Seeds of Peace: The summer of our discontent
At age 15, I had barely interacted with a boy, let alone a Jew.
For a teenager living in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2001, the Middle East was a faraway place of despair and blood, and I knew almost nothing about it. From my father’s BBC fixation, I’d picked up that it was a place where restaurants were sometimes blown up by suicide bombers. At the time, the idea of a war that came to the city streets strapped to the chests of men was terrifying and new.
I was to learn a great deal about the nature of war when my parents allowed me to attend a summer camp called Seeds of Peace in the United States, just a few months before 9/11 transformed the world. Located in Maine, the camp was founded in 1993 by John Wallach — a journalist who had covered the Middle East for decades as foreign editor for Hearst Newspapers and the BBC. His radical idea was to cultivate future leaders from communities divided by conflict, with an initial focus on Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers. From only 46 campers in its first year, the program has by now grown to 300 teenagers each summer, including an American delegation every year. Headquartered in New York, the program has offices in Kabul, Afghanistan; Amman, Jordan; Mumbai, India; Lahore and Jerusalem, with more than 6,000 alumni who partake in regular local and international follow-up engagements.
In the summer of 2001, I was a member of the first India-Pakistan delegation to attend the camp; a dozen of us came from Lahore and a dozen from Mumbai — that strange city by the Arabian Sea manufacturing the famed ballads of Bollywood. Our two nations have been at de facto war since 1947, when the decolonized Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries: Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India. Kashmir — the land of valleys — is the bloody legacy of that partition, with both countries laying claim to the northern state, where 12 million people reside.
Despite rigid brainwashing endorsed by our respective education ministries, we quickly grew to be friends with the Indians. We laughed together in Urdu and Hindi, argued about cricket and spent hours debating our history, within days realizing we had been taught different versions of the same events. On the first morning after our arrival, I hung my head upside down from the top bunk to say hello to the enemy below. Her name was Tulsi Mehta, and, 15 years later, ours continues to be a great friendship.
The first time we saw the Israelis and Palestinians at camp, however, they were intimidating. They held onto a breed of anger separate from ours, they knew too much, they talked too much — on both sides they were the unafraid spokespeople for their states. Though they were the same age as the rest of us, nothing about them made them seem like children. Their war made our war seem like a bit of a farce; a sham skirmish fought through propaganda and by soldiers in faraway mountains we had never seen.
In the years immediately after my summer in America, it was difficult to foresee the extent of the violence that would come to Pakistan, a relatively stable state with an enormous security apparatus. Nobody could have imagined that in only 10 years, the country would be left mutilated by suicide attacks, reeling beneath the weight of the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, which morphed into domestic terrorism and major military operations in the north. War came marching down our streets, into our playgrounds, schools and bazaars, strapped to the chests of terrible men.
So many years on, what remains of that camp in my memory is a hazy recollection of laughter and bewilderment. There was swimming, rock-climbing, singing and dancing, but also “dialogue sessions,” during which opposing delegations participated in daily three-hour debates. After one, a Palestinian boy ran by our group in tears, then sat on the pier overlooking the lake until the sun nearly set. Two Israeli girls joined him, and I still recall the three small backs bent against the horizon. Sometimes it struck us that we were children hunted and haunted by each other’s people. Most of the time, we forgot.
At that age, we did not comprehend the profound impression the camp would make on our lives, freeing our minds in ways that would affect us as we became adults, parents, professionals and leaders in a world of ever more globalized conflict. I know politicians, writers, activists and soldiers who are Seeds graduates. Many of us have gone on to become journalists, among us Mujib Mashal, now a reporter for The New York Times, who was part of the first Afghan delegation to attend the camp in 2002; and Nergish Sunavala, a reporter for the Times of India, who was at camp with me. I recognize the skinny girl with the gentle voice and bushy hair in the impassioned stories she writes for her country.
Most of the campers who attended Seeds of Peace were chosen by their governments, and we came armed with sacred agendas, in the end surrendering the only truths we knew to the cause of civic discourse. As true of the Palestinian refugees and the Israeli Jews, the Pakistanis and the Indians, Seeds of Peace broke us all. Though it has now been 15 years since I first ate at a table with Jews and Hindus, those lessons guide my hand when I write my stories even today. I have Jewish friends from camp with whom I am still in touch, and knowing them has made it easier for me to challenge the problematic generalizations rampant in Pakistan’s religious and political discourse. Nobody could have anticipated then how much more important this would become for us, that in just a few months, our conflicts would merge and re-create themselves in almost all regions of the earth. This changing world order made the inclusion of a U.S delegation all the more important, with young American campers able to engage without bias in political dialogue with Afghans, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Pakistanis, to name a few — people they might never otherwise encounter in their lives.
Attacks of terror occur daily around today’s world, like the trio of suicide bombs that went off in Istanbul, in Europe’s third-busiest airport last week, targeting the heart of Turkey’s internationalism. Or, two days later, the horrifying, senseless murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel as she slept in her Kiryat Arba bedroom.
The hate, racism, corruption and violence of war is now so pervasive that no place is truly safe from it, except for, perhaps, the minds of children, where different ideas may still flourish like they did in ours.
It was a great gesture of grace for our parents to knowingly expose us, their children, to Seeds of Peace — to a narrative that would challenge theirs. For Palestinian and Israeli families, I imagine this act of letting go must be downright traumatic. Still, it leaves me with great hope in the institution of parenting, and the belief that even in cynical and fearful adult hearts, there exists the awareness that there is a better way to win our wars.
Amal Khan, a journalist from Pakistan where she serves as features editor at The Nation, is currently contributing to the Jewish Journal as part of her fellowship with the Daniel Pearl Foundation.