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Listening to the "Other": Reflections on storytelling and conflict
by Noa Baum
...The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seeps despair into the Western consciousness, with more than 60 years of war, thousands dead, and no end in sight. Yet rarely do Westerners have the opportunity to hear the stories behind the bloodshed and the headlines. Neither do most Israeli Jews and Palestinians know what it is like to live “on the other side,” less than five miles away. “A Land Twice Promised” is based on the experience of dialogue and friendship I had as an Israeli with a Palestinian woman. Through it I share our families’ stories, attempting to give voice to the parallel and often contradictory narratives of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples from a highly personal perspective.
Two parallel narratives stand at the heart of the conflict. Endless layers of pain on both sides stifle a willingness to legitimize the other’s narrative. But I believe that acknowledging the story of the “Other” is the first step toward dialogue and relationship building, the only alternative to the spiraling vortex of violence.
Jumana and I met at a California playground. I am Israeli; she is Palestinian. Both of us grew up in Jerusalem. Both of us now live in the U.S. Our kids were friends and went to Kindergarten together. We converse frequently. Still, it took us years to share our personal stories of growing up in the same city on opposite sides. Those memories now form my storytelling piece, “A Land Twice Promised”.
I wanted to evoke the compassion that Jumana and I experienced in our conversations, so I wrote the stories in first person, as I heard them, not as a debate. We worried about balance: Jumana felt her story did not reflect the suffering of her people. There was a death in my family – my mother lost her brother in the 1948 war - but not in hers, yet Palestinians are killed everyday. I wondered: Was I being disloyal to my own people telling the story of "the Other”? Was I explaining enough about our own struggle? Is balance even possible? For two years I struggled with these and more as I created the piece.
In March 2002, after I moved to the East Coast, Jumana and I found ourselves calling each other, sick with worry and concern for each other’s families after the bombs in Netanya and Jerusalem, after the tanks moved into Ramallah and the siege of Bethlehem. Now that our friendship had deepened by hearing each other’s stories, it was impossible not to think about one another. It was as affirmation of the healing power of story, a reminder of Gene Knudsen-Hoffman words: "An enemy is one whose story we have not heard", and it strengthened my resolve to continue. I began performing.
As a storyteller I can't know what the story makes people feel. I only know what they tell me:
* An Israeli man questioned the balance and the relevance to current events after I had spoken. But a year later, inspired by the show, he had started a dialogue group.
* An Israeli woman wrote that it was the most powerful experience of her life.
* A Palestinian man said it only showed the suffering of the Jews because no one died in the stories of the Palestinian family.
* An American Jewish woman yelled, "It's a disgrace!” then walked out in rage.
* A Palestinian man came with tears to embrace me.
* A history professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who’s an Israeli Arab, (Palestinians who became Israeli citizens after 1947) said my attempt was gallant but didn't portray the depth of the Palestinians’ suffering. He shared his own heartbreaking family story of expulsion and exile.
* An Israeli Jewish student said he usually becomes defensive when listening to Palestinians but was able to listen and gain insight into their suffering for the first time through this show.
* A Palestinian man from east Jerusalem thanked me for telling all his life as he remembered it.
* An Israeli woman felt the Palestinian side was portrayed more powerfully and I wasn't doing justice with the Israeli story.
* A young Canadian woman working with Palestinian women in the West Bank said for the first time she felt compassion for the Israeli/Jewish side.
I continue to be concerned when people hear my story as unbalanced, but I am oddly glad that those responses come from "both sides." I am grateful and reassured by many who have felt that the story has brought them new perspectives or understanding.
I believe that we are all survivors of trauma in one way or another. We each have a choice: Do we harden and recoil, or do we let the trauma transform us and open our hearts?
“A Land Twice Promised” is an offer of my choice. I do not pretend it is easy. The closer you are to the trauma, the harder it is. When you are deeply wounded or suffer a huge loss like my mother or grandmother, you do not always have room for the story of the other. This is especially true for the ones that are in an ongoing trauma like the Palestinians and the Israelis. But this is my personal story of the choice that I chose to make, which is different than the one my mother and grandmother made.
Peace can be a risk. It asks us to make compromises, to go beyond our comfort zone and venture into the unknown. Since we often have a certain picture of a situation and specifically of our enemy, it is hard to imagine something different.
When you cannot imagine what it would look like, it is hard to take the risk for peace. Storytelling can break through assumptions and stereotypes and allow us to see the humanity of the Other. Listening to someone’s story is in itself an acknowledgement of his or her humanity. I have learned that by shifting the focus from debate to personal story, I can invite people into a different realm, where it is possible to listen deeply past opinions and frozen perspectives and allow space for potential change.
I am not here to represent 'The Suffering of The People', Jews or Palestinians. I am here to tell about my experience. I choose to speak the truths of my experience of my friendship with my Palestinian friend Jumana and the stories that emerged from it. I can only tell of what I know. That is what I have to offer as a storyteller. I am not a politician. I am here to give personal testimony that transcends the rhetoric, and through it I hope to call to all of us to listen. The path to peace has to include the listening to the experience of the Other through which we can discover our common human experience. In this specific conflict it also means to recognize and acknowledge the existence of parallel narratives, two perspectives to the same historical events. My hope is that by listening to this piece one will experience some of the compassion that is needed for healing and peace.
My hope is that more people will choose to use the healing power of storytelling: listen to each other and acknowledge the story of the other. It is the stories that call out for all of us to surrender prejudice and fear, turning instead to listening, compassion, dialogue, and peace.
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About the Author
Noa Baum is a performance artist, educator, and workshop facilitator. Born and raised in Jerusalem, she studied theater at Tel Aviv University and with Uta Hagen in New York, and received a Masters of Arts in Theater-in- Education from New York University. She is a recipient of Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Her audio recording “Far Away and Close to Home” won a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award. Noa's performance highlights include The Kennedy Center, Mayo Clinic, The World Bank and the US Defense Department. Learn more at www.NoaBaum.com.