Death the Leveller

Tina Whitehead



The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings.

A Palestinian friend of mine quoted this to me tonight.  It’s a poem written by James Shirley entitled “Death the Leveller,” written in the early 17th Century.  Its words seem very appropriate now as word has just come of the death of Dr. Jim Ridgway, Founder and Director of Educational Opportunities, the travel company that most of us who are United Methodists have been blessed by in our travels to the Holy Land and all over the world.  In many ways, I have been able to be here in Jerusalem because of Dr. Ridgway and because of EO.  With guides and staff here, I join in sending the family my deepest condolences. To tourism in the Holy Land, Dr. Ridgway was indeed a king.

But I also experienced another death tonight. A young man in his early 40’s, a Palestinian, a Muslim whom I’d never met. Let me share the story with you.

Every day after work I take a bus to East Jerusalem and walk to the “coffee” where I meet a friend for tea.  It’s not a café or restaurant, but the men who come there just refer to it as “the coffee.”  And every day the same half dozen men can be found at tables, smoking their water pipes, drinking tea or coffee, reading the newspaper, playing cards or just sitting alone.  Although I don’t know them, or even know their names, I recognize most of them and they recognize me.  Not really too difficult as I’m the only woman there, the only Westerner, and probably the only Christian.

Usually after sitting for a while, we leave, get into a waiting car and go to Ramallah.  Tonight, though, I was told that we were going to pay our condolences to a family whose son had died last night.  He had been arrested for driving without a license and put in jail.  While there, the police fired tear gas into his cell and he passed out.  He never regained consciousness and died shortly afterwards.  In the Muslim culture, the funeral is within 24 hours, so the son whose name I found out was Jihad, had been buried just this morning.  My friend told me that I knew the father, that he was one of the men who frequented the “coffee” and so it was appropriate that I come to pay my respects.

We drove up the Mt. of Olives, parked the car and walked down a steep road and through a narrow passageway until we arrived at the room where the men were congregating.  A man was reading what I learned was a letter of condolence from President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.  I was very uncomfortable being the only woman present and decided to stay outside while my friend entered.  I watched him go to the front of the room and speak to the man who I assumed was the father.  I saw him turn and point to me, and then both of them came back to greet me.  The man had a red and white checkered keffiya wrapped around his head and as soon as I saw his face I recognized him.  What surprised me the most was the warmth in his expression as he took my hand and thanked me for coming.  He then escorted me to another room where the women were gathered.  I felt so very awkward, not wanting to intrude upon their time of grief, but a woman who must have been Jihad’s wife, greeted me and ushered me to a seat and brought me coffee.  She introduced me to an older woman, who again I could only presume was his mother.

His wife brought over a plate of dates and offered them to me.  It’s a custom at Palestinian funerals to drink the unsweetened Arabic coffee as a symbol of the bitterness of death, but to follow it with the sweetness of the date as a sign of the goodness of God and of life.  The women sat around the room while one woman read constantly from the Qur’an.  No one else spoke.

After about 15 minutes, Abu Jihad, the father, came and motioned to me that it was time to leave.  I embraced Jihad’s wife, not knowing what to say, in English or in Arabic, and again shook hands with the father. I later learned that their younger son had been killed a year ago by Israeli police.  Both sons lost to violence in a short time.

So much tragedy in this land.   It’s getting harder to see beyond these daily tragedies and retain a sense of hope that life will get better, that peace will come, that justice will triumph.  How many more senseless deaths will have to be endured?  How many more families will have to grieve?

I am thankful and humbled for opportunities like I had tonight to show solidarity with these people. I am constantly amazed at their graciousness in welcoming me and letting me be part of their lives.  I am blessed to be here.


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