The New Story of our Leadership
From a speech Sivan Atzmon delivered for the New Story Leadership fellows, and invited guests.
Dear Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This speech and this journey into the New Story Leadership team of 2015 this summer, for me was like a private odyssey. It carries the smell of fresh baked morning bread, chopped parsley and zaatar. It carries home. But first and foremost, it carries a new unfamiliar identity, so different from the home where I grew up.
Actor Bill Grimmette with Sivan Atzmon at the workshop for Unexplored Interior.
I was born and raised in Jerusalem. Though I moved to Tel Aviv, I will always be a Jerusalemite. The flavors and smells of this city are my mother tongue. I imagine them. I dream in them. I belong to this city that is built out of the stones of its surrounding hills. I belong in the place where the people are made out of what encircles them. It is my home because it defines me: Jerusalem is where I played hide and seek, where I ate shwarma on the stairs behind the old school, where I first rode a bicycle, said “ahla” or learned how to write in Arabic.
Shortly before 8 AM today I heard a familiar alarm: “Hayalim, boker tov” –“soldiers, good morning” said Muhanad, my host brother for the last couple of weeks. The voice is from Nablus, but the location is rather different: Barnaby Street, Washington. And though it is already a decade since my army service, each time I hear that nickname, I dive back in time.
lived my teenage years during the second intifada. There were daily warnings to avoid crowded areas and to be constantly aware of your surroundings. There were frequent terrorist attacks. Standing in the bus next to a person with a kaffia, or buying from a seller with an Arab accent made me feel I was doing something dangerous. The streets that I loved seemed flooded with fear, fury and ambiguity. It was a confusing time for me, understanding there was no legitimacy for the voice of the people who speak the other language. Jerusalem is where I still smell the smoke of burnt places, where the sounds of the sirens still echo in my ears, where the empty streets find a few people with a lot of fear on their faces. It is a place where Jews and Arabs barely speak with each other.
And it is also the place where I lost my younger brother when I was seven years old.
It was on a Saturday morning. My two brothers, Yonatan and Omri were playing next to our house with the dog. Within moments, Omri fell down, hit his head and was rushed to hospital. He was there for 10 days and then, on a Tuesday afternoon, I came back home from visiting a friend and I knocked on the door. My mother let me in, but she said nothing. It took me one glimpse into her eyes to know: my Omri was gone. For years after that I was afraid to look at my mother’s eyes as I entered the house, terrified of what they would tell me. Later on, as an officer in the army, I was reluctant to participate in the reserves, to be that person who tells the families about their lost love ones. I did not want to go through that door. I did not want to tell that story through my eyes.
But then my life changed.
During elementary school, I started studying theatre. When I was in the 11th grade, I took a theatre monologue examination before a panel of teachers at school. For one exercise I played the role of a Bedouin woman named Naomy, who abandons her life with a wandering tribe in the deserts of southern Israel. I got so deep into the role that I felt like I was this woman. When the show ended and people applauded, it felt awkward –going back to being Sivan, I felt like I had lost a part of me, or that some part of Sivan was back there in the desert with her.
Afterwards, my theatre teacher told me that the testers were laughing. Apparently, I was describing to them what I learnt from the role in my Arab accent. I was still in role and did not even know it. I still remember being in the dressing room, standing in front of the mirror, looking at myself and seeing someone else, touching the Hijab and thinking – this could have been me. In fact, for the life of the part, I was her. That is the power of the theatre. And in that experience, I discovered something about my life’s calling, the power of theatre to bring about change. But how does the theatre do it? It is rooted in the here and now. Yes, and yet, theatre is another place, where, for me, two sides are brought together in strong bold colors. I saw it happening before my own eyes. And it brought life back again. Theatre can become a living, breathing site of memory and identity, a place for evolving arguments - it becomes a ‘we space.'
And how few 'we spaces' there seem to be in Israel and Palestine.
Yesterday, on my way to work, I walked along an un-built road on H Street. As I was walking there I found that, same as in Israel, there is a long fence along the un-built road of our peace process, a wall that separates Arabs and Israelies. During the last summer, three children, Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, were murdered because of their Jewishness. A month later a young boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered because he was Arab.
Innocent children who live on the wrong sides of the wall, on the wrong side of their world, lose their lives. Innocent children taken from the arms of childhood are all ours, be they living on an Arab or an Israeli land.
In my NSL project for change, I will focus on social theatre. I am planning a three-week program in Jerusalem that will bring youth from the V15 (the civilian movement with which I was working before the last elections in Israel) and Palestinians, communicating via theatre as a new language and a new form. For me, this project will break that wall and build a ‘we space.' It will bring back the light of wounded Jerusalem.
We cannot turn our back on where we come from, we cannot leave the hand of our neighbor, we cannot continue searching after the “we” and “they”, “anahnu” and “hem” “ihna” and “hum." We are one: the pain is one; the joy is one.
And as I am standing here, in my head comes the song that Eman softly sings: “kilma, hilua…” and I see the house of Muhanad between two hills in Nablus, the hotel desk in Rammala that Ehab manages, the table on which Abeer translates texts in kfar Yassif and I can hear the steps of Muhamad running in Beit Lehem.
And as I hear that song in my head, the word “home” is becoming bigger, and I begin to see the images.
First come the images, then the words, and then comes the story.
The new story of our leadership.