It has been a month, and I am still having the same dream. It has been a month and I am still inspired by the people I met. It has been a month and I still talk about it as if it was yesterday.
It is a journey I started with a hug and a “Hey, where are you from?” I am Taha Barkaoui, a Tunisian guy, and like everyone else living in the MENA region, thinking about breaking the taboo was itself a taboo.
When I saw YaLa on Facebook my first impression was: “peace between Arabs and Israelis? Hmm …yeah right…” but then everything started! October 23rd was the very day to start looking for what I had always wanted. The week before was my stupid questioning week that I think of as maybe an illusion and included thinking, “Do you like wasting your time and energy on this?” But the worst was thinking, “Ha! IS THIS A TRICK TO BRAINWASH YOU OR WHAT?” Trust me, if you are an Arab and reading this, you’ve probably been asked that last question at least once in your life.
Anyway, we all arrived at the hotel, got ourselves some rest, washed up, and then my heart started pounding again. I was so curious, tired, excited and confused – I had mixed feelings at the same time. At first I thought it was the lack of sleep and nicotine. I rushed to the cafeteria because I needed to smoke and have a coffee. But then I discovered I forgot my lighter, so I ran into the elevator and there was a girl who didn’t look like an Arab to me. She asked, “Are you here for the Yala Conference?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Me too, where are you from?” I replied, “Tunisia, you?” and she said, “Oh my god, I love Tunisia! I am from Israel!” At that moment I couldn’t help but laugh for we were “enemies” stuck in one tiny closed space! One of us had to die right? No, we just hug each other!
Later on, I started to recognize people, matching them with their Facebook profiles, and noting in my head every little thing that happened that day. My first hug with a Palestinian, my first hug with an Israeli, the first burns of the Dead Sea, the first interactions with both sides … the first day of feeling human. By the end of that day, I believed that miracles could happen. One of these miracles was my socializing! I knew almost every single student in the conference, I felt at home, amidst my family, and I didn’t hesitate joining those circles, interacting with Palestinians, Israelis, Algerians, Moroccans, etc. I would often take a step back from the crowd to realize how wonderful it was to watch such a picture and how grateful I was for being there! A guy wearing a Kipah and a girl wearing a Kaffiyeh talking together? This was huge! It was a healthy environment for dialogue and accepting each other, and many selfies! Hashtag love! The topic of food was brought to the table as well when one of the Palestinians said that he likes “Ptitim,” the Israeli version of couscous, while an Israeli said he liked the original one more. Yay! Each one of us had a story to tell, an experience to share, and a hope to give. Each one of us suffered from “the enemy” but the power of love overcame the pain we always had. Back in Tunisia, I had never been prouder of myself than I was during these 3 days.
At first, I was afraid of the reactions in my family, in my college, and in my hometown. Then, two of my friends came up to me and asked, “How can we join this program?” Until that moment, I had not realized how fed up people had become with conflicts. Why are we perpetuating a fake constructed conflict when we could choose a much easier way? Maybe I didn’t change the Middle East, but at the end of the day I knew what ideology I would be passing on from now on: the ideology of respecting life.
Taha Barkaoui, a proud member of the Yala family.