Dance, sing and eat for peace

Observations on the middle east

Forgiveness is not, you might imagine, a word that falls readily from the lips of anyone living in Israel or Palestine. But this potent word forms the basis of an emerging, people-powered peace movement in the region: the Sulha Peace Project. Sulha means forgiveness in Arabic and is also the root of the word sliha, meaning sorry, in Hebrew - highlighting one of the many commonalities of these two cultures. "We are so similar, but we see only the differences," says Elias Jabbour, an Arab Israeli and one of the founders of the Sulha project.

An indigenous Middle Eastern method of reconciliation, sulha is around 2,000 years old and was originally used to alleviate conflict between warring desert tribes. The two sides, assisted by a trusted mediator, would come together in the understanding that talking would bring about resolution. The sulha was brought into a modern context two years ago, when an Arab and a Jew had the idea of gathering together 150 people in Galilee, to break the fast of Ramadan and mark the Jewish festival of Chanukkah.

The following year, by word of mouth alone, this gathering grew to an all-day event attended by 700 people. Among the participants was an Israeli father whose child had been killed in a suicide bomb blast two weeks earlier. This year's Sulha saw 1,000 people assemble for a two-day event. It comprised workshops, talking circles, music, dance, shared prayer and shared food. This time, the word had spread abroad and people came from Europe, Jordan and the US; there were speakers from the exiled Tibetan government and the South African freedom movement. The goal for 2004 is to take a Sulha caravan, gathering people on the way, from Galilee down to Jerusalem.

The project seems driven more by psychotherapy than by ideology. As people from both sides share personal experiences around a talking circle, anger is dissipated and each side emerges with a better understanding of the other. Just like the talking, says Jabbour, "the singing and dancing and music is also part of the healing". Likewise, he describes the sharing of food as "a covenant of peace" - it is hard to feel acrimony towards someone with whom you have just broken bread.

No topic is banned, but the drive is to shift the focus away from political discussion, which can turn nasty without a foundation of familiarity and interaction. "Political peace is a piece of paper; sulha is a peace from the heart," says Jabbour.

Indeed, the Sulha project has at its heart a belief that it is not a lack of solutions but a lack of good will that prevents peace in the region, and that such good will can arise from putting the two sides in normal, human contact with one another again. In this sense, the venture is similar to the Salaam/Shalom (Hello, Peace) project - reported in the NS (28 April) by Michael Bond - which is based on an automated, free-call telephone system that connects Israelis and Palestinians, giving them a chance to talk about peace with someone on "the other side".

Both these projects feed a growing hunger for communication and contact. "There are some Jews in Tel Aviv," says Jabbour, "who have never seen an Arab, and some Arabs who have never seen a Jewish home. We are trying to break down these social and psychological barriers."

The founders of the Sulha project know its limitations. "We didn't intend to make a political solution. We knew it is not in the reach of our hands," says Jabbour. The project aims instead to create a social environment in which a genuine political solution might stand a chance. "Try it," says Jabbour. "Try peace. If you don't like it, you can always go back to war."

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can we trust our rulers ever to tell the truth?