Thursday, 16 July 2015

How can we open dialogue and engage with the Other? Miriam Halahmy

Alix confronting the gang who have bullied Samir for being foreign ; scene read by girls of Elizabeth Garret Anderson school : July 2015
Rescuing Samir from the sea : Paris stage play of HIDDEN, June 2015

In June 2015 a play of my novel HIDDEN was staged in Paris by students from a school where I ran workshops on Peace and Tolerance last year. HIDDEN has proved to be a key to helping my readers think about the Other in our society and how we could or should engage. The big debates today about terrorism, religious extremism, migration, people dying at sea and even a neo-Nazi demo planned in Golders Green against 'Jewish privilege' raising the spectre of the Holocaust again - all these debates are played out in front of our children and our young people. In order to help young people to open their minds and provide them with the tools to engage with the debates, we need first of all to educate ourselves.

In April 2007 I attended a three day conference on European Jewish Muslim dialogue in Brussels.
This is an extract from the article I wrote at the time.

Dialogue is a very delicate instrument.

 Brussels : April 2007, I found myself sitting at breakfast with two distinguished religious figures, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid. Both these figures have been major players in Interfaith dialogue for over thirty years in Britain, setting benchmarks for progress and hope.

Where does dialogue begin and what is its role in healing a fractured world?
"The fight against Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is a common fight which Jewish and Muslims communities should fight together – shoulder to shoulder", Imam Sajid maintains.
Listening is surely the most important part of beginning and as I sipped my coffee our talk turned to children and grandchildren.
Dialogue is the process of discovering that the Other is a reflection of ourselves with the same needs and the same deep seated aspirations.

Imam Sajid said that the only way forward since 9/11 is “Dialogue with dignity. Let us constantly remind ourselves that anti-Semitism is far from dead in Europe. As a Muslim, I have noted that whenever there is Islamophobia or hatred against Muslims, the signs of anti-Semitism are not far behind".

However, achieving widespread and lasting dialogue is a modern hot potato. Entering into dialogue usually feels and sounds like agreement with the Other. Israelis avoid dialogue with Palestinians in case it sounds as though they agree with wiping out the State of Israel. Palestinians avoid dialogue with Israelis in case it sounds as though they agree with the Occupation.

The question therefore arises, How can you have dialogue without agreeing? Godfrey Spencer, specialist in mediation and conflict resolution, demonstrated the answer in a very powerful workshop on mediation. Spencer pointed out that dialogue without agreement involves the recognition of the same deep-seated needs and aspirations on both sides. It also requires a commitment to listening to our enemies.

Taking the role of mediator, Spencer set up a role play between two Dutch delegates, representing a female Dutch Muslim MP, born in Morocco and Geert Wilders, a Dutch right wing MP, who expresses extreme views about the rising numbers of Muslims living in the Netherlands.
“Why do you hate us?” asked the Muslim MP.
“Is that a need for information?” interpreted Spencer, in his role of mediator.
“Why do you wear headscarves, you look stupid? You need to demonstrate that you are part of the Netherlands,” said Wilders.
“Is that a need for community?” asked the mediator.

Dialogue helps to defuse fear and particularly fear of the future, which becomes a very present fear and threatens to overwhelm us all. The Dutch right wing are afraid of losing their national culture. The Dutch Muslims are afraid they will be faced with genocide if the extreme right wing prevails. The mediator verbalised this as both sides having a deep seated need for safety. Ultimately the workshop effectively demonstrated that both sides had exactly the same needs. In communication there are no losers or winners. Win/Win is the only path to dialogue and healing.

Samir begs Alix to help him hide the asylum seeker they have just rescued from the sea to save him from being deported.
One of the most powerful experiences on this Conference was provided by Dialogue in the Dark (DID).  We all entered a totally blacked out room where the only way to survive is to co-operate. Completely blind, our group of seven had to find a seat at a table, put together pieces of an unknown object and pour boiling water into cups for tea and coffee.
Co-operating to put together our mysterious pieces, which turned out to be a Russian doll, we learnt both negotiation and flexibility, daring to risk breaking the rules to achieve our goal. As one delegate said, “Dialogue in the Dark opened our eyes.”
 DID is not an experience in simulating blindness but a metaphor for stress. It asks, “How can we put people, who have never met each other, under sufficient pressure which will strengthen them and encourage them to overcome hurdles together?”
 It is a process which leads groups towards meaningful dialogue with each other and encourages us to sharpen all our senses towards healing the divisions in our world.

It is the Middle East crisis which has triggered the development of Jewish/Muslim dialogue across Europe in the last few years. With the rise in both Islamaphobia and Anti-Semitism in Europe, the two communities are seeking common ground and support through dialogue. 

Yom Ha Shoah, the Jewish commemoration day for the victims of the Holocaust, occurred during the conference.  All the delegates, Jewish and Muslim, gathered in the dining room,  a yarzheit (memorial) candle  was lit and we held a minute’s silence, in harmony and shared respect.

“Dialogue is a very delicate instrument,” says Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. "The encounter, seeing the Other through ourselves, is an end in itself. We have to redefine ourselves in relation to each other, rather than in opposition.There is a revolution going on between the Jewish and Muslim communities and we are witnesses. The responsibility to move into dialogue towards healing and peace and away from disharmony and conflict lies with us."

As one young man wrote in my Paris workshops on Peace : You said sorry but you're not the only one. I know you suffered and I did too. But we're still here, in this world, maybe as strangers, but as humans. So raise your hands above the waves of sorrow and burn the sadness away. Samih Hazbon, 18, from Syria now living in Paris

Our children and young people need help to cope with the troubling things they hear about and see on TV and the grownups need to find ways to help them in an increasingly bewildering world. But as Samih's words tell us - we should never lose hope and never stop trying to reach out.

The girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school who asked some amazing questions about the issues raised in HIDDEN : July 2015
Elizabeth Garret Anderson girls at the Jewish Museum with me in 2014 - studying the passport of a German Jew, 1930s, stamped with a red J for Jew.


Emma Barnes said...

A moving post, Miriam. Sometimes there are no easy answers.

Anne Booth said...

V inspiring. You do such good work. Thank you so much.