In the telling

Carol Grosman believes that personal stories can help to resolve the conflict.

carol grosman 298 (photo credit: )
carol grosman 298
(photo credit: )
Holocaust survivor Giselle Cycowicz loves Jerusalem "like a grandchild," a feeling inspired when she witnessed a blazing sunset between two buildings one afternoon in the religious neighborhood of Sanhedria Murhevet. A practicing psychologist in her late seventies, Cycowicz says she loves Jerusalem more than words and believes it is destiny that has allowed her to live here. "Jerusalem is like the sea and I am like the fish," says Palestinian Samir al-Jundi, whose family home was demolished in the Old City in 1967. The teachers' union leader would not be able to survive outside the city, he says. In Jerusalem, he can dream and fly and exist as a human being. For American storyteller and conflict resolution practitioner Carol Grosman, the faces and personal stories behind these sentiments provide a rare chance to promote empathy and increase communication between Israelis and Palestinians. Grosman is the creator and director of Jerusalem Stories, a project that uses stories and portrait photographs of real people in Jerusalem as a tool for conflict resolution and peace building. "Seeing the other as human is something that's important after you go through this kind of conflict. It's hard for people to deal with the other - even nice, politically correct people," says Grosman, 34, who has lived in Jerusalem for the past four years. Grosman, who is also an associate of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, says that Jerusalem Stories, still in development, is a multi-faceted project that will use narratives and photographs of a wide array of Jerusalem residents to reach Israeli, Palestinian and American communities. She plans to publish a book of stories and photos featuring at least 25 of the city's diverse residents as well as create a story-telling performance, a photography exhibit, a story-based dialogue workshop and a newspaper series in Israeli and Palestinian media. The book, which has yet to be contracted, will be published and distributed in the Middle East and in America because, Grosman says, besides helping Israelis and Palestinians in the region to see one another as human, there is also a need for outside communities, particularly those with a stake in the conflict, to be exposed to these images. The striking portraits were taken by award-winning photographer Lloyd Wolf, who says he hopes that viewers will recognize their friends and neighbors, whether Muslim, Christian or Jew, in the photos. "I'm trying to help create empathy for the people portrayed, not judge them, either good or bad, but help to give a sense of an intimate experience of the humanity of a person," he says. "Whatever judgment (viewers) make is based on their own set and setting." A pilot project based on these stories, which will combine the storytelling performance, photo-text exhibit and interactive audience work, will be conducted six times in east and west Jerusalem starting as early as a year from now. As the project's interviewer and storyteller, Grosman hopes to present the people who live in Jerusalem, where they come from and their connection to the city. She is also interested in conveying how these residents have been impacted by the hostilities in the last five years and how they have responded to them. Grosman chose Jerusalem as the focus of her project since she was already living here, but is aware of the significance of her choice. Jerusalem is important to Israelis and Palestinians as well as Jews, Christians and Muslims all over the world, she notes. "It's an opportunity to show many different relationships with Jerusalem," says Grosman from her simple apartment in Old Katamon. "It's something that's shared. It's one of our commonalities." The project does not advocate any political solution to the conflict but does pave the way for increased communication and understanding. These traits that work to reweave social fabric will ultimately lead to political implications and social change, Grosman believes. While many academic disciplines examine storytelling, the use of narratives to facilitate peace is a very new field, says Jessica Senehi, a leading scholar of storytelling and conflict resolution and associate director of the Arthur V. Mauro Center for Peace and Justice in Manitoba, Canada. There is little empirical science available in the field of storytelling and peacemaking, and measuring ideas, emotions and personal change is a difficult task, but she explains that many people have personally witnessed and experienced the power of storytelling. "I think what Carol is doing is very cutting-edge. It's an intersection between the arts and between the practice of peace building that probably no one has ever looked at in quite the same way," says Senehi, a researcher who will be following, studying and evaluating Jerusalem Stories. "It's not about prescribing a solution to the conflict.... I think the ultimate purpose is to build relationships so people can work together to solve their problems." Virtually every culture and person has the capacity to tell and hear stories, a critical skill to human growth and survival, she adds. Such projects can create a fertile environment where people's stories are out there and can be drawn upon as a resource when people try to make sense of where they stand, who they are and how they want to envision the future. "In some ways, peace begins with each person," says Richard Eisendorf, the project's managing director and vice president of the Democracy Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes stable democratic institutions around the world and has provided logistical support for "Jerusalem Stories." The project is unique because Grosman has interviewed residents from all different colors, generations, and backgrounds, says Sami al-Jundi (Samir's brother), a Palestinian advisor to the project and center supervisor for Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem. "None of them represented Palestinians or Israelis," he says. "Everyone represented himself, and the sharing point was that they represented the face of humanity. This is a special thing." For Israeli advisor Yossi Klein Halevi, the project breaks down walls within the city, "even as other necessary ones are being built around the city. Regardless of the