Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Violence backfires

This is Part II of a series of reflections on non-violent conflict, spurred by my participation at FSI 2011. For Part I, click here.

On February 2, 2011, thugs armed with clubs and machetes rode into Tahrir Square on camels and began to attack protesters. Until the arrival of the thugs, journalists cited Tahrir Square as having been peaceful and filled with acts of non-violent protest, even in the face of tear gas and police brutality. Discipline is critical for the success of a non-violent movement or any act of civil resistance: The movement needs to protect its own non-violent character, or risk alienating individuals who ideologically agree with the cause but would not engage in or support violent acts. Egyptians had taken it upon themselves to maintain the non-violent character of their protests; Anna Therese day reported that protesters discouraged fellow Egyptians from marring the peaceful nature of their collective struggle.

Following the thugs' attack on the peaceful protesters, something began to shift: Journalists used stronger language in calling for Mubarak's resignation and foreign leaders followed. Reflecting on the attacks in Tahrir Square, Nicholas Kristof wrote:
"It should be increasingly evident that Mr. Mubarak is not the remedy for the instability in Egypt; he is its cause. The road to stability in Egypt requires Mr. Mubarak's departure, immediately. But for me, when I remember this sickening and bloody day, I'll conjure not only the brutality that Mr. Mubarak seems to have sponsored but also the courage and grace of those Egyptians who risked their lives as they sought to reclaim their country. And incredibly, the democracy protesters held their ground all day at Tahrir Square despite this armed onslaught." 
What happened that day in Tahrir square is an example of the backfire effect. Brian Martin defines it as follows:
An attack can be said to backfire when it creates more support for or attention to whatever is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.
Among the conditions for backfire, according to Martin, are the action "being perceived as unjust, unfair, excessive or disproportional" and "information about the action can be communicated to relevant audiences."

Another instance of backfire was the Libyan government's attempt to stop Eman al-Obeidy from telling journalists in Libya that she was assaulted and raped by pro-Qaddafi forces. Most recently, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces detained and assaulted journalist Mona Eltahawy, the conversation began once again about how regimes' attempts to violently repress peaceful protesters or those telling the protests' story only serves to expose the brutal means regimes will embrace to cling on to control.

Violence does not only backfire for the regime or leaders in power, but also for those engaged in acts of civil resistance. Cynthia Boaz, one of the leading voices in the conversation about effective and non-violent resistance, cautioned at FSI 2011 that protesters beware of agent provocateurs, who may instigate acts that are not in the spirit of the movement in order to discredit it. Movements are responsible for the individuals who participate in them and it may be harder to discern the lines of accountability within a fluid, ever-changing system, particularly when the hierarchy is fuzzy or non-existent. For that reason, a personal commitment to non-violence and protection of the non-violent nature of protest is essential for the success of a non-violent movement.

As a Greek, I have been put off by the burning of banks, destruction of property and violence that has sometimes defined the protests and riots in my home country. I often agree with the message and goals of the protesters, but I do not agree with espousing violence as a means to accomplishing them. Some will say "but people are angry!" or "we have no time for non-violence." To that, I respond - inspired by the instructors at FSI - that there are so many ways to wage non-violent action (198, in fact, according to Gene Sharp) that until all of those have been attempted and failed, protesters cannot truly claim that they have exhausted the non-violent means available to them. Change need not be quick to be effective and if a movement sacrifices non-violence for the sake of speed, it will lose me and the hearts and minds of many who would support it.

For more: Daryn Cambridge curated the main points of Lee Smithey and James Greene's presentation on the backfire effect at FSI 2011. Cynthia Boaz pointed us to Brian Martin's resources on the backfire effect. Follow Cynthia at @cynthiaboaz on Twitter. She will blow your mind.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankful for all I miss

Fifteen years ago this time of year, I could reliably be found reading Enid Blyton books by the fireplace while eating sunflower seeds. It was not unusual for one of my cheeks to turn bright red from the heat and my lips to taste salty for hours because of the sunflower seeds. Although the spirit of gratitude is universal, the rituals of Thanksgiving are thoroughly American, so they did not come into my life until college. As I sit in Jerusalem, virtually hugging the space heater whose orange glow and ability to make one cheek blush remind me of the Enid Blyton fireplace of my childhood, I look back on the Thanksgivings that have shaped my life. 

