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Last Updated: 04/17/2007
Big Dreams, Small Hopes
Daniel Noah Moses

Sayat Nova’s Song: The Big Dreams, Small Hopes Caucasus Tour


                Mercy on the old master building a bridge

                The passer-by may lay a stone to his foundation.

                I have sacrificed my soul, worn out my life, for the nation.

                A brother may arrange a rock upon my grave (Sayat-Nova).


I first heard Professor Mohammed Dajani give his Big Dreams, Small Hopes presentation about the frame of mind necessary to make peace in the summer of 2005 to an audience of Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Jordanian educators at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp north of Boston that brings together people from different sides of conflict. Immediately, I imagined Dajani in the Caucasus.


I am an American and a Jew; Dajani is a Palestinian professor from Al Quds University on the West Bank. It is worth asking why Baku, Tblisi and Yerevan suddenly came to mind. This is especially true considering that, in the last weeks of May 2006, we are in fact making a Caucasus tour. What, you might ask, is our point?


At least some in the Caucasus will say that what Dajani’s presentation has nothing to do with you.  It is a completely different situation, you might argue. I agree that there are many differences. But I want to stress the similarities, which, I believe, matter very much. In my opinion, it is important for those in the Caucasus who want a truly peaceful future to listen to Professor Dajani.


Trained as a political scientist in the United States, a founder of the Palestinian Institute of Public Administration, a founder of the only American Studies program in Palestine, Dajani is a well respected man in his community. Born in Jerusalem, he comes from a notable Palestinian family. On his neck, he wears a gold necklace that his mother gave him; hanging from the necklace is a map in gold leaf of Palestine, including all of the land currently in the State of Israel. When he does his Big Dreams, Small Hopes presentations, Dajani sometimes refers to this necklace. It represents a dream of Palestine that he will always keep.


But in his waking life, Dajani has become what he himself calls a “small hoper.”  After listening to him, I realized that I’m a “small hoper” too. As Dajani puts it, “big dreams,” like the one represented by his necklace are fine—as dreams. Practical needs are another matter. Those who blur dream and reality pave the way for generations of hatred, violence, and suffering. It comes down to the recognition that, if all people have dreams, and if these dreams conflict—we need to need to figure out a way to face reality and live together in the real world. This means giving up or at least sharing something close to one’s heart.


Dajani divides individuals into two categories: “big dreamers” and “small hopers.” To impose their will, big dreamers are willing to disregard the needs and hopes of those who stand in their path. Small hopers, in contrast, confront and cope concretely with reality and the real needs of real people. To do this, one must reach across lines of conflict, listen, acknowledge, and help to meet the needs even of those people.


If it were only Dajani presenting ideas of big dreams and small hopes, my own view of the future would be severely constrained. But I first saw Dajani do his presentation at Seeds of Peace. I observed the faces of the audience: hope is contained in the potential of such audiences. The public in question turns out to be you and me—if we choose to take part in the growing “public spheres.”


A public sphere is a place where citizens gather to learn from one another, to learn about their options, and to figure out what to do. People organize themselves in the public sphere by common values and interests. Many public spheres together add up to what those who invent such terms call civil society. A public is not a market. In a market, the potential customer or “consumer” decides whether or not to pay the price: that’s the extent of choice. In a public sphere, individuals reason through a vast wilderness of possible choices. They must talk, listen, come to a decision, act. Positions on controversial topics once “out of bounds” are tested in the light of day. On some level, it becomes a matter of what the group decides—a matter, in other words, of public opinion.


It is possible to shape public opinion in many ways. People can accept without question what they learned in school and what has been handed down across the generations. They can watch their televisions, read their newspapers, and scan the internet sites that confirm their own prejudices. Or they can reach out, find people with drastically different conceptions, and try to learn something so that they can act self-consciously to improve the situation.


If people from different sides of a conflict are honest and responsible, they will test their own beliefs. They will listen to the opposing cases and weigh the evidence in good faith. They might change their minds, or open their minds to new perspectives, while staying loyal to their own. At the same time, they will strive to understand the needs and the cherished values of the other side.


In this violent and suffering world people are angry. Politicians pull at the strings connected to people’s hearts. They don’t understand or don’t want to explain that big dreams are—only dreams.  The conventional public figures don’t want to explain that people on the other side have legitimate needs too. There are “big dreamers” in every direction. But political leaders, even in relatively closed countries, do pay attention to public opinion. If public opinion changes—leaders change or are replaced over the long haul.


The adult educators who come from the Arab world and Israel to Seeds of Peace come because they want a better life for their children and grandchildren. I tell them that Seeds of Peace is a Habermasian experiment, after the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Habermas grew up under Hitler’s Third Reich. After World War II, he was horrified by what he learned. He argues that unless we learn better ways to live together, we run the real risk of destroying ourselves. His argument is that we need public spheres, we need everyday people to come together across lines of conflict, to recognize the needs of the other people, and to reach agreement about what to do. This is not the responsibility of only the leaders. It is the responsibility of people who want their children and grandchildren to have a better life.


In April 2006, thanks to the Kololian Foundation and to Seeds of Peace, Armenians, Turks, and one Azeri joined eighty Arab and Israeli educators in Istanbul for a Seeds of Peace conference. There will be more such meetings in the future. At the same time, movement is under way to establish a camp program in Vermont for Armenians and Azeris. These are two among many similar initiatives. The Caucasus and the Middle East are both rich in symbols that should encourage everyday brave people.  Arabs and Israelis point to Abraham as their common father. As Christians and Muslims, the people of the Caucasus are also children of Abraham. Noah’s Ark is said to be on the top of Mount Ararat, a reminder that in this increasingly interconnected world, we, humankind, are in the same boat.



*                       *                       *

Thomas de Waal ends his book, Black Garden, Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, by talking about the eighteenth-century bard Sayat-Nova. An ethnic Armenian, Sayat-Nova lived in Tblisi wrote in the three main indigenous languages of the southern Caucasus and travelled across the region. Considering that he wrote the song at the beginning of this article in Azeri, his conception of the nation embraced a larger vision. Sayat-Nova is a symbol of what the peoples of the southern Caucasus share; he is a symbol of the possibilities. Those who are interested can read de Waal’s book, which is now being translated into Armenian and Azerbaijani. The book will contribute to dialogue across borders. In its own way, Dajani’s Big Dreams, Small Hopes Caucasus Tour is a song in the spirit of Sayat Nova.

Daniel Noah Moses is Director of the Delegation Leaders Program, Seeds of Peace