by Sarah Thompson
“Shu hadda?” a young boy yelps as I whiz by on the way to work at Sabeel. “Fi baskalet!” his companion replies as they both laugh and point in my direction. Though many foreign women working for international organizations become frustrated with the unwarranted attention we receive in the streets, I was not being harassed by these boys. It was my bicycle that had caught their attention. With rims the diameter of a basketball and a crossbar that sits low to the street, my Dahon Presto Lite mini-bike is an uncommon sight. The entire machine can fit in a normal piece of checked airline baggage. Indeed, that is how I brought it with me to Jerusalem from Elkhart, Indiana.
Riding a bicycle all over Jerusalem offers me a unique perspective. It is a slow method of transport, yet I can get to all the places that I want. Primarily, I ride it to and from work at Sabeel, where I assist in researching for director Naim Ateek’s next book, edit reports and write the Sabeel Wave of Prayer (a weekly email sent to over 4,000 people around the world who are committed to praying and working for peace and justice in Palestine-Israel). As I pedal on one side of town, I see women in hijab, men drinking tea. On the other side of town, I observe lost tourists, and young boys with long ear curls swinging on the playground.
The bike has only suffered from one flip and fall (I wear a helmet) and being stolen once. When some young men teamed up to grab it out of the back of the bus (still at the station) where I fold it up and stow it, the driver jumped out of the bus and ran after them screaming, “Haalako! “Let it go!” They did drop it, and ran. All the rest of the people on the bus yelled at them, too, and checked to make sure that I was okay. “Haram!” they said, a word in Arabic that means “forbidden!” or, more directly, “no way José!” I really appreciated the sense of spontaneous community that I felt that evening. It was a reminder of how warm and hospitable people of Jerusalem have been to me, one of many foreign volunteers here.
At least twice a week, I bike to connect with Jewish and Arab Israelis at exercise class. The class is at a gym on the other side of town from where I live, work and attend church. It’s a long trek that involves biking, folding the bike on a bus, dodging large baby strollers, walking, carpooling and sometimes a light rail train ride. Each of the segments of this trip takes me through the many colliding worlds here: Jewish religious, Palestinian Christian, Jewish secular, Muslim, Jewish settlers, Jewish Haredim, neighborhoods of Ashkenazi (European Jews), Sephardic (Middle Eastern) and Ethiopian and African Jews. To move in these varied spaces is a political and theological choice I make.
Every decision one makes here is political and theological. It is that way wherever we live, but here one can feel it acutely. The decision to ride my bicycle in the United States is connected to what is happening in this region, broadly. Riding a bike is part of my decision to live as simply as possible, and care for creation by lowering my petroleum consumption. Just as I hope more bicycles populate US streets—I think to myself—I hope my example inspires more Jerusalemites to try the cycling option, too. In Saudi Arabia, some women dress up as boys in order to ride their bikes in public. It’s great to be able to ride in Palestine unhindered. I process the myriad of experiences here as I weave speedily through the bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic headed into the city every morning.
The bike is also a great conversation starter, prompting strangers to talk to me. They ask me what I am doing here, and I talk about being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and how this compels me to work nonviolently for justice and salaam/shalom. I have made many friends here because of this bike.
At one point my bike needed repairs, and trying to clean and repair it in a divided Jerusalem warrants another whole story in itself! It symbolized for me all that is beautiful and broken about this land. Eventually I did get it fixed and am continuing to pedal all around, smiling at surprised passers-by and minimizing my carbon footprint while on my SALT assignment!
Sarah Thompson is currently serving with MCC as a SALT (Serving and Learning Together) worker at Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. She is a graduate of Bethany Christian High School (Goshen, Indiana), Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia) and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Indiana). Her home church is Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana. This article first appeared as a news article on the MCC Great Lakes web site.
For more information about the SALT program and to see open assignments visit: salt.mcc.org