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History, religion and reconciliation in the Middle East




March 7-9 2011, The House of Literature will host the International Saladin Days for the third year in a row. Some of the foremost writers and intellectuals from the Middle East will discuss the events around the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Could a common perception of history create a foundation for future reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians? During the program, we will also see a discussion, between religious leaders from Islam, Judaism and Christianity, on whether – and how – faith might be a tool on the road to reconciliation.

The International Saladin Days were first held in 2009, after an idea by the Norwegian writer Thorvald Steen. They are supported by the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This year, for the first time, Saladin Days will be held also in Stockholm and Istanbul, inspired by the Norwegian event.





... is an Israeli historian and writer. His most recent book, The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty – the Hussaynis, 1700-1948, tells the story about Palestinian politics before the national movements and political parties, of a time when positions were won through the power of the family. The Hussayni family was central in the uprising against the Turkish and British, and lead the struggle against the creation of a Jewish state.

Avi-Shlaim 6.jpg


... is one of the leading figures of the new Israeli historians,  group of Israeli scholars who put forward critical interpretations of the history of Zionism and Israel. He has published a number of books on Israeli and Palestinian history, including The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2001) and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009).



... is a Lebanese writer and critic, who has emerged as one of the most important intellectuals in the Middle East. Well known for his novels, such as Gate of the Sun and Yalo, Khoury recently published the novel As Though She Were Sleeping.




... is a Norwegian journalist and writer, best known for her accounts of everyday life in war zones – most notably Kabul after 2001, Baghdad in 2002 and the ruined Grozny in 2006. Her bestselling 2002 book, The Bookseller from Kabul, is an account of the time she spent living with an Afghan family in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.



... is a Swedish journalist and writer, who immigrated to Sweden from Turkish Kurdistan at the age of six. His first novel, Tätt intill dagarna: berättelsen om min mor (t: Close to the days: the story of my mother), was published in 2006.



 ... is a scholar of religious history, and associate professor at the Norwegian Cyber Force and Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington DC.



... is a citizen of Jerusalem and the founder of the organization Rabbis for Human Rights. He has extensive experience from intra-religious dialogue.


... is the founder of the organization Clergy Beyond Borders. Living in the US, Hendi is the Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University.


... is a Norwegian theologican and politician. A former bishop of Oslo, Stålsett was not afraid of connection religion to political and interpersonal issues, and is a staunch critic of racism, anti-Semitism and religious fundamentalism. 





5 PM - Re-writing 1948
Saladin lecture 2011 by Elias Khoury

In 1187, the Arabic army leader Saladin conquered Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders. Following the last, decisive battle, he declared that no Crusader nor Christian in the city should be persecuted or violated. Encouraging the Franks to stay, Saladin also called on banished Jewish families to return. When some of his closest men protested loudly, Saladin answered them that “Christians everywhere will remember the kindness we have done them.” Because of Saladin's actions, the Crusaders' final defeat is also remembered as a new start for the peoples in the Holy Land – in the name of reconciliation.

The war that erupted following the 1948 formation of the Israeli state is one in a long line of battles and struggles that has taken place in this region, while, simultaneously, it created the foundation for the current situation in the Middle East. After the war ended, the struggle for its narrative began – and continues – guided by the overarching question: How should we remember this war?

That is the question Elias Khoury asks in this opening lecture at the International Saladin Days 2011. The Lebanese writer and critic has emerged as one of the most important intellectuals in the Middle East. 


7 PM - Concerning dynasties and dreamers
Ilan Pappé, Elias Khoury and Åsne Seierstad

For the citizens of the British mandate of Palestine, the years leading up to 1948 were characterized uncertainty. Politically, there was disagreement regarding the best course of action in the struggle against the Zionist settlers and the British administration. On another level, people found themselves in a confusing tug of war of national, ethnic and religious identities.

The focus of this session is the time leading up to the formation of the state of Israel. Authors Ilan Pappé and Elias Khoury are interviewed by Norwegian author and journalist Åsne Seierstad.



10 PM - Israeli history writing
Seminar with Avi Shlaim and Ilan Papp

The events that took place in connection to the 1948 creation of the state of Israel has long been referred to, in Israeli public debate, as an undisputable nationalist climax. The history writing dominating among the country's academics emphasized the stories of the Jewish minority simultaneously fighting an Arabic majority and troops from the British Mandate.

The ”new historians” of Israel challenged this form of history writing. The release of official documents from 1948 enabled them to highlight aspects of the war that so far had been non-existent in Israeli discourse. Lately, debates between traditional Zionists and revisionists have been central in Israeli historians' circles.

Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim are among the leading figures of new Israeli historians. At the House of Literature, they will discuss Israeli history writing. What distinguishes the work of the revisionists from that of traditional Zionist history writing? Who are the new historians, and of what are they criticized? What is the role of the historian when s/he writes the history of an ongoing conflict?

The seminar is lead by Hanne Eggen Røislien.


2 PM - The religious roots of the conflict in the Middle East
Seminar for youth with Rabbi David Rosen and Imam Yahya Hendi

It is well known that the conflict in the Middle East, among other things, is a conflict between Jews and Muslims, disagreeing on who has the right to practice their faith in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is also well known that Jerusalem is a holy city, both for Christians and Muslims, and that disagreements on religious subjects continually has lead to violence.

Why these areas are religiously important, however, is less common knowledge. Why has Muslims built two mosques in Jerusalem's Temple Mount? What is the reason Jews face the Wailing Wall when they pray? Why do members of the different religious communities believe that they alone are entitled to these areas?

These are some of the questions at the House of Literature's youth seminar, where Rabbi David Rosen and Imam Yahya Hendi are guests. With years of experience of discussing faith across religious communities, Rosen and Hendi will talk about why their followers see Israel and the Palestinian territories as so important. Leading the conversation is religious history scholar Hanne Eggen Røislien. After the conversation, we invite you to discuss: What is needed for Muslims and Jews to agree on this issue?


7 PM - Israeli and Palestinian histories
Meeting between Avi Shlaim and Elias Khoury

Learning about the 1948 War of Independence, Israeli children are told the stories of when their grandparents were invaded by hostile Arabic states, about the heroic resistance of the Zionist underground movement, and about the victory ensuring the continued existence of the state of Israel.

Palestinian children are told about an-Nakba – the Catastrophe. Those stories focus on grandparents fleeing their homes, loss of land and the beginning of the end of the Palestinian state.

Interviewed by an Israeli newspaper, the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury said, “The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the "other," who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.” This evening, we will read Israeli and Palestinian experiences from the war that transformed the Middle East. Meeting the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, Khourt will ask: Is it possible to find a common understanding of what happened in 1948? Mustafa Can will lead the conversation.



7 PM - Can faith play a positive role in the Middle East?
Religious dialogue with Rabbi David Rosen and Imam Yahya Hendi

Religion is constantly singled out as the root of all evil in the Middle Eastern conflict; the religious aspect makes the conflict unsolvable, or so the argument goes, because you cannot change what people believe in.

However, there are many that attempt to build bridges between religions, choosing to focus on similarities rather than differences. Three of them will be at the House of Literature tonight. Rabbi David Rosen, a citizen of Jerusalem and the founder of the organization Rabbis for Human Rights, has extensive experience from intra-religious dialogue, as has Imam Yahya Hendi. Living in the US, he has founded the organization Clergy Beyond Borders. Former bishop of Oslo, Gunnar Stålsett, will lead a conversation about whether faith may be a starting point for reconciliation.



The program is developed with supprt from the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre and Oslo World Music Festival, and with financial support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.