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Choosing Sides
When a military conflict starts, another battle always happens in the background. It is a battle for people’s loyalties, an argument over who is right and who is wrong.

War polarizes us and forces us to take sides: Us vs. Them. Arabs vs. Westerners. Sunnis vs. Shiites. How and why do we draw boundaries between ourselves and others during times of conflict? What happens when we get caught between these lines-- or try to think beyond them?

The reports on war usually bring news of collateral damage and reels of statistics. Let us share with you the stories of people for whom a friendly wave and a brief encounter in a conflict zone opened the way to changing their hearts and minds.
Paula Goldman, Director of Imagining Ourselves
United States
People of different ethnicities intermingled easily before the genocide in Bosnia of the early ‘90s. But when violence began, the dividing lines between Serbs and Muslims became extremely dangerous to cross.

Throughout history, some of the most courageous acts have been made by people who questioned these kinds of boundaries: Serbs who risked their lives to save their Muslim neighbors from concentration camps (and Muslims who did the same for their Serbian neighbors). Israelis and Palestinians who brave criticism for working together with ‘the other side '... But is it possible to NOT to choose sides when a war breaks out? What pressures do you face in your own life to identify with one side of a conflict and not another?
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Debasis Chowdhury
Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 8:32 PM
Hello all
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Paula Goldman, Director of Imagining Ourselves
United States
Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 7:51 PM
Mina, your words are so beautiful... but I think it is precisely knowing the details of people's lives in places where we're not permitted to go-- places on 'the other side,' that makes us all the more likely to be able to react to conflict more constructively.

I was in Lebanon this past summer, a place that Jews don't really go to very often. When my friends heard I was going to Lebanon, they all looked at me with a furrowed brow and told me to travel safely-- my parents were worried to death. But the experience of being there, of making really meaningful friendships with people like Zena (who is featured in this exhibit here: all of that changed my perspective very deeply. Meeting Zena is probably the reason I was inspired to do this exhibit on War & Dialogue, and also to have this particular conversation on "choosing sides."

I felt like I couldn't choose sides in the war this summer in Lebanon-- I was torn between so many different, valid positions. The side I ultimately chose was the side of constructive solutions. There are tons of valid versions of reality in a war-- I'm happy to let them all be. I just want to know how to end the bloodshed, how to end the most suffering for the most people. That's my side-- that's the side I choose.

And, like Kathryn says-- these conversations are just a small drop in the ocean, but they're something. We're not going to create world peace here on this website. But I'd rather be doing this than doing nothing.
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Amelinda Cope
Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 5:15 PM
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Jacqueline Hsiang
United States
Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 11:58 AM
I hear you on that one Kathryn. There are still so many debates going on about people's civil liberties here in the United States. It's sad, but it's reality, and it's what we have to deal with. I think right now, the anti-illegal alien and gay marriage debates are probably the two of the most heated issues Americans are dealing with. With the gay marriage issue being debated again in Massachusetts, and towns proposing and supporting unjustifiable anti-illegal immigrant resolutions so strongly, I really doubt America is as tolerant and progressive as it is proclaimed to be. What if we did remain neutral on those subjects, and those who have proposed banning gay marriage, or those who have proposed that everyone must assimilate to THEIR culture got their ways? That will only reinforce that a bias towards something they don't understand, fear, and/or will not try to understand, is okay.
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Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:42 AM
Sean, you conjure up a really utopic picture of neutrality in a global community. And I hope someday we live to see this global family you dream of. Today, though, Earth is the quintessential disfunctional family. Members feed off the weak, bully eachother and do choose sides. And in the context of war it is all at the cost of human lives. And I wonder how we can begin a global healing...and if neutrality is possible or even always a positive thing. Has this global community begun forming within the dissappearing borders of the world wide web?

Although the internet has made great strides in networking people on a global level, we are still so geographically distant. No matter how much correspondence we are able to achieve with people from different corners of the world, I personally still feel a huge physical disconnect; on the internet we all still feel like disembodied "others." It is far too easy to turn off the computer, or the BBC News and forget, particularly if you are not living in a conflict zone.

