Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Mindfulness in a War Zone as a Sanity Saver

I deliberately try to keep politics out of this blog as I try to address more spiritual matters. If you're into politics, read my other blogs, S.D. Watch and Temporary Texan.

But politics intrudes a bit in this posting on mindfulness.

Back in the summer of 1988 when I was a producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I was selected by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to go on a human rights monitoring mission with other journalists to Israel and Palestine. The first Palestinian intifada had erupted in late 1987 and was still going strong during the summer of 1988.

For a 30 year old guy who wasn't much interested in the military, it was a shocking experience. One day I was in my nice little middle class life in Brookings, SD; a few days later, I was in the middle of a war zone with no training and no life experiences to prepare me for the horrors of a civil war.

On the West Bank and in Jerusalem, things were fairly normal. I had been to this part of Israel before in 1985 as part of an American Zionist Federation press junket. I attended lots of meetings with high ranking Palestinian officials--many whom you've seen on TV through the years--and with sympathetic Israeli leaders and members of the peace movement.

It was pretty tame, stuff I was used to.

Then I got sent to Bethlehem. I stayed with a nice middle class family in a lovely home. It seemed more like a vacation--for a while. We would eat fresh olives picked from the owner's olive trees, fresh pita bread from the nearby bakery, fresh feta cheese, and drink strong coffee for breakfast.

Unfortunately, the insanity began.

In the nearby village of Beit Sahour, the story was an Israeli soldier dropped a roofing stone from a building and hit a Palestinian boy on the head. We rushed to scene, still fresh with blood on the street. An angry gathering of Palestinians was heading toward us, a not very happy Israel patrol coming at us from the other direction.

There were shots, screams, screaming, then chaos.

The gentleman I was staying with grabbed me by the hand and said, "We have to run."

We ran across rooftops, through courtyards, and literally through living rooms. If you recall the scene from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" when he's running through all the backyards and through people's houses to get home, that's what it was like except it wasn't very damn funny. A van suddenly pulled up, we piled in, and the Palestinians covered me up with blankets for the ride back to Bethlehem.

The next day I went to a refugee camp south of Bethlehem to interview a young girl who nearly had her arm shot off with a dum-dum (exploding) bullet.

On this trip I had a young Palestinian man as my guide. His English was good; his common sense, I would come to learn, was not so good.

As we walked down the road from Bethlehem to the refugee camp, an Israeli troop transport zoomed by us, screeched to a halt about a half a football field ahead of us, turned around, and roared back.

A platoon of Israeli soldiers and reservists piled out of the truck. The young officer begins to question me why I am there, who this Palestinian is, where I was staying, and wanting to look at all my papers. The soldiers had gathered around us in a circle.

Suddenly, my young guide starts to act insane. He talks crazy talk then makes all sorts of odd motions, like he is having a seizure or something.

Almost simultaneous, 12 bolts are pulled back on the soldiers Uzis and M-16s and 12 guns are pointed at me and my young "friend."

Fortunately, a burly reservists yells, "Oh, oh, you've got to look at this guy's wife. Very pretty."

That broke the tension and I was able to walk away without a belly full of lead.

I didn't think things could get much worse. They did. I then was assigned to the to the Gaza Strip.

After a harrowing taxi ride at high speeds, another American in my group and I got dumped in the middle of Gaza City at late evening with no place to stay. We ended up at someone's house, our bags, we thought, long gone. All we had were our satchels with a few things, our passports, and the clothes on our backs.

The next day, we were told we couldn't stay where we were and literally were wondering around until we caught up with a procession of Palestinian men marching through the sandy Gaza cemeteries, chanting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans.

A young Palestinian invited us to come to his home in a refugee camp for coffee. Since we had no better offers, we obliged.

The refugee camps on the West Bank look like resorts compared to the refugee camps in Gaza. They are cramped, crowded, and have raw sewage running down the gutters. In the midst of drinking coffee, all hell broke loose. Siren wailed, stones hit the tin roof like hail, and soon tear gas wafted in. We were all choking and crying.

We then learned that the Israeli army had closed the camp because some protests got out of hand. We were stuck.

I slept by the open sewer that serviced the home's toilet. I played a couple hundred games of backgammon with my hosts and his younger siblings. We ate lots and lots of fried eggplant, as that's all the family had because they couldn't go to market.

Then that next evening, another protest broke out. More stones and rubber bullets whiting the home and the roof. More tear gas. More choking. I thought I was in hell.

The other American and I decided we were not going to stay there any longer and being a burden on our hosts and possibly get them in trouble for harboring us. We talked to our hosts.

I had noticed a few days earlier that the Israelis had a machine gun nest in a tower about fifty yards from the house we were staying. From there to the street was about 100 feet of open ground.

We had to cross that kill zone in broad daylight to make it to the street and a waiting car that was going to take us back to Gaza City.

At great risk to themselves, the women in the family surrounded us and walked us across No Man's Land to the waiting car. I thought I was a goner. That was the longest 100 feet in my life.

We go back to the small hotel we were first at. Alas, they no longer have any rooms. We're looking at sleeping in the park in Gaza City.

Suddenly, a young Palestinian woman fashionably dressed in Western clothes roared up in a red Toyota van. She yelled at us in very good English for ending up in Gaza during a Muslim holiday akin to Christmas, where everyone is home with their families. She said she'd take us in.

After another crazy drive through the narrow, twisting streets of Gaza City, we ended up at a palatial, three story home near the Mediterranean Ocean. I was like something out of "Architectural Digest." These folks were not poor folks.

The family was a prominent, old-line Gaza family. They were used to taking in Westerners like me--diplomats, aide workers, and journalists. Only most of these people treated living there like a hotel. Strangely, I felt at home.

I asked Madeleine, the young woman who had rescued me, and her mother, if I could help out around the house. They had more people than they were expecting (including me and my colleague) and my Midwestern roots said I shouldn't be a burden.

Without hesitation, I got put to work in the kitchen washing and drying dishes.

I have never enjoyed washing and drying dishes so much in my entire life.

This was my first taste of mindfulness. I didn't really know it at the time, but it was.

Doing the dishes was familiar. Safe. Helpful. Relaxing. I concentrated on just doing the dishes. No war. No running through people's living rooms. No sleeping by sewers. No getting tear gassed. Just wash, rinse, dry. Wash, rinse, dry. Repeat. I'd talk occasionally with my hosts. But they too concentrated on the task at hand--not world peace, not peace in the Middle East, but doing the dishes.

I firmly believe that had I not ended up at their home and helping with the dishes, I would have probably had a mental breakdown. I also probably saved me from even more problems with decompression when I returned to the USA.

Mindfully doing the dishes in the middle of a war zone seems crazy.

But that small act of mindfulness may have been just what I needed then and a lesson that I need to remember now and forever.

Do what you can do, even if it is only doing the dishes. Live in that moment.

And I thank God that I had that moment when all hell was going on around me.

Perhaps the Buddha smiled on me that day--A Christian in a Muslim home surrounded by a Jewish state.

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