Why I stopped making peace.

In search of Respect

This article was written on June 30, 2012

It was not because of conflict that I decided to create a concert at two sides the buffer zone that separate Greek and Turkish Cypriots. It was because of the beauty and wonder that I felt, sitting on a Greek terrace hearing the sounds of a mosque from the other side of the derelict buildings that mark the forbidden zone. The voice of another world, so close and yet so out of reach.

The people I spoke about the situation of division often started to tell me about the atrocities of the civil war and the evil of the other side. I told them that I never would or could really understand that story. It would not be wise to let me judge or react on such a sensitive and incredible history. But as an outsider, I could perceive the actual world without preconception, and observe the beauty of it. I therefore proposed to celebrate the present.

A year later, I positioned 400 musicians, students, singers and children on rooftops, balconies and in the streets of both sides and created a music event that flew freely over the minefields, barbed wire and checkpoints.

The people told me that this music performance confused their logic. They were used to have a fixed and persistent opinion about the conflict and their neighbors. Now it felt open again because the rhetoric was absent. They used to think about the buffer zone as an ugly place. Now they listened to the flutes, the birds and children’s voices that crossed the narrow divide. In this openness, everything was possible and it was up to them to use the moment, to act.

A few weeks before I had learned to abandon the word “Peace” from my vocabulary. In Holland, peace means something relevant. It implies for example a better world. It’s about the end of misery.

In Cyprus peace means failure. It means people from abroad imposing their truths, it means politicians promising things that won’t work out, false hope, hypocrisy.

So I decided not to talk peace, but just to focus on making good music on an exceptional place, and not spending more money in either of the two communities.

It worked out. The concert was great. The virtually forgotten conflict was on CNN again, and this time not because someone died but because people were listening to each other.

A year later, I was in Israel. There too, peace didn’t sound like the friendly “shalom” you greet one another with. Mention it and you often elicit — how can I put it? — an expression of pity. A sneer. A sigh. “Peace” there means empty talk, political games and, above all, endless delay. Furthermore, many Israelis believe that peace is the same as security. The more fences, walls and deterrents they have, the more peace there will be.

A Palestinian friend explained to me that the concept of peace only really means anything if two sides are in conflict. To me, it seemed pretty obvious that that was the case with Israel and Palestine. But he saw things differently.

The Palestinians are occupied. They’re not claiming anything that isn’t theirs. They haven’t done anything to the Israelis which would justify this situation. They don’t even have anything against the presence of Jews, just as long as they can stay in their homes and be equal citizens. But if you oppress people, drive them to desperation even, then you get resistance. Revolt. Ending the occupation and stopping the oppression isn’t a peace process, it’s simple justice. Just like a child giving back stolen marbles isn’t a peace process but just behaving normally.

The basic precondition for peace is that each party respects the other and they both agree that there has to be a new reality. Equality is an important concept in the West, upon which all laws are based. But in many other parts of the world it’s a modern idea that doesn’t always chime with the way society has been organized for centuries.

What counts there is dignity, not equality. A man may be poor, but his dignity gives him self-confidence. Respect is worth more than wealth.

Years ago, I learned how Germany wasn’t respected after its defeat in the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles was imposed by the victors with the aim of making Germany pay for the damage caused by conflict. A reasonable demand, you might think: punish the guilty. But instead this humiliation proved the ideal breeding ground for a totally crazy ideology of superiority and reckless confidence. With disastrous results.

Instead of being punished again, after 1945 Germany was given economic support. That turned out really well. The fact that we now have really friendly neighbours is down to the fact that, as well as making peace, we have forged mutual respect.

We speak a lot about “making peace”. But “making respect” is a phrase I never hear.

In practice, the real meaning of a peace is determined by the standards, values and principles of the strongest party: the victor or the majority. Respect, on the other hand, is dependent upon a subtle relationship in which both sides develop a mutual understanding. Without that, peace remains nothing more than a contractual state, its terms enforced coldly or even imposed unilaterally.

In the Netherlands we have currently a peace based on the rule that foreigners adapt to Dutch behaviour and that the Dutch are curious nor interested in the cultural richness that a stranger can contribute to the Dutch society. We expect outsiders to trade in their own traditional customs for our fresh, blond truths. That’s how you create a neat, orderly society. A respectable peace, you might say.

But this adaptation is all one-way traffic. How many native Dutch people take the trouble to learn how to say so much as “good morning” in Turkish? Without any interest in the culture, the constructs and the traditions the immigrant brings with him, without any sense of or curiosity about the manners, the values and the subtleties of the newcomer, that peace may be respectable but it’s hardly respectful.

