Between Thorns and Thistles

At night I go to bed exhausted with a swirl of images in my mind.

Painting on the streets of Bil'in, Palestine is hard work and I have trouble sleeping. 
The morning call to prayers comes right when I am beginning to unwind. Nonetheless,
every morning I arise in the early dawn with a clear vision about what to paint next.
At home before I travel, I begin to think about thistles. They are a classic plant,
appearing in the bible, and in many world geographies. The thistle is a plant ripe for metaphor and symbolic use, virulent and fire-resistant; it has lovely thorns and needs little water.  It persists. 

Milk thistle is also known as Holy Thistle, a flowering herb related to the daisy, it commonly grows in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It has bright pink, purple, and occasionally white flowers. It's popular in flower arrangements. The seeds can be harvested to make tea with many beneficial qualities.

Repeated exposure to toxins such as tear gas, fumes from burning plastic or trash, fear, occupation by military forces and physical beating can leave your liver damaged and working less effectively than it would otherwise. Milk Thistle tea benefits the liver, helping in purification and detoxification. This is seen as beneficial to people who are experiencing a loss of human rights and other disorders.
In these kinds of conditions anger, fear and violence can accumulate and its best to flush waste buildup from the system and the prickly thistle can serve as an ally.
There are many kinds of thistle that are beneficial and Holy Thistle, (Silybum marianum) is often confused with Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus). This latter variety treats bubonic plague and was even used as a tonic by monks. It may be able to prevent heart disease, and so also ease the symptoms caused by the loss of loved ones, incarcerated family members, as well as the heartbreak of a hopeless future.

After demonstrations and exposure to tear gas and other crowd control substances, gauze can be soaked in Blessed Thistle and applied to the skin to treat skin inflammations, boils, wounds, and ulcers. Thistles seem to withstand the toughest conditions and overcome the harshest challenges, and it seems appropriate that Blessed Thistle, often labeled an invasive and noxious weed has anti bacterial properties and is used to promote milk flow in new mothers.

(Blessed thistle is also used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages as well, but it is not listed on the small batches of beer brought to Bil'in by International smugglers during our residency.)

 In the rugged hills and lands surrounding Bil'in, a number of other thorny plants grow. The flower heads of the stout prickly thistle known as 'Akkub or Kankar are reputed a delicacy worth all the trouble of gathering and preparation, the freeing from the sharper spines, and the blackened hands gained in the process. The plant, Gundelia tournefortii, tastes like a cross between asparagus and artichoke. Even though it is sold in Jerusalem markets, especially the young plant's thick stem and undeveloped flower buds, Israelis do not eat it, but Palestinians do.

 In perfect Bedouin style the plant is considered a tumbleweed. It's use is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud and the Bible. The plant was called Silybum by Pedanius Dioscorides born in 40 AD. The Turkish born physician, pharmacologist and botanist of antiquity, authored De Materia Medica, the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias regarding herbal medicine and related medicinal substances. It was widely read for more than 1,500 years. The work is the best source for information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity. De Materia Medica was reproduced in manuscript form through the centuries,  and often supplemented with commentary and minor additions from Arabic sources. A number of densely illustrated Arabic copies survive from the 12th and 13th centuries. In the medieval period, De Materia Medica was circulated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Its interesting to note that the work was not "rediscovered" in the Renaissance, because the book never left circulation. 

There is more to the hills and terraced land than meets the eye. There is so much more
to Palestinian culture and history than the myth of impoverished and ramshackle Arab villages that is used to justify the colonization and occupation of this land.  

The tale of the 'Akkub (Hathi haddoutet el 'Akkub):
Collected by the Center of Folktales and Folklore in Haifa, Israel:

There was once a merchant who was traveling through the wilderness with a stranger, and he murdered the stranger for the sake of his riches. As the wounded man fell he grasped at an 'Akkub plant that grew by his hand and cried out with his last breath, "This 'Akkub is my witness that you have murdered me."

But the merchant thought nothing of that and went away with the stranger's possessions.

Years passed and he traveled again through the wilderness and passed that place this time with his friend and partner. The 'Akkub was dead and dry and was whirling about, dancing in the wind. The merchant smiled as he saw it and his friend said, "Why do you smile?"

At first he would not say why, but the friend compelled him. Then he said "I smile, because here I once slew a stranger, and before he died he cried, 'This 'Akkub is my witness that you killed me,' and now the 'Akkub is dead and dances in the wind."

More years passed and one day the merchant quarreled with his friend and struck him. The friend in anger cried out, "Will you slay me as you slew the stranger?" so loud that the neighbors heard. An inquiry was made and at last the merchant was brought to justice. The 'Akkub was indeed the witness.

