Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reflections on conflict and peace

The search for perfection, the longing for freedom, truth and pure peace has been humanity's earliest preoccupation in its awakened mind (Ghose, 1971). Humanity dreams of a state of being which is in flagrant contradiction with reality. Sages like Aurobindo suggest that life might well be a series of “transitory satisfactions besieged by physical pain and emotional suffering”, but like generations before us we still long to “build peace and a self-existent bliss”.

Consider these two children. They both live beside railway tracks in Karachi, their makeshift homes standing on the stones that surround railway tracks all over the world, squeezed in between a road and the tracks.

unhealthy boy

This boy looks unhealthy and perhaps even malnourished. His skin is diseased.

radiant girl

This girl, on the other hand, expresses a tremendous inner beauty. She is physically beautiful, but the radiance and joy she conveys is totally at odds with her surroundings.

It is in the midst of such radiance that the highest dreams dwell.

Despite the immense diversity of cultures that people our planet, and their varying experiences of violence and peace, there are universal shared experiences familiar to all of us, among them fear, discrimination, separation, empathy, artistry, hope, love, and solidarity.

Military Occupation

Let us see what we can learn from Israel Palestine. Perhaps there is something about life under military occupation and the threat of terrorism that opens a window into these universal themes.

We can start by taking a look at the Palestinian village of Bilin on a typical Friday afternoon.

Bilin is a symbol of resistance for many Palestinians. The immense separation barrier Israel has built separates the villagers from their land.

This land has effectively been stolen and given to Orthodox Jewish settlers occupying newly built settlements nearby.

It is an absolute disgrace, and a tremendous violation of the ethical and spiritual principles of Judaism. Rabbi Michael Lerner tells us that ‘The most frequently repeated injunction in Torah are variations of the following command: “Do not oppress the stranger (the 'other'). Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”’

It is therefore no surprise that Israeli and international activists have joined Palestinians in weekly protests against the barrier, from before it was built to the present day.

The protests are largely nonviolent, but sometimes the villagers throw rocks, as the sound slides demonstrate. Such occasional violence unfortunately provides a convenient alibi for the Israeli military to undertake extreme actions. These actions are frightening. They scared me at the time and they scare me now.

After two years of continuous resistance, 11 Palestinians have been killed. Many Palestinian, Israeli and foreign activists have been injured, sometimes very seriously, including brain damage after being shot in the head at close range.

What have these sacrifices achieved? The fence was built without difficulties. Distinguished peace activist and Israeli parliamentarian Naomi Chazan is critical of the activists for putting so much effort into an unsuccessful undertaking, missing the opportunity to do something more productive for peace.

While she has a point, she under-appreciates the tremendous symbolic value for Palestinians of witnessing idealistic Israelis struggling courageously at their side. Such solidarity transcends typical notions of group identity, allowing at least some Palestinians and Israelis to regard each other as more fully human. The activists have also succeeded in making the conflict more visible.

One remarkable aspect of the Bilin protests is their orchestrated, almost ritualistic character. The basic structure of the ritual is pretty simple.

The nonviolent activists attempt to march to the barrier.

The soldiers confront them at some point, maybe in the village, or maybe at the barrier or along the way. They warn the activists to leave. The activists do not leave. The soldiers fire at them with tear gas, sound grenades, rubber bullets, and on occasion live ammunition.

The activists shout back moral slogans, appealing to the conscience of the soldiers. The soldiers say very little in return.

In short, there is a lot of mutual posturing going on, punctuated by occasional episodes of significant violence resulting in injury and death.

Posturing is used to project fear and strength onto opponents by demonstrating how dangerous and frightening an adversary one can be. Opponents can fight, flee, submit or posture themselves.

Posturing is exceptionally easy to see in child soldiers who have not had rigorous military training, such as with the young boys and men who fought in Liberia a few years ago. Video footage shows them firing their weapons with apparent abandon, shooting from the hip, dancing as they celebrated their manliness. They were much more concerned with posturing in front of their buddies and the enemy than they were in trying to actually kill people on the other side.

Posturing has always been a huge part of war, embodied in ritual and myth. Modern methods of military training channel the spirit behind such posturing into more efficient methods for killing, but nevertheless posturing is still commonplace (Grossman, 1996).

Separation and intimacy

One of humanity's central dilemmas is separation. The Buddha identified separation from what one loves as one of the “six moments when life's dislocation becomes glaringly apparent”(Smith, 1991, p. 102). It often plays an extremely important role in conflict.

I wrote about separation in this blog entry.

