Stories from Around the World

John Paul Lederach

Professor of International Peacebuilding, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Well, I have obviously the experience of being in places where I relate stories, how much it creates an immediate impact I'm not sure is always clear. A lot of response I get from people when I do storytelling at a conference or a meeting is that it tends to break open what's being discussed in a new way. I think maybe what you're after is more significant at the level of - when you're involved in real-life situations and you see things emerging - you know, and I there are, I don't know which ones you might want to pull out but for an example, I had an experience one time in Peshawar in Pakistan which is right on the border with Afghanistan, and this was during the early years when the Taliban was rising, Afghanistan is still quite obviously chaotic in a lot of ways and the University of the people that had connections to universities located inside Afghanistan had located themselves onto the border areas and were doing kind of a process of reconstituting a university teaching setting. And some of those folks we worked with in developing an effort to provide some materials and curriculum on peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

So at one point I had an invitation to visit. And I recall this because it's one of the ways I've been intuitively paying more attention to the role of story. When we first sat down in the meeting, some of the people who were the professors, a handful of which were keenly interested in this, others who were suspicious, and then some of the key people in the wider university sector, who were actually advisors and who were worried about, "Is this a Western thing or can we root it deeply in the Islamic teaching?" Of course, the depth at which those issues are important in Afghanistan are always always present. And I'm not only coming from the West, I come from a Christian tradition, and you're quite transparent about who you are.

There's no bypassing honesty and transparency. We'll catch up to you at one point or another if you either try to hide it or sneak your way around it. But all that adds into the question and the sort of the context. So we sit down and we aren't into this meeting for more than two minutes and a process begins whereby they explain the current Afghan conflict, which is complex, deep, dates back across the ???, the whole kit-and--caboodle which is one humongous mess. Of course when they finish, all eyes turn, my image of it was a lot of people with turbans and big white beards, "So what's the solution of our problem?" This is a question of course, you get a lot of places, but is totally loaded. It's loaded first of all because there is no solution anyone could give particularly from the outside, to their conflict. So that's not to say there might not be learnings that could be garnered from other places, but there's no real solution.

And they're really not asking for a solution, in some regards its always a bit of a testing. And the test is, as soon as this person with all their wisdom of wherever he's come from starts down this pathway, we know that's not going to be the answer; it's going to be rejected. And of course if he says he doesn't know, what's he doing here? So where do you head? Well my feeling is, where you head in places where you're not sure, the best fallback is a story. And what I pay attention to is what pops into my head, this is where I would say intuition is really important. But intuition, I think I was telling somebody yesterday, intuition falls, in the best picture, somewhere between Tourettes and wisdom. You have to sort through when and at which point what's popping into your head is heading to a kind of burst of things that you would later like to have a better control of, or whether a voice is talking that says, "this is the time," etc.

So it's not an easy one to get your hand on, but the story that came to me was one that just very recently - I had heard in Africa and have subsequently over the years heard in a number of places, in fact one person told me it traces in several religious traditions to the early Sheiks and Rabbis, both in the Islamic and Judaic traditions, but it's a very simple story. In Africa it was a story that said there was a very wise chief and he was so wise everybody respected him for miles and miles - I was telling the story to the group of folks gathered - and there was a small group of boys that said, "We're gonna see how wise this chief is." So they went out into the forest and they found a small little bird; a bird that could fit into their hand. And they went to the chief and said, "Chief, in my hand is a bird, I want to know because you're the wisest person in the village, I want to know whether the bird is dead or alive." If the Chief would say that it is alive, before opening the hand they would crush it, and open it - the bird would be dead. And if the Chief said the bird is dead, they would release it and it would fly. Either way, they were going to catch him. So they went before the Chief and they said, "Chief, in my hand is a bird, is the bird dead or alive?" And the Chief looked for a long time at the boys and at the bird, and said, "You know what? I don't know if that bird is dead or alive - what I know is the bird is in your hands. And whether it lives or dies is up to you."

So I said, in reference to your conflict, I don't know. I don't know whether this is the right or the wrong way, what I know is ultimately it's in your hands. From there we could go forward on some things but two things I noticed right away. The first was they were totally engaged with the story. Story always has a bit of the capacity to connect with people at a sort of level that talking at folks with answers and theories and ideas doesn't always do. And the other was, I would call it, much of what I do is aimed at finding a way to join, to accompany, to - at times I use the word "alongside-ness" I'm not sure if there is that word in English. But there's a sense of how to respectfully and appropriately enter the circle of that web of relationships. And, at least in that particular instance that was a way that provided more of that possibility.

If you want other kinds of stories, certainly one of the other ones I put in the book in a chapter on the arts was Smilovich in Sarajevo, which I had actually heard. And a lot of us heard. People that heard it remember it very distinctly and that was a radio interview that came across the wires and was rebroadcast in a number of places. I heard it just through a very small way through NPR. In essence it was this fellow who just after a massacre was playing a cello in the middle of the city while snipers were shooting. And the interview was short and was basically saying, "Why are you sitting here while people are shooting at you are you crazy?" And his response was, "I'm playing my cello; that's not crazy. Why don't you go up to the mountain and ask the people shooting down here why they're doing what they're doing, because that is crazy." So I went hunting for the story and found there's actually a CD that's produced of the songs that he played during that period in Sarajevo. A member of the national orchestra there suspended during the war years, lived in Sarajevo during the war, during the massacres, this particular massacre was called the "Bread Queue Massacre".

The bread store didn't open up there everyday so when it did people would queue long lines. And in the open plaza where they were queued, mortar shells were launched in and it was 10s of 20s of people that were immediately killed or wickedly injured. Smilovich found himself running - it was close to where he lived -- picking people up, and carrying them out. Through the night into the early morning, when he woke up - hardly able to sleep -- the next morning, he looked in the mirror and made a decision. He put on his full tuxedo, the full garment like he was going to a concert, took his cello, went down and sat up - right in the square where the shooting had taken place. And started playing. He starting playing what he didn't even know was adagio, which is a song almost mourning like but he played it in an extraordinary way. He said he got lost in the process and didn't even know what was happening and people all around started gathering to listen. And then he picked up his cello and went down to the coffee shop where he always goes and in the coffee shop people started to come in. And they said "(Sigh). This is what we needed." And so it occurred to him that he shouldn't stop. So he decided to do it every day for as many days as there were people killed in the massacre. So he played for several weeks on end, in an area where sniping, shooting would continue to come.

Q: And he never got shot?

A: And he never got shot. And I'm telling you, you tell that story and you play that music and you have people just sit for a moment and listen. I still have a small recording he actually did with an Irish guy called Tommy Sans, they combined Irish and Bosnian stories and music mostly. It's a powerful thing. And it's extraordinary that it has a transcendent quality to it, because it's simultaneously, the moment that it happened, a deep form of mourning. But it was also a deep form of what you might call, "Prophetic Witness." You know, this is wrong. And you have something that accompanies these things that I think are very powerful.