Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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The 1995 International Peace Village.
 


59 Years of Promoting Understanding

Times change, but the essence of the International Peace Village remains constant.
By Michael Klitzing
 

With the big day fast approaching, the organizers of the Lebanese table at the International Peace Village are still mulling a crucial decision.

“We might do our cultural dance, the dabke,” said senior Mirna Farhat, an Arabic and Islamic Studies major who grew up in San Diego, but whose parents are from Lebanon. “But we have to get a consensus on that. We really want to go all out.”

For student participants like Farhat, making a lasting impression is no small matter.

The 59th International Peace Village — taking place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Nov. 18 in Montezuma Hall — is their chance to put their unique heritage on display for the entire San Diego State community. This year, domestic and international students will represent more than 40 different countries, such as Germany, Mexico, Sweden and China, expressing their cultures through song, dance, activities and conversation.

And by imparting their home countries’ traditions, they’ll be taking part in one of SDSU’s most enduring traditions.

Neptune’s lasting vision

Digging through The Daily Aztec archives, the earliest article on the festival dates to May 3, 1963. The curious headline, “Students Will Sing, Dance at Foreign Food Clambake,” and the fact that most of the article was a description of exotic foods, leads one to picture a famished reporter typing his story just before lunch.

But the International Peace Village always had a more ambitious purpose than culinary exploration. Originally known as the International Festival, the event began in 1958 as the brainchild of the late David Neptune, a peace activist who is said to have walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was one of San Diego State College’s first international student advisors.

“I think his vision was that international students needed a way to demonstrate something about themselves and their background and share it with everybody else,” said Jim Nesshiem, a close friend of Neptune’s who ran the International Festival from 1986 to 2000. “Its value to the campus is that it helps people recognize that the international students have something to share.”

Some things have changed since the early days. The International Festival was originally held on a Saturday night in the spring; now it’s held on a weekday in conjunction with International Education Week. Liability concerns also long ago removed homemade food from the equation.

But the heart of Neptune’s original vision remains.

“What’s kept it going is that the international students enjoy it,” said International Student Center Associate Director Jane Kalionzes, who has both planned the festival as a staff member and performed in it as a member of a Lebanese dance group. “Students don’t often have the opportunity to share their cultures, where they can just tell everybody about home. And they love it.”

Side-by-side

Through the years, the event has naturally reflected the political realities of the times. Kalionzes and Nessheim vividly recall an incident in the 1990s where a student from the Greek part of Cypress — an island long contested between Turkey and Greece — got heated with the Turkish Cypriot table. Nessheim had to step in to prevent things from escalating

But such flare-ups have been rare, and there have been many moments that transcended conflict.

“We’ve paid attention to who we put next to whom,” Kalionzes said. “But we did have an instance where an Iranian student and an Israeli student had tables that were side-by-side — and they wanted to be side-by-side.”

More than entertainment

This week Montezuma Hall will once again come alive with song and festive traditional attire. But many students see a deeper meaning to the International Peace Village than mere entertainment. What excites Farhat about the International Peace Village, even more than the chance to dance the dabke, is the opportunity to educate her peers.

“This is something to get people out of the norm,” Farhat said. “They learn about countries that they’ve never heard of or been to. It’s just a way to make people more open minded and give them different perspectives. I think it’s really important to do that.”