I was riding Muni (San Francisco’s public transportation) back from the Landmark communication course I’m taking to a friend’s place where I’m couch-surfing during the weekend-long course. I was riding with another woman from the course, who also lives in the Castro (the neighborhood where my friend lives). During the ride, I discovered she was from Israel (I would have guessed Egypt, but the accent really was Israeli once she said it).
On Saturday night at 11 PM in San Francisco, half the passengers are drunk. My new friend commented on how sweet this friendly, affectionate young tipsy couple in front of us were. The man then turned to us and said, “Do you know where Castro is?” and my friend said, “We’re getting off there; just follow us.”
“How lucky are we?!” he exclaimed to his girlfriend, as if this were the best news in the world. She apologized for him, and my friend said, “No, it’s lovely.” Then to him, “I hear the accent–where are you from?”
“Lebanon,” he said.
My friend said a word or two in Lebanese and he lit up even more. He asked where she was from and she said Israel, and he got very serious (although still drunk and a bit dramatic): “Why must we fight?”
“I agree!” she said, sober but matching his passion. They chatted a bit, and I turned to the girlfriend and said, “We should send THEM to the U.N.”
She said a few shots of liquor would probably help any peace negotiation, they chatted, we chatted, he said my friend should become President of Israel and he President of Lebanon and they could end the conflict.
When we got off MUNI, my friend said it had been no coincidence–part of why she’s in our course is because she wants to contribute to creating peace in her homeland. Apparently the young man had mentioned his family’s home had been burned down and still he wanted peace. She decided to stay behind and get his contact information so they could have a sober conversation on the subject.
I can think of countless programs that have resulted in the re-humanizing of “the other,” so that people trained to hate each other learn to understand the other group’s humanity. Warring gangs in Boston putting on the musical “West Side Story” (with a real cop playing officer Krupke) and calling a truce. Kids from Israel/Palestine coming to a camp in the U.S. and realizing they liked the people with whom they were in conflict.
And yet policymakers and politicians do not focus on creating relationships or understanding very often. Even those committed to ending violence focus on statistics and perhaps anecdotes instead of creating space for people to really hear one another’s stories. (I acknowledge this is idealized–the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Committee created much healing but it also created a get-out-of-jail-free option for not truly repentant Afrikaaners, and a similar process in Rwanda, some have argued, was even worse.)
Perhaps the responsibility for this “knowing one another” process then must be in the hands of lay people. So how do we create critical mass to really affect change in the midst of conflict? Other than making my friend and the drunk guy from the subway the Presidents of their homelands, I’m eager for suggestions.