Two weeks after the world woke up in shock and horror on 7 October, Anne and I are travelling towards the Sinai desert. ‘Should we even go?” we ask ourselves. Just like other trips, it feels we are flying straight into a storm. But once we arrive in St Katherine – Anne with a group of women in the Katharina Monastery and I with a group of men in the Bedouin Camp – it feels like we have landed in the eye of the storm: Intense silence, inspiration, peace and tranquillity overwhelm us. The power of the desert. One of the nights we go up Mount Sinai, to pray for all the victims, the souls killed, the pain and sorrow on both sides of the conflict. Atop Moses’ mountain is both a small mosque, a chapel and a sacrificial stone reminiscent of Jewish tradition. Here – close to heaven – is the source of the three brother religions: Judaism as the oldest brother, Christianity as the younger brother, and Islam as the youngest shoot on the same trunk. Will we ever be able to find each other again in the labyrinth of pain, anger, contempt and division? Is there any hope left?
It is an intense but also wonderful time. There we are: seven men in an Islamic Bedouin camp. We share tea together, bedrooms, yoga and fire, loves and sorrows, fears and reflections.
In our group, there is one Jewish man from Jerusalem, who had the courage to travel to an Arab country. His journey through Eilat to Sinai feels like an exodus, this time in reverse. He once made a choice to leave the army and focus on healing. A choice with great consequences in this crisis, when almost all Israeli men are called to serve their country. ‘Am I not abandoning my country?” he asks himself. ‘Or is this just my way of serving?’ Every morning we exchange thoughts and news about mutual friends and family. The dejection, anger, fear and depression is omnipresent. All we can do is keep the quiet middle in a world that seems to be rapidly spiralling out of control. Views and opinions, condemnations and accusations fly around your ears on social media. But I also read hope, love and reconciliation, against all odds.
Can we hold on to each other in the storm? Or do we allow ourselves to be swept away by the power of hate, division, anger and revenge?
I think back to my experiences and lessons over the past 20 years of visiting the Middle East. There are various perspectives on how the situation got this way, depending on which side you look from. Each seems to have its own variant of the same history. That is what makes the story so complex, so layered, so difficult to grasp and so controversial. Ideally, we could tell one truth. That would make it easy. But the reality is different. Every people, every religion, every person has their own interpretation. Perhaps the trick is that we can allow multiple interpretations to coexist. Multiple stories, multiple peoples, multiple religions in the same country. Not either-or, but and-and. Not one over the other, but equal and side by side.
The story of the Jews ánd the story of the Palestinians. The pain of the Holocaust ánd the pain of the Nakba. Our model of winners and losers, into which we often divide history, no longer holds true. If we want to get out of this complicated story, we will have to think outside of the box.
One of the perspectives, and also problems in the story, is the distinction in religion. Three religions see Jerusalem as their source, their origin, their foundation: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And the divisions between these three religions have made countless wars, genocides and massacres possible. Perhaps the best thing would be to just abolish them all, but then we throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, religion also provides a handle on how to solve the problem. If only because every religion has the same motto: ‘What ye would not want done to you, do not do to another.’
In the past 20 years of travelling through the Middle East, from Syria to Sudan, from Iran to Israel, and from Jordan to Gaza, I spoke to many people about religion. It is a subject that fascinates me immensely, and I cannot get enough of visiting every temple, mosque or synagogue. In talking to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, I discovered that when you put the three religions side by side, a wondrous whole emerges, as if all three have only a particle of the whole. Only when you unite all three does wholeness emerge. Or, as my Jewish friend from Jerusalem told me, “God is one. The most important phrase in the entire Torah, the five books of Moses, is: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, The Lord is one.'” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The Jewish people are steeped in spirituality and have had perhaps the greatest impact on faith throughout history. Most of the prophets, both in the Quran, the Torah and the Bible are Jewish. We often forget this for convenience, but it is worth remembering that people like Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene, to name a few, were Jewish. But Jesus and Mary also appear in the Qur’an. You could therefore say that all three books tell more or less the same story, in three versions.
It reminds me of the film ‘The Ninth Gate’ with Johnny Depp. He has to find three versions of the same medieval book with which to invoke the devil. Apparently, to find God, we have to unite the Bible, the Koran and the Torah.
How many times have I been amazed that I didn’t really understand a particular Bible story from before – I had a Catholic upbringing – until I heard the Jewish version of it? Or got additional background information through the Quran? Isn’t it time to admit that Allah, Yahweh and God are all three simply the same? One God….