The first one
The first 'adult' post-graduate Thanksgiving [photo by Allie, a brave guest]
There is a lot of posturing during the first year after college graduation. It felt like we were "playing adult", not much unlike the way we used to put on our mothers' shoes and jewelry when we were nine. Part of playing adult for me involved offering to host my very first Thanksgiving. A Swiss, an Israeli, a Hong Konger and a Greek gathered in my DC kitchen. That sounds like the beginning of a joke -- and it was. It is no secret that cooking is not my forte, but I was not about to serve cereal and popcorn to my guests. So we peeled garlic for two hours, then peeled potatoes, then chopped, marinaded, basted and roasted until I ran out of culinary verbs I knew how to use. We drowned everything in wine and candlelight, loaded the dishwasher, danced in the kitchen, clogged the toilet, YouTubed "how to plunge a toilet", plunged, and fell asleep knowing that we all ate some garlic peels and a few undercooked potatoes and we were all the happier for it.

Our first one
It was not as strange for us as it was for our Jewish friend who had celebrated Yom Kippur in Cairo earlier that year, but it was strange nonetheless. Dahab is a former Bedouin fishing village on the Sinai peninsula and current haven for hippies and divers. Most everyone I came to call family in Egypt descended on Dahab to celebrate Thanksgiving that year. It was my last day in the country and, having completed my very first placement with the UN, I was on my way to Uganda. Dahab became the unlikely site of firsts and lasts: After months of a modest romance in the streets of Cairo, Elijah and I kissed in public on the streets of Dahab. In the sea of women in bikinis, Bob Marley lovers and Indian food, our affection was not incongruent or taboo, and we welcomed the change. 

Those were to be the last kisses for a while, as conflict zones would continue to swallow me over the next year. And so we kicked our flippers in the waters of the Red Sea, kicking extra hard to make memories, as though that would soothe the pain of missing one another that was to come. I saw my first coral reefs and lion fish. I saw the coast of Saudi Arabia across the water. And I became a sight to behold as well: On my way out of the water, my flipper got trapped in the wooden platform and I fell forward in my pale pink bikini with bows. Splat! Face down. Egyptian men and diving instructors were some combination of bemused and aghast as I, the human iteration of a beached whale, crawled out of the water and onto the dry land of mortification. By dinner, the power had gone out in Dahab, so we all found ourselves at an Indian restaurant by the sea, eating naan cooked in a wood stone oven. Thanksgiving that year tasted like curry and nostalgia. 
Last night in Egypt - A low-light, no electricity, fishy, Thanksgiving in Dahab
The last one?
I seem to have returned to the Thanksgivings of cereal and popcorn. Our home in Jerusalem has no oven, toaster oven, gas stove, microwave or any cooking appliance other than two electric burners. Thanksgiving is likely to taste like falafel, like that Christmas in Bethlehem a couple of years ago. My gratitude is impatient this year -- impatient to return to the United States, to an academic study of conflict, to the communities for whch my heart longs. I have a stretchy heart these days; I miss everywhere. I miss Colombian Creole potatoes and think of how wonderful an addition they would be to any Thanksgiving dinner. I miss the beachy and fishy Thanksgiving. I miss the toilet-plunging Thanksgiving. I miss the fireplace in Greece and the best friends in America. Secretly, I hope that this is the last Thanksgiving I spend outside the US for some time, as I dream about wearing layer after layer of wool sweaters on a New England campus and debating my selection of holiday pie. 

Thank you, world, for giving me so much to love and so much to miss. For giving me love and memories from sea to sea.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reflections on non-violent conflict, Part I

A lot of my life's work in gender-related development unfolds in conflict and post-conflict zones. Sometimes the conflict is cultural or religious; in other cases, the conflict refers to civil war, violent insurrection, or genocide. I lead a life saturated with conflict and I regularly think about the concepts and applications of dispute resolution and post-conflict reintegration of ex-combatants into peacetime communities.

