Breaking bread, breaking ground

Melissa Kosowan

Sitting shoulder to shoulder on a beige L-shaped couch, members of Ottawa’s Jewish and Arab communities chat and tell jokes as they pick at the food on paper plates. Others mill about the basement, hovering near the marble countertop where traditional delicacies lie waiting under cellophane wrap.

Dr. Qais Ghanem, a soft-spoken man with neatly combed greying hair, wanders around the room, weaving his way around people and chairs.

“I never get to enjoy the food as much when this is at my house,” Ghanem confides, adding he’s too busy looking after his guests.

An advocate for human rights, the Yemen-born neurophysiologist founded Potlucks for Peace in 2002. It brings Jews and Arabs together in Ottawa to share food and talk about resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The group meets monthly and has seen its membership grow from a handful to nearly 60 today. For them, Ghanem’s courage and devotion is a beacon of hope for the future.

Ghanem, an Arab, was inspired to form the group after listening to a panel discussion about the Middle East on Parliament Hill.

What he had hoped would be a respectful and meaningful discussion soon turned into a heated debate.

“It was tense. It was an exchange of blame, which is often what happens at meetings like this,” he recalls. “They didn’t go into solutions, which is what I was hoping. They went back into what they perceived were the mistakes committed in the past.”

But during a break in the debate Ghanem saw something that moved him – a Palestinian and a Jewish woman who were speaking like close friends. So he approached them and from there the idea of Potlucks for Peace was born.

“The first meeting was very stiff and suspicious,” he recalls. “It was cold. It was just small talk. The food helps, though,” he adds. “Because when you break bread with people you talk about the olives, you talk about the bagels . . . these are neutral, harmless things you can talk about, like the weather. Breaking bread is a good way of making friends.”

It wasn’t until six months later, Ghanem says, that people began feeling comfortable speaking their minds. From there they started tackling more difficult topics.

Despite Ghanem’s efforts to convince people to give the group a try, not everyone embraced the idea.

Samah Sabawi, a young Palestinian woman with a contagious smile and penetrating brown eyes, was reluctant to join because she saw the group as a waste of time.

“I was hesitant because I was under the impression it was just a social where Arabs and Jews would get together and eat something and have a good time and go home and pat themselves on the back and say, ‘We’re not racist. We spoke to the other’ and that would be the end of that.”

Although Ghanem breaks out laughing at the suggestion that convincing people to join the group is a pet project, he never tired of trying to win over Sabawi.

“I talked to her about it every time I saw her,” Ghanem says. “I said to her, look, I’m not even a Palestinian and I’m doing this and you are a Palestinian so it should be you who is taking this initiative, not me.”

Sabawi acknowledges that while he wasn’t pushy, he was persistent.

What ultimately made her decide to give Potlucks for Peace a chance was when several Jewish members came to watch a play she had produced about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“I realized that they were open-minded,” Sabawi says. “Just the fact that they were there meant that they were willing to listen.”

So she went to her first meeting in 2004 and was amazed at how eager everyone was to learn about each other and talk about the conflict in the Middle East.

She is quick to credit Ghanem’s patience, hospitality and devotion to human rights for the success of the group.

“He’s not doing any of this for anything other than his own passion for social issues,” she says.

But not everyone has such high praise for his efforts, and Ghanem says it has taken courage to stand up to the criticism.

He remembers the response of a Jewish colleague when approached about joining the group.

“ ‘No way. I wouldn’t want to talk to them,’ ”Ghanem recalls. “Them being we as Arabs.”

But much to his dismay, he says many Arab friends who held him in high regard were no more responsive, particularly Palestinians.

“Their attitude was: ‘First of all, this will not get us anywhere. Secondly, I am a Palestinian. I have been robbed of my land. I’ve been robbed of my olive trees. I am not allowed to go back to my place of birth. So why am I coming here to talk to these people? It’s as if we were saying I accept what you’ve done,’ ” he says.

While he says these friendships remained intact, he felt slighted nonetheless.

“It hurt me a bit,” Ghanem says.

“I thought they would support me . . . But fortunately they weren’t the majority and that is why this group is still here.”

Nour El-Kadri is one of Ghanem’s friends who won’t stand by him when it comes to Potlucks for Peace.

El-Kadri doesn’t support it because he says the dialogue between group members fails to examine the root causes of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. In his eyes the group overlooks the human rights violations that have taken place against Palestinians.

“We haven’t seen strong statements from this group about the wall, about the atrocities,” he says. “They’re not getting to the tough issues at all.”

A Lebanese engineer, El-Kadri compares the group’s approach to beginning construction on a building by starting with the tenth floor.

“You have to start at the base,” he says. “You have to find the problem. Once you find it, analyze it. See what are the root causes, and those results should be the fundamental building blocks, otherwise all other efforts are in vain.”

Others are confident Ghanem’s efforts can make a difference. Human rights lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, a Jewish member of Potlucks for Peace, says he sees grassroots movements like this as a way to help end the conflict.

Quoting well-known American anthropologist Margaret Mead, Greenspon says, “ ‘One person with the commitment to follow an idea through can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ It has to come from the people. It can’t be imposed. We’ve learned that. It can’t be dictated. We’ve learned that. It can’t be achieved through violence. We’ve certainly learned that,” he says.

Ghanem also has high hopes for Potlucks for Peace and what it can accomplish.

He says he hopes to organize a panel discussion with group members to show the public that the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis can be discussed without tempers flaring.

“I want it to be the exact opposite of what I saw originally. Once we break the taboo, you will see how things will change,” he says.

What motivates Ghanem is the motto that has always been at the back of his mind, which he shortened down to an acronym – SCSC. This stands for ‘stop complaining, start contributing.’

“I hear the Arabs complain all the time, ‘This is wrong, that is wrong, they did this to us,’ ” he says.

“I say to them, you always complain, complain, but do nothing about it. I do things. I’m going to take the initiative.I know I’ll have my fingers burnt from time to time, but at my age I really don’t care.”