Reflections on Sahar

Neylan McBaine has been published in Newsweek, The Washington Post, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Segullah, Meridian Magazine, Patheos.com and BustedHalo.com. She is the author of a collection of personal essays — How to Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman (2008) — and is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project. She recently joined Bonneville Communications as a creative director of the Mormon.org “I’m A Mormon” video campaign. She blogs at neylanmcbaine.com.

Raised near Bethlehem, only a few blocks away from the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Sahar Qumsiyeh intimately knows places that are considered holy by many religions. However, this significant area is marked by conflict and war, and as a Palestinian, Sahar faced barriers (both figurative and literal) to joining the Church. In this interview, Sahar describes how her introduction to the Church and understanding of the gospel enabled her to overcome the feelings of anger and frustration that accompanied her life in this turbulent region. Read her interview here.

When I first saw the email nominating Sahar Qumsiyeh to be interviewed for the Mormon Women Project in my inbox, I was still half asleep and trying to use the light of my iPhone to direct me to the shower in the predawn darkness. As I scrolled through the inescapable retail promotions and news updates, it was her location that caught my eye: Beit Sahour, West Bank, Palestine. I jerked awake. A Mormon in the West Bank? Hers was bound to be an interesting story.

Because the MWP is dedicated to publishing the stories of faithful, diverse LDS women from around the world, I was sure interviewing Sahar would be a rich addition to our digital collection. I couldn’t wait to get my kids off to school so that I could call Barbara Christiansen, a dear friend and one of my many talented MWP volunteers, and ask her to pursue the lead.

My personal relationship with Israel is long and deep. While growing up in New York City, my seminary teacher spoke Hebrew fluently and had attended Hebrew University herself as an undergraduate. One of the most insightful scriptorians I’ve ever known personally, she proposed a Seminary trip to Israel during the summer after I finished tenth grade. Four students went, spending two weeks traveling the country she loved and had lived in as a decendant of a Jewish family herself. I put a mezuzah on my bedroom doorframe when I got home and tacked a map of Israel to my wall.

After my freshman year of college, I worked at an archeological dig sponsored by USC (where my college roommate’s father was a religion professor) on a kibbutz at Tel Meggido in the Jezreel Valley. (Altogether a fabulous experience, although I had in mind more of the Indiana Jones-type archeology and not the “dig” part when I signed up.) It so happened that President Hinckley was touring the country at the same time I was there and I had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem on the weekends and participate in his time at the Church’s Jerusalem Center by playing the piano for him.

Like so many Christian pilgrims’ experience in Israel, my impression of the country was wholly Jewish-centric. I never even entered the Arab Quarter of the Old City and the Dome of the Rock was off limits during my visits. As an American who grew up in New York City surrounded by Jewish friends of varying orthodoxy and then went to a largely Jewish college, I barely perceived that I had tacitly “picked sides” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And yet, without serious consideration of the alternate argument, I had.

Several factors — including making several dear Muslim friends (although none Palestinian), reading books like Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem and watching a few nuanced documentaries on the History Channel and such — have led me today to a much more informed position on the age-old deadlock with sympathy for both sides. Still, it was with profound humility that I finished reading the first draft of Sahar’s interview when Barbara sent it to me to be edited. I had expected something with cultural flavor and perhaps some exotic perspective on how to live the gospel in a war-torn country, but I did not expect the elemental trust in and personal knowledge of the Savior that is the essence of Sahar’s very survival. I did not expect to see the Palestinian cause through the eyes of one woman. Whose side is the Lord on? That of the believer.

In any place and time, Sahar’s willingness to take the Savior’s commandment literally — “Love thy enemies” – would be admirable, but in a contemporary age when cynicism and relative interpretation of scripture is expected, and in a place where prejudices run generations deep, her triumphant struggle to put aside all other ideologies and cling only to the Savior’s had the affect upon my first read of being quite shocking.

The Savior’s commandments, in a culture and time of “an eye for an eye,” were shocking to the people to whom they were first delivered. Was it a time really so different from our own, when the pervasiveness of individualism so often demands retribution rather than reconciliation? If not, why then do we glide over His injunctions as if they were merely good advice, inured to the challenge they pose to reshape our souls simply because we’ve heard the words so often? Sometimes it takes a woman a world away on the other side of a fight to make us hear the message He brought to her own home town.

From Barbara Christiansen, producer of Sahar’s interview:

When I was asked to interview Sahar Qumsiyeh for the Mormon Women Project, I knew very little about her: she was Palestinian, had studied in the US and Turkey, was a convert to the LDS church and had faced many challenges in traveling to church in Jerusalem. I was intrigued. I have never explored that region of the world myself, but have heard from others about the complexities of the area; it is dotted with some of the holiest sites to three major world religions, and yet overrun with soldiers, riddled with checkpoints, and carved apart by massive walls and other fortifications. As I interviewed Sahar, I was fascinated to hear of her experiences as she persisted, week after week, in attempting to travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to worship with her church congregation. She succeeded in some weeks and failed in other weeks, but always made the attempt. Her dedication was inspiring. However, it was her response to my final question—“How have you found the inner strength to remain in the Church despite such difficult circumstances?”—that completely humbled me. She calmly explained the feelings of hatred and dislike that she had harbored for years towards the Israelis. I nodded in sympathy on my end of the phone line; I thought her emotions were totally justifiable in light of what she had experienced. But then she described her realization that she wasn’t obeying Christ’s commandment to “Love your enemies” and her subsequent months and months of prayer to feel love towards those who had caused her so much pain. I wept as she re-taught me the simple lessons that we learn as children, but which can become more difficult to apply as we grow older: hate is not of Christ, no matter how warranted it may seem, and there is no amount of hate that Christ cannot help us to overcome. I feel honored to have been able to learn from her and to share her tremendous example more widely.

Comments

  1. I met Sahar in Jerusalem and really, really wish her well.

  2. I had the pleasure of visiting with Sahar many times – whether at church or her home or visiting some nearby sites. On at least one occasion we were asked to come over to help harvest some olives, something I had never been able to do before.

    She’s a unique and special member of the church and her family was always very kind to us when we would go over to visit.

  3. Those of us who have known Sahar for many years I think all are thrilled to see her, her story, and her testimony profiled like this. She is an inspiring example to me of humility, perseverance, faith, and love. I hope many church members can learn from her example, but also come to understand just what it is Palestinians go through.

    And it needs to be noted, she is by no means the only Palestinian member of the church who struggles with the harshness of life under the occupation. The West Bank, Gaza, Palestine inside the 48 borders, and the Palestinian diaspora is riddled with Palestinian church members who struggle and persevere with faith every day. I just hope Sahar’s example can help more church members understand what they go through.

  4. This is wonderful. Thank you.

  5. I love Sahar! She is the kindest, strongest woman, and it’s amazing to hear her talk about her experiences.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I read the interview and was deeply impressed by her. I simply cannot fathom going to those kinds of lengths just to try to attend church; I would have given up a long time ago. She’s a heroic figure.

  7. Ryan Thomas says:

    I remember one Sabbath while living in East Jerusalem with my family that Sahar had told me that she had crawled through a hole in the “security” Wall separating the West Bank from Jerusalem in order to make it to church at the BYU center. How ironic… and what a saint!

  8. Hey Neylan,
    Great post… and great interview. Thanks. Haven’t seen you or Mr. E.S. since Yale. Hope he is still building that sweater collection. Keep it up with MWP. It’s a terrific project.

  9. Wow. Thanks for sharing both this and the comments from people who know her.

  10. What an outstanding woman. What a treat to have commenters dropping in who know her.

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