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Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

How did I get to this? As I told you earlier on, it wasn't one case or one story in which I shifted from one area to the other.

I was politically active in the Palestinian student union, and that Palestinian student union didn't work alone, it always worked with progressive Israeli peace camps. Through my work with this peace camp we would both stand in protest against the government officials I developed friendships with the Israeli peace groups. Through conversations with them you managed to go a deeper level than politically protests and slogans like "End the occupation." You get to go to a deeper level of conversation like about values, assumptions, identity, and history, and I think you get in a further relationship with the group. At some point there was an opportunity that lent itself, somebody told me, "Would you be interested in moderating a group of Arabs and Jews on campus for one year?" I said, "I cannot commit for one year, but I can commit for a few months to be a moderator." I did not understand what moderator meant, but it was clear to me after one meeting that this wasn't a protest, demonstration, or partisan activity. You have to be able to walk between the two groups knowing that you are a Palestinian, yet able to get the confidence and the trust of the Israelis to speak to the group who views you as a facilitator who could help both sides.

It is still a challenge after twenty-two years of work to fulfill that role in a satisfactory way. I am continuously challenged by my values, challenged by the reality, for instance this war with Iraq was a big issue for someone who works on peace building in the Middle East. How do you go back to the Middle East and do work on peace building and conflict resolution as an American, an American Muslim, as an American Palestinian, and go back in and talk about peace, democracy, and conflict resolution and still have credibility from the people that you work with, although you come holding that American identity? Those always challenge me continuously. This is transformation, and I think it is a continuous element of change in your identity.

Q: The first of the last of couple of questions is, we have talked a lot about various lessons that you have learned over the years, are there other lessons that you think have been particularly valuable that you have learned over the years?

A: I have shared with you and reflected on things that I have done with you. Working in this area, it is necessary to be able to link actions with attitudes, and change of behaviors with attitudes. It is a necessity to link groups of individuals to policy. It is a necessity to link policy to grassroots projects. These are the struggles that we all as practitioners and scholars are facing in doing this. This is one of the major things that I am struggling with. It is a lesson that I am constantly trying to look at.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to do this work?

A: Patience, flexibility, and constant reflection on your own biases and prejudices. These are the three things that I would recommend. The issue of critical thinking about your own government and your own identity are crucial to the practice, and humor. Use the humor as much as you can to sustain with the field. The fifth one would be to learn how to take care of yourself. That is a major challenge for all of us.

Q: What does that mean? How to earn a living?

A: No, earning a living is important, but this type of work in war zones can take a toll on you psychology, emotions, personality, and relationships. Doing too much can burn you out in one-way or another. Learning to take care of yourself is very important to be effective. What ever it is that would make you more balanced, you should do that.

Q: How do you do that?

A: I told you that I am struggling with that. I always try to do things totally not related to my profession. You saw how many kids were here, so I try and spend some time with the kids. I try to have friends. We have people gathering every three to four weeks to talk about different things. I talk with people that I work with who are colleagues in the profession to try to get some sustainability, and it is very hard to do that.