The Sulha: Reconciliation in the Middle East
The policeman gaped at me, unable to suppress his astonishment. “Man, that’s dangerous what you want to do. You can get into serious trouble. You’re an Israeli Jew and these people you want to meet are Arabs on the West Bank.…”
I knew he meant well; he was a fellow Jew who wanted me to avoid a potentially explosive encounter with “the other side.”
“Still, I feel I have to talk with them,” I persisted, though my voice did shake a bit.
“The boy is already dead.” He was doing his best to dissuade me. “How will it help for you to express your regrets now?”
He had a point. Obviously, expressing regret for the tragedy would not raise the dead. There I was, an Israeli Jew trying to contact an Arab family living under Israeli occupation. Further, I was coming to them as the driver of the car which had struck their boy in a fatal road accident. The accident wasn’t my fault. I would have my day in court (and in fact was found innocent), but I felt the situation called for more than a dry and impersonal legal action.
“There are spiritual values I must deal with,” I tried to explain to the policeman. He nodded, not in agreement, but in resignation, as if to say it was beyond his grasp why I should want to visit the family of the dead boy in their Arab village outside Jerusalem.
I told a friend of mine in Jerusalem about my desire to meet with the Arab family, and mentioned the policeman’s warning about the risk involved. The concept of “avenger of the blood” from Bible times flashed in my memory with ominous portent:
…anyone who slays any person without intent…shall flee to the city of refuge…lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer…(Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 19)
Would I be considered a manslayer whose blood had to be shed by a family avenger? I recalled stories I’d read of unfortunate Muslims who were murdered by members of their own family. The victims had deviated from their tribal code and thus had “stained the family honor.” Would “honor” demand that my life be considered forfeit by the family of the dead boy? It would not be honest to say such thoughts never entered my mind. Yet there were other, more pressing thoughts.
I told my friend how again and again I relived the horrible memory of that dark dreadful night and my drive through El-Azariya. I was headed home to Jerusalem. I saw the figure darting out in front of my car, heard the screeching of my brakes, and the frantic honking of my horn. Within a fraction of a second, there was the sickening, dull thud of impact and the shrieks of pain from the boy who never heard the warning of the horn. He could not hear it, as I later learned, because he was deaf. Next came the nightmarish wailing of the police sirens and ambulance. Then came the days of waiting and hoping…and finally, the cruel news: the boy had died. He was only 13 years old.
My friend listened to my story without much comment. When I was through he said quietly, “Lord, I know an Arab believer in Yeshua, Pastor Suhail Ramadan. He is familiar with many different communities and customs in Israel. Let’s consult with him.”
Mediators and Interpreters
I had heard of this pastor. He was a respected leader of a congregation in Galilee as well as a chaplain to Arab prisoners in Israel. When my friend explained the situation, Pastor Ramadan immediately offered his help. Our goal was to arrange a “sulha,” a reconciliation meeting with the Arab Muslim family of the deceased. An Arab believer who lived in the same village as the bereaved family would help make the arrangements. We also contacted an English woman, a journalist, who had connections with the village. through her we met Abu Musa, a building contractor who had served in the British Army during the Second World War. He agreed to mediate and interpret in arranging the reconciliation. He also recruited his uncle, who was a mukhtar (respected leader) in the community. The uncle was a retired pious Muslim who had made the hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
It was about a month after the accident that we met in the house of one of Abu Musa’s sons for an “exploratory” meeting. I was nervous and irritable as my friend drove me to the meeting.…
I thought of the gap between my background as a “sabra” (one who had grown up in a secular Israeli atmosphere) and that of the Arabs we were to meet. At the same time, I realized that in many ways, my life was as different from my fellow sabras as it was from the Arab Muslims I was about to meet…for I was a Israeli Jew who believed in Yeshua (Jesus).
My faith in Yeshua has sometimes led to hard feelings and occasional hostility, but when it comes to the issue of Yeshua as Messiah, I can understand and know how to handle it. On the other hand, with the Arab Muslims I was exposing myself to a possible collision with a culture which was not only alien to me, but one which viewed me as a hostile foreign invader. I began to imagine graphically chilling versions of the upcoming encounter. “Maybe the Jewish policeman was right,” I allowed myself to think. “Maybe I’m taking too much of a risk.” Yet I could not allow these fears to guide me. Principles, not fear, were behind my desire for the sulha. I had to hold tightly to those principles, and trust God to see me through.
A Preliminary Meeting
When we arrived at the village, Abu Musa was waiting outside his son’s house. He invited us into a spacious living room, where I immediately noticed his uncle, the mukhtar. He was dressed in traditional Arab attire, an impressive Oriental figure with lively blue eyes. He greeted us warmly.
