Mujaawarah (neighboring… sort of) as manifested in my life

Munir Fasheh

Munir Fasheh is a learning theorist and practitioner, who taught mathematics and physics. Based in Ramallah, Fasheh founded the Tamer Institute for Community Education during the first Intifada as a center for developing learning environments outside of schooling in Palestine. After receiving his PhD in education from Harvard University in 1988, he founded the Arab Education Forum (AEF) at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1997 and directed it for ten years. Since 2007, he has been working with groups in Palestine and Jordan to develop new ways of collaborative learning.

28 gallery, Rafah, Gaza strip, 2021. Image: Mahmoud Al-Shaer

I would like to start by asserting that mujaawarah for me represents a main hope in today’s world – mujaawarah as a medium for learning, social action, and understanding; as a way to regain rootedness, spirit and ability of regeneration, sense of community, who we are as well as regain full attentiveness to inner callings and to what is happening around us; as a means to deal with oppression and heal from modern superstitions; as an alternative to institutions and institutional categories in relating to one another and understanding the world; as a social “structure” where relationships and well-being have priority over products and outcomes; as a main protector of diversity, abundance, and natural immune systems; as main weaver of the fabric in communities; and as an embodiment of equality, fairness, reciprocity, sharing, freedom, honesty, dignity, and multiple-valued logic. Mujaawarah is crucial in the gift culture where ideas (among other things) are shared freely, honestly, generously, with no control by any authority.

Simply put, a mujaawarah is a group of people who want and decide to be together, with no authority within the group and no authority from outside.

Most of my life, I was either in institutions or trying to live outside their dictates through mujaawarahs. Since meanings in life are contextual and experiential, I will write about my understanding of mujaawarah basing it mainly on my experiences and making sense of them. I have been increasingly convinced during the past 40 years that the opposite of progress (as it has been conceived and practiced in modern times) is not backwardness or underdevelopment but being rooted in place, culture, and community; i.e., the opposite of progress is rootedness. The main medium in rootedness and community is mujaawarah, and the core value is wisdom. Prior to modern civilization, the main medium for learning was mujaawarah, and the main check against corruption and greed was wisdom. A main conviction in today’s dominant world is that there is a single undifferentiated universal path for progress. Modern civilization is governed by control, greed, and winning. Means of winning include controlling meanings and measuring people along a vertical line. Thus, co-authoring meanings and living in harmony with Imam Ali’s statement [“the worth of a person is what s/he yuhsen” – with the various meanings of yuhsen: what one does well, useful, beautiful, giving, and respectful] can turn things around and put us on the path of wisdom. Co-authoring meanings is a natural ability, a responsibility, and a right.

British occupation: transforming mujaawarah (neighboring) into muhaawarah (dialogue)

In his memoirs of Jerusalem during transition from Ottoman rule to British occupation, Wasif Jouhariyyeh mentions that a first regulation the British imposed was related to entering Aqsa mosque and its yard. Before that, the yard was open to people from different religions and backgrounds with no restrictions where, through mujaawarahs, they interacted and children played together. The British regulation assigned days for Muslims, others for Christians, and others for Jews – claiming it was to protect rights of all! That regulation transformed the yard from a place of hospitality and plurality into one which planted seeds of sectarianism.

That story reveals the role of mujaawarahs in learning and building community and in weaving the spiritual-social-intellectual-cultural fabric among people. It included collective memory that linked people with the past and with one another. The British replaced mujaawarahs (that bring people together) by muhaawarahs (that use words and concepts which usually pull people apart). The story reveals the “sweet” approach Britain usually uses in its “divide and rule” policy; how it uses words (rights, dialogue, regulations…) to control minds, actions, and perceptions.