In a relationship if two people separate their intimacy is either stopped completely, or at the very least severely curtailed. One of the most bizarre aspects of military occupation is that this is not the case. Peoples are separated alright, but then they are pulled together in the most intimate of manners. Salam Fayyad, former Finance Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, explains this paradox.

He says: 'Examining the past 6 years of this conflict, I would characterize the Israeli-Palestinian relations over this period as having been too intimate—too intimate for the Palestinians and too intimate for the Israelis. You may be stunned by this characterization, for many have characterized it as the opposite. But the nature of relations today between Israelis and Palestinians has reached levels of micromanagement, where Israel is involved in the minute details of the lives of Palestinians. It is important to remember that the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is ruled by military orders—not by politics, logic, or reason—but by military orders with “security” dictating the rules of the game.'

If anything, Fayyad was being diplomatic. These “military orders” can make Palestinian's lives hell, with women unable to make it on time to hospital to give birth and cancer patients dying at the checkpoint because soldiers refused to let them pass through by vehicle, to cite but two very recent examples.

Tamar Meshulam

Artists and designers often have fascinating insights into life’s moments of separation, intimacy, awareness and identity.

Tamar Meshulam is a Jewish woman hailing from Jerusalem, who designed a peace game called Master Peace that won the first prize at the most recent UNESCO Design contest, a contest held every five years encouraging young designers to make a positive contribution to society. She says “Every game stands for something, Monopoly stands for capitalism; chess stands for war. I wanted to create something that stands for cooperation.”

Palestinians and Israelis have played the game together, and the game has generated interest in the Middle East, Europe, and the US. It has been described as “a communication project which uses the medium of a game to trigger off group dynamic processes among the players which contribute to an understanding of the ethnic groups and cultures in Israel.”

That’s one way of thinking about it. I spent some time interviewing Tamar, but frankly we are better off reading an account from the magazine Egypt Today. I have modified slightly an article of theirs, and reproduced it:

To play the game, the players are asked to work on a collective story in order to complete a “self-journey” from a place called home, outwards, and then back to home. This is a journey where identity is nurtured; people feel safe and recognize themselves.

The magazine poses the question that these are nice ideas, but how is it possible for Palestinians and Israelis to agree on a constructive story when they cannot yet agree on their past?

Tamar responds by saying “during the game there isn’t one past to agree on, because the story is composed of pieces of everybody’s interpretation of reality. The others are asked to try to comprehend the player’s point of view, and learn to accept it, though not necessarily to fully understand it.” The group’s agreements through their dialogue are made for present actions.

For Tamar cultural exchange is a vital part of the peace process. She says “Israelis and Palestinians experience their common history each in their own way of perceiving life. Getting to know each other’s mental perspective is beneficial for the future construction of our relations.”

“To accept the other’s experience and having the other accept yours is a major step in any relationship, if it ever happens. In the political sense, the situation between Palestine and Israel was a strategic ‘war game’. Now it aims for ‘no game,’ which is a long distance from ‘cooperative game’ [such as Master Peace].”

Tamar says “the use of abstraction in the game, acts as a method for opening new ways of expression instead of repetitive clich├ęs. It definitely does not mean forgetting pasts. This whole game is based on the identities people gather throughout their collective and personal pasts.”


When we talk our collective pasts, of course, we talk of our ancestors. Wherever we go, we bring our ancestors with us. We bring them in our bodies. Our bodies are a living workshop of previous generations' embodied experiences. We bring our ancestors in our minds too. Our expectations, values, knowledge, experiences, hopes, fears and desires reflect what our ancestors thought. Whatever innovations we as individuals bring forth into the world always occur within the design patterns our ancestors have given us.

The ancestors I bring with me on my travels hail from the youthful country Aotearoa New Zealand, and before that from Britain and Greece. I had never personally been to the continent of Africa before visiting there last year. Returning to the United States after spending time in Uganda and South Africa gave me a new understanding of African Americans.

This was not a gradual realization. Rather, it struck me with tremendous force one day in Washington, DC as I saw an African-American man walk ahead of me. I realized that this man had likely descended from slaves forcibly brought to the United States from somewhere in the vast continent of Africa.

It was not an intellectual realization. Since being a small boy I have known that slavery had existed in the United States. Instead, it was an emotional reaction at a gut level. For a few moments, I was observing not an African-American walking down a street in what may well have been his home town. I was seeing a former slave. This man symbolized slavery. His ancestors were not only with him—they were him.

This powerful feeling was made possible only because of my time spent in South Africa and Uganda. Cape Town felt to me like a white town with black people on the periphery. Kampala, on the other hand, felt like a black person’s country, rippling with a multitude of black cultures and subcultures living alongside one another.

