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> Sumud as Palestinian value
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Toine van Teeffelen and Fuad Giacaman
Challenging the Wall: Toward a Pedagogy of Hope
Edited by Toine van Teeffelen
Illustrations by James Prineas, Leo Gorman and Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center
“Culture and Palestine” series, Bethlehem, 2008
Hope can find powerful expression in symbols. Gaining a central place in Palestinian political discourse during the 1970s, the symbol of sumud (steadfastness, persistence, endurance) points to two characteristics that can be ubiquitously found among Palestinians in Palestine and elsewhere: On the one hand, preserving deep roots in the homeland; on the other, stubbornly going on with life and keeping hope for the future despite all the adversities that are faced, including occupation, discrimination, expulsion, and international negligence. At its core, sumud refers to the refusal to give up on Palestinian rights and dignity. Despite sumud’s focus on the here and now, it bespeaks the vision of a human and just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
A typical artistic expression of sumud, found in a great many Palestinian paintings and logos, is the image of the olive tree with its roots deep in the land and a life span stretching over hundreds of years. The Palestinian mother is also a characteristic symbol of sumud: she is said to protect the home and cultural identity while at the same time transmitting to new generations the quiet power of people’s persistence. Sumud has deep spiritual and social sources of inspiration that include the history and memory of the Palestinian national struggle but also other cultural and social sources. Think about the influence of religion, which gives to many Palestinian Muslims and Christians a deep motive to continue to live and to struggle. Religion sustains essential values of care, connectedness, and solidarity without which sumud cannot exist. The Palestinian family and community are probably the most important sources of steadfastness because of the supportive social environment they provide. Challenging the isolation in which many Palestinians find themselves, the ongoing expressions of international solidarity provide another essential source of inspiration and support. Despite the severe internal difficulties Palestinians presently face, the joint influence of memories of the Palestinian struggle, spiritual sources, the family, the community, and international solidarity nourishes the inner strength and the inner peace that are so necessary for people to go on with their outer struggle and daily commitments.
Initially the symbolic use of sumud was rather top-down, official. In 1978, the term was given to a fund in Jordan that collected contributions from Arab and other countries to support the economic conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. As a motto in speeches and political texts, sumud served to bring out the defiant spirit of Palestinians living in Palestine. With its ‘inside’ perspective and focus on staying on the land, it was felt to complement and enable the struggle of Palestinians from the ‘outside’ to return. One reason for its appeal was the fact that the Zionist movement, from its beginnings on, has marginalized or negated the presence of Palestinian civilians on Palestinian land. The practice and communication of sumud have enabled Palestinians to oppose this aim or tendency.
In addition to being a symbol or motto, the notion of sumud has been employed for more analytic purposes as well: to refer to a stage of grassroots institution-building in the occupied territories at the end of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. This stage was said to be primarily aimed at keeping people and communities on the land in defiance of the wave of new settlement building in the occupied territories and Jerusalem that was conducted at the time by the new Israeli Likud government. The somewhat defensive sumud stage was distinguished from, and seen as a preparation for, the more challenging stage of nonviolent struggle against the occupation that started with the first Intifada in 1987. In looking back to the recent history of the Palestinian movement – in Palestine, but also in Palestinian communities in Israel and in exile (to which we cannot pay attention here due to lack of space) – the symbol of sumud expresses the value of staying put while confronting an overwhelmingly stronger military and political force.
As any national symbol, expressions of sumud face the risk of becoming ‘frozen’ and rhetorical. But it is our contention that it remains a very relevant concept for a hope-based nonviolent strategy, certainly so at a time when Palestinians are pushed once again, even literally, to stand with their backs against the ‘wall’. The main reason for the usefulness of the sumud concept is that it puts common citizens center-stage. Nobody is excluded by the concept of sumud, which is a characterization of, and an appeal to all Palestinians. It is the Ramallah-based lawyer Raja Shehadeh who brought the concept from a rhetorical level down to the realities of civilian life under occupation. In his 1981 diary, The Third Way , he situated the meaning of sumud in opposition to two extremes. On the one hand, the samid (the steadfast person) refuses to accept or become subjugated by the occupation, whereas on the other hand, he or she refuses to become dominated by feelings of revenge and hate against the enemy. In fact, Shehadeh seemed to present sumud as an example of life against two kinds of death – a death from inside and a death from outside. In his writings, sumud expressed citizen agency; the will to carve out an existence and a home – not necessarily through heroic actions but in a spirit of human dignity.
