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Paper presented at the Celebrating Nonviolence Conference in Bethlehem, December 27-30, 2005
By Toine van Teeffelen, Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows, Bethlehem
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Historical meaning of sumud
Who does not know and who is not startled by the stories of Palestinian civilians whose houses have been demolished and who have been rebuilding them for the 3rd or 4th time? Who does not know the stories of those whose lands have been confiscated, and who refuse to leave even though they are surrounded by settlement buildings?
Sumud, literally persistence or steadfastness, is the term that has often been used to describe this inner strength or hardiness of Palestinians to confront and live through extreme odds.
After it was coined by an Arab conference in 1978 for setting up a fund to support those who were steadfast in Palestine, sumud grew during the eighties into a symbol that highlighted the Palestinian ability to bear sufferings and maintain a presence on the land despite Israeli policies of what is often called silent ethnic cleansing. Sumud related to human determination, a peasant-like stubbornness, a refusal to give up, and an attitude of hanging on. It became a cultural trait which for many has come to capture the ‘heart’ of the Palestinian people or which summarizes the underlying values of the Palestinian struggle. Typical cultural expressions of sumud have been the unbeatable cactus with its emphasis upon survival in an unfavorable environment, and the evergreen hundreds-of-years old olive tree, with its roots deep in the land. Sumud is a concept that has been likened in Palestinian arts and political discourse to the attachment of the peasant to his land.
Basically, it refers to the capacity to not lose human spirit and hope under extreme adversity - when a people stand with the back against the wall.
Loss of relevance?
Is this concept that became popular in the seventies and the eighties still relevant for today’s struggles in Palestine? There are criticisms which suggest that it is not.
1. Sometimes the concept has been employed to refer to a particular earlier pre-Intifada (pre-1987) stage in the Palestinian resistance struggle. Then sumud seems to have only historical relevance.
2. The concept, as all political symbols, has been overused. In politicized contexts it may sound like a worn-out slogan without practical meaning, especially when it is used by those who do not feel the pressure themselves to appeal to others to maintain sumud.
3. Like all symbols and slogans in nationalist traditions, sumud has its controversial resonances. It has thus been said that sumud tends to over-romanticize rural society, peasant life and sometimes also the fecundity of women (sumud as a questionable demographic strategy of keeping or expanding a presence on the land by raising large families).
4. A major criticism directed at sumud has been its focus upon survival. Survival as a strategy may imply a coping with, an adaptation to the circumstances under which one lives. Sumud understood as a survival strategy may lead to an implicit acceptance of and adaptation to the occupation. (To avoid such an understanding, sumud is sometimes preceded by the adjectives ‘resisting’ or ‘active’).
5. In a postmodern critique, it can be said that maneuvering tactics and media savvy have become more relevant in today’s world than steadfastness with its connotations of rigidity, inwardness, and lack of change and adaptation. Staying where you are hardly looks an effective tactic in a world where mobility and change are the rule.
Nonetheless, sumud as a concept for a non-violent struggle may be more relevant than ever, for the following reasons.
1. A presence on the land and keeping the community together under the threat of fragmentation has always been a central demand in the history of the Palestinian struggle, and is now more relevant than ever given the present threat of Bantustanization in Palestine. Sumud does not just refer to the continued living on the land by itself but also relates to the community building effort that recruits Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, close and from afar, into the project of maintaining a viable Palestinian community on the Palestinian land.
2. Sumud is also especially relevant now because during the recent armed Intifada the struggle and resistance of civilians received less attention than during the first Intifada. Sumud as a concept helps to bring back the focus on the common Palestinians’ persistence in continuing their business of daily life while not accepting the occupation and often resisting it in what may look like small ways. This is a focus which perhaps remains marginal within the international media but which is essential when raising understanding or empathy for the situation of civilians living in Palestine.
3. Sumud, nationalist a concept as it may be, fits the new search for authenticity and cultural roots which has emerged everywhere in the world in response to the manipulative a-cultural images of postmodern consumption society.
