Moving Past the Label
My classmates and I sat cross-legged in a circle, a small group of Israeli high school students from the Advanced Arabic class. Our teacher leaned against a pine tree, presiding over our version of a traditional storytelling scene. We were taking turns reciting classic tales that we had memorized in Arabic.
Arabic was one of my favorite classes; I loved the language, its fluidity, its richness. I was drawn to the culture, rooted in traditions that are still very much alive, and as an avid reader and folktale aficionado, I delighted in the collection of fables we had been exploring.
As I sat under the tree with my classmates, awaiting my turn, I breathed in the morning air, its warmth a mere hint of the heat to come, spiced with the tangy smell of the surrounding pine trees. I was confident in my ability; memorization came easily to me, I knew that my accent was good, and I was fluent enough to put plenty of expression into my recitation.
I was eager to start, and when Yehuda, next to me, launched into his tale, he didn't have my full attention; I focused on the ground at my feet, working to keep my adrenaline in check. As Yehuda concluded his story, the teacher chuckled. “I wonder what Arab villagers would make of this scene.”
Still smiling and shaking his head, he shifted his attention to me and nodded.
I took a deep breath as I squared my shoulders, looked around the circle, and began a tale of good triumphing over evil, generosity versus greed. “There was in Baghdad a rich merchant named Ali…”
Unlike the eager high school storyteller I was, the next time I found myself in a circle expected to tell a story, almost thirty years later, I did not feel that same confidence and happy anticipation.
I am a member of a nonprofit networking organization named Weave A Real Peace, or WARP. Its mission is to foster a global network of enthusiasts who value the importance of textiles to grassroots economies. Many WARP members travel worldwide to work with indigenous textile artisans to improve their quality of life through their craft.
Our annual meetings provide valuable networking opportunities for WARP members. We open our meetings with introductions. We do not sit cross-legged on the ground, during the day, in the shade of a pine tree. Instead, we settle into chairs arranged in a circle, after dinner, in an air-conditioned room. Yet the stories we share resonate with me as much as the tales my classmates and I recited three decades ago.
With each story, we weave another colorful, shining thread into a rich tapestry of human life: of WARP members, dedicated and idealistic; of artisans, hard working and talented; and of their children, brimming with promise.
As each tale emerges, I see a back straighten here, a shift to the edge of a seat there, a couple of heads nodding, and I know that once the introductions are over, yet another group will form to interweave these stories into a cloth of many colors. I know that by the end of the evening, these new-found friends will combine their resources to engender a new venture that will improve lives.
I used to dread my turn. I would sit, inhaling the stories, stories about the change people are making in the world and changes that they hope to bring about, convinced I had nothing to contribute. I have done nothing compared to all these amazing, powerful women. I have no story.
When all eyes were on me, I would resort to a one-liner: “Hi, my name is Deborah Brandon, and I write the pieces about textile techniques in the newsletter.”
Finally, last year I found my story. I told of my journey to that circle, I told of my childhood in Israel. I spoke of the life-changing experience when as a thirteen-year-old, I encountered a soldier who had been trapped in a burning tank, and my subsequent growth as a person, when “peace” transformed from an abstract concept to an almost tangible notion. I spoke of growing up in a world where education was highly valued, where illiteracy was considered a potential source of evil and education a key ingredient for peace.
After the circle broke up, several women thanked me for sharing my story. A friend looked at me askance. “I've never heard you tell that story before.”
“I guess I hadn't been ready to tell it before.”
I had undergone another life-changing experience—brain surgery. I found myself alone, without a compass, having to navigate my way across a foreign land. On the road to recovery, I started writing, largely to make sense of my journey, but also to form a frame of reference in the unknown, bringing me peace through the rough patches, guiding me towards acceptance.
Writing opened a door to a world I hadn't been aware of, enabling me to understand aspects of life that I had been unable to grasp.
I discovered that I am in fact a storyteller.
As I explore my stories I gain a better perspective on thoughts, ideas, actions, events. Writing has raised my self-awareness, helped me rediscover myself. Through writing I learn who I am.
I found that it's all right to be vulnerable, to ask for help and accept it. Through storytelling, I opened up, holding nothing back, exposing my weaknesses. As a result, I formed deeper bonds: as you lower your guard, so does your audience; as you open yourself to others, they let you in. In order to tell my stories, I learnt to see more of the world, I improved my listening skills, I became more in tune with nature and with people. I became more fully human.
As I practiced my new-found gift, as I recounted my tales, I became aware that the power in storytelling is not merely personal, it is universal.
I already knew that education was essential for peace, but until I started writing in earnest, I was unaware of the close interplay between stories and education. We educate through stories, whether it's by attaching the story about the weaver to a handwoven scarf for sale, presenting a history lesson in school, writing a newspaper article, or through the storytelling of old, through cautionary tales, creation myths, and stories of the outside world.
Education, or storytelling, introduces us to the world, exposing us to new experiences, to new people, thus minimizing prejudices. We learn what lies beyond the labels.
In the 1980s in Southern Lebanon, Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs each set up roadblocks where anyone who was stopped was shown a tomato and asked to pronounce the word for it. The Shi'ites in the region pronounce it one way, the Sunis another. If you pronounced it the wrong way, you were gunned down.
In our Arabic class we did not learn any of the dialects used in the Middle East. In our lessons we were only exposed to the language used for the written word, referred to as The Pure Arabic Language, the language common to all educated Arabs.
Unfortunately, there are far too many illiterate people among us, and illiteracy begets ignorance, which limits access and hence openness to the outside world. In particular, among Arabs, the uneducated are only familiar with their local dialect.
As you stand at a roadblock, with guns pointing at you, you need to decide which way to pronounce tomato. You measure your judge and jury with your eyes. Are they Sunni Muslims? Or Shi'ite Muslims? There is no way to tell. They look the same. They look like you.
