• Roi Gal-Or

How the Healing Words initiative came to be...

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

It all started in July 2006, following an open heart surgery I went through in England in April that year. As soon as I was able to fly I went to Israel to rest and recover in the Galilee area in the north of the country, where I used to live. I was hoping for some rest and quiet time to recover under the warm Israeli sun. These hopes were shuttered a few days after I arrived by hundreds of missiles that were fired across the border, the sound of siren alarms, army helicopters and jet plains filling the sky and the news about hundreds of casualties on both sides as a result of the outbreak of the second Israeli-Lebanese war that threw the whole area into another bloody cycle.

My friends and I had long planned for a happy gathering and a meal to celebrate my recovery. This plan turned at the end into a quiet dinner as none of us were in a mood for celebrating in this uncertainty where missiles fell just a few kilometres away from where we were. We ate indoors as it was dangerous to sit outside. Michal my friend brought me a book of Arab folktales that night as a gift. I opened it randomly as I sometimes do and my eyes fell on a short story which I read silently. "Thank you Michal" I said, "It is beautiful, I am sure I will use these stories in my work". Little did I know than, how soon the story I have just read will become useful…

It was a delicious dinner. My friend Tamar commented the only thing missing was some knaffé for dessert. This was a real tease directed at my softest point... Knaffé is my favourite Arabic sweet made from melted cheese, thin pieces of fried shredded dough, nuts and sweet honey and spices syrup. We all knew the nearest and best knaffé was produced in the Arab town of Shefa-'Amr 15 minutes' drive away. On a normal evening it would be easy to drive there and buy it, but now…From the house where we had dinner, we could hear and see the missiles hitting the city of Haifa...

I am not sure if it was a sudden burst of courage or a deep desire for Knaffé, but I saw my mouth opening and I heard my voice saying: 'I will go and get us the Knaffé'. My wife joined me in the car …

We drove through the narrow dark lanes of the Arab town, noticing how unusually lifeless and deserted everything looked when I suddenly felt overwhelmed by fear. Thoughts like 'what on earth am I doing outside' 'what if a missile will fall in this street', 'what if an angry mob will attack us', 'What if'...

We arrived and found the sweet shop open. There were two other men inside besides the vendor. All of them concentrated in silence on the disastrous war images from Lebanon shown on a TV in the corner of the shop. The three men looked at us coldly, two Israelis, and I could read only one question in’ their eyes: ‘How dare you come here, to our Arab town, in this time of war"

From the door I looked at the television and said in Hebrew (My Arabic is not very good): 'I am so sad about this violence…Only weeks ago my own life was saved in a surgery thanks to many blood transfusions I find it unbearable to see how much blood is wasted in this bloodshed'.

I took a few hesitating steps into the shop as I saw my mouth opening again and heard my voice saying: 'Can I tell you a little story? an Arab story I read only a few minutes ago?' They did not say no…So I began telling:

‘Once upon a time, a mouse found a piece of cheese. It was big, round and tasty cheese., Delighted by the idea of eating this big piece of cheese all by himself he decided to first walk around it to appreciate its beauty, when all of a sudden he bumped into another mouse, coming from the other side of the cheese. “Ah, my friend” said the other mouse, “What do you think of my cheese?” “Your cheese?” asked the first mouse. “Yes, my cheese, I just found it and I can’t wait to take the first bite!”. “It’s my cheese” replied the first mouse “I saw it first!”. “No, no, no my brother, I saw it first and it is mine” replied the other mouse. “I saw it first and I am NOT you're brother!”. Both mice started yelling at each other and began to fight. After some rounds of beating and biting each other they paused for a moment and one suggested "I have an Idea! We will cut it in two and share it". "Good!" said the other, "I will cut it in two". "No no no brother, It was my idea so I will cut it in two" replied the first. "No, and I told you I am Not your brother". Once again the two started beating and biting, bleeding and acing they rolled on the ground screaming. When they were both exhausted they sat up, looked each other in the eye and agreed they will never find a solution to the problem without help so they decided to take the matter to the fox to judge between them. The fox had just finished his supper and was missing a sweet desert when the mice arrived. He heard their story and said with a smile “Of course I can help”. With one stroke of his big sharp nail he cut the cheese in two pieces. But one piece was much bigger than the other, so the mice started fighting again about which piece belonged to whom. "Wait, I can put it right” said the fox. He picked up the bigger piece of cheese and took a big bite. The mice were astonished. The bite of the fox was so large, that now the other piece of cheese was much bigger. The fox picked up the other piece and took another bite, and again, and again and again. “Oh, no, stop!” squeaked the mice, realizing what was going on, “Please give it back to us, we will manage now to divide it between us!”. But the fox replied: “No my friends, I started doing justice, I must finish this job” and he ate the whole cheese.’…

