From Kuwait, France, and Morocco with Love — A Cultural Celebration Marking Unexpected Friendships

This is an unusual post for me, because for once, it’s less about geopolitics and more about culture, and good people doing great and courageous things.

After having an intense discussion once, I heard that most people are motivated by hate, not by love. And it’s true. I hate to say it, but when people say they do something out of love, if it’s hateful, it’s not love. It doesn’t matter what you call it. I have heard people who appear to be on the same page as me politically make comments that, upon closer examination, were motivated by fear, desire to be right at all costs, and sheer arrogance and inability to see nuance. They all claimed to stand for the values I hold dear, they all claimed to recognize the big problems that I saw as well, they all claimed to be the final authorities on passing judgment – and they all utterly failed at accomplishing their own self-proclaimed goals. Why? Because fearmongering along will not go far. It does not change anything.

It does not create anything positive. It is not enough to challenge people’s assumptions. If you want to have a positive effect, you have to find glimmers of hope and shares them with humanity. Constant negativity takes its toll, and spreads division, bitterness, and an inability to see past the obstacles. And it’s tiresome and boring. Negativity is defined by a lack of imagination and creative solutions. I see more and more of that lately in increasingly polarized discussion groups. Instead of coming up with ways to bring about positive changes or finding ways of getting things done, focusing on the how, these nattering nabobs of negativism on both sides of the aisle find reasons not to do it, and find countless reasons why nothing will ever work, and why we are doomed unless we do X, vote for candidate Y, or resign ourselves to Z. Love finds a way. Hatred builds walls. And no, I am not one of those endless interfaith dialogue people, who hopes to bring about world peace by talking. That’s not what I have in mind at all.  I don’t like talking; I like building. I like seeing people who put their money where their mouth is.  I like constructive planning. I like people with ideas and ways of moving them forward.

Today, I saw exactly that — and want to share it with the world. When you love something, you want to shout about it from the rooftops. You WANT people to hear. You want the whole world to hear. You are not afraid. Love is the opposite of fear. It gives you courage to do things you would never done otherwise — because you cannot contain the excitement and the passion inside you. The people I saw today gambled with their lives and reputations — and in my eyes, won easily, because they dared.

We had a young actress and singer from Kuwait, Ema Shah, who spoke, upon being awarded the Pomegranate Award by the American Sephardi Federation, of her love for other people, and spreading the love against all the forces of hatred there. Love was in her eyes, her soft voice, her elegant, singing that flowed like a brook in the spring forest. Love was in her every gesture and in her defiance of her society’s norms, her courage to stand up for human rights, and her daring to sing Jewish songs despite the largely anti-Semitic culture inside the Gulf region. When asked to apologize for her public renditions of Hava Nagila by TV stations, she refused. That left her vulnerable to criticism, took a toll on her career — prior to that she performed before Kuwaiti royalty.

But she stood by what she believed in. Why? Because love has no boundaries. Her love for music, and for other people, caused her to take immeasurable risks. She was the one who would sings songs in classical Arabic that studios did not want played — because they were not in line with the pop culture and society. But she proceeded out of her love for the beauty of the ancient language and the rich melodies that accompanied them. Ema is someone for whom barriers and artificial separations simply do not exist. Not because she never fears anything – but because love gives her the strength to overcome her fears and stand by her principles and the things she is passionate about. And love propels her past the obstacles and helps her succeed. She is overcoming boundaries of mutual suspicion and fear, not by engaging in pointless discussions without any resolution, but by taking brave, risky steps, and actualizing her dreams, without any expectation of reward or return. There is no self-promotion, only danger in her dedication to spreading love, supporting human rights, and enjoying cultures that are considered taboo.  But there is an actual achievement when the boundaries are crossed and glass ceilings are broken.

Ema, the Kuwaiti, is much closer to me both in thoughts and action than many of the American negativists, who only see gloom and doom even when the sun is shining. Admittedly, it is much easier to remain in the safe space of one’s own assumptions and never venture outside the circle of the same-minded, to hold on to fears and distrust, than to take risks and act. And Ema is not the only one. The French Moroccan director Mohammed Fekrane, who self-funded a short film called “Ensemble” about a French imam who saved Jewish children during the Holocaust, by passing them off as Muslim orphans and transporting them to safety in Morocco, and who likewise was risking a lot making that film about a genuinely good human being who sacrificed his own life saving others. His film turned out to be an astounding success, featured at Cannes, and many other film festivals, and earning him 66 awards.

What remains less clear is the reaction of the Muslim communities in France, where increased radicalization makes support of such humane depictions increasingly unlikely.  Likewise, Islamists and other haters from elsewhere, might be less than enthused about the portrayal of a religious Muslim who defies the hate-filled Islam they are promoting. Unfortunately, I did not get an opportunity to ask about that, but given that Mr. Fekrane is planning a full feature version of the film, there is a good chance I will find out in the near future.

Now, here is where the negative nancies are likely to jump in and accuse Mr. Fekrane of whitewashing Holocaust denial in large parts of the Arab Muslim world, and promoting a self-serving piece of propaganda aimed to deny the issue of anti-Semitism and radicalization in Muslim communities. That is likewise a convenient position to take, and frankly one that does not accomplish much. I have heard similar things before with respect to just about anything positive done by someone who considered him or herself Muslim.

Couple of thoughts: this film is amazing precisely because it encapsulates the idea of the Holocaust in its full horror, without denying or diminishing anything. If this is not the best way to address that particular issue – by someone who knows and understands the mindsets that come to deny the Holocaust, I don’t know what is.

Second, even if this were meant to be as a propaganda promoting the agenda of building bridges or showing that not all Muslims are evil… that is a GOOD thing. Not because I believe in pandering to anyone, but because when you promote a particular image, you give people an option of what type of art they can imitate, so to speak. SO this is where I challenge the fearmongering crowd — these self-professed defenders of the Western Civilization are playing right into the hands of the Islamists by denying any attempt to promote a different version. As are those, who insist that Islam is only true if it’s interpreted in the most literal way, etc.

Well, who cares if it’s whitewashing or not? If it brings about the possibility of more people not doing the things the fearmongerers are afraid of, it is only for the better. Problem is, the fearmongerers are so closed within their own logic that they will see the possibility of lies, additional layers of deception, and so forth even in the most positive outcomes. I am not sure there is a direct way to win over these types of people.

However, as to everyone else with the exception of the group that refuses to see anything that does not already fit into its pre-existing mindset, I think these two individuals are most inspiring and their actions can generate nothing but warmth and a sense of welcoming and reciprocity. They deserve to be known, supported, promoted, and surrounded by friends. They are paragons of what courage means, and each of us can do in our own lives in the many ways we are endowed with. Creativity knows no boundaries, and neither do love and inspiration.

We can find ways of overcoming all barriers, meeting minds and hearts across continents, if we are willing to consider stepping out of of our comfort zones, taking risks, living dangerously.  Why are you still sitting here? Go do something out of love! Go, and tell the world what it is you care about the most. Or, if you cannot think of anything, show some love and support for Ema and Mohammed. They more than deserve it!

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.