Participants : Abdallah Labadi, Batool Amjad, Eden Kedoshim, Lara Al-Naser, Moaath Mohamed Ali Faraj (Issa), Mor Levzelter Lavi, Naama Levy, Netanel Golan, Tal Oren, Yossef Shehab.
Facilitators: Anat Marnin Shaham and Muhammad Abu Tareq.
21. – 27.7.2010
We gather on a hot summer evening at Ben Gurion Airport – a group of young Israelis accompanied by their parents, and a group of young Palestinians who have already said goodbye to their family at home. The scene is very emotional. The Israeli director of the PC-FF, Nir Oren, helps the participants to prepare for the security check at Ben Gurion, which contributes greatly to a polite and friendly process and to the smooth passage of Israelis and Palestinians, without any feelings of humiliation.
We land in Osaka, where we are warmly welcomed by our official host and guide, Hiromi Yano. Hiromi turns out to be more familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than most of us. Energetic, methodical and extremely agreeable, he is also unambiguous in his instructions to us : No delays ! We make a big effort and almost succeed.
From left to right: Hiromi, Anat and Muhammad
Despite the accumulated fatigue from the long flight and the short night’s sleep, the young group is heroic on the next day, which includes a long trip from Osaka to Ayabe.
Warm reception at the Omoto Center. We are asked to take off our shoes, and while walking around the Center, we constantly have to remember to switch from one pair of slippers to the other. It is confusing and funny, but one gets used to it. We receive a short introduction to the Japanese way of sleeping on the tatamis in the traditional guest rooms, and to the use of the common bathtub.
We wander around in socks on the mats, set up the futons as we want them arranged for the night, and feel at home. The boys and girls choose to split up in different rooms, according to gender and ethnicity. Clearly, each group needs first some time to consolidate itself before they are ready to start interacting with each other. I am keen to see things start happening.
At the dinner, one of the Israelis tells me that it makes him feel uneasy that Israelis and Palestinians are again sitting separately. I suggest that we take the initiative, so we get up and sit down at the table of the Palestinians.
A party with the community is planned for the evening, and we want to contribute our part.
During the trip here, and during the forty minutes that we had managed to dedicate to the issue, we had wavered, decided, changed our mind, suggested, had rehearsals, coordinated, added last-minute changes, struggled with technical constraints and finally put up a nice show consisting of three songs : one in Arabic, one in Hebrew, and one in both languages – shalom ve-salaam. Additionally, a courageous band joins Batool, our dabke artist, and gets warm applause.
The group and its hosts
The next day, we are given a tour and an introduction to the unique place that is hosting us - the spiritual Center of the Omoto, a small subgroup within the Shinto religion. This religious denomination developed about 120 years ago, after their founder Deguchi Nao had a divine revelation. The Omoto religion stems from the belief that the source of all world religions lies in the same divine entity and that hence there is no conflict between them. The Omoto accept all monotheistic religions as such, an acceptation that has given rise to an aspiration for cooperation and peace. In the dark days of Japanese history, this aspiration caused the Omoto to be persecuted. Only when Japan became a democracy after the Second World War could the Omoto, whose religion had been outlawed, once again live out their faith in the open. Their spiritual leadership is mostly held by women and is passed on from generation to generation. The Omoto live modestly and put a great stress on art, which brings them closer to the divine, adds beauty to the world and brings Man closer to Nature. Calligraphy, drawing, ceramics, gardening, theatre, dance, weaving etc, are just a few of their creative activities.
We are given a tour of the gardens and of the House of Prayer, we visit a 400-year-old traditional house and we participate in workshop where we paint on cloth according to the method “Link and paint”, egged on by the constant support, encouragement, admiration and respect from our hosts, first and foremost from the current spiritual leader, Kurenai Deguchi. The extreme heat and humidity hardly discourage us because the human interactions are so warm and welcoming.
Kurenai Deguchi, the current spiritual leader of the Omoto, welcomes Muhammad Abu Tareq
Lara and Eden
The photographers who follow us everywhere since the moment we landed make us feel famous for a few days, and some of us clearly enjoy this celebrity…
After a light refreshment, we are off to the central town square. In a very impressive ceremony, our kids march to the sounds of the orchestra while the public cheers and waves small Israeli and Palestinian flags in our honor, enthusiastic speeches are given and the cameras go off non-stop. We present a gift to the cordial mayor Zenya Yamazaki and Naama and Abdallah receive symbolically two identical kimonos, one for each, and we feel all overwhelmed by the heat of the sun and the friendly warmth that surrounds us.
Abdallah and Naama receive a kimono
Under the cheers of the public, our kids are handed over pair by pair – one Israeli and one Palestinian – to their host families and driven away in cars, waving good-bye to the crowd like princes and princesses out of fairy tales.
