Uncovering the Path to Peace by Erin Kiley

Erin Kiley

Uncovering the Path to Peace

Many authors have written in response to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Some stories are explicitly about the conflict, but others need to be dissected in order to see the connection. Savyon Liebrecht wrote a collection of stories utilizing both approaches. In her story, “A Room on the Roof,” Liebrecht depicts a strong female character who conforms to society’s beliefs and establishes her authority over the Arab men working at her house despite her typically inferior standing as a woman. The story portrays both moral imagination and the woman’s eventual collapse back into practicing orientalism. It explicitly describes an interaction between a group of Arabs and an inferior Israeli woman who ultimately has the upper hand. Conversely, “’What Am I Speaking, Chinese?’ She Said to Him” is an example of a story that needs some analysis in order to find a connection to the conflict. Like “A Room on the Roof,” this story also contains a strong female character who asserts her power in a situation where she would typically have none. Her struggle against her male realtor mirrors the struggle of the Palestinians against the Israelis. Through the use of a female character who is understood to be inferior, Leibrecht’s story “’What Am I Speaking, Chinese?’ She Said to Him” exemplifies some of the aids and barriers to peace that are present in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

Imposing one’s beliefs on another is an act that greatly hinders the movement toward peace. Originally, the man is sexually drawn to the lady. She immediately “attracted his attention” when she steps out of her car (Liebrecht 153). In fact, just her smile sends him on a rollercoaster of emotions. He describes, “[She] smiled furtively – a smile that made him uneasy…hostility arose in him, but he quickly allowed himself to be seduced by her pleasant voice” (Liebrecht 154). In this reflection, he is conflicted about the lady. He is protective about his privacy and emotions, yet he is drawn in by her voice. This shows that he does not see her as someone worthy of his attention. However, he is also concerned with closing a deal on a penthouse, and her insistence on viewing what he considers to be a rundown house frustrates him (Liebrecht 154). The realtor believes he knows what house the lady should live in despite that fact that he knows very little about her or the house she is interested in. In our society, women have historically been considered inferior. They have rules and ideals pushed upon them by people who think they know better. The same can be said about how the Israelis treat the Palestinians. The Palestinians are seen as inferior, and the Israelis feel that it is their job to improve and modernize their new land. The Israelis want to show the Palestinians the fulfilling life they could have, and they often do not understand why the Palestinians want to return to their apparently subpar roots.

Assuming that one knows the land better than those who have actually lived on it creates mistrust, disrespect, and a major roadblock in the road to peace. Upon entering the rundown house on Ha-Mered Street, the lady immediately focuses her attention on a stain on the ceiling. When the realtor moves to look at the stain as well, he comments on its age. He says, “Nothing serious. It wasn’t here a month ago” (Liebrecht 155). His quick analysis of the situation again shows that he believes he knows better than the lady. He feels that he has superior knowledge of the house and its characteristics. He is mistaken. The lady had lived there when she was a child, and, therefore, she knows that the stain has been there for around 20 years (Liebrecth 156). In fact, she is “unable to contain her derision” when the realtor attempts to convince her otherwise (Liebrecht 155). The realtor makes assumptions about the house that he actually knows very little about, assuring, “I have experience in such matters” (Liebrecht 156). He does not know the history of the house or the story behind the stains. The lady, however, does. In a similar way, the seemingly inferior Palestinians know the history of their land, and they know the stories behind the blemishes on it. In their minds, the Israelis came onto their land with assumptions and with solutions to problems they know nothing about. They are taking ownership of a land on which they do not even notice the stains until they are pointed out to them.

A great hindrance to peace is the possession of a land that is not your own. The realtor leaves to attend to other business, and the lady is left to walk around her old house on her own. She is struck by the memories that come flooding back to her. Reminded of her childhood, she looks for “old clues, for kind regards from the girl who used to live there” (Liebrecht 156). All of the things that she took for granted now bring emotions out of her. Something as simple as “the floor she used to wash every Friday after school” catches her attention (Liebrecth 157). The lady is observant of the similarities and differences found in her childhood home. The Palestinians view their homes in the same way when they visit them during the Occupation. Like the lady, they notice details about their homes that stayed the same throughout the years as well as those that have changed. Often, their searches for things reminiscent of the past was in vain. The details that the lady placed around the empty house were no longer a reality; “Only the stains…remained” (Liebrecht 157). Many of the marks that Palestinians made on their land were likewise wiped away by Israelis. Like the lady, Arabs who were allowed to return to their land had to reconcile the fact that it was no longer their home.

