Ibtisam Mahmid, a 48-year-old mother of three in the Arab town of Fureidis, devotes most of her time and energy to social activism on behalf of women in the region and to promoting peace. She puts together workshops and seminars, and is responsible for organizing the women's tent for "Sulha" (Arabic for reconciliation), an annual event in which Jews, Arabs and religious figures from around the world meet. She puts Palestinian children in need of complex medical care in touch with Israeli hospitals, and organizes "listening circles."
What exactly are listening circles?
Mahmid: "The goal of the circles is for each side to present its version of an event while the other side listens. That way you create a dialogue between cultures. At first, you don't want to hear the other side - you want to wallow inside your own pain. But you discover new things when you are exposed to the feelings of the other side. When a friend told me about the Holocaust, for example, I cried. I asked myself how it is possible that my people live under occupation and they show horrible scenes on television every day, and I sit here and cry over what happened to the Jewish people."
How do you connect it all?
"It requires constant work - work that opens a window to feelings, anxieties and fears. Palestinians were dispersed throughout the world, like Jews. Their fate is one, their pain is one. Instead of engaging in repression, until one day we will face chaos, I propose that we progress. It's not easy, and every act of violence sets us back. After the October 2000 events [in which demonstrating Israeli Arabs were killed by security forces], I had to work for an entire year to restore faith among activists. Months went by before my friend in Zichron Yaakov agreed to visit me in Fureidis."
Seeing the other side
Mahmid looked and thought differently until 1995. She did not wear traditional Muslim garb, and social activism did not top her agenda. But her whole world changed during a bus ride from Fureidis to the Jewish town of Hadera. "After two stops, the bus driver told me, 'Get off the bus. You carried out a terror attack in Hadera,'" she recalls. "I refused to get off. When the driver called the police, I was happy, but then the policeman said, 'If you don't get off, I will drag you out by your hair.' I waited for someone to help me, but no one helped. I got mad and emptied the entire contents of my purse on the floor. I told the policeman that while he had the right to search me, he didn't have the right to humiliate me. And I showed him my Israeli identity card. 'If this document doesn't protect me,' I told him, 'I don't need it anymore,' and I threw it in the air. Everyone on the bus laughed, and I got off crying and angry at all the Jews in the world."
Mahmid filed a complaint against the driver, but the Egged bus company maintained that the driver acted under pressure and fear. The police also closed the case, citing lack of public interest.
In the wake of that experience, Mahmid began to wear traditional clothes. "Secular clothes did not protect me. Jeans and sunglasses did not make them consider me a citizen. I wanted to be recognized as an Arab woman from a distance," she explains. She became more religious and began to take an interest in Palestinian history - in particular the history of her family, who were expelled from the village of Tantura in 1948. According to her, she only realized then, at age 35, where she lived.
"I didn't think about the pressure the bus driver was feeling. I couldn't see his side because I was stuck in my own story," she says. "Then I began to undergo a transformation. I tried to see the other side by means of meditation. That is my work - to try to get people to understand the other. Now, I thank that driver. I can see that he was under pressure, and, thanks to him, I returned to my own cultural, traditional roots."
In response to the bus incident, Mahmid also began to engage in social activism. In conjunction with Na'amat, an Israeli non-profit women's organization associated with the Labor Party, she helped Arab girls who wanted to attend schools located beyond their immediate environment overcome their parents' objections. "I went to talk with their families. I got grants for girls whose fathers were only willing to pay for their sons' education. Without even noticing, I became a social worker," she says.
In 1988, Mahmid became the first Arab woman to run for leadership of her village's local council. "There were no centers for women's activities in Fureidis. Women spent most of their time at home," she says. "I called on the head of the local council to establish a body that would address women's needs, and he demanded that I provide him with a request signed by 200 women. I decided that if I was already required to contact the women, I would run for council head."
According to her, her election convention "caused a big mess in the village. The men said that 'in four more years, other women will want to be elected.' The women were glad that a woman was finally talking about their rights." She received only 151 of the 3,200 votes in the election, but the revolution had begun. Classes for women were established, including a class that prepares girls and women for matriculation exams, and the women became more powerful.
Her involvement in village politics exposed Mahmid to national politics, and she strove to forge bonds between Arabs and Jews. She is now a world-renowned peace activist, and even receives proposals to run for Knesset. "I am not afraid of entering politics, but I prefer to continue my work of trying to establish connections between people, between Arabs and Jews, and on an intra-Arab level. That suits me more than going someplace to babble and then claim that I accomplished things that I really didn't do. I want to be a bridge to peace between Palestine and Israel," she says.
Mahmid is currently establishing a center in Fureidis in which she will conduct her activities. Until now, she worked out of her family's small (70-square-meter) apartment. Her husband, Subhi, is now building the Hagar and Sarah peace center in Fureidis. He will no longer have to sleep in the living room to make space for visitors from abroad, among them Richard Gere.
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