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"Tapestry:" A Tandem Story Event for Middle East Peace

When the most recent outbreak of violence turned the tinder-dry Arab-Israeli conflict into a full-fledged forest fire last fall, Jewish storyteller Audrey Galex wanted to do or say something, but felt powerless to make a difference. As the situation in and around Israel became more horrific, Audrey knew that silence was not the answer. But what was?

In February, Audrey and storyteller B.J. Abraham, who is of Lebanese heritage, began to map out a story event that they would create and perform in tandem, as a meditation in a sense, on modeling how story can bring people together and foster peace. They approached Ilise Cohen, director of the American Friends Service Committee's Middle East program, and she agreed to sponsor the event.

Audrey and B.J. met several times during the next three months. Throughout, they shared how their ancestors had come from two different parts of the world only to settle in the same Mississippi Delta town, a fact they had recently discovered. They talked about ethnic food, and their cultural similarities and differences. They discussed their visits to the Middle East, their vision for the storytelling dialogue and their hopes for peace. They shared suitcases filled with story and poetry books and scanned the public library and Internet looking for Jewish and Arab folk tales, and tales about peace and co-existence. They decided that in the storytelling dialogue they were creating, each would share a personal story that would give the audience an idea of what it was like to grow up an Arab in the American South and a Jew in the American Midwest. B.J. shared her story "Kibbie" and Audrey created a piece called "Chopped Liver."

As they worked through their stories the script evolved, shifting with the day's news and soul searching: Was the performance speaking to their fears and hopes for peace in the Middle East, between Arab and Jew? Did it provide a model for living in harmony? Did it encourage a community effort? The process also involved email correspondence and phone calls with Israeli storytellers, including Shai Schwartz, resident storyteller at Neve Shalom/Wahat aSalaam/Oasis of Peace, and Rinah Shaleff and Dvora Shurman, whom Audrey "met" through the Healing Arts Special Interest Group Listserv. But the more information they gathered, the more Audrey and B.J. realized they'd need more time to hammer out a script.

They spent a day at a local retreat house where, after prayer and research, they cranked out a script on a borrowed laptop. That night a local storytelling "cluster" group offered to let them share their day's labor, offering "appreciations" and constructive criticism after the two read from their newly minted scripts. Local story buddies helped with music; one created a CD featuring excerpts of Arab and Israeli music, while another played the CDs at the appropriate times during the presentation and led the participants in a peace song.

The benefit, titled "Tapestry: Two Storytellers for Two Cultures - Arab and Jewish, Weaving Together Stories, Poetry, and Songs as a Step Toward Peace" was scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Central Congregational Church, May 22. Audrey and B.J. gathered items and decorated the chancel (with the help of storytellers and family) to look like a Middle Eastern marketplace with baskets, scarves, and metalwork from the region. Middle Eastern music set the mood as about 60 people gathered in the sanctuary. Most of them were familiar faces to the storytellers and to AFSC events. Yet some of them were Jews who would likely never attend an event with the word "Arab" on the program, or Arabs who would never attend an event with the word "Jew" in the event description.

Afterward, during a reception catered by a local Mediterranean bakery and grocery store, several people suggested Audrey and B.J. "take the show on the road." Some indicated that there were Orthodox Jews, as well as Muslims, who would not attend an event like this as long as it was held in a church, and that a non-sectarian location would improve the chances of a more religiously-diverse audience. Others suggested that the story event be expanded into a more interactive, experiential workshop, allowing the audience to participate in dialogue with other audience members. Some commented on how "even-handed" the storytellers were in their treatment of this sensitive, explosive topic.

B.J. Abraham grew up as a Lebanese Christian in the Mississippi Delta and brings into her stories many of the accents and characters with which she grew up. She began telling professionally in 1983 as a charter member of Southern Order of Storytellers in Atlanta and received her Master's Degree in Storytelling from East Tennessee State University in 1998.

Audreay Galex is an Atlanta-based storyteller, personal historian/video biographer and media trainer. She is committed to helping people and organizations perserve and share their stories and histories. Audrey has lived in Israel and Egypt and has travelled in the Middle East, believing in the power of storytelling to help heal personal as well as communal conflicts.

reprinted with permission: The Biblical Storyteller. November/December 2001 Issue, Vol. 19, No.6

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