The Power of Stories

Two years ago I came to Mut Mee for the first time. At the time although I had studied a lot about Middle Eastern politics I had never been there, nor had I really had any personal encounters with middle easterners. It was at Mut Mee that I met the first Israeli that challenged my black and white thoughts about the Palestinian Israeli situation. From then on it has been as most of you who have been in this list long enough quite a deep dive in the political, academic, personal, emotional, rational, visceral, crazy world of that conflict.

It is somehow surreal how much in one way or another I always get caught up in it. It does not matter where I am Palestinians and Israelis always find me. And when they do I am now a bridge between these worlds to these individuals. Something incredibly surreal for a non Jewish, non Arab Brazilian citizen who has been crossing borders for as long as she remembers.

But back to two years ago, after I met the first Israeli who challenged me I met an older couple here. I wrote about them at the time. They had left Israel as a political statement. They were activist. She was a journalist. They moved to an island in the border of Thailand and Cambodia and here she changed topics of writing. Instead of writing about subversive topics she wrote the first ever written Thai food book in Hebrew.

I traveled Thailand at the time mainly with Israelis and once I went back my dissertation of my masters ended up being about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. From my masters I went into my PhD, I visited both Israel and Palestine, became friends with people in both sides of the wall. I cried in front of that wall and left feeling defeated.

I remember going to a human rights festival and watching the documentary Budrus which documents the struggle of Palestinians, Israelis and international activists to change the wall of separation that was at the time circumventing Budrus, a Palestinian village. I was deeply moved by the film. Not only because of the absurdity of a wall surrounding some villages and making it impossible for people to reach other parts of Palestine, but because of the power of people to unite in the face of absurdity to challenge injustice. The people gave me hope. Hope that humanity could go beyond ideologies.

I watched the film in London, found out it was made by a Brazilian friend of a friend of mine, and the people who gathered together came from everywhere in the world. The people protesting in the film came as well. As the filmmaker was present we were able to learn a lot about the 6 years of that protest. We learned about the Israelis who crossed illegally the wall to go to the protest to minimise the violence towards the Palestinians. We learned about the Israelis who slept in the house of Palestinians, about the soldiers who once released from the IDF changed sides and started to protest. We heard about the Palestinians who in turn protected the Israeli activists when the new order was to arrest Israeli activists for being illegally in Palestine. They did not care about the “imagined communities” they belonged to. They cared about what plain absurd. I cried the whole film. First out of anger then of emotion for human capacity to unite. As I watched the film I saw the man I had once met here. He was there, on a little clip of the news. I could not understand what he had said. It was not translated but I could see he was supporting the protest. I was so moved. I knew him. Even though I did not even know his Israeli name (but only his Thai one) I knew him and I knew what he stood for.

So it is that I am here not doing much when suddenly I see him and his wife in the garden. I am so excited. I run towards their table barely containing my emotion.

“Hi! You might not remember me. I know you so well. I heard you speak about your activism, and your book, and your experiences in the war, and I saw you in Budrus and and and and and” There was so much to tell. How could I explain to them how much they had changed me, affected me, how that one encounter had meant so much to me. How could I say it in one sentence all that happened since I had met them.

They looked at me surprised

“I remember you. You sing”

I sat and was able to vomit out some of what had happened to me in between now and then. They were of course very surprised. Now I could relate to almost all they talked about. I was astonished to find out they set up Uri Avenery, the Israeli 86 year old activist, website Gush Shalom. I really admire Uri Avnery’s writings. As I sat looking the Mekong I learned they too had moved here to Nong Khai. I learned their party had really grown. Their activism was still very active.

How strange is the world I thought. I am at Mut Mee. Julian, my friend and the owner, is half Palestinian. One of the new rooms and nicest rooms in the new building has a Star of David on the wall. It is a very syncretic star mixed in Buddhist and Hindu imagery. Julian had explained to me when I first arrived that the room was designed for his very good friend Carol who is Jewish Iraqi. “She is like me, cant go back to her family home, she is of the Diaspora”. Julian like, the Israeli couple does not think of nationalities, and groups he thinks of people. How many times have I heard him say “We are the same people.”

As I seat hearing the couple I feel an uncontained joy for being able to always encounter the nicest people. At night I don’t even want to waste time telling my Israeli friend about the terrible incident that happened two nights in a roll. I want to tell about this couple. I want to introduce them after all my friend is coming all the way here to visit me. I feel so happy.

As I seat looking at the Mekong I remember Uri’s words which are not new to me. As the couple tells me I have to share my experiences with the world I think I will post it. I will write once again about these people going around and changing the world. Changing perceptions in spite of ideologies. As we seat there I remember the words of Uri Avnery. They are not new but they are however important words:

“Nationalism is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. When a community decides to become a nation, it has to reinvent itself. That means inventing a national past, reshuffling historical facts (and non-facts) in order to create a coherent picture of a nation existing since antiquity. Hermann the Cherusker, member of a Germanic tribe who betrayed his Roman employers, became a “national” hero. Religious refugees who landed in America and destroyed the native population became a “nation”. Members of an ethnic-religious Diaspora formed themselves into a “Jewish nation”. Many others did more or less the same.

Indeed, Newt would profit from reading a book by a Tel Aviv University professor, Shlomo Sand, a kosher Jew, whose Hebrew title speaks for itself: “When and How the Jewish People was Invented?”

Who are these Palestinians? About a hundred years ago, two young students in Istanbul, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the future Prime Minister and President (respectively) of Israel, wrote a treatise about the Palestinians. The population of this country, they said, has never changed. Only small elites were sometimes deported. The towns and villages never moved, as their names prove. Canaanites became Israelites, then Jews and Samaritans, then Christian Byzantines. With the Arab conquest, they slowly adopted the religion of Islam and the Arabic Culture. These are today’s Palestinians. I tend to agree with them.”

As I seat by the Mekong with my old new friends I realise how much what people say changes us. Their words some two years ago had changed me. They in certain way stirred me along the way. Their words led me to go see the Middle East. To find out who these people really are. Couple weeks ago I got an email from an Israeli I met last time I was in Israel. He wrote me to tell me he had for the first time been to Palestine without a weapon. “I went and I walked with no fear. I met the people you talked about. Not the ones I had heard about.” He was not the first friend who had crossed that wall after meeting me. I never tell them to. I just tell stories. The stories of the people I encounter. Encountering the Israeli couple here again made me realise how powerful stories are. They changed my path .

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