On Sulha, the traditional Arab form of conflict mediation
This interview was published on Alsharq on April the 9th, 2019.
One of the main functions of the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center WI’AM in Bethlehem is conflict mediation: Sulha is the Arab traditional way of mediation, dating back to the pre-Islamic tribal period and still often preferred to the state judicial system. An interview on Sulha, gender equality and foreign volunteerism with project manager Imad Nasser by Federica Fantini
The Wi'am Conflict Resolution Center is located on the main street of Bethlehem, one of the three predominantly Christian cities of Palestine, and was founded in 1994. Close to the wall that divides Palestine from Israel, fairly close to where street artist Banksy has his hotel Walled off, only a small sign hints at the existence of the center. The quiet space I visited a day earlier is now filled with the sound of women's laughter, as one of the women circles of the center has just begun. I meet Imad Nasser, and he leads me to the upper floor where we find a quiet room to talk.
Federica Fantini: What is the WI'AM center about, what do you focus on?
Imad Nasser: The word “Wi'am” means relationship, and the center was established in 1994 as an effort to support the civil society in Palestine and to promote a message of peace and human rights. The center runs different activities, and one of them is conflict mediation. We use the traditional Arab way of resolving conflicts, which is called Sulha. Sulha is very specific to the Arab culture. Of course, any conflict has two parties, a mediator and an issue, and the mediator shuttles between the two parties. The Arab technique is very cultural specific, as the family plays a big role in the conflict. If there is an interpersonal conflict between me and you, for example, that doesn't mean that only I and you are the parties in the conflict. There are different parties who are backing you up: your family, your clan, your neighbourhood, and the same for my side. So one conflict might have more parties, and more sub-conflicts within it.
Sometimes the mediator needs to talk to parties that are apparently unrelated to the conflict, because they might actually have the key to its solution. These other parties I can call shadow elements, even though sometimes they are not in the shadow at all (he laughs). You can see these groups working hard, either encouraging you to continue do whatever you are doing, or instigating the parties of the conflict against any solution. So sometimes you have to neutralise these elements, while at other times you want to bring them as positive actors in the resolution of the conflict. It depends on the mediator and the specific situation.
In mediation we have what we today call a truce. A truce can last for 3 days, because you cannot work on the problem if people are ready to jump on each other. The truce gives the mediator the chance to talk to both parties separately. It also calms down the people involved, so that they are less agitated and violent. The mediator can extend the truce to more days, it depends on the conflict. Not all conflicts need a truce: if the conflict is about stealing a pen, it doesn't really matter. But sometimes you have problems that involve domestic violence, neighbours fighting… All situations that may lead to more violence need a truce. And during this process, the mediator can seek the help of the so-called wise men, or the elderly, who are in the community.
Are these elders the leaders of the community?
They are leaders, elders, or religious people, somebody with a high position in the community, and they may accompany you as a positive element to seek solution to the conflict. So the mediator can bring different puzzles together and create a road map while he is shuttling between the two parties in order to reach a win-win situation. Of course, the mediator will not impose any solution; he will lead the parties to a solution. Sometimes, if it's about land for example, you can seek the help of a lawyer perhaps, or somebody who knows about dividing inheritance. These experts are needed, because it's important to tackle a problem from its roots.
Or if there is a situation of domestic violence connected to the conflict, or a woman needs help, you can seek counselling or social workers to help, too. This should be sustainable so that you reach a situation where the possible psychological barrier or trauma is tackled. Some other times the problem has an economic side to it, and in that case you perhaps find someone who can help the family to find a job – because many of the problems are also economically driven, mostly because of lack of money, which can lead to more violence. This is the type of mediation that we do.
Do you normally mediate amongst Muslims?
It can be anybody. We live in a hybrid community, Christian and Muslim, and problems can happen within one faith, or the other faith, as everywhere else. We mediate for and we serve all the people. There are not many inter-faith conflicts though. Most of the conflicts we deal with are related to inheritance, car accidents, theft... these kinds of problems.
What kind of role does the occupation play?
The occupation comes into play when it comes to the economic situation and the lack of jobs. Let us not say that the occupation makes a 100 per cent of the problem, but certainly it does aggravate problems, directly or indirectly. But there are other problems, too: lack of development, lack of employment, things that you’ll find in every community. But, of course, when you are in a free society you have access to more services and import-exports, whereas we are living in a small prison zone, and this creates more problems of unemployment and lack of expansion. All this affects and gives fewer resources to the people.
However, our work does not deal with Israel. We only work within the Palestinian community, but we do advocate for peace building and justice.
Does WI'AM have a precise view on the occupation? I have heard from some Palestinian activists that some organisations within Palestine are, in a way, working toward a “normalisation of the occupation”. What do you think about that?
