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Nothing says a summer day in Palestine like searching for peace lamps fueled by olive oil —sold to you via a French nun at a Latin Parish in small town most famous for being the home of the country’s only artisan beer brewery. Well, perhaps that’s not such a typical day. But that July afternoon, it is the word French that I am stuck on. Because the day I found the peace lamps was more like a chapter from A Year in Provence than 45 Years Under Occupation.
There are these little moments in Palestine where you forget where you are and are just taken away by the sun, the olive tree groves, and the gregarious small town life of the West Bank. You think maybe this could be everyday--if you don’t look left or right so you avoid seeing the Israeli settlements eating up the pine scented hillsides and if you tune out the cacophony of the sardined Palestinian cities cut apart by graffitied prison walls.
The hunt for the peace lamps began in the bigger small town of Williamsburg, Virginia. My sister-in-law emailed me that her church’s monsignor, who was an active supporter of human rights, had heard about peace lamps that were being produced to help support a church in Palestine. He wanted 12 of them to share with other US churches to be lit in memory of the Palestinians. These lamps were from the town of Taybeh--that’s all the information he had--and if I knew anyone who happened to be going to Palestine, maybe they could help out. I happened to be going, to co-teach with my friend Nadia a video production workshop at Beir Zeit University. I explained the situation to Nadia, we did some Googling to get more information, a phone number that worked. Nothing. So she said to me on my second day, “Listen, if we don’t get the lamps today, you have no other open day to go, so let’s just get in a taxi and go to Taybeh.” I asked her if she’d ever been to Taybeh, and she said no, but we just start asking people when we got there.
“Where in Taybeh?” our cab driver wanted know as he began the twelve-kilometer hilly pastoral drive that would take forty-five minutes because of road blocks and road damage.
We shrugged. “Oh, you want to go to the beer factory but you don’t want to say,” he said, assessing what type of alcoholics we might be. “I understand.”
“No, we’re looking for peace lamps,” I said. “Do you know a place that sells them there?”
“What’s a peace lamp?” he said. “You mean you need souvenirs. I know a place that sells great olive oil soap. It’s much closer.”
“No, we want peace lamps,” I restated. “They’re probably sold through a church.”
“Yeah,” Nadia agreed. “If you could help us find the church….”
“Oh, so you’re Christians,” he said.
We shook our heads. “My sister-in-law is and so is her priest…” I started and Nadia nudged me to stop explaining.
“But if you’re not Christians, how is your …” he started.
“America,” I said, as that always seemed a reasonable explanation for unexplainable.
He nodded. “Lucky for you, I’m Christian,” he said. “I know exactly where the church in Taybeh is.”
“It’s a Catholic church, right?” I said.
“A Latin parish,” he said. Nadia and I smiled. We had to be getting close. By the time we rolled up to the stone church and its spacious grounds, we knew our driver’s name was Abu Ramzi and we knew a great deal about his life and what was wrong with the world in general. “See how big Taybeh’s church is. Someone here must know something,” he assured us.
If there was someone. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon of complete silence. The church itself was locked. We went up the steep stone stairs of the adjacent building. Also locked. We then looked for humans at what seemed to be some sort of quarters for workers.
“Someone will be there for sure,” Abu Ramzi said, but it too was locked.
At this point, all three of us had become obsessed with finding the peace lamps. We sat defeated under the statue of the Virgin Mary.
“We’re not leaving this town without those lamps,” Nadia insisted. “Maybe they know at the brewery.”
“It’s probably closed at this time of day,” Abu Ramzi said as I watched a cat jump down a tree to the convent door. “There should be nuns in there, shouldn’t there?” I said.
“You knock, not me,” Abu Ramzi said. “But didn’t you already try?”
“Maybe they were sleeping,” I said.
[Abdullah, the seller, and Ramzi, the taxi driver. Image from the author.]
I went back and tried again. Nothing. Nadia knocked much harder, which didn’t seem so appropriate on a holy door, but we were on a mission.
We had almost turned away when the door creaked open and a nun peeked her head out. She had a beautiful smile but didn’t say anything.
“Hello, sorry to bother you but we’re looking for some peace lamps,” I said.
She continued to smile peacefully. I pretended to light a lamp. Still the beatific smile. I hoped she wasn’t taking a vow of silence.
“Peace what?” she finally asked.
“Lamps,” we all said together.
“Lamps,” she said. “Yes, my Arabic is not so good.”
“English?” Nadia asked.
She gave the Arabic gesture for “so –so.”
“You are French?” I said in French.
That got a “oui” and a bigger smile.
So between the three of us and the three languages, we explained about the lamps, my sister-in-law, and the priest in Williamsburg. She shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She had only been in Taybeh a few months, after having spent twelve years in Jerusalem.
“The lamps are so people in churches in America know about the Palestinians,” she understood. “Perhaps Father Riad could help us. He’s away right now but I know where.” (Actually I’m not sure “Riad” was his name, but it was the closest we could make out at that point).
Sister Marie Claire (that really was her name) led us up the stairs to the main administration building, where she went to an old black phone and dialed a number and waited for someone to answer. No one did.
