People & Society Tapestry

The art of friendship

Published 27 Mar, 2015 01:38pm
Photo by Daniel Shaked
Photo by Daniel Shaked

The first thing I notice in Vienna is that no one ever asks if you have paid for public transport yet, everyone makes sure they buy a ticket. For some reason, the contrast with how we behave in Pakistan stays with me throughout my trip.

At the Fifth Annual Muslim Jewish Conference, held from August 7-14 amid escalating Israel-Palestine conflict, there are 99 participants from a diverse range of countries including Iraq, Gaza, Israel, Malaysia, UK and Germany. Much like public transport that runs smoothly, and the lack of police presence, the greater city of Vienna seems to be far removed from all crises engulfing the rest of the world — Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many Muslims present at the conference have never met Jews. I wonder if they were expecting something completely different — the stuff of rumours and conspiracies. On the first day we discuss stereotypes. Muslims feel that they are branded as terrorists, backwards and oppressive. Jews feel that they are seen as a people suffering from persecution mania, controlling the media and the Wall Street. It is funny, if not tragic, the way we all create ideas about the ‘Other’.

I am co-heading the arts and culture committee at the conference. For one week I discuss with 12 people how arts and culture can be used for social transformation. The members of the committee hail from Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Hungary, Palestine (Gaza), UK and US. They are dancers, curators, practitioners of culture, architects and students: some of them are lovers of art. Our committee, at a first glance, does not seem to be as important as others. How would arts and culture match up to conflict transformation or gender and religion? But the need for the committee becomes clearer the moment we start talking to each other.

On the first day, the participants define the meaning of culture itself. What is culture? For most, it is a very personal thing that defines who we are and where we come from. The participants also discuss cultural diplomacy and how to unlock the power of the arts to bring people together. One participant shows us a short documentary that details how the Chinese government is suppressing Tibetan culture and music through laws and punishments. If culture doesn’t matter, why would its eradication be so important? I am reminded of the anxieties of the Pakistanis over Khuda Hafiz versus Allah Hafiz, and Ramadan versus Ramazan — how minor linguistic changes sometimes become symptoms of deep cultural shifts.

One of the participants leads street tours in Israel, focusing on language and graffiti. Israel has a 20 per cent Palestinian-Arab population so the street signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Jerusalem becomes Yerushalem in Hebrew and Yarshalam in Arabic (with Al-Quds written in a small bracket below). Amidst all this, people forget that Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic languages and have more in common than, for instance, Arabic and Persian have.

Again, I am reminded of Pakistan and India, and our grappling with our own language. Urdu-Hindi, once considered as one language, are now two separate languages. I am reminded of our anxiety over provincial and regional languages vis-à-vis Urdu, and the renaming of Nawabshah to Shaheed Benazirabad, Lyallpur to Faisalabad, Bombay to Mumbai and Calcutta to Kolkata.

One day I meet a participant from Gaza. I am at a loss for words. How do I initiate my greeting? Do I say I am sorry? Do I say Salam? Do I call him my brother?

We visit a synagogue in the city. Vienna used to have 200,000 Jews; today it has just 9,000. Most were killed or fled during World War II, and the Holocaust. There are 18 synagogues in the city, a testament to its strong Jewish history — only one was never destroyed. The rabbi tells us about Orthodox Judaism, and conservatism and reform movements; it seems just like Islam, in its diversity, and sects and polemics.

Jews and Muslims in Europe seem to face particularly similar challenges — anti-Semitism in the case of the former and Islamophobia in the case of the latter. There are calls to ban kosher and halal meat in schools, and to restrict the practice of male circumcision. Hate crimes against Jews and Muslims seem to be on the rise. In most countries, the two communities are regularly seen as the Other.

We visit the Mauthausen Concentration Camp which the Nazis ran during World War II. A perfected killing machine, a testimony to the capacity of human beings to do evil. Holocaust was not just a mass genocide of the Jewish people, it also led to the killing of anyone who the Nazis felt were below the Aryans. The Roma gypsies supposed to be originally from India, the Slavic people from Poland and Russia and even Muslims from Bosnia and Albania were all captured and killed.

Our guide tells us that the camp site is regularly vandalised. Recently there was graffiti sprayed on its walls, saying, “Muslims are to us, what Jews were to our grandfathers”. I shiver at the prospect of how such prejudice can lead to indiscriminate violence like we see almost on a daily basis in Pakistan against non-Muslim Pakistanis.

Some committee members share their experiences with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and, at once, I am struck by the similarity of our experiences. A Muslim woman, wearing a headscarf, faces a similar sort of racist religious oppression and discrimination as a Jewish woman does when she is forced to explain taking time off for particular holidays. The experiences are cathartic. How do you respond to a Muslim who says that in his interview for a university admission in the West he was questioned about his religiosity?

We are back at our committee session. Now we discuss music. There is the Arabic maqam which is like a scale but is much more complicated than the Western classical one. We discuss cultural similarities. We discuss the song Uskudara which is supposedly Turkish and talks about Turkey. But Bosnians, Egyptians, Serbians, the Greeks, and the Iranians all have the same tune. We ponder over how cultural exchange can unite us but also divide us. Is Baklava Turkish or Greek? Is Hummus Lebanese or Israeli?

Another day we focus on theatre and how it can be used as a tool in conflict situations. Augusto Boal, a Brazilian, started the Theatre of the Oppressed. He felt that theatre in its current format was too bourgeois, too hierarchical and that art was for the community. Every spectator could also be an actor, so he introduced theatre for the masses to participate in.

Too soon, it is the end of the conference. Our committee prepares a presentation — 12 participants, all with different experiences, prepare a document that explains how best they describe their relationship to their faith. The participants of the conference listen to us in silence. At this moment, we are all connected through our shared desire for dialogue. It is a beautiful bubble, well protected from the outside.

The conference ends, and I am back in Pakistan. The bubble bursts, but the memories remain.