These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

On The Way To Sulha

Posted on January 16, 2012 by Aliza B.

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I think it was during high school that Rabbi Gabi Meyer came to Boulder, and spoke about his work creating peace in Israel.  I remember being enthralled.  He is an incredible being.  I remember that at the shul, there were Hebrew speakers and Spanish speakers and English speakers and he was going back and forth between the three languages as if it was nothing.  At that time, I was just getting my Spanish together, and to see someone who could chat and make jokes and give presentations so flawlessly in three languages was impressive.  Not only that, but Rabbi Meyer also speaks beautiful Arabic.  I remember one of the things he said that night was that you know when you speak a language fluently when you can make jokes.  I started learning as many Spanish jokes as I could because of that.  I’m not sure if applying yourself to learn jokes qualifies as fluency certification, but nevertheless, I wanted to emulate Rabbi Meyer.

That night, we watched a film called On the Way to Sulha which speaks to the creation of the sulha movement and its growth here in Israel.  As Rabbi Meyer explained to us that night, sulha started as he and several close friends were sitting outside in Israel talking about the politics and the other ‘p’ word–peace.  They were pondering the possibility of reconciliation and one of his friends mentioned the Arabic sulha.

In some Arabic communities, when there is a conflict between families, the community starts a sulha.  Sulha is literally a big meal.  It typically has several courses (I believe there might even be as many as 12) and coffee and includes the entire family of the victim and the entire family of the perpetrator as well as a mediator.  The idea is simple–everyone gathers for the meal and the ritual conflict resolution.  Each party acknowledges the other and shares their story and their hurt and their realizations.  The mediator ensures that everyone acts according to the tradition and that everyone gets sufficient time and space to share.  One of the most beautiful aspects of sulha is the focus on dignity.  There is the idea that when there is a conflict, both parties lose dignity.  Sulha, then, is a process to restore dignity to those involved in the conflict, and the community.  Sulha is about honoring people’s stories, acknowledging when there is a problem, and committing to resolving the issue and move forward.  Rabbi Meyer and his friends decided that sulha was a beautiful model for conflict resolution in Israel.  They set about organizing sulha events for Israelis and Palestinians.

What started as a grassroots project quickly bloomed into something far greater, surpassing all of the expectations of that initial group.  Just like in the traditional sulha, this process included shared meals and stories.  But in addition to the mediators, there were musicians and dancing circles and singing and arts and crafts.  What was originally a small gathering of people, became a huge movement.  Hundreds of people would help prepare food, or take care of the children, or participate in sharing circles which were focused on themes.  There were tents for grieving mothers, and for mourning families.  There were food preparation tents and communal yoga.  In addition to the Israelis and Palestinians, leaders from all over the world came to lend their wisdom.  There were tribal leaders from Africa teaching their native dances, and Sufi leaders teaching spiritual journeying, and even the Dalai Lama arrived to show his support and share his teachings.  People were flying in from all over the world just to participate in this annual event.  Despite security concerns and logistical snafus,  sulha was creating meaningful connections in a global community and in Israel, restoring dignity, and creating a the love and honor and understanding which could be the framework for peace.  (I highly encourage you to watch videos about the sulha or visit their website to learn more).

I was so blown away by this project, and by Rabbi Meyer, that after the evening’s presentation I approached him to thank him and acknowledge what an amazing reality he had created, and to find out how I could get involved.  He offered to give me a copy of the film he had shown if I agreed to show it to my friends.  That was my ticket in the sulha fan club.  I showed it to my friends and then to my parents’ friends, I begged my parents to let me go to the sulhita (the sulha for teenagers), and watched the film often myself dreaming about going to Israel and participating in this initiative for peace.  During college, I took a course in world Jewish communities.  I convinced my professor that sulha was a global community which was essential for the Jewish people and begged him to let me write my final paper about the peace movement and the change it was creating in the world.  He acquiesced kindly, and I was left to blissfully research and dive into this world I had always dreamed of.  When I began thinking of coming to Israel, sulha was on my list of dreams to embrace.

Last night I went to my very first sulha.  I felt like I was a chocolate bar in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; like I had been transported through my tv screen into the world I had always dreamed about.  In the movie, I seem to remember the workers lugging giant chocolate bars to the magic machine so that they would come out the other end a normal-sized delight.  For me, I had started with such small glimpses of sulha.  As we arrived, I felt like all of the seeds planted over all these years instantly took root and grew through me.  Like all of the scenes in the movie and my research were mini chocolate bars that were now popping out as giant, mammoth delicacies.  I felt like a thirsty plant suddenly blessed with water.  I was soaking everything in and smiling back.  I was in heaven.

