Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I was talking to a conflict researcher the other day, who mentioned to me the positive effects of storytelling on trauma recovery and reconciliation. While he was coming at it from an angle backed by years and years of research, dissertations, journal articles and fieldwork, everything he was saying really resonated with the research I've done on spoken word and hiphop. Whether it be recovery from a horrible breakup, a traumatic childhood, a violent encounter, or life under an oppressive system; the words we use to tell our stories define and shape how we will live the rest of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves create our memories, histories, beliefs, values and ideals. I know this is true, because I've both experienced it first hand and can point to many artists who use it for this very purpose (whether they realize it or not).

Those who do realize this healing property have always been the ones who are most interesting to me. The ability to heal and reconcile with words is a power that artists are blessed with, and many use it not only to heal themselves, but heal others around them. While it is most beneficial, in my opinion, to tell your own story, many of us cannot or will not. So when there is an artist who has the ability and means to tell the silenced perspective, it legitimizes that perspective into something beyond the margin. Something powerful, undeniable and real.

The denial of legitimate perspective causes ripples of pain throughout a culture. These pains manifest themselves in the words people use to describe their history. And-- as many of you know-- the words we use to describe our past mold the lens through which we view our future. These wounds cut deep: they are not healed by handshakes, revenge nor by reparations. In this way, it's quite interesting for me to look at how people use art as a tool to legitimize their narrative. You may disagree with what the artist says, or you may agree and want to mobilize, but the point is, by putting it out there, it becomes real and accessible to the masses. It becomes a "thing" instead of "nothing", and regardless of its validity, its existence can no longer be denied.

But what precisely is it about this repetition of narrative that causes us to heal? Indeed, putting it out there once is therapeutic, but I think it is the repetition that actually is the key to emancipating oneself from the trauma of the actual event. I often find that in telling and retelling a story, the perspective not only becomes fact, but more importantly, it manifests as almost a separate entity entirely. Eventually, we realize that we are not our stories alone-- that it is the power of reclaiming our story that is perhaps even more important than the story itself. Maybe it is the process of reclamation that helps legitimize our voices, not only allowing our stories and perspectives to step out of obscurity, but our very selves as well.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On anger and suffering

I've been thinking a lot about the intersection of emotions-- specifically the distinction and overlap between suffering and anger. Obviously, it is the very intersection between these emotions which perpetuates conflict and prevents healing-- both internal and external. Kubler Ross wrote about the stages of grief and listed anger as one of the necessary stages, a stage at which a person may become fixated and never fully recover. When talking to refugees or relatives of refugees, as well as Israelis or those who align themselves with the Zionism, I am often in the face of much anger and aggression if I do not fully agree with their perspective. In a zero sum conflict such as this one, any mere acknowledegment of the other side is often viewed as treacherous and vile. I become as evil as the "enemy" if I even acknowledge the existence of the other side. (In fact, I've already been verbally attacked for even my desire to visit Israel and the West Bank.) And I, being the very sensitive and defensive person I unfortunately am, often have to pause to remind myself that in many of these situations, the words actually have their root in immense pain disguised as anger.

The more I am faced with these encounters, the more I call into question the ability of any third party to assist in peace talks. On the one hand, being a complete third party is advantageous: it allows us to see both sides clearly. On the other hand, I cannot shake this feeling that sustainable peace will only become a reality when both parties truly want it-- and I don't just mean political leaders.  (Not to mention the fact that, as an American, I am not truly a third party.) But this is exactly why I feel so privileged for being able to go on this trip. We are not going in as outsiders to give then a solution or to "solve" the conflict for them with our infinite American wisdom (note sarcasm) but rather to learn from them- what are they doing to address this aspect of the conflict? How do they mobilize their communities in times of great suffering and fear?  We will be meeting local community leaders, activists and academics from both Israel and Palestine who work together in resolving this environmental crisis-- a crisis which will eventually affect everyone in the region.

Perhaps this will change when I arrive (and I will write about it if it does) but I do not see this as a hopeless conflict. There is an incredible ability that we as humans have-- the ability to survive against all odds and I think much of this survival is related to hope. Not to be completely ironic here, but Viktor Frankl often wrote about the impact of hope and sense of purpose on the rate of mortality (Frankl created this theory while prisoner in a concentration camp).  I can't help but think of this when I talk to Palestinians --who have endured a different yet still painful systemic oppression and human rights violations-- and yet some have chosen to turn their pain and loss into something productive for the peace process.

Though we hardly hear about them here, they exist and are growing in both israel and the occupied territories . From the Israeli mother whose peace loving son was killed by a suicide bomber to the man whose 13 year old brother was detained for his supposed involvement in the 2nd intifada , who was released a year later only to die within days of his release from injuries obtained from "interrogation", these stories cannot help but cause anger and polarization. And yet these are the very people who can (and do) stand up and say enough. Enough with the pain, violence and suffering. Enough with the dehumanization. Enough. Though now they seem to be the minority, a mere exception to the blanket rule of all Israelis are "this" and all Palestinians are "that", I have faith that soon their voices will drown out and extinguish all the hateful and extreme rhetoric.

 One organization I admire greatly is the Parents Circle Families Forum because they seek to do just that. They  break down the generalized and hostile narratives of each side by showing the conflict from a personal, rather than political, perspective of suffering. This helps with decategorization, in that it exposes the category of "other" as false through humanization,  and it also helps with supercategorization, in that it creates a bond through human suffering and experience between ingroup and outgroup members. In plain english, it accomplishes its goal by creating a dialogue on a person to person level through the telling of stories. You can check them out here:

As one Palestinian peace activist told me, anger and revenge get you nowhere; they only bring more pain. And as simple as that statement is, I can't help but ask myself if I would be that strong. Truly, I have much to learn. 

