As we all should be aware by now, there are no quick fixes in this part of the world or, for that matter, in any conflict region. But while most of us just get on with our lives, and, unlike the picture one might get from the world media, we are not all looking to vent as much harm as we can on “the other side,” what do we really know about each other?
Dr. Anwar Ben Badis believes we need to get closer or, at least, learn more about the other’s cultures and religion. He feels that could go a long way to assuage ill will, suspicion, fear or even downright discrimination between Jews and Muslims in this part of the world.
Ben Badis offers several lines of action for narrowing the intercultural, inter-sectarian gaps. Part of his working day is devoted to teaching Arabic to Jewish Israelis at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center (JICC). With a PhD in linguistics from the Hebrew University and a master’s in linguistics from Geneva University, he also teaches Aramaic at HU.
IN ADDITION to intramural educational endeavor, Ben Badis also gets out and about, and for the past nine years has been taking groups around the Muslim Quarter of the Old City during the month of Ramadan. The walks take place as part of the annual Jerusalem Ramadan Nights program sponsored by the YMCA, the Kulna Yerushalayim nonprofit and Open Holidays, which, in turn, operates under the aegis of the Jerusalem Foundation and the San Diego-based Leichtag Foundation.
The holiest month in the Muslim calendar is now in full flow, and the evening tours are designed to take in the ambience of the end of the fast day, around the time families and friends settle down to the traditional iftar sunset meal. The tours are conducted in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and all start at 6 p.m., from Damascus Gate. The latter is scheduled for May 22, with a Hebrew slot lined up for May 27. This week there was a Hebrew tour and one in Arabic.
“I wanted to offer Jewish Israelis an opportunity to get to know something about the culture of the other,” Ben Badis explains, noting that he has no pretensions about putting an end to all the problems of life in these here parts.
I suggested that knowing a little more about each other and even learning each other’s language can help to remove barriers and possibly generate some sense, at the very least, of reciprocal acceptance.
“I don’t get into that,” he adds with alacrity. “I don’t judge anyone. I know that the critical mass of [Jewish] Israelis don’t know anything about the other side. I know Israelis well. I work with them and teach them. That’s why I made the decision to run the tours.”
Ben Badis says he is not looking to start a revolution. He just wants to provide an opening for greater understanding. “I don’t change people. I want to expose people to something different. The process of change is down to each individual. I only want to say to people, take a look at other things. There is a different narrative. The Israeli experience is a very one-directional experience. Israelis only look at themselves. That doesn’t leave any room for a wider perspective.”
He may have a point. What, for example, do most of us know about Ramadan? We probably know that Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunup to sundown for 30 days and, in all likelihood, that’s about the limit of our knowledge on the topic.
The tours of the Muslim Quarter are timed to catch the latter part of the iftar repast, with participants meeting locals in cafés and other eateries. Ben Badis does not take his patrons into homes. “We meet a lot of people [in the Muslim Quarter], primarily before the iftar. During the time of the iftar, we pass by businesses – people eat there because they don’t want to close their businesses – and there we talk to people and sometimes purchase things. I let the people on the tour talk to the locals.”
That, he says, is partly designed to allow his students to gain some street-level experience. “Some say ‘Wow! today I spoke Arabic with an Arab.’ That’s a wonderful thing.”
There is, says Ben Badis, nothing like actual real-life encounters. “When you see that happening, you realize, even more keenly, the indispensability and importance of this kind of experience, of actually meeting people. The main purpose behind the tours is to learn about, and see for yourself, the ambiance, after which people say, ‘We want to go back and learn more.’”
They say that, among all the rifts, fear, hatred and suspicion that exist between Jews and Arabs, there is at least one unifying common denominator – food. Ben Badis says that the iftar is not the primary element in his tours, and that he is not looking to sit everyone down around a table and get us all to tuck in.
Anyway, he notes, that is not what the intervals between the daytime Ramadan fasting stretches are all about. “People are usually so tired after fasting all day that they don’t fill their faces. The food is not the point.”
Here we get to the crux of the Ramadan sentiment.
“The guiding principle behind fasting on Ramadan is to sit down with yourself, to look at the world and see yourself as a part of the world, and to get as near as you can to God,” Ben Badis explains. “Ramadan is mainly about having a religious experience.”
It is also about unity, across sectors of the community. “There are all sorts of classes in Arab society, like any society. There are wealthier people and people with lower incomes. The Palestinian society is very much like any other society around the world. There are different classes, poor and rich. I want people to know about the Ramadan rocket, too.”
That is not about a Muslim initiative to explore outer space, or launch missiles. “I tell people on the tour about the story of the Ramadan rocket. I let them see that, ahead of the iftar.”
The said fireworks are just that – fireworks, lit each evening to let Muslims know they can break their daily fast.
Having a grasp on some of the ins and outs of another community’s lifestyle and tenets can, Ben Badis believes, help to draw people, on either side of the religious-cultural divide, closer together. “I want to say to Jewish Israelis, don’t be afraid. People there are similar to you.”
He may not be looking to reshuffle the full regional pack of cards, but Ben Badis does want to do his bit. “I am not doing anything revolutionary. I just want to do something. I still believe we can change things for the better in this country. That’s why I do these tours. I don’t make a living from them. I do them for my children, so that they may have a better world.”
AND THERE is a whole host of other activities lined up under the Jerusalem Ramadan Nights umbrella.
On May 21 (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.) the Kulna crew will be looking to spread more knowledge about Ramadan to the Israeli public at large. The event takes place in the Beit Safafa Elementary School sports hall, with local resident Sheikh Abu Ayad and Kulna team member Drori Yehoshua discussing a range of relevant topics, such as the essence of fasting and prayer in Islam and Judaism. There will also be a mass iftar meal, spiritual music and activities for children.
Meanwhile, over at Hamazkeka, the downtown Shoshan Street music venue will celebrate its fourth anniversary on May 23 (10:30 p.m.), with the Monolingua Arabic-language music show, under the steady hands of Ram Mizrahi Spinoza, and Hamazkeka honcho Mikael Berkowitsch.
For more information about the Kulna event: 054-648-9243
For more information about Monolingua:
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