Muhammad and I arrive at the hotel. My room is so silent that I turn on the local television. Suddenly, the words sound familiar, and here I am, watching in the main news program the highlights of our ceremony on the town square. They really treat us with a lot of honor here, and for them our visit is full of meaning and hope.
On the third day, Muhammad and I go out to visit “our kids” in their host families. We arrive at the houses without previous warning (personally, I would have fainted…) and are welcomed warmly and respectfully. We take of course our shoes off, and discover Mor, who has settled in wonderfully, and Joseph, who worries his “adoptive parents”. The boy hasn’t eaten, and has been sleeping uninterruptedly until our arrival. Muhammad doesn’t hesitate, wakes him up and puts him on his feet. The family tells with satisfaction how they set up the guests’ futons at a distance from each other, and the boys decided to put them closer.
We continue to the new home of Batool and Eden. Here, the chemistry apparently worked right away, and the family is very much at ease with the girls, who get on perfectly.
Eden: “Shabbat morning, 24/07/2010. In the house of the host family since Friday, feeling a little emotional, missing my family and friends. Batool and I get on very well, despite the fact that before that, we hadn’t spoken much.
In the morning, our host family took Batool and me to a sort of temple. It was really nice, they showed and explained us a few things about Buddhism. We returned home and ate a traditional lunch with many different dishes.
At one in the afternoon we went out again. The family took us to a sort of games fair – we had a great time. Afterwards, we joined the group.”
We drive and drive until we arrive at a small factory that produces rice paper. Tal and Abdallah, Moaath and Netanel, Naama and Lara are so absorbed by their work that they hardly notice us.
Tal is making rice paper
After that, we visit the grandparents of the family that hosts Lara and Naama, and later the home of the family who hosts Abdallah and Tal. The friendly hosts proudly show us the hand-made pasta that the diligent guests prepared. The pasta is served with a cold soup to which everyone adds vegetables and other ingredients according to taste. Interesting, tasty and esthetic.
We meet at the Center for the Study of Science and watch a movie about Antarctica. The movie documents a study by one of the members of the community. They added subtitles in Hebrew and Arabic especially for us with the help of Google Translator, which causes some hilarity, since it doesn’t always translate expressions correctly. After the movie, we look through the telescope at Venus.
Eden: “Around 4 pm, we all gathered in a room and learned about calligraphy. We drew and wrote words and names in Japanese. I really enjoyed doing this – a relaxing and enjoyable experience."
Naama: “At 5 pm we got to the city building where we split up, girls and boys in two separate rooms. The Japanese dressing ladies called me and dressed me up in a kimono, arranging all the accessories that go with it. It was really fun, I totally felt like Mulan in the movie.”
Eden: “For ten minutes, three Japanese women dressed me and arranged my kimono. Together with the kimono, we received a small bag and shoes. After that, we met up with the boys, dressed up in traditional kimonos as well – so beautiful! They then took us to the summer festival in the city of Ayabe. There were dance shows, singing and bands, and so many food stalls, everything very colorful and joyful. The Japanese were excited that we were wearing kimonos and walking around in them at the festival, and we were excited, too. After a tour at the festival, we sat with the mayor of the city and watched wonderful fireworks that went on for almost an hour. They were really fantastic – in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.
The kimonos were given to us as a gift. I personally really liked the kimono, it was fun to walk around with it at the festival.
At night, we returned to our host families, after a long day with a lot of walking, but also a lot of fun.
The mayor, Zenya Yamazaki, sits in our midst during the fireworks show. He puts his arms around Tal’s shoulders while they are having a friendly chat in fluent English. Tal and Batool were the ones that had the honor to light the magnificent fire which opened the splendid fireworks and ended the ceremony. Inside the fire was a sort of altar overflowing with fruit which were presented to the divinity.
Before the ceremony, Natanael and Lara and we adults are invited to an interview with the radio. The pleasant and friendly atmosphere helps us answer with ease and honesty. The fact that the translator is our enthusiastic Japanese teacher does a lot to reduce the stress.
Tomorrow is our last day in Ayabe.
Naama: “9:00 – we arrived at the hotel and gathered in the hall, where we met Japanese drummers from a local high school. First we watched them perform a piece (which was fantastic), then they taught us how to play it ourselves. First, a Japanese drummer showed us how to play the piece. After, they split us up, to different drums, and a Japanese girl practiced the piece with me. She helped me very much, and a kind of bond developed between us, even though we could hardly speak to each other. After the practice, all of us, one after the other, showed what we had learned. It was an enjoyable and moving experience.”
