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Middle Eastern Students Learn That History Can Unite

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Within minutes of joining a mixed group of Jordanian and Maltese high school students learning about the importance of preserving cultural heritage for future generations, I realized that while historical narratives often serve to deepen conflicts, history in a general sense also has the ability to unite people.

The students were participants in the European Union's Euromed Heritage 4 Program, ELIACH (Educational Linkage Approach in Cultural Heritage), a fairly new project that over the past year has been working with teenagers from several Mediterranean countries to instill a universal love of historic sites -- regardless of where that site happens to be situated.

The Jordanian-Maltese meet took place last month in the Hashemite Kingdom, with students learning preservation and conservation techniques from some of the Mediterranean region's most renowned conservationists, archaeologists, historical architects and other experts.

The program is the brainchild of Professor Dr. Anna Lobovikov-Katz, a senior lecturer and researcher at Technion -- Israel Institute of Technology. I was sent to observe and write about the programme's objectives.

However, set against the backdrop of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and aware of the growing power of Jordan's anti-normalization movement, the organizers were concerned that even mentioning Israel's involvement could have a negative impact on the program and detract from its overall goal of bringing people together to protect cultural heritage sites for future generations to enjoy.

Of course with Israelis taking the lead on this project, it did not take long for this information to reach the students. But much to everyone's surprise, Israel's presence did not seem to deter from the workshop's ultimate success.

At the end of the four-day workshop, I was truly buoyed by the responses of this enthusiastic body of 15- and 16-year-olds, who quickly grasped the concept that a shared love of history can easily cut across borders to unite people, regardless of tensions on a political level.

"When the [Jordanian] participants first realized that Israelis were involved, they did not understand why they had to be here," one of the Jordanian facilitators told me during the trip. "I explained to them that cultural heritage is not a political issue and that it is of equal importance to all people."

"The goal is to create a sense of shared ownership among the students so that they will feel more responsible for taking care of the history and culture around them," explained Christophe Graz, who has been assigned by the EU to monitor the project's progress and implementation.

He admitted, however, that it had not been easy to bring all the countries together on this project because the issue of Israel's participation for some nations was politically sensitive. Ultimately, however, all those involved realized that concerns over historical preservation must transcend borders and conflict.

"This program offers a unique opportunity to encourage international intercultural dialogue between course participants in the field of cultural heritage protection," pointed out Lobovikov-Katz, whose partners include a distinguished team of experts from universities in Athens, Antwerp, Venice and Malta.

In conversations with the students, especially those from Jordan, I realized how quickly this concept can be turned into a reality if young people learn to appreciate history for history's sake and are not fed it merely for the sake of strengthening their own nation's narrative.

One of the Maltese students, 17-year-old Martina Bugelli, poignantly observed: "History does not belong to a certain country; it is a world heritage and I think that everyone should learn how past generations lived."

Bugelli, who also visited Jordan's most well-known heritage site, the 2,000-year-old Nabatean city of Petra, added: "It is a unique and irreplaceable landmark that belongs to all of us, to all humanity, and we must try to preserve and protect it for as long as we can."

This story was first published by the Search for Common Ground News Service