Early roots of mujaawarah in my life, and during the 1970s

In 1948, at age 7, I (with my family) was uprooted from our home and community in Jerusalem and moved to Ramallah. For several years, eight of us (my parents, 3 aunts, two sisters and I) lived in one room. That room was where we slept, ate, played (especially in winter), and where my mother and aunts worked sewing clothes. Despite conditions and limited resources, those years were full of love, caring, and sharing within family and with neighbors; they formed, for me, the basis of the meaning of mujaawarah (though no one used the term at that time). With no TV then, evening gatherings of relatives, neighbors, and friends formed mujaawarahs where we (children) learned about community, culture, and life, and where the social fabric was woven every evening, and wisdom was instilled in us through stories we heard. Jokes and songs filled us with joy and happiness. Current entertainment comes via lifeless devices that cannot replace face to face interactions; if machines add to them, fine; if they replace them, we need to be cautious.

In 1967, Israel occupied the rest of Palestine, and in 1971 the Palestine Liberation Organization was expelled from Jordan. At first, we felt we lost our base but, soon, tremendous spirit, energy, and aliveness were manifested across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where groups were formed spontaneously and creatively (without hierarchy, authority, or budget) and did what they felt needed to be done and they could do. Those mujaawarahs were self-formed, self-ruled, and self-supported and, at the same time, they interacted in a mutually enriching way. They protected us from feeling desperate, lost, and indifferent; they spread without planning (no think tanks, no brainstorming, or any such violent terms). That autonomy and spirit of regeneration started disappearing when the Palestinian-Jordanian Committee was formed in 1978 to take care of us! Every time someone came to take care of us (from above or outside, and not reciprocally), we ended up being robbed of something precious. That helped me realize that the opposite of institutions is not chaos or anarchy but mujaawarahs.

It was during the 1970s that mujaawarah became an integral part of my thinking and doing. Its first manifestation was “voluntary work” groups. For 10 years, we met and decided where to go and work that week. No membership, no budget, no authority. Again, that autonomous creative spirit started disappearing when the “higher council of voluntary work” was formed in 1981 linking the work with political parties. I followed the path of mujaawarah in my work in schools where I encouraged students to form “math & science clubs” and meet on Thursdays after school, where each student would come with a question that s/he wanted to explore. They flourished until the Israeli military governor of the West Bank banned those mujaawarahs in 1976 (students continued their explorations at home; mujaawarahs depend mainly on what is available).

Mujaawarahs during the first intifada (1987-92) and beyond

Mujaawarahs were again the main factor in energizing and allowing us to do what needed to be done, during the first intifada (1987-92), when Israel closed all modern institutions (universities, schools, professional societies, social clubs…), which was a blessing in disguise, since closure of modern institutions helped revitalize rooted social structures which Israel could not close such as families, neighborhoods, and mosques which spontaneously and creatively regained their role in managing life affairs. Most significant was formation of neighborhood committees mujaawarahs especially in relation to learning and communal farming. Israel’s reaction to these committees was revealing. While it did not mind international conferences in Jerusalem denouncing closure of schools, universities, etc, it issued harsh military orders against those involved in neighborhood committees! That awakened me to the difference between “free thinking and expression” and “freeing thinking and expression”; the two freedoms are worlds apart. In neighborhood committees, people did not waste time denouncing and demanding; they freed themselves from such distractions and felt free to form groups to do what needed to be done.

In 1989, I resigned from Birzeit University and started Tamer Institute for Community Education which revolved around learning (without teaching) within “learning environments” where youth formed “mujaawarahs” around “reading and expressing” within the Reading Campaign [see my article “The Reading Campaign Experience within Palestinian Society: Innovative Strategies for Learning and Building Community”, Harvard Educational Review, Feb. 1995.] When I joined Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1997 I established the Arab Education Forum, which included Qalb el-Umour that consisted of small groups (mujaawarahs) in Arab countries who met regularly in order to produce magazines or videos about aspects in their lives.

