Included in the recent HCEF fact finding delegation to the Holy Land,Lorie Burchick, Assistant Coordinator for the Child Sponsorship Program,reviews her impressions from the unique perspective of an American Indian. She sees significant parallels with the experience of her people and those of the Palestinian Arabs.
By Lorie Colorow Burchick, LHS
Traveling along the edge of the Arabian desert, I was amazed to find the hot dry air easy to take. Being used to the humid sultry summer days in Maryland, I was prepared to be miserable in this desert. But I was happily surprised. I remembered my misery when I had left my homeland in Northeastern Utah, and first attempted to live in Maryland. My homeland, the Uintah and Ouray Reservation for the Northern Utes, stretches from elevated step deserts, down into the Unitah Basin, and then up to the snow capped Unitah Mountains. It is dry there, and I always feel comfortable. That same comfort came back to me here in Jordan. My husband, Duane, and I were part of a humanitarian delegation from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), and had come here to meet with the native Christians. I was excited about meeting them, but I knew that I would show few outward signs as is the custom among my people. We Utes are known for our reserve.
I had the van stop along the back roads to Petra to let my husband and I investigate the desert plants. They were very aromatic, not unlike the plants in the Utah step desert. Some could pass as variations of American sage. I wondered how the local Arabs out here in Jordan would employ them. We saw many small villages along the way, each seemingly constructed around a mosque. Having listened to the American media, I had expected to find a war-like people. Instead, these Jordanian Arabs were very peaceful and hospitable. We also saw wandering people of the desert, the Bedouin. They live in tents made of the sheep wool from the flocks that they drive with them wherever they go by foot, by donkey, by horse, by camel and by truck. The Bedouin mark this desert with a unique independence and strength of spirit. I admire them.
We stopped in al Smakieh, a small Christian Bedouin village outside of Karak. The people live here in modest fixed homes. They work the land nearby. Some move further out in the desert with their flocks. They say that they have relatives that live mobile further out. They are a beautiful people with charming children as I found out when we visited the Latin school. The small kindergarten children greeted me with hugs and smiles, and we had our picture taken together. They are slowly building a new school since the old one we visited is crumbling with long usage. The children run down stone stairs that American lawyers would have a field day on in court. The school rooms are much too small for the number of children involved with no circulation in this hot climate, and plumbing was dangerously unsanitary. I wouldn’t let a dog play there while these sweet children have to remain. I left with a very heavy heart.
They need financial help in speeding up the building of the new facility. I was told that Texan Presbyterians from Houston had taken to championing these good people, and I am hopeful. But they need more help.
The Occupied Territories: What’s Left of Palestine
After crossing the Abdullah Bridge into the West Bank, we drove up out of the Jordan valley. This part of the valley is desert. I watched the lands change as we rose up. I was surprised to see that it looked much like the step desert that rings the southern edges of my homeland in the Unitah Basin of Utah. As our bus turned one curve going up, a shaded gulch came into view and there were the first humans to be seen in Palestine. They were Bedouin encamped in their now familiar brown woolen tents with flocks of sheep and camels nearby. It was good to see them here. My mind drifted back to my homeland.
The invading Spaniards called my people the Utah. The other Native American tribes called us “The People of the Shining Mountains.” We Utes lived in what is now called the Rocky Mountains. Our lands stretched west from there across Utah into Nevada. We watched as the European Americans migrated onto the prairie down below, subjugating the Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Comanche. We braced ourselves, and held out for a time. We women supported our men as they fought for our freedoms: the Americans called us savages, and our men “dog solders”. To us women, our men were our heroes and we loved them. My bands of Utes, the Uncompahgre and White River, were beaten back to western Colorado, and confined to a small occupied territory overseen by military garrisons. The occupiers wanted to change us, and we resisted. They waged war on us again and we were driven completely out of Colorado and into Northeast Utah where the Unitah band lived. Then they opened that up to settlers who took the most irrigatable lands. They came in Conestoga wagons with little children in the back. They did not understand this land as we did, and they had a difficult time. Our peoples have intermarried and we are now related. However, piece by piece we have been trying to buy back our lands as the descendents of the settlers give up and leave their run down ranches. One day we hope to have a homeland that is reasonably contiguous.
