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Listening to the Other

Can a sense of place help the peace-making process?

by Gary Paul Nabhan

Published in the May/June 2003 issue of Orion magazine



The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Photograph by Roger Wood/Corbis, used with permission

A CHUNK OF PALE, limey dolomite sits on my desk, a fragment of my ancestors’ homeland. Sometimes I fit it inside my fist, as a way to remind me of the very ground from which my grandmother was torn around the time of World War I. Once a chink between larger cobbles in the dry masonry walls of the hut where she resided during her girlhood, this rock speaks to me like no other. The day I plucked it from the wall, I noticed how similar its texture and color were to the ridges flanking the Bekaa Valley, along the present-day border of Lebanon with Syria—a place less than one hundred fifty miles from bullet-riddled Jerusalem, and less than two hundred miles from bombed-out Iraq.

My grandmother was displaced from her region of origin, during a time when, in Lebanon, warring was almost constant. The Turks conscripted over 240,000 Arabs into their forces, and roughly 40,000 of them were killed, while another 150,000 deserted their posts. At least 40,000 of the Lebanese deserters—Arabs who refused to fight for the Ottoman Empire against their own people—were forced to flee with their families to the Americas.

They left the Bekaa Valley as depopulated and broken as Ireland was after the Great Potato Famine. Those who stayed faced a gnawing famine of their own, accompanied by a plague of locusts of biblical proportions. After World War I erupted, at least 100,000 Lebanese died of starvation, leaving the pastures, orchards, and vineyards of the Bekaa with less than half the shepherds and grape-pickers they had prior to the war.

By some counts, political and economic refugees recently uprooted from their ancestral homelands now number two billion. We live during an era, in fact, in which there are as many descendants of refugees around us as people who have stayed put, living in the same places where their ancestors lived.

PEACE AND PLACE. I have always sensed that these two words have a bit of the same ring to them in modern English, but had not thought much about their semantic overlap until recently. I hadn’t appreciated the simplest of facts: that anyone who feels secure, grateful, and satisfied in a particular place is likely to feel at peace. Or that those who have fled war or other forms of violence not only grieve for what they have lost; they are often unable to see the beauty of their newfound land because the salt of their tears continues to blind them. They feel humiliated by those who have taken over their homeland, and feel the wounds that their land has suffered.

If we listen, much of what we may hear around us is the keening of displaced peoples, struggling to regain some modicum of dignity, which they pray will come through reconnecting with their ancestral lands. As the late Edward Said eloquently observed, that is why we hear such desperation from Palestinian families evicted from their homes in the West Bank by Jewish “settlers”; they are frustrated because they do not have any legal recourse in Israeli courts to negotiate for a return to their land. That may also be what underlies the vindictiveness seen in certain Kurds who have been forced back and forth between Turkey and Iraq, unable to retain control of land that has been the legacy of their families for centuries.

The unfulfilled need to live in peace, in place, is what fueled the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, and what continues to drive the Mayan farmers who feel that their only hope for staying on the land is to join ranks with Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. It is why the forced relocation of Navajo families from the Big Mountain region of northern Arizona has been largely unsuccessful.

For too long we have assumed that confronting racism and social injustice were altogether different challenges from safeguarding land rights, practicing multigenerational land stewardship, or protecting cultural and biological diversity. But I see these seemingly disparate threads woven tightly together nearly every place I go. I see it among my O’odham friends, who used to drive past a sign in a national park that warned tourists to “Watch Out for Cattle, Deer and Indians.” They had been displaced from living near one of their sacred sites by preservationists who wanted the park, and who did not understand that the wildlife attracted to that desert oasis were lured there by habitats that the O’odham themselves had stewarded for centuries.

I see it among my Hopi neighbors, whose springs have dried up since the Peabody Coal Company began mining the aquifer underlying their land some thirty years ago. Their culture and their environment have suffered because of water-pricing deals made without their consultation.

TO DESCRIBE SUCH TRAGEDIES at home, we tend to use the term “environmental injustice.” But why not use that concept to understand what is happening in Palestine, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Bali? What if we begin to view the crisis in the Middle East not merely as an economic and political struggle, but one in which displaced peoples are attempting to reaffirm their love and attachment to the place on Earth they consider to be most sacred? What if we admit that, from the Gulf War to the present, both sides have damaged the capacity of the land to sustain anyone who lives on it, and have contaminated one water reserve after another, rendering them undrinkable? What would we lose if all parties were sanctioned to renew their efforts to restore traditional ways of caring for the land? While some diplomats might question the worth of such values in negotiating a peace settlement, I doubt that this approach could fare any worse than the Road Map for Peace or the Oslo Accord.