I can also see the three religions as three aspects of the same body. Judaism could represent the head, Christianity the heart and Islam the hips. Where Jewish tradition excels in knowledge, genius, insight and spiritual wisdom – the head – Islam shines in simplicity, surrender and connection to the land – the hips. And Christianity is known for its attention and focus on the heart. Universal love. Brotherhood and sisterhood. Connection. If there is anything Jesus brought into the world it is the power of love, compassion and forgiveness. Or as Bob Marley sings, “One love, one heart, Let’s get together and feel all right.
In the Christian church, to go to the hips is risky, because that quickly turns to sexual abuse, and the head also plays a lesser role. As a Christian, you mainly have to obey what the church, the priest or the pope says. Any other opinion is not appreciated. In Islam, neither.
The spirituality I have come to know through Islam is through drinking a cup of tea together, a simple look of understanding and friendship, a beautiful poem or a visit to someone’s home. Nothing complicated, but as a Westerner particularly beneficial. Once, when I was walking back to my hotel in Gaza after a swim in the Mediterranean, a friend invited me to have a cup of tea in front of his house. Ten metres away, however, turned out to be a group of Hamas fighters, also drinking tea. I was startled, but had nowhere to go in my wet swimming trunks. They nodded kindly at me and asked what I thought of I Gaza. An entertaining conversation ensued, and I had to adjust my entire enemy image. Suddenly I saw these Hamas fighters no different from fathers who want to protect their children. What a cup of tea can do….
So in 20 years, I have had to adjust or let go of countless assumptions, ingrained images, stereotypes and judgements. What I had learned from my culture, my religion, simply did not hold water. Jews are not always after money, Palestinians are not always terrorists, Christians are not always loving, and so on. The trick is to see the strength and value of each direction, culture and religion and therefore be able to feel love for the diversity of our society. One love…
When Mohamed, our host at the Bedouin camp in St Katherine, takes us from St Catherine back to the Red Sea, he says: ”My grandfather travelled to Saudi Arabia and Syria. In those days, there were no borders and no passports. We could travel freely through all countries. For Bedouins, the land is from God…’
Just as Judaism brings in One God, Christianity brings in One love, Islam brings in One land. So the whole idea of dividing the ‘holy land’, building walls right through it, is mostly a western, colonial idea. We conquer the land, put a fence around it and say it belongs to us. Then we relegate anyone who does not belong to our tribe to a lower class of people, a second-class people. That’s what the English did in South Africa, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Americans in America, the Portuguese in Brazil, etc. This is how we Europeans conquered most of the world and what is being done as well by the Israelis to the Palestinian people.
The Bedouins, who like many other indigenous peoples like the Indians or aborigines are deeply connected to the land, do not understand the idea of conquest and land ownership. You are guests on the earth, and it takes cooperation with the earth to survive. Not by subjugating nature, owning it and monetising it but by honouring it and managing it respectfully.
The word ‘holy land’ means not only holy land, but also ‘whole’ land. The word Holy is related to ‘wholeness’, ‘whole’. In it, the city of Jerusalem seems to be the beating heart: The old city with its seven gates, and the mystical Jerusalem with its 12 gates. The new Jerusalem is a mystical symbol of the bringing together of all the 12 tribes of humanity, allowing a new era to begin. But apparently we are still living in the time when we cannot see or feel the wholeness: both Palestinians and Jews are fighting for ownership of the land, of the city, and of the holy of holies, the Temple Mount.
All three aspects of the body – head, heart and hips – have their own shadow sides. The head may be brilliant, but when attacked it behaves superior, haughty and arrogant. It finds the energy of the heart naive and stupid, and looks down on the animated emotions from the hip area. The head elevates itself above the rest.
The shadow side of the heart is naivety, insensitivity and superficiality. Instead of being involved and passionate, it keeps a low profile, wishing for an cheap peace. It is an easygoing attitude, preventing us from really feeling.
The shadow side of the pelvis and the hips are the unpolished emotions, raw aggression and brutal destruction that live in each of us. If we are tormented long enough, and our limits are systematically crossed, these primal forces come out in a negative way. The beast is loose, as we saw with the Hamas attack.
