Eighteen years ago, when I lived in southern Israel, the region that is getting hammered by rockets as I write this, my boyfriend at the time – Muhammed – was a Bedouin Muslim, also living in the area. I went to visit my mother in Berkeley, Calif., for a month or so. During my visit, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, who had grown up a secular Jew, then married a religious Moroccan Muslim. She had been inspired by her husband’s religious devotion to explore her own religious tradition, starting to keep kosher, go to Orthodox synagogue, and so on.
She and I were driving through downtown Berkeley, when we got stopped at a red light. As it so happened, to the right of us was an anti-Israel demonstration and to the left of us was a pro-Israel demonstration. The crowds were shouting slogans, slogans that flew across the street, over our heads in the car, the two of us, Jewish women in relationships with Arab Muslim men. We turned to each other, held our gaze for a minute, then burst out laughing hysterically. When the light turned green, we took off, leaving the Arabs and Jews behind us, yelling at one another.
When we feel threatened, we can get into a defensive posture, Us-Them thinking, unproductive fact-flinging, conversations from the brain instead of from the heart. We can go around and around the same circle of thought and narrative, as, meanwhile, people’s lives are torn apart by trauma and tragedy. I believe that the path to peace is not through political conversations, but, rather, through emotionally intimate relationships with individuals – getting to know and care about them, listen to their stories, understand the complexities and nuances of their lives. So that there is no Us and Them, but rather, there is just Us, the human family.
Prior to my relationship with Muhammed, I was a very political person. I did not just attend rallies; I organized them. As an indigenous Middle Eastern Jew, the daughter of a refugee from Iraq, I certainly had a lot to yell about: I am a direct descendant of the people of ancient Israel, which was destroyed 2,600 years ago by the Babylonians, who took my ancestors as captives to Babylon – the land of today’s Iraq. My ancestors stayed on that land through the Arab-Muslim conquest of the region 1,300 years ago and up through the modern day, until shortly after the Farhud – the pro-Nazi wave of genocidal violence against Jews in Baghdad – following which, my family fled to Israel.
Despite the brutal violence, exile and traumatic uprooting my family endured, along with the material loss – all Jewish personal and communal property was confiscated and nationalized by the Iraqi government – and, despite the personal, intergenerational trauma that carried forward through the years, in Israel and the United States, my family story was invisible in public discourse about Arabs and Jews, in both the Arab and Jewish narratives. This was the case despite the fact that indigenous Middle Eastern Jews made up the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, and that there were 900,000 indigenous Middle Eastern Jewish refugees worldwide in the 20th century, with stories mirroring those of my family.
I spent 20 years of my young adult life devoted to getting these stories out there, with a mission of changing the way people think. I spoke at respected institutes, published in prestigious media, my work reaching the eyes and ears of tens of millions of people. Then, my thinking changed – not about the history or politics, which remained the same – but about what to do with the history and politics, how to interface with them.
Because Muhammed and I were together amid a volatile environment of Arab-Jewish enmity, we kept things apolitical in our relationship. Paradoxically, this led to what was perhaps the most political act of all: Arab-Jewish love, visible for others to witness. My neighbours went from cautioning me against dating Muhammed to asking if I was still with Muhammed, to asking how Muhammed was doing. They feared him at first, but then got to know him and care about him. Experiencing that transformation, in turn, made me realize that the simple things in life, the connection we feel in someone’s presence, can be more powerful and important than all the high-brow intellectual discourse in the world, the litany of things we may have to say, no matter how valid those things may be.
In addition, after getting diagnosed with cancer and choosing to heal from it naturally, I radically shifted my values and priorities – with joy, peace and ease shooting up to the top of my list. As part of my transformation, I returned to my lost love of music and started writing songs that were deeply personal, from the heart, and, as far as I knew, entirely apolitical – leaving me surprised when, after a performance, a man told me not only that he loved my music but that it was very political. My music disarms people, he and others have told me, specifically because I have no agenda, no interest in persuading anyone of anything; rather, I am just sharing – my story, my life, my journey. The simplicity and space of it all allows people to open their hearts, listen and, ironically, after all those years trying to change people’s minds – transform the way people think.
I don’t know the solution to this conflict that has been raging on for decades, endangering the lives of my family and friends, Jews and Muslims alike. I do, however, know this: as individuals, we have the choice not to participate in divisive thinking, to instead use conflict as an opportunity to reach out to people across the divide and get to know one another, in the most basic human ways, whether playing basketball or playing music or going for a walk and enjoying the sunset. In our cynical world, putting love at the forefront of our consciousness may sound hokey or impractical. But, at the end of the day, I think it’s the only thing with the hope to effect change.
Loolwa Khazzoom (KHAZZOOM.com) is an Iraqi-American Jewish musician, writer and educator. Her work has been featured in top media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Her forthcoming album, Iraqis in Pajamas, with her band by the same name, includes songs in response to the violence in the Middle East.