And while we were in Canada, this place would be waiting for us. There is something eternal about olive, fig, and apricot trees, a piece of land that's near a beach where the sky meets the sea and the sand, where whitecaps break as waves roll up to the shore, where the surf rides high on the beach and the laughter of children soars on the wind.
The ringing of my cell phone brought me out of my reverie. It was Bessan, teasing me, saying, "Where is my father with the kebabs? Our stomachs are growling. We need food." I told her I was on my way and they should go back to the olive grove and get the hibachi started.
Later, we feasted on the kebabs, told more stories, and then returned to the beach for one last walk before the setting sun sent us home.
The strife of Gaza has been the backdrop of my children's whole lives, though I have tried my best to make sure that their experiences growing up would be less traumatic than my own. I remember clearly how grateful I was that day for the chance to get them out of there for a while, to fly them away with me before more trouble came our way.
My daughters had heard me speaking about coexistence throughout their lives. Three of them - Bessan, Dalal, and Shatha - had attended the Creativity for Peace camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is run by Israeli and Palestinian coordinators. One of the coordinators, Anael Harpaz, told me she sees the youth of the region as the antidote that can counteract sixty years of acrimony. I wanted my daughters to meet Israeli girls and to spend time with them in a neutral setting in order to discover the ties that may bind and heal our mutual wounds. Getting the paperwork for the girls to leave Gaza for the United States was a monumental task, as Gazans cannot leave the Strip without permission from Israel. Nevertheless, this was an experience I desperately wanted my children to have: to see that people can live together, can find ways to cooperate and to make peace with each other. Bessan went to the camp twice. Dalal and Shatha had one visit each.
Bessan was the only one of my children to have met Israelis before going to the peace camp. In 2005, she joined a small group of five young women from both sides of the conflict for a road trip across America. Their leader, Debra Sugerman, took them in a van along with a cameraman to record their views on a multistate visit that was supposed to promote dialogue, create an understanding of each other's point of view, break down barriers between enemy cultures, and build bridges over the huge, complicated problems that existed between the two sides.
There were no easy answers during a journey that was layered with forgiveness, friendship, sorrow, and hope. Their conversations and activities were filmed for a documentary titled Dear Mr. President, and the girls hoped to meet President George W. Bush to enlist his support for the work they were doing.
For me, it was an example of what most families, most teenagers, and most scholars in the region want: to find a way through the chaos in order to live side by side. Some of the comments Bessan made in the film have stayed with me: "There is more than one way to solve a problem. To meet terrorism with terrorism or violence with violence doesn't solve anything." She also admitted that it's hard to forget what has happened here: the humiliation, the oppression of being basically imprisoned in Gaza and denied basic rights. That hurt of injustice lingers. "All problems can be solved by forgiving the past and looking toward the future, but for this problem it's hard to forget the past." Near the beginning of the documentary she says, "We think as enemies; we live on opposite sides and never meet. But I feel we are all the same. We are all human beings."
I have been straddling the line in the sand dividing Palestinians and Israelis for as long as I can remember, even as a fourteen-year-old when I worked for an Israeli farm family for the summer and discovered that they were as human as I was. As I watched the children on the beach that day, I saw the points in my life where I had crossed a line in the sand drawn by circumstances, by politics, by the ever-present enmity of two peoples. The abject poverty I lived in as a child, the opportunities I created through my performance at school, how the Six Day War altered my thinking - all of these and other crossings have shaped my life. From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter of the bad story, and that has always been the attitude I try to bring to the considerable obstacles that have challenged me. It is how I manage to move from one crossing to another. It seems to me that I gather strength from one to prepare for the next.
Excerpted from I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish. Copyright © 2011 by Izzeldin Abuelaish. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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