The Art of Conversation


Well, it’s time I take my leave. Said with hand to forehead and head tilted back, all for dramatic effect. I head back to the Middle East soon and by the time you are reading this, I will already be on my way.

It’s always exciting for me to go back. My heart literally skips a beat at the thought; with all the preparations, and even though I despise flying, the last few hours of that long-haul flight are filled with anticipation. It’s always a homecoming and it’s always filled with warm welcomes. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that the Middle East would be such a big part of my life. Or that I would have the hold on my heart that it does.

My very first trip not only opened my heart but also my mind. And ever since, I have worked non-stop with love for the Middle East at the core of all I do. For me, it’s not only about being present there, living there, helping and serving Palestinians, it’s about researching and understanding and sharing. I voraciously read, study, and consume anything on current events, history, and politics. My country and our foreign policies have a direct effect on my friends in the Middle East. And in my experience, those policies can be harmful, even deadly. I want to understand what I have seen on the ground. Furthermore, I want you to know.

There’s the rub. I want to share with everyone what I’ve seen and what I know to be true in the Middle East in our post-truth world. I see and hear so much from other Americans; we all have an opinion on the Middle East, very little of which is based on experience or on the ground knowledge. We tend to stick to resources we like, or that prove our point, or meld with our biases. I wonder if we ever stop to think what our biases might be toward Muslims or Arabs or Jews. Or if how we “think” about them is absolute truth or just our way of stereotyping to wrap up the Middle East in a neat little package to make it easier for us to understand.

I think, in many ways, I have been guilty of many of those same things. When I first started living in Beirut, I often pondered what about myself as an American with my cultural worldview might keep me from seeing life in the Middle East as it is. I found certain cultural traits offensive in the very beginning, maybe because it challenged my worldview and my reality. Interestingly, those small details that once offended are now very endearing to me. How do I see and understand and learn without casting judgement? Culture is culture. My culture is 180-degrees from Middle Eastern culture. It just is. Not good or bad, or better or worse, or “mine” or “theirs” is the best. It’s not a comparison or a competition. And after years of living in both worlds, through many rounds of culture shock on both sides, I have come to see the beauty in both. I have also come to utter and total frustration with both too. Just ask me about American media outlets and Arab taxi drivers, and you will get an earful!

For me, the most meaningful learning experiences have been just living life. When you accept that invitation to lunch or dinner.  When you go to a stranger’s home and want to know them. Not make a point, not use them as a learning example, but to see them. And I mean to really see them. To do that takes conversation.

Sadly, the art of conversation is sorely missing in my country. Blame it on the media, or social media, partisanship, technology, or our complete prioritization of task over people. When was the last time you had a conversation with a complete stranger and walked away thinking, “Wow, I really got to know someone different and understand where they are coming from?” Interestingly enough, in the US, the bulk of these conversations happen at the gym. I have gotten to know some great ladies just by taking the same classes with them. The other fascinating conversations I have had the past few months were at a Wine Bar that I am helping out at. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise, having interesting conversations together. Maybe because at a wine bar, it’s a much slower pace and everyone is happy. Or maybe it’s a neutral environment. But, it has brought me a great deal of joy just to meet new people and have interesting, non-charged conversations. But, I’m an extrovert, so that totally energizes me.

I guest lectured at DU, Denver University, a few months ago. It was a class on the Jewish diaspora and I was asked to share about the Palestinian diaspora, aka Palestinian refugees. It was fascinating because what could have been completely charged and volatile turned into a very dynamic conversation with great questions. In the end, it led us to struggle together. And, to me that’s the point -- together. One student commented that I should record videos because people need to hear about Palestinian refugees. This way, we could reach a broader audience. Oddly enough, a board member suggested the same idea a few days before.

So, here we are. I am once again trying to have a conversation -- not an argument, not a debate, a conversation -- on Palestinian refugees. Can we do this on social media? I have no idea but we are going to try. We have recorded some videos to get a conversation started. Added in some definitions to help people have the conversations. I am hopeful. Maybe it helps. It’s time. It’s time to talk about this, about the lives of Palestinian refugees, because while we argue and debate, they sit in permanent refugee status. And the injustice of that, whether you understand or not, affects us all.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s a risk to start a conversation, it’s even a risk to join one. But, life is a risk, isn’t it?

Suzann MollnerComment