Under a black velvet Jordanian sky choked with stars, 22 people sat together, each one thinking of two nice things to say about the person in the circle whose name they had plucked out of a disposable paper cup.
Some were Muslim, some Christian, some Jewish. Half were Palestinians and half Israelis, but those distinctions were blurred after being together 24/7 for three days. The participants in the Musalaha Community Leaders Desert Encounter, the first in a four-session program spread over 18 months, were almost shocked at how close they felt to one another after such a relatively short time.
Law students, a tourism operator, the economic adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, a midwife, a special education teacher and a director of youth programs, the reasons they gave for applying to the program were "curiosity," "the desire to learn about and get to know those on the other side," to "gain knowledge," to "put love into practice."
In between icebreakers, exercises and games, an ache-inducing, but thrilling camel ride, a rattling jeep ride, and hiking and meditation in the desert, they fearlessly dove into tough issues explaining to each other where they meet injustice in their daily lives, and talking about which parts of their societies they wish they could change. They seemed thirsty to learn, to understand, and to connect.
They dared to ask one another: Are you able to accept me in my country? Do you believe in peace? How can I, as an individual, help your situation? Could you be friends with a Palestinian/Israeli in real life, or only in this type of group? The responses were sometimes painful to share, but always honest.
Crossing the border back into Israel, they stayed close, ready to support and assist one another if such behavior was required. Happily, the crossing was uneventful and on the bus ride home they were eager to schedule informal meetings in between those set by Musalaha. They didn't want to wait too long before seeing one another again.
In answer to a heartfelt question from an Israeli asking what she could to help Palestinians, a wiser-than-his years young man replied simply: "Listen to us and acknowledge what we have to say, demonstrate when you can, and vote for the leaders who won't lead us to war."
Listen. Acknowledge the other's perspective, his or her pain.
Imagine how our region might be transformed if we just started there.
The writer was a facilitator for the Musalaha Community Leaders Desert Encounter program.