An Arab & a Jew Walk Into a Cafe OR How Reading Creates Space For Dialogue

August 11, 2014

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How is one, as a teacher (like myself) or as a parent, supposed to teach teenagers and children how to converse, if the adults around them don’t model it themselves? 

My cousin asked me the other day: “What’s the point of reading books – as opposed to watching movies or reading newspaper / magazine articles?”

I thought of all the usual things I say: the increased knowledge, the importance of ‘active’ vs. ‘passive’ mind activities, the improvement of one’s vocabulary but, even to me, it all rang false.

It was hard to articulate, on the spot, why I find books so important.

After much pondering and re-writes, here is some attempt at an answer:

Reading creates the space required for real dialogue to take place.

 On one hand, there seems to be little, if any, authentic discussion(s) occurring on the news.

On the other hand, we’re starting to see illustrations of forgiveness and serious conversation. One powerful example was when Richard Martinez met with Peter Rodger, the father of his son’s killer, to try to put an end to the vicious cycle of violence and blame.

Martinez proved that to forgive is a sign of intense strength, rather than of weakness or ‘giving in.’

Another example was a news story that involved Heart 2 Heart’s Camp Shomria in Ontario, whose goal was to create a dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. (Hear the story here on CBC.)

I’ve been called naïve when it comes to advocating for dialogue through literacy: I disagree wholeheartedly.

PART I – Mandela & Moving Forward

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to arrive in Cape Town, South Africa, for our honeymoon. With its dramatic landscapes, gorgeous beaches, and phenomenal cuisine, we felt lucky and, well, like honeymooners.

When in South Africa, it’s difficult to ignore this country’s troubled history.

On the first, sunny day after we arrived, we got a cab ride to Table Mountain to see the city from this glorious vantage point.

I asked the taxi driver about where he was during apartheid.

He graciously shared his story of his days as a black activist, when he would storm the whites-only beaches and risk jail (and worse) to get through to those in power.

He and his friends were biding their time, waiting for Nelson Mandela to get out of jail.

In 1990, Mandela was released, and he and his friends gathered on the streets of Cape Town to hear him:

“We were ready. We were ready for him to say: ‘GO: kill the White Man.’ But he didn’t: he told us to put down our guns and to move forward and to forgive. And we were so angry with him. We were angry and disappointed. We couldn’t believe how he had betrayed us.” And here, our friend pauses and looks at us through the driver’s mirror.

“But – twenty years later, I see that Mandela had a vision for the country.

And his vision was right.”

Mandela chose to use his 27 years in prison to cultivate a mindful approach of moving forward – to really moving forward.

I don’t think it’s tangential that he read in prison.

He read a lot.

As he states in his exceptional memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes: “Education is the great engine of personal development” (p.177).

Mandela’s pleas for putting down the weapons, embracing reconciliation, and forgiving the humiliation, relocation, torture and death of a group of people, changed the course for South Africa.

Should he have instructed his supporters to ‘kill’ or ‘fight’ we wouldn’t have been coasting through Cape Town.

If Mandela and the many people who worked with him to help him promote his cause were able to control a crowd with beyond-merited anger, then think of how other crises can shift gears.

Unfortunately, this type of leadership is rare.

I finally picked up a copy of South African-Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee’s, novel, Disgrace: the story of a professor exiled for his sexual exploits with a student, who reconnects with his daughter in the countryside until something really terrible happens.

Coetzee reveals something that a history book, that a news recap can’t: it’s a breathing narrative about the ugly, complications of a country reeling from a horrific situation.

It makes you uncomfortable. And it makes you think.

Part II – An Arab and a Jew walk into a café…

I had just bought Hilton Als’ White Girls and was looking forward to diving in at a favourite lunch spot.

After I had read barely three pages, a woman and her brother-in-law sat down nearby.

Behind me, on the TV screen, was news of the latest death tolls in Gaza and Israel.

The woman went on – what sounded to me – like an angry tirade against Israel.

I felt my blood boil. I have many family members and friends there who hate the conflict and whom the media never represents. 

I aggressively asked for the check and was about to leave, when I stopped.

I needed to put my money, quite literally, where my mouth was, as I had been touting forgiveness, dialogue and moving forward.

“I’m sick of people calling me anti-Semitic for being anti-Israel.” I stopped myself from leaving the restaurant and approached her.

“Are you curious as to why your views might be deemed anti-Semitic? From the other side’s perspective?”  I held my breath, since this could go either way.

“Of course. Pull up a chair.” And she smiled.

The next hour was spent listening, exchanging ideas, disagreeing, listening some more, nodding, shaking our heads, and talking.

This woman came from a Lebanese background, and her parents experienced the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict in the ‘80s. She was extremely intelligent, articulate and passionate. I really liked her.

We decided to exchange book recommendations. She sent me home with Vittorio Arrigoni’s Gaza: Stay Human and I sent her home with Israeli novelist, David Grossman’s, To the End of the Land – one of my favourite contemporary, literary novels of the past decade. It’s a powerful, meditative novel that denounces war in every capacity, regardless of the players. We decided to reconvene over email once we had read the books, to exchange ideas.

People have two reactions to this story:

a)    Wow – good for you both. For being able to communicate. For taking that step.

b)    Yes, BUT: what did she say about Israel? What were her justifications?

The second question misses the point of the entire dialogue: it’s the YES, BUT which leaves no room for listening.

The more you read, the more capacity you have for empathy of all sorts. The more you develop the skills to tolerate being inside someone else’s head.

We’re all so busy living in our self-constructed (and media-constructed) narrative worlds that we are exposed to very little ‘other’ thought, aside from approaching it defensively, and ready to attack it.

Extremists of any kind do not represent the truth. The question is: can anyone?

I think that certain books can.

The reason it is so hard to articulate why reading is important is the reason it’s so hard to describe an emotion that really gets you without reducing it to tropes.

If I think of Mandela and I think of the crisis in the Middle East and I think of two fathers, reeling from grief, yet willing to meet each other, I realize that reading encourages us to enter into a discussion with eyes, ears and hearts open.

So, here are my ‘boil-down’ points regarding some reasons I read books:

The more we read, the more we must confront issues that make us uncomfortable, that we usually skirt underneath the cerebral rug, but that end up resurfacing nonetheless.

Reading makes us vulnerable. It places us in the potential position of being wrong.

The more we read, the more questions we have to ask those whose lives are essentially different from ours.

To read is to ‘listen’ to someone else’s truth, without the pitfall of interruptions.

The more we read, the more we realize how much we don’t know at all.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily, not to dare is to lose oneself.”

Let us all dare a little more by listening. By really listening.

And that could start with one great book. I just may have a few ideas…



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