This story by Sarah Benazera made it to the top 10 of MasterPeace’s My MasterPeace Moment storytelling competition in which participants were asked to share a personal story about why they work for peace. Peace is Sexy was a co-sponsor of the contest and the winner shared her story at UN Headquarters in New York on September 21, International Day of Peace.
“Friends are the family you choose.”
We all know this sentence and sometimes forget how deep its meaning is. I would continue it like this: “and the Family you didn’t choose are not necessarily your friends but sadly you’re stuck with them.”
My name is Sarah, I am 31, I live in Israel and I work for Peace… yes, this is an actual field in the Middle East… so I work in Peace and it is very hard for my family to understand. To me, it is the only thing that makes sense in this crazy region.
Being stuck in a room with people you don’t have any thing in common with but a great grandfather, can very easily look like a war movie… you are the prisoner, they are interrogating you, you keep making escape plans but the occasions are rare.
As unpleasant as these experiences can be, they can also turn into real challenges that force you to surpass yourself in terms of diplomacy.
“Sarah, on Wednesday I am going to visit my cousins in Ashdod; they ask about you. You are coming, right?”
This is what my dad told me. But what I heard was: “Sarah, my cousins are like my brothers, family is sacred, stop embarrassing me, come, smile and wave.”
My dad’s summon was the sign that it was time for me to face the family jury again.
My dad’s cousins are religious. Religious and very right wing. Religious, very right wing and very self-confident. Five years earlier, when I went to visit them and their families for the last time, I officially got declared the “F…ing leftist of the family”.
Food is a great ally in those situations, as long as you let people fill up your plate, the status quo is safe. It was the hot “café botz” at the end of the meal that announced the beginning of the hostilities:
“So you still work with Arabs?” Ok, that was fast and straight to the point! I started to be sorry I ate so much. The combined effect of the warm midday sun and the heavy, greasy Algerian food made me so sleepy! Maybe it was part of their strategy?!
“Working with Arabs” for people like my dad’s cousin was the weirdest, most incomprehensible thing in the whole Universe. He, who had to run away from Algeria, lived in France and suffered a great deal of anti-Semitism, and who made Aliyah (moved to Israel) to finally be safe couldn’t conceive that a young Jew from a good family could willingly cooperate with Arabs. It was disturbing. He called me naïve, idealist, blind. How could I trust them? It was dangerous! And my dad! “How do you let her?!”
I work with people who believe in Peace. People who want, like me, to ensure a better future for the next generation. I work with people who are my brothers and sisters in terms of ideas. Yes, some of them are Muslims, Christians, Jews, or Atheists. I teach kids about tolerance and about the three main religions. I have friends all over the world. My childhood friends are all Christians, and I don’t encourage all my Jewish friends abroad to move to Israel… And there is nothing weird about all this!
The social life of my dad’s cousins and their families only revolves around Jewish families with North African roots. Eating Gefilte fish is the height of exoticism for them. This kind of social life is not uncommon in our region. People stick to their community, and hardly know anything about different ethnic groups, don’t know anything about their neighbors. With this crazy social and cultural division it is very easy to picture the other as a weird dangerous being; and to them, I was becoming “the other”.
After a verbal sparring match between my dad and his cousin on whether or not my parents could have done anything to stop me from turning so wrong; they launched the final assault: The Almighty.
Because the Almighty chose us, he promised us a country, and he is judging us.
The words came out of my mouth before I could think: “And he created me the way I am! With my curiosity, my willingness to work with our neighbors for Peace. And my respect for my family history.”
I am still not sure what inspired my answer. I don’t believe G-od or whatever you call this higher presence, to be so involved in our daily lives. But my family does.
My dad’s cousin opened his mouth but no sound came out of it. He sat back in the garden chair, stroked his beard and closed his eyes. Everyone remained silent.
“He created you too.” He finally said. “So you probably have a role to play.”
It was the end of the discussion. And the family jury as declared me “the maybe useful leftist of the family.”
I live in a Middle East they don’t understand and that scares them; a peaceful, multicultural, rich, tasty one, a Middle East I want to live in and a Middle East I work for every single day… because nothing else makes sense.
Maybe in a year or two I will try to tell my dad’s cousin that HE created our neighbors too…