They only way strangers can demonstrate their value is by earning vast sums of money, by becoming director of something or by driving around in a flashy car. This kind of intimidation is the most shallow connection between people, primitive like the rule of muscle from the times we used to live on the savannah.

We are missing the vocabulary of respect. We know the word well enough, but not the values it represents. In that regard, I live in a developing country. Even next door, in Belgium, the Dutch are famous for their rudeness.

At a cheap hotel in Damascus, I was accosted by a man who had never met a Westerner before. He admired Europe enormously, but didn’t understand why we were so critical of the position of women in the Muslim world. A woman in the Middle East is shrouded in a web of protection, honour and esteem, whilst girls in the West are treated the same as boys or — even worse — pose in their underwear in newspaper advertisements. Although he didn’t convince me, he made me think more about the difference of Western equality and Arabic respect.

Everyone in the Middle East lives in different groups, families and often even religious communities. And the modern world has only made these distinctions even more diverse.

A hundred years ago, the Palestinians were Christians, Muslims, Alevite, Druze, Jews, Romany, Bedouins — you name it. Now, as well as all that, they are Lebanese, Canadian, Amsterdammers, New Yorkers and so on.

Diversity is the norm, curiosity a general practice.

Everyone in the Netherlands is equal. At least, that’s the rule. There are differences, but we try to organize our society in such a way that they are minimized, that they don’t get in the way.

That’s why our notion of peace is so limited. When we make peace, it’s a business deal — an agreement whereby mutual disagreements are quelled in line with clear rules. Rules make real contact unnecessary. As long as you live according to them, you don’t have to be sensitive to the subtle reality of others.

But peace without contact is cold and lifeless. Where there’s no contact, prejudice forms. Only at a distance do people make decisions that cause others huge suffering.

Some time ago, an Austrian artist conducted a rather sick experiment.

He tied an explosive belt around a dog and asked people to vote online on whether or not he should set it off. Protected by anonymity, the majority chose to blow the animal to pieces.

Their cruelty wasn’t prompted by revenge for some injustice. They had nothing to gain and they certainly weren’t expressing some form of religious extremism. It was simply the result of detachment.

People are less cheerful beings when they have no social ties.

Robinson Crusoe had nobody around him, so he had to fight to stay civilized. By imposing a strict daily routine upon himself, including shaving, cultivating the land and keeping track of time, he did everything he could to avoid becoming an animal.

If you are curious about others, respect follows of its own accord. Peace then becomes a natural and automatic result of human interaction. Humanity is our most valuable possession, and the key to it is contact. As long as we are connected, we live in peace.

I organize a festival in living rooms in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Since public events are often forbidden or disturbed by the Israeli authorities, we decided to make the performances secret and just invite people we know. In this way, we create an intimate space for artistic expression, a place protected from politics and ideologies. Only Palestinian and foreign artists take part, and we invite a local, Palestinian audience. But back home, many people presume that this is a project where Palestinians and Israelis are brought together in an attempt to make peace. Well, they are wrong. A few years ago, this was exactly my plan though. But, as I found out, when people are not equal, they won’t connect. When you are in a position of tension, you won’t open up. When your enemy is in the room, you will never express your doubts or uncertainties.

When there is a basic disparity in the society, imposed by laws and force, people might live together, but there is no respect, no openness, no curiosity. The peace is bound to fail.

So instead of creating a superficial concept of connecting enemies, my goal with this festival is to create a realm where Palestinians can develop their personal independence, their self esteem and cultural identity. In safe spaces they can criticize themselves, make jokes or show their fragility. Only when they experience dignity, when they know how to be equal in spirit, they are ready to connect to the other side.

Working on peace is useless without being aware of the preconditions that are needed. Peace needs contact. Contact needs curiosity. Curiosity needs respect. Respect needs equality. Equality needs dignity and without knowledge of your cultural identity you won’t find the self esteem to climb this whole ladder or even a few steps.

I am fed up with people using the word peace without having any picture of this whole system of values, this complex chemistry of inter human relations.

I was recently asked to share my thoughts about an ambitious peace concert. What I proposed was finding a new name for it. After all, that word “peace” is wearing thin. It has been applied to idle promises, cold deals, naïve plans or sly ambitions too often to be credible any more. We didn’t manage to find an alternative, though. To be honest, I didn’t think much of the title “contact concert”, either.

So why not keep the peace. But please let any effort that we put in it help to understand each other instead of impose our own concepts. We can keep Peace as a nice concept on top of the ladder, a vision for a far future. But beware for cold business deals calling themselves peace, expressing no sensitivity to the others’ non-material wealth. Let openness be our goal. Let’s find places where we can discover each other’s values without having to take an exam in equality. Let’s make laboratories for a truly open society, one in which people can blossom in their own, characteristic individuality and dignity.

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