As a cultural educator, Aziz Abu Sarah engages in activities as diverse as business, archaeology, environmental studies, and language. In the brutally debated landscape of Israel, he helps people find common ground in personal stories and cross-cultural learning.
Aziz is a peace activist, and has spent his entire adult life fostering greater understanding between Israelis and Palestinians at a “people-to-people level.” Sometimes, this means writing columns for newspapers or blogs. Sometimes, it means organizing a soccer game between Israeli and Palestinian youth. Sometimes, it means speaking to a congregation at a mosque, synagogue, or church. And sometimes, it means launching an innovative study-abroad program for Jewish and Arab-Americans.
The program delves into “the true complexity of the situation [in Israel],” says Aziz. “We include every point of view—Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, left-wing, right-wing, historical, cultural, environmental. This multi-narrative presentation of ideas is essential to seeing how you can work with very different mindsets . . .”
Aziz grew up in the “magical city” of Jerusalem, Israel.
In many ways Aziz had a “normal” childhood—surrounded by family, going to school, playing with his friends. He also grew up in circumstances unique to Jerusalem, where the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can impact daily life in unexpected ways. When he was still in elementary school, for example, Aziz remembers learning to always carry an onion with him—sniffing an onion and holding it close to your eyes reduces the irritation from tear gas.
“More important than your homework,” Aziz remembers, “was taking an onion with you to school!”
Aziz went to a Muslim school, but a single Hebrew class changed his outlook on life.
“Between the ages of seven and 18, I was a very anti-Israel activist. At 18, I realized I needed to study Hebrew, so I went to a place called an ulpan—when Jews move to Israel, this is where they go to learn Hebrew. I was the only Palestinian sitting in that classroom. It was very awkward . . . what am I going to do?
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to talk to anybody.’ My plan was, ‘I’m going to sit down, learn the language, without talking to anybody’—which was really dumb.
“Slowly, we started talking. . . . They sat us together in groups of three or four people. They give you a list of questions and you start asking things [in Hebrew]: ‘How are you? What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you like? What music do you listen to?’
“And when you start asking those questions, you start to realize how many weird things you have in common with each other. And my weird thing is I’m a big fan of country music. It’s a weird thing in Palestine! . . . My family thinks I’m crazy, all my friends think, ‘What the heck are you listening to?’ . . . But in my class, there were these guys who loved country music. When I said ‘Johnny Cash,’ they knew what I was talking about . . . .
“That was a way to build friendship: Not through the issues we disagree on, but finding the things we have in common. And then from there, you start moving to more complicated issues, and it becomes easier, because you’ve already built a friendship.
“I knew after that class,” Aziz says, “where the problem is. And the problem is, in my opinion, that people don’t know each other. When you don’t know somebody, you’re going to hate them, and you’re going to fantasize about their horns and tails. . . . You start thinking they’re less of a human than you.
“So, my view as to what separates people is an imaginary wall of hatred and ignorance and fear. What needs to be done is put cracks in that wall. One of my colleagues says what we [as peace activists] do is bang our heads against that wall until we break it down, which hurts.”
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“I think success is being able to see people change, to see enemies coming together—to show that it’s possible. Both the Quran and the Talmud say if you save one life, you save the world. To be able to do that is very rewarding.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“We have much more investment in the world to get people to hate each other than to get people to work together. It’s more profitable.
“Because it’s more profitable, one of our most recent projects is about making peace profitable—we talk about business across enemy lines, bringing [together] people who may have conflict with each other, and finding ways they can do business together.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
In school, Aziz remembers “there were only two classes I wanted to go to. Geography was one of them, and history was the other. I always saw them as connected.”
“We had a good teacher who always connected geography to stories, and that’s how I think about it. Unless there’s a story connected to a place, we don’t care about that place as much.”
Jerusalem is one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, but Aziz didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the city until he grew up.
“I didn’t understand the value of places,” he says.
“There are things you take for granted when you live in a city, and Jerusalem is ancient. You’re walking by a store, and a stone is outside that store. You think it’s just a regular stone. . . . Everybody is putting Coke bottles on it, eating, drinking. It’s a 2,000-year-old stone that was carved at the time of Herod the Great for the temple! It’s just such a normal thing, because everything in Jerusalem is old.
“It’s not just old. It . . . brings stories that actually affect life—not only back then, but today.”
Another aspect of everyday life in Jerusalem is “how separated people are in the city,” Aziz says. Still, the city’s geography forces different groups to interact.
“If you walk into the Old City, there is the Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter, and each sect of those has like 20 other sects, sometimes more. And . . . there are a couple of roads where everyone walks. The road to the mosque, and the road to the church, and the road to the Western Wall is the same. So, you walk there, and you see people going to their different prayers.”
From his home base in Washington, D.C., Aziz is a busy world traveler. In the next six months, he’s planning work-related visits to Israel, Jordan, Syria, Northern Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and France.
Still, Aziz considers Jerusalem his hometown. He looks forward to re-visiting some aspects of the cultural landscape—“I know where the best falafel stand is!”—but admits to missing elements of Western culture.
“Oh, air conditioning. You actually have it here. It’s too expensive to run in Jerusalem. . . . So, when it’s hot in Jerusalem you have four or five fans running, and you’re sweating. When it’s cold, you bring in heaters. Here [in the U.S.] everything is heated, everything is air-conditioned. It’s just so easy! It’s small things I never thought I’d be grateful for.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . CULTURAL EDUCATOR OR PEACE ACTIVIST
Aziz recommends “any courses where you can learn mediation, negotiation, and reading a lot—history, anthropology, archaeology, politics.”
“You need to be able to read and learn multiple sources that do not always fit with each other, and be fine with it. If you feel you always have to figure out 100 percent what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ this is a terrible job for you!”
For parents or younger students interested in peace activism, “I don’t think you need to travel much,” Aziz says. “It’s opening up your eyes to what’s around you . . . learning other languages, visiting mosques and synagogues and churches—things that are different from what you’re used to.
“Try to open your mind to see things that are different. . . . Reading—even watching films and television from other countries—that helps quite a bit opening your mind.”
science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.
study of human history, based on material remains.
building used for spiritual worship and religious practices.
condition or situation.
theory and practice of bringing peaceful end to conflicts.
traditionally Arabic deep-fried snack food made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, common in the Middle East.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
people and culture associated with Israel and the Jewish religion.
(~74-4 BCE) king of Judea (modern-day Israel) under Roman rule. Also called Herod I and Herod the Great.
lack of knowledge or education about a subject.
new, advanced, or original.
having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
acts and processes of bringing about agreements or reconciliation between opponents in a conflict.
place of worship in the Muslim or Islamic religion.
having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.
story or telling of events.
discussion or discourse leading to terms of an agreement.
walled, UNESCO World Heritage Site within the modern city of Jerusalem, Israel, consisting of four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter.
region in the Middle East now occupied by Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
art and science of public policy.
able to make money.
holy book of the Islamic religion.
place of worship for Jewish people.
primary source of Jewish law, tradition, and religious commentary. Also called the Shas.
aerosol gas that causes extreme irritation of the eyes, leading to tears and sometimes vomiting. Also called CS gas.
institute for the intensive study of Hebrew, especially for immigrants to Israel.
stone wall on the western side of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, held sacred by Jews as a site of prayer and pilgrimage. Also called the Kotel or Wailing Wall.