Witnessing the effects of violence has made me abhor it as a means of social change, even for causes I support and struggles with which I identify. Learning more about non-violent conflict and civil resistance at Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Non-Violent Conflict has convinced me not only of the value, but also of the effectiveness of non-violent change. This week, many months after attending FSI and in light of developments from Cairo to Oakland, I will be writing about some of the key lessons I derived from my participation at FSI. I am sharing these kernels not as a transcript of the course, but as a record of what fascinated me and surprised me, with the hope that it can be relevant to the conversation on civil resistance movements gaining momentum worldwide today.

What is non-violent conflict? 
According to the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), the term refers to "a conflict in which at least one party uses nonviolent action as its means to wage the conflict." This is significant because peaceful protesters' actions can still classify as non-violent, even if they are met with a violent response from a government, the police, the army or another authority. And what is non-violent action, according to ICNC? "A general technique of conducting nonviolent protest, resistance and intervention without physical violence."

Relationships of power
Power and authority involve questions of consent. When people deprive a leader (or oppressor) of their consent, it reduces his or her legitimacy. Frederick Douglas expressed this dynamic as "power concedes nothing. [...] The limits of tyrants are prescribed the endurance of those whom they oppress." When discussing this concept, Jack DuVall, the co-author of A Force More Powerful and President of ICNC, clarified that once civil resistance takes the pretense of consent away, the truth about oppression surfaces, thus driving up the cost of oppression.

Room for persuasion
One cannot force participation in a non-violent resistance movement. Leaders and members of a movement need to reason with others and persuade them, rather than coerce them, to join. DuVall emphasized the point that civil resistance efforts are not efforts to stage a coup; they are attempts to change a society, not a regime. What movements seek to accomplish, said DuVall, is to change people in ways that make authoritarianism impossible later. It is not atypical for competition to exist in the early stage of movement formation. Different groups may want to engage in civil resistance towards the same cause, but they have competing visions and agendas. According to DuVall, while civil resistance is highly strategic and tactical, we cannot presume that "action requires protected space." Some movements started with little political, civic or social space for disagreement. The question to ask is: "Where is there opportunity for independent (inter)action?"

Notes on effectiveness
A 2005 study found that "nonviolent civic action was a key factor in driving 50 of the 67 transitions from authoritarianism between 1972 and 2005." A 2008 study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth compared 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Among the findings was that "major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns." However, it is important to note that strategy is significant for nonviolent campaigns: Resistance efforts cannot succeed only on the ground that they are nonviolent and it is strategy that sets the more successful movements apart.

This is the most persuasive argument I find in favor of non-violent civil resistance: It works. If practiced correctly, it fulfills the goals of a movement without some of the horrifying consequences of violence. In the next installment of this series, I will summarize responses to common critiques of non-violent action and briefly look at the elements of successful non-violent campaigns.

Additional resources: Daryn Cambridge has thoroughly documented the proceedings of FSI 2011 here. The ICNC website has a phenomenal FAQ and Resource Library on non-violent conflict. Some of my favorite books on this topic are:

A Force More Powerful: A century of nonviolent conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall
Nonviolent social movements: A geographical perspective, Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz, Sarah Beth Asher
Why Civil Resistance Works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan

Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest post: Life's work

Christine Mason Miller has been an inspiration in my journey through storytelling, creativity, and service. A few months ago, I wrote about books well-loved and the impact Christine and her writing have had on my life. Today, on the eve of her launching her new book Desire to Inspire: Using Creative Passion to Transform the Worldit is my pleasure to host Christine on Stories of Conflict and Love.
That's me on the far left in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1976, during one of my extended visits with my grandparents. Remember Slip & Slide? Well, instead of buying one, my grandparents let me create one with a few of their vinyl table cloths and a hose. Can't find what we want? No problem -- let's just make it ourselves.
When I asked Roxanne if she would do me the honor of sharing a guest blog post on Stories of Conflict and Love as part of my virtual book tour for Desire to Inspire, she not only gave me an enthusiastic “Yes!”, she also asked if I could discuss a specific topic related to the subject of creating a meaningful life. This is what she shared with me:
There is a question I think you'd be best poised to answer:  How did you know that being an artist was it? How did you know that the creative life was your life, your work, that it was YOU?  A lot of the strength I have found in your book and writing has been in the way you OWN yourself, your art, your creativity, and your place in the world. I'd love to post your thoughts on how you came to claim this role, how you came to be comfortable in it. How did your 25-year-old self know? How did she choose this? What has the creative life come to mean to you?
I wish I had a neatly wrapped anecdote of an experience when the clouds parted and the knowledge of what I was supposed to do with my life came shimmering down into my soul, but there was never a “magic moment” when I discovered my true calling. Instead, it has revealed itself to me in large and small ways for as in alone-ness - to the notion of being a solitary warrior on the quest to make my life what I wanted. However one might judge its potency, it was a philosophy that came to me, stayed with me, and has played a role in my life ever since. And it has always been an empowering thought – if there is something I want, if there is a way I want to live my life, then I need to do the work to make it happen. That is nobody’s job but mine. It then follows that if it is up to me to create the life I want, then there isn’t much use in doubting my dreams, my passions, my self. (Not that I don’t have my moments of panic and fear and “Who do I think I am?”-ness, but for the most part, self-doubt is a fairly weak link in my DNA chain.)