The three men at the shop laughed and the vendor said in Hebrew:

"This is our story isn't it? We are busy fighting and meanwhile the American president fox and the Iranian president fox and all other united nations foxes will finish our cheese.

He signalled me to wait for a second as he opened the door of the oven to bring out a tray of fresh hot steaming Knaffé. With his sharp knife he cut a huge piece and put it in a box. He then packed beside the Knaffé some baklavas (the friendly cousins of Knaffé), wrapped the box and handed it to us saying: "Take it my friends, it's free, on the house… Insh'alla(God willing) we will find a way to solve such conflicts between us in the future". We thanked him for his generosity and as we drove back home I realized all fear had left me. I felt the encounter helped me regain my trust in human beings and the power of stories.

And the Knaffé…it was delicious!

In the following days I could not stop thinking about the meeting at the sweet shop. The hopeless feelings of 'There is nothing I can do to change the situation' slowly turned into the realization that there was something we little people could do…We can break the cycle of violence through meeting and getting to know each other through exchanging our stories. This was how the idea to create 'Healing Words' – and a storytelling festival for peace was conceived...

Giving birth to this vision would have not been possible without the warm response, encouragement and support from many friends, colleagues and helpers all around the world.

Almost a year later, In May 2007 we gathered in the forest to prepare the festival site. I remember a day when we had to lift and push away heavy rocks under the hot sun, trying to keep away from scorpions lurking under them, our task was to prepare and create spaces for performances and workshops where people will meet and exchange their stories. Lifting these rocks I had a powerful Inner imagination. In my vision I travelled far back to a time in this land when people had to protect their water and wells by covering them with heavy rocks. As water meant life it always took a group to remove the stones, preventing individuals from stealing the water. As we lifted the heavy rocks now, I could feel the help of many invisible hands and I realized we too were uncovering a well of fresh water, new peaceful consciousness that will hopefully provide all those who will come to the festival with some fresh ways of seeing.

A few weeks later the festival began. In a part of the world that has been scarred by stories of hatred for so many years over 5 days, through workshops, performances and listening circles in tents around the forest, Story was used as a medium to dissolve borders and conflict between Arabs and Jews, to foster listening, deep meeting and seeing, to encourage play, laughter and creating friendships. The festival attracted over 2000 participants! People of all faiths, Palestinians and Israelis of all ages and was the ground for a deeply moving and transformational experience, creating new stories of hope, healing and peace for many. For many Arabs and Jews, This work was the first time they had ever met one another and heard each other's stories.

So we had to continue with this work…

Following the tragic and violent events in Gaza area in 2008 which left again thousands of children and families traumatized wounded and hopeless In April 2009 we took the next step with the healing words work. Twelve storytellers from the UK and around the world came together and traveled all over Israel and Palestine offering workshops and performances to a variety of audiences.

Everywhere we were met with hospitality and generosity. We shared stories, facilitated dialogue between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, often in difficult circumstances.

Over the next years I continued to experiment, expand and develop this impulse in other countries, with different groups in various directions, exploring for some years balancing inner work and outer activism, and ways of fine tuning a ‘social organ’ of perception essential for storytellers in their peace and delicate activism work. My colleague and friend Karmit Evenzur who joined me in leading this work since 2015 helped adding practices of deep listening to nature and the earth as well as new ways of working with vision and the imagination as a creative tool. Wherever we do this work I witness the healing power of stories and the transformative process of people reconnecting with themselves and with their hearts, than with their neighbours and their environment. I could tell you countless stories of meaningful moments where the lives of individuals were touched and changed by this work but hope you will have a chance to experience it yourself…