Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Watercolors for a Palestinian peace activist

Many years ago I sought Middle East speakers for the Education Committee of the Sonoma County Peace & Justice Center. Talking with an Iraqi professional, I was shocked to learn that my "politically correct" belief in the "two state solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not shared by Arabs. That afternoon I sat in meditation, trying again & again to picture peace between the two states. I could not. Each effort ended in a blow-up.
Then I tried picturing peace via his desired alternative: one state/equal rights. It was easy, smooth, radiant. So I painted an imaginary flag of such a country, using colors from the Israeli & Palestinian flags, symbols of their 3 religions, land & water.
A second painting showed diverse Palestinians & Israelis parading together behind that imaginary flag of a reunited, peaceful country. This painting was immediately loved by a wonderful Palestinian woman, Therese Mughannam-Walrath. She is one of the speakers I had met, just beginning at that time to tell any group who would listen about her family's experiences of oppression & exile, seeking to create the understanding from which peace can grow.
Her sisters bought this painting, which she calls Imagine, for her birthday. At first the painting simply hung where she sat everyday to eat, renewing her courage to go out into the world & tell her story. One day she took it with her. "They got what I had to say like that!" she told me, snapping her fingers. She began taking it to all her talks. She used it for her business card. She made notecards for Friends of Sabeel, a non-profit, Christian ecumenical organization seeking justice & peace in the Holy Land through non-violence & education. I am honored to contribute this image to her work & the work of this group.

This year saw new honors. First, Therese was awarded Peacemaker of the Year by the Peace & Justice Center. Besides recognizing her many years of courageous & effective work, this award also marks significant change in American perception of Palestinian people. When she began, a Palestinian receiving such an award was unthinkable. PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine) was pervasive. I'm deeply grateful for this change, a real step toward peace, as well as joyous to celebrate Therese as an invaluable activist.

Next, I received an e-mail from her son shortly before Thanksgiving, asking me to paint a childhood memory of Therese's aunt. Martha remembers serving lemonade to her father & his Jewish friend, who often played backgammon under the olive tree behind their house. Therese cherishes this memory for its antidote to the poisonous falsehood that Arabs & Jews "never got along." I was so happy to help her sons & husband surprise her with this painting for Christmas!

Today I met with Therese & Ari Siletz, an Iranian writer who is about to go to Israel. An Iranian Jewish Peace Committee is sending him on a cultural mission, looking for a helpful Iranian perspective on the tensions & opportunities there. He will be taking a copy of The Backgammon Game, & our blessings.