Now, of course, this tripartite division is extremely stereotypical, and it is good to realise that we all have the three aspects within us. The most interesting thing, then, is to see which aspect we have the most trouble with, or that is not yet well integrated into our lives. Do we hate superiors, authority, elites because we do not yet dare to acknowledge our own uniqueness and authority? Do we condemn brutal physical violence while we ourselves switch off many lives at once at the push of a button? Do we dislike the soft power of the heart because we prefer to stay in the emotions of the victim?
These are questions that make us connect more deeply with the complexity of the story and the conflict in the Middle East. And it helps us realise that all aspects of the story have their value, and their contribution to the solution.
KILL THE BEAST
When I once gave a men’s group to 20 Jewish men, I used the story of Theseus and the Minotaur to gain insight into our own shadow sides. The Greek myth tells of a beast – half man, half bull – trapped in a labyrinth built by Daedalus and his son Icarus. The beast eats many children every year. The hero Theseus is ordered to kill the beast in the labyrinth. I told the myth to the Jewish men and gave them the same order: ‘Kill the beast.’ Now all these men were trainers of men’s groups and they began the task in good spirits. But at two in the morning, they were still sitting around the fire, furious, confused and unable to find the solution. ‘What an awful workshop,’ said one of the men.
Coincidentally, there were attacks on Gaza that same night. Hearing about it, one of the men looked around the circle and said: ‘Suddenly I get it. The beast is not outside us. It is inside us. It is our fear, our existential fear of survival, the deep pain of the holocaust, which we project onto others.’ His insight came like a shock. It was a painful insight, but at the same time so true. It describes what men (and women) all over the world do: hide and suppress their inner pain and then fight the enemy – the projection of our pain – in another. Unable to see or feel wholeness and interconnectedness, we act out of anger, resentment, and inner division.
THE RETURN OF THE KING
How can we achieve wholeness? How can we connect the separated parts in ourselves and in our culture? There is one story that all three religions share. Once when I was sitting in an ancient Roman amphitheatre in Daraa, in southern Syria, a father with as many as 10 children came and sat around me. He explained that one of the last stories of the Quran is about the Mahdi, the grandson of Mohammed. As the end of the world approaches and everything becomes dark, the Mahdi returns to join Jesus in defeating evil. Jesus descends back to earth via a minaret – the Jesus minaret in Damascus.
It means that not only the gods are one – Yahweh, Allah and God – but the saviours as well: the Muslim Mahdi, the Jewish Moshiach and the Christian Messiah. It is this archetype of the saviour that appears almost in every religion. In Buddhism, he is called the ‘Buddha Maitreya’; in Inka culture ‘Kukulkan’ and in Aztec culture ‘Quetzalcoatl’, the feathered serpent; In Hindu mythology, there is talk of the Return of Shiva; in Celtic mythology, the return of King Arthur and Merlin.
So there are stories all over the world that refer to ‘the Return of the King’ which may not so much indicate a prophetic return of one particular figure, but rather that we are living in touch with our hearts again. When we are aggrieved as men, we close our hearts and take refuge to the head or to the underbelly. This is exactly the conflict we see in the world and on the news, which is currently being played out in the Middle East.
WOMEN WAGE PEACE
In many mythological stories, it is the woman who brings the man back to his heart. In the story ‘The Lion King’, it is Nala, the lioness, who brings Simba back to his land to take his throne at ‘Priderock’. Women seem to connect more easily with the heart. They are often the first to experience how men have closed their hearts, and know that only love can bring them back. The way for men to thaw out, get out of their heads and stop the inner war is to listen to the feminine; either the outer woman or the inner woman, or voice of the soul. In Israel, since the 2014 war, a group of women and mothers have risen up to call the men to order: Women Wage Peace. They demand a peaceful solution rather than another wave of violence, revenge and destruction. It is the wisdom of the Grandmothers. In contrast, we see the male leaders on both sides – the leaders of Hamas and the leaders of Israel – invariably choosing the path of division and struggle. They both act like ‘Scar’, Simba’s evil uncle. Their voices stem from old trauma, the old wound they carry in their hearts but cannot feel.
In this whole conflict lies a great task and challenge for men in particular: to stop passing on their pain to their partner, their children, their neighbour or to another people, but to take responsibility for their trauma themselves and learn to bear the pain. Only when we are collectively willing to heal ourselves, and then bring that wholeness into the world, do we have the opportunity to see the simple truth: that we are all part of one family, one race, on one and the same earth. One God, One love, One land.
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