Bridges Across the World’s Divides

Bridges Across the World’s Divides

Monday, 19. October 2009

Lucy NusseibehOne of the panelists at the recent Caux Forum for Human Security, Lucy Nusseibeh’s own life has been a story of building bridges – initially the cultural divide between upper middle class British society and her husband’s circumstances as a dispossessed Palestinian aristocrat.

As her husband Sari Nussebeih tells it in his book Once Upon a Country: a Palestinian life: ‘Lucy was the daughter of John Austin, one of England’s mightiest modern philosophers, and I was the nineteen-year-old son of a man who had spent the last twenty years serving a Jordanian-administered Palestine, an entity recently wiped off the map in six brief days. Lucy was expected to marry into the British intelligentsia and to pursue a dazzling academic career of her own. By contrast, I no longer had a country, and the old ruling class my father represented had been plunged into a crisis from which it would never recover.’

But, as he explains later in the book, love conquered all and bridged that divide, for Lucy had already spent time in her future husbands’ country while on tour with an Oxford choir, and had begun to identify with the landscape, history, language, and people with as much avidity as a native.

For the last 30 years she has lived in Palestine. ‘It is impossible to live somewhere where there is terrible conflict without feeling the need to do something about it.’ she says.

Inspired since childhood by Gandhi’s use of non-violent struggle to bring change, in 1998 Lucy set up MEND (Middle East Non-violence and Democracy), an organization that works in the area of non-violence among Palestinians. ‘At first our projects revolved around non-violence training in schools and include developing materials for teachers, finding ways for girls to stay in school, trying to use film, Internet and other forms of media to promote alternatives to violence,’ she says.

In partnership with an English company, MEND developed a ‘participatory video’ methodology, training small groups, particularly youth and women, to make and view their own films. They have also produced a training manual and a radio soap opera to promote the idea of non-violence.

However, the last few years have seen the violence escalate. ‘Both societies are traumatized, for different historical reasons,’ she told the Caux Forum. Added to this is the trauma of a conflict where civilians have become targets, leading to the demonization of entire populations ‘so that all become enemies’ and none are seen as innocent. The result, she says, is a ‘seige mentality’ where people are ‘stuck in the mindset of victimhood’.

She describes this as ‘a mindset that projects all the evil onto the other/the enemy and denies any evil in the sufferer’, making it it impossible for those who see themselves as victims to acknowledge that they themselves also cause suffering.

It is, she says, an unconsious mechanism. ‘One way to deal with it is to bring it into consciousness. By reflection and awareness of the fact that we are not entirely virtuous, we start to free up space in this cycle of dehumanization.

‘By looking at our shadow selves, we can create a non-judgemental space for a dialogue where people can speak without blaming and can also therefore listen without feeling judged and condemned.

‘The main thing is to create a space for dealing with past wrongs is by acknowledging one’s own guilt and listening.

‘Thus we can start to break through the psychological barriers in a conflict and progress to real intercultural dialogue based on curiosity and caring and pave a way to peace.’

At the moment, MEND’s focus is on working with senior government officials, academics, and civil society activists to organize ‘town hall’ style meetings, particularly with women and youth representatives. The meetings look at the impact of violence on Palestinian society, while reflecting on human security and the needs of Palestinians.

As well as the ongoing work with schools in Palestine and Israel, Mend has organized two training sessions for Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate on projects. ‘Ultimately,’ Lucy says, ‘we hope to set up a ministry for non-violence. Other countries have military service, but Palestine does not have an army. So Palestinian youth could spend a year in community service. This would change the view of how people perceive Palestinians. A lot of it is about breaking stereotypes’

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by Susan Korah, Adrianna Bora and Mike Lowe