Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008 | One key to peace in the Middle East may lie bottled on Bonnie Stewart’s desk at San Diego State University — or so she hopes.

Stewart is a polyglot scholar with a million-watt grin who has mingled with Lebanese nomads, gauged water resources in Bangladesh, and consulted farmers from Yemen to Morocco, from Niger to Syria, in the 30-plus years since an unexpected summer vacation in Egypt turned into her calling.

Now Stewart is using the bottom line to promote peace, by getting Israelis and Arabs to make and market food together. As the executive director of the Fred J. Hansen Institute for World Peace, she builds bridges between Israeli and Arab agricultural entrepreneurs. Their prototype is still in the works: a blended olive oil made with Israeli and Palestinian fruit, to be marketed in Europe and the U.S. as a peace product.

“The whole concept is as apolitical as you can get,” Stewart said. Yet the Ph.D. believes it holds the seeds for peace.

“What better way than if you’re working together?” she said. “You both want to make money. You’re going to do what it takes to get the job done.”

voiceofsandiego.org joined Stewart at her photograph-spangled office to discuss Moroccan and Israeli travel restrictions, why U.S. soldiers should learn Arabic, and how olive oil fits into the quest for Middle East peace.

Why olive oil, and more specifically, why blended olive oil?

Let’s step back a bit on how this project evolved. In the early ’80s when the Hansen Institute was established, it was around the time of the Camp David peace accords. And at that time (Egyptian president Anwar) Sadat had made his historic visit to Israel and they identified agriculture as an area that they wanted to collaborate. It was something that was important to both their economies. … We met with (Israeli president, then foreign minister) Shimon Peres in the early ’90s and he wanted to expand these efforts throughout the region, Egyptians and Israelis and the U.S. and Moroccans together.

So he said, “We cannot take the leadership in this, but we would like the Hansen Institute to do that.’ (Israel couldn’t take the lead because diplomatic relationships were extremely limited at the time, Stewart later explained.) Which we did. … The program actually focused on integrated crop management but also on the use of treated wastewater in agriculture. And we had a significant amount of funding. But then (in 2000) the Second Intifada occurred.

With all these programs it’s a couple steps forward, a few back, four forward, five back and so forth. It’s a process. Peace-building is a process. And it’s not a static state — never will be a static state. Even a relationship between two people isn’t a static state.

There was a period of time where the programs were stalled. Then around 2006, the Peres Center (for Peace, a nonprofit founded by the Israeli president) contacted us and wanted to reinvigorate our programs. That’s when we launched this program using seed money from the Peres Center and the Hansen Institute. But we don’t really have the money at this point to support the whole product — producing the crop, managing the crop, dealing with insects, packing, marketing and selling, and innovation. The whole range. The entire value chain. …

So last year we decided, how are we going to do this? We decided to take a product and make it our template. So we chose olives. Or olive oil, because it had been further developed in the region. … (Farmers had already been sharing information and training on olive oil production.) And the idea of a blended oil, versus two oils, is that they would have to participate in the production, the bottling, the branding, the bottling, A to Z as one entity, versus two separate entities that would come together just to market the product.

Without the work of the Hansen Institute, would that kind of cooperation exist? Are there initiatives where farmers or entrepreneurs are getting together to do this kind of thing in the Middle East?

We’re a catalyst. … In the ’90s [Israel] was not really able to be the organizing entity in the region. It had to be an outside agency. But that changed.

Even in Morocco, when we first started our work, in 1992 there was no diplomatic relationship (between Israel and Morocco). So Israelis had to go to France and get an identity there, and then they could travel to Morocco. Two years later there were Israeli tour guides arranging tours for Israelis in Morocco. So things change. Things change rapidly.

… Sometimes when you have antagonisms, if you have a third party, just that existence of a third party is a mediating influence. But now we don’t necessarily have to be there to actually organize, as we were in the ’90s. That’s a tremendous accomplishment. In essence, our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.

What are some of the barriers you’ve encountered along the way?

Ironically, one of the most basic barriers has been logistics. Just getting the people to the different places. It’s always been our biggest problem. Even at our last meeting, our Jordan partners weren’t able to make it. We didn’t know at the time why. I’m still not sure why they couldn’t make it, which was a surprise because it’s easier for them to travel to Israel. Getting the Palestinians in and out is a problem. Getting the permits. Getting the people to Morocco was an issue. You have to send letters of invitation. Then they have to get approval from their work. Then you have to get the government approval and the logistics.

So getting everyone to the table to begin with is a challenge.

Right. And that’s before any work starts! … Once we get there, we can carry on business and create a plan. But getting the plans implemented is not as simple. Then you deal with communication barriers. The internet makes it easier; 10 years ago we had to depend on phone calls or faxes, or traveling.

You first came to Egypt because your parents were living there and ended up staying for two years instead of a summer, and then spent your career there. What drew you into the Middle East? What fascinated you?

I was actually focused on South Asia and Latin America. … It was just by chance. My dad took this job. He had this opportunity and he went over, my mother followed him, and they suggested that between my two degrees that maybe I come over and visit.

In all honesty I knew almost nothing about the Middle East. Nothing. When I got there it was such a shock to me. I thought I was well-traveled. I had traveled to Europe and Romania- — my dad had a Fulbright in Romania — and we went over there, we traveled all over America, so I thought I was a seasoned traveler. But I got to the Middle East cold. I couldn’t read anything, I couldn’t understand anything, the culture was completely foreign to me. Even the food was different.

