The Echoes of Stories and Conflict Transformation: My (hi)story being in Beirut, 2019

Jutta Heppekausen’s essay is a sensitive discussion of the complexities of historical conflict, both for those who inflict suffering and those who experience it. Her frame of reference in this thoughtful, well-informed, and personal reflection is both the legacy of World War 2 in Germany, including her own family history, and the ongoing conflict in Middle East with its implications for our Playback Theatre community.

Editor’s notes:
Jutta’s use of the concept of echoes in Playback stories is somewhat different from my development of that idea. I welcome her interpretation.
Other than the teachers mentioned, all names are fictional.

 The Echoes of Stories and Conflict Transformation:  My (hi)story being in Beirut, 2019

By Jutta Heppekausen

3000 year-old Lebanon cedar

At the foot of my desk lamp there are two small pieces of tree bark – one has been there for more than 20 years, the other (as a photo) since a few days ago – pieces of trees of life that have an important meaning for me. Moments I don’t want to forget. The second one is from the bark of a 3000 year-old cedar tree from the Chouf Mountains, which, when we were there, rose, still snow-covered, behind Beirut. The first one is from an oak tree in front of a house in Überlingen/Bodensee. Many years ago, Grete Leutz, who brought psychodrama to Germany, conducted a seminar here together with Yaacov Naor from Israel.

Both tree barks belong together and to me. They help me to acknowledge all suffering – despite the differences of living conditions and of people’s actions.

Moden Beirut – restored but not healed.

During some rainy days in spring 2019 I conducted, together with Henk Göbel, Berlin, a workshop on “Playbacktheater and conflicttransformation”. With participants of the three Lebanese PT groups we worked on “the echoes of stories” (Jo Salas), conflict competences (William Isaacs) and how to make good PT in community work. Trying to position myself in PT-work and in this country, I said as we began that I understand the situation in Lebanon also as an echo of the history of my country, of Germany, of the Shoa/Holocaust. It is only now that I recognise how much this is true.

I am the daughter of a mother born in 1918 and a father born in 1907. They experienced two wars. They carried them and also their consequences: Poverty, abandonment, exclusion and the desire to belong, struggles to understand the crimes and to survive afterwards – not as people persecuted by the Nazi regime, not as perpetrators, but as bystanders. My mother, evacuated from the Saarland, and working as an accountant in Mainz, in the office of the department store “Sinn” (Sense), witnessed the dignified submission of an elderly gentleman signing the “purchase contract” for the aryanization of his department store. She felt sorry for him — and continued her work. In the forties she wandered through the beautiful Alsace and wondered about the empty villages. Jews had lived here. They had all emigrated, she was told, and she believed it. Then in Dresden, when she saw a little child playing in the backyard shortly before the firestorm, she was touched. The little girl was not allowed to protect herself in the bunker from the bombardments, for she wore the yellow star of David. My mother told me this story when I could finally listen to her, unlike in the seventies, when I couldn’t. My mother was a courageous and energetic woman, having been left early by her father – she insisted on having a school education against the will of her depressed mother living in poverty. She later refused to join the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädchen – League of German Girls, the only legal female youth organization in Nazi Germany). at the cost of exclusion from the school community, she threw firebombs from the attic, and, having been evacuated to a Bavarian village, she led cows to the barn by the nose. As a single parent, skinny and with a suppurating breast, she breastfed her first daughter. Later on, she managed to raise a family, because my father, her great love, had moved to other mental spheres. After her second child he forbade her to work and compelled her to live as a housewife. But she had little motherly love at her disposal. She avoided the suffering of other people, demanded perseverance from us in everything that was difficult – and supported us in this to the best of her ability. She had little strength for empathy and lived in an only fragile peace with herself. She could never really acknowledge the suffering of others. Early widowed and only after living a more self-determined life at an older age was she able to allow herself to be touched by her own losses and the fate of others.

