Wednesday, July 26, 2006
By: Sawsan Mostafa
What the Israelis taught me about dialogue
In a small neat supermarket in Dhour Ashouier, up the beautiful Lebanese mountains, an attractive woman in her early thirties stood prepared behind her cash desk. A strange-looking group of twenty foreigners stepped down a noticeably big bus and rushed into her store - as if on a serious mission to save the earth. And they did have a mission. Their mission was; to spend all the Lebanese Liras they had, purchase as much snacks and water as they could, and quickly leave. They knew that the Lebanese money they had was soon to become worthless. They knew that they needed food and water supply for the journey that none of them predicted. They also knew that they had little time before Israel would destroy the Eastern road to the Lebanese-Syrian borders – their intended destination.
I sometimes think of that woman behind the cash desk and wonder if her store is still open.
Months earlier I had applied to participate in an ordinary interfaith dialogue camp in Lebanon. Or at least, I thought it was ordinary. But, I thought many things.
I thought that after the camp was over, I would fly back home from Rafik Al Hariri’s international airport in Beirut, and I came back home from Queen Alia's international airport in Amman. I thought that successful dialogue is about open speech, respect and clearing misconceptions – a duty I have as a Muslim towards my religion. Now I know it is much more than that...it is about empathy and human relations.
I though I was attending the camp with a group of thirty participants from ten different origins. I realized I was attending the camp with thirty friends from the exact same origin.
I was not with my Mother and sister as Israel fiercely and randomly attacked the peaceful ports and cities of Lebanon. I was not with my sisters and brothers in Islam as Israel bombed the Lebanese international airport and infrastructure. I was not with my old school and college mates when most Arab leaders stood paralyzed, silent before oppression. I was not with people I would normally depend on when we had to take the dangerous road of "Zahla" to the Syrian borders in the longest journey of my life.
I had to go through this experience with thirty strangers from ten different countries and religions to realize the true meaning of co-existence, understanding and dialogue.
Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Hindu....how important is that in times of stress and hardship?
I never thought that people could have that much in common when they appear to be so much different. We shared our same concerns, same fears, same objection to violence and the same ambition for justice and peace. And of course we did… we are of the same creation.
As I look back at the past 12 days, I try to reflect on God’s planning and wisdom. Why did I meet Ruth, the American missionary girl who I felt so much at ease with, just like Nihal, my best friend in Egypt? Why did I meet Richard, the modest Eastern- German guy with the striking resemblance to Tarek Bassiouny, a very dear friend of mine since school? Why did I meet Feras, the religious Muslim Palestinian-Danish guy who I could easily relate to? Why did I meet Meena, the American-Hindu girl who reminded me so much of Sanaa, my favorite cousin currently living in Sudan?
As I look back at the past 12 days, I try to reflect on the meaning of war, purpose of life, God's blessings and Man's ungratefulness. As Israel launched its barbarious attacks against Lebanon, it was amazing to see Hadi, Samiha, Amir and Nancy, the Lebanese participants’ reaction to all the madness around us. They were always positive, always optimistic, and always affirmative. Heartbreakingly, they were familiar with the Israeli aircraft sounds and were no longer alarmed by it. After twenty years of war and destruction they were numb.
And Elise, the Christian Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem. I have never met someone like Elise, always positive, and always smiling. As a resident of East Jerusalem she was not permitted to cross the Lebanese-Syrian borders. With Israel shutting down the airport, Elise was literally trapped inside Lebanon. The country that was soon to become another duplication of her own home – Palestine.
As I look back at the past 12 days, I think of God’s dearest creation, human beings. For four long days before we got on that bus to Syria, the group had no place to turn to but each others’ dinning tables at the camp. We found comfort in each others’ company, and consolation in each others’ presence. An outside visitor would have never guessed that we only met few days before the attacks. It is amazing how war and misfortune can bring people together - something the whole Israeli army can never change.
I look back at this interfaith dialogue experience and begin to hope. I hope that this example of understanding and co-existence that we created in seven extraordinary days could be a reality. I hope that people would get to acknowledge their differences, appreciate their diversity and learn to live together - with justice. After all, the day will come when we all stand naked before God with no distinction between us but our good deeds. No one can escape that…not the Arabs, not the Israelis.