The idea behind Desire to Inspire is that the world is best served, lifted, and – that helped that strong, adventurous side of me flourish. And somewhere in the midst of climbing trees, crossing creeks, digging up worms, and making mud pies a thought struck me:  “Whatever it is that you want in life, you’re going to have to create it yourself.”

I realize that on the surface, this seems a bit intense for a girl whose age hadn’t yet hit the double digits. It speaks to a certa talking about creativity – which is a fundamental element of our very humanity - and about all the ways our innate creative passions, energies, and ideas shape our day-to-day lives and, in turn, impact the world around us.

I happen to be an artist, but this particular job title rests on a deeper foundation, which has to do with inspiration. It has to do with making those around me feel good about themselves; it has to do with recognizing the incredible light in someone’s eyes when they laugh, when they are treated kindly, when they are acknowledged, included, applauded, adored, and encouraged. My life’s work began when I started to recognize the impact of kindness, respect, and creative passion – towards others and ourselves - and the positive waves of inspiration that are manifested when we do transformed when we follow our creative passions and build a meaningful life for ourselves. I use the phrase “creative passion” because I believe we are all – every single one of us – creative beings, and we use our creative muscles every single day. I know there are plenty of you out there who would disagree with me, but these disagreements are usually thrust at me on the premise that creativity must = artistic talent. But I’m not talking about anything as specific as that. I amessons and examples that came to me from that day forward, which is what makes it, in a very literal way, my life’s work. In doing the work I’ve done to create a life I am passionate about, I understand on a visceral level the power of such an existence – power as in light, as in energy, as in a shiny example of all that is possible. My work is to be of service to the world, and that work starts within. This is what my younger self taught me. This is the work that she chose.

Christine Mason Miller is a Santaboth.

Perhaps the work I have been doing all these years has been in honor of my younger self, who discovered at a very young age a source of strength that was impossible to turn away from, deny, or doubt, and maybe my sense of alone-ness as a little girl is what sparked my desire to inspire in the first place. Once the spark was lit, it was simply a matter of learning how to do that, and being open to all the lessons and examples that came to me from that day forward, which is what makes it, in a very literal way, my life’s work. In doing the work I’ve done to create a life I am passionate about, I understand on a visceral level the power of such an existence – power as in light, as in energy, as in a shiny example of all that is possible. My work is to be of service to the world, and that work starts within. This is what my younger self taught me. This is the work that she chose.

Christine Mason Miller is a Santa Monica-based artist, writer, and explorer. Her next book Desire to Inspire: Using Creative Passion to Transform the World – is now available for pre-order at Follow her adventures at

Thursday, November 17, 2011

November 17

[inspired by Kim, Dominique, and my father, always.]