“Marhaba (Welcome).” I spoke the traditional Arabic greeting.
“Marhabteen (Your are twice welcome),” he replied.
The old mukhtar understood English but preferred to speak in Arabic, with his nephew acting as translator. Abu Musa had explained many details of the situation to him before we arrived.
“What kind of work does the young man do?” the uncle asked, pointing in my direction.
“You can classify me as a student,” I replied.
The mukhtar shook his head slightly, though for a moment, then asked, “And how much does he think he can offer the bereavved family?” Almost immediately he added with a slight smile,” Of course the family may refuse any offer of money.” His voice was deep and resonant, but also earnest and not threatening. His nephew Abu Musa explained, “Sometimes it is customary to press a few bills into the hands of the mother of the family towards the end of the sulha.”
“Would 200 dollars be enough?” I asked.
My friend, who was closely following the conversation, interjected, choosing his words very carefully, “It may be that there are expenses for the good services of arranging the sulha?” The uncle and Abu Musa understood the suggestion, and though not offended, they forcefully rejected the offer.
“No! No!” The mukhtar emphasized. “My work is to make peace between people; the only payment I ask is peace, nothing more.” Our hosts passed around fruit and water on a beautifully decorated tray while Abu Musa explained that his uncle would make contact with the bereaved family, ascertain the terms of the sulha, the amount of money required, the meeting time and the names of the persons who would be present. If everything was agreed upon, another meeting would be held before the actual sulha with the family.
An “Astonishing” Revelation
“My uncle esteems you very highly,” Abu Musa remarked to me in English. “You are not a part of the village, nor even an Arab, and you are asking to arrange a sulha with a family you don’t even know.”
“I think that’s the minimum I can do,” I replied sadly.
“Nevertheless, he would like assurances that you won’t back down at a later stage, because that would cause him to lose face very badly,” he explained.
“Tell him I won’t back down, for me this is a matter of faith,” I answered at once.
My friend added, “We believe in the Holy Scriptures…in the Torah and in the Injil (the Gospels).
The old man raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Are you not Jews? Yet you believe in the Injil?” There was a touch of astonishment in his voice.
My friend answered, “Yes, certainly we are Jews. We believe in the Hebrew Scriptures and also in the New Covenant, and there it is written, ‘Let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.” If Ilan has said he will not back down, then Inshalla (God willing) so it shall be.”
The old man chuckled in undisguised mirth, and then with an air of solemn authority remarked, “Well, then, all you two need now is to believe in the Holy Koran, and you will be good Muslims, for we too believe in the Torah and in the Injil.”
We smiled politely, embarrassed by the proposal. Suddenly the old man turned to my friend and asked, “Tell me, do you believe in the Trinity?”
“We believe that God was revealed in Yeshua the Messiah,” he replied.
“Oh, then you believe in three gods!” came the old uncle’s rejoinder. His triumphant tone suggested he felt he had beaten us at a game of theology.
“No, absolutely not,” my friend countered. “We believe in the one true God who is revealed in three persons.”
The old man smiled politely without uttering a word. His smile seemed to say, “That is not my opinion, but not is not the time to debate theology.”
Just then our hosts brought in a tray of hot coffee in delicate little white cups. The coffee was black and heavily sweetened, and we understood it was a signal that the meeting was drawing to a close. We drank, rose from our seats, shook hands all around, and agreed to continue our contact with Abu Musa.
A report on the preliminary meeting was passed onto Pastor Ramadan in Galilee. He put us in touch with Munir Kakish, a pastor from Ramallah, an Arab town not far from Jerusalem. Pastor Kakish had spent a number of years in the West, so he was familiar with both Eastern and Western cultures.
“It would be better if there were a stronger representation of believers in the Messiah at the sulha,” he observed. “It isn’t good for one side to be over-represented.” I smiled as I thought of the balance of forces among the different communities in our region. It plays a crucial and unsettling part in the Middle Eastern affairs. “It is also important that everything be completely understood by the mukhtar, the old man who is mediating, before the meeting with the family,” he added.
“What about the amount of money as a gift?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you, my family originated in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. There the custom is to offer a gift at the sulha, which the family formally rejects in the name of the Prophet and in the name of the king. If that is the way things work here, I’m not altogether sure. We must take into consideration the fact that you are not Arabs, and you have no ties to the village. In any case, it would be best to bring along money in case it is needed.”
After a few phone calls, it was arranged to meet once more with the mukhtar at his son’s home. Immediately afterwards, we would move on to the home of the bereaved family.
