A Taste of the Middle East: Cuisine, Culture and Conflict

This is a guest blog post by Martina Weitsch.

How can we talk about the Middle East today?

On 8 November incidents took place in Gaza that led to the most recent outbreak of violence; on 9 November 32 Quakers and others gathered at Woodbrooke – largely unaware of these events – to explore, reflect on, experience and eat our way around the Middle East. We were promised that this course would explore culture, Quaker work in the region and religions in the Middle East. We were to hear speakers, be connected to the region through a live link, and participate in discussions and practical workshops.  An introductory session to the situation in Israel and Palestine was to be offered together with time to discuss current matters of interest.

The event took place at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England. Credit: Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

This was an experimental weekend for Woodbrooke – so it was not totally clear what the purpose was. There were many different expectations – which were not explored in much detail and as a result the group as a whole did not really gel.

As I write this blog (on 21 November), it is 12 days later and the violence in Gaza and Israel has escalated; just minutes ago a cease-fire has been announced which I hope and pray will hold and will lead, eventually, to peace.

It is now much harder to write about this weekend than it would have been 10 days ago. The real live events have been screaming at us from our newspapers and TV screens (and have been screaming at the people in the region right there in front of their eyes) making the proceedings of the weekend somehow less relevant. But there is a risk in being carried away by the moment.

So I will try to do justice to the weekend and to the political context in which it took place – even though that context seemed pretty far removed from Woodbrooke, a relaxed and comfortable study centre which looked after us well and provided us with lovely food, much of which was Middle Eastern, at least in part.

When the planning for the weekend started, QCEA was asked to be present and to offer one or more workshops on our work on the EU role in Palestine/Israel. Because the weekend was to take place just after Liz Scurfield and I had retired there was a question about who should go and how appropriate it was for one of us to speak for QCEA on this occasion. But there was agreement that despite my recent retirement it was appropriate and useful for me to go and to offer the workshops. I ran a workshop which was unapologetically political. It didn’t draw the crowds but there was some real interest in looking at the contribution the EU makes both to the solutions and to the problems in Palestine and Israel and beyond. As European citizens we have not just the right, but the duty to be well informed about what is done in our name and to take a stand if we disagree.

We had a number of plenary sessions at which we heard from a number of speakers: Paul Rogers, Marwan Dalweish, Marisa Johnson, and Jean Zaru (by video link). These were interspersed with small group reflection and workshops on a variety of topics.

For me, there were some surprises:

Paul Rogers from the Peace Studies department at the University of Bradford. Credit: Paul Rogers

The introductory talk by Paul Rogers covered the ‘Arab Spring’ (or ‘awakening’ as he called it) in a number of countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, the ArabPeninsula, and Syria). It didn’t cover in any detail Lebanon, Iran or Palestine/Israel. There were good reasons for this but I was left with the feeling that there was definitely at least one elephant in the room which wasn’t being addressed. This is not to say that the talk wasn’t interesting; it was. But it seemed to leave out a key issue which is impacting on the situation in the Middle East.

The introductory talk by Marwan Darweish focused on important moments in the history of the Middle East: the Ottoman Empire, the First World War, the Second World War, and the rise of autocratic regimes in a number of countries in the wake of nationalism, with some passing references to the Crusades; but again, there was limited reference to Israel and Palestine although he did reflect on some (as yet unpublished) research on public perceptions and attitudes to the conflict among Palestinians and Israelis. The research will be very interesting when it is available.

One of the really interesting points (and one which was probably only possible to make in the context of the far wider consideration of the Middle East rather than just focusing on Palestine and Israel) which Marwan Darweish made (and it was pretty much an aside) was: if Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbours it has to become part of the Middle East. Why is this such an important point? And one which is not often talked about?

I think this has to do with two facts: one, that many Israelis have a strong European or American background and are therefore embedded in a western culture which is not Middle Eastern; the other, that the impact which Israel has had on the part of the Middle East it occupies has been to westernise it. The two facts are, of course, related. They serve, together, to bring about not only an alienation; but the western industrial type of economy is also taking its toll on the region. One example which is rather obvious is the impact which industrial farming has on the water supply. There are reasons why Middle Eastern culture is the way it is. From an ecological point of view it is important to live in harmony with the world around us. This is, then, another, maybe hidden facet of the root causes of the conflict.

The fact that this aspect of Marwan Darweish’s talk was not picked up on at all during the weekend added to a sense that we weren’t addressing the main issue. This was further underlined by the missing introductory session on the situation in Palestine and Israel.

