I heard about a Jordanian on CouchSurfing who was inviting Israelis to meet over a cup of coffee. I didn’t make it to that meeting a year ago, but last week I ended up hosting him in Jerusalem!
Yahya (Yan) Barakat Ababneh is a freelance journalist, Arabic tutor, tourist guide and stage actor. He covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Libya. His stories appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere.
Arriving on a Friday evening meant I had the chance to expose Yan to some Jewish traditions. I took Yan over to where my not-so-religious friends were having a shabbat meal. We performed some Shabbat rituals, extra nicely I should say, blessing over the wine, the bread, the washing of the hands, and finally eating!
Conversation went from Jewish traditions to secularism and religion in Israeli society. We discussed Islam in comparison with Judaism, Israeli society versus Arab society, the disappearance of Hebrew tribes and the persistence of Arab tribalism, modernity and how it fits together with these social structures, where democracy and liberties fit in the picture, how Jews and Arabs see each-other, the meaning of peace treaties during an Arab Spring and the likelihood that anything will hold…
Having so many observations to share, Yan happily agreed to let me organize a living-room conference for more Q&A with Israelis.
On a one-day’s notice, my living-room filled up with over 20 guests: left and right-wingers, secular and religious, journalists, activists, lawyers, educators, social leaders, interns, students, sabras, new immigrants, and some folks I don’t really know.
Yan was introducing us to “[his] Jordanian street”. He was trying to paint a picture that was hard for some Israelis in the room to accept:
“If he is right about what he says, it is terrible!” one said in Hebrew to the person sitting next to him. Indeed, the Israelis’ reactions was no less interesting than the main speaker…
Putting the finger on the pain, honesty despite embarrassment
Yan came for a serious discussion, and that meant being honest about embarrassing issues. In Arabic they say you should put your finger on the pain.
Starting with indicators of danger, Yan explained how Jordan border control will change your license plates as you drive your car in from Israel. If you stand out too much as Jewish or Israeli, you might be escorted around. These security measures imply danger for Israelis visiting Jordan.
In theater, where Yan has much experience, the villain usually carries Jewish markers, particularly the Payot (sidelocks). Such symbols are associated with evil, as the villain is not necessarily Jewish. The same goes for caricatures in mainstream newspapers.
In police records, you may find numerous cases of people who call each-other “a Jew” in an argument, which will often result in violence.
Q: Antisemitism, and hatred towards Israel, does it stem more from Islam or from the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians? Will hatred go away once we strike a peace deal or is it more culturally ingrained?
In the Quran, Yan says, there are convenient quotes which are used to show Islam as a religion of peace. They pertain to calmer times when Mohammad was in Mecca. There are many more nasty quotes pertaining to later times when Mohammad was in Medina. Both are part of Islam. Both should not be ignored.
Distancing himself from religion, Yan recited some of the things you might hear a Jordanian Imam say to worshipers. These are not easy things for Jews to hear, stuff about earthquakes under their feet, rocks and trees turning on them, women becoming widows, children becoming orphans, “amen amen amen” chant the worshipers.
This sort of antisemitism stems more from religion and general society. People are less concerned with the conflict and more concerned with the economy. This sort of hatred is based on ignorance, and can be treated with education.
Q: What about people who are not religious? Can they break away from such negative sentiments towards Jews?
In the schools, Yan says, again you’ll find that Jews are blamed for killing prophets, robing lands, spreading evil.
Also in the family home, there is a lot of pressure to align with the tribe. This, in addition to rigidity in schools and mosques, makes open-minded flexibility all the more difficult to exercise, and the sort of ignorance that results from it is prevailing.
Before coming to Israel, some of Yan’s relatives were furious with him. One was urging him to talk to the intelligence service first, another told him to hide the fact he was Jordanian, yet some took it rather well despite them being Islamist!
Q: I’ve been a tour guide for Israelis in Jordan for 16 years. What you are telling us cannot be. I have not witnessed any of it.
There are weekly protests in front of the Israeli embassy in Jordan. 20 out of 32 journalists left the conference room just before the Israeli president addressed those present, recently in Amman. A visit by an Israeli professor sparked a spontaneous student protest within minutes of his arrival.