No, this is not a Holocaust story. It is a story of times full of violence, taboos and struggles to survive. It is a story of a hard shell choking compassion. It is not a story of justified inaction during fascism. It is simply my personal (hi)story.

When I was nine, my older sister tried to explain to me the photos of human skeletons from Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz. My mother’s horror of the bombings at night was transferred to me through the body, when she held my hand as we were going through the market and when, during the exercise of the sirens which used to take place on Saturdays at twelve o’clock I suddenly felt the tension of her hand in mine. When I was fourteen, I fell in love with Aouni, whose family had to flee to Lebanon in 1948 – and I drew up a helpless “peace proposal” for the Middle East. I first fulfilled our mother’s mission to educate ourselves for her own dream job, as my sister did – and then we continued on all sorts of detours. Both of us try to make a connection between an alertness to power and exclusion and the strengthening of the capacity for empathy, or even better ‘Zweifühlung’ (‘mutual empathy’, a Moreno term from psychodrama) and to integrate this into our professional, political and personal commitments in life. This is how I came – most recently with playback theatre – again and again to Israel/Palestine and now to Lebanon. Perhaps it is the echo of German ( hi)stories that led me to support and learn from the valuable work of Lebanese, Syrian and Kurdish playbackers in this beautiful Levantine country destroyed by war and continuing colonisation. The wounds inflicted by the empathy blockade of my parents’ generation are now bleeding in the Middle East. Some of us have tried to learn from this and perhaps we can share this learning with people “Down South”. We may never really understand each other’s different echoes, but shouldn’t we continue struggling to explore them?

Our theme at the Beirut workshop was: How can playback theatre contribute to conflict transformation? It was about dialogue competences (voicing, listening, respecting and suspending – according to William Isaacs) and the four echoes of the stories in playback theatre (personal history, here and now, socio-political and historical contexts, archetypes and myths – according to Jo Salas).

Dialogue competences (Isaacs)

For us the goal of playback theatre consists in condensing artistically these echoes and thus bringing the multitude of stories onto the stage that may not have been told publicly yet. Especially in the context of conflict transformation, these may be particularly the stories of those who talk about suffering.

One of the many conflicts – even within the PT community – accompanied me in my Lebanon plans: Some time ago, a playbacker from Israel told me how shocked and sad she was when, at an international meeting, Arab colleagues abruptly rejected her open arms. Here in Beirut, I heard the same story from the other perspective, namely how the Lebanese colleague, during a get-to-know dance, experienced the spontaneous embrace of an unknown woman from Israel as deeply encroaching. She then asked for a mediation in which it was recognized, at least, that joint photos with Israeli participants means a threat to Arab playbackers, because as long as no peace treaties have been signed, any contact between people living in Lebanon and Israelis will attract the interest of the secret service. These socio-political echoes should be known, shown and respected in our community.

Sabra, one of the Palestinian refugee camps in the middle of Beirut

But that was not the whole story and still far less its end. I think it was probably more about mutual recognition: about recognition of the suffering on both sides. From a Lebanese perspective a recognition of the suffering caused by Israeli politics, which caused the exodus and diaspora of many generations of Palestinians, profoundly affecting this small country, of Israeli bombs and tanks in Beirut, of Israel’s complicity with the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, of the needs of refugees in the camps, ongoing war threads and Israeli dominance in the region.

We heard and saw the echoes of such stories on our playback stage in the workshop. Perhaps it was about the recognition of anger and fear, pain and grief – and of course all that cannot be wiped away with a mute hug.

