RAMALLAH, West Bank - Amid the calls to prayer blaring from dozens of towering minarets and the honking traffic in this city's winding alleys stands a century-old place of silence - Ramallah's Quaker Meeting House, the legacy of a once-thriving Palestinian Quaker community.
Today, Joyce Ajlouny counts on her fingers almost all of the remaining Palestinian Quakers.
"Now, there's myself, my three kids, and my father," said Ajlouny, sitting on one of the Meeting House's dozen simple white wooden benches. "My father is the oldest Palestinian Quaker in the West Bank. And there's Jean Zaru. She's the clerk of the Meeting House. One of her children is coming back from the U.S. soon. That will add one."
On a wall in the back of the room, a photograph from the day the Meeting House was dedicated in 1910 shows dozens of Palestinian Quakers standing proudly in front of their plain stone building.
Since then, civil strife and economic hardship have sent most of the community packing. And the few remaining Quakers, with their commitment to peace and nonviolence, seem even more out of place today.
But as Palestinian factions continue to clash and the Palestinian Authority struggles for funding, the Quakers' impact has only grown. The Quakers' most visible face is in their two schools, which have a robust enrollment of 1,100 and a long waiting list for admission. Quaker community-service programs provide libraries and enrichment programs for children. Quakers even have hosted conflict-resolution workshops - in this city more accustomed to parades of armed militants than talk of nonviolent resistance.
The impact of the Quakers through the years is hard to overestimate, said Bernard Sabella, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a sociologist at Bethlehem University. They were the first to start a school for Palestinian girls. They were the first to try coeducation among Palestinians. They were the first to offer Palestinians a middle ground between collective Palestinian culture and individualistic Western culture, Sabella said.
"They've created a leadership group among the Palestinians," said Sabella, who is a Roman Catholic. "And by developing women, they have radically changed people's view of society. They've fostered a real community spirit and sense of people's inherent worth."
Hanan Ashrawi, the most vocal and well-known Palestinian voice for democracy and nonviolence, is a graduate of the Quaker schools, as are a number of business and community leaders here. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' grandson goes to one of them.
The Quaker Friends Schools, one for the lower grades and the other for upper grades, try to incorporate Quaker values into most lessons - none more so than Suha Ghawi's weekly ethics class. After reading a book called The Alphabet Tree on a recent afternoon, Ghawi - the lone Palestinian Quaker teacher at the schools - led a discussion among her fourth graders about the lesson of the book: how working together toward a positive goal is the route to success.
Some students proved this earlier this year in their response to an explosion at a gas station caused by a welder's spark that killed a student's mother and brother.
They held demonstrations, demanding that the Palestinian Authority improve safety regulations. The authority met with student leaders, drafted new regulations, and has since provided safety signs for gas stations.
"This is our reputation," said Ajlouny, who is the director of the two Quaker schools. "We teach students to speak for themselves and debate and argue. This is unheard of here."
Of last year's 80 graduates, almost half went on to colleges and universities in North America, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford. Each year, the schools send two students to Philadelphia-area Quaker schools, Westtown in Chester County and the George School in Bucks County. Many of them eventually return to the West Bank and assume leadership roles in their community.
It was a chance encounter that brought Quakers to this region in 1869. Quakers from Maine traveling through Ramallah, then a small Christian village in the Ottoman Empire, met a 15-year-old Palestinian girl who boldly complained that there were no schools for girls in the area and asked the Quakers to start one. They did.
The school proved so popular that in 1901 the Quakers opened a boys' school. And slowly, as more Palestinians became aware of Quaker values, they began to attend Sunday meetings and raise their children Quaker. By the 1920s, the Quaker Meeting House was full every Sunday and the now-defunct ecumenical Sunday school hosted 400 children.
During World War I, British troops converted the Ramallah Meeting House, one of two in the Middle East, into a saloon. In 1948, though damaged during Israel's War of Independence, it housed 10 Palestinian refugee families.
By the 1970s, after Ramallah was occupied by Israeli forces, emigration increased, said Max Carter, an Indiana Quaker who taught in the Friends Schools here from 1970 to 1972 and has led U.S. college students on community-service projects to Israel and the West Bank during the last 10 years.
"In the '70s, there were 30 local Quakers here on Sunday," said Carter, now at Guilford College in North Carolina. "But then it became even grimmer. It was so depressed, and people left."
It then stood vacant for more than 10 years while locals raised money for repairs, mostly from Philadelphia and Baltimore Quakers. The building reopened in 2004.
But by then, the Palestinian Quaker community had been reduced to the single digits.
At a recent Sunday service, visitors from the United States led by Carter joined two Palestinian Quakers.
"We can never give up hope," Carter said to a mostly empty Meeting House. "We must have long patience."