“We’ll try in a few more minutes,” she said. We had a seat at the couch and waited. Waiting is something you get good at after spending a few hours at checkpoints. But we hoped this wouldn’t take that long.
We hadn’t been sitting long when two women, highly fashionable in a trendy way, slumped in followed by young Palestinian man. The women, who were French, immediately began to complain to Sister Marie Claire about the food.
They were staying at the convent while shooting a feature on the beer brewery for a French TV station. Before they could launch into an even more elaborate explanation of what sort of cold plate lunch they’d like to eat at the convent tomorrow, Sister Marie Claire said she had to make a call.
She went back to the phone and dialed the priest again. He answered this time and she explained about the peace lamps, my sister-in-law, and the priest in America. He said to put me on. “I think I know what you’re talking about.” Halleluiah. “Just stay put. You need Abdullah.” He set the phone down wherever he was and made another call on another phone and then he came back to me. “How many do you need? Twelve. Great. Stay where you are and Abdullah should be there in less than forty-five minutes.
“This wait is going to add to my bill,” said Abu Ramzi, as he looked at his watch.
I nodded and sat back down on the couch, where Nadia was talking to the Palestinian man, who was from Bethlehem and serving as the soundman for the French women and with whom Nadia, who also worked in television, shared many people in common.
They were catching up on mutual friends, and the French producers were settling with Sister Marie Claire on what type of bread to have with the Caesar Salad she would prepare for their lunch tomorrow. They were very insistent on the cold lunch, although Taybeh isn’t that hot because it doesn’t have humidity. To give her a break from their menu concerns, I asked Sister Marie Claire if I could take her picture. Days later when I looked at the photo, I saw that she had posed in front of a shelf that actually hosted two peace lamps. But none of us knew what a peace lamp was at that moment.
[Sister Marie Claire posing in front of the peace lamps. Photo from the author.]
Abu Ramzi and I went outside and sat on the steps. We enjoyed the sun and blue skies and olive and pine trees while he still tried to figure out more about my sister-in-law and the priest in America and how they knew about these lamps and he didn’t. Nearly an hour later he wasn’t done asking questions when a beat up, dusty station wagon rolled into the courtyard and tarnished the pristineness. It chortled to a stop and a balding, large, slovenly man with paint stained clothes got out.
“Who wants the peace lamps?” he shouted up at us as a teenage boy slipped out of the passenger seat. The man told the boy to go back in the car.
“Abdullah?” I asked, dubious.
“Yes,” he said. “Peace lamps?”
“Yes,” I said and shouted out, “They’re here.” At this point, Abu Ramzi seemed the most excited, but everyone came to join us as Abdullah pulled up the dirty hatch to reveal a trunk loaded up with cartons.
He reached for a box and opened it to reveal a carefully painted ceramic lantern in the shape of a dove nestled next to a bottle of oil. “We make these ourselves,” he said. “All the material is from here. And all the money goes to help the nursing home the church has in town. Just don’t eat the olive oil—it’s only lantern lighting quality.”
There was nothing refined about Abdullah’s appearance or his speech, but there was in what he had to say and the intensity with which he said it--his gentleness definitely didn’t match his disheveled style. “You want some olive oil soap or some incense? We make that, too.” He pulled out some samples from the trunk. “Also for the nursing home.”
“No, just the peace lamps.”
“Wait a minute,” Nadia said and began sniffing the soap and incense along with Abu Ramzi and Sister Marie Claire.
“What’s going on here?” We turned to find another nun had emerged.
“Rita?” said Abu Ramzi over his glasses. It turned out Sister Rita was Abu Ramzi’s classmate back in Ramallah and he had not seen her since graduation.
While Sister Rita and Abu Ramzi had a reunion, Abdullah asked for $300. “You could save money and carry them on the plane yourself.”
All that flammable liquid? And then just the thought of opening them at the Israeli border and repacking them and the questioning. “No, ship them,” I decided and wrote down the address in Williamsburg and counted out the money.
Of course, there was no proof of our transaction. “How long will they take it get to America?” I asked. I had never let this much money go with nothing in hand.
“One week, inshallah,” Abdullah said.
“Okay, inshallah,” I said back.
I had to drag Abu Ramzi away from Sister Rita and Nadia away from the gifts she was buying to take home to her husband and kids. I looked at Abdullah putting away the money in his crumpled pocket, his son still patiently sitting in the front seat.
He’ll send the lamps surely, I silently told the Virgin Mary statue as we left, while Sister Marie Claire, Sister Rita, and the Palestinian soundman waved good bye to us from the courtyard.
I hadn’t told my sister-in-law I had actually found the lamps. I wanted her to be surprised when they arrived. But when I didn’t get an excited email or phone call for ten days, I got suspicious. I called. They hadn’t arrived. I was crushed. I thought can’t you even trust a deal for a non-profit made at a church? And of course I had no means of contacting Abdullah. I felt like a fool. I knew Abdullah was honest but maybe not so responsible.
So when I got an email from my sister-in-law two and half weeks later with the subject line “They’re here!” I didn’t immediately smile. I was disappointed in my lack of faith that they would get there, and disappointed that I wasn’t Palestinian enough to know that there was no way they would have gotten there on time. But happy that peace, in a tiny little way, had won out.
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