This Sunday, April 8, at 3:30 p.m., the Levite Jewish Community Center will host a reception for my show: “Hope, Harmony and History.” The show includes photographs from my trip to Israel two years ago, as well as paintings honoring Violins of Hope. The show runs through April. The violins will debut in Birmingham April 11-15 with concerts and educational programs. For details, visit www.violinsofhopebhm.org.
When my friend Michael Duvdivani approached me a couple of years ago about going with him to Israel to visit his parents, I booked my ticket within the hour.
Having grown up in Damascus, Syria, a mere two hours away from Israel, all I knew about that country was the problematic information they saturate you with in the Middle East. Nothing is ever said about the kindness and hospitality of the people, not about the country’s historic and ancient cities and towns. During school demonstrations, I had to march the streets and shout ill sayings about Israel and the Jews. I decided I was not going to hate an entire race, so I just moved my lips not to get in trouble.
Fast-forward a few years. I came to the United States at age 18 and met many wonderful Jews who confirmed my thinking: You cannot judge people based on how their government interacts with its neighbors.
When Duvdivani and I arrived in Israel, his entire family made me feel like I was home. During the 10 days I stayed, I traveled the country from the northern tip of the Golan Heights to the Southern Moshav where his parents live. I saw ancient temples, modern cities, old ruins and colorful people.
The city of Jerusalem itself is divided into sections: Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Armenian and others. You don’t know what section you are in while walking the narrow alleys and the quaint covered bazaars. People, for the most part, get along fine.
I visited Jerusalem and bought handmade leather bags, delicious spices and souvenirs from myriad shops. While walking the narrow alleys of Jerusalem one day, I came upon a shop with a big banner that said, Alabama/Heart of Dixie. It was nestled in between Arabic, Hebrew and English signs. The store was definitely out of place.
I checked again to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, or if I was on “Candid Camera.” After the shock wore off, I walked in and found a wonderful story. The owner, Hani Imam, had gone to the University of Alabama and become a huge fan of Alabama football. He had all kinds of shirts and plates and mugs and everything with Alabama football logos. We chatted for a while and I moved on.
While in Israel, I visited the Golan Heights and the West Bank, spots where at different times war took place. What amazes me in this: The entire country of Israel is the size of Alabama. Why there is such conflict and turmoil in a small place, I’ll never know. Why can’t they live together peacefully?
Which brings me to this, and the overriding statement I came back with from my trip: All people want is peace.
Let me repeat: All people want is peace. I sat with an 80-year-old Palestinian man in the middle of Jerusalem. He invited me for a cup of dark and strong Arabic coffee, and I asked him about his life and the things he has witnessed and the things that have changed. He admitted it was much better now. He told me the Israelis and the Palestinians should get along one day, but not in his lifetime.
Israel is one of the leading countries in many fields such as medicine, science, education and economics. All it’s missing is lasting peace. Little by little, though, and through education and harnessing the young generations before they are corrupted, things are changing.
I hope one day soon, the people of Israel and the people of Palestine will say enough is enough.
I hope one day soon, Jews and Arabs will shake hands and break bread at the same table, like I did.
I hope one day soon, Jews and Arabs will respect each other’s ways of worship.
I hope one day soon, Jews and Arabs will agree on a fair division of the land to accommodate everyone.
I hope one day soon, Jews and Arabs will benefit from each other socially and economically.
And I hope one day soon, I can take my children to the beautiful and ancient land, full of treasures and magic and wonder.
Violins of Hope
A year ago, I ran into Sallie Downs, executive director of Violins of Hope – Birmingham. When I learned the violins are coming to Birmingham April 11-15, I wanted to do something. These instruments have survived one of the most evil events of our human history, and now they will be in Birmingham for concerts and educational events.
The people responsible for bringing the violins to Birmingham are Jeffrey and Gail Bayer, who spearheaded, and funded, the effort. The Bayers wanted to create a legacy for their children and all children, so no acts of hatred will ever repeat. They want to create a live-and-let-live world. A world where you are not judged based on race, religion or color.
In addition to photographs of Israel, the show at the LJCC will include paintings of the violins. These paintings represent my interpretation of what the violins, and the people who played them, have witnessed. Some are more abstract than others, but all have a message:
Hope is stronger than any hatred.
Hope is mightier than any prejudice.
Hope is sharper than any racism.
The Violins of Hope will show the people of Birmingham their message of … hope.
For details, visit www.violinsofhopebhm.org