I went into a panic state. I said, “I don’t think I can stay here.” So finally I decide, maybe if I learn the language. … And that made the whole difference. … I learned the language and the culture and I had some research projects I was working on. (Stewart subsequently worked in Egypt for the United Nations, the American University of Cairo and the Cairo Ministry of Agriculture.)

It just became such an incredible opportunity. My parents were great. They said, “This comes but once. It’s not going to be repeated. So if you want to stay, you can.” It was one of the most rich parts of my learning, far above and beyond what you can learn in an academic setting.

So I came back and realized first that, as a woman working in that area of the world — we’re talking about the ’70s — I had to have a Ph.D. It didn’t matter what I did in that region.

You mean that as a woman you had to have those credentials for people to take you seriously?

Yes. And second, I needed to keep learning the language, the economics, the culture, the history. … It was an absolutely fascinating area of the world — one that a lot of people didn’t know much about. So that’s how it started. It was completely, totally unplanned.

In the process, you’ve really crisscrossed the region, studying in Egypt, teaching in Lebanon, and visiting Israel. When you went to Lebanon you had to learn a different Arabic dialect … when you visited Israel, you decided you didn’t want to get an Israeli stamp on your passport. When you’re working somewhere where identity and nationality are so fraught, how do you identify yourself? What do you tell people about yourself, and are there things you can’t say?

You know what — the language issue is a problem. It’s a problem for anybody working in that area. I learned the Egyptian dialect and it became a liability in Lebanon, so I learned that dialect, and in the meantime I learned the modern standard Arabic. But in the meantime I had accumulated all this knowledge. There was a degree of respect that automatically cut out a bunch of those barriers.

I always identified myself as who I was. The only time I made an exception would be when I was traveling some of the real rural areas like the middle of Syria. When you’re living in a civil war you really sense your environment. And for the most part I never wavered. I was American even though they didn’t like Americans very much. But I spoke Arabic. I knew their culture. I had visited everywhere. I really thoroughly traveled the region and they respect that. In essence, that was my protection.

But sometime when I got in some really rural areas, I felt — well, I might have identified myself as Swedish or something else. It’s survival. … But usually I was an American. I definitely don’t blend in. Never did.

More recently, you’ve been training American soldiers in Arabic. What are your reflections on that work, and the view it’s given you of how well-prepared U.S. soldiers are culturally and linguistically for what they face in Iraq?

This was completely in response to our lack of linguistics capability in our military. I think 9/11 showed us that. My area of expertise was 30 years before the time. What I kept saying was so important. Only now in 2001 did that start to ring a bell.

This is a wonderful opportunity. You have to start somewhere. We have incredible faculty (at San Diego State University) who are Iraqi natives. … They have developed an incredible curriculum of teaching the language and the culture and the history in an intensive format for the Marines. I view that work in the same breath as the Hansen Institute. They’re trying to be peacemakers. And better they know the language, even if they only say hello, how are you, how’s your family — that in itself breaks so many barriers.

For example, the most obvious (cultural difference) to Americans going over there is that the Arabs tend to speak with their hands like I do, and they speak with a lot more energy. And sometimes you can interpret that as aggression, and it’s not aggression. They speak much closer, and we interpret that as getting in your face. And it’s not at all. I remember backing up at these meetings because I wasn’t comfortable with the close distance which was a norm there. Simple things like that will give the skills to our military to truly help rebuild, which is part of the peace process.

There’s so much symbolism in the olive oil project. Is that intentional?

Yes. The seven crops that we identified for this project are all mentioned in the Bible, the Torah and the Qur’an. They’re the fruits of the holy lands, and that’s why we identified them. It’s culturally important to all of the countries. It’s integral to their food habits. And they grow it. It crosses all those barriers.

When we were talking about the logistical issues, I was wondering — were there ever safety issues? Does it ever become physically unsafe for participants? Do they face threats for joining this project?

Absolutely. You can never be nonchalant about it. You always have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to be aware here, too — it’s not necessarily that different. … But I never mention names of the people participating. In the early days we couldn’t even meet in the region. … The very first group of Moroccans that I took to Israel, at the 11th hour they refused to go. They refused to leave the hotel because they were afraid. They were absolutely afraid. And when they got there they were pleasantly surprised. Even in Lebanon during the war there was an order to the war, a civility to the war, if you can call it that.

But there is always that risk. There are the fanatics for whom it’s a zero sum game. … In Egypt we had security guards with us 24/7. You don’t take undue risks. But there are risks, yes, and you deal with it.

How do you convince the participants to take that risk?

It’s part of the teambuilding we do. Most of

the people there are just like you and me. They want to raise kids. They want to raise their family in a safe, happy environment. The percentage of those who are making all these problems is small relative to the general population. So it’s not necessarily hard to find people that really support this process. Our news just doesn’t cover it.

But even among folks who are supportive — if they know there’s risk from that 1 percent (who are fanatical), how can you motivate them to participate despite that fear that they might be targeted?

The confidence builds as friendships are built. … They see the work that’s being done, the value of it. It’s a building process of feeling not only more confident about the security, but a commitment to the cause.

We’re really focusing on the economics too. In a way, the peace is a byproduct. We’re trying to build partnerships based on mutual economics through agriculture. … Shimon Peres has always made reference to the fact of the whitefly, which has been a problem for the olives of the West Bank. The whitefly doesn’t know boundaries. It’ll just as easily fly across to Israel. So it behooves both of them to address these issues in a collaborative way.

Correction: A pronoun “I” was inadvertently put into the text in place of the correct “they” in the orginal version of this article. The error unintentionally misrepresented Bonnie Stewart’s descriptions about the sensitivity of identifying herself as American. We regret the mistake.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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