At the 2017 Spirit of Humanity Forum in Iceland, Jim Paymar sat down with Alexandra Asseily to discuss conflict, bridging divides and her experiences in Lebanon
JP: There aren’t many countries that have seen conflict as long lasting as the Lebanese. Tell me about the origins of the conflict…
AA: I wasn’t married until 1969 and I had a few years in and out, but during the war I stayed there. I did have to leave when it became too dangerous at one point. But as I was an outsider, I found it so puzzling. For me Lebanon was the land of milk and honey, it was full of the most wonderful people, everyone was kind, open and marvelous. The Paris of the Middle East. People had an extraordinary capacity for living life generously and beautifully. That’s why it was a blow to so many people as suddenly we fell into war. For many people the war became inevitable when the Palestinians were kicked out of Jordan. All that passed me by. We started having to show our passports to groups of 16-year-old Palestinian fighters, and for the Christians that was frightening. But it was a time when people had been stocking up arms to defend against more Muslims coming into Lebanon. The Christians were feeling overwhelmed. But all that I didn’t know about until much later, it was just a life I was living that became more and more difficult. The day of our wedding we couldn’t go anywhere as the whole of the city broke into curfew.
Prior to 1969, people I knew we all lived very easily, but we were not being pushed around by anyone in particular. We had an easy going life. But for people who had a historical fear of the other, who could have been Christian or Muslim, they all had these huge grievances of which I was totally unaware. Grievances which dated back hundreds of years. The Muslims often felt the Christians were richer than they were and lived better lives. That was a myth but they’d grown up on that myth. That myth launched them into war. For the Christians the myth was that their land would be taken and they’d be driven out.
JP: Was there ever a time where the Christians and the Muslims thought ‘is there a peaceful way to resolve this?’?
AA: Many people worked towards peace, but many more people were drawn to division and separation. In the end there was nowhere that was safe, absolutely nowhere. I used to run around taking my children like kittens, to one house that was safe.
JP: Are you hopeful that there can be a resolution?
AA: I am always hopeful. Resolution takes a lot of courage, and there are a lot of people with courage. But we also have to take into consideration what is going on in Syria which is being torn apart in the way Lebanon was. It is devastating. It is an international war. I would say that if everyone does something that adds to the positive rather than the negative. I do my tiny bit to address the historical wounds and release some of that pain. But it’s also working on the third monkey syndrome. If I learn to scratch a certain bug out of the ground, some other monkey will do the same down the road. I do as much as I can, and I hope that will be catching.
JP: Can peace be achieved?
AA: The forces that are bringing people together are commercial. When people feel they can live or eat, that brings them together. I don’t think the outsiders will do that for us. Everyone on the outside have their own interests. There are wonderful people doing wonderful things and peace grows within each one of us. It is the inner peace that will help us. When the individual feels they are being listened to and he or she can be heard and heal their wounds. You cannot make peace by bombing people. My thing is forgiveness, forgiveness of oneself, in order to be less of a projector. If we can feel at ease with ourselves the more we can feel at ease with the other. It is fear that will drive us in the wrong direction. It is very hard to be vulnerable, very vulnerable, and not be fearful. On the other hand, people are extraordinary. We live in a very fragile world, but it is no value of me to be pessimistic.