People who live amid violent conflicts suffer trauma–and even inherit it when that conflict has extended across generations. While trauma can harden us against our perceived foes, remarkably, people can use shared traumas to build connections, even with those we have seen as enemies.
How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
This is Culturally Attuned. Brought to you by the United States Institute of Peace, in partnership with Burning Man Project.
Trauma can make you paralyzed and it can also mobilize you into action. It's a question if you can see the light and if you can see something that you can do.
I’m Dominic Kiraly, and today we explore the difficult topic of trauma, and how it impairs connection and community between people who have suffered through violence, and generational conflict.
Our guest is peace activist Liel Maghen who lives and works in the Middle East, helping people to see humanity in each other, even when the divide is painful to bridge.
Liel would know. He grew up in a family that had suffered trauma over generations, his parents becoming hardliners in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Liel shows how trauma can paralyze people’s thinking, trapping them in stereotypes and perpetuating conflict. But also, he shows, trauma can be a catalyst for healing, reconciliation, and cultural transformation.
I am Liel Maghen. I’m a peace activist for around a decade and mainly in the Middle East. I live in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the Israeli part of the country.
I grew up in a very right wing nationalist family. I grew up in that education surrounding because my parents had their own trauma they carried. And my mother is a daughter of Holocaust survivors and moved to Israel because of Zionist nationalistic ideas. She wanted her family and children to feel safe. And she felt that the safest possible is only in the state of the Jewish people. My father is a refugee from Libya, a Jew from Libya that was expelled from home through the riots of late 60s.
And because of this, he really felt strongly that you cannot trust the other side and you should be very defensive. So my right wing upbringing came as a result of the trauma of my grandparents, how my mother processed it, and my father there was direct trauma on him. And throughout my life, I kind of adopted the observations that came up from those traumas. I didn't even question a process, my understanding of the local politics, but adopted their observations. It was a direct result of what they experienced.
When I got to the army service I experienced my own traumas that were basically as a result of how commanders or how the soldiers related to me. And this was also expanded when unfortunately I lost a few friends in the army, they died because of let's say traumatic decisions or decisions that were made, I think because of trauma.
One is sending troops to an area that wasn't supposed to be attacked after ceasefire was signed. It was basically a mistake of commanders and one was shot and died. And someone else after experiencing really bad experiences in the army, he committed suicide and was basically ended up PTSD, post traumatic disorder, couldn't sleep at night and he couldn't handle it anymore and decided to take his life. These two is, I think one of the commanders and one of my friend was a direct result of the trauma. And for me it brought a lot of pain with how I want to deal with it. Trauma can make you paralyzed and it can also mobilize you into action. It's a question if you can see the light and if you can see something that you can do.
Now, in the beginning I was paralyzed. I remember myself in the funerals of those friends feeling that I cannot really move. I don't know what to do. I was a bit even embarrassed or humiliated because I wasn't with them in the battlefield. And I had a lot of anger, frustration and disappointment and basically saw life from a point of view of despair that paralyzed me because I didn't know that there is something that I can do.
Luckily, I had friends that already worked with peace activism and they connected me to two organizations that bring people together. And remember the first time I went to a meeting with the other side with Palestinians, it was through an organization called Combatants for Peace that they bring ex-combatants together. And we didn't speak about the conflict. We spoke about football, I remember, and food, but they connected for the first time with the other side. And so the humanity of it. And saw that both of us shared the same pain. And suddenly I felt humanity that I forgot that they have. And humanity of the other side that I forgot that they have. And this kind of, first time that I felt disliked it we were speaking about and I became very addicted to the spaces and started going to every activity they could find that is bringing Israelis to meet with the other side. Eventually I expanded my work from small gatherings to long term projects where people are coming for weeks and even months.
With time I learned that grief doesn't have to go to despair. Grief can also be a source of energy to mobilize and try to cure the situation. It's a question if you really remind people about the humanity of all of us and show them that there is something they can do. Even if it's small steps, but translating change into people daily life can create this points of lights in their dark understanding of reality. And this is kind of my point of focus since then and it's been 10 years that I'm working in peace activism in one way or the other in order to show this light to more and more people.
Liel shared his hard-won wisdom about developing relationships with people who have experienced trauma.
Every person has its own ability to connect with his trauma or inability to connect with it. And we shouldn't push too many buttons at once. We should find the right language and the gradual process for each person. So for example, with Arab Palestinian friends for example, I noticed that if I speak about my family history and my connection to the region and what happened to my father, if I make an effort to speak in Arabic, if I speak about the history of the place or stories of their culture and their traditions, we connect from a different angle than just speaking about the conflict or about the issues or about the future. Showing that I’m connected and exposed to their history and their culture is something that enabled them to be more vulnerable or less defensive.
In the same way with my father, for example, every time I tried to speak with him about politics, about the future, about solving the issues, he would erupt in anger and become very, very defensive and even aggressive towards me. But when I tried to connect with the humanity I was speaking about and suddenly speaking with him in Arabic, that he didn't teach me Arabic, but I learned it because of my Palestinian friends he'd opened his heart in places that he forgot.
And we started studying together Arabic. And I started bringing him to cultural events of Arabic music. And he suddenly related to a place that is outside of the pain that kind of covered the whole experience from being in Libya and started to be more acknowledging of the diversity of experiences that he had with the other, and not coloring everything with just the traumatic part of it that it usually happens with trauma. It's kind of becoming the only event that you remember from very diverse experiences and it's kind of color all of your life. It can be fallen after that trauma. And one of the ways of kind of a big weakening it is to re-experiencing that surrounding and to see that that event wasn't the only one, but they were different experiences. And maybe even that event wasn't the same as you remember it, which is also something very important when you deal with trauma that is a part of this mixed experiences that you experience something differently with different people and then you can re-examine how you remember that the whole event.
