“Cuando uno atribuye todos los errores a los otros y se cree irreprochable, está preparando el retorno de la violencia, revestida de un vocabulario nuevo, adaptada a unas circunstancias inéditas. Comprender al enemigo quiere decir también descubrir en qué nos parecemos a él.” – Tzvetan Todorov

jueves, 18 de marzo de 2010

My Mideast conference in Madrid - Ruth Eglash - Palestine Note

My Mideast conference in Madrid
Ruth Eglash
Blog Post
Palestine Note
18 marzo 2010

It looks like any other shopping mall. Colorful window displays pull in patrons already overloaded with shopping bags, promotional stands selling mobile phones cater to customers searching for an upgrade and tired shoppers rejuvenate their intense outing with a coffee at one of the central cafés.

For me, being in Amman's flagship City Mall is not a straight forward shopping trip. Even though I would love to take my time and browse some of the British chain stores or local outlets, being here is a cultural eye-opener and part of an on-going process to break down my perceptions of Arabs and Muslims that have been drummed into me practically since birth.

As a British Jew with an Israeli father, I was always made to believe that Arabs were our enemies. My convictions were compounded by big and small historical events - too many to mention here - over the past century, as well as personal brushes with terrorism since moving to Jerusalem 15 years ago.

Even though I witnessed the jubilations in Israel over the 1994 peace treaty between my country and Jordan, I was under no illusion that warm relations existed between our two nations and despite several encounters with Arabs living in Israel, breaking away from the classic stereotypes and standing up against what has been ingrained into your brain is not an easy task for anyone.

As I sipped my frozen fruit juice and watched Jordanian shoppers enjoy their free-time, I realized that just by being here I had almost managed to reverse that brain-washing process and accept that all people, whatever their beliefs or views, are human beings.

It has been a difficult process but I believe there are two factors that have really helped. The first is thanks to my education in Brent, one of London's most multi-cultural boroughs, and the other is the overwhelming sense of personal curiosity about people who are different from me - something that has propelled me to want to be a journalist ever since I can remember. There is a third reason too that has contributed to my successes at understanding my enemies and that is my personal encounters with Arabic-speaking and Muslim journalists who were just as curious about me as I was about them. In some weird way, we spoke the exact same language.

I can pinpoint exactly when my journey to challenging my own stereotypes started. It was January 2009, the 14 day of Operation Cast Lead, Israel's conflict with Hamas in the Gaza strip.

As reporter for The Jerusalem Post, I'd been covering the war from a uniquely Israeli angle and I was focused on hearing the sentiments of the Israeli people, especially those based in Sderot and the south.

However, like most people around the world I could not avoid the distressing images coming out of the Gaza Strip showing the Palestinian people's suffering. It was a tough time for me -- I naturally sympathized with my own people, those who had been victims of Hamas rockets for many years - but I started questioning whether war is justified in any context.

Against this backdrop, I suddenly found myself transported to a journalists' workshop in Madrid with 20 journalists from the Arab world, including two Palestinian writers. The night before I left to the European Union-sponsored event, I found myself with palpitations and I had a deep anxiety in my heart as to how the others would react towards me.

As we sat down to the session on the first morning, the organizers asked us to introduce ourselves, our media and the country we were from. It was the first time in my life that I had been in a room with so many Arabs, even though there is a large population in Israel we rarely interact. My heart was beating fast as I mumbled to the group that my name was Ruth Eglash from the Jerusalem Post in Israel.

"Speak louder," instructed the organizer.

"Ruth Eglash from The Jerusalem Post in Israel," I said clearing my throat and trying not to catch the eyes of anyone else in the room.

There was not too much reaction to my presence on that first morning until a young Palestinian journalist broke the ice by speaking to me in Hebrew. Gathering for the introductory meal in the evening, I felt more relaxed and was ready to answer the questions of those who suddenly seemed intrigued by my presence.

They weren't nice to me. They were all journalists, after all, and they grilled me with questions about the Gaza conflict. It was tough, but they were willing to listen to me, did not shout or make it personal. It was an open dialogue about the issues on a micro and macro scale and the conclusion was amicable.

I was shocked; it was not what I had expected.

As the days past, we began to discuss different matters. We turned our attention from war and conflict to stories about our families, where the best tourist sites and shopping spots were in Madrid, and, of course, the shared passion of food.

Obviously all trying to avoid pork, I even found myself one day sharing a Big Mac Meal with two Egyptians, a Palestinian and a Jordanian, it was a surreal experience, one that most at the United Nations would be jealous of!

Health issues aside, I realized that it is exactly these experiences that are needed to dispel stereotypes about the enemy.

While our days in Spain came and passed, thanks to new technology -- email, Facebook, Twitter and more - I continued to be in touch with my new friends, especially one Jordan Times journalist who had more in common with me than most others I have met in my life.

It was this connection that pushed me to visit Jordan a few months after the Madrid conference. It was a trip I took against the advice of my father and with surprised reactions from neighbors and friends.

Arriving on the other side of the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, my newly found Jordanian journalist friend showed me traditional hospitality, insisting on showing me every historic and cultural site in Jordan. Later, I reciprocated his hospitality when he visited Israel. West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Jaffa were all on our tour list.

From here I could go on to describe both of our reactions to visiting the others country but what is more important to point out is what we have learned from our interactions with each other. How he has felt free to ask questions about Judaism and its connection to Israel and how he has helped erase my ignorance about Islam and the Arab world.

Obviously neither of us provide a complete picture of the other persons culture and religion, there is a wide range of views that each group of people express, but we are both journalists and we can just keep on asking.

For my part, these interactions with journalists from the Arab world has helped to see the people of this region more clearly and to realized that differences aside we are all just human beings, who love eating, shopping and life. We all have more in common than we realize.

I know its clichéd, and I am sure that many in either camp will say this is naïve, but ignorance breeds hatred. It is much easier to justify hating someone that you do not know as opposed to making the effort to understand and accept the differences between you.

Anyway, I am sure you are all wondering why I am taking the time to tell you this story. My Jordanian colleague and I were trying to find a story that could highlight the commonalities between our countries but the more we investigated certain issues - refugees, education, health and more - we realized it would only show the hate, anger and strengthen the stereotypes held by all in this region.

Stories of co-existence and shared projects about our two countries are not sexy enough for the mainstream media, they do not sell papers and in some circles are frowned upon for normalizing relations. That is why we decided to tell our personal stories -- if we can change our opinions, anyone can.

My Mideast conference in Madrid - Blog Post

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