Against a background of bloodshed and death portrayed via film and slides, three women from the land of "holiness and conflict" enacted an alternative to the violent conflict in the Middle East in a performance that toured the US in February 2006.
'By the Well of Sarah and Hagar' is a "sacred theatrical collage sharing the journeys of two women, Muslim and Jew", according to the flyer for the event. In this little play, a Palestinian woman and an Israeli approach each other in pain to extend the hand of reconciliation. The third woman - Mia Cohen - who holds a large mirror, introduces herself as the witness. "I am you."
The two women, Ibtisum Mahamid and Dorit Bat Shalom, play themselves - two women of war-torn Palestine and Israel. This collaborative effort by the three women - Mahamid, Shalom and Cohen - works at many levels.
Mahamid tells her story - the expulsion of her family during Al-Nakba (the refugee flight of Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war).
Footage taken by an Israeli father whose son was killed in the intifada - and shown at the beginning of the performance - tells the other side of the story. As Shalom explained during the discussion following the performance, the conflict is a complex story; what the women have in common is their pain. Shalom herself turned to peace work after her brother was killed in the 1967 Six Day War.
"Israeli and Palestinian women can come together because they have the same problem: they feel unsafe. Something inside tells them not to forget the past, but not to get stuck in it. What can we do together to change it?"
Created by the Israel-based women's peace group Daughters of Abraham, the performance is an outgrowth of the women's work in the Peace Tent, a project set up in Israel by Shalom. The Peace Tent was founded in the ancient Middle Eastern tradition of 'soolcha', Arabic for resolution and forgiveness, which gathers conflicted parties together in a circle to reach a resolution. Cohen explains: "We are working on the whole concept of transforming trauma into vision. We work with the women who cannot allow themselves to open up to each other in the unsafe space of their homeland."
Says Mahamid, "We do deep work on ourselves through ceremony and workshops. Then we start to think about sharing our work with others. For months, I worked on my wounds."
Like the inside of the Peace Tent, the stage at Chokhma Halev - a Jewish Spirituality Centre in Berkeley, California, where the play was performed on February 4 - was created from multicolored hangings of cloth, and adorned with Shalom's multimedia art images of Arab, Israeli, Palestinian and Bedouin women and children.
'The Well of Sarah and Hagar' is the mythic setting where the two nations, Arab and Jew, originated. As told in the Bible and the Koran, Sarah, wife of Abraham, could not bear children, so she gave her handmaiden to Abraham so that he could produce offspring. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Later, Sarah also conceived and birthed Isaac. Afterwards, when Sarah expelled Hagar and Ishmael, Yahweh promised Ishmael - as he promised Isaac - to "make of him a great nation".
Therein lies the historic bond between the two nations, as well as the source of their racial and class conflict; the one descended from the First Wife, the other from the handmaiden.
By placing their story in this context, the women in the play suggest that the well is also the source of the solution. This is "earth's story - our mother - her blood", the Witness tells us, and the barren well is "where the only drops of water are the drops of women's tears". Where there is suffering and grief, there is potential unity, the symbol of the well seems to suggest.
"We pray in the tent of Abraham," says the Witness.
This invocation sets the tone for a ritualistic experience meant to be transformative. The audience is invited into the privacy of the tent, to witness the tender attempts of two women from two warring nations to open their hearts to one another. The steady beat of a drum enhances the trance-like effect. The show is not an "act", says Shalom, but an "authentic experience". "We are not acting, we present what is coming through us, creating it as we go along," she adds. "The hardest thing is to do it in English." Shalom is fairly fluent in English and also speaks Arabic, unusual for an Israeli.
The play is meant to be an expression of "wombful knowing", says Cohen. "We try to create another level of consciousness which speaks from the heart, and we are just at the beginning of learning how to do that, creating a safe space for women to unveil and to find their voice."
The intention is to step outside conflict and political talk, and to heal, so that "we can move on to the next phase". Asked what that next phase would be, she says, "It is the vision of living in a land where all can live freely and be totally accepted by the other."
While political opponents argue and armed forces clash, the women go on doing this work in the belief that women have a contribution to make in the creation of peace. So, are they feminists? Mahamid says she is. "Men are the controllers of the household. In the coffee houses, there are only men...A woman has to take responsibility for herself and not wait for them [the men] to give it to her."
For that reason, Mahamid, with her husband's encouragement, ran for political office last year. Although she did not win, she garnered 40 per cent of the vote. She smiles. Her name means smile. "For Palestinians, a smile means hope."