Decades ago

"We are not armed. We are not armed. We are not armed. [...] Brothers, brothers, brothers-soldiers, you will not raise your guns. You will not shoot to kill your brothers. [audible tanks rolling up to the gate] Brothers soldiers, brothers soldiers, how is this possible! How is it possible that you would shoot your brothers! How would you allow Greek blood to be spilled. [begins to recite Greek national anthem]"

In the beginning of November 1973, a civil resistance movement gained momentum against the military junta that had ruled Greece since 1967. On November 14, 1973, students locked themselves in the Polytechnic University of Athens to protest against the censorship and restrictions of freedom and civil liberties that had occurred during the dictatorship. The students set up an independent radio station and began to broadcast non-violent messages of civil resistance. The clip translated above was the last broadcast before this happened:

In the clip of the student begging soldiers not to fire, one can hear tanks rolling on the streets around the university. In the clip above, on November 17, 1973, a tank demolished the university gate and the government violently quashed the civil resistance movement. It is unclear how many died between November 14 - November 17, 1973. Numbers range from 18 to 73 and, as is the case in all movements, there are skeptics, conspiracy theorists and agent provocateurs who claim that all this was a figment of political imagination. The junta did not immediately collapse, but its blatant violence against unarmed, peaceful fellow Greeks was the beginning of the end of its rule.

Historical memory becomes political with the passage of time, for reminiscence is partial and partisan. Yet, as a Greek who has grown up among violent protests, Molotov cocktails being thrown at banks, deadly clashes between youth and the police, I cannot help but wish that we could form a non-violent movement of civil resistance that commits itself to persistent, meaningful change. In a presentation at Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Non-Violent Conflict, a leading scholar of civil resistance joked: "When I say 'nonviolence', people think I have fallen off the deep end." The misunderstandings and connotations of nonviolence are endless: hippies, idealists, romantics, ineffective resisters, lazy people. Yet, in a phenomenal talk, Dr. Erica Chenoweth debunked six myths about insurgency, nonviolence and civil resistance. The myths, as paraphrased by Daryn Cambridge and myself, were:

  1. Violent insurgency is effective.
  2. Insurgents use violence because they have to.
  3. All insurgencies begin non-violently and adopt violence when non-violent resistance fails.
  4. Resistance movements have to adopt violence to take on brutal regimes.
  5. Societies need quick and decisive victories to be stable enough for democracy to thrive.
  6. All insurgents can be persuaded to substitute non-violence for violent resistance.
Egyptian woman protester kissing riot police officer
(via the Atlantic)
Greece has been in turmoil and, occasionally, in flames this year. As I look back at both the Polytechnic university anniversary and the lessons of FSI 2011, I realize it is easy to say "it does not work for us." It is easy to reject non-violence as "suitable for other places, but not for Greece/Palestine/wherever you live." It is easy to want a quick victory or to cite outrage as a justification of the use of violence. But movements do not just happen -- they are studied, created painstakingly, slowly, strategically. And there is hope for everywhere, from Cairo to Athens.

Love in the time of protests - Vancouver, Canada (via Of Animals and Spirits) Note: I had originally misattributed this photo to Athens, Greece. Thank you to commenter Christine for helping me correct this.
Years ago
He passed quickly and painlessly, in a few breaths. He knew he was going to go, but none of the rest of us did. There was no time to think that we might lose him, even though his years of smoking five packs of cigarettes a day should have prepared us. I was a world away when he took his last breath. For years, I have tried to remember what our last conversation was. All I can remember was that I had called, he picked up the phone, and said "κορίτσι μου!" "My girl!", with that unique excitement that a father can muster for his daughter. The day of the funeral was the crisp, brilliantly blue November glory that only Thessalonik can offer. I had developed an eye twitch, so I looked like a pirate. This morning, I woke up, searching for grief inside myself, like a soldier who has been shot and is feeling around for the wounds. After all these years, all the remembrance, all the love, there is no wound, no blood. Yet, twistedly and miraculously enough, my right eye is bloodshot, painful, throbbing. "My little pirate," Elijah said this morning. I smiled, acknowledging that once more, the universe was winking at me. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Land, abandoned

Hebrew writing and Arabic writing go from east to west,
Latin writing, from west to east.
Languages are like cats:
You must not stroke their hair the wrong way.
The clouds come from the sea, the hot wind from the desert,
The trees bend in the wind,
And stones fly from all four winds,
into all four winds. They throw stones,
Throw this land, one at the other,

But the land always falls back to the land. 
- An excerpt from Yehuda Amichai's "Temporary Poem of My Time"

