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Cairo Journal

 |  On the Road to Peace

Sunday, December 27, 2009
I left New York City for Cairo on Christmas day, with a long wait in Amsterdam, and this morning at four o’clock made my way to the Sun Hotel near Tahrir Square and the Nile River. Others have come, too -- 1,362 people representing 43 nations -- all of us journeying to Gaza to participate in the “Gaza Freedom March.”

The march coincides with the first anniversary of Israel’s bombing and siege of Gaza, which left 1,400 dead, including 300 children. The wounded numbered 5,000; those left homeless numbered 50,000. Thirteen Israelis died. Here, to my mind, are new depths of evil, even for the chaotic world of the Middle East.

Plans for the march were laid long ago, but while I was over the Atlantic an edict was issued. The Egyptian government would allow no one into Gaza; there would be no travel toward the Sinai; meetings of more than six would be forbidden; tonight’s meeting at the prestigious Jesuit College of the Holy Name would not be permitted.

They have, as I thought on it, tipped their hand. The United States supports Israel’s siege on the Palestinian people, and when the United States twitches the strings, Egypt, obsequious police state that it is, does America’s bidding.

The news leaves me saddened and disappointed. For our plans for nonviolent action are unprecedented, impressive in size, international in scope. There has never been such an outpouring of solidarity -- not during the wars in Vietnam, Central America, or Iraq -- except in 1993 when several thousand activists, mainly Europeans, tried to march through Bosnia to Sarajevo, only to be blocked. Here, we thought, the global peace movement would be breaking new ground.

Of course, ground-breaking movements menace oppressor nations, and instinctively governments pull out their bag of tricks, put up obstacles, and try to bring things to a halt. But no matter. Egypt may be obsequious, but we’re not. We’re peacemakers. Obedience with us doesn’t come automatically. Abject obedience, not at all. Only six allowed at a meeting? We’ll just see about that. At any rate, whatever we do or fail to do, simply getting some 1,300 people to Cairo signals a turned page. In a sense, we’ve won already. The siege and the occupation will one day end.

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I slept on and off all day, and towards evening attended a briefing with the great peacemaker Ann Wright. Organizers had to be supple with Egypt cracking down, and she explained the latest strategies in light of our tight circumstances.

Tonight, I joined a gathering of some 200 by the Nile for an impromptu candlelight peace vigil. Police showed up in force and lurked about, but did nothing to disrupt our action. Our prayers for Gaza’s liberation were passionate and sincere. One thinks everyone's heart is with Gaza, even the hearts of the on-looking policemen.

Monday, December 28, 2009
This morning, I joined a hundred others in a dingy hotel hallway for another briefing with Ann Wright. Already there’s news. More than 400 French activists arrived at the airport and, on hearing of Egypt’s repressive edicts, hauled themselves to the French embassy and demanded redress. They’ve camped there all night, right on the sidewalk, circled by hundreds of policemen and soldiers. The scene is tense and dramatic.

Others, defying Egypt’s orders, have set off in small groups, in cabs and buses, and headed for Gaza. No easy feat. A six-hour drive in the best of times, and police have complicated matters by erecting a dozen road blocks along the way. Early reports indicate no one made it through and many have been detained or arrested. Soldiers confronted one group from London, confiscated their passports, and set them loose in the Sinai desert.

Crammed in the hotel hallway, we listened as Ann orchestrated things. “We’re not here for tourism,” she said. “We’re here to speak out.” And then she sent us to the United Nations offices by the Nile. Some 800 converged there and for five or six hours we vigiled behind police barricades, “speaking out” for an end to the siege.

A long peaceful afternoon of singing, dancing, and impromptu teach-ins. But not before some initial tense moments. We were hemmed in by hundreds of police, and before long an angry contingent from Italy lifted voices and began raising hell. Here was trouble, I fretted. But much to my relief, friends like Franciscan Fr. Louie Vitale took matters in hand. He and a handful of others inserted themselves between the hot-blooded Italians and the glowering police. Presently the tension subsided.

At noon, Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor of 85, held a press conference in our midst. She announced that she would immediately begin a hunger strike for the people of Gaza. Several of us, including my friends Fr. Louie and Martha Hennessy, decided on the spot to join her.

