When I was younger, I knew very little about the Middle East or more specifically, Israel, beyond what I learned in the Methodist Sunday school and Catholic elementary school I attended in Washington, D.C. These lessons were, naturally, mostly devoted to the construction of cotton ball and black Crayola crayon sheep, punctuated by the retelling of biblical parables in language applicable to a child’s life—“don’t steal your neighbor's crayon because: God.” I also knew precious little about American politics. I’ll confess that from an early age, I was a huge fan of President Reagan because my parents bought me an enormous stuffed monkey that they named President Reagan—yes I get it now. The first time I ever cast a vote in my 1992 Blessed Sacrament School poll, I voted for Ross Perot because: Ross Perot. Other than that, my understanding of politics was largely shaped by a profound love of books about Jack Kennedy, of which there were more than a few in the library of my wonderfully Catholic elementary school.
It wasn’t until the start of sixth grade that I had a number of very important realizations: First, there were indeed presidents between Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and second, people from Israel were no longer called Israelites. The third and perhaps more profound realization was a glimpse of America’s role in this exhausting and often unrewarding quest for peace as detailed by President Jimmy Carter in his book Talking Peace.
My mother brought the book home with her one night and told me that in a week former President Carter would be signing books at The Cheshire Cat, a wonderful cubbyhole of a children’s book store on Connecticut Avenue in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington D.C.—walking distance from my school. Talking Peace was a book inflected by two different eras. The world in which it was published (in 1993) was a world of American ascendance, with a newly elected, can-do, president—Bill Clinton—who decided early in his first term that an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was worth the reputational risk. I didn’t know it then, but the Oslo framework was under consideration and, as a first step, longtime adversaries had finally formally recognized each other negotiating partners.
The world in which Talking Peace is set is a few years before my birth in 1982 when wide-tied leaders from Egypt, Israel, and the United States sat down to make history at Camp David—a story that feels profoundly important in the midst of the current carnage in Gaza. The 1978 Camp David Accords—which marked Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel as nation, the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, and a somewhat peaceful if grudging understanding between two nations—have endured for almost 40 years, and they are the reason the world can even contemplate a potential Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Some would argue that its omission of a deal on Palestinian statehood is one reason why over 600 people in Gaza have died in the last two weeks.
I deliberately use the word “leaders” instead of politicians, presidents, or prime ministers because that’s what my eleven-year-old brain thought they were when reading about those three men. It’s only now, in my thirties, countless dead Palestinians and Israelis later, that I understand the political risk that Begin and Sadat took when they decided to end hostilities—and the risk Carter took in shepherding the talks. Indeed the decision may have cost Anwar Sadat his life.
The man from my book, the president who facilitated a meeting that changed the world, was small behind his table, flanked by two men in suits and a publicist with pens handy.
What does it mean for an eleven-year-old Nigerian-American child with only the slightest clue about the wider world to learn that decades, centuries, and millennia of hate can actually be subdued by those bold enough to say “I believe in peace?" For me, reading Talking Peace meant a number of things. It opened my eyes to the world of foreign policy, statecraft, and diplomacy. It provided a template for what it means to do the right thing, even if the cost of doing so is extreme. It provided a perspective on leadership as a combination of stubbornness, a moral compass, and an appetite for risk. And it made me long for a life that addressed the world’s big problems that stem from man’s inhumanity to man.
It was warm the day I ran from school in my school uniform—navy-blue slacks, light blue shirt, navy clip-on tie—to The Cheshire Cat. The bookstore was across the street from a Safeway and a Circle Liquor, where my father bought wine from a bent, white-haired old man who gave kids of customers Dum-Dum lollipops instead of alcohol. I was the fifth person in line, and I held my book tightly as I waited for the Secret Service to secure the shop and then for the employees to usher us in. The man from my book, the president who facilitated a meeting that changed the world, was small behind his table, flanked by two men in suits and a publicist with pens handy. He looked like a white version of my grandfather. I couldn’t speak. I was overwhelmed. He smiled at me and shook my hand during the 30 seconds I had in front of him. Then he said “thank you young man,” as if I had done him a favor by reading his book.
Fourteen years later, I found myself at Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Lodge in South Africa’s Kreuger Park, watching Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Graca Machel, Mary Robinson—some of the original members of “The Elders,” a group of elder states-people convened by Mandela and devoted to tackling some of the worlds biggest issues—discuss how they wanted to approach an increasingly complex world. I was one of the original employees of the organization, having jumped at the chance to work with Branson’s team on developing this idea. After the discussion ended, I quickly slipped from my seat and over to the center table where I took a knee next to a visibly older, seated President Carter. This time I spoke first. I said “Mr. President. You have no idea who I am, but you signed my copy of Talking Peace when I was eleven years old. Thank you. You’re the reason why I’m here.”
Talking Peace is one of the few books from childhood that I still keep prominently displayed on my bookshelf.
Uzodinma Iweala is the author of Beasts of No Nation and Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, A Country's Hope.