Nothing prepares you for that moment when someone looks you in the eye and tells you they have lost a loved one to this war.
No psychology degree can teach you how to keep your lungs and heart going when you know you’ve got nothing… Nothing to say or do that could bring their mother, brother or spouse back. Nothing.
And while your lungs fail to do their involuntary job your memory works overtime, encoding every detail of this encounter with death. The hazel green eyes that squinted with laugher only a second earlier. The creases between his eyebrows which rest there, engraved in his forehead like soft warning signs of the sadness he carries. The contrasts between his smart-casual polo shirt, and his fingernails, casually bitten to the skin.
We stood in three circles at the outset of the conference, 70 social activist, alumni of YaLa Academy from 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. “I am Moriya and this morning I woke up in Tel Aviv feeling grateful.” My mind wandered after five more people introduced themselves. I observed my new acquaintances’ body language which always interested me much more than the words. I tried to guess their origins a split second before they gave it away. The Israelis were an obvious one, but I was very proud to guess the Palestinians right. Telling the Tunisians and Moroccans apart was another story.
And then I heard him introduce himself across the room. The circle carried on, but in my head, the entire room froze. No more body language, no mind games. I knew his village, and for no good reason. A family was killed in cold blood. By my own people. By members of the group, I take pride in belonging to. A group that like every other one includes extremists… terrorists. One of us? Never. You know it’s true yet it remains unimaginable.
His surname matched the one I’d heard so many times on the news. My legs felt weak as I put two and two together. They were his family. They were his family and he is now standing here in a circle with me, with a group of peace activists who believe in goodness, who believe in humanity, who believe that there is a good ending to our story. How?
Growing up with no grandfather I never thought of my own family as bereaved. We rarely spoke of his murder, and I never stopped to wonder how come we’re all advocates of coexistence. I simply took the impartial, humane education I received at home for granted.
But all of a sudden, I was perplexed. What is he doing here? Only months after an event which shocked the entire country to its core… and for him it was no national disaster, it was as personal as it can get. I had to find out although I knew it wasn’t something words could describe, even if I did speak his mother tongue.
I didn’t have to say much. The way I looked at him must have given it all away because when we took a break he came straight to me. I don’t remember what I said, only that I felt more helpless than ever and that I teared up immediately. I do remember the creases in his forehead, and how his hazel eyes smiled at me when he asked me in a mix of English and Arabic not to cry.
Nothing prepares you for that moment when someone looks you in the eye and tells you they have lost a loved one to this war. But when he holds your hand and asks you not to cry, you know people are worth fighting for.