The Power of Narrative Training in Communities with Factional Strife
Reflection written by Nizar Farsakh, LCN member
When my Iraqi friend approached me to run a leadership and advocacy training of Iraqi activists last year, I got very excited but also very apprehensive. She and I had worked before in a progressive MENA region focused think tank and she knew I would be able to give the activist powerful trainings. Having been born and raised in Dubai in the 1980s to a pan-Arab household, the Iraq-Iran war and then the Kuwait war figured prominently in my family’s conversations. Later in 2003, I would join the “Million March” in London against the war. I therefore was very eager to get involved in building the new Iraq, but also very wary of the complexity of the issues. Luckily, my friend talked me into it and I found the experience to be exceptionally rich and rewarding; not only for my personal development, but also for the development of narrative training.
The program brought young fellows from across Iraq to build their leadership capacities. It focused on building their advocacy and campaigning skills but, more importantly, on getting them to work together and see the benefits of collaboration. The fellows were a diverse group from all corners of Iraq; Arab, Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, religious and secular. Yet, the power of listening to the stories of others, their fears, their challenges, their choices, and their sources of hope, made many of them see beyond their traditional boundaries of identity and politics. In fact, at the end of the third day I mentioned to them that I noticed how the Kurds were listening intently throughout the three days when the Arabs spoke, and likewise, the Arabs all put on their translation kits to make sure they heard what the Kurds had to say. I pointed out to them how that in itself was a commitment to each other, to listen and learn, and to work together. That commitment is a form of Story of Us, of shared values.
The narrative part of the training focused on how to use narrative tools in advocacy campaigns. We went through the four types of challenges (Loss, Difference, Change and Power) then each small group shared stories of times when they faced some of these challenges. The two that resonated the most were Power and Change. For the former, the women spoke of stories of glass ceilings, lack of opportunities and even harassment. The choices they’ve had to make on whether to comply in order to survive or resist also in order to survive. But it was the narratives of Change that rang true to most of them. The religious and secular spoke of the challenges in persuading their communities on the best way to address the fast pace of change they were facing. The choices of whether to accept some change in order safeguard the bulk of tradition or whether to keep some of the tradition in order to enable more change. In their case of course, the themes had to do with the previous regime, ISIS, and the role of religion in the state. More importantly, they understood that, as activists, they are all engaged in change in one form or another. Therefore, they needed to listen carefully to their community’s stories of change and how are they making sense of the change championed by the campaign.
Going into the training, I had two challenges. First was the diverse languages among a single group. We had a few Kurdish participants who did not speak Arabic and required simultaneous translation. I was very concerned about what would be lost in translation as fellows shared their stories. I therefore made sure to send the materials to the translator in both languages ahead of time in order for him to absorb the terms and internalize the concepts. I also shared my story of self with him so that when I told it live for the group, they would receive a more authentic translation in real time. It turned out well!
The second challenge was that I was an ‘outsider.’ I started with my story of self, and shared the shock, disillusionment and hopelessness when I witnessed the internecine fighting between Hamas and Fateh in Palestine in 2007. And then how narrative training taught me how to access resources of hope. My modeling of vulnerability helped open up the fellows to each other and got them out of their shells. One of the Kurds who had been very cautious at the start of the training, shared the story of how he witnessed his faction write the name of their party with the blood of their Kurdish rivals they had just slain in battle. He too felt the same shock and disillusionment I did in 2007. He said that in those three days of training, he realized that his community’s problems of underdevelopment, corrupt leadership and disengaged citizenry are not that different from the challenges of the Arab fellows, Sunni and Shia, secular and religious. He started seeing a larger community of fellows, coming together on shared values and working for the betterment of all their communities.
That moment for me captured the essence of the training. I felt like I really made a difference, in real time. I learned that training people on narrative is not about formulas or performance. It is about being a stand for the people you are trying to enable. It is about community and it is about commitment to change. As one narrative student in the Harvard class said: “Narrative training is no
t putting a gloss from outside. It is about the glowing from inside!”
Reflection written by Nizar Farsakh, LCN member