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

Sometimes, there really just isn’t anybody to call.

Only life to live.

Most of my consciousness is directed toward my friend, a teacher, a guide who never led me wrong. Feeling grateful, mostly, for her life and all the gifts she gave, is giving, will continue to give.

Weird synchronies.  Today was the last lecture in a course I interpreted this semester on American Romanticism.  (Oh, are they talking about me?)  Earlier this semester I got excited by Walt Whitman.  I don’t think I ever read Leaves of Grass.  Now it’s Moby Dick.  I did try to read it, once.  On my own – not for a class.  I don’t remember anything that I read because it was assigned.  (Careful, tangent alert!)

The teacher emphasized the relationship between Ahab and Starbuck – a lot of action happened between “The Quarterdeck” and “Symphony,” and there’s two key chapters in between: “The Musket” and “Cabin.”  Then we got to “The Chase.”  There’s also an intense analysis of Ishmael, the trope of embodiment, and the author’s philosophy. (Today the Occupy Wall Street movement is unleashing a wave of protest intended to ignite the 99%. I only know one person in the 1% who likes me.  I might have met some others but they didn’t like me too much.)

Mei Mei wants attention too.

This blog entry is a report in the style of ethnographic action research. It is ethnographic in the sense that it presents a descriptive and non-evaluative account of observed human interaction. It is action research in the sense that it singles out particular features of the observed human interaction as having high potential for enhancing the foundations for a resilient economy.  The rest of the blog entry is composed of three sections, including some implicit metaphors that resonate with a longer trajectory of action research for the social good.
  1. Risk and Value
  2. Moulage
  3. A Resilience Regime

Risk and Value

One of the major shifts occurring in our lifetime is the increasing risk of being a victim of a disaster. Adapting to these new, changing conditions presents a classic challenge because day-to-day survival is generally taken for granted. The conveniences of technology and superb engineering infrastructure have cushioned much of the population from considering the constant threat of death that historically characterized human existence. Survival used to depend upon individual fortitude and extreme cooperation within communities – everyone knew this and acted accordingly.

Emergency Response Training for Community Volunteers in the District of Colombia

Emergency Response Training for Community Volunteers in the District of Colombia

It may become true again that survival will depend upon individual preparedness and the tightness of your immediate community in planning together how to respond to a disaster. Trained professionals are stretched to encompass a vast range of knowledge, skill, and experience in their discipline (fire, policing, medical, etc.) and beyond. Now, First Responders must also

  • be skilled in communicating with diverse communities (there is no one-size-fits-all language),
  • understand the precisely relevant needs of unique individuals (rather than assuming everyone is exactly the same as everyone else), and
  • comprehend and use new technologies of social media.

Although amazing improvements have been made throughout the field of emergency management since 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, recent natural disasters around the country continue to expose weaknesses and gaps. Invariably, many these gaps revolve around expectations that volunteers will miraculously appear and take care of all the ragged edges.

Interoperations: Self-enclosed or Interactive?

Of course there are, and always will be, spontaneous volunteers during acute stages of a disaster. Some good samaritans will also gut out the long haul. But vital services for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and medically ill, transportation for people with mobility disabilities, language support services for people fluent in languages other than English, childcare, pet and service animals husbandry, and a host of other specific functional and access needs are not going to materialize out of nowhere. Adequate emergency response now and in the future is going to be measured on the basis of casualties among people in these groups. Just as recent disasters have illustrated that professional First Responders are not yet capable of anticipating and responding properly to every individual situation, the inadequacy of relying on volunteers to respond effectively and efficiently in caring for the most vulnerable populations is also blatantly obvious.

The entire system needs to evolve.

Moulage

Serve DC exercises Community Emergency Response Team Members

Serve DC exercises Community Emergency Response Team Members

The District of Colombia’s Mayor’s Office of Volunteerism, Serve DC, is taking steps to build relationships between trained volunteers and professional emergency responders. On Saturday, April 14th, more than two dozen previously-trained Community Emergency Response Team members were given a taste of what it would be like to deploy as ‘first responders’ to a scene involving multiple victims. This first-time event for the District put volunteers in the field to be coached by fire personnel and emergency response consultants. On a beautifully sunny day, a well thought-out “high wind event” disaster scenario challenged these would-be rescuers to work in teams, coordinate with each other both within and between teams, and demonstrate their ability to stablize wounded people while awaiting more highly trained medical personnel.

Inter-role Communication

It was my first experience with moulage, the realistic display of severe injuries. I spent most of the time observing the Incident Commander and considering the communication dynamics. There are some tough inter-role dynamics to sort out. By role, I mean the different categories of function that need to be performed by designated individuals. Roles are distinguished by tangible criteria such as amount of training and experience, and are performed according to less tangible personal qualities of the individual. For this CERT exercise, the primary roles were professional First Responders (acting as coaches) and volunteers – including the victims (talk about a role that requires patience!). While the actual exercise was focused on intra-role communication (among and between CERT volunteers), the practical test of CERTs is going to be how and when they are integrated by the professionals into the response effort.

This will require some adaptation on both sides: volunteers need to learn to confirm to hierarchies of command that are fairly rigid, and professionals need to accept more variation in the communication of significant information.

A Resilience Regime

Jason Williamson evaluates the success of the first Serve DC CERT Exercise

Jason Williamson evaluates the success of the first Serve DC CERT Exercise

One of the most telling indicators of the quality of human social organization are the lines drawn around paid and unpaid labor during emergencies. I have already begun to argue the necessity for a new, temporary designation for professionals and paraprofessionals who respond during a disaster. Minimum levels of training would need to be established, along with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for alert and notification, issuing safety equipment, deployment, administration for billing and reimbursement, and access to post-disaster services such as trauma counseling and medical care.

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