So I’ll fast for the rest of my time in Egypt -- not the turn of events I imagined when I bought my tickets. But in our situation I can’t think of a better use of my time.

Throughout the afternoon, I met many friends and activists, such as Walden Bello, the heroic Filipino critic and politician; David Hartsough, a longtime Quaker organizer; Donna Mulhearn, the great anti-war activist from Australia; Medea Benjamin, one of the organizers of Codepink; and several labor leaders from South Africa.

Medea asked me to pray for a miracle. So at our next prayer gathering, with folks of all faiths, I indeed did pray for a miracle -- that we would be allowed into Gaza, that the Israeli siege would lift, and that Israel, Egypt and the United States would renounce their terrorist violence and treat our Palestinian sisters and brothers with nonviolence and justice.

And I prayed that we would all be safe. We know the police have our names. We are followed, under surveillance constantly. We wonder if we will be beaten, arrested, jailed and deported. We wonder how to respond nonviolently. We wonder what to do next. We talked all afternoon.

The tense day over, back at the hotel, I’m grateful for undertaking the fast. It has slowed me down, centered me, calmed me. Things are coming into focus. It dawns on me that whatever the chaos on the streets, our week here is transmuting from emphasis on overt agitation to weeklong prayer vigil. My prayer: End the siege and occupation of Gaza. May all live in nonviolence and peace.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Our vigil at the U.N. plaza has caught the attention of the nation. We’re front page news throughout Egypt. Meanwhile, the occupation of the French embassy continues. More people left for Gaza overnight; all have been stopped and detained. Several camped out in front of the U.N. offices. A few brave Egyptian activists joined the group, but they were swiftly arrested and disappeared. Lawyers are trying to find them. We plan to continue to disrupt the city as long as we are here, but this morning, Ann warned us to be careful. We are all being closely watched and followed.

After a noon planning meeting, 22 of us who are fasting joined Hedy Epstein for a two o’clock press conference and vigil in front of the massive Journalist Syndicate building near the Nile. We held signs that read in English and Arabic: “Hunger Strike for Gaza,” along with our names. We intended a quiet peace vigil, but hundreds of European activists -- Italian, Spanish, German -- descended on us and hollered slogans, each language competing with the others. So much for our irenic witness. The police quickly assembled and blocked us in.

In the center of it all stood Hedy, gently having her say. I think she is a model peacemaker -- gentle, wise and friendly, always with a smile like Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Whenever someone greets her, she reaches out and clasps their hand. While she spoke, scores of reporters stood by, scribbling, and her words were carried far and wide.

Meanwhile, across town, some 50 Americans tried to enter the U.S. embassy, only to be cordoned off, surrounded, and threatened with arrest. No U.S. citizens allowed in the U.S. embassy. So it goes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009
At 7 a.m., I went out for coffee and ran into my friend Martha Hennessy in the hallway. Had I heard the news? The Egyptian president’s wife had intervened, and Egypt has granted 100 of us access to Gaza. The organizers debated the offer all night. Reluctantly they agreed and drew up a list. My name was on it.

I dashed off with Martha to the two waiting buses. There, as usual, we found a large gang of police, plus hundreds of angry activists who failed to make the list. They were yelling: “Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go!”

Apparently, our contacts in Gaza had encouraged us during the night to accept the offer and come. But as we sat on the bus, an organizer came aboard with a cell phone which he put to a bullhorn. Our contacts in Gaza had changed their mind. Don’t come after all, one of them said from Gaza. Egypt is trying to divide the movement, saying that those who didn’t make the list are terrorists. Hearing that, Fr. Louie and I disembarked, as people from both inside the bus and outside shouted at us and one another. Several others followed us and stepped off the bus amid an angry clamor. All told, 60 people stepped off to shouts and boos and cheers. Forty activists remained and went on to Gaza -- and the clash left me demoralized. “So this is nonviolence,” said a Codepink organizer to me as she watched so-called peace activists scream at each other.

The bus gone, and afternoon descending, I found a place to rest, read and pray. Towards evening I met for tea and juice with the other fasters, and we shared our reasons for fasting, our hopes and our feelings. I’m grateful for the fast. It anchors me in a spirit of peace and, despite the chaos here, focuses my thoughts on the reality of Gaza. We closed our time by cobbling together plans for another peace vigil. We’re trying to keep our hearts and minds on Gaza.

