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Photos: Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
People dance in the streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa, Israel, for the 25th Holiday of Holidays festival, which celebrates religious diversity.

Most days, I find news about Israel completely depressing. Then along comes a story about an annual three-religion celebration there, and I’m reminded that not everyone associated with the 70-year-old nation and its neighbors is keen on in endless war.

Dina Kraft writes at the Christian Science Monitor. “In the port city of Haifa, two young art curators, one Jewish and one a Palestinian citizen of Israel, are dealing with something decidedly less fraught [than the daily news]: They are planning the logistics of an art installation that will include 88 pounds of white pepper, za’atar, sumac, and ginger.

“The piece is an exploration of what notions of ‘home’ mean, a loaded concept in a land claimed by two peoples. It is planned as a centerpiece of a new art exhibition for the Holiday of Holidays, the only event of its kind in Israel and a rare celebration of religious and cultural diversity in the fractious Middle East. The festival honors Christmas, Hanukkah, and Muslim traditions over three weekends in December in a gathering that is part block party, part intercultural artistic extravaganza. …

“Every year there is a different theme and this one is ‘the third dimension,’ an invitation to look at what happens when different cultures and identities influence each other to create something new – a hybrid space – as Yael Messer describes it. Ms. Messer is curator of the art gallery run by the Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center. Messer, who is Jewish, is going over plans with Haneen Abed, her deputy, a Palestinian Israeli, in their shared office. The staff of the center is made up of both Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

“The story of the Holiday of Holidays is also the story of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Haifa likes to bill itself – though not without criticism – as the country’s capital of coexistence, a place where Jewish and Arab residents live more integrated lives.

“Across the country, most Jews and Arabs live separately even in so-called mixed towns and cities, such as Haifa, where the two groups usually inhabit different neighborhoods. Social interaction is especially rare.

“But the festival brings together people from both sides of the demographic divide to dance to music performed on outdoor stages, on streets festooned with holiday lights. Arabs and Jews together follow the path of food and literary tours through the alleyways and streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, eating local offerings like hummus and baklava at food stalls and attending concerts of liturgical music at churches. The massive undertaking is organized by Beit HaGefen and funded by the city of Haifa.

“Upstairs from Messer and Ms. Abed, their colleague Hila Goshen, the cultural director of Beit HaGefen, has her laptop open to a color-coded schedule of the festival’s events.

“ ‘It seems like every year there is some war, or military operation, or suicide bombing that happens [during the planning season] and we ask, “What are we doing, bringing people together to hear music and hear each other?” ‘ says Ms. Goshen. ‘And then the festival happens and this place looks like the most normal place on earth. The magic happens.’ …

“She says the example of the gathering, brief as it is, shows this concept of shared society, a place where Arabs and Jews can live together and lead equal lives.

“ ‘I know all our issues are not being solved in this festival,’ she says. ‘But even having this kind of exposure to thinking a little bit differently is a seed we have to plant.’

“Some critics believe this is gauzy naiveté. They argue that people really come to the festival for the food, not the message of unity. But [Asaf Ron, the director of Beit HaGefen,] disagrees.

“ ‘I don’t think people come for the hummus or the knafeh,’ he says. ‘I think they come for the hope.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here. Check out past posts about the three religions interacting as the Daughters of Abraham, here, and in the pliable time of youth, here.

And for extra inspiration, click here to learn about the Parents Circle Family Forum, a beacon of light in Israel that brings together the bereaved on both sides of the conflict who understand that ending it can only come from the ground up.

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Photo: The Economist
A statue of Juha, the wise old fool of Arab folklore.

It’s interesting to me that all cultures seem to have something like a wonton as part of their cuisine. Jewish cooks make kreplach, Italians make ravioli, Polish cooks make pierogis, and so on. We have more in common than we often realize.

The same goes for folktales. For example, most cultures have a wise fool, like the old court jesters or Don Quixote. I just learned about an Arab example.

The Economist comments, “Western audiences have grown used to the marauding heroes of Arabic folklore. Characters like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba instantly conjure images of hidden treasure and desperate sword fights. But in the Middle East itself, many people prefer a more down-to-earth figure: Juha, a wise old fool, and his long-suffering donkey. …

“Juha first appeared in an Arabic book of the ninth century, though this was likely adapted from an older oral tradition. From there, Juha quickly splintered to the far ends of the Mediterranean world. He followed the Arabs to Sicily, where he became known as Giufà. In Turkey, his legend merged with a Sufi mystic called Nasruddin, while the Ottomans exported him to the Balkans. Some even claim that Juha inspired Cervantes’s ‘Don Quixote.’ …

“In some tales, Juha is accompanied by his faithful donkey and much amusement springs from it getting lost. One story begins with Juha looking for the animal around town; everywhere he goes, he thanks God. People are confused. ‘Why are you praising God?’ they ask. ‘Surely this is nothing to be thankful for?’ Juha smiles. ‘If I were riding the donkey right now, I’d be lost too!’

