Native Nations Rise (5 Seconds of Eternity)

She was watching from a window.

We exist. We resist. We rise.
We exist. We resist. We rise.

I waved.

She waved back, then gave the universal symbol of prayer and respect.

I returned the gesture: “I greet you. I honor you. We are connected.”

She pressed her hand to her heart.

I flashed a thumbs up.

Learning, the Permaculture Way

permacultureVOICES2015-01-24 at 8.24.56 PM

This workshop at the 2nd Permaculture Voices conference in San Diego will help you plan how to maximize your PV2 conference experience by applying a tool for lifelong learning. Learning throughout your life involves steady investments of attention, time and energy. In this session, you will acquire and work with a set of considerations that set guideposts for navigating intentional learning for as long as you want, beginning with this conference and continuing through the rest of your life. With these considerations and a tool specially designed for PV2, you’ll gain clarity about the choices that brought you to the conference, the choices you have while here, and choices you’ll have henceforth.

David Eggleton, an artist and permaculture designer, and Steph Kent, a sign language interpreter and communication activist, will introduce a system of considerations that merge learning theory with the permaculture principles. We’ll then lead you through a customized worksheet to help you optimize your path through the many rich and exciting opportunities at PV2. Applying the considerations immediately to your conference plan will reinforce their value for the long run while enabling you to get the most from your PV2 experience.

Imitation: Not only a game

The race of Ultra vs Enigma in The Imitation Game prefigures Edward Snowden, #Anonymous, and the Lizard Squad.

The Imitation Game is impressive in two distinct ways. One is the deployment of cinematic license to dramatically convey what Turing expert Professor S. Barry Olson describes as “the objective truth” about the invention of the counter-machine that cracked Enigma, the Nazis supposedly unbreakable coding machine.

However, Christian Caryl’s criticism isn’t completely wrong: stereotypes about gay men do inform Benedict Cumberbatch’s representation of Turing, and could support homophobic attitudes about what is/isn’t a security risk. That said, Cumberbatch does strike a nice balance between the story of the man and the story of the technology within the constraints established by the script.

In the end, as far as the significance of this film goes, as much as Turing deserves to be celebrated every bit as much as, say, Stephen Hawking, in historical terms it is the computing technology that eclipses the identity of a gay man. This leads to the second, most impressive aspect of the film, which is of a certain metonymy: The Imitation Game is representative of the material birth of postmodernity, in which time and space have been collapsed by the digitalization of communication.

The Ultra project at Bletchley Park brings to mind the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Although the film rightfully celebrates Turing’s life and achievement of “the unimaginable,” like most forms of innovative knowledge his invention has a dark side, too. Unlike the development of the atomic bomb with its obviously ethical aspects, the creation of the computer appears neutral. The ubiquity of computing today feeds ambivalence about the ethics of computing which might render its unintended consequences all the more dangerous because of their subtlety.

The dark side of computing is not videogaming or social media or the proliferation of cute cats on youtube or data mining or even threats to privacy or cyberterrorism (because both of these can still be contained, if enough of us act soon and in concert). Nor is it the deep canalization of subgroups being reinforced by targeted advertising, although this may outrank all the others by perpetuating attitudes of ethnocentrism and prejudice. The difficult challenge of computing is the social construction of time as a race that only the fastest can win.

The race of Ultra vs Enigma prefigures Edward Snowden, #Anonymous, and the Lizard Squad, the latter claiming to be “working to get access to some of the core routing equipment of the Internet.” This cyber/cipher “game” is as serious now to human life and death as it was during WWII, if not more so, with the entire planet at stake. The Imitation Game should win the Oscar for its historical relevance on top of all the excellent acting and flawless production. Imitation champions anti-sexism and anti-homophobia while skirting wide of racism, “the uncontrolled imaginings of the white mind,” which make it a politically safe contender at this volatile moment of “I can’t breathe” and #BlackLivesMatter.

The imitating that Turing and contemporaries created is far more than a game. As a technology, computing has sped up the rate and pace of human social interaction. Turing’s invention was perfectly in keeping with that era of industrialization: radio, telephones and television were spreading information faster and further than ever before, and assembly lines were improving efficiencies and cranking out products at ever-increasing rates. People were (and are, even moreso now) being trained to the clock, not to any natural rhythms of the actual earth or a biological species.

