Listening to “The Other”: Reflections on Storytelling and Conflict
Jerusalem & Washington, D.C.
Since 2002, Israeli-born storyteller Noa Baum has performed “A Land Twice Promised”, a one-woman show based on her dialogue with a Palestinian woman also living in the United States. The piece weaves together both the women’s and their mothers’ memories of war and occupation. Baum’s work illuminates the complex and contradictory history and emotions that surround Jerusalem for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seeps despair into the Western consciousness, with more than 60 years of wars and occupation, thousands dead, and no end in sight. Yet rarely do Westerners have the opportunity to hear the stories behind the bloodshed and the headlines. Neither do most Israeli Jews and Palestinians know what it is like to live “on the other side,” less than five miles away.
Two parallel narratives stand at the heart of the conflict. Endless layers of pain on both sides stifle a willingness to legitimize the other’s narrative. But I believe that acknowledging the story of “the other” is the first step toward dialogue and relationship building, the only alternative to the spiraling vortex of violence.
I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel. Every time my grandmother heard the word “Arab” she would spit and say “may their name be erased.” Her son was killed in the war of 1948.
Jumana and I met at a California playground. She is a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem. We watched our kids grow up together, playing on that green grass, without the fears we grew up with. No one put it in words, but each of us knew – back home, my son would grow up to go to the army and check I.D.s at roadblocks. Her son would grow up to arrive at the checkpoint and throw stones on the oppression. Over the years Jumana and I started to share our personal stories of growing up in the same city on opposite sides.
She told me how, when she was 10, she saw a 14-year-old boy being beaten by soldiers and driven away. She said it was the first time she felt hate and understood what that word meant.
For me, hearing this was like being hit in the gut. Those hated soldiers who terrified and haunted her entire childhood were my people, our boys, everyone that I knew that turned 18 and went to the army, including my brother.
It was hard. But I kept listening because she was telling me her story.
We continued to talk. The more we heard each others’ stories the more we were able to also have some difficult conversations: We started to talk about our “history,” those national narratives that are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When I mentioned a known fact, what was the TRUTH for me – she would say: “That’s not true, that’s Zionist propaganda!” To what was the TRUTH for her, known history – I would say: “That’s not true at all, that’s Arab propaganda!”
This led to arguing, each defending TRUTH as she knows it. But and then she would say: ” Look, at us, we’re getting defensive again”. We’d laugh and then I’d pick up the baby so that she can make the soft-boiled eggs for the other kids.
And we would continue to talk. We never stopped, in spite of the differences, of not always agreeing – because we had heard each other’s stories.
This was a very powerful experience for me that propelled me to create a performance piece, A Land Twice Promised, telling our personal stories that echo the contradictory national narratives of our people. Over the past 10 years I’ve performed this story all over the USA, in Israel, and in Europe. I’ve heard many responses, as contradicting as those national narratives… among them:
An Israeli man said the show was completely anti-Israeli. An Israeli woman wrote to me that it was the most powerful experience of her life: ”I found myself experiencing emotions of pain, laughter, shame, identification and helplessness.” An American Jewish woman yelled, “It’s a disgrace!” walked out in rage, and wrote that I should be ashamed of myself. A Palestinian man said this only shows the suffering of the Jews since I show only Jews as losing a family member while every single person he knows has lost someone to the violence. Another Palestinian man came with tears and embraced me: “That was my story you just told, exactly as I remembered that war…”
I continue to be concerned when people hear my story as unbalanced, but I am oddly glad that those responses come from “both sides.” I am grateful and reassured by many who have felt that the story has brought them new perspectives or understanding.
Listening to the story of another is not easy. When you are deeply wounded or suffer a huge loss, you do not always have room for the story of the other. This is especially true for the ones who are in an ongoing trauma like the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Trauma and pain are things we have little or no control over in our lives. But I believe we still have a choice: Do we let the pain harden our hearts and recoil, or do we let the pain transform us and open our hearts?
Peace can be a risk. It asks us to make compromises, to go beyond our comfort zone and venture into the unknown. Since we often have a certain picture of a situation and specifically of our enemy, it is hard to imagine something different.
When you can’t imagine what it would look or feel like, it’s hard to take the risk for peace.
But stories invite us in to imagine different realities. Storytelling can break through assumptions and stereotypes and allow us to see the humanity of “The Other.” Listening to someone’s story is in itself an acknowledgement of his or her humanity. I have learned that by shifting the focus to personal story, I can invite people into a different realm, where it is possible to listen deeply past opinions and frozen perspectives and allow space for change.
A Land Twice Promised is an offer of my choice. I am not here to represent The Suffering of The Jews or The Palestinians. I am here to tell about my experience. I choose to speak the truths of our friendship and the stories that emerged from it. That is what I have to offer as a storyteller. I am here to give personal testimony that transcends the rhetoric, and through it I hope to call to all of us to listen. The path to peace has to include the listening to the experience of The Other through which we can discover our common human experience. In this specific conflict it also means to recognize and acknowledge the existence of parallel narratives, two perspectives on the same historical events. My hope is that by listening to this piece audiences will experience some of the compassion that is needed for healing and peace.
My hope is that more people will choose to use the healing power of storytelling: listen to each other and acknowledge the story of the other. It is the stories that call out for all of us to surrender prejudice and fear, turning instead to listening, compassion, dialogue, and peace.
Noa Baum is a performance artist, educator, and public speaker. Born and raised in Jerusalem, she studied theater at Tel Aviv University and with Uta Hagen in New York, and received a Masters of Arts in Educational Theater from New York University. She is a recipient of a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award and numerous Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Noa’s performance highlights include The Kennedy Center, Mayo Clinic, The World Bank, and the US Defense Department. She lives in the Washington DC metropolitan area. To learn more visit: http://www.noabaum.com
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