Language, as often as it allows us to express ourselves, constrains our ability to express ourselves. How often, whether in your love life, family life, or with strangers, have you been absolutely unable to express yourself with words? The essence of life – the juice and the pulp, the sweetness of the fruit – doesn’t lie in words, but in action.
So when I come across somebody like my host father, I am astounded by the power of words. English is not his first or second language, and he often bounces around words to get to the word which he wishes to express. But other times, he uses words that express so much more than a simple word.
When my host sister was asking, in Arabic, how to conjugate a verb, he told her, ‘Just say it. They [the other international in the house and I] will understand.’
On my first day here, there were maybe six people sitting around the coffee table in the living room, drinking coffee, watching television, and exchanging banter in Arabic. I was staring off. My host father turned to me and said, ‘Where your head: in America, in Turkey, or here?’ I replied, ‘In America.’
He told me that it would of course take a few days of getting used to living in Bethlehem, before my head came here.
Now, I think an English speaker may have turned to me, and said, ‘What are you thinking about: America, Turkey, or here?’ But this wouldn’t have expressed the fact that, by thinking of a place, we can actually BE in another place. Magical.
Today, following a training on nonviolent tactics of demonstrating , I was thinking about Peace. I asked my host father, ‘How do you say ‘peace’ in Arabic?’
‘Salaam,’ he said. ‘But not just not war.’
So if peace is not the opposite of war, then what is it? In the Middle East, where peace agreements often preserve and establish control for one people over another by means of military, resource, and legal control, what would a just peace look like?
My mother’s organization in Newport News, Virginia, Transitions Family Violence Services, has the slogan, ‘Peace in the world begins at home.’ And I think this touches on ‘salaam.’
The word ‘salaam’ was not a new word for me. I use it all the time to greet Muslim friends, I just didn’t think of what I was saying when I said, ‘Asalaam aleikum.’ Peace be upon you.
When Israelis and Palestinians interact, Israelis are wearing military uniforms and carrying M-16s. The few opportunities for interaction come when Israeli military come to Palestinian territory, or when Palestinians try to go into Israeli territory. Otherwise, there is a 20-foot wall and a difference of languages (Hebrew and Arabic) thoroughly separating the two societies. So when Israelis and Palestinians interact, the basis is usually hate and fear.
But when I, an American, talk with Palestinians, it is very different. For example, today I went to the flower shop and bought flowers for my host sister; then I went to another store with a friend who was going to a wedding and needed to buy a gift. The store owner asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I replied, ‘America.’ He said, ‘Oh, my Uncle was just in America six months. New York.’ ‘Nice,’ I said. Ten seconds later, I was holding this man’s phone and talking to his Uncle, who is back from NYC and here in Bethlehem. We’re going to sit down over coffee, tea, or a traditional Arabic meal some time next week.
I think this is the closest thing to peace that I have ever known.