Conceptualizing time and humanity’s relationship to time is tricky territory, not least because science hasn’t yet figured out where time comes from or what it is. “We’re not in a war with Germany, we’re in a war with time,” is the most important line in the film. The meaning of the scripted line is transparent in relation to the calendar and the clock, to the exigencies of battle: factually and descriptively, it is true enough. Metonymically, however, the meaning is deeply representative, even reifying, of the effect of civilization on the modern and postmodern construction of time.

It wasn’t long after the war when Claude Shannon (also a code-breaker) wrote the foundational paper on digitalization. Turing and Shannon were working on different but complementary problems at the same time. Shannon’s application of Boolean algebra is where all those 0s and 1s come from, the key being that all digitized information is forced into one or the other value. This is (so they say) a great boon for copying but there is also loss of variation, at least some of which has artistic value and intrinsic human merit.

Digitalization forces communication to flow along extremely rigid channels. All analog communication, that is, all human communication, has to be broken down into a binary code: either a zero or a one. There is no variation. (Hence, for instance, the return to vinyl for musicians attuned to the richer quality of analog sound.) The unintended consequence now known as the postmodern condition is an effect of digital forcing. Increases in the speed and ability of communication to reach across distances have outpaced humanity’s ability for sane and sustainable cultural adaptation. It’s as if human society has been sucked into a wind tunnel; people find themselves either in the main flow or in the turbulence. Few seem able to find their balance within the onrush, let alone establish positions adequate to attempt healthy and restorative counteractions.

For proper historical context and relevance, The Imitation Game needs to be understood in parallel with Citizen 4. Whether you approve of Snowden’s action or not, you should see Laura Poitras’ film capturing his conversations with journalist Glen Greenwald as news reports unfolded on our television screens and online news sources. Citizen 4 should win Best Documentary because of the time manipulation it achieves in service of art and social justice. Humans now have the means to recognize and record significant historical moments as they happen. Awards aside, to understand what The Imitation Game can teach us about living through this perilous era in human history, it is necessary to be informed about the stakes of cyber-surveillance and cyber-security’s cipher games. The new imitation game (made visible by the Sony hack with its political fallout and economic consequences) not only threatens privacy, real democracy, and genuine social justice, but is also a crucial playing field where humanity’s efforts to evolve enough to avert climate disaster will be determined.

The Imitation Game is more than a good movie; it allows a rare window for comprehensive reflection on the highest stakes of life and living, here and now.

Peak Connectivity and Social Resilience

The “intersection” in this blog entry on social resilience involves computer science and brain science. Combining the social aspect of resilience with the human-computer interface and education has potential to enhance sophisticated problem-solving around the globe. For instance, what if we gamed Twitter?

The “intersection” in this blog entry on social resilience involves computer science and brain science.

What if we gamed Twitter?
What if we gamed Twitter?

While Professor Beverly Woolf and colleagues from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst presented on smart tutoring at the Artificial Intelligence in Education conference, I listened to a webinar from Dr Dennis S. Charney, MD, from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai present data supporting his “resilience prescription” for individuals.

Stimulating processes of social resilience

Two of Charney’s eight resilience principles, however, involve other people: role models and a supportive social network. Combining the social aspect of resilience with the human-computer interface and education has potential to enhance sophisticated problem-solving around the globe.

The developing world has 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions. In Africa, average penetration is a third of the population, and in north Africa it is almost two-thirds. South Africa now has almost 100% penetration. In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phone ownership is 30%. ~ Dr Beverly P. Woolf

The potentials for knowledge communication through savvy tele-education exceed youth. These technologies can also enable adults who care about intercultural social networking and mass organizing for social justice. Continue reading “Peak Connectivity and Social Resilience”

Slow Learning vs Fast Living

I can only offer what I know, what I have learned, slowly and at the cost of many dear relationships. Diversity matters. The differences among us are more important than the similarities, because they enable creativity. Here we are, thrown into consciousness and connection. What shall we make of this precious chance?

