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How jokes, stories and dreams helped make my Middle East trip peaceful

A year ago I went to Israel to perform at the Israel Storytelling Festival, and, while there, went to Ramallah to visit a Palestinian friend, a scholar of folklore. We had met in Europe three years before, and I had a standing invitation to come across the border for a coffee.

When I mentioned to my Israeli friends and family that I had a friend "over there," they cautioned me against the trip. They were also surprised that I, a Jew, had a Palestinian friend. I pointed out that an invitation was an invitation, that artists don't have as much regard for borders as politicians, and that this particular friend told marvellous stories she'd collected from Palestinian women – stories worth crossing borders to hear.

I took a taxi from Jerusalem, passed through the checkpoint, drove through the bustling and confusing streets of Ramallah and miraculously found her apartment building. We had strong coffee and ate a delicious lunch with her 14-year-old son. I may have been the first Jew her son had met who wasn't wearing a uniform. He loved telling risqué jokes, and I suggested, scandalizing his mother, that he consider a career in stand-up. She was hoping he would become a doctor or lawyer.

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Later, we went to a café and, over ice cream, swapped stories of Hodja Nasrudin, the "wise fool" of the Middle East. These subversive stories are relished by Jews, Christians, Muslims – Hodja stories cross all frontiers and borders.

She told me about the time Hodja was asked to give a speech at the mosque. When he came to speak, he forgot the words he had memorized. He said, "My friends, do you know what I've come to speak about?" No, they replied, they didn't. "In that case," said Hodja, "how can I tell you? I'll come back next week."

It happened again: He forgot everything, asked the same question and, this time, remembering what had happened the week before, everyone said, "Yes, Hodja, we know!" "Good. Then I don't have to tell you!" He walked away.

The third week, he forgot his speech again. "My friends, how many of you know what I've come to speak about today?" Half of them said, "We know!" and the other half cried, "We don't know!" "That's fine," said Hodja. "Let those who know tell those who don't!" And he never gave that much-promised speech.

Ramallah and Tel Aviv must be the world capitals of carpe diem. The media rarely reports on the sheer joie de vivre, warmth and hospitality that animates both Israeli and Palestinian society. One thing I noticed, however, was that hope was a forbidden topic. After so many years of bitter disappointment, nobody on either side of the wall wanted to imagine or talk about the future.

My first night in Israel I had a dream. The negotiations were taking place, but on one condition: Nobody could talk. Everything was being negotiated through a board game, a bit like Monopoly. The settlements and refugees, borders and blockade – it seems that once words were taken out of the game, the players could concentrate on the real issues. By the end of the game, everything had been resolved and peace had been achieved.

When I related my dream it provoked rueful laughter. Most of my Israeli friends said they didn't care if the Palestinians ever said the words "Israel is a Jewish state." They just wanted an end to violence. And my Palestinian friend had long ago stopped caring about the words of politicians. She just wanted her son to live without checkpoints and walls.

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I reminded her that all the walls of human history eventually fall out of fashion or use. It will certainly be that this wall also becomes unnecessary, although probably not for a few generations.

I had a storyteller's fantasy about the wall while I was there. (The purpose of storytellers is to give voice to the possible in the midst of impossibilities.) One day the Israelis and Palestinians could take all those mighty slabs of concrete, pile them up on whatever border they finally agree to, cover their new mountain with trees and name it Mount Used-To-Be-A-Wall.

People would make pilgrimages from around the world to stand at the top, look in all directions and say to each other: "Did you know that this used to be a wall?" Talk about a boost for tourism. What a joy it would be to stand on that mountain!

Before leaving the café I told my friend a story that was told to me by an Israeli storyteller who heard it from an Arab friend (what goes around comes around, even if it goes through a checkpoint to get there). A man left his land in the care of another man. The other man took good care of it for a long time. The man came back and asked for his land, but the other man said no – he had cared for it for so long and made it so fruitful that the land belonged to him now.

They had a quarrel, and asked a judge to resolve the dispute. The judge happened to be Hodja Nasrudin. "The land belongs to me!" one man shouted. "The land belongs to me!" shouted the other. Hodja got down on the ground and put his ear to the earth. "What are you doing?" they asked. "I'm listening," he replied. "What are you listening to?" "The land." "And what does the land have to say?" they asked incredulously. Hodja looked up: "The land says that both of you belong to the land."

I left Ramallah and returned to the storytelling festival. It occurred to me that if enough stories manage to pass through enough checkpoints, the people on both sides of the wall may one day rekindle their belief in a neighbourly future. Futures, after all, come to pass, whether or not we're able to talk about them ahead of time. Perhaps real wisdom will come not from the sermon Hodja the wise fool keeps forgetting, but when both halves of the assembly start talking directly to each other.

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Dan Yashinsky lives in Toronto.

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