Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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A Piece About Peace

February 16, 2009

Of course the article in Thursday's Martha's Vineyard Times caught my eye. The headline, "Growing Something Different," sounded like the story was about gardening -- not high on my list of fascinations, especially in February -- but the first few lines included "Lebanon and Egypt," "Middle East," and "Israel and Palestine." This former teenage Arabist has never lost her interest in the Middle East, despite my lack of blood, religious, or cultural connection with any place in the region. My self-directed study of the Arab world, which began when I was about nine years old, pretty much set the course for my entire life: I follow my interests where they lead, pick up nuggets of information, and carry them around in a sack where they're forever knocking against and rolling over each other. I'm forever approaching familiar terrain from a somewhat unexpected direction: when the Franks defeated the Muslim forces near Tours in 732, I took it as a defeat for "my side."

Anyway, "Growing Something Different" was a preview for an upcoming event. "Keren Barzilay-Shechter, an Israeli Jewish woman, and Yousef Al-Ajarma, a Palestinian Moslem man, will present 'A Piece on Peace,' an interpretive dramatic sketch they created as a tool to bridge differences and build empathy." The two met at Lesley University in Cambridge, where both were starting the Ph.D. program in Expressive Therapies, "a discipline that integrates dance, drama, writing, music, and the visual arts with psychotherapy to encourage the healing process." Wonder of wonders, I read the article before the event happened: Sunday (Susan B. Anthony's birthday), 2 p.m., at the M.V. Hebrew Center. I went.

I was prepared for, hoping for, something powerful, extraordinary, and it was, but it wasn't the kind of "powerful" that blows the top of your head off; it was the kind of powerful that rearranges the bits and pieces in your mind and your heart and you know it's going to be a while before you can sort them back into some kind of coherence. The sketch itself was short. Yousef was the first Palestinian Keren had ever met. "There is no Palestine," she was deeply convinced. Keren meets Yousef was matter meets anti-matter. It couldn't happen till it was happening. For his part, Yousef had met many Israelis. At 14 he was caught at a friend's house after curfew; he spent two years in an Israeli jail. In dance-like movement, the sketch depicted approach, resistance, denial; each used song to hold on to his or her own identity.

When I think about Israel and Palestine, that's where I get stuck: each side's identity seems to deny the other's existence, the other's history. Is common ground possible? Acknowledging even the possibility of common ground seems to threaten each side's identity. If Israel holds the political and military power, won't "common ground" be created on its terms? That's where imagination hits the wall.

At the end of the sketch, Yousef and Keren stood on opposite sides of the (small, barely raised) stage and invited audience members to come up and choose a place to stand according to how we were feeling at the moment, on Keren's side or Yousef's side or somewhere in the middle. Of course I went to Yousef's side of the stage. Eventually at least half the audience was on its feet, on Yousef's side or Keren's side or in between or a little distance from the stage.

Then we were invited to say a few words about why we were standing where we were. I said that King Hussein of Jordan had been a hero of mine as a teenager and that I'd taken the name of his country for my middle name. Steve Levine, who was standing between me and Yousef, said that though he was Jewish he thought it important to stand with Yousef.

Next we were asked to use our bodies to convey what we were feeling. My hands opened, but they didn't go far from my body. Many hands opened, some were raised, and gradually they started reaching toward each other. Pretty soon we were all linked like the branches of a gnarly tree.

Keren and Yousef told their stories in some detail. They're contained in "Dialogue Between Political Trauma and Personal Defenses," by Yousef Al-Ajarma and Keren Barzilay-Shechter, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 47 (2007): 320. The abstract is available online, but you need a subscription to read the whole thing (or you can "pay per view" and download a reprint). A couple of things especially struck me. One was that both were looking to get away from the situation at home, at least for a while -- then they ran headlong into each other. The other was the role played by their adviser, Professor Vivien Marcow-Speiser. It isn't dramatized in the sketch; both principals acknowledged her importance, though not in great detail. Reading between the lines, listening in the silences -- I think her role must have been huge, and her skill extraordinary. How to contain these potentially explosive opposites, matter and anti-matter, and encourage them to keep probing into their own depths and the depths of their people's histories?

I'm daring to believe that the United States, now that the neo-cons aren't running the show, might be able to play a comparable role on the national level. I'm also poking around in the messy borderland between personal and political, psychotherapy and politics, individual solutions to political problems, political solutions to individual problems -- a key feminist concern for sure. Wounds have to heal from the inside out; infection can result if they scab over before they're clean. Solutions brokered by political leaders tend to be premature scabs: festering from down below blows them off and puts the patient back in the ICU. Building from the ground up is the only way to go, but those who do it have to be very courageous because in a certain light and to certain people what they're doing looks like collaborating with the enemy.

Both Yousef and Keren have daughters who are around six years old. Keren's daughter, Gaya, was at "A Piece about Peace." Yousef's daughter, Nur, couldn't be there. The two are friends -- Keren especially marveled at that, because when she was that age it was inconceivable that she might have a Palestinian friend. The article "Dialogue Between Political Trauma and Personal Defenses" concludes thus:

"Combining the two personal stories into one new and common narrative, we found the core of our work in the meanings of our daughters' names: 'Gaya' (mother earth) and 'Nur' (the light of the earth), For them and for all the children of the Middle East, let's continue to combine our stories and to speak from the hearts."


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