4. The objective circumstances of today (disengagement from Gaza leading to a greater Israeli grip on the West Bank, continuing large power inequality between Palestinians and Israel) do require a strong sumud. With little chance of a short-term political solution, educators in Palestine are asking: how to maintain identity, humanity, dignity and hope among the new generations?
AEI-Open Windows, working in community education here, feel that discussions about the value of maintaining a human identity and respect for self and others under imprisoned circumstances are a major challenge in education. Sumud as a guiding value (or rather a convergence of values) may help in facing this challenge.
Sumud stands opposed to:
- Accepting the occupation and submitting to its demands
- Fleeing away from the situation, by for instance taking refuge in forms of entertainment or by turning one’s back on Palestine
- Transforming one’s anger into hatred, and becoming a tool in the hands of others.
Sumud’s value for educational purpose is that it underlines the need to face the challenge of occupation while maintaining one’s humanity; that is, one’s respect for the self as well as for the other. It does not accept the small and big humiliations of the occupation, and encourages people to show this non-acceptance by human forms of challenging the representatives of the occupation.
Nonetheless, to remain relevant, the meaning of sumud has to change in time to include more flexible elements that help to neutralize some of its essentialist, non-adaptive connotations and also to move its current emphasis upon survival towards a challenging of occupation.
Giving new life to cultural concepts is in fact a valuable practice of the non-violent movement.
It is true that sumud itself is not a ‘strategy’ of resistance and is at first sight inward-directed. However, it is possible to link it up to ongoing non-violent methods of resistance.
One case in point is the technique of ‘creating a predicament’ for the occupier by challenging him with a symbol of sumud.
An interesting recent example was shown by the present great practitioners of non-violence in Palestine: the people of the villages close to the Wall, especially the inhabitants of Bil’in and their supporters. In December 2005, they created a Palestinian ‘outpost’ on the land of Bil’in that is legally owned by its inhabitants even according to Israeli law. Just hundreds of meters away from the Palestinian ‘outpost’ was the real outpost of the settlement of Modiin Illit; an outpost illegal even under Israeli law. As we know, the Palestinian caravan, here a symbol of connectedness to the land, was immediately removed –and then re-established. In the long run it may be impossible to maintain sumud in its literal meaning of maintaining a presence in the face of military might, but the point made, of course, is exposing the double standard of the Israeli army and politics that refuses to demolish the settlement outpost. Here a kind of flexible sumud is presented at the tactical level that is adaptive to circumstances.
Perhaps resilience is the relevant socio-psychological term for this combination of steadfastness and flexibility. It refers like sumud to inner strength but also points to a flexible aspect, the ability to veer back.
Sumud as story
AEI-Open Windows is active in setting up educational projects in the larger Bethlehem area which encourage youth to explore their identity and environment and communicate it, often by narrative means. Here too, we find sumud a relevant and applicable concept.
Sumud and its connotations and resonances help Palestinian children and youth to develop a story of human identity in a daily life context. The concept helps to move from one’s personal story to define one’s life and trying to live accordingly, to community stories. Sumud is also helpful as a narrative frame of understanding and a way of talking about Palestinian identity and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
There is at present uneasiness in Palestinian school communities about the extent to which the new Palestinian curriculum is able to provide a strong story of national/community identity to Palestinian children. Moreover, there is a kind of ‘story crisis’ in Palestine. The Oslo peace agreements did not complete the liberation narrative nor really made possible an effective and credible narrative of nation building. They thus kept people in a kind of ‘floating’ identity somewhere located in-between the two national ‘grand narratives’.
Educators now look for new approaches to build up a relevant story of personal/national identity. Sumud may be helpful here because it combines a personal and a national story.
