By Louise Sibley
It was an opportunity to pay back. How many times in the past five years has the generosity of the Palestinians overwhelmed me? So, when a distressed email dropped into my mailbox this Spring, I didn’t give it a second thought: “Stay at my place. Might mean mattresses on the floor and a bit of chaos, but we can make this work.”
Serendipity is a strange thing. Only a few days earlier, with other members of the Abraham Path Initiative (API), I had been greedily tucking into a feast in the little village of Araba in the West Bank. I had sat quietly at the back while Deputy Mayor Dr Rola welcomed us, explaining how pivotal the path was in their vision. Later, I heard her enthuse about a forthcoming trip to England. She was arranging a cultural tour with a British university for a media studies group at Jenin University where she teaches. As we left, I slipped her my card: “if you come to London, please get in touch: you have given us such a welcome here.” We hadn’t really met. But, along with my fellow-walkers, I had been moved by her speech and how positively she had reflected on the issues facing her village.
And that’s how it came about in late May, the original planned trip cancelled at short notice, that Dr Rola and four undergraduates left their homes in the West Bank and made their way to a suburb of West London. What struck me then, as now, was the act of trust. For a first trip abroad they were putting themselves in the hands of a complete stranger.
What followed was five of the most memorable days of the year. In glorious sunshine, we walked, ate, explored – London and each other – and became friends. My son Bren took the role of full-time escort, walked them from Westminster to Camden Town and, to my horror, kept the students out appallingly late at night; I took them to Sunday church and a Rotary Club meeting. Fellow UKFAP trustee Anam toured Brick Lane; Rukiyah – veteran of a Leeds Met journey in Israel and Palestine – crafted a whistle-stop tour of just about everything from British-style arcade shopping (no such thing in Jenin) to the Olympic Park. They breakfasted in style in Victoria to meet API Executive Director Stefan. Finally, in a pub overlooking the River Thames, Graham – one-time BBC employee – led a Q&A about media in the UK, from newspapers to reality TV.
So what do I reflect on now? First, the trust: coming from a land where offering welcome and shelter to strangers is a holy rule handed down from Abraham, our Palestinian visitors took it for granted they would be well looked after. They never questioned where they were taken, nor worried about the tight accommodation, strange food and the long days crossing London. They embraced every experience (particularly the shopping) and trusted they would get home at night even though they had no idea where they were. At times it must have seemed very strange. Where in Jenin do you end the evening in a pub listening to an old-fashioned trad jazz band? What do you make of a post-service cup of tea with some puzzled but very welcoming parishioners of a small riverside church?
Second, OUR welcome. The people whom I asked to help didn’t miss a beat. Bren, Anam, Rukiyah, Graham, All-Saints Church parishioners, Rotary and, even though he wasn’t around during their trip, London-based API director Lionel whose generosity funded their travel cards and some classy meals out. We know about hospitality too. I’m so proud that, with no questions asked, we are able to mirror the experiences we all have on the path.
Finally, the magic that happens when people from completely different backgrounds and cultures get together. We know this. Anyone who has welcomed a stranger to dinner (even a friend of a friend) or crossed the equator has experienced this magic. So why is it so difficult to weave it into our daily lives? Why are we still so protective of our own? What would be different if every day, every week, every year we took a step toward genuine hospitality; the type that isn’t paid for, or measured, or expects thanks; the type that is just an open handed, open-hearted reaching out to strangers that makes them feel at home. And what if they responded with trust, without expectation, and without exploiting the gift. What would our world look like then?