Oasis of Storytelling: Narrative as a Tool for Change in Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue

By Doris Bittar

Oasis of Dreams

By Grace Feuerverger 
Routledge Palmer, 2001, 218 pp., Illustrated

For many centuries the region of the Levant was home to diverse groups of people: Armenian merchants alongside Baghdadi Jewish artisans, and Sunni Muslims managing a tolerant society with Eastern Christians - who mingled with Crusaders and inadvertently created a haven for other obscure minorities that endures to this day. Could tolerance be achieved among the old and new groups that currently occupy this territory? Is it possible that an inclusive foundation for diversity and social change could begin with the sharing of stories amongst enemies?

Grace Feuerverger's "Oasis of Dreams" provides us with theoretical and structural tools to work with the idea of narrative as the main foundation for Jewish-Palestinian relations. In this book, narrative is not confined to the realm of literature but placed squarely at the center of true political and social change. "Oasis of Dreams" is not merely ethnographic and anthropological compilation but may be seen as a resource for the growing Jewish-Palestinian dialogue in the United States as well as a guide for Palestinian aspirations as they work toward a viable plan. Ultimately the issues Feuerverger covers in "Oasis of Dreams" could serve as a springboard for an analysis of the strategies of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and for a future with Israel.

"A people that can gather stories lying in the dark corners of their homes, in forgotten mass graves, or forsaken refugee camps create a collective self in exile."

Ethnographer Feuerverger details her experiences, analysis, and theories of the village of Neve Shalom / Wahat al Salam, a bi-lingual, bi-cultural experimental village in Israel in which every aspect of life and education is shared equally by Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The concept of "thick" narrative, as Feuerverger calls it, is the main ingredient that lays the basis for a sustained relationship.

Drawing from a wide range of theoretical and literary writings, from Julia Kristeva and Anton Shammas to Edward Said and Toni Morrison, Feuerverger knits together a convincing argument that nonetheless is poetically rendered. Clifford Geertz' and Robert Coles' guidance on crossing between the terrain of vulnerability and that of detachment particularly influenced her to develop a more probing process. These writings and evidences support the "claim that narrative refers to the process of making meaning of experience by telling stories of personal and social relevance." The foundation for the village/school is the belief that a moral education based on diversity is possible. Feuerverger explains that "the village and its school as a moral enterprise appear to reflect the need for bringing about an understanding of the 'self' in relation to the 'other.'"

Feuerverger cites the Jewish Holocaust as an "unmastered past." In fact, she explains "that the hugeness of the catastrophe may never be resolved." She places great emphasis on the significance of the Holocaust for both Palestinians and Israelis, though she does not focus, in turn, on the Palestinian Al Nakba, when almost a million Palestinians could no longer return to their homes in 1948, and that event's significance to both peoples. We cannot entirely fault Feureverger because the Palestinians are still gathering their narrative of loss and exile. For the Palestinians, Al Nakba is a past yet to be fully mapped, let alone mastered.

Nowhere is this more realized than in her contacts with the Palestinian mayor of the town, Rayek Rizek. Feuerverger gains a deeper understanding of the Palestinian narrative of diaspora and loss as they share their fears and find that through recounting the stories of their families a new terrain of redemptive reconciliation can be found. It is clear that Rizek's journey, along with other Palestinians within Israel and in the Diaspora, is one of building and sharing their histories.

Grace Feuergerver's "Oasis of Dreams" is provocative and could be a blueprint for change. It is sensitively outlined and user-friendly. It places the discussions about exile, identity, and justice squarely into the realm of individual and collective efforts that can help us decide what our choices and actions could really achieve. She claims that those that engage in true dialogue have chosen to become architects of their destinies rather than pawns.

A nation is not solely built on land and power. A people that can gather stories lying in the dark corners of their homes, in forgotten mass graves, or forsaken refugee camps can create a collective self in exile. A nation that strives above all else to create a broad and complex narrative that it can share with friend and foe alike is a nation that has accepted the challenges to move out of the realm of polemical fantasy and live in the real world among other nations. The Palestinians are on their way to achieving a collective narrative and their growing audience is ready to listen.

This article appeared in Vol. 8, no. 39 (Spring 2002).


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