What will Ahmad do? Peaceful soap opera gripped Palestinians

Ahmad is fighting the tidal pull of violence, but the Palestinian high school student is slipping.

He skips classes, breaks up with his girlfriend, and nurses the angry belief that the only way to end Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories is to fight.

At the cafe where Ahmad works part-time, the regulars fret about him, especially after he fails his exams. Will Ahmad resist the conflict's call? Or is there another way?

For 13 weeks last summer, thousands of young Palestinians hung on these questions, scrolling through radio static twice a week to find stations playing "Home Is Our Home," the soap opera about Ahmad and his friends and family.

The first of its kind here, the radio soap is meant to promote nonviolent resolution to conflict. Similar programs in Africa have helped ease ethnic tension and given communities a new vocabulary of coexistence.

With the widely acclaimed success of "Home Is Our Home," the program's creators are launching a second soap in an effort to help Palestinians find creative resolutions to conflict with Israel and among themselves.

"We want to try to engage everyone in this dreadful situation, where people need to find nonviolent means to end it," says Lucy Nusseibeh, director of the Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy (MEND), the group behind the soap opera. "Any way we can do this is worth doing."

Based in Jerusalem, MEND trains political leaders and community activists in peaceful alternatives, and had been searching for a way to deliver that message to a broader audience.

When the idea of a soap opera came up in late 2001, the Washington-based group Search for Common Ground (SFCG) stepped forward.

SFCG runs conflict-resolution programs in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The creator of seven radio dramas in other conflict-torn areas, SFCG knows firsthand the subtle healing power of storytelling.

In Burundi, some 85 percent of the population tunes in to "Our Neighbors, Ourselves," the group's radio soap about Hutu and Tutsi families living side by side.

One independent evaluation credited the show, on air since 1997, with having a fundamental impact on people's attitudes. The soap has "had a positive effect on ethnic relations," the Washington-based Management Systems International wrote in a September 2000 assessment for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which funded the program.

The program also opened up taboo subjects. "The soap has given people a language with which to discuss things like genocide and the role of politicians, conflict, and ethnicity," says Francis Rolt, the director of Common Ground Radio and an adviser to the Palestinian project.

He adds that some Burundian characters have become archetypes.

"In conversation, people will say 'Oh, you're behaving just like Pierre!'" says Mr. Rolt.

Targeting a young audience

The Palestinian creators of "Home Is Our Home" aspire to the same iconic status for their show, written for 15- to 25-year-olds.

"The general message is to promote active nonviolence as an alternative resistance and as a philosophy," says MEND project coordinator Fadi Rabieh. "It's about respect, individual responsibility, self-confidence, and educating people that nonviolence is the way to build a civil, democratic society. If people keep resisting in a violent way, that will be the same tool they use to solve conflict within their state."

In more than three years of conflict with Israel, it has been hard for Palestinians to publicly oppose the violent strategies of groups like Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which has ties to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. As the violence continued, any inclination to dissent declined.

This worried Fuad Najab, the head of Sky Advertising Co. in Ramallah, who promoted the series.

"We had many concerns about talking about nonviolence in a situation where everybody wakes up in the morning to news of houses being destroyed and people killed by Israeli incursions," he says. "Radio stations expressed concern that they would be criticized for airing ... a USAID-funded soap opera. They connect the US with its presence in Iraq and the positions it is taking, not exactly against the Palestinian people but with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon."

Najab says it's time to show young Palestinians that "you can join hands with your family, your neighborhood, your buddies, and express yourself nonviolently."

Even so, he says, "we expected resistance."

It's not about taking sides

The key to disarming this opposition, says Holt, lies in the writing. "You don't tackle issues head-on," he says. "You do it in a parallel way so that listeners identify with ideas, not a side, and recognize themselves in a middle ground."

Holt says sympathetic, realistically drawn characters who undergo an evolution pull listeners along with them.

In "Home Is our Home," Ahmad hits rock bottom when he fails at school, and his future and relationship are in shambles.

A male friend is headed for jail; a female friend, shamed by divorce, has attempted suicide. The soap follows their trajectories.

"Home Is Our Home" began airing in June on nine stations across the West Bank and Gaza in 15-minute installments. Najab estimates the show reached 60 percent of its target audience.

Give us more

The response was immediate: Listeners wanted more episodes, more often, for more time.

"We got a huge amount of calls asking when it would air," says Kifah Awad from Ramallah's Amwaj Radio. "It appealed because the material and the accents reminded us of our own lives."

MEND Project Coordinator Rabieh has high hopes for the second soap.

"It will make a difference," he says. "Maybe not right away, but people became really attached to the [first] series. It raised important questions about how we resist occupation, how we treat women in our society, how we treat each other."

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