The Art of Neighboring

Munir Fasheh

When I reflect on my life (over 70 years), I find that whenever I was closer to life/nature, I felt I was closer to living with hope, meaning, happiness, and wisdom. I also realized that I cannot do and feel this way except in small settings, groups, and ‘dozes’. The best conversations I had were with one person. With few more, conversations lose something but may gain other things; they can add but never replace one-to-one interactions. However, when the number gets more than 10 or so, conversations start losing more than gaining. The same is true about enjoying and knowing nature. When we walk or work in nature, no matter how spacious our view is, we can only feel and interact with it in small ‘dozes’ — what we can touch, smell, listen to, and plant.

One afternoon in the Music Room at TB23-圖片

One afternoon in the Music Room at TB23

If we look at most aspects of life, smallness helps us enjoy it more, be more in control of our lives, gain deeper understanding, see the bigger picture, and weave social spiritual fabric with others, culture and nature. I am talking here about smallness in size, number of people, amount of information, amount of food we eat as well as in relation to speed. One of Gandhi’s sayings: “there is more to life than increasing its speed”. Small growth is in harmony with life’s pace: an organic cucumber or egg is usually smaller in size and slower in growth. Increasing life’s speed usually corrupts it: fast-growing chicken are not safe to eat, fast food is not healthy, and having a workshop for 2 or 3 days and giving certificates at the end is a farce.


I would like to elaborate on various experiences that reflect how smallness can heal us from what I consider to be corrupting aspects in modern living. The first is related to institutionalizing life, which usually means big structures, big budgets, and big number of people working within complex bureaucracies. I would like — in comparison — to elaborate on what we refer to as mujaawarah in Arabic as a medium that heals and nurtures. A mujaawarah literally means ‘neighboring’. A mujaawarah consists of a small number of people who decide to meet face to face, in a small place, and deal (in words and in actions) with a small issue in their lives (which can be food, singing, telling stories, clarifying meanings and understanding, exploring nature and communities around, climate change, living in harmony with wisdom, or finding the roots of modern inventions such as official education, professional development, or flush toilet). What characterizes a mujaawarah most is that there is no authority within and no authority from outside. It is autonomous, but in constant interaction with other mujaawarahs, with mutual nurturing and support. Institutionalizing real aspects in life almost always lead to killing the spirit and essence of those aspects. Although mujaawarahs and institutions are social structures they are vastly and radically different. Whereas institutions are usually big, complex, and need permits, budgets, and organization, mujaawarahs are simple and ‘owned’ by people. Mujaawarah as medium for learning and social action, by its very nature, is small in everything, except may be in its vision and soul (what is plenty in it is the trust, joy, meaning, honesty, and mutual nurturing of people in dealing with one another and with life in general). Mujaawarahs embody aliveness, hope, mutual caring, hospitality, dignity… where there is no comparison or vertical measurement. Institutional words rarely make sense in mujaawarahs (I mean words such as success, failure, progress, development, license, hierarchy…).


The two periods that had the most impact on me (in relation to confronting myself and rethinking what I acquired via institutions) were the 1970s and the first intifada (1987–92). I don’t remember any period that filled me with as much hope, resilience, patience, dignity, self-rule, and hospitality; those were our ‘weapons’ and sources of strength. What was common to both periods was the fact that institutions were weakened: the first as a result of the 1967 war, and the second as a result of Israel closing schools, universities etc. In both periods, we who lived in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had to depend on ourselves in dealing with and managing our daily affairs. That led us intuitively, spontaneously, and autonomously to form small groups, driven from within with no internal or external authority. These small groups are what I referred to above as mujaawarahs. Such groups sprang all over the occupied areas (they are not something new in our communities, but they have been suppressed by modern institutions).