Mor and Yossef are playing the taiko drums
Batool is playing the drums
An impressive ceremony of cherry tree planting takes place on top of the hill that overlooks our hotel, with Moaath and Mor representing our group, at the side of the mayor, Zenya Yamazaki, who has already become a real friend.
We return to the air-conditioned hotel for lunch and an official reception, additional welcome wishes and a personal meeting with the Israeli ambassador to Japan, Nissim Ben Shitrit, who turns out to be a friendly and warm person who enthusiastically supports our project and our activities in general, and with Eyad M. Al-Hindi, the First Secretary of the Permanent General Mission of Palestine to Tokyo (since Palestine is not a recognized State, its representatives are not considered ambassadors), who is equally pleasant and who warmly and cordially lauds our activities. Then comes the big ceremony in the central hall: It opens by a recital with traditional Japanese string instruments, followed by passionate speeches of support by all the important people. They talk a lot about the delegation that started the project here in 2003, and about our group that returns to the same city, the same community after seven years.
After a short refreshment, we are invited onto the stage, where each of us tells his/her personal story. Again and again, the participants thank the people of Ayabe and the host families, which elicits enthusiastic applause from the audience, especially when the thanks are followed by some words in Japanese. At the end of the speeches, the delegation is invited to join the local youth for a piece on the big Taiko drums. Everybody is dressed in identical half kimonos, and the audience and the performers visibly enjoy themselves.
“The people of Ayabe understand it is the mission of Ayabe city to contribute to world peace. We know we are a small city and our contribution is limited. But even the ocean is made up of many small drops of water. We can be a small drop that joins the big river that flows into the ocean. That is our contribution.”
--Mayor Zenya Yamazaki, in an interview.
At the end of the official ceremony, we gather for a short meeting with local journalists before we get ready for the trip to Kyoto – the big city. It’s not easy to leave Ayabe - the host families can barely hold back their emotions, and tears trickle down the cheeks of those who were, for two days, the mothers of our lovely youngsters.
After a trip that turns out longer than planned because of the heavy week-end traffic, we arrive at our hotel in Kyoto and immediately go out for dinner in a local restaurant. It seems that this time, everybody finds something to eat on the rich buffet – styles, tastes, smells, colors and esthetics.
From there, we set off on a walk in the vain attempt to buy a couple of souvenirs. The shop windows look promising, but it is already late and everything is closed.
So we call it a day – at least officially, for as it turns out, the kids sit up together late into the night, playing cards and having fun.
On our fifth day, we visit the famous Golden Temple of Kyoto, and after that the Temple Kiyomizu-dera , where we meet Mr. Seihan Mori the Abbot of Kiyomizu-Dera , a very important religious figure and one of the greatest calligraphists in Japan. He writes for us a Japanese expression which means: “With mercy in the heart, facing each other” (in Japanese, it sounds better), and gives to our kids handmade calligraphic pictures with the word “harmony”. “Our” mayor from Ayabe, Mr. Zenya Yamazaki, joins us for a visit, and after a tour of the temple and a lot of photos of the wonderful scenery that surrounds it, we take leave from him too, with a lot of good wishes and thanks.
A two-hour visit at a shopping center entirely dedicated to Japanese products gives us the opportunity to acquire some treasures, before we travel on to Osaka to visit the Universal Studios of Japan. The end of our visit to Japan draws near, and the atmosphere is relaxed and pleasant. In the evening, in our debriefing session, we ask the participants to choose and talk about three experiences they had on this trip: a difficult one, an enjoyable one and a meaningful one. The group is also asked to share their thoughts and ideas on the future and on the way this common trip has influenced their point of view. The conversation is honest and profound, and we all understand that there is still a long way to go, but that there is good will and an honest desire to change things.
At the airport, we take leave from Hiromi, from Bill Roberts, the American photographer who accompanied us, from Mizu the priest, who in his pleasant and delightful way was there for us on the entire trip, and from the representatives of the Ayabe municipality, who have come to say goodbye to us. On a calligraphic paper, each of us writes in his/her own language a message to the people of Ayabe. The message is translated to English and from English to Japanese: ありがとうございます(Thank you very much).
Anat Marnin Shaham, Eden Kedoshim, Naama Levy.
Photos: Bill Roberts. Bill is an American writer and photographer, who has done research and written about the Omoto. He also accompanied the previous delegation in 2003, and became a sort of a “dad” to us, for he not only documented every single moment of our trip, but also translated, explained and elucidated, edited the speeches and gave us empathy and support when we felt overwhelmed.
Translation: Oshrat Cohen
For additional pictures, check out the Facebook Page “Middle East Peace Project in Ayabe”.
Facing Each Other with Merciful Hearts - Bill Roberts