North African & Mideast Conflict Resolution Delegation visits San Diego; Looks for Answers and finds more Questions
Clearly the vetting process at the State Department needs some updating from the Google dartboard they must be currently using, I thought to myself a little over a week ago, last Friday. After all, the last rumor I heard about the OB Rag / San Diego Free Press staffers was we were all under investigation by Homeland Security for our Occupy Movement support. But unlike some other thoughts I have, at least there was a basis for this one.
You see, late Friday afternoon I received an e-mail from a representative of the State Department. I nearly deleted it thinking it was going to be some tragic soul who knew of my trustworthiness and wanted to use my bank account to deposit tons of money, and in return, he would let me have several million dollars. Generally, the delete key is used at this point, but I was curious. I opened the e-mail. When I saw I was addressed by title and name, my second thought was perhaps it was time to get a clean toothbrush and wait for my ride to Guantanamo Bay. It is strange and paranoid time in which we live. But I read on.
The e-mail was from a member of the San Diego Diplomacy Council, an organization of which I was completely unfamiliar. Which is really surprising because it has been around since 1970, and I have seen blog posts from San Diego and I did not believe that was something we San Diegans are capable. Diplomacy, that is. The SDDC apparently works s a facilitation agency for the U.S. State Dept.’s International Visiting Leadership Program which was established in 1940.
Now aside from an occasional pedantic streak, I realize I do not know-it-all, despite evidence to the contrary. I had never heard of either SDDC or the IVLP…I had heard of the State Dept. After perusing the websites, I determined the e-mail was from a legitimate source. I was still a bit confused after reading the contents. Seems, the IVLP arranges for International Visitors to connect, speak and work with US citizens who are in similar fields; water resource management, farming, education to name a few. The State Department finds locals to meet with and share ideas with these individuals or delegations while they are visiting in the U.S., and I assume to develop peaceful relations at ground level with citizen professionals.
Now my loyal readers (just how arrogant is that?) know I am deeply vested in Conflict Transformation work; study, lecture, writing, and implementation. And while I have lectured internationally, most of my work is on a local level with communities and individuals. Well apparently, my work has been noticed, or at least I was informed so. There was a delegation of Conflict Transformation professionals visiting and meeting with several agencies and individuals who work locally in the field. According to the State Department representative, my work was, “on [their] radar.” Rather than beam, I shivered. Being on the federal government’s radar is not an aspiration of mine, particularly with the new use of Predator Drones. It probably explains why everyone kept their distance from me at the OB Chili Cook-Off, and not the after effects of the chili. I digress….
The question posed to me was whether or not I could find time in the following week to meet with a ten person delegation from North Africa and the Mideast to discuss ideas around Conflict Transformation. And I return to my original observation; clearly the vetting process at the State Department needs some updating from the Google dartboard they are currently using. I mean even if I was the federal government I would not have selected me, if only purely on my association with the reprobates and uppity women at the Rag.
Well after a couple of confirming and clarifying e-mails I accepted. To say I was honored is a gross under representation. I have worked on community forums, individual mediations, spoken on different techniques and procedures. But I have never had to convince someone to put down the AK47 or unstrap and leave the suicide bomber vest at the door before they sat down to talk. Heck, I rarely hear a discouraging word in my mediations. Most of the issues I facilitate rise to level of irritations. These were folk who came from regions where religious factions and tribes have been killing each other for three or four thousand years, maybe more. These folk were the pros; I was set to learn from them.
Now generally, I would have several weeks to put something together, but let’s not make this endeavor any easier. I had until last Thursday to come up with a plan. I must give an acknowledgement of appreciation to National University, where I teach; a very heartfelt thank you. From the President’s and Provost’s office, my dean, department chair and support staff, they all jumped in to help set up a venue and the amenities needed to make for a comfortable two hour meeting (I didn’t mention anyone by last name here, because I don’t want to risk “sky-rocketing” their careers by association with the Rag, but thank you Patricia, Eileen, Michael, Jim, Kelly, Ashley, Karen, Delma, David and Patty).
Additionally, I want to thank Ed Bebrin owner and executive chef extraordinaire at Pepe’s on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. Ed, the cannoli was very well received and a new addition to my Conflict Transformation tool box (Hey Editordude, fork up some coin and assign Judy to write a critique of Pepe’s, capiche?).