We arrived to a bonfire and music.  (Before I speak more about my night, I should mention that the format of sulha has changed in the last few years.  Now, instead of the massive annual events, they have monthly bonfires.  They are small and intimate and keep the energy moving.)  People were dancing around the fire in Middle-Eastern congo lines, and belting out peace songs.  I grabbed my ukelele and jumped in.  There were hippies and dread locks and little kids running around and people trying to feed the fire.  Guitars and my uke were trying to complement our Oud counterparts, and drums were rumbling through the soles of our feel.  After a little bit, we all settled down around the fire to listen to introductions and Arabic poetry.  There was translation from Arabic to Hebrew and vice-versa, but no official English.  Some of the Americans were huddled around translators.  But, for the most part, we listened and understood from the heart.

After the poetry readings, an American dressed in all white and a turban got up to perform.  He was an average New-Jerseyan who became a Sikh, and was now dancing and singing around the fire accompanied by his hand-gong.  He spoke about the energies of the world, and after his singing and dancing, led us into a tent for meditation.

As we walked in, I was surrounded by a group of guys from Jericho and Ramallah and Hebron.  I said Salaam, Kivhalek? in my gross American approximation of the Arabic Hello, how are you?  I was delighted as their faces lit up, and they started chatting with me in Arabic.  Then I sheepishly confessed that my Arabic goes only as far as introductions and thank you and we all had a good laugh.  We were instant friends.  They spoke a little English, and with the help of others in the community, we were able to patch together a delightful conversation.  I sat next to them in the meditation.

That was not so much of a success.  Or maybe it was if the goal was to giggle and have fun.  The cool American Sikh led it.  The funny part was that the Israeli and Arabic translators were skeptical of the meditation.  What started as a spiritual “take a deep breath” morphed into unconvincing and bored-sounding translations and by the end everyone was laughing and and looking around the room at the rowdy guys who weren’t even trying and the dread-locked, pajama-pantsed hippies who were intently focused with their eyes closed.  My new Arabic friends jokingly asked me to translate, and then I was having even more fun trying to mime directions, and understand their miming.

Dinner time arrived and we all piled out of the meditation room and lined up for food.  In the meanwhile, a friend offered to teach me a dance.  We left our things with friends in line and proceeded to dance and giggle off to the side of all of the people.  Soon one of my Arabic friends joined us.  Then we tried to explain the dance with our bodies, and we all ended up laughing.  After a while, we zipped back into line and got food (delicious vegetarian cuisine) and took our plates outside.

There, Arabic musicians had surrounded the bonfire and were rocking out.  I scarfed my food as fast as I could while peppering the group with kivhaleks  and smiles and chatting about where everyone was from.  Then I got to dance.

Up until this point, I had been watching a group of Arabic guys who appeared to be my age, dancing around.  I popped up and asked one to teach me.  A few guys stepped back.  I wasn’t sure if this was a dance girls and guys could do together.  But some of the guys sitting around said something which sounded reassuring or motivating, and everyone started dancing again.  The guy who was teaching me had a scarf, and I was holding one end and he the other and we were going around the fire.  A few times he would stop me dancing and hand me the scarf meaningfully.  I didn’t exactly get the meaning.  Maybe I was doing something inappropriate?  It is also possible I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do…soon it was time to go back inside.  I picked up my ukelele case and was suddenly surrounded by the musicians.

What is that? they wanted to know.  I told them it was a ukelele and took it out to show them.  An Israeli musician told me that they wanted musicians for one of the listening circles.  Did I want to play with them?  I delightedly accepted the invitation.  Then a Palestinian man asked me if I knew how to sing in English.  Of course!  He organizes a musical group with Israeli and Palestinian musicians and they would really like to have someone sing in English.  I was thrilled!  We walked in together, as he told me about their group and all of the wonderful music they perform.  Little did I know, we were walking into the highlight of the night.

The listening circle I inadvertently found myself a part of was centered around life stories.  We started by playing peace songs, and then the leader of the group shared a story from his experiences as a prison storyteller.  As he spoke, a Palestinian woman translated his words into Arabic.  The Americans huddled in the corner.  I sat with the musicians.