These were some of the thoughts that I had as we ascended into the Palestinian mountains of the occupied territory of the West Bank. Along with the Gaza strip, this is all that is left of old Palestine. It is populated by native peoples who trace their ancestry back to the edge of history: they call themselves Palestinian Arabs. They too saw a migration of Europeans come onto the coastal planes down below the central Palestinian mountains. They fought a war and lost, just as we Utes did. They were mostly driven from their villages and towns. Over 400 towns, cities and villages were completely destroyed. The Arab women supported their men as they fought for their freedoms: the Israeli called the Arab men “terrorists”. To Arab women, their men were their heroes and they loved them. The surviving Palestinians withdrew up into the mountains where they could defend themselves a little better. Another war, a climatic one, was fought, and the new nation of Israel occupied what was left of the Palestinian homeland. Then it was opened to “settlers”.
These “settlers” do not look like those that came into the Ute homelands. These Israeli settlers first come as a military battalion and seize an entire mountain. They bring in a construction brigade, rapidly terraform the mountain top, and construct a fortified city. They seize existing roads, upgrade them, and block off further use from the native Arabs. They call them “bypass roads” to avoid the locals no doubt. The Arabs have to improvise alternative dirt roads that are dangerously destructive to cars since they don’t have access to the needed building materials. Certain items are forbidden to import into the Arab cantons. The “settlers” ring the new city with military bunkers, and cut down the trees for a perimeter of one kilometer. If any sheppard and their flocks come across this perimeter, they are shot without questions. The “settlers” seize control of electricity and water in the area, and greatly reduce access to both from the local Arabs. The Israeli harass the native peoples at every opportunity. All actions by the Israeli serve to pressure the Arab presence to wither and die.
The Arabs hope to have a contiguous homeland just as we Utes do. I was struck by the similarities of experiences of the native American and the native Palestinian. I was also struck by the extreme difference of the final interface between the conquerors and the subjected. There will be no intermarriage here.
Our bus passed many fortified settlements. There was an immediate contrast between the wealthy people behind their baracades on the mountain tops and the free but poor Bedouin roaming below.
Our bus continued on the controlled access road approaching Jerusalem. Fixed Arab villages came into view; their houses constructed out of stone or concrete. The Palestinians build strong houses meant to last. Looming over them are the fortified settlements. Will the Arab houses be able to last beyond those expanding fortifications?
We went further into a very modern and cosmopolitan Jerusalem with narrow streets and fast drivers. It was nothing like I was led to expect. We went directly to the Christmas Hotel in East Jerusalem that, as my husband liked to say, became our base of operations. We were greeted by the hotel manager, Moussa Jarjoui. I told him that “Moussa” means “cat” in my language. He smiled and asked what language was that? I told him I was an American Indian from Utah. Mousse is a polite and charming gentleman. Later that evening, we met the hotel owner, Moussa’s father Emil. Emil Jarjoui is on the executive committee of the Palestinian Authority under the direct leadership of Yasser Arrafat. Emil introduced his wife, a very gracious Anna. The Jarjouis were excellent hosts as Emil spoke with us at great length over many evenings in the hotel garden. He opened the mind and heart of the Palestinian to us, letting us come to be sensitive to conditions and politics. Emil is disarmingly courteous, never flaunting his authority, and decisively diplomatic. On a later day, we visited the Palestinian Authority (PA) palace in Bethlehem for a state dinner hosted by Emil. The PA representatives were congenial, the setting elegant, and service impeccable. These are a refined people. It drew a contrast in my mind of how they are presented by the American media. You know the picture: an unshaven, unkempt terrorist that takes to throwing stones, becomes enraged for no apparent reason, and sends their children out to die in the street. They are, in fact, very human, very moral, very open-hearted, and have a great grievance with their overlords, the Israeli.
We went down to Bethlehem to visit the Christian communities there. I was horrified to discover the extent of crushing subjugation that was ongoing. Unknown Palestinian gunmen have repeatedly entered the Christian suburbs of Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla to fire on the Israeli settlements on the nearby mountain tops. These gunmen move through very quickly before the local people can apprehend or stop them. The local people remain and suffer the ensuing bombardment from the Israeli side. These gunmen come only occasionally, maybe once a week, and the gunfire is largely ineffective on the Israeli targets. However, the Israeli respond with a continual bombardment every night primarily from tanks and armored personnel carriers. These unknown gunmen know what they are doing and the Israeli know what they are doing. The Israeli response is calculated to get the local Arab Christian communities to either leave or die, not to insure Israeli security. I remembered an old American saying: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Apparently to the Israeli “the only good Arab is a dead Arab.” I was angry at the dehumanization of these people as once had happened to my own.