Mujaawarah in two Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank (2008-2013)

Between 2008 and 2010, I worked with teachers and mothers in Shufaat Refugee Camp, and during 2012 until June 2013, in Dheisheh Refugee Camp with 16 young men and women. In Shufaat, I was amazed at what mothers were able to do under unbelievably bad conditions. Their knowledge in dealing with life in terms of providing hope and love, and having non-stop energy in managing and doing what needs to be done, for many people in small spaces was simply a miracle. I realized how shallow, naïve, irrelevant and blind modern words such as training and empowerment are! Mothers’ lives formed the main theme in my work with them. Their diverse knowledges are usually invisible to the educated, simply because we academics are unable to see what cannot be expressed in words, and measured by numbers.

In Dheisheh Camp, the project’s title was Campus in Camps. It took place under the umbrella of al-Quds University. The 16 participants and I walked our common journey along a rugged wild road in learning, enjoying the beauty, aliveness, and difficulties of the wilderness. We referred to it as “House of Wisdom” (inspired by Beit al-Hikmah in Baghdad 1200 years ago). Mujaawarah was the medium we used. It included unlearning much of what participants learned in controlled environments; re-thinking academic categories and professional terms and, instead, choosing words and meanings rooted in life and culture; and unplugging selves from modern superstitions such as the belief in a single universal path for progress. A most wonderful aspect of that experience was the fact that participants often shared our discussions with people in the camps.

Two other main mujaawarahs I was involved in

The first: A mujaawarah in January 2004 where ten practicing artists from 8 Arab countries joined Mohieddin Labbad (artist and graphic designer) in Cairo for several weeks. A book was produced that reflected what happened during and after the mujaawarah. Although they all had jobs and were busy, yet all went to Cairo. By being together, they felt they could gain a broader understanding of what they do, acquire new skills and perspectives, and learn to do better, what they were doing. The gathering was very inspiring and convinced us even more that such mediums (where the learner is driven from within and is responsible for one’s learning) should again become legitimate in educational institutions.

What took place in Cairo embodied several convictions: every person is a teacher and a learner (mutual nurturing); each person is uniquely complete (no one is a copy of another); learning involves building the inner world of each person and the social-intellectual-cultural fabric among people; listening is as important as speaking; and mature experiences precede or accompany words and concepts. Participants exchanged skills, publications, books and articles. Labbad’s workplace and all the people and places they visited, formed rich learning environments where friendships were developed and arrangements for future cooperation on common projects started.

The second main mujaawarah was with Sayyed Diwwi, a storyteller and last poet of the Hilali epic. Ten young people from 5 Arab countries participated in addition to storytellers from Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon. Participants visited a group of stick dancers in Mallawi and watched a performance by the group – which embodied, very nicely, learning through mujaawarah, where children were part of the performance all the time; they learned by neighboring those who had long and rich experience in dancing with sticks. In addition, participants neighbored storytellers in the Oasis of Siwah. [That mujaawarah in all its aspects was reflected in a book and a video.]

The Hawzeh (mujaawarah) in Qum, Iran

Two aspects fascinated me in the Iranian culture: poetry and hawzeh. I don’t know of any country in the world today where poetry is part of daily living and interactions other than Iran. What pained me most, however, was the absence of that rich culture in education. Until 6 years ago, hawzeh was still the main medium of learning in Qum. The decision to abandon hawzeh and adopt courses was strange. I was invited twice to speak at the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, where I tried to explain that the loss of mujaawarah is a loss not only to Iranians but to the world. I tried to explain that modern pedagogy is contrary to mujaawarah and yuhsen (both of which are contextual, relational, and form part of their culture). However, the power of academia which treats knowledge and people as commodities prevailed.

More thoughts on mujaawarahs

What was true about the mujaawarahs that I experienced was the fact that they did not need institutional terms and categories (such as evaluation, development, competition, success, failure, hierarchy, and authority). Instead, they needed reclaiming “organic” words such as muthanna, bahth, yuhsen, ahaali, hayy, ijtihaad, and tanaaqush (which I will elaborate on later).

