American Friends Service Committee
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Shelly Banjo wrote the original version of this article, published as "Turning the Page" in Ha'aretz, 10/31/05. To learn more about the Jerusalem Stories project or to make a donation, visit www.jerusalemstories.org.
"This is Aliza Mizrachi, an Israeli Jew from Mea Shearim," said Grosman as she flipped the page to an older woman, holding her hands up high, with an immense smile on her face.
"This is Huda Ibrahim; she is a Palestinian Muslim who sells olive oil on the street near Damascus Gate," she continued.
Over the past three years, writer, storyteller, and conflict resolution practitioner Carol Grosman, and award-winning photographer Lloyd Wolf, have interviewed and photographed more than 60 people from all around Jerusalem in hopes of providing a new tool for conflict resolution.
These interviews and photographs are the basis for "Jerusalem Stories," a multifaceted program that will include a variety of educational programs, peace-building tools, storytelling performances, dialogue workshops, as well as a book of personal stories and photographs.
"Jerusalem Stories is a communication tool with the goal of eliciting empathy, increasing understanding, opening the door to reconciliation and reweaving relationships," said Grosman. It is a project of the Democracy Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to democracy and the rule of law across the world, and aims to provide these program components throughout Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the United States.
Grosman, backed by an extensive team of advisors, emphasizes the important part storytelling and photography can play in peace-building and conflict resolution. They can both engage people intellectually and touch people emotionally, Grosman said.
Since one does not have to be literate to hear and understand stories, they are able to cross educational, as well as cultural and political, boundaries.
Listening to and imagining other people's stories becomes a vicarious experience, Grosman said. People step into the shoes of the 'other' and imagine their world. This experience can open audiences to new perspectives in a way that debate does not.
"This is a way for people to see each other as human beings, as they speak about their friends, dreams, and life," said Sami al Jundi, Centre Supervisor of Seeds of Peace, a coexistence program in Jerusalem.
Opening the lines of Communication
"This is also a communication tool that works at a safe distance," said Grosman. "It is hard to bring Palestinians and Israelis physically together, face to face, for many reasons, including physical and emotional barriers. These stories create a virtual dialogue and enable communication where none exists."
Jerusalem Stories lets Palestinian, Israeli, and other audiences have an opportunity to get to know both the Palestinian olive oil seller and the Israeli tour guide, both the Palestinian dentist and the Israeli and Palestinian youths from Seeds of Peace.
Throughout the interviewing process, Grosman said she has been amazed by how much people need to talk. "There is a need to share and a need to listen, she said, continuing through the books of photos and pointing out a Palestinian Muslim UN Worker living in East Jerusalem whose mother was killed in Nablus and an Israeli Jewish girl whose school friends were killed on the midrachov.
"Alina, the Israeli Jewish girl, said that speaking about her experiences during the interview process was very healing for her," said Grosman. "Many people I interviewed do not have other opportunities to reflect and express their feelings."
Ordinary people, extraordinary stories
Grosman said her team is going to study the impact of the stories, programs, and methods in order to publish information for the peace research community and conflict resolution practitioners.
"Storytelling and story-based projects democratize the process of producing culture and making society," said Jessica Senehi, Assistant Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba in Canada and Jerusalem Stories advisor." Jerusalem Stories provides for a collaborative process of meaning-making and relationship-building that is a necessary first step for social change, mediating between the personal and political."
"I ask people who they are and what their lives are like, what sort of family and life trajectory has pulled them to this city and how they have been impacted in this period of time as well as the choices they make in this situation," Grosman said. "I also ask them what Jerusalem means to them and what is their relationship to the city."
The project allows the audience to hear a chorus of voices representing Jerusalem and to see the unique connections people like Shimon Levy and Sheikh Saber al Jundi feel with the city. Shimon Levy is an Iraq-born Israeli Jew who has managed a convenience store in West Jerusalem for 25 years. Sheikh Saber al Jundi is a blind Palestinian Muslim sheikh who has lived in the Old City for over 40 years.
"By sharing what the city means to her residents, Jerusalem Stories visibly demonstrates how people from so many backgrounds can have authentic ties to this extraordinary place," said Grosman.
Are there more of them like this?
Although creating a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis is one of the main goals of the project, Jerusalem Stories maintains that it is also critically important to reach Diaspora communities.
"It's a very important time to show human images of Jews and Arabs to the world, to be putting out real stories that portray humanity," said Grosman. Because the only exposure to the conflict and the people involved is through the media, people in the Diaspora do not truly understand the nature of the conflict, said al Jundi.
"The stories teach about being a human being, the things you don't see on television. It shows audiences that it is important to help Israelis and Palestinians go the way of peace," al Jundi said.
While any project involving Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the city of Jerusalem, is rife with political undertones and opinions, Jerusalem Stories does not promote a particular political solution to the conflict. Rather, the project advocates communication and dispelling enemy images. Grosman leans back, puts her hands up and pleads, "I am not trying to tell anyone what to think.
"I am trying to show the many faces and voices of humanity. In the presence of stories and faces, it gets harder to deny people's validity," she said.
Along the way, Grosman has collected some anecdotal evidence of the power of the project and has picked up a few new stories of her own. As she flips to a photograph of Sami al Jundi, a Palestinian peace activist holding a picture of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, she tells a story of an American Jewish woman she met.
"This woman loudly proclaimed that in the past few years she has become 'militantly anti-Arab.'" As Grosman showed the angry woman Sami's photo, the woman paused quietly and in a changed voice asked, "Are there more of them like this?"