Growing up in Tucumán, a town in the north of Argentina, I had the opportunity to see a small example of peaceful coexistence and collaboration between Arabs and Jews. I was reminded of that experience after reading an article by Uri Avnery, one of the leading peace activists in Israel, on the need for a peace narrative in the Middle East.
Tucumán, a medium-size city in northern Argentina received numerous immigrants (among them my father) who came to that city at the beginning of the last century, notably among them citizens from Arab countries. The city also had a substantial Jewish population.
In the downtown area there was a stretch of several blocks called “la Maipú” after the name of its main street. What made this part of the city so unusual is that dozens of shops owned by both Arabs and Jews existed there. I don’t remember a single incident of violence between both communities while I lived there. In some cases, the shop owners from both communities collaborated with each other because of shared commercial interests.
In the 1950s, my father, together with two friends, founded what they called the “Cultural Atheneum Gibran Khalil Gibran”. Its main purpose was the organisation of lectures by noted speakers, like Nobel Prize in Literature winner Miguel Angel Asturias and such famous Argentinean writers as Ernesto Sábato and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada.
Because of the high intellectual calibre of the lecturers, these events were very well attended—even though there was a relatively high entrance fee—by students, professors, and a cultured general public.
Many of the lectures were presented at the Sociedad Sirio Libanesa (Syrian and Lebanese Society) long before the painful schism between the two countries. At the time, there was considerable unease among the society’s directors about permitting Jewish intellectuals to attend the lectures.
Because of my father’s untiring efforts, however, Jewish students and teachers were allowed to participate in those events, something that had never happened before. In both cases, commercial and cultural common interests allowed both Arabs and Jews to collaborate, overcoming traditional distrust. A common-interest narrative had been developed, one leading to a totally peaceful relationship between both communities.
If a common narrative could be created then, can one be created now in the Middle East based on the common need for peace? I believe it can, but only if each side of the conflict is able to see the other in real terms, not in the usual demonising terms created by decades of antagonism.
Uri Avnery, a leading peace activist in Israel, argues that this lack of a common focus is the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East now. “Reconciliation is impossible if either side is totally oblivious to the narrative of the other, their history, beliefs, perceptions, myths,” argues Avnery. And he adds, “Only if the American intermediaries, neutral or otherwise, understand both can they contribute to furthering peace.”
Although Avnery is right in his wishes for peace, American intermediaries have so far proved to be totally ineffective and one sided in their approach to solving the long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The same could be said for Mr Tony Blair, whose only achievement as an intermediary has been the thousands of free miles that he has earned in his repeated visits to the region.
I am, however, still hopeful and to wonder if, in my hometown, thousands of miles away from the Middle East, a common narrative was found based on shared commercial and cultural interests, why the same could not occur now, based on the more important goal of peace between both peoples.
César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina