"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?"

Remember that Robert De Nero film when he said those words? I think it was Taxi Driver, and believe me; you wouldn’t want to be the one talking to him. You probably have enough troubles without getting a crazed animal on your ass.

Is it just my imagination, or do people in the Middle East get pissed off easily? Do you think that some of them, at least, get up in the morning wondering where the next insult will come from? And once they lose their cool, they don’t forget so easily, do they? And it’s not a religious thing, either. Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle East all seem to be afflicted with the same malady. Maybe it’s a tribal thing? Who knows?

I remember getting married some thirty-three years ago. We were married on the Champs Elysees in Paris, my wife having grown up there. We invited family from all over the world, and a lot of them actually showed up. But of special concern to us were my two uncles, on my father’s side, who hadn’t spoken to one another for some twenty-five years. How would they get along at the wedding, we wondered. Would they even come?

Well, both ended up coming, and we assigned them to be the two witnesses to sign the Ketubbah, which is the marriage contract in the Jewish tradition. God forbid you give one an honor, and not the other. But would they speak to one another after all those years of silence?

My fiancé and I came up with a strategy. We would spend a day with each one separately, showing each some of the sights of gay Paris. We asked one, “Tell me uncle, what was the fight with your brother all about?” He didn’t seem to remember. We asked the other. Same response. Hmm. Twenty-five years of not talking to one another, and no one remembers why? Interesting.

The day of the wedding, believe it or not, everything went well. The two brothers signed the Ketubba, and that seemed to break the ice. They chatted away, and stayed close ever since, until they passed on.

I’ve often wondered about the psyche of the Middle East. Could it be that people there are particularly sensitive, and prone to bear a grudge? And what are the implications for peace if this is so?

If I had to guess, I would say that there is a strain of ultra-sensitivity in the Middle East. Obviously, not in everyone, but the tendency is still there as part of the regional culture. Many Middle Easterners are very proud of their cultural and religious heritage. But the flip side of pride is extreme sensitivity, and a tendency to hold a grudge.

Do you have a father, or a family member, that has to be spoken to in just the right way? And if you miscalculate your wording, do you begin to feel the heat just as the words slip off you tongue? And do you sense that your faux pas will not soon be forgotten?

Why is any of this important? A sense of honor is important, but a craving for honor could easily bring dishonor. Honor killing is an extreme example. Honor killing brings dishonor to the family, even as the family strives to protect its honor. A sense of pride is important, but too much pride can shut one off from criticism, and can induce long term hatreds due to perceived insults. And like an elephant, one never seems to be able to forget, or to move on.

The business of peace in the Middle East will not be clean or comfortable. People abused by the scars of history will hurl insults at one another, to give expression to their collective sense of grief and injustice. How we react in light of those emotions will make all the difference in the world as to our success in brokering a peace.

It is natural for people to be emotional. And emotions run particularly high in the Middle East, and for good reason. But it may be time to cool the emotions, even if only a tad. It may be time to go about the business of peace with a cool, calculating, collected mind, one bent on strength of purpose, instead of emotional release.

We may well have to swallow our pride, to create a reality that we can really be proud of. If that means shelving our emotions for a while, so be it. If that means bringing some flexibility to our sense of honor, well that’s how it goes. If that means giving up a piece of ourselves in the process, c’est la vie. We will have to be big enough and wise enough to admit that it’s not just about us, but about those who will come after us. We will have to step out of who we are, to become something more than we ever were, or could ever imagine.

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Comment by Nissim Dahan on September 5, 2008 at 3:32am
Great story Hayyim.

Life is so short. I don't see why things have to be so intense among people who profess to love one another. But they often are.

We have a choice of sorts. It can be all about us; about who we are, what we think, what we believe, and the respect that we expect from others. Or we can choose to connect. When we make that choice, it's becomes more about you, than about me.

In the Middle Ages, pride was considered the worst sin. Maybe they were on to something. As a species, I don't really see that we have that much to be proud of. With all our maneuverings, we are bringing ourselves perilously close to extinction. Perhaps some humility would be in order. And with that, a diminished pride in ourselves, and an inclination to make ourselves more open, and perhaps more vulnerable to others. As such we may find that we grow, and that we have even more to be proud of.
Comment by Hayyim Feldman on September 2, 2008 at 3:27am
Much wisdom here, Nissim, thanks. I visited my 84 year old Dad this summer, first time in 10 years. He took me to a restaurant where all I could eat was a small tossed salad. After I finished it, I was sitting back watching him eat. He looked up at me with a little scowl and said gruffly, "What are you looking at?" (Sort of like Robert DeNiro growling "You lookin' at me?")
I said, "You."
"Oh yeah? What are you looking at me for?"
"I love you and I don't get to see you very often."
He softened, and we went on to have a lovely visit, with only one or two more occasions that required such opening, softening responses.
Comment by Nissim Dahan on September 1, 2008 at 4:16am
I agree with you Donna that " our hands we can change this reality." No one will do it for us. We have to do it for ourselves. It means thinking with common sense. It means investing to create good paying jobs that protect the environment. It means inspiring people with a sense of hope. It means sustaining the hope with public diplomacy. And when necessary, it means fighting against the forces of extremism, wherever they are, on both sides of the conflict.

You are welcome to visit my website at I'm trying to build a factory in the West Bank that creates jobs which protect the environment. This would be a good way of giving some substance to a Vision of Hope. Such a project, if successful, would get a lot of attention, and attract more investment dollars, for more such projects, for more such green technology jobs, for more protection of the environment, and for more neutralizing of extremist thinking. See what you think, and I welcome your comments.


Comment by Nissim Dahan on August 31, 2008 at 9:40pm
Yes. There's no question that in my life as well, the relationships I've had with various family members have affected me in profound ways: opening up new and hopeful possibilities on the one hand, and closing down others, on the other. To a great extent, a parent or grandparent can bring out the best in a child, or can help to stifle the potential that he has within him.

I'm thinking now of Barack Obama. Whether you like him or not, there is no question that he went through a lot, and somehow triumphed over obstacles that would have brought another man down. One thing he had going for him was his mother and grandparents on his mother's side. The father abandoned him from the start. But somehow the mother inspired a sense of hope in him, even though she was poor and on food stamps for a while, and the grandparents were able to sustain that hope. So life doesn't always have to be fair, or easy, but we are designed to survive most of it, and we can, if we have a support system with love and compassion at its center.
Comment by Nissim Dahan on August 31, 2008 at 7:35pm
Hi Donna,

I know you have dignity, as well you should. And I know as well that things have happened in the past, and are happening now, that challenge your sense of dignity. I believe that steps should be taken by all concerned to help you restore your sense of dignity, by giving everyone in the Middle East a place at the table, a stake in his or her future. Good paying jobs and envrionmental protection could play a big part in that effort.

What I was getting at in the post, is that there is a tendency in the Middle East for people to hold a grudge. And maybe they are justified because there have been injustices, there is no doubt. However, if we hold a grudge too long, and too stubbornly, then this will prevent us from taking the steps to bring back the justice to which we are entitled. In other words, even if we were treated wrongly, we may have to let go of some of the pain, at least for a while, in order to do what is needed to make progress on justice and peace.

In terms of your father, it is natural for a child to disagree with her parents. That's part of creating our identity. And many times, after many years, we discover that our parents were right. They had more experience, and they were talking from experience.

But sometimes, our parents can be so intimidating in their approach, that it becomes difficult to carry on a decent conversation. And perhaps, if we had an easier time talking with them, we could have learned those important life lessons much sooner, instead of years later. With many parents it's the "My way or the highway," approach, "I'm right and you're wrong." Well, it may very well be that they are right, but their tone and their demeanor makes it very difficult for us to accept that, especially as we're trying to find our own voice.

Hi Thefish, your example is the kind of thing I'm talking about, and what I experienced with my two uncles. Granted, your grandparents were angry, as is the case with many inter-marriages. But did they have the right to hold that grudge so long, and to taint the family's sense of wellbeing with that anger? And when your Opa died, your mother and grandmother could not even console each other, because they were not on speaking terms, because of an anger that would not go away. And that could not have been easy on you, as you must have felt trapped in the middle between two feuding factions. And who knows, that enmity may have affected you as well, as you recognize that you that you are very sensitive to perceived insults.

That whole scenario is what I'm talking about. I know it's almost impossible. But I think that there are times, and these are such times, when we have to at least try to cool our emotions in favor of what makes sense. It did not make sense for your mother and grandparents to cut off from one another. And it does not make sense for us to be so consumed with how we feel, that we become paralyzed from doing what needs to be done to make things better.


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