Thursday, December 31, 2009
My most difficult day here, the anniversary of the Israeli attacks. A massive action was planned, against all odds, and the word was spread: line the streets in groups of five and precisely at 10 a.m. swarm into traffic like a cloud of mosquitoes and bring Cairo’s business to a halt.

Quite a scene unfolded. At ten o’clock sharp people flooded the streets and the city’s traffic lurched to a stop and drivers leaned on their horns. Battalions of policemen were on hand and they converged from all directions. Pummeling and pushing, they nudged the activists toward the right side of the street. Many in response planted their bottoms on the street, in front of hundreds of impatient drivers, and I feared the worst.

In the street myself, headed toward a group of friends, a line of policeman charged my way. I worried that our provocation would heighten the danger, and decided to make for the sidewalk. There I watched those sitting in the streets, with the police towering over them, the chants and horns filling the air.

Just then, a few yards away on my left, a line of police appeared out of nowhere, and charged toward me and a few others. Here was a concerted maneuver to corral us tight and seal us off -- and once sealed, to arrest en masse and deport us, I presumed. I walked headed toward them, hoping to skirt around. But three came right at me and pushed me hard, almost knocking me to the ground. So I headed off in the other direction, just as another line of policemen came at us on the sidewalk. I braced for the worse, but to my surprise, one stepped aside and let me through. So I walked away.

Many activists were roughed up; a few were beaten. Most were frightened. But after an hour, tensions eased and sanity returned. People set up a peace camp and sang, unfurled banners and waved flags. At five o’clock, the group called it quits.

A tense day, but no serious injuries, I hear. Undaunted, hundreds gathered for another candlelight vigil to mark New Year’s Eve and express solidarity with suffering Gaza. As I close the day, the fast reminds me of the pain in Gaza, and I hope the new year will bring a miracle of peace for Gaza, Palestine, Israel and the world.

Friday, January 1, 2010
At noon, our group of 30 hunger strikers held our second vigil. At the same time, hundreds gathered at the Israeli embassy, where hundreds of police blocked them in. The standoff lasted for several hours, as did the non-stop chanting, “Free Gaza Now! End the Occupation!”

As for our vigil, it took place on the steps of the Syndicate Building. Many friends stood nearby. A gathering of policemen hemmed us in. Our group statement read: “We recognize that the Palestinians of Gaza continue to hunger for food, shelter, and most of all for freedom. We continue to hunger for justice for Gaza and all of Palestine. We call on all people of conscience from around the world to renew their resolve for peace and justice in Palestine.”

We took turns speaking, first Hedy Epstein then others, including Louie Vitale and Martha Hennessy. When my turn came, I thanked Hedy for starting us on the fast, and told the crowd of a conversation I had had with her on Tuesday.

“Look what you’ve started,” I had said to her. She replied, “I didn’t know I had that much power.” It was a comment I pondered for days. We all have a power, I said, a power stronger than all the weapons of the world, the power of nonviolence, the power of love and truth. I reminded the crowd of the examples of Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Dr. King. They teach us not to believe the myth of powerlessness but to claim our power and to take a stand for peace.

Like Rosa Parks and Hedy Epstein, each one of us can make a difference, I said. Each one of us is needed. Each one of us can help speed up the day of liberation for Gaza. I urged everyone to do what we can to end the siege of Gaza and the occupation of the Palestinians and to work for the abolition of war, poverty, nuclear weapons and global warming.

Tonight, another gathering at Tahrir Square, this time for a closing circle of stories and sharing. We greeted one another and this time, engaged the police as friends. Most of them are very young, badly paid and quite frightened. Is it really a new year? Have days passed already? I’ve lost sense of time; I’m feeling a bit disoriented. The fast has left me unmoored. My senses are buffeted. Cairo feels like limbo. Still, I’m grateful -- for our modest effort, for our showing solidarity with Gaza, for those who take risks for peace. Let it be a new year of peace.