(Not) rushing into the urgency of now (while still arriving)

Turning the World Upside Down
Turning the World Upside Down

Every day I face the irony of needing to hurry up to slow down, or perhaps it is the other way around, of slowing down in order to speed up my alignment with lifeforce—call it chi or God or Gaia or maybe it is just with other humans in society, thinking of society as a verb—the actions of living together through culture, work and art. Continue reading “Slow Learning vs Fast Living”

Back from Beirut: Fear and Normal Courage

One reason that I haven’t let go of the connections with people in Beirut is because I felt fear and had to figure out how to manage it. My own little weirdnesses of coping put me on alert for observing what qualifies as normal courage, what decisions might be reckless, and which of my worries completely ridiculous? On the bus to Byblos the one Saturday we traveled for tourism, only one person responded when I mentioned having been afraid. “We all were,” she said, gesturing to a couple of other conference participants.

My suspicion is that none of the faculty members we met at Lebanese American University expected us to keep in touch. Some of us outsiders—who traveled from work or study in the US, Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Brazil—have certainly made the effort. It’s so hard though, isn’t it? We return to lives consumed with local preoccupations: everyone is just a bit too busy, how could we manage to do more than we already are?

Lamia Ziade's graphic novel of Lebanon's Civil War
Lamia Ziade's graphic novel of Lebanon's Civil War

One reason that I haven’t let the connections go is because I felt fear and had to figure out how to manage it.  My own little weirdnesses of coping put me on alert for observing what qualifies as normal courage, what decisions might be reckless, and which of my worries completely ridiculous? On the bus to Byblos the one Saturday we traveled for tourism, only one person responded when I mentioned having been afraid. “We all were,” she said, gesturing to a couple of other conference participants. She put it in the past tense, reflecting how relaxed we had become after three days of conferencing.  The alarmist US State Department advisory to Americans traveling to Lebanon is Don’t Go. That had rattled me a fair bit, and then there were my friends who kept saying I needed to tell people I was Canadian and “don’t show anyone your US passport!”

That sunny tourist Saturday, as we returned from a successful day of sightseeing, shopping, and eating – “something happened” on the northern border with Syria. It did not affect us. We all flew away, back home or on vacation . . . a few days later (May 21) a disturbing message popped up on Facebook: “Syrian Embassy calls on its nationals not to go to Lebanon because of security.” I had barely gotten over jet lag. Two days later: “A very “hot” night on twitter (and on the streets outside). Tires, gunshots, grenades, B7s, w Farrouj Mishwi with Kabees & Toom Extra la Hass Ghaddar special.” A blog entry announced:

“It would be nice to wake up in the morning and
not be worried that
today, we could be dragged into a war.
Yes, it would be nice.”

I checked in with The Ringleader (a nickname). She was holed up with her family, packed and ready to head to the mountains if necessary. A few days later, she was caught in town for some hours listening to nearby gunfire. In a Facebook chat I said:

“I started reading a book about the civil war last night, do you know it? Bye Bye Babylon http://randajarrar.com/2012/02/09/lamia-ziades-bye-bye-babylon/
I thought of you….
didn’t make it very far yet, the drawings are powerful”

“Yes,” she replied.
“I sell it at work to all the foreigners simply because it speaks the truth
never really finished it
t’was too heartbreaking”

Yet there she is, challenging and teasing her friends on Facebook, carrying on a more-or-less ‘normal’ life. gotoschool_GRINSAnother friend likewise posted a mix of her usual Facebook fare interspersed with information and commentary on the situation as it developed.  So, there you have it. In the face of fear, act normal. Stay calm. Model respect and poke fun at violators of peace. I suppose I did alright. I was anxious the 24 hours or so before leaving the US to fly there, and had a very rough emotional spell a day or two after returning unharmed: relief, I imagine. While there, I overtipped one of the hotel’s drivers because I was getting paranoid about him scowling at me – his grin was amazing! I also woke in the middle of the night once and unpublished all my previous Dialogue Under Occupation blogposts about Palestine and Israel (republishing them a few days later). I accepted rings spontaneously gifted from the person who wore them and was agreeable to living a bit over the top in order to enlarge the spirit of generosity and hope.

Now, if we could just keep growing it…

A Temporal Turn?