Quite a bit of running around the day of the meeting, and trying to remember all the things North Africa and Mideast culture, the do’s and don’ts. Shake with my right hand, don’t show the bottom of my shoes, and no pork ribs. And of course it was a delegation, not from one country or region. The delegates were from Mauritania, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria and Morocco. They held positions ranging from a political science professor to judge to tribal leader. The Iraq delegation had an Arab, Kurd and an Arabic woman (read “feminist”). When I read the bios of the individual delegates, I was a bit overwhelmed. They were, however, traveling together, so I guessed they were getting along.
I did bring some back up. I have worked with Justine Darling from USD’s Institute for Peace and Justice on several projects in the past. She agreed to be there just in case things started going south I could toss the ball to her and run. Actually she only agreed to be there, I did not tell her about ball tossing and making a run for the border, sorry Justine.
The delegation arrived around 1:30 and after an initial greeting in the lobby, we made our way to the conference room. Oh, by the way, did I mention none of the delegates spoke English? We had two interpreters and got to use those very cool ear-pieces while the Arabic was translated into English and vice versa. The Provost and dean made some welcoming remarks, and then it was show time.
Now neither the SDDC nor the State Dept. advised me of a protocol or the manner in which the meeting should held. I did know it was focused on an ideas exchange, so it was a facilitator I was to play…or so I thought. I made some opening remarks about the Conflict Transformation process, told the fable of the hummingbird and how we are the true peacemakers because we learn from each other and try despite overwhelming obstacles to continue our work. I commended them on the work they do in the face daily violence and in tinderbox communities with conflict around the corner over everything from religious ideology to water resources. Well that took up about ten minutes, only an hour and a half to go.
Any facilitator worth his or her salt knows you engage your participants and make them stakeholders of process. One way is to open the floor to question and comments. I saw myself facilitating a meeting in which the delegates would engage each other with different perspectives and I would merely direct the conversation. Well, that dog did not hunt very well. In fact he never even woke up.
The first hand up belonged to Abdulhakim Ahmed Mohammed Al Ofairi of Yemen. After explaining the demographics of his country (nearly 85% agricultural and all tribal) and the potential for violence when conflict arises between tribes, communities within the tribes (apparently they have lots of things that go bang and boom), he asked me as a facilitator what I would use as an effective tool or tools to get participants to sit down at the table to discuss resolutions…insert deer in the headlights, here. Remember, I thought I was supposed to be the student.
All eyes were upon me, including dean and department chair. And while it may be construed by some as a cop out, I prefaced my answer by saying, before I engaged in such a discussion I would need to immerse myself a bit more in Yemeni culture (unsaid, other than being able to find it on a map) and gain an understanding of the culture, people, stakeholders, and how conflict arises before I could give an intelligent answer. I did delineate some very generic and academic steps I would take from a process perspective. Well apparently a diplomatic I-don’t-know-but-I-think-there-may-be-a-way is a good enough answer to open the floodgates of question. And so it went for the next hour and a half.
At one point the question was posed as to whether or not I had advice and would I be willing to come to Iraq to help the people learn conflict transformation. The irony of an aging OBeachen hippy surfer who drove around for seven years with an Impeach Bush bumper sticker, being asked to clean up the George and Dick Armed Frat-boy Spring Break Mess was not lost on me. When I said it would be honor to work with such people, there was a harbinger of the difficulty when Kurdish Shakir and Arabic Salah, had a brief, albeit friendly, disagreement over whose home I would stay.
After losing about five pounds in water weight the session began to wind down. The State Dept. guide chimed in telling us there time for one more question. Finally, and the only delegate left was Ali Amiour from Algeria. And I do know something about Algeria, and it has been relatively peaceful of late, at least by North African/Mideastern standards.
“Dr. Hamlin,” he began, “you seem to have a very good insight on conflicts in our part of the world. If you were asked, would you consider working on peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel, and if so, what would consider as a first step?” Really Dude? You’re a teacher just like me. We are supposed to be like brothers. Where did that one come from? I looked at Justine, ball ready to toss, southbound running shoes velcroed.