There was often a need to discuss rooted useful knowledge vs. rootless verbal knowledge; knowledge that starts with life vs. fragmented knowledge that starts with academic categories; knowledge that forms a “universe” vs. one that claims to be universal; interconnectedness vs. interdisciplinary; knowledge as wisdom vs. knowledge as power; knowledge manifested in one’s lifestyle vs. one manifested in exams; knowledge connected to a place vs. one in artificial space. Modern universities confuse tools with values treating e.g. excellence as a value rather than as a tool that can serve different values; they focus on texts without context; on textbooks instead of reflective books; on research more than search. Knowledge one gets in Palestinian universities qualifies her/ him to apply to any university in the world but usually useless in one’s home place.

Mujaawarah can only be lived; it requires physical presence and face to face conversations. It happens at the communal level, where learning takes place in freedom, not fear. It can only happen with trust, honesty, mutual nurturance, among people who are ready to really listen to one another with full attentiveness. The stress is not so much on information and content as on re-thinking and unlearning much of what has been learned before entering the mujaawarah – including beliefs. Mujaawarah does not have to follow any particular format. It embodies a simple idea in the sense that it can be done by all people using what is available. Though simple, it is usually not easy, because it is contrary to what we were taught. All what mujaawarah needs are people who decide to meet over a period of time to learn what they want to learn, or do what they feel needs to be done, in freedom with no authority they have to please; a social structure where people learn, think, act, relate, and manage their affairs outside confines of institutions. It does not require license, budget, professionals or visible outcomes. It stresses convictions ignored in modern institutions such as every person is a source of meaning and understanding and every person is unique (cannot be compared with others along a vertical line). As a medium for learning, it is radically different from institutional learning. In mujaawarah, the subject of study includes people’s lives in the context where they live. Learning is not something a person gives to another (as in educational institutions) but something a person does to oneself (within a group) that involves sharpening character through actions and interactions. However, it is worth stressing that a mujaawarah is a medium not a value (a bunch of thieves can form mujaawarah); that’s why wisdom needs to accompany mujaawarahs we form or talk about.

Arabic Words crucial in mujaawarahs

I mentioned that in describing mujaawarahs, we need to reclaim words rich in meaning and rooted in life, culture, and community such as bahth (search), tanaaqush (discussion), ijtihaad (independent investigation of meaning), muthanna (dual), ahaali (people-in-community), hayy (neighborhood), and yuhsen (what a person does well, beautiful, useful, giving, and respectful). These words do not have synonyms in English; words I put help as “approximations”.

Bahth tells who the person is. Rumi said, “a person is what s/he searches for”. A person is not defined by the research one is involved in but what one searches for in life (suppressed in academia). In mujaawarah, everyone starts with what one searches for in life (which forms her/ his main contribution). This is crucial in knowing who we are.

Tanaaqush nicely describes the interaction within mujaawarah. Like most Arabic words ,it stems from a root (a verb). The root naqasha refers to chiseling a stone which usually means making it more beautiful. Ancient Arabs, it seems, saw the purpose of tanaaqush (discussion) is not to win but for the different parties to come out more beautiful. Discussion in a mujaawarah is not about ideas or opinions as much as about those expressing them; about what happens to them and relations among them. The purpose is to deepen understanding of self and life, and weave fabric with whom and what is around. Mujaawarah usually has an intellectual component, but within relationships where participants are mirrors to one another. It can help each person realize and confront one’s myths. Just like we need a mirror to see dirt on our face, we need human mirrors to see our myths – which all of us have, without being aware of it. In mujaawarah, one feels safe to confront one’s myths; this is probably the biggest gift people in mujaawarah can give each other: humility and readiness to be “converted”. The biggest conversion in my life (which was very hard for me to admit for many years) happened through mujaawarah with my illiterate mother, which was the longest I ever had in my life – when I became aware that her math was impossible for me to understand and do. It touched my deepest convictions and produced most profound conversions. The fact it started with math (which is considered universal) made the conversions more significant. Our relationship was one between two worlds that did not intersect (just like real and plastic flowers; my world being the plastic). Whereas she had understanding of why she was doing what she did, the main reason I studied and taught the math I was given is that it came from authority, whose power stemmed from symbols and perceptions.

