Saturday, February 05, 2011

Project Israel- Regional Unrest and the Stories We Tell

As I've said in earlier posts, I'm watching the political upheaval in Egypt and other countries in the region with more interest than I might otherwise, because I'll be traveling to the region in a few weeks. I spent most of my academic energy as a political science major in college studying the region, its history, and conflict, even before 9/11 made the average American realize that what happens overseas really does affect us.

Last night I got an interesting email from the Executive Director of the Society for Biblical Studies (the group that is guiding our trip), addressing the anxieties many people no doubt feel about traveling in the region.

One thing that he pointed out was that while the Western corporate media (an industry for whom he clearly has little regard) have reported that the King of Jordan recently dissolved his Parliament in the wake of anti-government demonstrations, they were only telling half the story. Jordan's government, while far from being free an democratic, is far more tolerant of dissent than is Egypt's, and such demonstrations are a regular occurrence. Furthermore, this is the third time in the last year that Jordan's King has dissolved Parliament. So while this particular news item was reporting the facts, it was only telling part of the story in an attempt to have it fit in with the main narrative of chaos and instability we've been seeing for the last two weeks.

This new information reminded me of how powerful the stories we tell about people, places, and groups really are. When we talk about a particular group or issue (or ourselves, as Donald Miller points out so well in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life), we don't say every single thing we know, because it would take too long. Instead, we craft a story to encapsulate what we believe.

One of the most common stories I hear about the Middle East from people I encounter on a daily basis goes something like this: "those people have been fighting each other over little pieces of land for thousands of years. I don't see why we (the United States) have to get involved when all they want to do is kill each other."

There are certain truths to that story. The Middle East has seen a lot of conflict throughout recorded human history, but it has a whole lot more to do with geography than some fundamental character flaw on the part of the people who live there. The Middle East, Israel in particular, has long been at the intersection of several crucial trade routes. Its coast offers easy access to Mediterranean Sea, and it lies on the land route between Europe, Asia, and Africa. So naturally it has been in the interest of many empires to control such trade routes, and different empires have fought each other for that control.

We also have to consider that under hundreds of years of rule by the Ottoman Empire, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in relative peace. In 1919 the Ottomans found themselves on the losing end of World War I, and the whole Middle East region was carved up by diplomats in Versailles, and came under the rule of the British Empire. In the century since that time there has been lots of conflict, but it's clearly more complicated than just being an attribute of "those people".

I can't help but wonder if the "those people" story is one that is meant to keep a complex situation inside a box up on the shelf, so that we don't have to really engage with what our brothers and sisters experience on the other side of the world. Instead of the story inviting us into a deeper engagement, it keeps these others at arms length.

One of the most exciting things about the journey I will take later this month is that we will be spending time with locals, Israeli and Palestinian, learning from them what their day-to-day experience of this conflict is. Hopefully when I return I will be able to tell a better story about the Middle East than what I'm currently capable of doing.

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