PETER HAGERTY had five years' experience exporting wool from Russia behind him when he decided in 1991 to extend his business ventures to another politically turbulent part of the world - the Middle East.
Mr. Hagerty is not a big-time dealer in wool, the value of which has plummeted on the world market recently. His niche is a very specialized one. Drawing on two decades of sheep raising in Maine and a knack for forming relationships with far-flung partners, Hagerty runs an enterprise whose products appeal to a relatively small group of customers, ones who appreciate both the quality of his "Peace Fleece" line of yarns and knitting kits, and the person-to-person diplomacy that went into producing them. Ha gerty says last year's sales grossed about $100,000, from which he paid his wife and himself a salary of $35,000.
Headquarters for Soviet-American Woolens (a name its founder admits is outdated but says he hasn't gotten around to changing it yet) is the rickety-looking three-story barn that connects with the family's 19th-century farmhouse in Kezar Falls, Maine. It's a thoroughly rustic setting, far from any center of commerce, except, perhaps, the ski slopes in the nearby White Mountains of New Hampshire.
But when the phone rings inside that barn, "I could be talking to some of the most interesting people in the world," Hagerty says. He regularly is in touch with suppliers in Russia and has plans for joint ventures with Central Asian wool growers as well. His contacts over the past couple of years include the residents of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Hebrew and Arabic for "oasis of peace"), a small village in Israel, not far from Jerusalem, where Jews and Arabs live as neighbors.
The "peace village," as it's known, is one of many activities inside Israel designed to build cooperation between the two peoples, says Bonnie Pearlman, acting director of the Middle East initiative at Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based organization devoted to conflict resolution.
The village is now a 20-year-old experiment. While acknowledging that such efforts represent "a small minority" of Israelis, Ms. Perlman says they are significant nonetheless.
Appreciating the village's long involvement in peacemaking, Hagerty worked with the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in Tel Aviv to stage a "wool festival" there in late April. He traveled to Israel with a 17-member "Peace Fleece" entourage, including his wife and business partner, Marty, and their two children, Cora, 15, and Silas, 11. Wool for the festival came from sheep owned by a Bedouin, Abu Abed, who lives just down a hill from the village.
Before this collaboration, the villagers had virtually no contact with the Bedouin encampment. "We put them in touch with this cultural experience right at their back door," Hagerty says.
He estimates that about 200 people attended the festival. Not a large group, but encouraging, he says, given the political and emotional barriers in a region gripped by fear and violence. Israeli, Palestinian, and Bedouin women skilled in spinning and weaving set up looms and exhibited their wares. "When they all started spinning, you couldn't tell them apart," Hagerty says.
Children from the village's school - where Arab and Jewish youngsters learn side by side - helped wash Abu Abed's sheep before the festival. The animals were simply plunged into a stream [see photo], and the children followed, rubbing the sheep and helping wash away dust and dirt. The kids later watched the sheep being sheared by hand and got some lessons in spinning and wool dying.
Coral Aron, a longtime resident of the village, said by phone that "It was a lovely thing for the kids; they thoroughly enjoyed it." She mentioned that the school now has a loom, and the children are continuing to try their hand at wool-working. Overall, said Mrs. Aron, the event was "a wonderful experience for kids and adults."
The festival, Hagerty hopes, will help expand his business in Israel.
Abu's raw wool - 200 kilos (440 lbs.) of it - is a start. It will be blended with wool from Hagerty's own sheep, which he herds on islands off the Maine coast, dyed and spun into new shades of yarn ("Silent Night," "Red Sea," and "Jaffa Beach"), joining such Peace Fleece favorites as "Perestroika Pink" and "Lenin Lime."
Another product Hagerty hopes to market is an educational kit containing a small amount of wool and one of the "drop spindles" traditionally used by Arabs to make yarn. The spindles would come from a Palestinian village located near Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, just over the green line that separates Israel from the West Bank.
A major hurdle was getting the wool out of Israel, since the regulations about washing the fiber are strict. The help of a respected Israeli veterinarian, a close friend of one of the peace villagers, was critical in persuading customs authorities that the wool was all right, Hagerty says.
Bureaucratic hurdles are nothing new to this Maine-farmer-turned-international-businessman. He has had to clear many of them in his Russian operations. He is aware, however, that the Middle East, with its deep-set animosities, poses unique challenges - not least of which is skepticism, and sometimes outright hostility, toward efforts to weave ties between Arabs and Jews.
Still, he is determined to move ahead. Plans for next year's wool festival, to be held next April, are already being made. And the people of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam will be even more prepared to help make it a success, Mrs. Aron says.