From an Israeli perspective, it may be about decades of unfulfilled longing for a life in peace after the echoes of the Shoah, which have not yet died away, the extermination of millions of European Jews by Germans and the ongoing persecution, murder and discrimination of Jewish citizens in Europe and other countries. There are more than a few Israelis who are certainly also concerned to have their deep desire for understanding their close neighbours recognised. And last but not least, the conflict is probably about the still controversial recognition of the right to a state – 18 of the 22 members of the Arab League do not recognize Israel to this day, a state that is a more or less safe home for a population whose Jewish part still carries the wounds of the Holocaust in their heart. Most Jewish and Arab people in this region know fear. This fear has a long history, with many different long stories. It is unbearably difficult to understand the others in these stories, and one’s own contradictions. The shrill or whispered echoes of these stories we would perhaps like to refute with a hug. This seems impossible to me.

On the political level, the decisive dividing issue is the recognition of Israel as a state. Arab playbackers demand that their Israeli colleagues distance themselves from the policies of their state and condemn the injustice of Israeli politics. For citizens of Lebanon this might be the only way that any cooperation with Israeli citizens will not be seen as a betrayal of their country’s fight against Zionism. For good reasons – like the attention of secret services – people from Arab countries can fear that working with Israelis will be seen that way in their country. And here is a trap: Israeli playbackers suffer wherever they are from being held accountable for the policies of their state instead of being perceived as individuals with their special opinions and (hi)story (“But I am just Tali, please look at ME!”). Sometimes they have well-founded fears in the streets of Germany or any other country of coming out as Israelis abroad, e.g. during a mobile phone call talking with their kids in Hebrew. For all Israelis this piece of earth is their home, where they were born and grew up. It may be the only country in which the Jews among them can feel really safe from antisemitism. In the heated debates in a war-torn region, calling for public criticism of government policy quickly becomes a fundamental issue. Any positioning thus could be heard, unwittingly, as a declaration that the existence of their own homeland is unjustified.

There will be no agreement on these political positions in the foreseeable future, I fear. So what, in this case, is conflict transformation and what role can Playback Theatre play in it?

The issue is recognition, recognition of any kind of suffering – and thus recognition of every person as a human being. Of every human being. Our stages invite you worldwide to tell your personal experiences and truths that come from the heart (voicing). Recognizing these different truths (respecting) sounds much easier than it is. Also, in other places of the world as well as in the Middle East there is a kind of competition (someone once spoke somewhat sarcastically of a kind of “Olympics of suffering”) about which suffering is the worst and should therefore be acknowledged more. In playback theatre we can give a stage to all suffering, regardless of who experienced it where and how and who carries it inside. We can listen with all our pores, resonate, express with our art what we have recognized. We can include what we want to know and show about the person. And we can and should learn from the differences of living conditions that are significant in these very personal experiences (personal history). We can show to the community which is present the values that make it possible for us to tell our story (Here and Now). For example, depending on the culture, some stories of same-sex love can be shared honestly in only certain venues. We can use body, voice, words, music, boxes and scarves to make the voices that may have been hidden in the story heard. We can hint at the past and future history in these stories that belong to it, like the voices of conservative forces with great influence in a village or a city and the resulting suppression of same-sex love. The echoes of a lack of stability in times of flight and war, even when these have disappeared on the surface, cannot be ignored in stories about confusion and feelings of guilt and betrayal (socio-political and historical context). And we can use the power of myths, fairy tales and archetypes. This is not about magic wands to relate unrealistic solutions, but about images that dare to show suffering clearly as a human experience and acknowledge it – avoidance is useless. Thus, we saw on stage the tragic story of a Syrian, who had managed to settle in Lebanon, about the impossibility of participating in the funeral of his sister and the grief of his family beyond the border. In this story, a strangely archaic figure suddenly appeared: a wanderer who never gets tired of walking on with his heavy luggage, planting trees wherever he rests. Such stories, passed on from generation to generation over the centuries, convey an ancient knowledge of survival and confidence that is sometimes forgotten in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. After all, it is about hope. Heraclitus already knew: “If he does not hope for it, he will not find the unexpected, because it is untraceable and inaccessible.” (The same will probably be true for her.)