Perhaps internet communication (like the kind this exhibit promotes) can and does foster compassion and understanding among people who wouldn't have otherwise had an opportunity to communicate with people from another country. Even if it is at a very basic level, it is important. My fear though, is that most people are so disconnected from others both locally and transnationally, that for a large majority (particularly in western countries) the "neutral" position tends to come from a place of apathy rather than one of compassion.

Yet, I agree with Barry. If we could only see eachother as (healthy functioning) family. If we could break down these dualistic ways of looking at the world; no more us versus them; good versus evil; my people versus your people. And embrace one another as "our people" we might have a chance at peace. I think the internet has amazing possibilities as well as some obvious limits. But at least it's a start. At least it provides a source of hope.

Back to this notion of "neutrality." Someone once told me choosing not to choose will only lead to ultimate suffering... It's a provocative idea. And I wonder what you all think?
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Mina Farid Malik
Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:29 AM
Heather, thank you for that observation. Because 'Finding Spring' is deeply rooted in real experience, I'd have to say that despite being involved in our own ways respectively Aman and I couldn't speak of certain experiences at all. It's been a frequent motif in the Partition research I've done, this inability to put certain memories, questions, thoughts into words. There are several reasons for it, but I think the most important one is a kind of survivor's guilt; in my case a bystander's guilt.
The things I wanted to know weren't about Aman's life, they were about the lives of the people she works with. When there is something as huge as violence looming over one's head do we have the guts to ask about little mundane things like books and clothes? I know that it matters to me because it makes people real to me, but how do I find the words of normalcy for such an abnormal situation?
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Sean Berry
Saint Lucia
Posted on Wednesday, November 15, 2006 3:28 AM
In some ways I don't think that neutrality is a myth. You don't have to choose left or right, that guy or the other guy, coke or pepsi, but you are obligated as a person to choose your own side, and that is how neutrality is a myth. I strongly believe that the world needs to be viewed as a global community and family and not as a mess of borders. When your family has a dispute, do you "choose sides" and join in the dispute or do you try to understand where both sides are coming from and facilitate an agreement. I know it's idealistic to think it's that simple and maybe naive, but I pride myself in being idealistic. Where would we be without ideals to strive for?
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Jacqueline Hsiang
United States
Posted on Tuesday, November 14, 2006 10:38 AM
This is an interesting question. I think it's very easy for people to be neutral when a war first breaks out, and even a while into it. It's when people witness or realize the consequences of it, that they start to feel a little tug and pull. But I do think the reality is that there is still a great deal of intolerance, and that the question becomes whether or not you can tolerate the intolerance. I can try to empathize with people who are willing to empathize and communicate with me, but what then when you try to communicate with another and they CHOOSE to ignore and/or resist you? What about Albert Einstein? Most of you probably know, he was a pacifist, up until a certain point in WWII. I think it's a sad and ugly reality, but I have to agree with Huma and Jessica, that we can only allow the censorship of media and government lies so much, if even at all. People have the right to believe in whatever they want, but do their beliefs always necessarily make their actions justifiable? And regarding 'Red', I would think the government is accountable for the consequences, but if more people chose to become active in their politics and dialogue -through clear, concise communication- and really thought about whether or not they are supporting ONLY war, or ONLY a subjective cause, I think circumstances might be considerably better. So in short, we are all to blame as well. At least that's what I believe.
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Huma Imtiaz
Posted on Friday, November 10, 2006 10:40 PM
Jessica - thanks for the insights - its sad to notice that in an age of globalization where we make sweeping statements like 'the world is a global village', we are still facing media censorship every day in our country - a recent example would be the Bajaur missile attacks in Pakistan, where members of the press are still not being allowed to enter the area.