We visited a house in Bethlehem that had just been hit the night before that blew a hole in their wall. Beyond the wall on the ridge to the right was the Israeli bunker from which the rocket was fired. The family was still living there. The family has three children who guided us through the wreckage. The little girl held up a piece of stone from her imploded wall. This crystallized the reality of the bombardment. These were real people in real homes that were being hit. What kind of mind could dehumanize them and make them mere targets? I couldn’t speak Arabic, but felt the need to express my sorrow. I held the girl beside her mother and wept. My husband said he saw the response from the mother’s eyes. She was touched by my compassion. We must help them!
On another day, my husband and I went to visit Beit Sahour just outside of Bethlehem. While traveling with a friend, Maher al-Atrash and his small son, we unexpectedly came face to face with an Israeli tank and armored personnel carrier that had moved out to threaten the city. I could see the fear immediately register in Maher’s son as we backed away from the guns. I noticed the change in the eyes of the native Arabs as we sped away. Where they had been normal and at ease, they were now full of fear. We went back to the church school where the parents had dropped everything to come get their children and take them off to safety. The Christian Arabs sped us away to safety as well. The next day we found out that the Israelis had unloaded their machine guns just after sunset; the red streaks of the bullets seen lapping at the homes. The Lutheran Church had its windows shot out and a small boy lost his hand.
As a Lady of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, I had asked to be presented to the Latin Patriarch, Michael Sabbah. Fr. Majdi al Siryani, the legal advisor to the Patriarch and pastor of the Latin Church in Beit Sahour, personally escorted us to the Knight’s Palace in the Christian Quarter of the old city. I remembered that Sir Bernard Ficarra, KGCHS, had claimed that I was the first full blood American Indian to be inducted into a European order of chivalry. It was quite an honor, and now I was being presented to the reason for the order: to support the Patriarch in championing the native Christians of the Holy Land. My husband and I gave the patriarch a Chief Joseph Robe, a fine American Indian blanket given to chiefs, kings and presidents. The Patriarch commented that there were very few knights and ladies visiting during this time of the siege, and we were very welcomed. We explained to him of our humanitarian mission, and he was pleased. He arranged an evening garden party for us to meet other Arab Christian leaders in an ecumenical spirit.
The next day we visited Faisal Husseini at the Orient House in East Jerusalem. The Orient House is the headquarters of the Palestinian Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs, and acts as a place for PA meetings with international diplomats. It is the Palestinian political toehold in East Jerusalem, and represents their claim of East Jerusalem as their capital. After the meeting with Mr. Husseini, he and Emil Jarjoui decided to approach Yasser Arrafat for a meeting with the HCEF delegation to explain our activities in Palestine. That meeting occurred several days later in Ramallah. We were met at the border by an armed military escort to assure our safety, and sped directly to the PA palace. We were led to a comfortable meeting room to await the arrival of President Arrafat. After a short while he came in with his guards and cameramen. His guards and personal staff are composed of orphans that he adopted over the long bitter years of struggle. They have grown up and form a large extended family with Yasser as the patriarch. They are fiercely loyal to him.
After formal pictures were taken, we sat down to talk. Yasser spoke first of his sorrow of the suffering of his people. He spoke readily of details of individuals whom he was close to and who had been killed. He spoke of families and the misery they must endure. Listening to him, he seemed the image of a kindly grandfather, so unlike the image portrayed by the American media. I felt honored to be in his presence: he is the leader of his people. Then he asked us what we were attempting to do and what had we found on our fact finding mission. He listened attentively, and at the end, he politely asked us to tell others in America of what we had found. He gave a beautiful mother of pearl sculpture to the foundation. The delegation’s leader, Rateb Rabie, accepted it in the name of American Christians. Mr. Arrafat then gave each of the three ladies of the delegation beautifully embroidered and detailed Palestinian formal jackets. He then escorted us to the entrance to bid us goodbyes. He personally bid each of us adieu, and kissed my hand as a true gentleman. My husband joked at the garden of the Christmas Hotel the next night that I had a very difficult time showering with my right hand out of the shower curtain.