“What is the purpose of dialogue?” Are Dialogue Under Occupation conference participants in the process of producing a work of critical art? Or are these conferences solely labor – the repetition of rituals that must be performed in order to satisfy and maintain professional credentials? Could we somehow manage to do both? Examples include the film Rabat, asking questions about symbolism entailed in labels such as the Green Line, and exploring Dr Makram Ouaiss’ point that non-violence is understudied, proven effective, and morally legitimate.

  1. What is the purpose of dialogue?
  2. Pre-Occupied: Narratives (told and untold) that fill us up
  3. Engaging Youth’s Multicultural Reality
  4. The Key
  5. Green and Red Lines: Asking Different Questions
  6. The Light

In his remarks opening the 6th international Dialogue Under Occupation conference, founder Larry Berlin posed the question:

“What is the purpose of dialogue?”

Closing scene, Fantasia Opus 3, the fantastic range of children's dreams.
Closing scene, Fantasia Opus 3, the fantastic range of children's dreams.

It is a question that the people attending and presenting at the DUO VI conferences did not figure out. Perhaps part of the reason for the absence of an answer is in the framing of the question. We are mostly academics, which means we usually talk abstractly about things we study rather than doing them with each other.

There is less confusion (it seems) about the other key term in the title of our conference: occupation. I did not think of “occupation” as a synonym for “career” during Sophia Mihic’s keynote presentation on the near history of neoliberalism. Now, afterwards, this strikes me as odd, since her argument about the term “human capital” relies on the difference between “labor” and “work.” I suspect this is an instance of collective repression – a de-selection of one possible meaning in favor of another, and then forgetting having made thechoice. Sophia’s thoughtful presentation and critical engagement throughout the conference helps me wonder: are DUO conference participants in the process of producing a work of critical art? Or are these conferences solely labor – the repetition of rituals that must be performed in order to satisfy and maintain professional credentials? Could we somehow manage to do both?

Pre-Occupied: Narratives (told & untold) that fill us up

In a similarly linguistic vein, Cris Toffolo asked us to consider the difference between “post-occupation” and “post-conflict” as labels describing countries like Lebanon. The main distinction between the two terms involve the presence and extent of violence as well as its duration. DUO VI conference participants were undecided whether the use of these labels matter. Instead, we talked about the actions taken “post” – specifically whether the politicians, media, and populace (all of its diverse publics) engage an open communication process designed to promote healing, or choose some other coping strategy as the means to simply and quickly move on. I was particularly struck by the critique she found of Lebanon’s political leadership (Assi Collective Memory – Lebanon, by Elsa Abou Assi) which describes the decision to absolve insiders by blaming outsiders. There had already been a couple of strong statements issued during some of the Question-and-Answer periods about (for instance), there being no one to forgive but oneself for allowing the outsiders to come in and wreck havoc. There is so much to unpack in Lebanese discourse about war and conflict, so many stories that have been told (adult-to-adult) and passed from adults (especially parents) to children who are now grown up and coping in their varied ways with the underlying, unresolved tensions: of necessity finding courage in the face of fear.

Engaging youth’s multicultural reality

View from the castle at Byblos/Jbeit, Lebanon.
View from the castle at Byblos/Jbeit, Lebanon.

The DUO VI conference attracted few of the young people at Lebanon American University, let alone activists from the broader Beirut community. Most youth were more likely to partake in cultural performance events, such as a screening of Rabat. I was lucky to meet Director Jim Taihuttu; we talked about audience reactions to the film. The cast and crew put serious effort into capturing the way youth in Holland actually talk, codeswitching among languages (e.g., Dutch, Moroccan, Surinamese) and borrowing terms back and forth in an unpredictable, dynamic flux. The dialogue is so representative and “natural” that audience members of their peer group feel as if they’re “in the car” with the protagonists. In a generous gesture of inclusion, Rabat is captioned in Dutch as well as English and Arabic so that older generations and foreigners can understand the linguistic mixing. “I disagree with people who talk about multiculturalism as something that you are either for or against, “Jim said. “It is what we are living, a multicultural reality.”

