“All aboard the vehicle to peace!” said Soliman one recent morning at a Manassas warehouse. He was there to inspect his new truck, which has both the Star of David and the Islamic symbol of the crescent moon painted on the side.
Washington is a magnet for offbeat activists, but even by this city’s standards, Soliman’s strategy may seem eccentric.
So forget the muddy public spaces of Occupy D.C. and what may be the country’s longest-running anti-nuclear peace vigil by protesters-in-residence in Lafayette Square — soon Soliman’s food truck will be parked at colleges, mosques, synagogues and churches in and around the nation’s capital.
Soliman, a novelist and retired Energy Department staffer, hopes that if the Washington truck is successful it will help fund at least five more trucks in cities such as Chicago and New York, along with trucks in Israel and the West Bank.
“It’s just one spark,” said Soliman, whose round face was freshly shaved above his green pullover sweater. “Hopefully it will bring people from different backgrounds, who are waiting on line, to talk together.”
He retired after 25 years managing the U.S. government’s often problematic energy collaborations with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia. If that sounds like real work, hard work, headache-inducing work, that’s because it was. “Deals would fall apart,” he said.
This time around, he’s opting for a far more direct approach.
“It’s this really clever way to get Arabs and Jews to take a sort of communion together,” said Libby Traubman, co-founder of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue, which tries to facilitate interaction between Arabs and Jews. “It think it will work because, well, everyone likes food.”
The idea for the food truck was derived from Soliman’s recently published novel, “An Arab, a Jew and a Truck.” The book tells the story of a devout Palestinian Muslim and an American Orthodox Jew who are forced by circumstance to live together and share a kosher kitchen in the Bronx. They end up starting a moving business together, and by the book’s end are dreaming of launching a kosher and halal food truck.
If it all sounds like the plot of a TV sitcom, Soliman doesn’t mind.
“I have spent years and had numerous meetings trying to get energy projects to work with Israeli and Arab officials, then a government minister leaves or Hamas fires a rocket or Israel launches an attack and the whole thing becomes hostage to who’s in power,” he said. “When political structures are shaky, it’s the grass roots that can really make a difference. I started to think, let’s literally take it to the streets.”
Washington has plenty of activists, but a lot of them wear suits and walk the halls of Congress. People like Soliman are known by freedom-of-speech advocates as “protest innovators,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group that is taking the case of Rives Miller Grogan, who climbed a tree on the Mall to declaim against abortion on Inauguration Day.