Regarding 'Red' - an entire generation's perspective has been marred thanks to the 'government versions' of history. Who do we hold accountable?
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heather neumann
United States
Posted on Friday, November 10, 2006 12:48 PM
In Mina Farid Malik's Story "Finding Spring" I was struck by the fact that Mina felt uncomfortable asking Aman questions about people in "Held" Kashmir. Mina seemed to relate to Aman so why was she not able to ask her questions about her everyday life?
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Paula Goldman, Director of Imagining Ourselves
United States
Posted on Thursday, November 09, 2006 4:57 PM
Pranjali, your comment is very astute-- I think you're right that neutrality is a myth. And I think you're also right about taking the extra step to inhabit the "other' beyond our border.

I can't help but shake this instinct, though, when I talk about this subject-- that I must be perceived as a a naive little girl asking us to all hold hands and sing songs of love and peace as a way of overcoming conflict. That's not what I'm suggesting at all--- and I think it's a hard fact that nationalism and manipulating people's ethnic loyalties etc played hugely in all of hte conflicts of the late 20th century... And yet somehow asking people to take a second and pause to question these boxes of identity that get carved around conflict... somehow that is generally framed as being naive or impractical...

Jessica- on the topic of news... stay tuned. Starting Nov 15, our discussion will be moderated by Lisa Ling, a very accomplished journalist and war correspondent who contributes regularly to Oprah and is the host of National Geographic explorer. She will talk about the role of media and it's contributions to conflict (and to ending conflict).
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Jessica Resmond
Posted on Tuesday, November 07, 2006 2:40 PM
In her story “Red”, Huma Imtiaz brought up two essential points that strike me as universal and very critical in present times: Nuclear power threat and media manipulation.
The nuclear arms race, which concerns all of us as a global community, has reached a level of absurdity. It is by nature fostering fear and animosity between nations. Disinformation keeps the masses in the dark and allows war mongers and military power to perpetrate acts of hate and violence. I was brought up in France, where there is still room for political dialogue and nuanced points of view on television. I now live in the US and I am appalled when I happen to see so called “news” on public television. Some news sources are so one sided that they appear to be a joke. Too many citizens still rely on them to learn about the world and as a result, they tend to be easily manipulated and disempowered.
Huma seems to understand the importance the media has in our perception of war, and how it distorts reality. Of course, war is not something that can be portrayed in any objective way, but the stories and images if revealed, do speak for themselves.
Education, information and empowerment largely happen through media exposure. For present and future generations I believe it is a priority to seek out multiple view points and dig out the facts in order to reinstate a sound dialogue.
The only way we can work together towards peace and mutual understanding is to accept that there is no such thing as the “Other.”
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pranjali bhave
Posted on Tuesday, November 07, 2006 10:37 AM
I think Neutrality is a desirable myth. The sides we take are chosen for us, long before we know it. We grow and become the people we are within those sides. The real challenge is to take that one extra step, to inhabit for a second - that extra self - called the 'other' that exists beyond our own familiar border. Perhaps that is all it takes to let the sides be sides, and nothing more..
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Youmna Atar.
Posted on Monday, November 06, 2006 8:20 PM
This is for Joumane. Joumane, I liked your piece, I myself am in Canada. I watched the war this summer with utmost horror. I felt so guilty for not being there. So so guilty. I'm glad you're going back.
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Andra A.
Posted on Sunday, November 05, 2006 8:03 AM
yes, hello. i think this too easy for you to say. my grandparents fought in resistance during world war 2. if they hadn't chosen, then what would have happened?
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Donna Wilson Montgomery
United States
Posted on Thursday, November 02, 2006 5:48 AM
As an American I feel like I sit on the sidelines watching events overseas unfold. I see my government taking a side in a conflict that as a citizen and voter I do not support. I watch our men go off to a war that doesn’t have a clear purpose and from my perspective isn’t going to be won. What would “winning” actually mean, anyway?