The Key

Barbara Birch’s DUO conference presentation included some guidelines that apply to teaching in general. Countering the linguistic imperialism of English, Barbara proposes the use of the English language as a source of social action that can enable transitions from current injustice to preferable futures. The critical question for teachers involves identifying the moment when you can move students from a wide focus (learning how to say things in general situations) to a narrow one: how to say things in very specific situations. This move, from the general topic to the specific sociocultural transaction, allows the exploration of different norms in the immediate moment of communication. Turning that key opens a door to learning how to navigate the emotions and colliding (complementing and contradicting) narratives involving questions of history and justice. As skills increase, students and teachers learning together can take on increasingly tricky challenges, creating new rituals of being with “Others” and living a new world into being.

Green and Red Lines: Asking Different Questions

Ending violence: domestic, national, religious
Ending violence: domestic, national, religious

I do not know how the color symbolism came about, but I noticed the label of a “Green Line” is the same for both Beirut and Israel/Palestine. In terms of traffic lights, green means “go” – maybe this is a weird way to think of it, but it seems the very label has a subtext encouraging battle. The implication struck me when Ilham Nasser presented her findings on public acts of forgiveness in Arab culture. She discovered a “red line” beyond which people would not forgive others – it could be an insult, a misunderstanding, a failure to respect religious beliefs, etc. Again, it is the symbolism that seems significant: forgiveness is RED (don’t go there!) while war is GREEN (storm ahead, boys!)

The Light

Cris’ roundtable was about the limits and possibilities of talking about human rights as a way to leverage public healing processes. In political science, there is a lot of evidence that broad political-journalistic efforts of reconciliation are functional and productive (South Africa, Ireland, and Guatemala were named as examples). The information Cris shared complemented Professor Makram Ouaiss’ opening keynote address, in which he emphasized asymmetry as the way to shift conflicts from on-going cycles of violence to non-violent methods for ending occupation and establishing civil societies. Dr Ouaiss’ point is that non-violence is understudied, proven effective, and morally legitimate.

Given the right structure and support, I hypothesize that there are enough young people in Beirut willing and capable of having this difficult conversation. Despite the horrors they’ve been through, I witnessed some amazing displays of conviction concerning the things that really matter: including peace with Palestinians and sharing joy within one’s family. As Dr Ouaiss explained, persuading people of the logic and effectiveness of non-violence takes time and repeated efforts.

Written half in Beirut, half in Amherst MA.
Link to the NYTimes Art Review:
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language

Fantasia

“Communication arts are the future…” I depart Beirut as I entered, awash in serendipity. Back in whaling days, the Captain’s cabin was a private refuge. Entry by others was privileged and rare. Generous gifts of time and talk throughout my stay dance questions among the neurons of my mind.

The Ringleader got us to the Captain Cabin’s then vanished to play pool.

Celebrating a student production of collective memories from their childhoods in Lebanon..
Celebrating a student production of collective memories from their childhoods in Lebanon..

LD (the eldest) spoke for the group, “I don’t care, but I want a code name.” The youngest argued for Peter Pan. No problem.  I am a pushover as long as it works—otherwise you have to convince me (this is not impossible). Twenty-Two exclaimed, “It’s not like I’m hiding anything!” I had wanted to know the size of their ambitions. “Big questions over small glasses,” answered Small Fry, a tall guy protecting Polly Sigh. Sleepy brought Attached along for the ride. Spike agreed with OJ:

“Communication arts are the future, not politics!”

Yalla. Humans, mech maskal, will never be free of the polis. The question is whether politicians can ever again be heroes. No more the sole character forging a lonely way, from now on (in this heavily-mediated age) ‘twill be committed teams and affinity groups treading new paths together who transform the global inheritance of random torture to livable interrelations for the children and the children’s children.

Insist!
Swords no more – salvage words!
Who will rise and heal the future?

I depart Beirut as I entered, awash in serendipity. Back in whaling days, the Captain’s cabin was a private refuge. Entry by others was privileged and rare.

Yearning toward the future . . .
Yearning toward the future . . .

Generous gifts of time and talk throughout my stay dance questions among the neurons of my mind. Smoke of mixed feelings percolates in memory, stimulated by shining souls seeking solace in playful remembrance while drowning sorrow in drink and mad beats relentless rhythms demanding more faster sooner more already more tomorrow who can care much about tomorrow something happened in the north yesterday I’m glad you did not travel south today.

Old as I am my heart beats clear. Vibrant youth, what will ye choose—the stories you’ve been told or the ones you wish to author? My return, Inshallah, issues forth with your desire.