We left Jerusalem early in the afternoon, and reached the meeting place by three o’clock. It was a pleasant spring day, and the sun shone down on the old houses and narrow lanes of the village. We entered the house, and I saw the Ramallah pastor for the first time. He was young, balding, somewhat heavy, with a congenial manner. He welcomed us warmly in fluent English, while the old mukhtar rose to meet us, extending his hand in friendship. Our hosts brought out the traditional tray of fruit, this time accompanied by delicate cups of hot sweetened black coffee. The room was buzzing with Arabic conversation, with bits of translation from time to time by the Ramallah pastor.
“The family is willing to receive you and to forgive you; neither are they asking for any financial compensation. They will be satisfied with what they receive from the insurance company,” he informed us.
“Still, I’ve brought money along, and I’m prepared to pay them” I assured him.
“No,” the old man responded with emphasis, “it is not necessary.” Then he arose from his seat, signaling us that we were to move on. We proceeded to the home of the bereaved family, who lived only a few yards away from the scene of the accident. As we drove up, a sudden wave of sorrow overcame me once again.
“Oh God,” I prayed, “if only I could wipe out that tragic moment. Help me to endure this difficult testing.” I thought of the verse: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
As we approached the large two-story, Arab-style home, the dead boy’s father strode out to meet us. He greeted us, and cast a quick, gloomy glance at me. Then, with a swift sweep of his hand, he invited us to enter. I looked sideways at him as we moved along. He was a young, mustached dark-haired man. He walked with short brisk steps and spoke in a tense, high-pitched voice. My heart ached at the thought of his sorrow as we entered the large salon. The room was lined with sofas and chairs in a kind of circle against the brightly colored walls which were hung with beautiful Oriental tapestries We sat down and waited while the mukhtar and others engaged in animated conversation in Arabic. The pastor from Ramallah translated here and there for my friend and me.
An old grandfather quietly entered the room. He was dressed in traditional garb, his face was wrinkled and his body wizened. He told us a story of reconciliation which had happened 40 years ago. He had witnessed an accident in which a boy, a relative of the family, had been run over and killed by a driver from Hebron. When he realized the boy was dead, he covered the body and urged the driver to flee from the scene before other members of the family arrived. They would have lynched him on the spot. Later, the grandfather arranged for a sulha. The Hebronite offered money to the family, but they refused payment and forgave him.
Other members of the family entered the room: the old granny who had witnessed the accident, and a brother-in-law, a young man who spoke fluent Hebrew. From time to time, the father of the boy would enter and leave, tightlipped and seeming to scowl.
“It is still difficult for him to keep from weeping at the memory of his son. He does not want to weep in our presence,” the brother-in-law explained in Hebrew.
Finally the father of the boy sat down and cups of black sweetened coffee were passed around on a tray. We all rose, and Pastor Kakish began to translate into English the conclusion of the sulha.
“Know that the family does not desire any money, but they receive this tragedy as from the hand of God, and they forgive you for your part in the affair. From now on they see you as a member of the family.”
The cups of coffee remained on the table, untouched. According to tradition, the father would be the first to taste from the cup as a sign that he accepted the reconciliation gesture, and had indeed agreed to forgive. The tension in his face had cast a shadow on the proceedings until then, but at that point, he suddenly began to smile. The lines of grief softened. He looked at me squarely and his smile broadened as he moved towards me, opening his arms in a gesture of embrace. As we met and embraced, he kissed me ceremonially three times on the cheeks. Everyone began to shake hands with one another as the father sipped coffee. The whole atmosphere was transformed, the tension at an end.
An Adopted Son
I was overwhelmed by a desire to speak, so I turned to the Hebrew-speaking brother-in-law and asked him to translate for me.
“I want you to understand how much I am in sorrow about this accident,” I began, “and how much I appreciate your readiness to forgive and to receive me.”
They all began to shake their heads and mumble in Arabic. “They are saying there is no need to apologize now; they forgive you, and you can forget about the matter,” I was told.
I thanked them as I sensed the sulha was drawing to a close. Suddenly, the brother-in-law turned to me. His voice was full of pathos, and I was reminded of the chanting of a cantor in the synagogue as he addressed me in Hebrew sing-song.
“Know, O my brother, that you are in place of this son who has died. You have a family and a home somewhere else, but know that here is your second home. Whenever you wish to come, at whichever hour you wish to come, this is your home.”
“Peace be unto you!”
I shook his hand fervently. “Thank you, thank you so much. I will truly come.”
I gulped down the remainder of my coffee and placed it back on the tray which was set on the table. I turned to the mukhtar who was still seated on the sofa, his eyes glowing. “You are a righteous man,” I said in English. “Thank you so much for your help.” He smiled at me a paternal smile, and thanked his nephew Abu Musa and all the others for their cooperation.
“Ma salaami (Peace be unto you),” we said to one another as we parted.
In the west the sun was beginning to set as I turned my face towards Jerusalem.