‘Hugs and Hummus’ by Gal Hacohen from Israel

tumblr_inline_nekkp3ezqq1sag8l3I had always dreamed of seeing Jordan. I just got back from Jordan, but I didn’t really see it.  What I saw was a dream. I didn’t see Jordan because I spent 3 days in a mini utopia; somewhere on middle ground where I could finally enjoy the company of my geographical neighbors, and participate in a conference with the people with whom I share my sea, share a similar climate and a connection, and excitement for the olive oil harvest.

The whole thing looked like the start of many jokes: a girl from Algeria, a Jew and the tallest Yemenite you will most likely ever see, taking a selfie in a hotel lobby. A Palestinian a Saudi Arabian and an Israeli, all with beautiful and long locks of hair (out of a very large group of respectable peace activists) filming a vine clip promising that “if you give us peace we will give you our hair!”. A promise had been made to John Kerry, through his Senior Advisor Laura Blumenfeld, to have us recording short clips from the conference for his upcoming birthday. Also because we all much needed mutual laughs, support and hope. Even though this recording wasn’t too serious, or legally abiding, I preferred to cross my fingers in the clip.

I am naïve, and I already was before this conference. I believe in the possibility for peace, and preferably in a near future, while Kerry’s still the one shuttling around from place to place the Middle East. At least he gets to enjoy a lot of the Middle East’s gift to the world: hummus.

This peaceful microcosms created in the hotel had been made possible, despite bureaucratic bla blas, despite permit issues and restrictions. Luckily for me I was a participant, and fulfilled my responsibility of getting my own travel insurance, right at the Israel-Jordan   border while I still had signal on my cellphone. The border crossing is a place filled with cigarette’s smoke and incoherent passport lines, and plenty of “on the bus and off the bus” rituals. We finally made it to the hotel and started the conference.

One of the objectives of the conference was to encourage networking and collaboration among young MENA leaders and to develop projects and initiatives. Many of the projects (and especially mine) are built on a foundation of coexistence and makes cooperation essential. I also started writing for the Humans of MENA Facebook page; an active project developed by a participant and based on the idea of Humans of New York… just with a little more cumin! So now, I have another great reason to talk to people on the train. I do it anyways, but now I just write a few words and take a picture.

During the conference, one of our training exercises was to prepare our personal narrative for the project pitch. I had to answer The question of why am I even here?”, “what am I doing in YaLa?”, “why and what made me choose this ‘radical’ path that I am on?”, and “how is it connected to the spirit and vision of my project?”. This exercise reminded me of a mini Ted talk (which is cool because one of the project presented by the participants was Ted coeX.), a Ted talk event about coexistence… So we shared, and this time it was not on Facebook, each story was even more powerful than the other, empowering, emotional and very personal; but they are not my stories to share. Like my desire to contribute the Humans of MENA page, the time for my personal story to be told will be at Ted Coex, coming this spring either to a PC or a Mac near you!

We also broke a lot of bread together. During our cultural exchange night (of over 10 cultures), I was handed a baklava from Tunisia and I said:“wow baklava! Like the ones I get when I go to the Wadi Nisnas,” the Arab neighborhood that is less than ten minutes from my house (including parking). Our culinary cultures are very similar, and it’s much deeper than ordering the same big mac or frappe something at Starbucks. There is nothing that reflects Haifa more than the falafel in the Wadi, the one my dad has been going to for over 30 years, and taking me with him for over 20 years…

As I was having lunch, with a man named Hussein, we talked about the need for a peace process, walking together towards independence from war: an inter-connected feel good narrative. Hussein asked me “who is the biggest ally of the USA?” He answered “Britain, who they bloodily fought in the war of independence, and look, they got over that and even looked out for one another a few times along the way.”

The aim of the conference was to give us tools, power and connections, and to help us creating projects; not to get into political debates. It wasn’t about rocking the boat, but I did have things on my chest that I could not keep to myself and wanted to share. I did so during one of the dinners as I was sitting with a few representatives of my neighboring countries. I said: “Jewish Israeli hummus is as good, and can be better than Arabic Hummus!” unfortunate we had to go back to the peace building activities and have left the issue unresolved, for now…

Before the conference, when people were asking me what I was going to do in Jordan I replied “to hug Arab”. In Hebrew, This negative hawkish remark is used to describe people who are overly sympathetic to Arabs and too little about Israel. “Beautiful souled” is another popular along the same line (not sure I understand this sentence). Well I have decided to take the liberty of reinterpreting those words and framing them in my context, as I did to “tree hugging”, because there’s nothing wrong with hugging a nice tree, I love hugging trees!

I came to the conference, opened my heart, my soul and was hugged physically and spiritually. I experienced and witnessed love, as well as mutual admiration between different size, colors and shapes of beautiful souled humans. But in the end of the day I didn’t make peace, and I didn’t float on the Jordanian side of the dead sea; but at least I got hugged by a lot of Arabs.

Gal,

YaLa Young Leaders

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