"The Arab Street"

Note: Max Carter, the Director of the Friends Center at Guilford College, has led study tours to Israel-Palestine in the summer for many years. He sent me this post after returning from his most recent trip. - Lucy

On the recent annual service-learning trip to Palestine/Israel that my wife and I lead under the sponsorship of Friends United Meeting, an international Quaker organization, we had a unique experience of "the Arab Street."  A term typically used in reference to Arab public opinion, the Arab street took on a more literal meaning for us when our group arrived in Ramallah, Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, the week of the Arab Idol finals.  A Palestinian, Mohammad Assaf, was one of the three finalists, and the night he won, Palestinians young and old poured out of homes, coffee shops, and public parks into the streets of Ramallah and every Palestinian village and city to celebrate in raucous jubilation.  We Americans were swept into the celebration by ecstatic locals.

In the USA, similar celebrations of victory often end up with riots, but even with the pent-up frustration Palestinians experience under military occupation, they never turned to anger, noisily carrying on their rare sense of victory and hope for hours on end.

The Arab StreetThat same week, one of our group tripped on the sidewalk late one night as we returned to our quarters in the Ramallah Friends School. Splayed out on the pavement with a busted and bleeding lip, the woman was quickly attended to by a young Palestinian man passing by.  Suleiman happened to be a doctor and applied first aid with great care and concern.  He could very well have been a "good Samaritan:"  he came from the town of Jenin in the northern West Bank, not far from the ancestral home of the actual Samaritans. 

These incidents were not isolated experiences of "good Palestinians."  In my 43 years of traveling in the region, I have come to expect it.  But it is not the image most in the West have of Palestine.  Unfortunately, most visitors from America never step foot into the Palestinian territories, cowed by inaccurate portrayals of the area as violent and inhospitable.

This summer, however, we met a number of Americans willing to see for themselves.  Remarkably, many were Jewish college students who had been on one of the free "Birthright" trips to Israel and had gotten only one narrative of the situation.  To a person, they were amazed by the contrast between what they had been told about Palestinians and what they experienced.

There is another "street" in the Middle East:  the so-called "roadmap" to a two-state solution and lasting peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis.  As we witnessed the realities on the ground:  the spread of settlements deemed illegal under international law, the route of the separation barrier, the decreasing land available for a Palestinian state, and the Palestinian Authority's failure to negotiate effectively, it is hard to believe that those realities will lead to anything but a dead end.

The "Arab street" is actually filled with good will and good people, people who are yearning for
more to celebrate than the ephemeral Arab Idol phenomenon:  freedom and human equality.  I fervently hope it's not an "idle" dream.