This story is used proverbially to this day. Villagers will say "The 'Akkub is the witness"

I bring a small sketch of thistles with me to Bil'in, scratched in the margin is the word, persist. One morning I look through the visual materials I have brought with me, along with the notes and sketches accumulated in our workshops with people from the village and it becomes clear that the symbolic thistle encapsulates many of the collective feelings and stories. As the rising sun warms the white walls along the main road we begin painting monumental thistles. We have a vibrant mix of collaborators with us that morning, including, young men, women and children. I am wearing my painting clothes, but the women are impeccably dressed with long skirts and head coverings. Each manages to work without dripping paint on their clothes. As the images appear on the walls, cars slow down and there is a constant honking of horns. Amidst the dust and noise we continue until each thorn is finished. Later a local tells me the thistle is used in the Jordan River Valley as a symbol of resistance to the occupation. He shows me a leaflet with an image of a thistle similar to the ones we have painted, the slogan says, 'To exist is to resist.' Yet many are not familiar with its symbolic use and when an older man on a white donkey ambles by, he engages me in conversation. "What is meaning? He asks in broken but understandable English. I point at the plant and pantomime kicking it and digging it up and make gestures that show it comes back, blooms again. He nods his head, yes, yes.
"Even fire, always life. Thank you"

  In the Old City of Jerusalem, after I leave Bil'in, I visit the chapel built at the site where Jesus is reputed to have been whipped, the Church of the Flagellation. The church has a beautiful gold dome designed in mosaic as a crown of thorns. As a boy, I was always most struck by this aspect of the stories told about the man that was Jesus. He was able to take a whipping, wear a crown of thorns and carry a heavy cross all because of his love for us regular humans. I found it both mysterious and perplexing. As a kid I figured it meant I should let our housekeeper whip me but not tell my mother because it would worry her. Later it came to represent the deprivations and austerities that come with trying to make the world a little better. In Chile and throughout Latin America much of the work done for social justice is connected to understanding both the suffering of Christ as well as his desire to be with those in need, the poor and forgotten. This understanding transcends political and religious affiliations; the constituency of the continent remains deeply Catholic even if we work in a secular manner.

I do not consider the work we do in Bil'in as entirely unselfish. The artistic satisfaction and the human payoffs are huge personal rewards. Our work in Bil'in takes all my mental and creative abilities as well all my physical strength and stamina, yet each day I find a reservoir of energy and ideas. The crown of thorns worn by Jesus and his suffering also came with rewards I suppose,
 it's pretty cool to die and come back to life a few days later.

I take a seat in the front pew, and think about 13-year-old, Bahaa Samir Badir. He is the young boy who is shot in the chest and killed in the village of Beit Laqiya, just 24 hours after a similar IDF (Israeli Defense Force/ Army) raid we experienced in neighboring Bil'in during the small hours of the morning. Bahaa Samir was 13, the age of my youngest son Salvador. He will not come back from the dead. 

I give thanks for life, all of us have emerged from our visit to Palestine unscathed. Later, when I read more about the Church of the Flagellation I learn that archaeologists have placed the place where Jesus was actually whipped and fitted with a crown on the other side of town.

When leaving the church I join a large crowd of people who are leaving services held the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I blend into the devoted moslems, Arabs who amble out of the city peacefully towards East Jerusalem, past streets bristling with weapons and stiff lines of IDF soldiers. Thistles grow in the Valley of Kings, the widening trench that runs below the old city and the Mount of Olives and I walk towards the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. At the entrance to the neighborhood I visit the Siloam Pool, a site mentioned in the Bible where it is believed Jesus healed a blind man. I talk to Arab Christian boys who invite me into their home for coffee. Inside the whole family welcomes me, they have never been to Bil'in, they are unclear of where it lies, they are Arabs from Jerusalem and have lived here for millennia.

That evening, in my reading, I come across the astounding idea that the crown of thorns may have actually been made from Gundelia tournefortii or A'kkub. In 1999 the infamous Shroud of Turin was analyzed for pollen grains and plant images. Some believe the Shroud to be the burial cloth of Jesus, but scientific studies show its origin in Jerusalem before the 8th Century. The analysis, presented at the Internationl Botanical Congess in 1999, identifies a high density of pollen of the tumbleweed. Near the image of the man's shoulder imprinted on the shroud analysts declare they can devise an image of A'kkub.

A'kkub is the witness. Our murals of thistles are part of ongoing creative efforts to use non-violent direct action in Bil'in. There are few who will disagree that people will always struggle for self-determination. We have been the first cultural delegation to carry out a residency in the village and our actions have received support from Palestinian, International and Israeli activists,  creating the possibility of  new dialogues and understandings. Despite the fires, these actions and modes of communication are proliferating.

No matter what side of the road you are on or what stream of history and culture you identify with, it's good to emulate thistles and other democratic and enduring life forms.
As leaders in the movement for self-determination in Bil'in and throughout Israeli and Arab Palestine often say, "One state or two states?” is not the right question to start with. “The right question to ask is, ‘What is the right thing to do that will guarantee the safety  security, peace and humanity of everybody in the long run?’
Once we can agree, we’ll work toward that.”

Perhaps there is no singular right thing, but cultural action helps us have the conversations that must occur, helps us create common goals as we learn to co exist with the painful memories and powerful cultures that exist on both sides.
An intergenerational and international thistle painting crew

Thistles growing in the Valley of Kings

Tear gas grenade that has set fire to brush and thistles in the Olive Groves near the Barrier Wall.

Walking to school in the morning, Boys inspect the painted walls.


A'kkub is the witness

Girls on the way home from school in Bil'in.