By Ronza Saba, West Bank Women’s Coordinator

We started our trip early in the morning on a Thursday in March, when the weather was still cool enough to enjoy the desert. Our two buses moved from Bethlehem to Jericho passing all the checkpoints: the Palestinian, the Israeli and the Jordanian ones. We finally arrived at the Wadi Rum camp, where we would stay for four days. The mood on the bus was quiet. Everyone had mixed feelings, concerns and excitement about the days ahead.

When we arrived and I saw the tents and the sand around me everywhere I felt the enormity of the challenge ahead. It was a challenge for many in the group, to live in the desert for four days, and for me personally. This was the first time for me to live without the comforts of city life, with no internet and very far from normal amenities. There was nothing to do except think about life, the group and the environment around us. Wherever you looked, all you could see was sand and tents.

In our normal lives there is not enough time to reflect and sit with ourselves. Sometimes because of our busy lives we do not even sit and talk to God. And also because of the invasion of technology, there is less time to form or develop friendships. However, this desert trip provided us with the time and space to sit with ourselves, sit with God, and contemplate our lives and his creation. There was also time for forming friendships with people from both religions, Muslim and Christian.

This was the first experience for me to be with Muslims. I have never had a relationship with the other, a Muslim, although we live in the same place and same country. However, our education and our upbringing have given us a lot of incorrect beliefs and misconceptions about the other in our minds. We often assign labels and stereotypes that are false.

This desert trip was the ideal opportunity for the group to discover the other and learn about them. I am used to seeing Muslims in the street, taxis and in shops, but I never had a close friendship with a Muslim before this trip. I learned so much from the time together, and really saw individual Muslims for who they are- good people who are my neighbors. I discovered this when I decided to open my heart to them. I saw them in a different way than ever before. After four days with each other, talking, singing, playing and also discussing challenging topics, I came to know each group member in a personal way, and I became close to everyone. I saw great people, without the misperceptions I had learned from my community.

Two leaders from the group had known each other in the past and there was an unresolved problem between them. It was a coincidence that they met again in this group. In the initial stages of the trip they were avoiding each other. However, during an icebreaking activity one of them picked his old friend’s name. He asked his friend to forgive him and he apologized. We were all amazed to see this! Then they hugged each other in front of the whole group. After four days together, they really strengthened their relationship.

On the last day we finally felt we could call ourselves a group. Before this trip I did not feel there was any commitment to each other. We only recognized and knew each other’s faces and names. But after the desert journey we started to know each other in a real and meaningful way. I felt a sense of belonging to everyone; when the group members talked to each other, they forgot whether the person was a Muslim or a Christian. We began to speak and treat others as human beings, without thinking about the background of the person. We stopped thinking about this issue altogether!

The group participants felt that we had become like a family and not just a group. We created a WhatsApp texting group, and we have been chatting almost daily, updating each other about our lives. We have planned to meet for coffee and kanafeh, an Arabic dessert. I can say that this trip achieved its goal in that we have succeeded in forming a strong group. I look forward to all the things we can do together in Palestinian society, and the ways that we can influence our family and friends to get to know their Muslim or Christian neighbors more. What we discovered in the desert will not stay there, but will spread through us to our communities.