Keeping the Peace: How the Middle East Conflict Affects Cleveland

David C. Barnett- Several hundred men sit crossed-legged on the blue-carpeted floor of the Cleveland's Grand Mosque on West 130th street. The call to prayer reverberates off the circular wall of the worship hall. Imam Fawaz Damra leads his congregation in prayer. As the central cleric for Greater Cleveland's Muslim community finds his teachings extend beyond the mosque.

Imam Fawaz Damra- The name of our religion is Islam and people who adhere to that faith are called "Muslim," not "Moslem." I don't know where this comes from. I guess most reporters make this common mistake.

DCB- Misperception has been the lot of Cleveland's Arabic Muslim community for many years, thanks to their minority status and images of evil Arabs in movies. But Imam Damra feels nowhere is the confusion higher than in the struggle over the future of Palestine.

IFD- As all Jews are united for Israel, so all Arabs are united for Palestine or the Holy Land.

DCB- Palestineans and Lebanese make-up the largest portion of local people of Arabic descent.

Hamdi Qasem- Why I came to Cleveland? Because I believe. It's the land of opportunity here.

DCB- Hamdi Qasem pauses to sip some sweet espresso coffee from a demitasse cup as he thinks about the career he made for himself here in the grocery business. He made it easier for people to address him by adopting the nickname of "Sam." Sitting at a table in the Middle East restaurant downtown, he recalls coming to the U.S. in 1969 to pursue the opportunity of America, only to find himself, and his culture, to be the subject of further name-calling.

HQ- We have to keep on pushing because of the stereotyping in the media. Even today, you watch the movies where they portray the Arabs as terrorists, live in the desert, out of the 15th century.

DCB- Meanwhile, in the Middle East of the 21st century, the recent ascendancy of conservative Israeli official Ariel Sharon has raised great concern among Palestineans both here and abroad.

HQ- We're not here to start a war, we're not here to attack anyone. What happens, happens. Let's talk about it. Let's sit down. It takes more of a man to talk peace, than it takes for a lunatic like Sharon or Netenyahu to shoot a gun.

Martin Plax- There are two sides to this issue. There are Palestinean people here who are very upset and we understand that.

DCB- Martin Plax heads the Cleveland branch of the American Jewish Committee, a community relations organization whose main charge is to build bridges between groups.

MP- One thing we've tried to avoid is anybody pointing fingers saying you started it. We know some of the causes may be hidden and what we've tried to do is do whatever we could do to come to some kind of an understanding on a local basis. Our hope is that by trying to keep calm and developing relationships here, at some point when there's a disengagement - and we assume at some point there will be - that perhaps we can serve as a model for people over there.

DCB- One way that was done recently was in the form of an OP-ED piece in the Plain Dealer, co-written by Sam Qasem and Martin Plax.

MP- And we said, look, we can talk and talk, but do we have the will put our names to a joint statement calling for calm. And we did. We wrote it together, and I'm very proud of that, and I think Sam is too. And I known that Sam took a little heat, as I did, because people were saying why are you doing this? I have a sense now that there are people in both communities who feel somebody has to stand and say calm is needed. Again, it's only Cleveland, Ohio. But one never knows where the ripples are going to be.

IFD- It is wrong to assume that every Arab is against the Jews.

DCB- Imam Fawaz Damra adds that fanaticism knows no nationality, nor religion.

IFD- There are some Arabs who are fanatic, like there are some Jews who are fanatic. Same thing in our community. We have some people who are doing crazy things that aren't acknowledged by everybody who is an Arab.

DCB- Abe Ayad, a Cleveland businessman of Palestinean heritage, raised a furor in town this year with murals painted on the side of a car wash he owns on the near east side. Many of the images are virulent depictions of cliched Jewish characters, acting with evil intent against people of Arabic heritage. Local Jewish leaders have made a number of attempts to get the pictures removed. Sam Qasem even got into an argument with Ayad and threatened to paint them over himself.

But one image on the building strikes home with Qasem and many local Palestineans. It is a recreation of a news picture, seen around the world, of a father and his young son, huddling against a wall, who were killed in a volley of Middle East crossfire.

Images of truth and fiction, words of hope and hate, continue to fuel arguments between supporters of Israel and those who call for an independent Palestinean state. Local peace-keepers remain hopeful they can provide a model of reason, as relations deteriorate in the Middle East. At last Friday's afternoon prayer service in Cleveland's Grand Mosque, Imam Fawaz Damra spoke of Ramadan being a month of generosity, sympathy, empathy and patience. Virtues that seem hard to come by right now. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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