“I Don’t Want Coffee”: On Dignity, Occupation, and Peace

by Michael T. McRay Edward Mabouri* is a well-known man. More importantly, he is well-respected. His successful souvenir business has brought him wealth and admiration in Bethlehem society. His business privilege has even allowed him to fly out of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, a privilege denied to most every other Palestinian. Despite his aged and limping body, airport security still treats him like a threat, meticulously searching every part of his body and belongings. The last time this happened, Edward picked up his cane to leave, after being humiliated by their examinations. But before walking away, he turned. “You forgot to check my cane!” he exclaimed, waving it in the air, trying to create a scene. “You must check my cane.”

Embarrassed, the officers assured him that searching the cane was unnecessary; he was free to go.

“No!” he insisted. “It might have a bomb! You must search my cane!”

***

From the first time I heard this, I’ve loved this story of Edward, a longtime family friend. I am drawn to stories that challenge the dominant narratives we tend to construct of others. Conflict repeatedly triggers this urge to craft single, un-nuanced narratives of those we disdain. We magnify our strengths and minimize theirs; we keep silent of our faults while broadcasting theirs. We call them evil, radical, demonic, murderers, criminals, occupiers, etc.

Living in Nashville, among the great megachurches of conservative Christianity, I hear such single stories spoken of Palestinians, or an Arab: they are violent terrorists. I have taught on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in numerous churches and classrooms back home, and without exception, most people feel positively toward the words Israel and Jew and negatively toward Palestine and Muslim. Thus, I love telling stories that make problematic such prejudices. Edward’s is one such story.

In the hands of Israeli airport security, Edward’s dignity was threatened, so he took his power back and flipped the situation so that those who were in power were pleading with him to move along so they might escape embarrassment. This, to me, is precisely what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd on that Galilean mountain to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile: reassert your humanity, and do it without violence.

I have heard many stories of Palestinians resisting Israel’s military occupation with creative nonviolence, showing up with prophetic anger and astonishing patience. Day after day, the permanence of the occupation weighs down on Palestinian life; no aspect of society is untouched. Whether physical, structural, or cultural, the violence here is so thick, one almost feels suffocated.

The day of my arrival, I crossed through the Bethlehem checkpoint, traveling from the airport to the home of dear family friends in Beit Sahour. It is a cage of humiliation for Palestinians, who must cross such checkpoints anytime they enter an Israeli controlled area—which is over 85% of the land. At the Bethlehem checkpoint, after Palestinians have stood in line for hours, experienced humiliation and harassment through searches and scans and scoldings, they must pass a series of posters at the checkpoint’s exit, one of which reads, “Israel—Where It’s Vacation All Year Round.”

When I arrived at our friends’ home, Abdullah told me of the recent series of injustices he and his wife had faced from Israel. He then said, “Believe me, Michael, when you lose your money, you lose a lot. When you lose a close friend, you lose even more. But when you lose your self-respect and dignity, you lose everything.” I have often heard, violence is for those who have lost their imagination. Perhaps it might also be said that the violence of oppression is for those who have lost their dignity and self-respect.

Over my nine trips here, I’ve watched Palestinians cling fiercely to their dignity. They know peace will not come from their leaders alone—or at all—but rather from their own internal capacity to endure suffering, resist injustice, promote equity and equality, envision coexistence, cultivate compassion, and protect their dignity. Two weekends ago, while in Hebron, I asked my friend Leila—a gentle, smiling Muslim woman—about her thoughts on peace. Speaking in her third language, she answered, “The big people [politicians] use peace as decoration. But peace cannot come from above. It must come from the people, from inside. If you are peaceful person inside here [points to chest], you will give it out to others.” I continue to find that those without fluency in language tend to speak great truths, for they do not have vocabulary to dress up their ideas; they speak simply and directly. Leila was quite right: too often, the pursuit of peace is used as decorations for the powerful so they can appear right and good to the world. But true peace, she observes, must come from within. If we create the peaceful, nonviolent self, we will naturally externalize this. We will not pursue peace as means to some other end, but we will rather pursue peace for the sake of pursuing peace itself. I imagine Leila and Gandhi would have a lovely conversation together.

***

Once, Edward Mabouri left Bethlehem toward Jerusalem, passing through the Separation Wall and checkpoint. As he did, he says he saw an Israeli soldier assaulting a Palestinian child. Edward shouted to the soldier, “Why are you beating this child?”

The soldier brushed him away, “This is none of your business.”

“It is my business!” Edward challenged. “He is a human being! Why are you harming this child?” With no satisfactory answer, Edward demanded to speak to the checkpoint’s supervisor. When the supervisor arrived, they all exchanged many words before the boy and the soldier parted ways.

Three days later, Edward received a phone call from the Israeli military commander of the Bethlehem area. He requested Edward come to his office. When Edward arrived, the commander said, “What happened at the checkpoint the other day? Why did you make a disturbance?”

Edward said sternly, “I did not make a disturbance. The disturbance was made by a young soldier who was beating a young boy. This is unacceptable. We Palestinians are human beings, and we do not deserve this treatment.”

Hearing Edward’s indignation, and knowing his social prominence, the commander said calmly, “Please, let us sit. Here, let’s have coffee.”

“I don’t want coffee,” Edward exclaimed. “I want humanity!”


* Edward’s name has been changed.

Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is currently spending three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.” He is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.