Marisa Johnson from the Europe and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation. Credit: FWCC EMES

After the workshops we had a very full and informative overview from Marisa Johnson, Executive Secretary of the Europe and Middle East Section of the Friends World Committee for Consultation, of the engagement of Friends in the Middle East starting from Mary Fisher and her visit to the Sultan of Turkey in the 1650s right to the present day. I sincerely hope that this introduction will be captured in a book or short presentation or video for wide distribution; it shows eloquently that Friends have challenged injustice in the region for a very long time; it shows that Friends have contributed to education and to the spiritual life of the region; and – most importantly – it shows that there are Quakers in Lebanon and in Palestine who need to know that they are supported by Friends the world over.

In the evening the sharing of experiences was wide ranging; what stays with me is a song, shared by one of the participants but written by Penny Stone, an Ecumenical Accompanier, called ‘Breaking the Silence’. If you haven’t heard it before, listen to it!

Sunday morning saw a live link-up with Jean Zaru, Clerk of Ramallah Monthly Meeting; we heard from her about her experience of living in Ramallah as a Quaker. She told us that some of the extreme right-wing Christian Zionist groups who support the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (which are illegal under international law) are also proselytizing among Palestinians; this can only cause more difficulty for local Palestinian Christians from the churches and groups that are established there and is a very worrying development.

We were encouraged to read and engage with the Kairos Palestine call and to read Jean Zaru’s book: Occupied with Nonviolence; I can personally recommend both the document and the book as important statements about the reality in Palestine.

Friends International Centre, Ramallah. Friends have been in Ramallah for over one hundred years. Credit: Jill Granberg (Creative Commons)

We did spend some time on reflection about ‘where do we go from here’. But especially in light of events since that weekend, in light of the events in Gaza and Israel, I keep thinking that the opportunity the weekend offered was not used. There is so much to do and most of the reflection was about the desire of the participants to learn more about aspects of the history, culture, religions and so on. That’s all very well, but there is a pressing need for action now.

Coming back from the weekend, my inbox has been full of reports from civil society organisations both in Gaza and Israel (and from some voices in the occupied West Bank) which contradict what we hear in the media. These are voices that aren’t normally heard; voices that have an important message to convey.

The Israeli Defense Force in staging areas around the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government authorized the recruitment of 75,000 reserve soldiers.  Credit: IDF (Creative Commons)

One of these voices comes from an NGO called Other Voice which is a group of Israeli citizens living in and around Sderot, the town in southern Israel which has been significantly affected by rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. These are people who live with the daily and constant reality of war; and despite that – or maybe because of it – they have a different perspective from that of the Israeli government and they are prepared to make that known. The tragedy is that the world, the world’s leaders and the world’s media aren’t listening.

Another voice comes from a 16 year old Palestinian Quaker. Mai Zaru, in a short YouTube piece expresses her feelings about a world – a so-called international community – which is not hearing. It’s hard to listen to this one because it leaves you feeling burdened with guilt because of the inaction of the international community and of individuals like you and me, but give it a try.

For those of us who are not in Palestine or Israel, for whom any action is limited by the distance from the events and whose understanding is limited by what we hear, it is even more important to be vigilant about who we listen to and why and what we believe.

For example, at an early stage of this round of violence we were told by the media that there had been rockets launched which were destined for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There is, of course, never any justification of violence, so I am not justifying launching rockets or any other form of violence at any targets. But the mention of Jerusalem was bound to cause an emotional reaction in the minds and hearts of many people. And then I hear from another – local – source that the rocket which had been reported as being targeted at Jerusalem had actually been targeted at an illegal settlement between Bethlehem and Hebron. Does it make a difference in terms of the justifiability of the action? Absolutely not. Does it make a difference in terms of the reaction of the public? Absolutely. So who do I believe? And why are there no questions raised in the news media about the accuracy of the story?

Quakers have a long history of engagement in the Middle East. Friends are not given to being bystanders where peace is trampled underfoot and injustice reigns with impunity. There are Quakers in the region who have a right to our support; there are Quakers who work in the region to support a wide range of civil society organisations. Surely, with all the resources, with all our history, with all our real desire to contribute to peace and justice, we can do more.

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About Martina Weitsch

Martina worked for Quaker Council for European Affairs as one of two Joint Representatives from 2002 to October 2012. Her main areas of work were the EU role in Palestine/Israel, EU peacebuilding, conflict prevention and crisis management, EU finances, democratic accountability and relations with the European Investment Bank.

One comment

  1. Tom Heydeman

    Thanks, Chris!

    Tom Heydeman 62 Northcourt Avenue, Reading, RG2 7HQ 0118 9874801 tom@heydeman.eclipse.co.uk

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