BEHIND THE SCENES with Sandy Tolan

How did you discover this story

The Lemon Tree was part of the World Views documentary project my colleagues and I at Homelands Productions began in 1997 after receiving funds from CPB. The idea was to get beneath the surface of the news of the day -- international news especially -- understand what it felt like to live in the places that, to many "news consumers," are considered simply as regions awash with conflict but from which rarely emerge living, breathing people we can identify with. So, on the 50th anniversary of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War -- what Israelis call their War of Independence and the Palestinians their "Naqba," or catastrophe -- I set out for the region armed with leads, some initial ideas, and many books telling history from various perspectives -- Israeli military history, Palestinian oral history, the Israeli "new" historians seeking to re-analyze the earlier versions of history as told by Israelis -- and from these began to understand the context for the human stories I wanted to find

I interviewed many people on the ground in Israel, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, looking for a story that would somehow be both particular and that would also represent the dreams, traumas, and aspirations of two peoples. Earlier my wife, a Palestinian journalist who I met while on a journalism fellowship at Harvard, had suggested the story of Dalia and Bashir, who had lived in the same house before and after 1948, and who later had developed a difficult friendship based on this connection and shared history. Later an Israeli filmmaker reminded me of the story, and shortly later I met Bashir. He encouraged me to call Dalia, and with the two in agreement to proceed, I began a lengthy series of interviews

Why did it interest you and what did you think you could show through the retelling of it

A central reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two peoples, one land. There's actually a book by that title. Here was a story of two people in one house -- a powerful metaphor that was also a very particular story featuring two gifted, eloquent people. I felt as though a big portion of the conflict could be understood in a new way through the personalization of the narrative, and through as much use of their direct, unfiltered voices as possible. I wanted people to hear these voices side by side, to illustrate how the histories are both intertwined and distinct

You really get a strong sense of the passage of time in this work and how their relationship evolved. Did you cover it over a substantial period of time or did you create this feeling through the writing and production of it

I was on the ground for about six weeks on this story. Most of that was in the initial reading and pre-production phases described earlier, which were important steps that led to Dalia and Bashir. Once I found them, the work went fairly quickly. I sat with each of them, separately (Dalia in West Jerusalem, Bashir in Ramallah), for about four or five separate interviews each. I considered asking them to sit together, but felt that it would be contrived. Bashir didn't have permission to come to Jerusalem, for one thing, and the two hadn't seen each other in over a year. So I felt having the voices separate would be a more accurate reflection of the separation that exists in the region now

Can you briefly explain the story you are working on in the Middle East

The story, for American Radio Works and NPR's Foreign Desk, considers how the Arab World views the West -- both in a contemporary sense (U.S. policy in Israel, the sanctions in Iraq, the bombing of Afghanistan), and in an historical sense, which will trace the relationship back to the Crusades and, later, European colonial history and the turbulent events of the second half of the 20th century. The piece will cut a wide swath and the challenge will be in telling an historical tale while also giving it a sense of place, and reflecting the voices of the region

Do you see a connection between what you're working on now and The Lemon Tree

Yes, in the sense that Arab voices are not often heard clearly in the United States. There is an entirely separate history, culture, and perspective from this part of the world (I'm in Amman, Jordan as I write), one that is far from the image of Islamic zealotry often painted on television. The reality is far more complex and more interesting, and the cost of not hearing and understanding the voices from this region, I think, can be quite high

What impact do you hope these stories will have

To give a sense of what people in Egypt and Jordan think about the West, about America, to help reflect back to listeners something of how the U.S. is viewed in a part of the world where there has been so much American involvement -- and to show that this comes both from a long view of history here (Egypt, after all, has been a civilization for 7,000 years), and from the contemporary events that flood the television screen each night

Do you see, in these stories of misunderstanding and hate, anything that gives you hope

That's a hard one. But the answer has to be yes. Hopelessness is an overwhelming condition in any event. Quite apart from that, it's clear that since September 11, many Americans have become motivated to understand something about how the world views us. If these stories can help reflect another reality not much considered before, I'd hope they might make a modest contribution.