We went north in the following days to visit Beir Zeit, Taybeh, Jifna and Aboud and found the full force of the occupation. The Israeli are slowly destroying the Arab way of life. Like my own people in times past, the Palestinians are being reduced, being readied to become dependent wards of the state with all the evils that go with that. The West Bank and Gaza have been cut up into 64 areas that are isolated from each other. Agriculture has been systematically damaged including the destroying of over a hundred thousand old growth olive groves and the killing of innumerable flocks of sheep along with their shepherds. Tourism is extinct and related manufacturing has ground down to a halt. I was reminded of the reservations back home and how it was coming into the Twentieth Century. Our way of life had been destroyed and we had been made destitute. The evils of defeat and subjugation caused great misery with severe alcohol abuse and mental disease. The population of native Americans nearly collapsed even though America changed its attitude towards its native population. These native Arabs are fighting for an alternative future. I sense no possibility of the Israeli changing their attitudes towards them. The Israeli appear to want the land with either compliant or no native Arabs upon it.
I thought of the old Ute tradition high in the Shining Mountains. Being snowed in as a result of a long winter, my ancestors could not travel until spring. When the snows melted enough to allow passage, they would build bonfires. When they could see the smoke from the bonfires of the other Ute bands, it was time to travel and gather for a celebration of spring and good life. It felt as if a deep winter had bound these native Palestinians and was killing them off. When would they see the bonfires of spring?
When we finally came back to Jerusalem, we passed an empty lot in the crowded city where a Bedouin had encamped with his flock. It was rather incongruous but charming. They must have slipped in during the night. I thought of how sterile humanity would be if we all lived a suburban way of life.
To American Israeli Zionists who want the Holy Land either devoid of Arabs or beaten down into submission, I want to remind you of the New Hampshire motto “Live free or die.” I heard an Arab say “I’d rather die standing than live kneeling.” Are you really willing to kill them all to assure Israeli security.
To American Israeli humanists I say do not loose sight of Arab humanity. Do not make them grovel into submission: the long term hell they will have to go through is not worthy of mankind. Learn compassion from the Holocaust, not vengeful steel. Stop the economic warfare, the punishing assault on their families, and the immolation of their leadership. Stop treating them like dogs: they are an honorable and proud people. The leaders of the native people are the only partners you have in assuring peace and justice. Peace will only come with justice.
Back to Jordan
I left Palestine with a heavy heart. There are many good people there who are suffering. I feel a natural solidarity between native peoples with them, and pray that they are able to overcome their severe conditions. I also pray that the Israeli come to their senses and not drive the Arab into flight or submission. The Israeli have the overwhelming military might: that gives them the overwhelming responsibility to assure that justice prevails.
I turned my eyes toward Jordan with Jerusalem to my back and Mount Nebo to my front. We went back to Amman to visit with local Arab Christians who I now count as among my friends. We got word that Prince Hassan had granted a visit to us, and we went to the Royal Palace for the occasion. The palatial compound is on a fortified rise in Amman, and is inapproachable unless under complete military control. We went to an area of low buildings and were directed to an extensive garden with old growth trees and lush vegetation. It was there that we were received by His Highness. He greeted each one of us, and he impressed me as being exemplary chivalrous. It was an honor to be in his presence. The delegation told him of what we were doing in his country and what we had found in Palestine. He thanked us for our “noble work” and spoke of conditions a he saw them. He gave us literature that detailed his thoughts. I was impressed that he saw that Christians are spark plugs of the economy, culture, and education in Jordan and Palestine. Oriented toward the West, they form natural bridges in commerce and information technology. “During the long period of Muslim and Arab decline, they (Arab Christians) helped preserve the Arab heritage from extinction… They played the pioneer role in smoothing the Arab transition from traditional to modern ways.”
And that is the thought that I wish to express to American Christians. We are the leaven of the bread of our society. If we don’t rise to help these native Christians of the Holy Land, no one will! When we see little Michael suffering, we cannot but help to notice little Mohammed suffering right next to him. We will remain in love with little David as well, for he holds the future in his hand. Recognize that the mother communities of Christians from which we are all descended are in a dark winter. Help us light the way out. As in the ancient Ute tradition, let us build the bonfires of spring.