“Not all Juha’s tales are so innocent. Like court jesters in medieval Europe, his everyman style has proved an ideal vehicle for social criticism. In one fable, Juha is approached by a proud king. ‘All the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them,’ he proclaims. ‘There was God-gifted, and God-accepted. Can you think of a name for me?’ Juha pauses. “God-forbid,’ comes his retort. …

“Ali Ahmed Bakathir, an Egyptian nationalist, reimagined the fable of ‘Juha’s nail’ in 1951 to mock Britain’s obsession with the Suez Canal (just as Juha keeps ownership of a single nail at his old house so he always has an excuse to visit, Bakathir suggested that the British used Suez to justify their occupation of Egypt generally). …

“Amid the confusion of the modern Middle East, Juha is one way people find common ground. Last year, storytellers from around the Gulf met in the United Arab Emirates to celebrate Juha. The internet provides another space for communal appreciation. A popular Reddit page features dozens of volunteers reading a classic Juha story in their native Arabic dialect.”

More at the Economist, including sightings of Juha in unlikely parts of the world, here.

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A Syrian actor who visited a refugee camp, felt compassion for the children, and returned to help them put on a play decided to start at the top. Only the best playwright would do.

From the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, NY Times reporter Ben Hubbard describes the scene: “On a rocky patch of earth in this sprawling city of tents and prefab trailers, the king, dressed in dirty jeans and a homemade cape, raised his wooden scepter and announced his intention to divide his kingdom. His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewelry, showered him with false praise, while the youngest spoke truthfully and lost her inheritance.

“So began a recent adaptation here of King Lear. For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy. All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. …

“ ‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,’ said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor known at home for his role in ‘Bab al-Hara,’ an enormously popular historical drama that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.

“Last year, he and his French wife moved to Jordan, where friends invited him to help distribute aid in Zaatari. …

“Children he met in the camp made him promise to return, and he did — with a plan to show the world that the least fortunate Syrian refugees could produce the loftiest theater. …

“The mere fact that the play was performed was enough for the few hundred spectators. Families living in nearby tents brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders so they could see. …

“The crowd burst into applause, and a number of the leading girls broke into tears. Mr. Bulbul said they were overwhelmed because it was the first time anyone had clapped for them.”

More here, at the NY Times, where you can also see a slide show and watch a video about the refugee-camp theater initiative.

Photo: Warrick Page for The New York Times

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Gene Sharp (founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and the go-to guy on nonviolent revolution) is proof that one and one and 50 make a million. Sharp is one man, but his writings have had a powerful influence on many of the players in the 2011 Arab Spring and democracy movements elsewhere.

Today I went with Jane’s family to see a movie about Sharp at the Boston Film Festival. (Jane’s cousin, Ruaridh Arrow, directed it.) It’s a remarkable film. There were interviews with organizers of nonviolent change in Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, and beyond. The documentary was interspersed with news footage and video from recent uprisings around the world. A key message is that change takes strategic planning (you can’t wing it) and is a kind of armed resistance, only people are armed with ideas for undermining the pillars that support an oppressive regime. In addition to conducting research on the subject of nonviolence, Sharp has offered a list of 198 techniques that effect change.

After a standing ovation, a frail Gene Sharp, 83, his assistant, Jamila Raqib, and nonviolent-change trainer Col. Robert Helvey, retired, came up on the stage with the director and took audience questions. Raqib was asked about the funding for the Albert Einstein Institution, which operates out of a small space in East Boston. She said that likely funders back off because the ideas do relate to overthrowing a government. The institution is struggling.

I wish you could have been there to hear a young woman stand up and say that she is Egyptian and took  part in the January uprising. She said the overthrow of the government was easy but the rebuilding is hard. She wanted to know if any studies had been done comparing the transitions to democracy of other uprisings. When Sharp said that studies had yet to be done, I couldn’t help thinking what a good use of new funding such research might be. The film itself was funded by large and small donations from around the world through Kickstarter, which I blogged about here. Perhaps it can kickstart nonviolent change elsewhere.

Update: Gene Sharp died at his home in East Boston on January 28, 2018. He was 90.

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