Sami Awad: To Create a Common Narrative
It’s June, the month of Fathers Day, and once again we’re featuring peacebuilding men we love.
Sami Awad is Executive Director of Holy Land Trust, the nonprofit he founded in Bethlehem in 1998. He also directs the Travel and Encounter Program; the Palestine News Network, the first independent press agency in the Palestinian Territories; and Al-Kul Television. He works to build a future on the principles of nonviolence, equality, justice, and peaceful coexistence by “liberating the oppressor from oppression” and “liberating Palestinians from the victim mindset.”
What’s the best thing happening right now in the heart of the Middle East?
It’s nonviolent activism, and it’s happening in many places around the Middle East. In the West Bank where I live there are actions constantly in 10 or 12 places, especially in areas where Palestinian land continues to be confiscated for building the separation wall or expanding settlements.
I’ve seen the movie Budrus, and our own founder’s short video about Sheikh Jarrah.
Yes, those are both good examples. The spark that started there has spread to many other places. Leaders are emerging. Each area is unique in the way the government works and the way the army interacts with the people, so each case is different. There are local Popular Committees in each village and collection of villages, and they’re leading the peaceful resistance.
Why don’t we read about this in the mainstream media?
Mainstream media do come here, but a story once a year or every few years seems to be enough for them. And we don’t want to create events just for media. We certainly don’t want violence, which is what the media tend to cover. Still, we need to do more work to attract media, especially US media We want people to know nonviolent action is happening and to stop the myth, the stereotype of Palestinians as “terrorists.”
So, with more nonviolent action, are things getting better?
Politically it’s all getting worse―the wall, the settlements, the strangulation of Jerusalem continue. My hope comes in seeing more & more Palestinians and some Israelis who really see value in nonviolent action–see that it can be something much stronger than violence. And that’s happening. There is a challenge on the leadership level, having the established leader see more than the rhetorical value of nonviolence, do more than give speeches about it.
Leaders lead, and we do have leaders who know, who talk with the people, and who support grassroots activism. We have some elected officials who are committed to nonviolence. I challenge our established leaders to take their words into action, and I see some of those leaders beginning to get it.
Tell me about one moment out of all the years that really stands out for you.
There are so many experiences! The most powerful for me are when we are engaged in nonviolent action and we are confronted by soldiers and the soldiers begin to challenge themselves and to question the myths they were told. “Why are we on this farmer’s land uprooting his trees?” If we can open the heart of that one individual soldier, that is a success.
The number of Israelis who join us is growing. I’ve been at demonstrations where there are more Israelis than Palestinians. Now our next challenge is to create strategies where people can do something without being on the front line. People may care, but not everybody wants to be out in front. We need to create other roles, more places where they can voice their opinions.
How is the threat or the perceived threat from Iran affecting your community right now?
It affects one of the biggest motives why more Israelis are not involved in ending the occupation. It feeds the mindset of fear when they are told by their leaders that they can’t trust anyone. “Iran wants to bomb us” easily extends to all Muslims, all Arabs. The media likes to mix things up into an Us vs. Them where them is everybody but Israelis. We need to convince them that we are a separate issue, fighting for our dignity and for peace.
What’s the thing you most want people to know about the Arab-Israeli relationship?
That the struggle between us is a modern political struggle, not an ancient religious one. If we look at the long-term history of human rights in this region, not that it’s the cleanest or that it was ever really democratic, but there were long periods of peaceful coexistence. We want to break the walls that keep it from being that way again.
The most important issues are the fear that was imported into the Middle East by Europeans on the basis of their European experience and the indignities that Arabs here have endured. We have to figure out how to begin to build trust relationships and respect on both sides and build, not a dreamland, but build on what actually was.
How do your Holy Land Trust programs help?
We arrange Travel and Encounter tours and pilgrimages for people from around the world. We set it up, have it all organized, and we invite them to see the modern reality as well as the historic sites―to meet the people, eat with them, sleep in the homes of families. We have tens of these groups every year.
Do you have any evidence that these visits make a difference?
As people come and have these experiences, we don’t want them to become more sympathetic or to become more pro-Palestinian and more anti-Israeli. We want them to act, share when they go back, invite others to come and see for themselves. We have seen a shift: that they can’t buy into the media accounts anymore when they go back. We have seen people step into activist roles, convince their churches to join boycotts, meet with their elected officials, organize more interfaith discussions at home, raise funds for Palestinian peace organizations.
The sad reality is that the Israeli military and political establishment are trying to undermine our program because they know it changes people. That shows we’re making a difference! Students go back to their campuses and they start something. All they take back is stories―not data. That’s all it takes. Things can no longer remain as they are if enough people hear those first-hand stories.
Is there one more really major thing you want to accomplish in your time on earth?
Bigtime! Within my lifetime I want to see real peace, not between politicians but between people. I want people to see the humanity of each other, understand each other’s narratives, and not stop there, but work together to create a common narrative.
Sami expands on the need for a common narrative in this film clip from The Global Oneness Project: http://www.globalonenessproject.org/videos/samiawadclip6.
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