The personal story of sumud goes somewhat like this
1. A person is tested and tried by suffering
2. The person overcomes the suffering in patience
3. The person continues daily life tasks and keeps his/her humanity, showing ‘small’ acts of non-acceptance of occupation
4. The person becomes stronger from inside in facing new challenges
The national story runs, in different variations, somewhat like this
1. People and communities are connected to the land
2. People are determined to stay
3. People are put under pressure by a foreign invader or are tempted to leave the land or give up the struggle for liberation
4. People withhold pressure and temptation and stay on the land and continue resistance in their own ways
5. Such small acts of resistance gradually increase the price the occupier has to pay to maintain the occupation
6. In the long run, the occupation is bound to collapse and Palestinian rights are won back.
Through the circulation of concrete instances of such story scenarios, sumud brings the personal and national stories together. In fact, sumud is an umbrella concept that in a way organizes the thousands of ‘heroic’ narratives of common people into a national story. After all, common people not only exchange their stories of suffering but also those of willpower, the small acts of resistance in daily life that show human dignity.
Like other frames of understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, sumud defines origins, responsibility, what aggravates the conflict, the kind of required solutions, and a distribution of the moral and practical roles to those involved in the conflict as well as third parties. In doing so, Sumud is a frame that shows the reality from an inside-sympathetic, cultural viewpoint.
In defining the elements of the conflict, the concept also encourages one to go back to the heart of the matter: the issue of the land. It emphasizes the Palestinians’ historical link to the land, the human dignity of living on it, and the reality that Palestinians are defending their land against encroachers.
Sumud stands diametrically opposed to the terrorism frame.
Terrorism is a common frame to look at the conflict, a frame which is of course much articulated and emphasized in Israeli viewpoints.
Employing sumud as an indigenous frame shows Palestinians from the viewpoint of a humanity which is universally understandable. Palestinians are shown with inner strength, hope and dignity, and living within their community rather than as desperate loners manipulated by others, as in the terrorism frame.
Sumud shows a defensive, protective struggle of civilians who desire to live in dignity and who are and want to remain connected to their people and their land, using the weapon of determination in their bottom-up struggle. When confronted with this frame, attention is typically drawn to the reasons why people are able to keep going on against all the odds (peasant traditions, family strength?) and why others try to remove people from their own land and disrupt their daily life (colonialism, occupation).
Who defines the terms, wins the struggle, says an old Chinese proverb. Who tells the stories defines the reality.
A specific area for communicating sumud (and, one might say, an act of sumud by itself) is writing one’s own or others’ personal stories in the context of broader community stories. That can be done in many ways, such as diary writing, personal letter writing, writing life stories, asking or responding to other people’s stories, oral history interviewing, or displaying photo stories and filmed stories.
The connection between sumud and diary writing had been made most emphatically by the Ramallah based lawyer Raja Shehadeh. In The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank (1982), his first diary book of three written over three decades, he defined sumud as a personal or existential choice to not give up and subdue to the occupation while neither to choose for hate and revenge but rather maintain personal dignity in continuing one’s daily life under conditions of imprisonment and siege. “Sumud is watching your home turned into a prison. You, Samid, [the one who is steadfast] choose to stay in that prison, because it is your home… Living like this, you must constantly resist the twin temptations of either acquiescing in the jailer’s plan in numb despair, or becoming crazed by consuming hatred for your jailer and yourself, the prisoner.”
For him sumud was the Third Way of active non-violence. The concept of patience, a preparedness to bear sufferings, and a personal choice to hang on, resonates with non-violence as a mentality in the Gandhian sense.
Sumud is for him also a literary concept. Being samid is staying open to reality in order to be better able to understand and describe it. It is bringing out the details of the vulnerabilities, vagaries, messiness, bitter humor and absurdity of a reality of being imprisoned in your own land.
In fact, the character that displays sumud carries a literary flavor. The determination of the weak in daily life, the Zivilcourage of the ordinary citizen, is after all a literary figure of powerful impact throughout the ages and across cultures. The weapons of the pen of those who articulate sumud include rational analysis, but also emotional dreams, playing with images of reality, irony, self-irony, and black humor. Raja Shehadeh’s diaries, and more recently, Mitri Raheb’s stories about the siege of Bethlehem, as well as Suad Amiry’s diaries (“Sharon and My Mother-in-Law”) are excellent examples of such literary-moral vistas on daily life in Palestine lived under prison-like circumstances.