Saturday, January 2, 2010
Day Six of the fast. Louie, Martha, Jan, Julie, Margaret, Sherri and I took a taxi out to Giza to spend a few hours walking slowly around the Sphinx and the pyramids. My one and only tourist outing. I had visited Egypt and the pyramids 28 years ago, just before I entered the Jesuits. This time I undertook my visit as an exercise in Buddhist walking meditation. The sky was clear, the vista vast, and blowing in from the trackless Sahara was a cool fresh breeze. I felt restored for the first time in ages.

I regarded the massive stones, hauled thousands of years ago perhaps by exhausted slaves, one generation toiling after another. A sense of timelessness descended on me, and a sense of the brevity of life. Spend your time wisely, said the breezes. Life is short, the pyramids whispered. Make it count. Let it be guided by compassion and resistance. Stand up for those in need; rebuke the powerful who repress them. Leave the earth behind having made it more peaceful, more just. A good meditation there among the boulders, camels, sand and sun.

Tonight, our circle had tea and juice at a corner smoking shop, and shared our feelings and experiences of the week, as well as our hopes for Gaza. For the first time, we are beginning to relax and catch our breath.

Sunday, January 3, 2010
Day Seven. We broke the fast with a morning Eucharist, celebrating the feast of the Epiphany. I read chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel, the story of the three wise men in search of the Christ, their joy upon finding him, their civil disobedience toward Herod, and the holy family’s flight in and out of Egypt.

And we spoke of our own pilgrimages, our own Epiphanies, our own flights in and out of Egypt. The sharing was rich and beautiful. We passed the bread and cup, and afterwards, shared a modest breakfast. We expressed gratitude to the God of peace for the blessing of the fast. And more, for our attempt, though largely thwarted, to get into Gaza.

The 40 who did get in returned this afternoon and reported on what they saw. They traveled 15 hours each way, accompanied in each direction by an Egyptian military caravan. They arrived at last and found themselves shocked to see the destruction. Last year’s bombing had caused untold suffering and heartbreak.

One woman told them of the loss of her 28 relatives. Many told of their homes turned to rubble. Food, medicine and basic supplies are blocked, getting in intermittently in meager quantities through underground tunnels. And these Egypt, Israel, with the help of the United States, are trying to unearth and close down.

A recent article in The New Yorker said, “Fourteen percent of all buildings in Gaza were partially or completely destroyed, including 21,000 homes, 700 factories and businesses, 16 hospitals, 38 primary healthcare centers, and 280 schools. 250 wells were destroyed, 300,000 trees uprooted and large sections of agricultural land were made no longer arable, in part because of contamination and unexploded ordnance.”

At the Rafah border, four rabbis joined the group, and the war weary Gazans at first shunned and feared them. But the rabbis assured them of their solidarity, and reminded them of Judaism’s ideal of shalom. And soon every Gazan regarded them with love and trust. “We used to live together as friends and neighbors,” the rabbis said, “and one day, we will again.”

Tonight, the week comes to a close, and I fly off to Europe. But I leave behind my prayers and heartfelt sympathy for the people of Gaza.

The situation is far worse than apartheid, a contingent of South African activists told us. They spent much of their time drafting a “Cairo Declaration,” calling for “a global mass, democratic anti-apartheid movement” to implement the Palestinian call for boycott, sanctions and divestment on Israel and for justice for the people of Gaza and Palestine. I signed on, and it is now being widely circulated. For information, see: www.gazafreedommarch.org. For the best information on Gaza and Palestine, see the Palestinian Center for Human Rights’ Web site: www.pchrgaza.org.

The whole world needs to learn what is happening in that tiny 25-mile-long stretch of desert, and demand an end to Israel’s siege.

Let me offer a final thought. The trip was hard but noble, a worthy experiment in creative, organized, international nonviolence. Could our nonviolence have been on better display? Yes. Still, I come away grateful. This modest pilgrimage was, for me, a long prayer and a living solidarity with sisters and brothers. The outcome, the results, like all our work for peace and justice, are in God’s hands. And so the pilgrimages, the prayers, the peacemaking goes on.

****

John’s new book, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, has just been published by Orbis Books. With other recent books, A Persistent Peace and Put Down the Sword, along with Patricia Normile’s John Dear On Peace, it is available from www.amazon.com. Next week, he will address the Canadian Catholic Youth Ministry network on Prince Edward’s Island. For information, or to schedule a speaking event, visit: www.johndear.org

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