A rented apartment in Brooklyn, New York became the hub of an international Muslim-Jewish dialogue and photographic project this summer when two graduate students launched Children of Abraham 2004 online. Run by co-coordinators Ari Alexander, an American Jew, and Maria Ali-Adib, a Syrian Muslim, the project brought together sixty-one youths from twenty-three countries for a two month virtual ‘internship’ during July and August.
In an effort to increase dialogue and understanding between Jews and Muslims worldwide, interns – who aged between 15 and 21 – were asked to contribute a minimum of fifty photographs related to the religious and communal lives of the Muslim and Jewish communities around them. Some 1800 photographs later, the website www.children-of-abraham.org now boasts photographic essays featuring work produced in thirty-nine different countries across six continents.
As Ari explains, the job of the coordinators was to collate the best photographs into thematic groups that emphasised the commonalities of the two faiths through presentations of parallel imagery. The intention was to ‘capture visually the similarities between these two faiths that are often seen as mutually suspicious, maybe even hateful, and certainly ignorant of one another.’
An experienced dialogue leader, Ari holds a Masters degree in Comparative Ethnic Conflict from the University of Belfast and recently received an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University, yet he sees the visual component of this project to be one of its greatest strengths. ‘The beauty of doing a photo essay online is its simplicity and power,’ he says, ‘The average person in the world is a lot more affected by an image than they are by a chapter in a book or by an article.’
Maria, who is currently completing an MA in Development Project Management at Manchester University, concurs. She suggests that the advantage of using photography lies in its ability to generate images that ‘your identity resonates with,’ and hopes that the photo essays will prompt viewers to take note of the ‘atavistic commonalities’ between Islam and Judaism.
Surfing the website’s photographs, the visual parallels between the two faiths are immediately recognisable. The section on prayer, for example, juxtaposes images of Muslims in prostration with those of Jews adopting similar positions of supplication. ‘We’re trying to give viewers the sense that there are core similarities between Islam and Judaism,’ says Ari, ‘And those core similarities unite us far more than they divide us.’
In addition to contributing photographs to the project, the interns were asked to take part in discussions by posting messages on the public forums of the website. Over the course of the two months, participants posted almost 3000 messages, discussing their views on a wide variety of topics that ranged from the role of women in Islam and Judaism to the wonders of Qawaali music, to the controversies of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There was even an extended debate over the existence of God.
Although Ari and Maria supervised the discussions taking place, they describe their role as simply discussion ‘facilitators’. For Maria, who has a background in campaigning for student-centred approaches to education in the Middle East, the relative autonomy provided to the participants was an important feature of the project. ‘Much of Children of Abraham has been about creating a space for our interns to perform without actively trying to teach them,’ she says. ‘Much of it has been about empowering them to discover; to teach and to learn from each other, rather than leading them on a predetermined course.’
Were there not times when the controversial subject matter the interns discussed became too heated? ‘When the interns started discussing controversial topics, we expected it to become explosive and difficult,’ admits Maria, ‘But the generosity and tolerance that these young people demonstrated unfailingly has blown us away.’
It is a tolerance Maria is well placed to appreciate. Although currently resident in London, Maria was brought up partly in Abu Dhabi where practical and social limitations prevented her from holding discussions with Jewish peers. ‘I grew up in an environment where you did not have Jewish friends,’ she says, ‘You had zero contact with Jews. To a lot of people you would be considered the ultimate traitor to even think about talking to anyone Jewish.’
It is such narrow-minded prejudice that Children of Abraham seeks to redress by providing a safe forum for discussion and by stressing the commonalities between Islam and Judaism. As Ari explains, ‘In this day and age – both in terms of the supposed clash between Islam and the West and in terms of the way in which the Arab-Israeli conflict tends to polarise Muslims and Jews as supporters of one side or the other, this sort of project is a very powerful reminder that when it comes to the faiths themselves, the ritual practices, sights and sounds of these religions are very similar.’
The high state of tension that exists globally in Muslim and Jewish communities was evidenced by the experiences of those taking part in the project itself. One (Muslim) intern in the USA returned to her car after taking photographs at a local mosque to find her vehicle daubed in threatening graffiti that accused her of being a ‘Muslim hater’. Other (non-Jewish) interns, especially those based in Europe and South America, reportedly found it difficult to gain access to synagogues and other Jewish buildings because of tight security restrictions.
Yet the profound success of the project’s summer internship programme is ably demonstrated by the high praise the interns expressed for their experience. Many say that they have not only learnt a great deal about another religion but that the experience has taught them a lot about their own faith as well. Although the internship has now drawn to a close, many interns have opted to continue discussions with one another, exchanging email addresses and vowing to continue visiting the message boards. At least one participant now intends to start a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group at her high school in Georgia, USA. Others have called for a Children of Abraham Foundation to be established to ensure that participants remain in touch and continue to engage in dialogue with one another, and others.
Children of Abraham has recently secured funding to spend the months from September to November exploring the possible ways in which the project can now grow and build on its success. Possibilities include the establishment of a roaming art exhibition of the participants’ photographs, several sets of which could be touring simultaneously. As Ari explains, nothing has been ruled out. ‘We’re very open to any number of things that might happen that will change Children of Abraham from a two month summer project into something that’s a much larger organisation… What we’re assuming we have is the kernel of something that might catch a lot of interest.’
For Maria, the key to the project’s success lies in the dynamism of the youth involved. ‘The minute you get young people involved who haven’t been taught to be cynical and haven’t been taught to be angry with the world, and haven’t been taught to shut doors yet, it’s crazy. You can’t predict before they turn up just how fast things are going to pick up; just how many ideas are going to be plugged into the project from directions you hadn’t expected.’
Ari and Maria will now be focussing their attention on exploring these new directions. From its humble beginning as a summer project run out of a rented apartment in Brooklyn, Children of Abraham could yet snowball into a worldwide mass-movement for dialogue and understanding.
To view the project’s photo essays and discussion forums, visit: www.children-of-abraham.org