Ghosts in the Middle East (no fooling)

What we have here is your basic story about idealistic interns who have come to Washington, D.C., to learn how to make a difference in this complex and troubled world — only with one big twist.

See if you can figure out what the twist is as you read this material from the top of this Style section piece from The Washington Post:

A sweltering June day at Reagan National Airport. Mariam Ashour walks to the parking lot, “freaking out in my mind,” looking for someone she has never met. Noam Rabinovich sits in a car, trying to identify Ashour, with whom she has exchanged only a few messages on Facebook.

As they approach each other, something strange happens, something neither can fully explain.

They hug. …

Two interns, Israeli and Palestinian. For six weeks, they would live together in the District, courtesy of a nascent, shoestring operation called New Story Leadership for the Middle East. New Story, an offshoot of a group that brought together Protestant and Catholic youths during the conflict in Northern Ireland, sent 10 Israeli and Palestinian interns to Washington to see whether the idea of pairing youths from opposing sides could be replicated.

Rabinovich, an Israeli, would work for a Palestinian advocacy group. Ashour, a Palestinian, would work for a pro-Israel peace group. As four-day-a-week interns, they would do research, meet foreign-policy experts and do typical internship grunt work. And, together, they also would develop a plan for the organizations to contain increasing Jewish-Arab tensions on U.S. college campuses.

OK, so the old effort centered on building ties between Protestant and Catholic young people. This time around, the dividing line was Israeli and Palestinian youths or, in the second set of descriptive words, Jewish and Arab.

Now, there are Israelis who are not Jews, especially not Jews who practice their faith, and there are Palestinians and Arabs who are not Muslims, let alone Muslims who practice their faith. Nevertheless, one would think that, in a story about peacemaking in the Middle East, the Post team would need to give readers some information early on about the religious traditions and identities (or lack thereof) at play in this story about hopes, dreams, idealism and healing.

I don’t know about you, but during my visits to the that part of the world it seemed that religion was a factor in some of the tensions and tragedies that have lingered there for generations.

Apparently not.

Apparently, religion has nothing to do with this story. This is a religion-free story about efforts to promote understandings between the “two sides” in the wars over Israel. Apparently religion has nothing to do with increasing tensions on U.S. college campuses between Jews and groups that are defined as Muslim groups, as opposed to Arab groups.

No, this is a story about stories. Thus, we read:

The basic fabric of our lives is stories and narratives, some handed down from parents and grandparents, others developed from personal experiences. The way a person looks at life — and others — is the product of those stories. But sometimes the narrative can be altered in unexpected ways, as Rabinovich and Ashour can attest.

These defining stories do not have anything to do with faith or religion, either.

Please understand that I know religious identities in the Middle East can be complex. I know that these identities are often ethnic in nature and may or may not have anything to do with religious practice. But how can you read a paragraph such as the following and not want to know a few basic facts?

Ashour was born in Bulgaria to a Palestinian father and Russian mother. Her father, a psychiatrist who nearly three decades ago fought for the Palestine Liberation Organization, moved the family back to Gaza when she was 5 because peace was in the air and jobs were plentiful. Her first memory is of crossing the Israeli checkpoint into Gaza.

The story goes on and on. There are hamburgers and late-night talks, visits to suburban homes and conversations about guilt.

But there are no facts or anecdotes about religion, prayer, beliefs or eternal values.

This is, you see, just a story about conflict in the Middle East. Apparently, that conflict is about politics — period. This has nothing to do with Muslims and Jews. It has nothing to do with holy ground and the children of Abraham. Nothing whatsoever. There are no ghosts in the Middle East and, thus, in this story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Where would we be without finely tuned and skillfully deployed sarcasm? Of course, it would be nice if that rhetorical weapon was on the wall gathering dust, but such is not the case all too often as in this case.

  • tmatt


    Translation, please.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I was congratulating you on your use of sarcasm and wishing it was not necessary.

  • tmatt


    You know, I later had a second thought about this.

    It is possible that this peacemaking program is forced — by the nature of the conflict — to work almost completely with secular Jews and Muslims. It might be TOO HARD for the faithful to take part.

    Thus, it may have SEEMED that there was no religion to report. These were two progressive, secular young people.

    For me, that would make the ghosts in the story even more powerful.

  • kjs

    It is fascinating that the religious angle is completely missing from the story. I wonder about Miss Ashour’s Russian mother, who now feels “compelled to cover her head” – is she Muslim? Russian Orthodox? Communist? It makes Miss Ashour’s religious background, whatever it may be, all the more mysterious & worthy of some kind of discussion.

  • Brendan

    Yep. The story waxes eloquent about the “fabric of our lives” (cotton?), which apparently has more to do with hamburgers than Abraham. Not fat-free, but faith-free.

  • R.S.Newark

    Until the West comes to understand and recognize that faith, religion, tradition are movingly significant we’ll never recognize they are…