Ijtihaad is a basic word in Arabic related to the responsibility (and ability and right) of every person to independently investigate and form meaning. Such meanings are connected to experience, reflection, freedom, dignity, and context. In mujaawarah, each person has to practice this duty; it is important in avoiding being consumer of meanings – a main engine of domination.

Muthanna embodies a relationship radically different from “one and many” or what is referred to as “the other”. It is a grammatical form representing a relation between two people that does not exist in any European language (except ancient Greek). Whereas Aristotle’s logic “everything is A or not-A but not both”, and Hegel’s logic “A and not-A can be combined to higher synthesis”, in the logic of muthanna A stays A and B stays B but the relation is important to both. It is not a legal, economic or any such bond. Whereas Descartes said, “I think therefore I am”, muthanna embodies “you are, therefore I am”: my existence is connected to yours, a relation between “I” and “thou”.

Hayy (neighborhood) and ahaali (people-in-community) are two other words connected to mujaawarahs. Hayy literally means alive; it is aliveness that characterizes a neighborhood and not just proximity or agreed upon rules. Ahaali refers to people connected to a geographical place, a common history and collective memory, and common culture. As a result of the Oslo agreement in 1993, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were transformed from ahaali to citizens. Whereas relationships among ahaali are basically to one another, basic relationship of citizens is with official institutions. The power of what happened during the 18 days in Cairo and during the 20 days in Istanbul (and in Tehran in 1978) reflect the fact that the spirit of ahaali is still alive in those cities; what happened form the biggest mujaawarahs in history. They were not revolutions or even evolutions, but manifestations of the deep human spirit that is fundamentally free, spontaneous, creative, incredible, and unpredictable. This rooted spirit is connected to ahaali. These aspects underlie the reason why I never felt as hopeful in my 72 years as I feel now. Young people did not get into dialectical dialogues but lived days where they shared hope, faith, and being ready to heal from modern illusions, superstitions, and categories that were dumped on them by institutions. Words such as success and failure are meaningless in describing what happened. The loss of the spirit of ahaali and the arrogance that exist in the West make it hard for people living there to see things in this light. [It is worth mentioning Newton as an example of such arrogance: he believed he discovered the laws God put in nature, which means he even limited the freedom of the Creator to be creative!]

I already spoke about yuhsen. I just want to stress it has been a most inspiring statement in my life. Since I read it in 1997, I feel it can form the vision for learning. Those who ask “how can 5 words form a whole vision?” can find the answer in what Naffari (an Arab Sufi) said in Baghdad a thousand years ago: “the wider the vision, the less the words we need to express it”.

The roots of formal education in our countries

180 years ago, a main problem Britain faced was how to rule millions of Indians by a small number of British officers. Macaulay (who was assigned by Britain in 1835 to put a strategy for controlling India) found the answer: “We must do our best to form a class… Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect (…) we have to educate [them]”. Over the years, his words were “recycled” and today they give the aura of professionalism and appear to be knowledge-based. [The Arab Human Development Reports as well as official conferences and initiatives in the Arab world are good examples of the recycled language that carries Macaulay’s logic. The new language includes words such as development, evaluation, empowerment, rights, governance, quality, and knowledge society.] Prior to British occupation, Indians learned mainly through mujaawarahs. In an argument between Gandhi and Nehru, Nehru asked angrily: isn’t your aim to drive the British out of India? Gandhi said that his “greatest worry is for the British to leave and their institutions stay”. The nature of the “beast” is not in people but in institutions. The values that govern actions and relationships within institutions are control and winning.

