Memories rise up from odd places. The donation request was for supporting an 11 year old student, with the goal to provide future leaders in Palestine with an education that includes the Quaker focus on reconciliation and achieving peace. It has sent me shooting down memory lane; I have returned a letter of my own to the requester. (Contact information at the end if any of you are interested. But really, this is just a blog, so no pressure.)
The green-bordered picture was my dad in 1965, when he was Head Master of the Friends Boys School of Ramallah, Jordan (actually in El-Bireh, the well where Jesus’s parents stopped when they discovered he hadn’t joined the group on their way home from the holidays in Jerusalem). Dad was 40 years old, 20 years younger than I am now. I was 11, then. You can seem me in the black and white snapshot, in front of the Head Master’s house. The plants to the right were calla lilies. Off camera were poinsettias. That is me, the tall girl on the right, next to my dad. My sisters are age 9 and 5.
I still grinned broadly at the world. I had read in a psychology magazine, that 10 was the perfect age – and it had been. Age 11 was shaping up to be the same kind of bonza year.
We had lived for three years in Kenya, on the Friends Mission of Kaimosi. We traveled through The Sudan and Egypt on our way to Jerusalem Airport. Haile Selassie’s lion cubs, the Pyramids and Sphinx, The Dome of the Rock, and the Mandelbaum Gate (which was pointed out to us from a rooftop shortly after we had entered the city) were part of the background against which I came of age.
While that sounds dramatic, I don’t believe it is. A keystone moment is when events, even small ones, conspire with understanding to push a person onto a path from which there is no exit. Moving to Jordan – the West Bank in 1965 – was such a moment for me. I learned to see a world that was constantly divided, constantly striving for unity, understanding, and calm, constantly striving for Grace.
I attended the English Speaking section of the Girls School with Palestinians (sent “home” from the States to learn about their birth culture), an international mélange of students (children of the UN Peace Keeping forces), and a smattering of children from foreign workers in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. I was in class with other kids in my own grade, again, rather than being in a class of three grades and four children. I no longer had even the illusion of steering my own course. We learned literature and writing with a journal we had to keep daily. I had to constantly figure out what was meant with very little hard information to go on. What the heck was ETHICS? How could I write about them if I didn’t understand them? Where were the Pilgrims in history? Gone! That’s where. Math was a comfort, as was knitting that was required for the crafts class, although the black garter-stitch headband seemed to take forever.
It was a year of firsts. I was introduced to a brand new alphabet, learning Arabic for 40 minutes each day. It was my first experience living in a culture where most people did not speak English as their first language. I recall one New Zealander, but all other classmates, even those born in the States or England, spoke some other language at home with their families. In Kenya we had lived on a mission, and, while there were certainly Kenyans who were our neighbors, the school I attended was for the children of British and American Friends and AID-type workers.
I made friends who mattered to me, girls who would walk around the basketball court holding my hand and buy me falafel for lunch when stewed okra over rice was on the menu. I learned the joy of having someone’s secret to keep, and telling one of my own, the misery of betrayal, and the agony of betraying someone for a moment of popularity. I learned not to make the secrets too big or too real. I learned the value of taking a hit, and the popularity that comes from standing up, though bloodied, to a bully. I had my first babysitting job that gave me the cash to buy the falafel, as well as the “sno-b’r” (crunchy green almonds sprinkled with salt). I learned the joy of food.
I experienced the thrill of walking across town on a Saturday, by myself, to visit the library in the Girls School, and cruising the streets with my best friend Mona (whom I never betrayed). Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes it was showing the sights to one of my parents’ visitors from the States. I have no real idea how many of these jaunts was sanctioned. I remember the constant fear that I was stepping outside some prescribed boundary, but seemed unable to stop myself.
There was constant tension at home, as well. Some of it came from my dad’s role as liaison between the Society of Friends, who ran the schools, and the Jordanian government, who had jurisdiction. Some came from the nature of living among countries constantly sniping against each other. There were occasional explosions in the basement chemistry lab, and, once, students I knew, home studying for mid-terms, did not return because they had been shot, pacing too near the border.
There were parties, and there were times my dad escaped from the house, taking me to see movies like The Ipcress File and Von Ryan’s Express. There was pressure (I now know) for my dad to stay on as Head Master and those discussions could not have been comfortable for either him or my mom. For me it was like living in a mine field.
It was attending the Friends Girls School, more than any other event, that set me on my course to join the Peace Corps, and maintain a passionate interest in the way people work within their own cultures, and what happens when cultures collide with each other. I got good at reading situations, figuring out cultural cues and learning to navigate the formal, public, ways. I developed a facility for learning languages. I learned to love the solitary path in the midst of a crowd.
So, when I got the letter from VQM asking for a donation to support a girl, I knew what I would say when Andrew got ready for the Charitable Donation part of our year.
Check to: Vassalboro Quarterly Meeting – Ramallah Friends School
c/o Joann Austin Treasurer
Vassalboro Quarterly Meeting
PO Box 150
South China, Maine 04358