Written in flight, Beirut-Rome-New York City;
Edited and posted from Queens

Presupposing Salmon: Ready DUO Players?

…what happened in the roundtable on Future Change at the Dialogue under Occupation conference hosted at Lebanon-American University in Beirut. The group was game to engage the quest, at least for the duration of the session. A pluck lot…If dialogue is to make a difference in the world, it must be sustained. As academics, we know the theory! But can we do it? Maybe this year will be different…

Action Researchredirecting phenomenological reduction
redirecting phenomenological reduction

Details, Description, Context, Bleh

It is impossible to say what happened in the roundtable on Future Change at the Dialogue under Occupation conference hosted at Lebanon-American University in Beirut. We have video, which will allow description and documentation. But so what? The important matter is what our time together comes to mean, and that depends. Determining what the meaningfulness of our gathering might become was not possible even before that Romanian dude added stuff to the white board. During the session, Sophia challenged the authority of the interpreter; Raz claimed arguments have limits; Ibrahim asked about the irony of Occupy Wall Street; Barbara was misinterpreted; Woyciech offered hope; and Stephanie [from Brazil] talked about brackets. Anne was quiet. Larry did not want me to forget presuppositions. Niam (operating the camcorder) conversed with herself 😉

Fishing for a Future (Warning: Academic Jargon Ahead)

talking about time
talking about time

The topic was (sortof) about time – as in, how to find one’s placement in a diverse group based upon language use and dynamics of interaction so as to (attempt) to aim in the direction of a desirable future with meta-awareness of entailments (or entrailments, if you prefer the post-workshop revision). I am always wondering if it can be done, what it would look like if we tried, and how control &/or the desire for control is involved. Specifically, I asked this group if we could de-link discourses of occupation from physical places in space to temporal enactments in time by transforming our own discourse? Would it be desirable to do so? I am not sure anyone was convinced! It is hard to draw coherence from loose collections of phrases, concepts, and fragments of comments snatched from sound and written down. “Peace is hard.” “History is big.”  [(Name ye well the limits of argument!) Stop thee not the pursuit of amity!]

The Circle: A symbol of wholeness
The Circle: A symbol of wholeness

The group was game to engage the quest, at least for the duration of the session. A pluck lot, these academics, simultaneously kind and critical. Serious and generous. Diverse yet dialogic: no problematic moments (of the theoretical kind) – although desire to rename – enunciative (cf Hannah Arendt), aha, a collective break in phenomenological flow when we all notice – for an instant – what we’re doing. I barely mentioned simultaneity as counterpart and tied few knots with identity. Nonetheless I quoted Ilham (with her permission!), however that conversation slides into remission, suspended, distended, perhaps beyond local use but could it grow wings to give flight elsewhere?

Creating our own origami unicorn

Playing with jargon: indexicality can be defined but entailments may be inexplicable
Playing with jargon: indexicality can be defined but entailments may be inexplicable

At the end of the second day of workshop sessions, a bunch of us began impromptu planning for growing the conference. If dialogue is to make a difference in the world, it must be sustained. As academics, we know the theory! But can we do it? Participants in the six conferences held to date have not yet managed to move beyond the typical monologic structure: schedule, attend, present, participate in a few interesting conversations, go home. Perhaps maintain a new collegial relationship or two. Maybe this year will be different?

I linked (above) to an essay describing the history of “Common Read” programs. It may seem like a non sequitor, but the simultaneity is that I just finished reading Ready Player One, the book selected for the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s First Year Experience Program. The (2011) book by Ernest Cline projects a future in which people escape and avoid dealing with reality by playing in a global virtual simulation, a web-based interactive game called OASIS. The immersive environment of OASIS is imaginable because it extrapolates from today’s use of social media. DUO Dialoguer, are you thinking WTF? Or is a little bell going off? Connect the dots! Traverse mediums, here’s a clue – this conversation moves!

Beirut, Lebanon

stumbling into spirit

“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. I was surprised at how non-ideologic the play by Sonja Linden turns out to be…the Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani put the culture in perspective for me by saying it all comes down to the love of negotiation. This blogpost features the paintings of Rajaa Hoteit in the search to find novel ways of talking that break old patterns and therefore create new ways of relating in social and political reality.

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