Without me being necessarily consciously aware of it, Kampala came to symbolize a truly African home. When I saw the man who had become a slave in Washington, DC, Kampala provided me with the mental imagery to imaginatively recreate the home he had been ripped away from, ending up in a city that symbolized the overwhelming power of the white Western world.

None of this is to suggest that an African-American leads a life any less authentic than a Ugandan, or that a white South African is somehow less African than a black South African.

All lives and all identities are authentic. To suggest one part of the African continent is truly African while another part is not, is not to comment on the authenticity of those who live there, but on the visible intensity of the presence of the place's ancestors.

It is worth noting that in describing his experience playing Idi Amin in the film “The Last King of Scotland”, Forest Whitakker very recently said “I'm African-American, I'm not African. It is my ancestors that come from there, so I had to understand a different rhythm, a different way of looking at the world.”

“Because I was dealing with a lot of people just as friends,” he says, “I got to understand that part of myself that is already deeply rooted in my ancestors in Africa in the way I behave, and that became stronger and stronger as I went along.”

Favela Morro da Pereira

On the day I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, on December 28 2006, violence left 18 dead.

The worst attack was on a bus. About 10 assailants surrounded the bus on a major highway and tossed gasoline-filled bottles inside. The attackers set the bus on fire and prevented the 28 passengers from getting off. Seven people burned to death.

Imagine you were one of the 28 people on that bus. Can you see the men surrounding you, trapping you, hemming you in? Can you see the flames leap and dance? Can you feel the heat burning your skin? Can you hear the screams of your relatives and friends, wounded and dying? Can you smell the burning gasoline, the burning seats, the burning hair, and the burning flesh?

It is safe to assume almost everybody in Rio believes the attackers came from the favelas, which are the sprawling slums perched on steep hills and other marginal places which are a legacy of slavery. Favelas are controlled by powerful gangs who deal in drugs and organized crime. Rio de Janeiro has one of the highest murder rates of any city in the world, and street crime is a major problem. In short, favelas have a notorious reputation.

Morro da Pereira is a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Neucirlan Oliveira lives there. He likes the sense of community and solidarity found in the favelas. Neucirlan is a peacebuilder, literally—he built a model of his favela on the hill outside his family home.

He started when he was 14 and of the boys that helped him, only one took up a life of violence by becoming a gang member. His name was Max, and he was shot dead by the police. I asked him why people join gangs. He said such young people lack information on the reality of what they are about to participate in. “They don't realise they can change the world” he says.

His peacebuilding work could do with some improvement—he banned girls from building the mini favela, justifying this with what are obviously feeble reasons. Perhaps he did so because it might lead to conflict among the boys themselves, disrupting their solidarity.

Despite his gender discrimination, his mini-favela has contributed to peace. But how are we to understand his artistic endeavor as a peacebuilding phenomena?

Since Aristotle is one of my ancestors, I feel it entirely appropriate to leave the last word to him. Paraphrasing Thomas Cahill (Cahill, 2003), we can draw upon Aristotle’s timeless observations of the Greek play, Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannos, and apply them to Neucirlan’s efforts:

This is not life but a mimicking of life. We have been playing with imitation humans that can be put back in their homes made of bricks. We leave the mini favela warned by what we have witnessed but purged of negative emotions. We are pleasantly exhausted now; as if we had recently expelled a poison from our body. We are at peace, exalted by our encounter with this pageant of truth. We are restored by this vicarious brush with destruction and death. We didn't die. We are still alive—and can face tomorrow with a certain placid wisdom.

Aristotle's brilliant analysis has never been improved upon.


Cahill, T. (2003). Sailing the Wine-Dark sea: Why the Greeks Matter (1st ed.). New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

Ghose, A. (1971). The Future Evolution of Man: The Divine Life Upon Earth (2d ed.). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Grossman, D. (1996). On killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1st pbk. ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.

Smith, H. (1991). The World's Religions. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


maria paula said...

Your “Separation and intimacy” reflexion reminded me of this set of pictures:
Zoom In: Borders

And Neucirlan Oliveira’s quote- “They don't realise they can change the world” (in "Favela Morro da Pereira”)- called to mind this particular one:

Also, is Dania the girl in the “Tamar Meshulam” video?

I hope your presentation went very well.

Unknown said...

Hello Damon,
this is a beautyful paper. Congratulations. I am visiting your blog regulary and was awaiting for something, and now, wow, this simple piece of humanity... which contains all the dimension of hope, love, and solidarity you have in you...

May I use some parts to publish them on NM ? We could also post your podcast, but I have to check first if possible...

Dear Damon, keep strong. Yours from Paris