We cannot find solutions, but we can open a space, as in Rumi’s poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When we meet in this space, we are positioned very differently. We need a lot of knowledge and sensibility about these differences. Experience has shown that it is not as easy for those who are positioned “above” to perceive clearly how those positioned “below” feel and live. Those who are taller (even physically – as a tall person, I know that myself) and stronger, those who have more influence, who by chance have been born into more socially privileged lives, can have blind spots and may have good reasons from their point of view not to see these differences. That may not be intentional or even conscious at all, but it may protect against unpleasant challenges, against changes, perhaps also against feelings of guilt, which can block the acceptance of responsibilities. Can playback theatre broaden the view? Can it open eyes, pores and heads further for an equally empathetic, resonant gaze that knows about the political and historical contexts as well as about the ancient sources of human strength for a good life (listening)? That is my hope.

To embody this hope I found the piece of bark of a 3000 year old cedar in the Chouf Mountains, where the war had raged badly. What did this tree hear, what did she give, what does she “know”? And she still stands there, protective, a big cradle containing still untold stories.

Some of those stories were finally told in that 1995 seminar with Grete Leutz and Yaacov Naor. The latter, a psychodramatist from Israel, son of Auschwitz survivors, was born in a camp for displaced persons in Germany. He had worked for many years with descendants of persecuted persons, perpetrators and bystanders on the subject of “Facing the Holocaust”. One of many stories particularly impressed me: A daughter told of her love for her father, for whom she would wait impatiently in the evening. Every evening she ran towards him as soon as she heard the humming of his car down the hill, and then would sit next to him, leaning her head against his shoulder as they drove up the mountain to their home. Much later she learned her father was a murderer. He was one of the guards in a concentration camp. This woman, like so many of her generation, has spent years dealing with the German history of fascism and the question of her responsibility. At the end of the work with this scene, the issue on one level was to acknowledge both the condemnation of this man’s murderous actions and her love for him as a father. Out of this unbearable tension this woman became profoundly sensitive to violent relationships and developed a commitment to human rights. She chose a profession with which she wanted to heal people’s wounds. I saw similar things happening with the social workers in Sabra and Shatila, with the community workers at the intersection of the three front lines in Tripoli, who – like Yaacov Naor – decided to deal with their own wounds through their work on conflict transformation.

“This is my way to come to terms with my suffering,” one of them told us. They share the experiences of the people they work with, but not always their ethnic or political or any other kind of affiliation. They respond with concrete support for all those who need and can accept it. But this is not the end of the story. The contradictions still tear many of them to pieces again and again. New contradictions keep arising and such synthesis formation/integration is a continuous hard work. But distinguishing between the person, between the human being (with all human rights) and his/her actions (which sometimes have to be condemned with all its consequences) remains a necessary perspective.

This playground, close to a future PT stage, was built by neighbours in conflict, facing the ruined houses at the intersection of three front lines from the civil war.

Within the worldwide playback theatre community we can and should also learn to share and perceive differences; to share our knowledge and our judgement concerning right and wrong even if we cannot agree about them in every detail. Only in a very few cases could we come to an agreement. For example: As long as there is no peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab states, the citizens of these countries, including the playbackers, will be unable to agree on their position on Israel. At the same time, however, if we ignore history and current inequality in our dealing with each other and on our stages, we may risk unintentionally reproducing relations of domination. We need an ongoing, never tiring interest in the life conditions of all of us. What we have in common is the recognition of human rights and the recognition of individuals. We can express both with all the respect that our art requires. In order to be able to do this we need to pause continuously (suspending). We need the silence within ourselves, which allows us to hear all the echoes of the stories that the others tell about themselves.

The conclusion of the seminar “Facing the Holocaust” in the subterranean tunnels of Überlingen was such a memory. Those tunnels served during the Second World War, after the bombing of Friedrichshafen’s industries as ‘bomb-proof’ containers of arms. For a long time, the seminar participants stood there in silence around a fire and seemed to hear the echoes of the 800 prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp who had to blast corridors into the rock and remove the remains. At least 243 prisoners did not survive. Yaacov spoke about hatred that destroys life. We, descendants of the persecuted, the exterminated, as well as the murderers and their helpers, experienced together with him a moment of life. Standing around the memorial candle in this dark tunnel we felt the space where we could meet despite of all our profound differences.