The connections between peace, place, and environmental justice are deeply rooted, if one is willing to listen to the stories these cultures have to tell. Unfortunately, much of our society has retreated into a comfort zone where they only listen to voices like their own. It is this chronic inattention to root values that makes the destabilizing events of the past three years all the more heartbreaking and bewildering.

In the week prior to September 11, 2001, I had a jarring experience. A sense of foreboding welled up within me that haunts me to this day. I was driving through the pinyon-studded mesas and sandy valleys of Navajo and Hopi country. Soothed by the stunning serenity of the Colorado Plateau, I hardly noticed that the car radio was on until an NPR commentary shook me from my reverie.

In a matter-of-fact tone, a National Public Radio correspondent reported that diplomats from the United States and Israel had declined to attend the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance because they were unwilling to be publicly confronted by diplomats and activists from countries that were calling their policies in the Middle East “racist.” The commentator mentioned the contention, widely shared by conference attendees, that Palestinians were being denied their basic civil, spiritual, and land rights by a brutal Israeli regime propped up by billions of dollars of U.S. military aid.

Merely hearing this made me pull off the road and stop, so strong was the thudding of my heart against the shell of my chest. Within a week’s time, those now-infamous mushrooms billowed over buildings that had once stood as the most invincible symbols of American strength.

Let me clarify: I am not asserting that Al-Qaeda chose to attack U.S. landmarks and people simply because our diplomats refused to attend the conference on racism the week before. However, if Americans had been listening to Arab concerns all along—at that world conference and in other international debates on human rights—there would have been far fewer people sympathetic with the goals of Al-Qaeda, and many more would have condemned Al-Qaeda’s horrifying means.

Of course the mushrooms over the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not the only seeds of violence to germinate and grow in our midst. In the aftermath of September 11, a 1,700 percent rise in hate crimes against Arab Americans, against visitors from Arab and other Muslim-dominated countries, and against others from Asia and Africa occurred on American soil. During the nine weeks after the September 11 attacks, more than seven hundred violent incidents targeted Arabs and Muslims, Arab Americans, or those perceived to be Arab Americans in thirteen states. These hate crimes included several murders, arsons, and bombings, aggravated assaults with handguns, pepper spray, and stones, as well as lootings and death threats.

Rather than being outraged by this state of affairs, 43 percent of all Americans surveyed by The Washington Post thought that the terrorist attacks should make them “personally more suspicious of people who appear to be of Arab descent.” I am saddened by the fact that nearly half of our country’s population has lost its empathy with 3.5 million of their fellow citizens of Arab ancestry, and with 7 million other Americans who embrace the Islamic faith; that they have come to mistrust the fifth of the human family who either practice Islam (1.2 billion individuals) or speak Arabic (200 million individuals), the predominant language in some twenty nations.

Meanwhile, I am one of many Arab Americans who feel the anguish of trying to express our grief for both American lives that have been lost or touched deeply by this tragedy, and for those of our innocent Arab brethren who have been killed, jailed, or humiliated by our own government. As my late mentor Bill Stafford used to say, “every war has two losers.”

XENOPHOBIA, THE FEAR OF THE OTHER, is a malady that not only mutes and distorts Americans’ responses to some 200 million Arabic speakers. It also confers a deafness to the wisdom, warmth, and warnings spoken in some thirty-five hundred languages other than English that have persisted on this planet. While the privileged and educated of nearly every other nation in the world routinely strive to speak, read, and understand several languages, America appears to be among the few that does not generally regard being multilingual as the ultimate indicator of civility and worldliness.

Our lack of linguistic proficiency limits our competency in cross-cultural contexts of all sorts, including the resolution of conflict and negotiation of peace. Our inability to understand the meanings and morals embedded in specific languages is matched only by our illiteracy regarding linguistics as a whole. To be sure, most Americans do not fathom the relatively minor differences among Semitic languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, let alone grasp how large are the differences between Arabic and Persian (or Farsi).