Dairy writing in education
In school projects, diary writing is designed to develop inner strength and humanity by encouraging youth to give meaning to an often bewildering reality. Diary writing helps to raise a mirror to one’s own situation, to understand and communicate it, and in the process becoming more able to cope with it while not accepting it. Diary writing helps the sumud of the diarist, not in a rigid way, but often by a creative and tactical playing with language and images of reality.
While collecting or working on developing daily life stories of Palestinians, we came across the following typical scenes:
Descriptions of killings, loss, injuries, and humiliating encounters
Searching for sources of positive energy and for consolation when bearing losses (for instance: God, friends, poetry, songs, role models)
Reflections about the absurdity of one’s life and the lack of justice
A J’Accuse against Israeli military acts
Descriptions of scenes how a member of the family was almost hit by a bullet, and similar events
Ironic descriptions of interrogations by the army, at the airport, at checkpoints
Descriptions of people challenging soldiers in words
Funny stories of people tricking soldiers by not speaking Hebrew (or Arabic), or by simulating to be a tourist
Stories of acts of mutual solidarity during times of emergency
Stories of feast days and celebrations held under imprisonment
Dreams about flying away, or picturing oneself in a better life, wishing to take a responsible role
Children talking about reality in an innocent and revealing way.
Hilarious accounts of how people adapt or cannot adapt to an impossible life (saying “I’m back home’ when seeing the familiar checkpoint, or saying “see you at the beach” to the neighbor when the town is under curfew).
Such diary writing creatively connects one’s own story to the stories of one’s family, friends, community and nation.
All of these stories either articulate humiliation and vulnerability, or show human assertiveness, resilience, and expressions of dignity.
Diary writing also holds up a mirror to the Other. Consider the following story:
During the siege of the Church of Nativity in 2002, a girl lived in a house along Nativity Square that was occupied by soldiers. She was member of one of Susan Atallah’s classes at St Joseph School in Bethlehem which practiced diary writing during this Intifada (also in a project supported by AFSC in 2003-4). In the project many of the girls learnt about and started, after initial hesitations, to admire the diary of Anne Frank (copies of which I as a foreigner could bring from Jerusalem). The girl in question was forced to stay with her family in one room, while Israeli soldiers occupied the other rooms. Indeed, an example of watching your home turned into a prison. Even to go to the bathroom required permission of a soldier. It was a siege within a siege. When the girl went to the bathroom and talked with a soldier, she asked him whether he knew Anne Frank. The soldier said, yes, of course, would you like to read it? No, the girl said, I would like YOU to read it!
Here the diary is a non-violent weapon challenging the immorality of the house siege by connecting one’s own diary with a Jewish, or rather universal, diary of suffering under prison-like conditions.
Writing from a daily life viewpoint makes it possible to humanize one’s viewpoint, and to affirm purpose and agency in a message that shows the occupation for what it is: the denial of humanity.
Suad Amiry, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Ramallah Diaries, Granta, London, 2005.
Susan Atallah and Toine van Teeffelen, The Wall Cannot Stop Our Stories: A Palestinian Diary Project: 300 pages (English, with separate teacher manual). Published by Terra Sancta/St Joseph School for Girls, Bethlehem, supported by AFSC (American Quakers). Contains diaries written by students of 16-17 years at St Joseph School and in Arroub refugee camp.
Mitri Raheb, Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble. Fortress Press, 2004.
Raja Shehadeh, The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank. Quartet, London, 1982
Raja Shehadeh, The Sealed Room: Selections from the Diary of a Palestinian Living under Israeli Occupation September 1990 – August 1991, Quartet, London, 1992
Raja Shehadeh, When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary of Ramallah under Siege. Profile Books, London, 2003
St Joseph School/Terra Sancta Bethlehem, Your Stories Are My Stories: A Palestinian Oral History Project, Culture and Palestine series, 2000.