For me, this is what the piece of bark from the tree of life stands for. The bark from both trees of life, in two different continents, are deeply connected.


Jutta Heppekausen, Canyelles/Barcelona/Freiburg April-August 2019.

Jutta is the founder of “Blickwechsel – Playbacktheater Freiburg“, international PT-trainer (APTT of the Centre for PT, N.Y. and the German PTN), living and working among Spain (Barcelona) and Germany, interested in experimenting and reflecting about PT work in social change, esp. in contexts of racism, sexism, classism and all other “isms”, trying out the magic impact of PT-art





3 thoughts on “The Echoes of Stories and Conflict Transformation: My (hi)story being in Beirut, 2019”

  1. Dear Jutta,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections about “conflict transformation” using Playback Theatre.
    I, too, traveled to Beirut in 2016 and studied Conducting with Jo Salas and a strong group of Arab/International Playback artists. I was the only American (that is U.S., but there was no Central or Southern American either) and the only Jewish person. And I returned to speak about “Important Conversations I had in the Middle East”. A condensed version of two of the most important conversations went like this:
    1. Z: I never met a Jew before. Jews are our enemies.
    Me: Not all Jews agree with Israel; Israel does not speak for me.
    Z: I never knew a Jew could be an anti-Zionist.
    Me: Now you do.
    2. Me: When we speak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-
    F: No “conflict”.
    Me: OK, when we speak of the Israeli-Palestinian problem-
    F: No “problem”.
    Me: OK, then what do we call it?
    F: What it is. Occupation

    Words matter. So, what kind of “transformation” can we actually attain with Playback? I don’t think we can aspire to “conflict transformation” of the Israeli Occupation as it is not a conflict. We can, I agree, apply “suspension” and try to listen more deeply for the echoes of each story. It might lay a path to recognition of harm done. Of course, most Israelis do not face the Occupation on a daily basis which allows for a distorted sense of horrific Israeli impact on Palestinian lives The Israeli government, with the support of its people, have built a Wall to keep the Occupation out of view and exclusive roads, sidewalks, water access and settlements for Jews only.
    I appreciated your description of what a close Palestinian Playback artist calls “normalizing relations” by not accepting unrequited hugs and stopping to question (hopefully, to understand) what appears to be rejection.
    Ultimately, “conflict” implies two equal parties in dispute who might sit down at the table and talk. There is nothing equal about the Occupation and I would be hard pressed to find a table.

  2. this article was sent to me by a long-time friend (whom I’ve not seen in 25 years or more). She sent it because she thought I might be interested. I DID find it very interesting, as I too (like everyone in the world) have a history:
    My Jewish parents got out in time BEFORE the shoah. The rest of their families stayed in Poland and Austria; except for the ones who got to Palestine in 1936, they “went up the chimneys”, and I grew up very aware of the shoah, as I had no uncles, aunts, or grandparents.
    Another relevant part of my history is my ties with Israel. My daughter lives there, on the border with Gaza, and rockets come in and rockets get sent back. ‘Nuff said. No one will probably read this anyway, but I’m glad that there are people who are interested and active in healing old wounds …. which still cause anger and heartbreak!

  3. Hello Jutta,

    thank you for your story. I never thought about Middle East conflict as a result of Holocaust wounds. Thank you for allowing to see this perspective.
    I am always amazed to read about this kind of work, about work with urge to help world, heal wounds of people wounded in history. It is something new to me- something I never have experienced, something I do not understand. (I am from czech republic, and I was born in 1995).
    Thank you for your story, Jutta. I give you my look and sit down on wooden box.

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