Couple spreads Quaker values of peace in Mideast

If life were a dinner party, Paul Lalor and Floresca Karanasou would be the couple that tactfully explains to the man who has made a racist comment why it is inappropriate.

Of all the figurative dinner parties, the ongoing one in the Middle East has the most disparate guest list. So that's where 37-year-old Lalor and 33-year-old Karanasou live and work.

"But we're not just at dinners. We're walking on the streets, meeting people, going to conferences," said Lalor, who with Karanasou is headquartered in Amman, Jordan, where the American Friends Service Committee dispatched the couple three years ago.

A Christian sect founded circa 1650 by an Englishman named George Fox, the Society of Friends — also known as Quakers — is strongly committed to simplicity and peace. Like other Quaker representatives employed in embattled parts of the world, the husband-and-wife pair moved to the Middle East to further Quaker ideals by working toward a "peaceful resolution of conflict." They also tackle social issues such as women's rights.

As for how such lofty ideas manifest on a day-to-day basis, the pair explained during a recent stop in the Bay Area that they engage in "off-the-record" conversations with activists, grass-roots leaders, academics, journalists and officials of all persuasions in many Middle Eastern countries.

"One day we might talk to an Islamic activist in Gaza, and the same day meet with the leader of a settlers' movement," explained Karanasou.

The dinner-party etiquette often comes into focus.

"We discuss issues, listen to people's views, break stereotypes," said Karanasou.

The couple spends 60 percent of their time on the road.

Karanasou is Greek-born, while Lalor is Irish. The two met at Britain's Oxford University, where both earned doctorates in modern Middle Eastern history.

While neither husband nor wife is a Quaker, both say their work is influenced by that faith's principles of nonviolence.

They do work with the Middle East's two small Quaker communities, one of which is in the West Bank; the other in Lebanon. Both areas have Quaker meeting houses and schools for the handful of Quaker families who are the legacy of 19th-century missionary work.

Mainly the couple works with individuals closer to the conflicts, particularly in Israel.

They warn that the recent assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may have dire consequences, but only in the short term.

"Enemies of peace on the Palestinian side may feel there's still some chance to destroy the peace process. It's important to point out that possibility, so that when [terrorism] happens, people won't see it as the end of peace, but the product of circumstances," said Lalor.

As for extremist Jews, Karanasou said they will be further "isolated from public opinion" because Rabin's confessed assassin, Yigal Amir, is a right-wing, religious Jew. "But criticism of the peace process will continue."

Despite the couple's penchant for seeking out conflict, they say life in Amman has been peaceful. Lalor describes their block in the western part of the city as "like the easy life that my mother talks about in the old days of Ireland. You can leave your key in the door. People are welcoming to foreigners."

Both say they will miss Amman when their term there ends in January. After moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, where Lalor will teach and Karanasou will work in either education or consulting, they hope to return to the Middle East in the future.

"It's a part of the world we grew to love," said Karanasou.