Sisters beneath the skin

A simple, mundane commercial transaction in downtown Asheville got Paul Mareth thinking about how he could make a difference in the continuing, bitter struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mareth, a Jew, regularly walks from his Patton Avenue office to buy a snack or a soda down the street at the Asheville Discount Pharmacy, owned by Hashim Badr, who is Palestinian. An unremarkable enough event in an American city, yet given the level of fear and mistrust between the two peoples, a similar exchange would be unthinkable in Israel and the occupied territories, notes Mareth.

“It’s something that’s so ordinary here and so unattainable in Israel and Palestine,” he observes.

So Mareth is proposing that Asheville embark on a new Sister Cities relationship with both Bethlehem (in the occupied territories) and Safed (in Israel). Bethlehem, he notes, has a large Palestininan population and is sacred to Christians, while Safed (like Asheville) is a beautiful mountain town that’s a center for the arts, learning and healing.

“I think that if we, as a small American town, can say, ‘We love both of you and we want to be friends with both of you,'” suggests Mareth, it would be something that “people haven’t heard that much.”

To that end, Mareth has launched a low-key campaign to build a broad base of support for the proposal — from both ends of the political spectrum and from many faiths.

“I think it won’t be taken seriously unless it transcends politics,” he asserts.

A successful “trilateral” relationship, says Mareth, means that Asheville’s Jews would be welcome in Bethlehem, its Muslims welcome in Safed, and the people of both cities would find hospitality in Asheville.

“Wiccans, too,” adds Mareth with a smile. “Asheville’s famous Wiccans would be welcome wherever they wanted to go.”

Local Muslim Elmoiz Abunura, the director of UNCA’s Africana studies program, strongly supports Mareth’s proposal as a practical and thoughtful way to link average people — Israelis, Palestinians and Ashevilleans — by means of cultural and educational exchanges rather than solely through governmental connections. The grassroots group Western Carolinians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East (to which Abunura, a Middle East expert, belongs) also supports the proposal, says Abunura.

Mareth feels simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic about the prospects for the project. The situation in the Middle East is as bad as he’s seen it in his lifetime, says Mareth. Yet change can occur, he notes, pointing to the strides made in race relations in the United States in recent decades.

Mareth, a multimedia producer who’s lived in Asheville about two years, learned of the Asheville Sister Cities organization through his office landlord, architect Carroll Hughes, the incoming president of the nonprofit.

The Eisenhower administration created Sister Cities International Inc. in 1956 to improve global understanding and cooperation, according to the Asheville chapter’s Web site (www.main.nc.us/sistercities). Asheville Sister Cities was launched in 1988, reports Hughes.

Asheville has three Sister Cities: Vladikavkaz (in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains), San Cristobal de las Casas (in Chiapas, Mexico) and Saumur (in France’s Loire Valley), notes Hughes. (The former Sister City of Karakol, in Kyrgyzstan, was dropped because of difficulties in maintaining communications with the remote metropolis, the Web site explains.)

Asheville Sister Cities’ search committee (which Hughes chairs) is considering seven potential new relationships with other towns. Along with the Bethlehem/Safed idea, proposals have come in for establishing links with cities in Greece, Mexico, Italy, Moldova, Senegal and Russia. And though it hasn’t been formally submitted yet, another proposal has been floated involving a city in Japan.

In assessing such proposals, the committee looks for similarities between Asheville and the potential Sister City, as well as signs of local support and the involvement of city leaders at the other end, notes Hughes.

“In other words, you’re trying to look for some guidelines that would make the relationship successful,” he explains. “We want a successful relationship, a lasting relationship, and one that will promote world peace.”

The likelihood of civil unrest — and the practical difficulties it creates — is always a concern, notes Hughes. Nonetheless, there is support at Sister Cities International for establishing relationships between cities in the U.S. and the Middle East.

“This triad that Paul is recommending is a very good idea and a very good step toward peace,” declares Hughes. “But it’s going to be very difficult to pull off — Paul knows that — and will require a lot of effort and maybe even coordination with our State Department.”

Once the search committee reaches a decision, it typically approaches Asheville’s mayor and City Council. The recommendation then goes to the full board of Asheville Sister Cities, and on to Sister Cities International for approval, Hughes says.

Along with promoting peace, the Sister Cities program is also designed to produce economic benefits, notes Mareth. And one of the casualties of the conflict in Israel is that the economies of both Israel and the Palestinian-dominated areas have suffered.

“Re-establishing tourism in both countries would be tremendously beneficial,” says Mareth. “It would bring money, it would bring jobs, it would bring business back to life. Obviously, as long as machine-gun fire is raking the streets or bombs are going off, people aren’t going to go. So you have a chicken-and-egg problem, of course.”

At this point, though, nobody knows what it will take to bring about peace, mulls Mareth.

“What I would like to do is take Sharon and Arafat and bang their heads together,” he says. “Unfortunately, I can’t do that.”

But Mareth believes that small efforts such as this one can be catalysts for change.

“None of us can do anything big,” he reflects. “But we all can do something.”

To learn more about Paul Mareth’s proposal or to sign his petition, contact him at pmareth@excite.com. For info on becoming a member of Asheville Sister Cities, contact Marylyn Seyler at ucanoe2@aol.com, or write to Asheville Sister Cities Inc., P.O. Box 2214, Asheville, 28802.

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