You cannot live in Jerusalem without being saturated with talk of land. You hear about settlement building. Land swaps. The wall between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. People take care to ensure that after their passing, their home will not "switch sides."  The obsession with land made Daniel Gordis wonder in If A Place Can Make You Cry:
Can a land emit a poison, a toxin that confuses, that obfuscates, that virtually guarantees that we become something other than what we want to be? Is there something about this land, or our passion for it, that blurs the vision? 
Land in Jerusalem rarely remains unclaimed or vacant for very long. That is what makes Lifta so unique: it is the only depopulated Palestinian Arab village in Israel that has not been repopulated or completely demolished. A soup of adjectives on this land can often be a euphemism, but in this case, the story is straight-forward: The Palestinian residents of the town fled during the 1948 war. They never returned and were never replaced. As such, their empty homes are tucked into a valley between two of Jerusalem's steep hills.

There is a spring of rushing water and an olive press. There is an old school and a shrine. The village of Lifta was once famous for its embroiderers and the elaborate wedding dresses they produced. Nowadays, it is an occasional home to squatting hippies and anarchists alike - as the anarchist symbol and dove of peace co-exist on the graffitied walls. Young Israelis descend into Lifta to enjoy the natural spring and the echo of the empty homes.

A friend asked me if Lifta is a sad place. A narrative of abandonment, emptiness and depopulation is hardly one of vivacity and mirth. There is a sadness to the decay of Lifta, with candy wrappers scattered among the cacti and plans to build a hotel and luxury homes in the place of this community. Yet, I derive hope from how contemporary people, who differ from the previous occupants of a space, can make their own memories there.

It has been a couple of months since I have taken a wide-angle photograph. The panoramas of this land do not feel new to me any more, even though they still astonish me with their beauty. I seem reluctant to zoom out, to engage in a process that requires making sense of a general picture. Instead, I'm drawn to focusing, to digging deeper into the individual stories and stringing them together to allow whatever larger story binds them to float to the top. So, I bring to you the stories of Lifta in the details, with the lens right up against the warm stone wall of the homes on a Jerusalem late afternoon.

Palestine, scribbled on a rock in Arabic

Standing on the only balcony tiles left

A mural of feeding camels and a heart

The anarchists were here too.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Parallel narratives of grief

I have been thinking about grief and, this time, I cannot credit Joan Didion.

Believe me, I have tried to celebrate beautiful fall light and the exquisiteness of gummy candy in Jerusalem's markets. I have tried to take a momentary breathing break from thinking about the paradoxes. I live above Burgers Bar and embrace privileged-world-problems like "my apartment smells like hamburgers." I read New York Times articles like this, which epitomize privileged-world-problems, and then ponder the closest location of macarons or cupcakes. In the airiness of macarons, I find a bubble. A woman who has lived in the Middle East for a while told me that without the bubble, I will not survive.

And yet, I cannot evade the big questions and it seems Jerusalem asks them continuously. I arrived here to find the country wrapped up in the story of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was taken hostage by Hamas militants when he was serving as an Israeli Defense Forces combat soldier in 2006. In October, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoner in exchange for Shalit's return. The questions began. Slate asked, almost cynically: "Israel traded 1,000 Palestinians for one soldier. Is that the going rate?" This week's NYT Magazine examines the negotiations and hurdles behind the exchange. It is this constant weighing that weighs on me: the value of one life relative to another.

When NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner sought to decipher why Israel would exchange 1,027 Palestinians for Gilad Shalit, he shed light on a particular aspect of Israeli psyche: "When Israelis say they view the sieged soldier, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, as their own son, they mean it," he writes. He speaks of a "melding of private and public spheres." Public opinion analyst Dahlia Sheindlin echoes this sentiment in +972, as she reflects on Shalit's transition from an IDF soldier to a captive, and back to his military uniform after his release: "I felt a painful irony: For over five years, Noam and Aviva Shalit made him [Gilad] into everyone's son and that's how they got him released; then the state made him back into a soldier -- which is how he got captured."

One May morning during my senior year at Harvard, my friends and I decided to take a walk through Mount Auburn cemetery, America's first garden, landscaped cemetery. Someone suggested that we picnic there, only to face the question: Is this really a suitable place for that? A friend ventured: "There is something very soothing about being in the presence of these people, even after they have passed away."