Then the circle opened and it was time for everyone to share.  A Palestinian man began with a wedding story.  He told of a wedding where everyone was filled with joy and dancing and singing, and all of a sudden the patriarch of the family collapsed into sudden death.  Despite rushing him to the hospital, he was forever gone.  And he spoke about the way his death transformed the wedding suddenly from a joyous occasion, to a very sad one.  An Israeli woman spoke about how her parents had always taught her that Arabs were terrorists and that they hated Israelis, and that this was her first time ever speaking with Arabs.  She spoke about her conversation with her mother about coming to the sulha and about what her experience had been like thus far.  A Palestinian man talked about his journey to the sulha and how he spent three times as many minutes waiting to get through the checkpoint as he did driving to the actual event.  And an Israeli spoke about a dying puppy and an unloving mother.  The circle was open to life stories, and stories about the conflict.  Although all of the stories were important and beautiful, two stand out in my mind as deserving of a full retelling.

The first came from a Palestinian man sitting across the circle from me.  He was older, and a little withered, with a little girl draped across his lap smiling and chatting with him intermittently.  When it was his turn, he began unhesitatingly and abruptly.  “I was in prison for sixteen years.  For a year and a half of that time I was in solitary confinement.”  The translations echoed behind him, he forged ahead.  He spoke about how during that year and a half, he never heard a human voice.  Rarely, he would hear a guard say something to another guard, but other than that he had no human contact.  There was nothing for him to do, and no one for him to relate to, except the birds that would visit his cell in the mornings.  Every day he would listen for those doves.  He got to the point where he knew the coos of the doves so well that he could tell when a bird didn’t come.  And every day he prayed to God that he would get out someday and be able to have a family.  He promised God that if he got out, he would name his daughter after the doves in honor of his experiences.  Eventually, he was released.  He met his wife, and they got married and started a family.  He looked down at the little girl in his lap.  He smiled as he explained that her name means the coo of the dove in Arabic, and that every time he looks at her it makes him beam with joy and he fills with gratitude for God and for his new life.

A big space opened up in the room as everyone heard his story.  Some people tittered about why he was imprisoned and what did he do.  I was completely blown away.  I cannot imagine surviving a year and a half without human contact.  More than that, I cannot imagine surviving a year and a half with no human contact, and fourteen and a half more years imprisoned, and then being able to get out and start a life and a family.  Just to be able to live normally after that is a miracle.  And here he is, sitting at the sulha, determined to use his life to create peace and positive change.  Amazing.

Another powerful story came from an Israeli.  He had been invited to a friend’s wedding in Ramallah and was unsure how safe he felt going there.  In the end, he decided to go, and drove his car down.  As soon as he got to the wedding, he parked his car, and got out.  He was suddenly surrounded by Arab men shouting insults at him and asking him why he was dirtying the whole wedding with his presence.  He was very afraid.  He said that around the circle of taunting men, was a circle of other men telling them to be quiet and to stop their antics.  He looked around.  There was one clear leader, and lots of men who seemed to be angry with him.  He gulped back his anxieties, and slowly stepped forward and approached the leader.  He opened his arms and gave him a hug and told him that he loved him and respected him and honored him.  There was a moment of great tension, and then the Arab grinned ear to ear and hugged him back.  For the rest of the evening they were buddies.  They sat next to each other at dinner and shared stories.  The moment was transformed.

The circle closed, holding in all of these stories.  The funny ones and the sad ones, the deep ones and the seemingly unimportant ones.  I felt pushed in so many directions.  I was so amazed to be surrounded by this community, and so touched that no matter what people had been taught or experienced, they had  chosen to come to this sulha event.  We went back to the bonfire for more music and a closing song, and then the night was over.  We piled back into the car, and started back towards Jerusalem.

Even as I write this, I feel like the drums are still beating through my feet and the music is in my ears.  I still can smell the bonfire in my hair.  And the stories keep weaving their way through my heart.  I know this isn’t a political solution, or a formally effective global strategy; and, I know that love can be stronger than hate.  May the bonds that were created at the sulha last night continue to grow.  May our shared stories weave together, and create a framework for a shared narrative and a shared future.  May we each be empowered to create acts of kindness and love in the world, and may these small acts have infinite impact.  May our love and honor for each other grow to be so strong that hate has no power.  This is my prayer.  Amen, Selah.