Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

stumbling into spirit

May 7th, 2012

Center of the Storm (my interpretation for this painting) by Rajaa Hoteit

Center of the Storm (my interpretation for this painting) by Rajaa Hoteit

Palestine Monologues was received with enthusiasm by an audience of 200 people, most of whom stood throughout the performance in an outdoor grove at Lebanese-American University in Beirut. The play’s title aptly signals “monologues,” as the lead characters (Israeli soldiers, a Palestinian woman and man) issue forth their own views on the situation with barely any interaction. The stark separation of their respective monologues is mirrored in the bilingual performance: English (standing in for Hebrew) spoken by the Israeli characters and Arabic by the Palestinian characters.

Setting for the play, Palestine Monologues, at Lebanese-American University.

Setting for the play, Palestine Monologues, at Lebanese-American University.

I was surprised at how non-ideologic the play by Sonja Linden turns out to be. There are many of the usual tropes – the repetitions of historical fact that do nothing to alter the current (future) terrain of possibility – but also an earnest plea for change, for youth to “get involved” and “be concerned” because this affects your/our future. By non-ideologic, I mean that the playwright and the performers gesture toward representing the humanity of both sides. There are still some lapses – perhaps purposeful, definitely politically rhetorical – that are disingenuous, such as the assertion, “This is not a security wall; this is a political wall.”  Actually, it is both: somehow this reality must be recognized if any movement is going to occur. (Although, the Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani put the culture in perspective for me by saying it all comes down to the love of negotiation. During his fundraiser for SANAD on Sunday night, he said the Palestinians and Israelis might get down to signing a complete settlement and then they would begin to argue over who would get to keep the pen.)

Context: We should probably call the conference, “Dialogue under Preoccupation”

This one needs no explanation, right? by Rajaa Hoteit

This one needs no explanation, right? by Rajaa Hoteit

The muzzein’s periodic song grounds the audio landscape in Beirut.  One can hear it both outside and over the news from Al-Jazeera playing on the tv in the hotel room. I’ve been exploring the city while musing on how to organize my “roundtable” at the Dialogue Under Occupation conference which opens tomorrow night on the campus of Lebanese-American University.

The highlights have been meeting Rajaa Hoteit and Ferdaous Naili. Rajaa’s paintings were on exhibition at the Ministry of Tourism, which we passed only by chance. “Welcome to Lebanon. Welcome to my exhibit,”  she said after we talked about several of her paintings. I was hooked at first glance: anyone who can illustrate so deeply the turn to nature for inspiration after horrific devastation wins my heart. Ferdaous got me a seat at the student performance of Palestine Monologues, providing background info on the LAU Communication Arts program – especially the theatre emphasis on producing one’s own play. What gelled in my mind, after watching the play and (earlier today) the video of my workshop session at Dialogue under Occupation (DUO) IV, is how difficult it is to gain – and especially to then hold onto – insight about our own positioning and placement in historical time.

How soon we forget: Repression 101

Blooms in the midst of devastation, by Rajaa Hoteit

Blooms in the midst of devastation, by Rajaa Hoteit

Thing is, I’ve met equally bright lights who are Jewish, including Israelis. It could be that there are Israelis who feel their nationality before their religion, as another non-constructive trope in the play would have it: “…before anything else, I am an Israeli!”  If Israeli pride had been framed in the same spirit with which Maz Jobrani teased the Lebanese about their version of group pride (“We’re not Arabs!  We’re Lebanese!), that would have meant something else – something that recognizes the essential human desire to belong, to be connected with “a people” rather than afloat as a solo, autonomous “individual” with no ties that bind in any direction whatsoever. Palestine Monologues opens with a couple of Israeli soldiers recounting the rapid descent into hell that accompanies conscription at age 18. First there’s fear, then dehumanization, then boredom – which (according to the first person testimony used as script for the play) is when the game begins. The rifle becomes “not a weapon, [but] a way to pass the time.” That other human being? After awhile, “you don’t even notice he’s there.” This is the modern description of how repression occurs: first you forget, then you forget that you forgot. I find myself remembering what I have forgotten over and over again: realization slipping back into the fog until an external spark draws that knowledge back to conscious mind.

Checkpoints and the possibility of Intervention

Students line up, eager to see Palestine Monologues at LAU.

Students line up, eager to see Palestine Monologues at LAU.

Language, as amazing and wonderfully expressive as it is, can also be a trap. That’s the power of discourses, to capture our energy and attention and suck us into repeating only the already established ways of saying things. What was most compelling about the response of the youth to the impassioned finale of Palestine Monologues is how fervently they indicate a desire for change, and yet how far away we (all of us) are from articulating that change: from finding novel ways of talking that break old patterns and therefore create new ways of relating in social and political reality.  As a discourse analyst interested in breaking established power relations and re-formulating new modes of interacting based in an a structure that (at least roughly) enables equalized life chances, I find that it is much easier to find evidence of failure to change the patterns than it is to find evidence of effective transformations – however, the transformations are possible!

In a chapter written for a media text, Examining Education, Media, and Dialogue under Occupation: The Case of Palestine and Israel, my co-authors and I pose a definition of dialogue that attempts to wrest the concept and practice of dialogue back from its watering-down to some amalgamation of ‘conversation’ and ‘debate.’  Dialogue is more than trading tropes of understanding or barbs of accusation in endless monologues. Dialogue is an engagement with others in which all of the participants (me, you) are open to being changed by each other. The changes could be in understanding of self or other, of history, of the meaning(s) of things: ultimately, to allow myself to be changed by you means I open myself to be rocked from the certainty of inherited preoccupations.

This is the terrain of courage. Some stories are worth holding onto; other stories damage the possibility of a livable future for us all.  We must to learn to tell the difference.

Beirut, Lebanon

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Categories: anti-war, Dialogue Under Occupation, Reflexivity, Series

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