I was born and raised in a war zone, where the culture of war prevailed – and still is -, along with sectarianism, State paralysis, militias’ laws, negative media propaganda, hatred, conflictual identities, etc. I spent enough time in shelters or in displacement. I avoided snipers and land mines. I faced the destruction of our houses and the death of family members and friends. One of my favorite games was Harb (war).
When you live in a war zone and you survive it physically, it doesn’t mean you won’t be damaged psychologically. When the bloodshed stops, it doesn’t mean the war ends. Like so many others from my generation, I carry a load of war traumas. According to colleagues of mine (psychologists and psychiatrists), more than 60% of Lebanese developed serious mental illnesses due to PTSD. Their wounded memories and illnesses are transmitted to the new generations, along with what they already inherited from the distant past.
In this chaotic and sick environment, my first oasis was my family. My parents were peace agents when people around us were drowning in the sectarian sea. My father was probably the only one in his village who never accepted to be enrolled in any of the militias or political parties that controlled the areas we used to live in. He continued on being an educator, a school and university professor and became a well-known model of dialogue in the academic sphere. My mother is a lawyer and a feminist. She comes from a feudal background, a Sheikha. But she decided not to use her title in the public sphere. She worked for many years defending women in religious courts and she still has her doors open for abused women from different backgrounds and religious identities.
Over the years spent in Lebanon, then Canada, then back to Lebanon and now the UAE, and short stays in different countries, I found myself exposed to different forms of diversity and learned to live by the rules of different systems of diversity management. I had many experiences and encounters, both negative and positive, that contributed to my journey from war to peace, and to the expansion of my first oasis beyond the family cell.
I chose the most difficult path, to be against the current (Aaks al sayr), away from the common defense mechanisms such as the ostrich attitude, the blank Page and denial (what I call ‘mafichism’). It’s the path of continuous self-transformation in order to contribute to the change of my environment. It’s the path of dealing with one’s traumas, healing one’s wounds and enlarging one’s horizons in the quest for internal peace and peace with others.
I found a parable to illustrate the path I chose:
“A girl was so discouraged by her experiences in school (just like many are discouraged by the current situation in Lebanon) she told her grandmother she wanted to quit. Her grandmother filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. She placed in the first carrots, in the second eggs and the third ground coffee beans. Then she fished the carrots, pulled the eggs out and served the coffee in a cup and asked the girl: Tell we what do you see? “Carrots, eggs and coffee” the girl replied. Then she asked the girl to feel the carrots – she noted that they were soft and mushy. She told her to break an egg, but she couldn’t. It was a hard-boiled egg. She asked her to sip the coffee, which she did and tasted it with its rich aroma. The grandmother then explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity – boiling water – but each had reacted differently. ‘Which are you?’ the grandmother asked. ‘When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong but with pain becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstances that bring the pain, by releasing the fragrance and flavor?
The moral of the parable?
I confess: I am a coffee lover, a coffee addict.
I chose and choose every day, as much as possible, to become a coffee bean.
The environment we find ourselves living in or having to deal with plays a role in the shaping of one’s beliefs and genetics, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. What matters more is how we react to it, how we interpret our experiences and encounters, and when it seems that we can’t change our circumstances, we start by changing ourselves. I truly believe humans are not conditioned; they can alter their situation as well as their genes. Ever heard of brain plasticity? Of gene mutation?
My parents were my first proof that self-transformation and its positive impact are possible. Many individuals in Lebanon and outside Lebanon I encounter prove the possibility of change, and “hope is a pocket of possibilities, we just have to hold it more often in our hands”. Since 2001, my researches have revealed the existence of hundreds of peace agents, including here at the American University in Dubai. To the question I am often asked: ‘so how come we don’t have peace in Lebanon?’ My answer is:
Without those individuals, Lebanon would have disappeared a long time ago.
Old and new war traumas need time to heal and hard work at all levels (non-official and official).
The war’s causes are multiple, both internal and external.
As individuals in our own worlds, maybe we can’t change the external factors, but what we can do is something about the internal ones, especially when it comes to the psychological aspect of the war, the culture of war.
Truly, Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “You must be the change you want to see in the world” is not an ideal, it is a reality. One just has to believe in it, and believe that “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles; it must be taken one step at a time” (Lyndon B. Johnson).
And I will add: one coffee bean at a time.
‘Change to induce change’ round table (American University in Dubai, November 18, 2015)
AUD online publications – School of Arts and Sciences, November 22, 2015.