Sunday, August 3, 2014

Candles in the Night

What business does a sci-fi writer have writing about the Middle East conflict? Science fiction is about the future. Many writers envision dystopian worlds while others create future utopias. Which kind of world we get will be informed by how well we find solutions to the current problems that threaten our civilization. Imagining all the possible outcomes of the disastrous situation unfolding in the Middle East is therefore well within the realm of a science fiction author.

Following the news, it’s easy to lose hope. Centuries of acrimony, exploding into bloodshed in seemingly endless replays of the same scenarios, suggests a level of inertia that can never be surmounted. Adversaries stand on the shoulders of their ancestors with little chance of meeting on level ground. How could reason ever intrude upon the dialogue with sufficient force to change its course?

In the first episode of the new Sundance series “The Honorable Woman,” Nessa Stein suggests that conflict thrives where there is poverty and that a necessary part of resolving conflict is to improve the circumstances of the poorest involved. In the fictionalized world of the series, Nessa, a successful and powerful businesswoman, seeks to improve the lot of the Palestinian people by spreading communications technology throughout their world. She strives to bring together people from both sides of the conflict to accomplish this goal, which, of course, turns out not to be so simple.

So how might we imagine amidst the complexities of the real world conflict bringing together people from both sides in the interest of common goals? Is it even possible to get people steeped in the culture of hatred to lay aside their differences long enough to see one another as individuals with whom partnerships, and even friendships, might flourish?

Even as the rockets fly, such efforts to engage young people from both sides in reconciliation quietly move forward. Seeds of Peace has for more than twenty years brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers at a camp in Maine to engage with one another in trust building activities. While their numbers might be small, this program has created a cohort of bright young people who can no longer view one another as stereotypes and who can perhaps influence others in their home communities to open their minds.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies brings Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian students together in an academic program designed to train environmental leaders to bring ecological sustainability, renewable energy, and responsible water management to the ecosystems shared by their communities and to the world. Their alumni are teaming up across political and ethnic boundaries to develop innovative projects that will benefit people throughout the region and perhaps alleviate hardship and improve the standard of living for those who have been most deprived. Within their community, at least, Nessa’s dream lives.

I’ve had the opportunity within the past year to visit Rwanda, a country torn by the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus twenty years ago and now still recovering from that trauma. That conflict was striking for the intimacy of the perpetrators and victims, all members of the same community, formerly neighbors, friends, and even family members. Reconciliation would seem impossible among people who must again live side by side and look upon one another on a daily basis. And yet, remarkable steps toward repairing the schism have been taken by pockets of the population that serve as models for others to make peace. One particularly inspirational example is Ingoma Nshya, the first women’s drumming troupe in Rwanda, formed by an alliance of Hutu and Tutsi women, who, in addition to performing together, have founded Sweet Dreams, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor.

If our civilization is to survive and thrive through the twenty-first century, we will need to solve huge problems: preserving the environment and its diversity, developing sustainable renewable energy, and providing sufficient water and food to maintain a growing population in a reasonable state of comfort and dignity. Diverting resources to sustain armed combat flies in the face of solving these problems. Developing new alliances in the common interest of solving the problems that most threaten us all will be essential to preserving all humanity.

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