We asked Liel to share his thoughts on the limits to using cultural activities as an entree to deeper connection.
I feel changing the perception towards the other through a variety of activities is very important. If you created these different experiences that show a different angle and can be through music, food, football, cinema, TV shows, you make people a bit raise question marks of their worldview about the other and then see that there is a diversity in the other side. There is humanity in the other side and there are points of connection that up until now were ignored. With this being said, I feel that this is kind of the beginning of the conversation and it shouldn't stop there because it should be harnessed to political change because if it stayed there, it becomes shallow and eventually disappointing because it doesn't solve the conflict by itself.
Our ability to party together is not solving the conflict. Our ability to party together and have music together is a platform for creating better relations, better political relations in general. But it shouldn't end there. And many times people mix between a mean and a goal, which is something that we should remember all the time, when we work on conflict resolution.
Over the course of his life, Liel’s perceptions of Arab culture have changed. We asked what that experience has been like for him and where he is now in his evolution.
I can tell a bit about the fact that I grew up in Israel, but of course with origins in Libya and unfortunately I didn't learn Arabic from my family. As a matter of fact, growing up I thought that it's not Arabic but it's a different language. I thought, it's Libyan. The idea of disconnecting ourselves from Arab culture was very clear and very important. In some way, understanding how I was educated to think in this way towards the Arab culture is what enabled me afterwards to question it. While I wasn't aware of it in the beginning, I couldn't really be open for connecting with the culture and learning the language. But when I understood it, I was educated to see this culture in a certain way, I was able to create new experiences that changed my perception of it and eventually my knowledge and my understanding.
There is a part of being self-aware and it relates to cultural competency in general is that what we see is obvious, can be non-obvious for other people. And it's something that we should be very aware of and there are ways of behavior of how you speak, and when you speak, and which question you ask and which question you are not asking and what can seem too personal, and what not, like really every basis of regular living can be under question when you meet other culture.
For example, as an Israeli, I have many times cultural shock when I come to the US or I'm in American circles because we are more straightforward or direct than Americans. And many times what we feel obvious or natural behavior, or even authentic behavior, can be insulting or not polite inside American context. So even in cultures that are relatively connected you should re-examine your habits in order to enable people to feel comfortable and to connect with you. And my way of trying to engage with it is the idea of consent. And asking if people are willing to speak about this issue or asking if people are willing for you to be direct towards them. Trying to be more polite or even just be sorry because we are too much automated to really be sensitive on everything, but being constant process of changing for allowing the other culture to have space and to connect and not to be shut off just because of your regular behavior.
Liel collaborated on a project with a diverse group of people from across the Middle East. We asked how this community coalesced around a common goal, despite people’s cultural differences, and even historical conflicts between some of their countries.
So I start from the end, that At Burning Man this year we came together, a group of 40 people from across the Middle East. We had people from, the UAE, people who grew up in the Saudis, in Saudi Arabia from Jordan, from Egypt, Palestinians, Israelis and Americans did join us. We wish the group to become even more diverse in the future with the kind of changing the proportion between the cultures, but generally we've been there for the whole festival. Our gift to the community was building a big tent and offering kind of Middle Eastern hospitality with tea and coffee and mattresses and carpets and even shishas and Arabic music in the background.
How it was created, I must say there was, it wasn't clear process. It came about like step-by-step. The most important thing was that we met regularly a core group of us since the beginning of the year. So we created our own new culture that allows open conversation and open connection. And this kind of became the values that we radiate around us. That people from borders of conflicts or from cultures and communities that don't speak regularly can become friends and can become a mixed community and can have a new culture of how we engage with each other and how we engage with the sensitive issues. And this is way before we talk about the music that we put or how the camp will look like or how people will be dressed.
For the course of few months there were a few questions coming up about cultural appropriation and if we should use these clothing, although some of us are not Arabs and what do we express by doing it. And is it causing some superficiality around everything and what's really a synergy if the non-Arab is adopting what is being considered as Arab superficial expression. Is it synergy or synergy means not to do anything of it and creating something new?
Compromise in some way was not to decide. People that felt comfortable of wearing this clothing wore them. People that felt comfortable with the tent and the shisha and all the cultural expressions used them and people that were less comfortable didn't. What was more important about our culture is the idea that we don't need to make decisions about this. And what's more important is how we speak to each other and how we respect each other and how do we allow the different needs and different values of everyone being in the same space together and how we basically model a different way of people to speak from conflict areas. And I think it's a lot more important than the clothing or the music or the tent to really the idea that we can be a mixed community and can be a model for people around us and maybe even for the region.
Being open to divergent perspectives is essential to the work of conflict resolution, reconciliation, and peacebuilding. When we are able to listen to another’s point of view, we move closer to finding common values that can help people heal and grow together. However, as Liel emphasized, making connections and giving respect only goes so far. If the result ends there, it becomes shallow and disappointing. People who have suffered from conflict ultimately seek a return on their investment in making connection–meaning changes that can improve their lives.
Has a cross-cultural experience prompted you to re-examine your own beliefs and values? How did your world view expand as a result?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned, produced by Dominic Kiraly at the United States Institute of Peace, and in collaboration with our partner, Burning Man Project. I’m Dominic Kiraly. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Produced, engineered and narrated: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook