Her name means “awaken to the dawn”- a kind, tranquil and inviting phrase.
With her blonde hair and blue eyes, Sahar Nafal Kordahi hardly looks like the quintessential Palestinian woman. Nonetheless, her story is one of conviction, survival and strength, teaching lessons of forgiveness and acceptance.
Sahar is the daughter of Nuha Nafal, a Palestinian peace activist, speaker and author renowned for her efforts to advocate for fellow Palestinians and repair torn bonds between the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Nuha Nafal had a magnetic way of gaining respect from diverse communities. One of my favorite stories told to me by Sahar was Nuha’s ways of connecting with her Islamic speaking audience: Despite being a Christian woman, her introduction often began with the Islamic “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim”. My other favorite Nuha anecdote concerned the 2007 Kabbalah Convention in Israel where, as a featured speaker, her name was mispronounced by pop sensation Madonna.
“I said ‘Mom, who cares, its Madonna!’. She could not understand why her name was mispronounced” Sahar told me laughing. “That was her- so much energy”.
Sahar is now defining solidarity in her own means, walking the very path her spirited mother carved for her.
Her calling came upon successfully navigating out of an abusive relationship when she founded The Bright Side of Life Women’s Gathering with a mission to bring women together, teach, motivate and inspire them to be community leaders.
Like mother, like daughter she boasts an extensive list of accomplishments, yet what captivated me most about Sahar is the work she has currently taken on with the Palestinian and Israeli communities in northern California to facilitate dialogue and teach forgiveness and acceptance.
The long-standing feud between both nations is a brutal one complete with a military occupation now lasting decades, millions of refugees with no right of return and complicated politics.
This delicate situation was not always present. For centuries there was no conflict in Palestine. As of the 19th century the land was inhabited by a multicultural population that lived relatively in harmony with one another. 86 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian and 4 percent Jewish all lived in peace. As Warda, a Muslim Palestinian woman explained to me when I interviewed her in 2010, “The Muslims and the Christians have always lived in harmony in Palestine. We celebrate each other’s holidays and protect the holy land together. It’s not what you see in the United States where the two communities don’t trust each other. In West Bank, we live in harmony”.
An extremist minority of Jewish Zionists longed since the 1800s to find an all-Jewish state. After the dreadful Holocaust of World War II, they examined nearly the entire world, including Africa and the Americas before settling on Palestine. Their immigration to Palestine started to cause countless issues and fighting broke out all along the holy land. The United Nations intervened in 1947, giving 55% of the land to the budding Jewish nation in the UN Partition Plan leading to what is known as the 1948 war. Many Palestinians refer to this as “the 48”. A mass exodus of Palestinian refugees fled what was once Palestine as Israel conquered 78 percent of the land. The refugees created from this war still, in present day, do not have the “right of return” to go back to their lands. Most continue to live in refugee camps in border areas and others have fled to neighboring Jordan, Syria or Lebanon.
In 1967, otherwise known as “the 67”, more refugees spilled out of Palestine and as a result, the territory began to shrink further. This lead to the formation of the two land territories that remain as Palestine: West Bank and Gaza strip.
Currently, the first destabilizing issue in Israel and Palestine is Israel’s effort to grow and maintain an ethnically preferential state when the entire territory is originally of foreign origin. Recall that the original population of what is now Israel was 96 percent Muslim and Christian. Yet, these refugees are prohibited from returning to their homes as it is now described as being a Jewish state. The second issue: Israel’s continued military occupation in the West Bank, and control over Gaza causes daily conflict in the land. Several Palestinian rebel groups have also emerged in the past decades in response to the occupation and refugee situation including the “Intifada” in 2000 where the Palestinian population began an uprising.
It is a veritable tornado of hatred and anguish between both communities with no foreseeable end in sight. The heated emotions are so apparent that one cannot help but be consumed by the hatred and negative sentiment while visiting either land.
Sahar made the decision long ago to remove herself from the fighting and the violence aspects of the conflict. “My brother got married in 2006 and I went to Jerusalem. As I was walking into my family’s house there was a bucket with rocks in it” she explained to me. “I asked my mother what rocks were doing in there and she told me at 3AM something was going to happen. She reassured me not to worry about it and told me that it would pass. Curious about this mystery, I sat up in my bed that night waiting. Sure enough there were big tankers driving through the streets in the early morning hours with 16 and 17-year-old Israeli soldiers making noise and shooting”. Sahar explained this was one of many attempts by the Israeli military to intimidate the Palestinian people. The bucket of rocks was for little children of as young as five years old to throw at the Israeli troops and tankers.
“It was all done intentionally by the Israeli government to give the message that we are not safe there. It’s a message of humiliation. I saw that and that was my turning point. I got home and decided that I no longer wanted anything to do with politics, heated opinions and banter of who is wrong and who is not because honestly, we are both at fault. Yes I am a Palestinian woman, but witnessing that display was just an example of generation after generation of continuing hate. I realized there were two things I could do: One is be a Palestinian victim and the other was to reach out to the other side and suggest that we hold hands together and do something about this conflict”.
Since this time, Sahar focused her energy on facilitating community building between the two estranged nations. It is interesting to see her in this role because throughout her childhood Sahar never felt like she belonged. Her family moved from country to country in the Middle East and then eventually to the United States. Her blonde hair and blue eyes made her an outcast, particularly while living in Saudi Arabia where she was labeled an “infidel” by her teachers. It is fascinating to see the once displaced young girl become a woman teaching and advocating for acceptance and belonging. It is interesting to see how the cruxes in our lives often become our missions.
During our interview, I connected with Sahar strongly through her message of acceptance. I was honestly moved by her work with these communities. Within every hurricane of hatred, there must always be certain individuals to stand against the winds and rain and forge a different path. Truthfully, it is easy to pass judgment. It’s easy to hate. What is difficult is to tolerate, to be open-minded and to ultimately forgive. When two opposing groups come together with the goal of tolerance and acceptance, a chain of negative sentiments and continuing hatred is broken. In fact, this is the type of hatred I call “genetic hatred” because it is bred through generations. It is the kind of hatred that is implanted and encouraged in small children only to be carried through their lives and subsequently taught to their own children. It is a vicious cycle and unless it is heeded, it will always continue.
In continuing her mother’s journey, Sahar’s ultimate goal is to break that cycle little by little. Bringing together the Israeli and Palestinian communities into one space and facilitating dialogue between them is the beginning to understanding that both sides are taught to hate one another. In Israel, military service is inevitable for most in their late teens to continue the occupation and to fight alleged terrorist groups. In Palestine, many young men join such groups as a response to the occupation. It’s a constant ‘I throw a stone, then you throw a stone’ mentality. What if for once individuals from both communities were brought together? What if they listened to each other’s stories and realized in solidarity that they are both suffering from the ongoing conflict? This is Sahar’s goal- to foster this understanding and acceptance from the purely human standpoint; an objective she calls “translating judgment into love”.
It takes a significant amount of courage to promote progressive ideals. An intermediary must rise to the occasion and destroy the hatred conjuring contemptuous rage in both populations; otherwise these generations of ethnic conflict will only continue.
“Being a leader is not having people follow you” Sahar explained to me. “Being a leader is being the first to do something that you stand for, being the first to take action on something that you stand for- that is what being a leader is”.
In that case Sahar- you are indeed a leader.
Below is link to the song “Gift of Acceptance” by India Arie. This song was played for me during our interview by Sahar. She would like for me to share it: