Growing something different
During a two-month trip to Lebanon and Egypt in 1968, I became fascinated with the Middle East, especially with the future of Israel and Palestine. I followed news of the region closely when I got home, anxiously waiting for common sense to prevail, and with it, peace. But over time, it seemed like I was reading the same story week after week, and I began to understand the depleting, regressive power of intransigence and vengeance. I wondered if things would ever change, could ever change.
If the reality on the ground undermined hope for me, half a world away, how could people who actually lived there stay positive?
This Sunday afternoon at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven, two of those people will shed some light on what it's like to live there and to devote their lives to conflict resolution, both personal and political.
Keren Barzilay-Shechter, an Israeli Jewish woman, and Yousef Al-Ajarma, a Palestinian Moslem man, will present "A Piece on Peace," an interactive dramatic sketch they created as a tool to bridge differences and build empathy. Ms. Shechter and Mr. Al-Ajarma met when they both arrived at Lesley University in Cambridge in 2003 to start a 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.
The evolution of "A Piece on Peace" was slow and at times tortuous. First the two principals had to learn to trust each other. "For me, meeting Yousef was very challenging," said Ms. Shechter in a phone conversation on Monday. "Yousef is the first Palestinian I'd ever met. It was a long and hard process in which we both needed to learn each other's history and personalities, and it's still going on. The war [in Gaza] just now didn't help our friendship. The friendship is all the time a test. Even though I can tell you he is a good friend of mine, his wife is a good friend of mine, and our daughters are friends, still the test is there all the time."
For Mr. Al-Ajarma, living and working with Israelis was almost familiar. He had studied with Israelis both at Bethlehem University and in Switzerland, where he earned his masters degree in Expressive Arts Therapies.
"Before I came [to Lesley], my advisor called me and asked me if I had a problem working with an Israeli student," Mr. Al-Ajarma said in a separate conversation on Monday. "And I said, no problem, because in Switzerland there were Palestinian and Israeli students, and most of my teachers were from Israel, Jewish Israelis, and some Arab Israelis.
"So when we had our first class, even before we met with our advisor, it happened that we were sitting next to each other, and at the time I didn't know that she was Israeli, but I think she knew that I was the Palestinian because I was the only foreigner with dark hair. When we introduced ourselves, I went first, and then she came after me. She just said, 'Please, stay away from me.'"
But Ms. Shechter was willing to try. "We had an ice-breaking activity where we worked in groups of three, and I asked her if she wanted to work together, and she said yes," Mr. Al-Ajarma recalled. "So there was this desire to break the border between us. And we were testing each other, and I'm trying to prove to her one way or another that I'm a good guy.
"In one of our classes, we had to create a theater piece. There were seven students and the other five decided they wanted to do something individually. We both decided that we wanted to do something together about how we came here and how the first reaction was, 'stay away from me,' and all the testing stuff and being afraid. We worked together for four months to prepare something that we would perform in front of the whole university.
"With the help of our advisor and our colleagues, we were able to talk about our feelings, our emotions, and our worries, even. To create a small sketch from our personal stories - an Israeli who is terrified and this is her first time meeting a Palestinian, and a Palestinian who is 29, meeting an Israeli here, after being in a prison there, after all the trauma that happened in my life," including growing up in a refugee camp and being jailed for two years when he was 14, after Israeli soldiers caught him at a friend's house after curfew.
"This small theater piece started to have a life of its own," said Ms. Shechter. "People heard about it and we were invited to speak here and there - conferences, high schools. We are both psychotherapists, and we said, okay, we have a wonderful tool here, and we created a workshop about tolerance, about conflict resolution, about how to be an active listener to the other, who could be your enemy."
Leading a therapeutic workshop on neutral ground is one thing, but is it possible to influence institutional behavior in a region where fear and hatred have been the rule for centuries? For Ms. Shechter and Mr. Al-Ajarma, it seems there is no choice but to try.
"We have to maintain hope all the time, even in the most desperate moments," Ms. Shechter said. "There are things going on in Israel/Palestine - people who are working on co-living. We feel it's very important that we are doing this abroad, for outside people to see.
"It's very simple. I just think that there are enough small activities you can do toward peace, and in the end that is what will help. For instance, my six-year-old daughter now has a Palestinian friend [Yousef's daughter], which is very natural to her, which was never natural to me. Already I feel that I'm growing something different."
At Sunday's program, the audience will have a chance to participate after the short theatrical sketch. "Part of our training is in drama therapy, which focuses not so much in the talking about, but more in the doing it," said Ms. Shechter. "And if people come to the stage and are able to say how they feel at this moment, or to sculpture it with their bodies, it will influence an audience much more than just passive listening."
"The arts helped both of us to contain our anger and then put it in a healthy channel where we could work with it and work with each other," Mr. Al-Ajarma said. "Our vision was - and we are still working at it - that we want our work to be an example for schools and communities, even back in Israel/Palestine. It gives some hope that we both came from very different backgrounds, and when we paint together and do drama together, we are not thinking I am a Palestinian, you are an Israeli, it's more about how we can create something together."
While Ms. Shechter seems a bit guarded, though very direct, in telling her story, there is a sparkle in Mr. Al-Ajarma's voice, as if he is determined to project optimism, and to find humor, when he can, in the absurdity of our common humanity.
In creating "A Piece on Peace," Ms. Shechter and Mr. Al-Ajarma may have also made a small but significant piece of peace.
"A Piece on Peace" Sunday, Feb.15, 2-4:30 pm, Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Center Street, Vineyard Haven.