The delegation watched me, either for the revelation of some great pearl of prophetic wisdom or to see just how high I would set off the BS meters. But I had an ace in the hole on this one. Last autumn I attended the Association for Conflict Resolution annual conference here in San Diego (http://obrag.org/?p=47622 ). One of the presenters spoke of a program bringing Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities through basic common need. His particular presentation was the collaboration of Israeli and Jordanian mayors along the Jordan River and their efforts to clean up the river so it could be used again as a water source. The program was so successful that when the Israeli government wanted to put up a border fence in the region, it was the Israeli mayors who stopped the fence, citing no need. It pays to listen…
After telling the delegates I would be honored to work on such a project, I told them it cannot be done by anyone person or group of people. It needs to be grassroots effort with all parties’ position validated in the process. I then related the story of the Jordan River. There were a number of other such projects, and I believed this was the way to a lasting peace, not one completed through handshakes by officials after signing pieces of paper. They seemed satisfied.
We were allowed a couple more minutes to exchange e-mail information, shake hands and smiles, and then they were gone to their next stop, University of San Diego’s Institute for Peace and Justice…and I slumped in chair trying to replay all that had occurred over the last couple of hours.
Overwhelmed is the best description with which I could come up. I was overwhelmed by the efforts of these people. Men and women, just like us, who are tired of violence and want peace. They did not come here to cast blame, but to discuss the root causes and ask questions about how we would go about transforming and resolving conflict. Seeking not so much answers, but ideas.
I was overwhelmed by how much I had learned about these five countries in just a few short minutes. Not from a television talking head, not from and “expert” on North African and Mideast issues, and not from a book or article. I learned from the questions they asked and was once again reinforced with the belief they are people just like you and me.
When I step away from this understanding, and I do from time to time like we all do, in my metaphorical back pocket I keep the soliloquy by Shakespeare’s Shylock from the Merchant of Venice:
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
…If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
The villainy you teach me I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
We are all in this World together. And while we market World Peace with T-shirts and bumper stickers, and we have occasional days of Peace, Justice and Reconciliation, what do we do as a culture, as a nation, as a government of we the people to truly promote these values? On the other hand, we have raised revenge, retaliation and retribution to Olympic Competition levels, without a thought to what it does to us, as a people, as a culture, as nation.
When is the last time you engaged in a reconciliatory process? A process which opens dialogue and respects others’ positions? Instead we polarize into groups, liberals v. conservatives, atheists v. religious, democrats v. republicans, unions v. management, 1% v. 99%, I’m right v. you’re wrong. We have almost completely stopped listening to each other and “yelling” our position to force others to go along with our ideas. And they do not hear us and they are not about to go along with us…and neither are we.
Going down this path impacts all facets of our life. We used to be angry at the Russians because they were commies and they were going to take away our way of life. Our anger towards the Russians has been replaced with our anger at the “Arabs” for what they have done to us, and they mad at us for what we have done them. We are mad at the government because, because, because…We are upset at our boss, or at our employees, and we engage in discipline or “action,” because it is easier than trying to work things out.
And eventually this trickles down to our personal relationships and family. How many family members do you have a strained relationship, or none at all because of some perceived or actual harm? How many friendships have you let go in your life because your friend was human and did something which harmed you? Even if they apologized?
The one thing which came out of the meeting with the delegation was the need to overcome our fear; fear of the unknown, fear of losing possessions, or worse, our identity, and fear of being perceived as weak. This is not to say we cannot be fearful. But we have something very powerful inside of all of us to counter fear. It is courage.
Courage is not, by the way, donning a super-hero suit or necessarily turning into a martyr. Courage is the ability to take a stand against those things we know are inherently wrong…and it can be as simple as turning off your television, laptop, iPhone, Android, iPad, and engaging someone on a personal level. And instead of telling him or her, listen. Listen, not hear, listen and learn to understand and to ask questions. This is where true humanity begins. We are all capable of this. Remember our favorite word as a child, why? Well, why not as adults?
This is exactly the nature of the delegation who came to visit. They asked me, and others with whom they met a lot of “whys.” And they were content to know, we do not have all the answers, and in fact we need to create our own answers by working with others. It is through a process in which we work together to better understand each other we will find solutions; solutions which will alleviate fear and lead eventually to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace. So for today…
As-Salam Alaikum, Namaste, and in Peace, Jack