Mujaawarah vs. anarchy

A word that is used to describe how to deal with control and domination is anarchy. I suggest mujaawarah instead. Even people like Chomsky could not find an English word that embodies what mujaawarah does. He uses anarchism which he describes as “a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. They have to give a reason for it. And if they can’t, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just; anarchy is just that tendency, a conception of a society organized from below by direct participation with as little control as is feasible”. For many, anarchy has negative connotations and stresses intellectual words such as “organized from below”, “direct participation”, “little control”, and “dismantling authority”. We should not blame Chomsky for not finding an English word rooted in people’s lives, whose meaning grew out of experiences, and which can replace anarchy; the English language lacks such a living word. After all, why should the English (or Americans) invent a word for something that they don’t practice in their lives? In contrast to anarchy, the tendency that Chomsky talks about is embedded in Arabic in the concept of mujaawarah and in Hindi in the concept of swaraj – both spring from deep cultures and rooted meanings. Mujaawarah stresses confronting cherished beliefs in oneself; and swaraj stresses the primacy of self-rule (as Gandhi translates swaraj). Both stress looking “inward”, not outward, and both do not start with what they are against.

Throughout history, mujaawarahs were a main tool that people used to counter oppression; a main tool in protecting life, community, and sanity. Christianity started with a mujaawarah that consisted of Jesus and 12 disciples. For more than 300 years, Christianity flourished in the hearts, minds, and lives of people through mujaawarahs. It was not until Constantine declared his empire to be Christian that Christianity started to lose its soul. That declaration dismantled mujaawarahs and saved the empire from disintegration. However, the spirit of mujaawarah kept popping up every time oppression became intolerable. Liberation Theology in Latin America is one example. Another example is how ‘Occupy Wall Street’ resembles what the Palestinian Christ did 2000 years ago in Jerusalem: he carried a whip and led “occupy temple” movement, and drove moneylenders out! Similarly, Islam started with mujaawarahs, the first one consisted of Prophet Mohammad and his sahaabah (first followers). Again, that spirit kept popping up in Islamic societies every time oppression was intolerable. I witnessed that vividly in the first intifada when the “jaame” (one of two words used for mosque, which literally means “assembly place”) flourished as a place for mujaawarahs when Israel shut down all institutions. It became a place where people met to discuss what was happening, what they could do, and was also a place for distributing food and medicine. Every time religion became an institution, it lost that spirit. As for Blacks in the US, mujaawarahs around dancing, singing, and music were what kept them lively and alive and able to deal with unbearable oppression, for more than 200 years.

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What is interesting about organic flower plants is the fact that they have roots and they produce seeds. Those seeds are flown by winds into other places where they flourish and grow roots and produce new flowers and seeds. This is the lifecycle that embodies the spirit of regeneration. Similarly, mujaawarahs have roots and produce stories that can fly to other places, nurturing them and being nurtured by them. My dream is connected to this phenomenon: I believe the world is ready for “story-lines” where stories of mujaawarahs fly (just like airlines) in all directions – starting with those of the two big mujaawarahs: the 18 days in Cairo and the 20 days in Istanbul. The similarity in spirit between the two places is more than a coincidence; it is a “tale of two cities” of historical significance. After 100 years of tearing apart communities and peoples in the region (by Britain, France, and US), re-stitching the fabric within a civilization horizon, among peoples in the region (to include others later) is an idea whose time has come.

Ignoring the dangerous situation in the world and continuing to be hooked to institutional illusions and distractions will keep us blind to challenges we face in the real world. We have already entered a new era, which requires patience, trust, faith, and perseverance. What happened in Tahrir, Gezi and Wall Street reflect an understanding of life, which is profound, spontaneous, creative, responsible, and sacrificial, by people who had richness within, in relationships with one another, in their cultures and collective memories, communal roots, and common future. What happened was a surprise even to those who were there. It was not planned by the mind but stemmed from the heart – a manifestation of the miracle of life and rooted communal wisdoms. Without wisdom, life on Earth is doomed. Whereas destruction is easy, protecting life requires wisdom, time, patience, and faith.

Modern progress is built mainly on invention of tools. If, for example, 100 people meet in a hall, and one person has a loudspeaker, that person will be heard more than others, not because s/he has wiser things to say but simply because s/he has a tool. Most modern tools are connected to domination and control. Mujaawarahs that are connected to liberation are our tool.