Americans are so removed, so insulated from the despair of war it makes it easier to take the side on an issue that supports this kind of atrocity. I feel it an atrocity for once again America is imposing its views on other communities. To me taking sides is a question of “tolerance” of our neighbors and to ideas we may not fully understand. Beyond tolerance is acceptance, acceptance of differences would take all humans to a new level of community. My grandson turned a year old in August, and he will be reading about his countries part in the events now taking place during his high school years. What will our history books portray about these events and what will we be teaching our children about the purpose of taking sides in this war?

My greatest hope is that during the coming elections, we will unite to bring new leadership forth. Leadership who will not look at what our “side” has to gain but will make the needs of our global community a top priority.
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Posted on Wednesday, November 01, 2006 11:22 AM
The problem with choosing sides ties entirely into questions of identity; be they cultural, national or even political. For example, in the eyes of an anti-war group, not choosing a side might translate as apathy for “the cause.” But choosing a side of dissent has the possibility of exclusion by one’s own community. In extreme cases, such dissent may lead to suspicion, alienation and even imprisonment by one’s government. In the U.S. we are lead by a president who threatens “You are either with us or against us.” This kind of dualistic way of looking at war and even the world; This “us versus them” attitude is partially why wars persist. The pressure to choose the side propagandized by your community, without self critique closes the door for conversation, leaving no room to understand why we are at war in the first place.
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Sharareh Lotfi
Posted on Wednesday, November 01, 2006 10:45 AM
La pregunta de que si es posible evitar elegir un partido me parece bastante interesanta. Recienmente me han preguntado varias personas mi opinion sobre la situacion politica en Venezuela, aunque yo no soy experta en las politicas y llevo varios años sin vivir en Venezuela. Y aunque la situacion en Venezuela no se puede comparar a la situacion que describe Paula en Bosnia, por ejemplo, me parece que esas preguntas vienen del mismo impulso, la gente quiere saber de que lado estas. No se si es posible evitar tomar partidos, pero me parece un idea que merece ser explorada...
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Victor Zaud
United States
Posted on Tuesday, October 31, 2006 7:42 PM
It's so true - the wars are all around us. They are really everywhere, every corner. Recently having two children, and being a new parent I'm faced with a variety of choices regarding the early upbringing of a child - how to sleep, nursing, food choices, diapers, vaccination, and even more complex ideas about parent-child interaction -- it can spark such tention between young parents that I see around me everywhere. I can barely start a conversation before someone has to tell me what the "right" way to do something is... or how "they" know the answer for the perfect child. Immediately sides get taken in conversations - usuaslly based on the choices that parent has already chosen. I watch parents struggle with taking in new information - trying to determine whether or not this new information totally destroys everything they've thought was right up to that point for them - and whether they can handle changing their position or not. I think the pressure to be willing to take in new ideas and consider that you might learn someting new that could change what you've been so comfortable with is a big part of the struggle. Culturally, we want so much to decide and then go on auto-pilot. I think the challenge to parents in choosing sides is how to feel comfortable floating around and somehow not choosing to take a side, but instead to ALWAYS be thinking about what you really want and believe in.
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Tom Parker
United States
Posted on Tuesday, October 31, 2006 6:47 PM
It's interesting to watch how quickly this can happen even in our own country. The political climate over the last few years has made it so that I can't discuss current events with certain friends or family members without risking losing those relationships. I'm constantly challenging myself to find ways to reach out to those who disagree with me, but I'm not as successful as I'd like to be.
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Featured Stories
"An Auto-biography of War"
Amira W. Pierce, Lebanon
"Finding Spring"
Mina Farid Malik, Pakistan
"Greetings from Suomenlinna"
Randa Mirza, Lebanon
"War and Peace"
Mona Ali Khalil, Saudi Arabia
Huma Imtiaz, Pakistan
"Identity and Loyalty"
Joumane Chahine, Lebanon
"Seeking Beirut in Berlin"
Sintia Karam, Lebanon
"Beyond Choosing Sides"
Paula Goldman, Director of Imagining Ourselves, United States
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