political outcomes, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians are fated to live on the same side of the wall," Klein-Halevi says. "What has always moved me about Jerusalem is how cosmopolitan the city is beneath its veneer of provincialness, and Carol's book brings to the surface something of that cosmopolitanism getting past the stereotypes and telling us people's stories," says Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a former writer for the Jerusalem Report and the Jerusalem Post. "We've lived together in the city for a long time without knowing each other's stories." Jerusalem Stories is not about profiling one kind of person, such as peace activists, but features "ordinary extraordinary people" and introduces many kinds of people to one another, Grosman notes. It includes not only Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims but also Westerners living in the city as well as sheikhs, rabbis, professionals, cab drivers, teens and street vendors. Nomi Gutenmacher, a religious Jew who immigrated from New York two decades ago, is one of the many Jerusalem residents featured in this project. A computer programmer and mother of seven, Gutenmacher helped form a weekly Tehillim or Psalms group for women in response to the hostilities that erupted five years ago. Gutenmacher chose to participate in Jerusalem Stories because she wanted others to know, she says, the view of religious, American Jews living in Jerusalem. She reveals that she felt a true yearning to return to her homeland, and believes it's a great blessing to live here. Grosman has also interviewed Samir al-Jundi, a former shopkeeper in the Old City. Jundi was born in the Old City and has fond memories of his childhood there. After his family's home in the Old City was demolished in 1967, the boy sold gum and cigarettes in the street to support his blind parents, his siblings and a neighbor's family. Decades later, when tourism dropped dramatically in the Old City due to increased tensions, Jundi transformed his tourist shop into a clothing shop in an effort to keep his business going. Jundi, who ultimately had to close his shop, chose to participate in the project, he says, because he wants others to learn about his life, and he believes that doing so will help them to view him as an equal. "The other side" of the conflict sees them only as servants, serving them in restaurants and washing their dishes. "We are also people and we have blood in our bodies, and we have feelings in our hearts," he says. "And this way, when we learn about us as equals, as a human being, then we think that we can trust each other afterwards." Others featured in Jerusalem Stories include Israeli Jew Miri Avitan, whose son was killed in December 2001 and Palestinian Lana Abu Hijleh, whose mother was killed in October 2002. Also featured is a Palestinian woman who sells olive oil in the street, an Ethiopian Jewish man who works for the Center of Ethiopian Advocacy, a Palestinian playwright and children's theater director and a young Israeli man drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. Grosman, who grew up in New Jersey with parents who loved to tell stories, had studied literature and conflict resolution in college but really made the connection between the two at the First International Congress on Literature, Culture and Peace in Haifa in June of 1999. There she attended a workshop led by an Israeli storyteller in which Arabs and Jews told personal stories to one another and then changed roles to play the "other" in their stories under guided supervision. "I was really mesmerized because I saw a storyteller working with this conflict that I care most about, with this group of people sharing personal stories with each other," recalls Grosman, who had come to Israel in 1992 on a program sponsored by Wesleyan University, where she did her undergraduate work. While listening to these stories, Grosman, a performing storyteller and coach, felt she was in the presence of something very powerful and meaningful - something that mattered. "Stories are memorable and lasting in ways that other communication is not," she observes. "I think it's because when we imagine something, we have a vicarious experience. We remember it almost the way we remember our life experiences... even more powerfully sometimes because of the trance you go into.... It's tight and powerful." Jerusalem Stories deals with highly sensitive issues, and designing a program that will be accepted, respected and trusted in both Arab and Jewish communities is indeed a challenge. In conflict situations, for example, choice of words and symbols can be land mines for those who have been traumatized. When Grosman realized that using the word "intifada" in her book proposal could put off some who view it as a war rather than an uprising, she opted to use the word "hostilities" instead. "No one can argue that it's been hostile," she quips. There are technical difficulties as well, such as securing the necessary resources and support to make the project a success. At the project's outset, Grosman found herself having to fundraise, organize, conduct interviews and work out the logistics completely on her own, which resulted in her working nearly 20-hour days. She now has a full-time program assistant, an intern and a volunteer fundraiser to assist. Jerusalem Stories has received funding from Israeli, Palestinian and US sources, including $40,000 from the US Institute for Peace and contributions from the Palestine Investment Fund, the Dorot Foundation, and the Alan B. Slifka Foundation in New York. Grosman has currently raised $87,500 but is seeking a total of nearly $430,000 to develop and implement the project as widely as possible. Besides the challenge of finding a quality publisher for the book, Grosman also has the virtual challenge of being in the middle of an ongoing war and keeping her heart open to all sides, Halevi says. "The fact that she is empathetic to all stories of the city, including right-wing religious Jews and anti-Zionist Palestinians, demonstrates that she can and is doing this," he praises. "Carol can get past the politics to the human dimension. If there is ever going to be peace here, that's the direction that we are going to need to go in." Grosman says she knows that the project alone will not bring peace to the Middle East. But she passionately believes that her project will make a difference.