By Caren Neile.
Teller Noa Baum’s new show, “A Land Twice Promised,” details four women’s experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The show is based on Noa’s childhood in Israel, as well as on countless stories from her mother, her Palestinian friend Juana LaBolle, and her friend’s mother. In this interview with HSA Social Action Committee Chair Caren Neile, Noa discusses the show’s genesis and impact.
Q: How did you come to create the show?
A: Around the time my son was born, my husband and I were members of a cooperative of parents who lived in student housing in Davis, California. There was a woman there who was Palestinian. Her son was a little younger than mine. We become acquainted. It wasn’t an intense relationship, but whenever we’d meet, we’d talk a lot. I was always struck by how lucky we were that we could watch our kids play, and I was always thinking, in Israel, I would never be able to talk with her like this. My son would be in the Army, hers in the Occupation. Later, when we become closer, she told me that she was thinking the same thing.
Then I met [NSN Board Member] Loren Niemi at the conference in 2000. He started to push me to work more with my personal stories, which I had never dared to do. Later I wrote to him of my memories of being nine in the Six-Day War, sleeping in the shelter with all the neighbors. He told me that this was an important story that needed to be told to American audiences.
I started working on it, and as I did, I thought it would be so cool to tell my story and my friend’s story at the same time. We’d talked a lot about politics and the kids, but I had never heard more than snippets about her childhood. I asked her if she would like to do this with me. At first she said she didn’t remember much. Then she started telling me stories of living under the Occupation that I’d never heard.
I started working on it, and it rolled from there. We got her mother’s story. Then my mom called and told me things she’d never told before. I had all this material, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Then Loren came to California and we started slowly forming and reworking the memories and turning them into these monologues.
Q: What was the experience of working on this like for you?
A: It’s been this process of a lot of intense debate inside me, what is it Fm trying to say, constantly hearing the voices of my family, people in Israel telling me I’m an Arab sympathizer, I’m naïve, I’m a traitor, or how irrelevant this all is. I was constantly struggling with these devil voices inside me. Was I going to be presenting a balanced view?
Eventually I realized that I’m not out there to correct the world or present a balanced view. I have to be true to myself and my experience. This is my experience of having a friend. I never had a close friend who grew up in [Palestinian] East Jerusalem, and I grew up in Jerusalem. She’d never had a personal friend who was an Israeli. Up to then, all her experiences with Israelis were with soldiers and settlers.
I was constantly going back to her and reading to her what I did. I read her my story and my mother’s story. After my mother’s, she said, “You know, I really didn’t want to hear about your mother; it was really hard for me. I thought we have so much suffering of our own, I don’t want to hear about your suffering. But for the first time, after listening to this story, Fm understanding something about your people’s suffering.”
It was an intense process. We would both get defensive and argue a lot. But we’d always come back to the fact that we like and respect each other. We learned to really listen and hear the other person’s point of view, even if it didn’t match our own.
She and I still talk on the phone a lot. Then I talk with my Israeli friends who have always considered themselves on the Left, who are completely disillusioned with the peace process and very angry. They tell me, “You don’t understand. You don’t know how lucky you are; you don’t have to face fear in your child’s eyes.”
I haven’t been sleeping nights because of the anxiety. My sister lives in the center of Jeruslem, right where the suicide bombers come time and again. But every time I think of the pain and horror of the Israeli side, I can’t help think of what’s happening on the other side too. I hear my friend’s stories and what’s been happening with her family. I know I’ve irritated a lot of my Israeli friends if I try to say this. But after you’ve been exposed to the other side as I have, you can’t go back to seeing just one side of the story.
Q: What message would you like people to take from your work?
A: I want to put a human face to all that people hear on the news, to bring it closer to the heart. I want to try and convey the experience of compassion and listening that we both had. Near the end of the show, I say: “Two brothers, two people, one piece of land. Both sides measure justice against their own suffering. No forgiveness, just long memories of hurt.”
The main problem as I see it is there are two parallel narratives, and the same facts are interpreted in two different ways by two different peoples.
There’s an old Jewish story: Two men who are in a dispute go to their rabbi. One of them pours out his grievances, and the rabbi says, “You’re right. Then the other man pours out his grievances, and the rabbi says to him, “You’re right.” The rabbi’s wife, who has been listening to all of this, says, “You just said they’re both right. How can that be?” “Well,” says the rabbi, “You’re right also.”
I believe that violence can maybe solve something for the short term, but we all know it’s not going to be the solution. The true solution to the Middle East conflict will be talking, hearing each other’s narratives, and doing what we can to resist the rhetoric.
Originally published in Diving in the Moon, Issue 3, 2002.
Noa Baum was born and raised in Israel, has lived in CA since 1990 and now resides in Washington DC. She has been an actress and educator, receiving an MA in Educational Theater from NYU. Noa performs in libraries, schools, museums, Jewish congregations, universities, Head Start and senior centers. She presented at the NSN conference, Mariposa Storytelling Festival, the Bay Area and Sonoma Festivals in CA. Her audiotape “Far Away and Close to Home” won Parents’ Choice Recommended Award.
Caren Neile teaches storytelling at Florida Atlantic Univ. in Boca Raton, where she developed and coordinates a performance series. This fall, she will be the director of S.T.O.R.Y., a program to bring storytelling to underprivileged, immigrant youth. A Ph. D. candidate in Comparative Studies, Caren’s dissertation is on storytelling and American values. She writes and lectures on storytelling throughout the country. She co-wrote, Hidden, which will be printed by University of Wisconsin Press in September.