Nobody will tell you that they accept the occupation. We accept that each side will have a sovereign state, and we want the implementation of the UN resolutions. I personally advocate for a two-state solution. Israel wants a pure Jewish state, they don't want Arabs, they make every effort even in Jerusalem to have less Arabs, so it's good that the two people have their own states and work in friendly relations. This is in order to avoid any future frictions, and live side by side.
It seems to be strongly connected to a society that is very public. What do you think?
Sometimes society can prevent you from doing things and if you insist, you become an outcast, that's true. You’ll need to be trusted to do this kind of work, otherwise you won't succeed. Most people know about us, and they will stop us on the street, or call us, or even sometimes we have people reaching out to us to signal a conflict that's going on somewhere. If the situation is very delicate, we give them an appointment to maintain their privacy.
With this job, you can enter people's homes, learn about their problems, and sometimes you find additional conflicts, you discover more and more, and you gain trust, and you’ll visit these people again, to see how they are doing. It's important to keep in touch afterwards, sometimes you even just visit for a coffee to see how they are doing; it's really important for creating more sustainability and interaction between you as someone who is giving a service and the receiver, and they are happy.
How much of a role does gender play in your position here?
We always try and work tirelessly to promote gender equality, gender rights and human rights in general. We are in a network with women organisations to promote women's rights and human rights. Sometimes our law, our tradition and the mentality of the people are discriminatory towards women, so we work hard to empower women, because they are equal to men. The Palestinian law is secular and applies to all communities within the Palestinian territory, regardless of their religion. When there is a discriminatory law we try to change it, but given that the Palestinian legislative power is paralysed, there is no way that things would move in terms of laws.
What is your women group about?
Our women group is like a club that meets every week, and they have different activities connected to gender empowerment and awareness-raising. Sometimes they have presentations about women issues, health, inheritance, things they need, sometimes they visit other places, they run activities about the elections, on how to vote, how to be active in the elections and not to just follow their fathers or husbands. Basically the women group works on building a basis for more women’s voices within the community, more activism. Even though in Palestine we have a tradition of strong women, the mentality here is all about patriarchy, and therefore there is a lot to do in terms of equal rights for women.
Do you also meet the husbands of these women, and do you know how do they view these activities?
Many times we see restrictions in the access to trainings or voluntary work we organise in the villages, so it depends on the mentality, on the place, the time… Sometimes you would see objections to women participating in trainings and events even in the cities, you see men opposing women nominated as candidates for the elections.
However, with our activities we also try to engage men in the process. For instance, we had an activity where we selected 20 unemployed female students from Hebron, all from religious families. Now, many of these girls couldn't join the program and do their placement in development organisations because of their families. Many say, my daughter will not go to Hebron or Bethlehem and engage in these activities. So to build trust we have activities for the parents as well, to tell them what the benefit of this program is and to diffuse their objections to this program. When it comes to gender, it’s crucial to engage men, because it’s men who can give more freedom to their daughters or to their wives.
What do you think about foreigners becoming active in the community on a political or social level?
I think it's a blessing to have people coming to volunteer. Many times you find cultural differences, but you can orient the volunteer about the culture and language. Yet, problems may arise, so it's good to accompany the volunteer and be with them, help them overcome problems, and involve them in cultural and social activities, rather than just keeping them in an office; they need to engage in events and activities, so this is really a package. Volunteers did great work in different things like summer camps for children, women activities, non-violent communication, advocacy campaigns –for me it's a blessing. But again, cultural differences are there, so it's important to fill in the volunteer about different things and be close to them, so that it’s really helpful for both sides, the volunteer will build charisma and character... It's a life experience for them.
What about foreign organisations?
Sometimes they work well, sometimes not, they need to understand what people really need and want, whereas sometimes they want results in one year, or sustainability, but if you want the latter, you’ll need a program for five years, but they sometimes come for one year and expect big results. When I go to conferences and meetings I always underline that there is a need for programs and projects to have sustainability, and to look at the needs of the people.
Are you as an organisation often invited to Europe?
Yes, many times; we have quite a good visibility and we have been invited to the US, to Europe, to other Arab countries... The problem sometimes is the visa process, and sometimes these invitations are not funded; we not only need to buy plane tickets, but also go to Jordan to fly. And going to Jordan might cost as much as the plane tickets because you need to pay for transportation from here to Jericho, tax on the Allenby bridge, taxes on the Jordanian border, then perhaps money for the hotel, then to the airport, food, all this costs a lot.
They invite us to talk about the work and trainings, and there are a lot of opportunities but you need money for it.
Thank you for the interview.