I spent last week in Paris. Whilst there, I attended an evening screening of one the OLIVE ROUTE films. The film in question is The Olive Tree in the Holy Land. Our audience was university students and I was a little concerned that perhaps such a subject would not be of interest to a younger crowd, but I was mistaken. During the screening, you could have heard a pin drop. The questions at the debate that followed were interesting and refreshing. Several of the students were Arab so the subject of what is happening in the Holy Land was of particular interest to them. Also in attendance was Katerina Stenou, Cultural Director from UNESCO, who has been involved with my olive quest since before I set off for Lebanon and Syria to begin my research work in 2001. It was quite a moment for me to see her sitting in the audience after all the years I have been talking with her about this project. It was even more special when she praised the film saying that it is rare to find a film that works on so many levels and shows what is happening in the West Bank without resorting to images and scenes of violence.
I am particularly attached to this film of the five because I directed some of it and because witnessing the olive tree, the tree of peace, being used as a weapon of strife is a complex and heartrending subject. I have always felt that I must have lived in the Holy Land in a past life because I always so feel so attached to its soil and grieved when I witness the struggles.
I have many friends in Israel and the West Bank now – Jews and Arabs – friends that I have made during these twelve years of travelling, writing and filming and I have seen quite some changes in world perception towards the Israeii/Palestinian troubles since I began to spend time in the Middle East.
Today, there are more opportunities for foreigners to visit and to feel secure, to experience firsthand what is happening and to participate, if they wish to.
If you would like to be involved by offering your hands and your energy, Tent of Nations, which is a Palestinian hill farm close to Bethlehem is always on the lookout for overseas volunteers. You will live very simply, as the Nasser family who own this land, do. You can plant trees, prune them, harvest the olives, eat with the family… Otherwise, if you only have time for a short break, a vacation, but you would like to get beyond the average tourist trails to discover the land and its people, there is an organisation called Siraj Center who coordinate walking and/or cycling tours through Jerusalem and the West Bank. These tours offer you the opportunity to see the Holy sights, meet local villagers and farmers, learn the nation’s history and see for yourself what it is like to be living there during these troubled times. Siraj Center is organising a Peace Cycle between 5th and 16th May. Many well-known Palestinian cities are listed on its itinerary, so get your cycling muscles in training and sign up.
If you are not able to go travelling, you can contact me for a copy of our film (indeed all five films, if you wish) and I can organise for the distribution company to send you a set of DVDs. Write to me c/o email@example.com
These films will offer you an armchair tour that takes you to some of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful locations, always in the company of olive trees and those who have the olive tree at the heart of their lives.
Back to Paris. The day after the screening, I lunched with Katerina at the UNESCO offices in the seventh arrondissement. We ate on the top floor gazing out at the Eiffel Tower, which stood so close it was almost a guest at our table. Here, too, I was aware of changes since my last visit. UNESCO has lost twenty-two percent of its budget since the United States withdrew its funding when in November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed an upgrade of status for Palestine to ‘non-member observer entity’. (This is the same status as the Vatican, by the way.)
This sizeable budget cut means that times are challenging even for such an esteemed organisation as UNESCO, but I was excited to learn of some of the inspiring initiatives that are in development. We spoke of Writing Peace with its emphases on quality education for all especially women and girls and, of course, peace and tolerance. Sustainable Peace for a Sustainable Future.
A vision worth working towards.
After lunch, over coffee, our conversation returned to the film, The Olive Tree in the Holy Land.
‘When the Wall, the Israeli West Bank barrier, is eventually torn down, when that day arrives,’ Katerina said to me. ‘I would like to see thousands of olive trees planted in its place. A peaceful record of what has divided men from their earth, their families, their olive groves and one another.’
Katerina was recalling similar words of mine to her some eight years ago when she had asked me to jot down a list of ways in which we might use the olive tree, the iconic symbol of peace, to stand as a symbol of peace.
Imagine it, a barrier wall replaced by thousands of olive trees, harvested by all nations…
Ohio has just been added to my American tour itinerary. I will be giving a talk or two at the Ohio North University and perhaps also another very brief stopover in Ann Arbor. As soon as the times and dates are confirmed I will add them to the Events list. Keep checking it, please. I am SO looking forward to meeting you some of you there. In fact, it looks as though I will be celebrating my birthday in Ohio.