Are you Sunni? Are you Shi'ite? Are you one of us, or one of them? At those roadblocks, they were only concerned with labels. No one was interested in who you really were. No one respected you as a person. No one cared about your story.
Too many of the people who stood at those roadblocks were illiterate. They never learned the unifying Arabic language, the Pure Arabic. Perhaps if they had been educated, if everyone in the region spoke the same language, this atrocity would have never taken place: everyone would have pronounced the word for tomato the same way. Perhaps if everyone knew how to read the Qur'an for themselves, Islam would not be divided into warring sects. Perhaps if all Muslims were literate, they would know that the name of their religion, Islam, is rooted in the word for peace, salaam.
As a species, we are naturally wary of strangers, trespassers, threats to our wellbeing. When we refuse to listen, we dehumanize, transforming potential threats into acceptable targets of violence. By denying each others' stories, we reinforce the status of intruder. We remain nothing more than labels.
We are not merely labels. Labels are just an opening, a precursor to the story.
I am not Deborah Brandon, the mathematician, or Deborah Brandon the WARP member, or the Israeli. Nor am I Deborah Brandon the textile artist, or the dragon boater, the writer, the mother, the brain injury survivor, the dreamer. I am all of those and much, much more. If I want people to get to know me beyond those labels, if I want to let them into my life and be part of their lives, I need to tell my story, and I need to take advantage of every opportunity to do so.
More than ten years ago a student came to see me during office hours to discuss his performance on a test. He walked in my door, looked around my office and his step faltered. I turned to see what had caused his reaction—he had been looking at my calendar, a Jewish calendar with a big Star of David emblazoned on it.
Curious, I scrutinized him, searching for a clue that would explain his behavior. He was tall, his hair was dark and curly, he was suntanned—nothing that would normally call attention to him.
“I didn't do well on the test, I had just got back from my country”—he emphasized my country—“where I had been diagnosed with a health problem. I will need surgery.” Listening to his accent, the way he rolled his r's, the fluidity, the intonation, I suspected he was an Arab. “I have to go back to my country for the surgery and I may miss the next test.” Again the emphasis on “my country”.
I had to ask, “What is your country?”
He watched me closely. “I am from Palestine.”
I sat up. “Then we come from the same place, I am Israeli.”
I smiled. “I knew that you were an Arab. I've met many Arabs over here, but you're my first Palestinian.”
“I've never met a Jew before and I never thought I'd speak to an Israeli.”
“Where are you from specifically?”
Warily we danced around each other verbally, letting out tidbits of information, piecemeal, watching for each other's reactions. His family had fled Palestine in 1948, during what we Israelis call the War of Independence and the Arabs refer to as the Catastrophe. His grandfather was a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, hence marked as a terrorist. Therefore the family was not allowed back into the country. I described a friend's experience strip-searching Arab women crossing in and out of Jordan. I told him of my brother's sojourn in Lebanon as a medic during the 1982 Lebanon War. I spoke of our growing concern when we had no news of him, and our subsequent anxiety when we finally learned that he had been wounded in action.
After that initial cautious encounter, he stopped by my office several times. We were intrigued by each other, interested in the stories hidden behind the labels. After a couple of conversations the caution faded. We talked about our families. We discussed an article I was writing on Palestinian embroidery. We compared notes on Middle Eastern cuisine, famous ruins in Israel and Jordan. With every encounter, our wariness diminished. Finally, we became able to openly and amicably discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict and the chances of peace in the Middle East.
At one point I told him, “I have more in common with Arabs who grew up in the Middle East, like you, than with American Jews.”
He nodded. “I feel that way about American-Palestinians. They don't understand.”
My student and I could have easily denied each other's stories. He did not have to create an opening to tell his story by mentioning “his country” and I did not have to step right through the proffered door. We could have easily let labels and distrust guide us. By opening that door to me, he was showing me the utmost respect, and by crossing that threshold, I too, was treating him as a fellow human being, with all the respect he was due.
Only now, as I write this, do I realize how courageous he was to open that door to me, to trust me. An eighteen-year-old, alone, vulnerable, for whom the label “Israeli” had been defined as the cause for his people's pain, was able to take that chance. We educated adults, having spent a lifetime exposed to numerous stories, should also be able to take that same leap of faith.
In order to have any hope for peace, we have an obligation to tell our stories. We should feel compelled to take the time to listen, showing our respect to our storytellers, to risk peace.
At last year's WARP meeting, I told my story not only because I was finally ready and able to do so, but also because I finally realized that my story had merit. My listeners could actually draw meaning from it—perhaps a real perspective on peace; one of their own knows firsthand about war, giving them a greater sense of the importance of their work. Sharing my story, I realized, was symbolic of the respect I had towards the people who sat in that circle with me, these strong, empowered people who make up WARP.
When I tell my stories, I am allowing my listeners to see my inner self, with all my strengths and weaknesses. When I tell my stories I am showing my audience that I have faith in them, that I trust them. By telling my story, thus unlocking a door, as my student did, I am also opening myself to their stories, hoping that they, too, will open up and allow me to see them as individuals, not as labels.
WARP is about going beyond the labels. It is about respect, and trust. About caring. About making a difference in the world.
When my friend asked me at last year's WARP meeting about the change that prompted me to tell my story, I laughed. “Brain surgery—but that's another story, a story for next year.”
Stories have a life of their own. When I open my mouth at the next WARP meeting, I'm not sure what story I'll tell or where it will go. Perhaps I will tell this story, my story of the power that storytelling has had over me. Perhaps not.
I do know that I will start with, “Hi, my name is Deborah Brandon. I write the pieces about textile techniques in the newsletter”—but I won't end there.