By being left alone, we were amazed at how much we were able to do, feel, care, depend on ourselves, and live with what we had. We discovered our sources of strength that were connected to our internal immune systems. In both periods, mujaawarahs formed the medium of learning and action in our communities. These small social-political-economic “creatures” frightened Israel more than big organizations and events. Neighborhood committees that sprang spontaneously during the first intifada — dealing with communal farming, communal learning, and communal managing of daily life in the neighborhoods — were fought very harshly by Israeli authorities. The question that stayed with me for some time was: why Israel reacted and dealt with committees that were involved in communal farming and learning much harsher than the way it dealt with international conferences that were held even in Jerusalem denouncing it for closing schools and universities etc. It even resorted to the PLO — its staunch enemy — in order to put an end to the spreading of the spirit that spread all over Palestine. What was it in those neighborhood committees that scared Israel? The only explanation I could think of was in the medium. Whereas the medium in organizing conferences are official professionals, the medium in neighborhood committees were people managing their lives by themselves, with no authority of any kind. People deciding to meet regularly in small interconnected groups and doing what they feel needs to be done is most dangerous to those who want to control minds and actions.


In addition to mujaawarah, the other word that is rooted in language and culture, and which can heal us from much of what is corrupting, controlling, and tearing us apart is yuhsen. I always wondered about alternatives to evaluation which measures people along a vertical line and which requires big organizations, big budgets, and huge preparations (such as in national exams) — a process which is complex and usually confuses and distracts from what is essential. I was looking for alternatives that are more respectful of people, non-linear, and more contextual and diverse. I could not think of any. Then, in 1997, I read in an Arabic old book (written 1,200 years ago) Imam Ali’s statement which I immediately saw as very wise and more meaningful than the dominant way of evaluation. According to it, every person has worthiness which is not measured along a vertical line but in relationship to the context. The statement says, “the worth of a person is what s/he yuhsen”. The various meanings of Yuhsen in Arabic (what a person does well, beautiful, useful, giving, and respectful) together comprise the worth of the person. It is thus related to one’s relationship with self as well as with people, nature, and culture. What characterizes yuhsen and makes it relevant to what I am writing here is the fact that it has meaning only in small groups and in a real local context.


Finally, I have to say a word about my experience at Birzeit University in Palestine (which I worked in for many years, especially during the 1970s, when it was a small college(few hundred students), yet the world was inspired by it; its strength and worthiness sprang from within and from its relationship with the society around it. It attracted radical thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse and Ivan Illich. Out of all universities I worked in or had a long relationship with, Birzeit in the 1970s was the most rich, beautiful, real, lively, and deep experience I ever had in an educational institution. The environment was warm, hospitable, and small in everything. It was a mecca that attracted students and young people from all over Palestine, who came just to interact with students and teachers and the spirit of the place; it did not have gates at that time where only people with IDs could enter. Now with more than 10 thousand people, it attracts mainly funders who want to impose their agenda. Birzeit University forms a learning treasure in the collective memory of Palestinians. It embodied then a spirit of resistance at so many levels, including in relation to culture and working in the community. One aspect of Birzeit was the fact that there wasn’t much teaching but tremendous learning, not much competition but inner callings, and not much research but tremendous search for meaning. Its history is not only of closures and repression but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and creativity. Birzeit’s intimate relationship with what was going on within the Palestinian context was a result of the absence of rigid structures and boundaries: no boundaries between the administration, teachers, and students; and no boundaries between the University and the surrounding community. University buildings were intermingled with people’s homes. It was situated in a small town in constant interaction with people in it. The best way to describe its spirit is in terms of hospitality, a word not often used in connection with universities.

A main challenge we face today in most communities is to regain the power of collective memory; it is a main weapon in people’s hands and every community has it; it is basic in weaving the social fabric in a community. Small communities around the world do not have mines of any sort but they have tremendous treasures in terms of experiences, memories, stories, history, and culture. Collective memories can only be meaningful in small communities. People today are more in touch with faraway people whom they never met than with people who share with them a common place and common destiny.


Since 1971, everything meaningful I have done has been based on small groups: voluntary work and math and science clubs (both in the 1970s), reading campaign (in the 1990s), the Arab Education Forum and Qalb el-Umoor , and recently with various groups in Palestine focusing on resisting the occupation of minds, and reclaiming wisdom in our thoughts, words, and actions.