Monday, December 21, 2009


This is a feeling that is all too familiar. Tightly shoving as many articles of clothing as possible into a ridiculously small duffel bag, avoiding saying goodbye to as many people as possible, waking up in the middle of the night in a frenzy about the whereabouts of my passport/flight details/suitcase/brain, et cetera. There's a lovely panic to the preparations of travel, and although this is just a short trip for me (relatively speaking) it is a much needed and long-awaited one. As much as I hate to admit it, I really do think I'm just one of those people who thrives amidst chaos, and honestly, what better chaos is there than one involving 12 hour plane rides? I am really ready to leave D.C. and go on an adventure of sorts, even if it is for just under a month.

Today I received the reading list and "extra" reading materials that I need to internalize before I depart. It is the most intimidating yet fascinating zip file I've seen in a while. "Advancing Human Security Through the Sharing of Water Perspectives in the Middle East" "The Formation of Environmental Conflicts in Israeli Arab Towns: Case Studies from a Changing Galilee" and so on. I'm quite excited to dig into this reading, and am convinced that by the end of it I will be the life of every party and holiday function to come. (Speaking of which, at a dinner party last night a young man-- undoubtedly charmed by my wit-- asked me what I was doing in Israel. About 20 seconds into my explanation his eyes began to glaze over. Awesome.)

But enough with the silliness. Onward to geeky ramblings about what I've learned thus far:

Something I'm interested in studying within this specific layer of this conflict is the way it can be viewed through the lens of identity. While environmental policy and identity don't seem to overlap in any obvious manner, it is important to understand the ways a nation view themselves (and consequently, the outgroup) because it will undoubtedly impact their manner and willingness to negotiate certain key points.

Just gathering from what I've studied this past semester, the concept of nationhood is paramount. Viewed as a basic human need, the desire for acknowledgement and legitimization has long been a point of contention between both parties of this conflict. Land is not something easily negotiated-- particularly on a grassroots level, since it involves people's homes and livelihoods as well as their access to natural resources. It is, without a doubt, attached to the very identity of the people living on it. Therefore, in addition to the mere logistical difficulty of negotiating land, it is imperative to understand what land actually means to both parties.

Historically, the territory known as Palestine was never autonomously controlled. Instead, it had a long history of colonial rule, under Britain and later the League of Nations, and Imperial rule, most notably under the Ottoman Empire (Khalidi, 1997). While it has been argued that "Palestinian" isn't an identity that existed prior to the creation of Israel, it is important to acknowledge that there was a people with a history and identity living in the territory. Furthermore, attachment to land via bloodlines is extremely common in Arab culture, and the concept of "selling land" is not nearly as light an issue as other cultures may perceive. (as one Lebanese friend told me: "You can have nothing, but you cannot sell your land.") This connection to the land is important to remember when discussing boundary lines between Israel and Palestine in any future two-state developments.

From the Israeli standpoint, land holds a different significance: security. As in all conflict situations, there were key events that lead up to the build up of the 1948 war over the territory, and the subsequent creation of the nation of Israel. In the 19th and 20th century, there was a rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, which some say culminated with the events of the Holocaust. As a consequence of this increase in ethnic persecution, Zionism-- as a political movement—gained popularity throughout Europe and America. This movement consists of the ideological perspective that the protection of the Jewish people could only be achieved by the construction of an ethnic Jewish state and nation.

Nations are strong communities that share historical narrative and perceive a shared future. Within the concept of a nation, there exists the phenomenon of imagined community (Anderson, 1991). This phenomenon is characterized by the common belief in a bond that ties each person living as a part of the physical territory of the nation. Each person within the boundary of the nation is believed to hold some similar perspective and perception (Anderson, 1991) This shared perspective, both draws the nation together as well as distinguishes the boundary between itself and other nations.

With a conflict such as this one, that involves disputes even regarding the mythic history and narrative of each party, it is difficult to remain objective. Almost every material published on the matter has some form of bias or slant. I will do my best to present what I learn in an objective manner. My own opinions on the conflict should not affect my ability to gauge the situation. This will prove rather difficult, considering I'm a prototypical bleeding heart, but I will try my best.

I think you've had enough for now :)

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Years Resolutions

This was inevitable. Whenever I tell people I study conflict resolution, the immediate reaction is "oh, Israel?" As if that's the only conflict in the world. But the more I immerse myself in my studies, the more I realize that while it isn't the only conflict in the world, it serves as a model for many others. I have come to understand that "Israel/Palestine" is not just one conflict but many conflicts building on top of one another. Israel/Palestine is an identity conflict. It is a geopolitical conflict. It is an ethnic conflict, and yes a religious one too. It is an assymetrical conflict. It is a conflict for security, acknowledgement and legitimacy. And finally with climate change finally escalating to a point where it drastically affects the lives of people, particularly those in poverty and conflict zones, Israel/Palestine has also become an environmental conflict. Specifically, a water conflict.

My fellow graduate research students and I will be departing the United States bright and early on 1 January 2010 to examine the aspects of environmental policy, management, and conflicts at the regional and national levels in the Middle East. We will be focusing on the Jordan River biosphere, looking at case studies of desertification, restoration, development and water crises. On a broader level, it will give us an opportunity to also examine how quickly the environment can be damaged as a result of political conflict, the need for development and carelessness.

I would get more into detail about the specifics of the conflict, but Amnesty just released a report that would make for better background reading than anything I can write at this time:
(As a warning, the rhetoric can be a bit abrasive at times.)

Anyway, I will be posting more details about the history of the region, as well as the history of this specific conflict in the weeks before I leave.

Thanks for reading!