A student came to my office, looked around my office. As he crossed the threshold, his step faltered. I turned to see what had caused his reaction—he was staring at my calendar, a Jewish calendar with a big Star of David emblazoned on it.
Curious, I scrutinized him, searching for a clue that would explain his behavior. He was tall, his hair was dark and curly, he was suntanned—nothing that would normally call attention to him.
“I just got back from my country”—he emphasized my country—“where I was diagnosed with a health problem. I will need surgery. I may miss the next test.” Listening to his accent, the way he rolled his r’s, the fluidity, the intonation, I suspected he was an Arab.
I had to ask, “What is your country?”
He watched me closely. “I am from Palestine.”
I sat up. “Then we come from the same region, I am Israeli.”
I smiled. “I knew you were an Arab. I’ve met many Arabs over here, but you’re my first Palestinian.”
“I’ve never met a Jew before and I never thought I’d speak to an Israeli.”
“Where are you from specifically?”
Warily we danced around each other verbally, letting out tidbits of information, piecemeal, watching for each other’s reactions. His family had fled Palestine in 1948, during what we Israelis call the War of Independence and the Arabs refer to as the Catastrophe.They now lived in Jordan. I told him of my brother’s sojourn in Lebanon as a medic during the 1982 Lebanon War.
After that initial cautious encounter, he stopped by my office several times. We were intrigued by each other, interested in each other’s stories.
We all carry labels. Mine include mother, textile artist, writer, the brain injury survivor, Jew, the Israeli. I am all of those and much, much more. If I want people to get to know me beyond those labels, if I want to let them into my life and be part of their lives, I need to tell my story, and I need to take advantage of every opportunity to do so.
I started writing shortly after I returned home from hospital, where I’d undergone three brain surgeries. I felt lost, as if I’d been dumped in the middle of an alien landscape without a compass. I pored over many websites and read through several books, but found nothing to help me guide me through this new world. I needed to understand what had happened to me, who I was becoming. I decided to record my journey while I bumbled along, hoping it would help me see the bigger picture and gain a better perspective of where and who I was. In time, wanting to reach a broader audience, I hired a writing coach in order to improve my writing skills. She was a fantastic teacher—she transformed me from a journal type writer to an award winning author.
As my stories took shape, I became aware of the importance of storytelling. They allow us to move past the labels, to build trust, to firm our ties with each other, to sustain our humanity.
My student and I could have easily denied each other’s stories. He did not have to create an opening to tell his story by mentioning “his country” and I did not have to step right through the proffered door. We could have easily let labels and distrust guide us. By opening that door to me, he was showing me the utmost respect, and by crossing that threshold, I too, was treating him as a fellow human being, with all the respect he was due.
In order to have any hope for humanity, for peace, we have an obligation to share our stories. We should feel compelled to take the time to listen, showing our respect to our storytellers, to risk peace.