What happens when Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Atheists write with – and about each other? To find out, I designed a creative writing program for people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. The perfect place for trying this out is, of course, London – the most multicultural city in Europe.
As the world faces one of the most dramatic refugee crisis in recent history, I’ve felt that intercultural communication is more important than ever. As a writer and creative writing coach, I know of the positive impacts that creative writing has on the psyche. Writing in groups has additional benefits and creates a special group dynamic in which creativity can flow more freely. Moreover, creative writing and storytelling has proven to be a great tool for intercultural communication. Once we tell each other our stories and listen to each other, we cease to be strangers. We develop empathy, a greater understanding, and – most importantly – we get to know one another. By writing together, we become congenial partners in creativity. And sometimes, in the midst of this creative process, we even become friends. By using the tools of creative writing, a group of writers from different religious and cultural
backgrounds will come together for a unique writing workshop in London, ready to explore the stories of “the other side”.
Re-humanizing the “enemy” – why it’s the only way to Peace
Every political conflict is fought with psychological weapons as well as physical weapons. De-humanization is one of these psychological “weapons” that are used in nearly all political conflicts. It is a psychological process that leads people to view each other as ‘The Enemy’ – an entirely evil, inhuman, faceless group of people that don’t deserve moral consideration. The longer and more severe such a conflict is, the bigger the psychological distance between the conflict partners will become. Thus, de-humanization makes it difficult for people in a conflict, to recognize that they are all part of humanity. This dangerous misunderstanding leads to a very intense hatred that can be difficult to overcome.
De-humanization, however, does not only take place in active conflicts. It also occurs in so-called ‘low intensity conflicts’ or ‘cold conflicts’. Developing an ‘enemy image’, a negative stereotype of a certain group of people is, in fact, the beginning stage of de-humanization. Enemy images are usually black and white – the opponent is seen as evil or violent, in contrast to one’s own side which is viewed as good. In order to end (and ultimately, to prevent future conflicts), it’s necessary to find a common ground on which negative stereotypes are being dissolved and trust can be rebuilt. In short: We must re-humanize ‘the enemy’.
The PEACE FACTORY®, a viral grassroot movement that uses the tools of social media, to connect Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians and people from all over the world, has developed strategies in re-humanization: with the online magazine The SANDBOX, we introduce the people of the Middle East, one person at a time. Thus, Israelis can read the stories of Palestinians, Iranians can get to know Israelis; Jews, Muslims, Christians and Atheists can read about one another’s experiences and can get to know one another personally.
Writing with – and about each other
The SANDBOX is a real treasure box full of unique stories from unique people. When I hosted the Wor(l)d Peace Writing Workshop in London, I printed out a variety of these stories from the SANDBOX and brought them with me in my bag: from Syrian Refugees to Holocaust Survivors; from Muslim and Jewish teenagers telling about their everyday lives to people who shared their experiences of war and trauma. Like the SANDBOX stories, the workshop participants were also beautifully varied: Muslims and Jews, religious and atheists, teenagers and their mothers, Arabs and Europeans – it could not have been a more diverse group. Since many of them were experienced writers already, we dove right into writing.
I emptied the contents of my bag onto the table and set the participants to their task: Pick a SANDBOX story from the table in the middle and write about that person. Fictionalize them. Continue them. The participants were asked to work with these stories in whatever way they felt most comfortable. Some wrote short stories based on these narratives, others wrote poetry, and some simply wrote a letter to the person behind the SANDBOX story. Some participants chose to tell their own story, comparing it to the SANDBOX story they had in hand. The result was stunning.
All of them developed a greater understanding of “the other side” and experienced a feeling of empathy towards people they’ve never met before – simply by reading their stories and writing about them. Reading aloud the SANDBOX Stories and our own writings afterwards, was also very moving. For some, it was the first time, that they got an intimate glimpse into the humanity of someone from the other side. Some participants were reminded of their own (sometimes traumatic) experiences and felt that in writing about it, they were better able to cope with it. All of them stated, that it helped them to get a better understanding of people from cultures different than their own and
expressed that they enjoyed this experience very much.
In the words of one of the participants, Radha Dudhia: “The writing workshop in London was eye-opening, emotional and interesting. I, my son & his friend learnt a lot by writing our pieces and from listening to the words of others. The lives of the people in the case studies opened our hearts and minds to the challenges they face on a daily basis. Thank you for a great afternoon and in the words of my son “It was cool”!”