بَحِبِّك This Says I Love You: U.S. Couple Addresses Islamophobia with Dialogue and Artivism
Written by Jessie Zelisko, Zen Peacemakers staff
CALIFORNIA, USA. The bag is simple and profound; featuring the Arabic words pronounced “bah-HEH-bak” with English text below, reading “this says i love you.” This is The Bahebak Project, co-founded by California married couple Azzam Talhami, a Muslim Palestinian, and Anna Goodman-Herrick, a Jewish American. The Bahebak Project is an “artivism and peace-building response to Islamophobia and Anti-Arab prejudice” that is changing the conversation from one about fear, to one about love. People can purchase these bags online, and all the proceeds go to the grassroots community support networks Anna and Azzam organize to provide emergency assistance to Syrian refugees, as well as their peace-building initiatives in the United States and Middle East. Anna and Azzam see all of this as interdependent. Says Azzam, “Building bridges across differences helps take fear away from people and brings more harmony and peace.”
What’s in the Bag?
When contemplating the origins of this project, Anna described numerous situations in which passengers, including people they know, had been removed from planes for communicating in Arabic. “Most of the people who were kicked off the planes were texting or calling their families before the planes left. So one of the things we thought of is that when people are scared of Arabic, most of the time they’re witnessing people, like us, saying things like ‘I love you’ to each other.” As a native speaker, when Azzam first came to the United States, he was surprised and disappointed that some Americans associate Arabic with terrorism, an affiliation propagated by the media. He articulates, “Our goal was to change this idea. Arabic is a language that has an entire culture, including poems, stories, and very loving and caring words. We want to bring these words to the forefront and change the association.”
The Bahebak bag aims to directly express love to the Arab and Muslim community while simultaneously familiarizing the non-Arabic speaking public about who Arabic-speakers really are. Azzam states, “By using loving words, we are changing the conversation. We are using the power of love instead of arguing.” In its vulnerability, this statement hopes to transcend judgements and to reach the heart. Further, the bag gives people an opportunity to show solidarity with Muslim communities at a time when they are experiencing fear. Following the Muslim Ban in January ’17, many allies showed up at airports carrying signs with the Bahebak Project’s image to welcome immigrants and refugees from the Middle East. Since then, social media users have changed their profile photos to the Bahebak Project image as an expression of love.
Emergency Aid to Syrian Refugee Families
“In our emergency aid work, we aren’t coming from a place of the savior, but rather from a place of the same situation, same community.” Azzam’s direct experience immigrating to the United States from Palestine forms the ways in which Anna and Azzam organize support networks to aid Arabic-speaking immigrants. They know what worked for Azzam and what didn’t work, and are therefore able to better serve the families they’re assisting. Their aim is to facilitate the empowerment and independence of recently immigrated families, and build vibrant relationships of mutual support. Anna stresses the importance of spiritual practice in this work, “When you see all people as sacred, when you see the whole world as your family, you’re going to want to contribute to your family.”
Anna and Azzam became connected with a large community of Syrian refugee families in Oakland, California, who needed more support than the refugee resettlement agencies had been able to give them. Initially, the couple was not sure how they could meet these families’ needs. As more people became aware of the crisis, Anna and Azzam witnessed many people posting on Facebook their desire to assist refugee families, and questions around how to do so. They then started connecting the people who expressed the desire to help with the Syrian refugee families. People give rides, offer financial assistance, take families shopping, provide translations, help families navigate complex bureaucratic systems to access health care and employment, and welcome them into their communities. Anna describes the impact of the support networks, “People meet each other and get to know each other…these people need resources, you have resources, we’re all from one community pool…and when you hear an American say to a Syrian, ‘I just want you to know that I’m so glad you’re here,’ it really genuinely changes the conversation. We’ve become friends with the families from Syria and seen those relationships blossom.”
There are many small details relevant to refugee and immigrant assistance work that often fall through the cracks of large resettlement agencies. “We are grateful for those organizations,” says Anna, “but it’s unrealistic to expect them to do everything.” Anna and Azzam work to fill in the gaps, many of which result from language barriers. Azzam explains, “I’m from the Middle East and I know that when you come to the United States, it’s a really different place, a different world. The language is different, the culture is different, tradition is different. One of the women we help was asking Anna, ‘How do you clean the carpets here?’ She doesn’t know how to buy the materials for it. It’s really easy to anyone here, but to her it’s a big challenge, because she has a different language and culture. She doesn’t know the system. These small things we also take care of.” They also help families obtain access to medical care and food. Shares Azzam, “In our culture, there can be shame around asking for help. When we say, ‘What do you need?’ a father or mother might tell us they are all set. So, we spend the day with them, and we make clear that we are here as friends without judgment. I might say, ‘Come on, man, I know about Arab pride. What do you need?’ And that’s when the parents will look at each other and tell us, ‘We need milk and shoes for our children.’”
Peace-Building Across Difference
Both Anna and Azzam also engage in peacebuilding across difference as part of the Bahebak Project. They facilitate conversations in diverse communities with different notions of what peace looks like, including mosques, synagogues, various other faith centers, and schools. Azzam’s journey with peace building started back home in Hebron, the West Bank, Palestine, facilitating multi-day gatherings between Israelis and Palestinians. Azzam describes his experience, “Some days, I mediate very intense conflict. Other days, we just hang out, we don’t talk about politics at all; we just enjoy our time together. We dance and cook together. And by the end of the experience it’s like, wow, this is possible that we can live together and enjoy each other as people.”