In conflict, the feeling that one is not being heard negatively impacts the desire to find peace with the other side. In a flashback, the lady recalls her parents arguing in their bedroom (Liebrecht 158). The father was making demands, and the mother felt that he was not listening to her describe the pain that resulted from those demands. The mother demonstrated this frustration with her repeated use of the phrase, “What Am I speaking, Chinese?” (Liebrecht 159). The lady listened to her parents engage in this argument, and saw that there was less peace in the household than she thought. This relates to the originality of the conflict. The Israelis were making demands that helped them in their search for their own nation, and the Palestinians felt that they were being hurt as a result. Each side felt as though the other side was causing the frustration and that they were not being heard. Israeli and Palestinian children hear about these frustrations and ultimately inherit the conflict from their parents. The fight was not originally theirs, but the children observe their parents and learn to choose a side before it is their time to do so.

The lack of willingness to understand the other side limits the ability to make peace. In one instance, the lady’s father is singing happily and showing affection towards his wife. She responds harshly asking, “Why are you shouting in my ears?” (Liebrecht 163). The mother has built up so much resentment toward her husband that she is not able to recognize genuine affection. She takes his carefree song as shouting, and she proceeds to fix herself believing that marred her appearance (Liebrecht 163). She is not able to put the imperfections he caused her aside in order to see the happiness and love that he was trying to show her. This example of offense rather than understanding is repeated 20 years later by the lady and the realtor. As he is exiting the house, he “shouted in her ear” his intention to leave (Liebrecht 156). The lady heard his simple excuse to exit the house while recalling the distasteful way in which he spoke to her during some of their other interactions. She therefore assumed that his exit would be conveyed with a shout in her ear. This is not unlike the Palestinians reacting harshly to Israelis responsible for the Occupation. There were a number of benefits that the Israelis brought the Palestinians such as an improved standard of living. However, the Palestinians had built up hatred towards the Israelis and were not able to distinguish the benefits from the disadvantages of the occupation.

Underestimating emotions of the opposing side towards the subject hinders any steps towards peace. Towards the end of an intimate moment between the lady and the realtor, the realtor remarks that he could “draw butterflies on the ceiling” of the penthouse to match the butterfly shaped stain on the ceiling of the lady’s parents’ bedroom. This proposal shows that he truly does not understand the history behind the house that he now has ownership of. He feels that all of the sentiment that the lady carries toward the house can easily be recreated somewhere better. The same attitude was taken by the Israelis toward the Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes. All of the history and unique “stains” that characterized their land were not seen as a good enough reason to remain. They were expected to relocate as refugees and create the same characterization in a new land that would be satisfying enough to replace their homeland. This again reflects a lack of understanding between the two sides.

Despite all of the difference between two parties, peace is possible when one is able to find a common interest and develop trust. Throughout the story, the realtor is harboring feelings of attraction towards the lady. However, he shoos them away when he realizes the frustration that she causes him. The lady, however, discovers their common interest. She begins seducing him in her parents’ old bedroom (Liebrecht 164). The act takes the realtor by surprise, and at first he does not recognize what was happening. He repeatedly asks, “Everything all right, ma’am?” (Liebrecht 164). He does not see, or rather chooses not to believe, that she is becoming the attractive woman he met at the beginning of the story. Despite the fact that he is “mesmerized,” the realtor tries to remain professional and return back to the task at hand of handling the stains while “extricate[ing] himself from the confusion she caused him” (Liebrecht 165). The lady’s suggestion of momentary peace catches the realtor off guard, and his first reaction in his flustered state is to stick with the argument at hand rather than abandon all conflict. The actions displayed by both the lady and the realtor are weak attempts at peace that cannot be effective without trust. Comparing this to the conflict, it would be beneficial for either the Israelis or the Palestinians to offer something that the other side would have a difficult time refusing. However, immediate acceptance requires trust that cannot be built on a spontaneous act of generosity alone.