These are daily events which you might miss if you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the Imams, don’t read the news, don’t bother to visit East Amman, and don’t deal with people outside the tourism industry, says Yan.
I spent 3 weeks traveling in Jordan (Feb 2011). Most people were taken aback when I mentioned my nationality. Most then quickly recovered and said “It’s OK, don’t worry, we have peace now… but don’t tell others what you just told me!”.
Q: We know to expect this sentiment from Palestinians in Jordan (which constitute the majority), but you are telling us this is a general trend. What’s the king’s role in all of this?
This is certainly not unique to Palestinians, or to Jordanians, Yan promises. In Middle-East politics, anyone can accuse anyone else of associating with Jews, being a Mosad agent, or being of Jewish descent. Syrian president Assad, for example, accuses the rebels, and they accuse him, of exactly that. Politicians who disagrees with some decision often come out and say it was promoted by Israel, as if Israel is puling all the strings around the Arab world and everywhere else.
King Abdallah of Jordan does not speak Arabic well, did not grow up in Jordan, does not understand the religion and does not consult with the tribes like his father Hussein did before him. Support for Abdallah depends mostly on which tribe you belong to, same as your other political views and religion depend on your tribal identity. There can be no democracy when all vote according to which tribe they belong to. Tribe leaders have this much influence over the parliament. The king has to consider this when he appoints officials, and he cannot navigate well if he doesn’t have “Arab smarts”, as Yan puts it.
Q: If there is peace on paper only and a king who threatens to resign, should Israelis be more concerned with what Arab politicians do or how the Arab street reacts?
There is no democracy in Jordan or anywhere in the Arab world, but the street still rules, not the politicians. A politician, a king, or a president will find it extremely difficult to break lines with how the public thinks. With so much influence in the hands of religious leaders and tribal leaders, there is only so much you can do.
Peace treaties with Egyptian president Sa’adat and Jordanian King Hussein immediately spring to mind, but the whole purpose of Yan’s visit to Israel was to tell Israelis it wasn’t so. Peace on paper is not good enough, Yan says. You Israelis are not safe in Cairo and Amman. We should be looking for something entirely different.
Q: How do you find Israel so far?
Sure, you may have radicals here too, but in a bar in Jerusalem (Uganda) I could talked with a Haredi Jew and East Jerusalem Arabs at the same time, I met with Arab students and professors in Israeli universities, all had their own criticism yet all live together, without being separated, and without killing each other.
So what can we do to improve the situation, and avoid catastrophe in the future?
This was Yan’s original question for Israelis on his visit to Israel. Should we organize soccer matches? Yan doesn’t like soccer at all but he believes this will draw the sort of criticism that will eventually die out. As people get used to these soccer matches, new doors will be open to them.
My own experience in peace activism has made me somewhat skeptical. I don’t presume that deeply rooted issues can be so easily washed away. Social change should be driven with the same intensity as others promote ignorance and hatred. In-fact, more intensity is necessary since building trust and understanding takes much more energy than killing it.
Here is what I suggest
Lets take some inspiration from Yan. Here is a man who was not afraid to report from Syria, and got beaten up both by Assad supporters and by rebels, each side accusing him of supporting the other camp.
By coming to Israel to talk to Israelis Yan was again taking risks. His career in journalism, theater connections, respect from family and friends, even his personal safety may be at risk after publishing his reports.
This is inspiring to me, because here we have a situation where two societies obviously suffer from ignorance and lack of trust. With one visit, Yan showed us what can be done to remove these two elements.
Project Tiyul-Rihla as an example
In project Tiyul-Rihla we do the same. With a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians we discuss history to discover our own ignorance towards each-other. Embarrassing as it is, it allows us to put our finger on the pain.
And it takes guts. Both sides feel they abandon safety when they cross the 1967 lines on the trip. Some of our participants indicate they anticipate harsh criticism from their own communities. Some even choose to lie to their family about where they are going.
We take these risks because we are trying to promote change. I am afraid risk is necessary, due to prevailing ignorance and fear between Israelis and Palestinians.
I am happy, and proud to say I see this guts in my Israeli and Palestinian partners on Tiyul-Rihla. By now we also have partners with guts in Jordan!
We do it. Yan is doing it. You are welcome to do it too.