Over the last two years I have been spending much of my early morning hours in a ritual of reawakening, one that helps me feel kinship with people in faraway places. Whenever I hear more world news that pushes me into deeper sorrow, I reach for books that remind me how refugees themselves have rekindled hope in their lives. I have been surprised at how often one theme surfaces in their poems: the link between finding peace and reconnecting with their ancestral lands. There are so many ways that this theme can be freshly expressed—as is evident in the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, recipient of the 2001 Prize for Cultural Freedom from the Lannan Foundation.

Darwish, who was born in the village of Birwe in Upper Galilee, was only six years old when the Israeli Army destroyed his village along with 416 other Palestinian villages. Israelis later pushed a new road through the ruins of his village, and in doing so bulldozed its last remaining cemetery, tearing from the earth the remains of the poet’s ancestors and former neighbors. Darwish will not let that village and those who have inhabited it be forgotten. Although he has been forced to live and write in exile from Palestine for nearly half of his life, he was allowed to return in 1996, when he was greeted at the airport by thousands of fellow Palestinians chanting his most popular poems. One of those poems, “On This Earth,” suggests that his unshakable relationship to his natal ground has given him much of his courage and strength over the years:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s
—hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of
—Aeschylus, the beginning
of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and
—the invaders’ fear of memories

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the
—final days of September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in
—prison, a cloud reflecting a swarm
of creatures, the peoples’ applause for those who face death
—with a smile, a tyrant’s fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this
—earth, the Lady of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called
—Palestine. Her name later became
Palestine. My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.

Laila ‘Allush describes herself as an Arab Israeli, a label that often confuses the unacquainted. But when they learn that her poems are collected in a book called Spices on the Open Wound, their confusion is transformed into pure curiosity and compassion. Despite all the horrors she has witnessed in the Middle East, she has chosen to follow “The Path of Affection”:

Along the amazing road drawn from the throat of recent dates…
Along the amazing road drawn from my old Jerusalem,
And despite the hybrid signs, shops, and cemeteries,
My fragmented self drew together to meet the kin of New Haifa…
The earth remained unchanged as of old,
With all its mortgaged trees dotting the hills,
And all the green clouds and the plants
Fertilized with fresh fertilizers,
And efficient sprinklers…
In the earth there was an apology for my father’s wounds,
And all along the bridges was my Arab countenance,
In the tall poplars,
In the trains and windows,
In the smoke rings.
Everything is Arab despite the change of tongue,
Despite the trucks, the cars, and the car lights…
All the poplars and my ancestor’s solemn orchards
Were, I swear, smiling at me with Arab affection.
Despite all that had been eliminated and coordinated and the “modern” sounds…
Despite the seas of light and technology…
O my grandparents, the rich soil was bright with Arab reserve,
And it sang out, believe me, with affection.


Allush speaks of the possibilities of reconciliation and repatriation unfolding in geologic time, not rushing to occur at the expense of people or the land itself. She cares for the land not as property but as family. Despite all the changes that the present occupants of the land have made, she does not condemn them as much as accept that they too will pass in their time. It is as though the land itself may one day forgive the transgressions that have taken place. Neither the land nor her people can ultimately be removed from their primordial relationship with one another.

Such poems by refugees speak of a love of place that cannot be vanquished. I wish for a way of allowing that love to guide the peace-making process—rather than assuming that it inevitably pits Palestinian Christians and Moslems against Israeli Jews, Kurds against Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, Navajos against Hopis in an irreconcilable struggle.

Meanwhile, I am more troubled than I have ever been by the current Israeli efforts to fence Palestinians into a small portion of the West Bank or to expel them altogether; and by similar struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Zaire. In Africa alone, there are more than three million refugees recently displaced from their homelands. The scatter of internecine strife across the face of the Earth today is alarmingly reminiscent of what historians recount of the years just prior to World War I, when many such racist-oriented skirmishes coalesced into something dreadfully global. Even if these widespread events do not metastasize into a universal conflict, the current unrest should convince us all to dedicate a portion of our efforts toward tangible actions to make peace a reality once again.

The ravages of war last far longer than the duration of any “official” combat; our cultures and our habitats remain wounded for years, even decades. Every war we avoid allows millions to remain in place, and keeps the vibrant places of the Earth from being dismembered. It is the healing power of the land and our shared history with it that offers hope of a brighter future.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

GARY PAUL NABHAN is director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. His latest books are Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry (Milkweed Editions) and ¡Tequila! A Natural and Cultural History (University of Arizona Press).

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