Moral imagination is a key factor in working towards peace. The differences between the lady and the realtor are temporarily put aside as they make love, and the two allow themselves to be intimate and vulnerable. Through this process, the lady enacts moral imagination. She and the realtor are from different walks of life and represent two sides in a conflict of power. However, she is surprised to see the kindness emanating from the man who had moments before tried to convince her to leave her home. Liebrecht writes, “Grateful, she smiled, realizing how tender his actions were, how unexpected” (Liebrecht 167). As a woman, she is surprised by how aware he is of the affect he has on her. The lady sees that the realtor does not completely disregard her wellbeing and is, in a way, taking care of her. This moral imagination from the side of the vulnerable shows the possibility of a similar realization in the real world. Each side is, at some point, vulnerable. Rather than becoming defensive and rushing towards a plan to turn the tables, it would be helpful to practice enacting moral imagination and recognizing the care and humanity that can be found in the other side. Just as the lady thought about the way in which the realtor was protecting her, it would be beneficial for both the Israelis and Palestinians to see how each side is truly keeping the other’s interest in mind during each point of the conflict. While it is not easy, it is a step in the direction of peace.

In order to have lasting peace, there needs to be a mutual trust between both parties. The lack of trust between the lady and the realtor leads to their ultimate falling out. As previously mentioned, the realtor feels an immediate attraction to the woman. He struggles with this attraction throughout the entire novel, constantly switching between attraction and frustration. For example, in the rundown house on Ha-Mered Street, the realtor plans on showing the lady the best room in the house but ends up “sensing his anger welling up” when she insists on focusing on the stains (Liebrecht 156). He is guarding himself, and not allowing himself to be open to the possibility of losing a sale or an argument to the lady. He does not trust her intentions. Similarly, the lady is not inclined to trust the realtor when she catches his lie about the amount of time the stain has been on the ceiling (Liebrecht 156). Temporary trust is put into place, however, when the two engage in the bedroom. The lady notices the realtor’s tenderness (Liebrecht 166-67). All of a sudden, an unspoken deal is struck and both parties are in agreement. After their sexual interaction, the realtor becomes afraid of the repercussions of his actions. He exclaims, “You wanted it” and spouts out reasons why he knew he could not trust her from the beginning (Liebrecht 168-69). This rage is inspired simply by the lady crying (Liebrecht 168). At the same time, the lady is scared by the realtor’s harsh defenses and begins “calculating” a way to free herself from the situation (Liebrecht 169). These sharp changes in emotions are due to a lack of trust. Each party is suspicious that they are being played. In the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, a similar lack of trust is in place. Each side believes that the other has secrets, lies, and ulterior motives. Nevertheless, each party is willing to cooperate for a certain price. When that price is agreed upon, a temporary truce is understood. Trust, however, is the only thing that can keep that truce in place. In order to end the conflict, each side must trust that the other side has pure motives and is not simply playing a game.

Regardless of any successful movement toward peace, it cannot be accomplished unless stereotypes are abolished. For example, the realtor holds some resentment in his heart. He tells the lady, “’You woman drive us nuts, that’s all’ he said…as if this were something happening between… a conspiracy of all women against all men” (Leibrecht 170). Even though this is an event happening between two individuals, the realtor reacts in a way that creates an even greater separation between two peoples. Women are often seen as the inferior gender and are treated with discrimination. Amplifying the situation to all women against all men suggests a sort of uprising. This one woman bothers the realtor, and now he will be suspicious of all women. The realtor’s understanding is that all women intend to upset and, in a way, overthrow all men. In a similar way, individual Israelis and Palestinians reflect their respective groups. An act of terror or revolt committed by an individual from one particular side reflects badly on the group as a whole. This suggests that there is no such thing as complete peace. In the case of Israel and Palestine, treaties can be signed and armies can be withdrawn, but there will always be some amount of bitterness as long as there are stereotypes.

Savyon Leibrecht’s story, “’What Am I speaking, Chinese?’ She Said to Him” demonstrates both the aids and deterrents to peace through the interactions between a seemingly inferior woman and a strong male realtor. The story strongly correlates to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Peace is possible, but each side of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict are contributing to its perpetuation. The Israelis try to push their ideas on the Palestinians who they feel are inferior and they took over a land which they know nothing about. The Palestinians, on the other hand, refuse to believe that what the Israelis are offering could actually be good for them. Each side is protecting their privacy and refusing to trust. These are factors hindering peace. However, if both sides can get past these roadblocks, then a path to peace could be uncovered. There, of course, will be people who harbor resentment and anger, but it can fade with time. Moral imagination assists in that process of forgiveness. Shannon Alder said, “Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were trapped in” (Quotes About Conflict). If people can come out of their “cages” to see how the opposing side views the situation, understanding and trust will form, and idea of peace can become a reality.

Works Cited

Liebrecht, Savyon. “’What Am I Speaking, Chinese?’ She Said to Him.” Apples from the Desert. New York: The Feminist Press at the University of New York, 1992. 153-170. Print.

“Quotes About Conflict.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.