by Jim Miller
Richard Holloway (chairman), Ann Yule (Convenor of the Neil Gunn Trust)
The timing was good or bad, depending on your point of view. This was a comment heard several times among the members of the audience as they filed into the event billed as “An evening of conversation” staged at Eden Court’s One Touch last week by the Neil Gunn Trust and Highland Council.
The theatre was packed and it would have been in any case. There was probably no need for the Israeli seizure of ships bound with aid to the Gaza Strip to attract attention to the event but the coincidence certainly underlined its topicality.
On stage, Richard Holloway acted as chairman in a conversation between two attractive women – Shireen Anabtawi and Daniela Norris – who have formed a strong friendship across the troubled political divide in Israel.
The two women grew up in their separate communities and started careers and families. In all that time, said Daniela, she had never met a Palestinian, the people she had been taught to see as the enemy.
It was not until their work brought both of them to Geneva that they met. Introduced to each other at a reception party by a mutual friend who did not mention their nationalities, they got on well and were somewhat shocked to find out about their respective backgrounds.
Shireen said she had sworn never to visit an Israeli house but she had done so and the friendship had grown. Having children of the same age helped to bring them together. Mutual interests broke through the received barrier.
Back home, although we lived about an hour’s travel apart, we would never have been able to meet, said Daniela.
Richard Holloway suggested that women are better than men at talking about their lives and exchanging experiences. Most of our lives are spent doing normal things, argued Daniela, and it’s normal for women to talk about daily life. “Politics is not high on the agenda.”
“You can’t imagine how similar we are,” laughed Shireen. The two women began to write to each other when they returned to their homelands. The extracts they read from their letters were outstanding for their frankness about political topics. It is heartening that their friendship rose above these differences – they could agree to disagree.
The connection with Neil Gunn came about when Daniela entered a short story based on Palestinian experience for the annual writing competition run by the Neil Gunn Trust in partnership with the council. The theme for the competition was “Living with one another”.
The story won a prize and, encouraged by this success, Daniela and Shireen decided to compile their letters into a book. It has now been published and is called “Crossing Qalandiya”, using in the title the name of one of the many checkpoints between the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
The conversation on stage shed revealing light on the troubled country. Daniela described herself as a secular Israeli. “To us, land is not the most important thing,” she said, adding that there are groups who see the land as God-given and are prepared to kill for it.
In Israel a mutual ignorance ironically co-exists in the two communities with great curiosity about each other, a curiosity that is not enough to overcome mutual distrust.
Crossing into each other’s territories is not legal but the women have launched a Facebook connection that has expanded into a friendship circle, hundreds strong, where opinions are being swopped in a healthy exchange.
“There are moderate people on both sides who believe in peace,” said Shireen, a movement that is largely ignored by the international media.
The pair wrote to each other in Hebrew and Arabic. For the book they translated the letters together into English. A Hebrew edition is due to come out next month and an Arabic edition is also in the pipeline. The women are sure the response to these will be good.
Some of the questions from the floor naturally had a political bent but the women avoided stepping into these troubled waters. One comment, that the war is a proxy war encouraged by outside interests, was not explored.
There was laughter when Richard Holloway asked if Tony Blair had made a difference. “We said we wouldn’t do politics,” said Shireen. “That’s not politics, it’s show business,” quipped Richard.
I was reminded by this fascinating conversation of instances in other trouble spots where women have showed courage and humanity, sadly not always with lasting results. But hope is hope. And Neil Gunn would have approved.
from the left:- Richard Holloway (chairman), Ann Yule (Convenor of the NGT), Shireen Anabtawi (Palestinian), Daniela Norris (Israeli), Colin Ferguson (Trustee), Marilyn Ferguson (NGT Treasurer), Charlotte MacArthur (Library Officer, HC)