Taking Teddy Bears to Gaza

I take off my sandals, for this is holy ground.

Sitting in her sometimes sunny garden in a small town outside of Glasgow, my mother (with the same span of years as the Queen) looks at the twenty-two pictures I show her from the Twitter account of the Rev. Kate McDonald, ‘an Appalachian Scottish Episcopal priest serving in the Church of Scotland in Israel and Palestine’.

The first photo is of this year’s Pride parade in Tel Aviv. Rainbows and the Star of David. The Sabra are a handsome people but I don’t see any smiles in this picture. This parade is controversial inside and outside Israel. It is opposed by Orthodox Jews, by the Muslim majority states of the Near and Middle East (including the Palestinian West Bank where same sex relations are criminal and Gaza where they are punishable by death) and denounced as ‘pinkwashing’ by Western liberals.

On Saturday I plan to attend a small, new, Pride parade taking place on the Isle of Bute, a promontory a ferry ride over the Clyde Estuary. I usually attend both Edinburgh and Glasgow parades. I take my dog, who loves the attention. I can remember when homosexual ‘acts’ were criminalised here in Scotland. I remember when the age of consent was six, then two, years above that for heterosexual ‘acts’. My heart was moved when I attended a civil partnership in Cardonald and the gallus MC, wearing a pink fringed Stetson, said ‘right let’s have the grooms to lead us in The Slosh’. I cried when the people of my country decided ‘it’s time’ to legislate for equal marriage.

The next two photos are street scenes from Gaza. A man under the bonnet of his car, the typical webs of two-thirds-world electricity cables on the graffitied concrete walls and (looking closer) the holes in the concrete and in the beautiful patterns of ventilation tiles. A thin donkey harnessed to an empty cart waits patiently in the sun while two wee boys are in a shaded doorway, one winding something on a stick. Fairy lights above a closed shop.

Then, two blonde White women, both wearing a voluminous white blouse and a long black skirt, trundle smart suitcases and tote Lululemon bags (from the store in Glasgow?) bearing inspirational messages that are full of plastic-wrapped teddy bears from the congregation of Dunfermline Abbey, on the ‘long walk through no-man’s land between Israel and Gaza’.

Two photos: the rusted sign in English and Arabic over the steel plates and delicate tracery of the gate of the Ahli Arab Hospital; and Suheila Tarazi the Director, gesticulating with a pen as she says: ‘We are part of a mosaic picture – whether Christians, or Muslims, or Jews – and we have to keep this hospital as a witness of Christianity working in Gaza…we are small instruments to do God’s work.’

Then Fr Mario, in his Catholic black clericals and white collar, makes a point sitting on a worn brown sofa with a white phone behind him on the painted cream wall: ‘Our work is to preach about hope & pardon & forgiveness.’ Kate tells us that there are roughly 1,100 Christians in Gaza, 138 are Catholic (out of a pop. of 2 million).

Three photos titled ‘Morning beach walk in Gaza’ and the first just looks like flotsam and jetsam at the tideline until I notice the rods sticking up out of the sand. They might be seaweed. They might be barbed wire fence pickets to deter boats landing. The second has lovely smiles from girls in a peach, plum or black and white mosaic hijab, Kate’s in this selfie and smiles too. She’s not wearing a hijab. An attractive face, strong and honest, and determined, but there’s tension there. How could there not be? Then there are covered stalls on the beach and what I recognise as cabanas. A fishmarket? A marina beyond the harbour wall (is the harbour open at all?) and the city beyond. Grey cloud covers most of the blue sky.

Three photos from Rafah, near the border with Egypt, ‘glimpses of Gaza’. So this must be a neighbourhood or region. Concrete walls, bars on windows, washed underwear, shalwar kameez and a prayer mat hung out to dry in the sun. A white Subaru (is it a taxi?) driven by a bearded man with a smiling woman beside him and someone in the back, a big air conditioner outside a Wataniya mobile shop where three men look at plants on a horse-drawn cart. People wearing white herd sheep past buildings and white cars and carry what may be hay or wool on a cart.

Then thirteen little kids, with all the expressions that kids have everywhere, kneel around a multicoloured fabric circle (was it a balloon?) and play cat’s cradle with a smiling woman in a fawn hijab with white lace trim with coloured plastic bins and shelves full of toys and books. Beside two beach balls, surreal lines of poetry in beautiful handwriting on foolscap paper: ‘All of this gets in front/ All the world’s esophagus/ an[d the] Arabs/ […]’. A mystery, to me.

But Kate’s caption is clear: ‘Today the teddies were delivered to Lubna at the Near East Council of Churches to be distributed at their clinics which provide healthcare and psychosocial support to children throughout Gaza. Thank you @abbey_church @churchscotland!!’.  And a smiling young woman with a white cloth hairband carrying a more serious wee tot wearing a pink bolero top with puffed sleeves with a bow in her Champaign coloured dress and a Kirby grip in her hair. A slighty older woman with black hijab and glasses gesticulating in an office with a poster on a cork board behind her with Arabic and the red kangaroo of Australian Aid. And then the teddies. In a big transparent vacuum sealed clothes storage bag, with a sign from Dunfermline Abbey: ‘A Labour of Love’.

Four photos from Hilarion Monastery. Kate says it’s ‘a site dating back to the 4th century & an important part of Gaza’s rich cultural heritage.’ Red tulip roses (?) with flower and thorn, outside, and inside a beautifully preserved leafy floor mosaic with a baptismal font in the centre. A basket of grapes in the centre of a patio mosaic with a surrounding peacock, a horse, an ibis, a swan, doves, a dog – and is that a hippo? Beyond the patio is the city. How will such treasure, the patrimony of humankind, survive?

Kate says goodbye to Gaza with the interculturally comprehensible Wataniya Arabic ‘W’ inside a heart on the concrete roadsign that reads ‘I love Gaza’.

Twenty-two photos. One for every letter of the alphabet I learned, lazily, at university where I studied alongside candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Hebrew is a language that some ancestors of mine may have spoken. Although the matrilineal descent was broken, when my German great-grandfather came to London, if the patronymic was passed down faithfully, then one of them may have been Aaron, brother of Moses, liberator of the oppressed.

In my naïve youth, I spend four months washing dishes and picking mangoes on a kibbutz opposite Tiberias, where the Rev Kate is stationed. There was no wall then but there was always war. I learned a little as I sat with Scottish and German girls making anklets and friendship bracelets, eating baklava and drinking endless cups of Arabic coffee from a lovely porcelain demi-tasse all afternoon with a Bedouin called Ali in his shop just off the Via Dolorosa. Leaving, I looked out over Jerusalem and thought that the only conclusions I had come to were that the Holy Land is so beautiful, and the situation so complex.

Thirty years on, I haven’t learned anything more.

But this I know. If ever there was an image of priesthood, it’s this: a woman walking a careful line through no man’s land. Taking teddy bears to Gaza.

Teddy Bear