserve to be heard as much as anybody else. This is my children’s ministry heart speaking as much as my social justice heart.

Daniel asked me later what I thought the solution to the Israel-Palestine problem was; not knowing what else to say, I said, “They need a Mandela.” And I think they do. That apartheid in South Africa ended in my lifetime is a wonder to behold, and it happened because the leaders of both sides were able to come to the table with humility and open hearts. I know that the situation is complicated here; I know that the religious and political and geographic tensions are numerous and tangled, but there has to be a way to live together, to not just coexist. This school is making it work. Perhaps one of the kids in that class will grow up to be the Palestinian Mandela.

The kingdom of God is like…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Greg permalink
    September 4, 2009 6:48 pm

    Ryan,
    I am a Messianic Jew and I have trouble with what I think the school is trying to do. Why should Jews be forced into something after all these years of not having somewhere to call home. Why can’t the Palestinians pick one of the MANY Arab countries around the region to make their home….why Israel that took the Jews so long to get? If you can answer this for me, I will be very grateful. Thanks.

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