Anna began peace building by leading interfaith celebratory retreats and dialogues aimed towards deep understanding. They both describe that dehumanization can only occur through not seeing people, and that the work of peacebuilding is to facilitate that process of seeing.
They talk about the first tenet of the Zen Peacemakers, Not-Knowing, as integral to this work. Anna describes, “When we walk in to teach a workshop, it’s always a different environment, and you never really know what’s going to happen, what anyone’s going to say, or where it’s going to end up. So letting the space be the facilitator is a really important one. We try to go in not-knowing what the answer is and are just willing to hear. Of course, we all have biases. If I show up willing to love you then there’s not a lot that can go wrong.” Further Anna describes not-knowing as changing the conversation from “we need to fix this,” which can sometimes end up recreating cycles of violence, to “I hear you,” which she professes “makes a really big difference in having spaciousness to have a real connection.” Azzam talks about his experience, “One thing I’ve learned from facilitating is that if you want to be heard by other people, you need to acknowledge and recognize their pain and be compassionate to them as you are compassionate towards yourself…if you create this wall, like no one has as much pain as you have, then you are blocking communication.”
On Her Experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat
Anna’s primary introduction to the Zen Peacemakers was through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. Her grandmother survived Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp; her grandmother’s parents and many of her additional family members did not survive. Anna talks about her story, “[Because of family history] growing up, the wounds of Jewish people were a big part of my upbringing. When I went to the Zen Peacemakers Retreat in Auschwitz, it was a turning point for me …it’s such a beautiful program in that it asks, ‘Where are we complicit right now? In our own lives?’ I don’t even mean on a big political scale, I mean personally. ‘Where am I being greedy? Where am I not giving people space? Where am I exiling people? Where am I afraid that there’s not enough, so I feel like other people shouldn’t be there? We met people from many different groups that were affected, not just Jews. That experience really opened up more space for me of not-knowing, and also more deeply understanding cycles of violence that are still taking place.”
On Their Experience at the Cheyenne River Reservation Bearing Witness Retreat
During the Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat, Anna learned from Lakota activists more about their history and current situation in the States. The following year, she and Azzam participated in the ZPO members-led Bearing Witness retreat on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Because of his experience as a Palestinian in the West Bank, Azzam felt connected to the indigenous people and culture he met on the reservation there. Azzam expresses his gratitude, “It was so meaningful to me that the Lakota people hosted us and that they reached out and connected to me as a Palestinian.”
On Their Identities
Azzam is a Palestinian Muslim from the West Bank, an area that is one of the epicenters of the region’s conflict, and Anna is part of the Jewish diaspora; as stated earlier, her family was in Auschwitz. Organizations sometimes invite them to speak on this because as a couple, they carry these identities that are frequently posed in violent opposition to one another.
Azzam reflects on this phenomenon, “I understand all the questions that people have when they ask, ‘How is that possible?’ and we do have answers, such as all the work we’ve each done to get here. We each love our traditions and honor our communities, but also, at the same time, our relationship is based on our love for each other and shared values. So, I don’t think we carry the Palestinian-Jewish couple identity as heavily as other people carry it for us. We’ve had people come up to us, outside of the context of us doing peace work, just based on us being a Palestinian-Jewish couple, and say, ‘Oh you’re the future of peace, you’re the hope.’ And we say, ‘We think that’s your hope!’”
Anna continues, “And that’s so cool that that’s your hope, but also we’re probably going to go do something not that deep like Netflix binge after this. I can share a life with Azzam who I love and also recognize that I didn’t grow up as a Palestinian in the West Bank. We have to be able to honor both the unity of our humanity and the beauty of our differences…the beauty and the pain of our differences. We are all ultimately one people, but with very different lived experiences. It’s possible to recognize this and hold both.” Azzam adds, “I grew up in a conflict that has been around for over 60 years. My community, and I as an individual, pay the price for something much bigger than us, and it’s time to say to this endless cycle, enough. I’m longing for a better future for the coming generations, where everyone can see the humanity of each other and respect it.”
Anna Goodman-Herrick is a facilitator of sacred spaces and group dialogue, a writer, storyteller, documentarian, creative artist, and human rights activist, whose work has appeared on major television networks, on film, stage, in print, museum and gallery exhibitions and in retreats and workshops. She is also a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order.
Azzam Talhami is a Palestinian journalist, activist and peace builder who is passionate about bridging gaps between disparate peoples. He has served as an on-camera political analyst, news correspondent, documentary filmmaker, print journalist, translator, and war zone photographer for Palestinian, Israeli, Russian, and American media outlets. He has led Palestinians and Israelis together, from closed circle meetings to large scale programs, including with Holy Land Trust, Northwest Compassionate Communication, and the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s (CNVC) International Intensive Training (ITT) in the Palestinian Territories.
Anna and Azzam are the co-founders of the Bahebak Project. For more information, please visit: thissaysiloveyou.org.