A few weeks ago, shorly after Shalit's release, I was standing at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Mount Herzl, also known as Mount of Remembrance, is the national cemetery of Israel and the burial site for the war dead. Despite the red roses in bloom and the soft light through the trees, there was nothing soothing about this remembrance. The head stones reminded me that the majority of the war dead were younger than me: 19 years old, died in combat during the Lebanon war. 20 years old, died during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

There is a Jewish tradition of leaving stones on graves to signify that remembrance is a process and that building monuments for the deceased is not a finished product. On some graves, families have planted cotton. On others, an American flag or a red British phone booth suggest that the deceased was an immigrant who died in battle. There are letters, poems, messages scribbled or painted on rocks. Parents, friends and current soldiers stop at the graves of people they may have never known. Mt. Herzl is a solemn place, a living warning against the consequences of war, but also a national monument: Remembrance, here, is a collective act.

My own heart is extending empathy in contradictory directions. When I shared how somber and moving my experience at Mt. Herzl had been, a former colleague chastised me: "These soldiers killed people too!" The political message of memorials, monuments and processes of remembrance -- from the Vietnam war memorial in Washington, DC to Holocaust memorials worldwide -- does not evade me. I had not left Mt. Herzl without thinking of the Palestinian grief narrative. There is something tiring, maddening and ludicrous about having to constantly offset emotions here. As a conflict professional, writer and photographer, balance is important, as is consciousness of one's own biases. Does that mean I need to deny my grief in the moment? My joy at Shalit's mother welcoming her son home? And does my empathy for the mothers of fallen soldiers and delight for the mother of a returned captive need to cancel out my grief for the mothers of the 19, and 20 and 22-year-olds who will never come home again? I do not want to hear the political "but..." this time - my heart simply needs to sit with the grief and tragedy of the human story, regardless of which side of the security barrier it is coming from.

Feminists often say the personal is political. In the Middle East, I am learning that the political is personal too.  I am not moved by Gilad, by the mothers, and by the graves because I do not understand the politics or because I ignore them. I am moved because I refuse to separate the human story from the politics. That is where 'extending empathy in contradictory directions' comes in: Human stories of injustice unfold side by side here. This land harbors parallel narratives of pain. In a beautiful reflection on gender roles in the Middle East, a friend recently wrote about what she insightfully dubbed "the obnoxious truth of "it's complicated."

Luckily, unlike the policy-making, empathy can afford to be contradictory, as can compassion. I can continue to unearth life stories, and I can embrace being mesmerized, appalled, and hopeful in the same day. Compassion does not need to choose a side.
Age 18: a grave for a fallen soldier on Mt. Herzl
Prayers, flags, and messages on stones at the fallen soldiers cemetery on Mt. Herzl
The heart reads "our dear Roni." The bigger stone contains a psalm of remembrance for a fallen soldier. 
Cotton growing on a grave on Mt. Herzl
A red phone booth sits on the grave of a British-Israeli fallen soldier.

A sign in East Jerusalem celebrates the release of a Palestinian who had been been serving a life sentence in prison. He was released as part of the Gilad Shalit exchange deal.
A sticker in West Jerusalem celebrates that Gilad Shalit is alive.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Journeys of magical thinking

My father died quickly in the middle of the day. Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs' sister, said in her eulogy of him that his last words were "oh wow. oh wow. oh wow." My mother told me that my father's last words were "κορίτσια μου...". In my native Greek, that means "my girls..."

For some time after his death, words escaped me. He had had a lot of faith in my words, in my ability to make magic with them, even if I could not quite grasp what that meant at the age of 11. He read every word I ever produced, from history papers on Otto von Bismarck to letters that I wrote home from camp. After glaucoma deprived him of his sight, my mother and I read my words to him and he made suggestions -- sometimes gentle ones, sometimes proclamations that "this is crap!" and I needed to start over. My sense of faith in myself was tied to his vote of confidence in me. His loss rendered me mute.

With the brains of a very young woman, I thought I could hide from grief. I packed the memories of the early days of mourning and sealed them, hoping that if I did not cross their path again, I could escape a confrontation with grief. Many years later, it was Joan Didion who caused my unraveling.

Click here to read the rest of this post on love, loss, and Joan Didion over at Gypsy Girls Guide.