A democratic concept
The form that Raja Shehadeh gave to his understanding of sumud is significant: a diary. A diary is not the vehicle of speeches or rhetorical symbolism but rather conveys the rhythm of ordinary life. Within the diary genre it is possible to recognize the various voices and stories that show how Palestinian citizens persist. Although there are certain prototypical stories of Palestinian sumud – for example, the man or woman who stands in front of the bulldozer and refuses to go away, or the family who rebuilds its ‘illegal’ home for the fourth time – the most salient feature of the concept is simply that it can be realized in innumerable different ways. With all its difficult demands, sumud is a democratic concept that allows for participation in diversified meaning-making.
The concept can be employed to point to typical Palestinian realities that every person will experience in a slightly different manner. Think about the very common feeling among Palestinians of being continuously tested; the ongoing guardedness against misfortune despite fatigue; the bittersweet happiness after having tricked a soldier at a checkpoint; the abovementioned connectedness to community and family life as ultimate sources of rest and nourishment in the eye of the storm. The stories of such experiences have a typically Palestinian feel. Many diaries that depict life against the odds – such as the various published diaries from the time of the prolonged curfews in the West Bank, 2002–2003 – at times convey not only an understandable rage but also a tragic-comic, even absurdist mood. The diaries picture realities in which everything that is normal becomes abnormal, and vice versa. Going to school, finding work, traveling outside town – all tend to become personal or family ‘projects’ that require flexible planning, uncommon imagination, and enormous endurance.
Given the absurd reality, the diaries sometimes bring to mind a broader literary genre that centers on the naive anti-hero who manages, often in seemingly funny ways, to preserve humanity while living the ‘normal abnormal’ daily life of conflict, war, and occupation. Examples are the Czech ‘good’ soldier Schweyk of Jaroslav Hasek, or, in the Palestinian context, the Saeed character in Emile Habibi’s novel, The Pessoptimist . It is no coincidence that dry humor is an essential part of this genre. Despite the dire situation, the steadfast, too, feel the need to laugh. Humor creates lightness in an unbearable situation. It may even be part of a kind of silent communicative code among those who share similar experiences. Edward Said once wrote in a travel reflection that Palestinians employ a code that is only known among Palestinians . If such a hidden code exists, it will surely express those various shades of life, barely perceptible to the outsider but typical for the sumud stories.
The most fundamental value of a diary is honesty. It is, of course, a most difficult value to realize. In fact, in later diaries Shehadeh showed himself to be slightly skeptical about the concept of sumud precisely because he felt that it can become a rather meaningless symbol that is distant from the all-too-human realities on the ground. Truth, being open to reality, is essential to keep focus and clarity. A diary can show ambiguities and doubts but, if true to its form, remains focused on a reality not blurred by excessive fears, uncontrollable anger, or wishful thinking. Any hope to bring to life a new reality should go through the detailed observation and understanding of the existing reality. That, too, is part of the groundedness of sumud.
In its communicative expressions, such as in diaries, sumud can fulfill different social functions. The stories of sumud provide a learning moment for anybody who wants to read about, listen to, or view the Palestinian experience of daily life. The stories may elicit a liberating laugh for the reason mentioned above – such as Suad Amiry’s diary Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. They can inspire people. Communicating daily life experiences can be consoling, as morning coffee meetings among Palestinian staff who have been traumatized by the experience of being closed up, or the stories told in the teachers’ room of Palestinian schools or in the evening among the family. They can enrage when they describe routine humiliation and oppression. But whatever their impact, the stories are typically dialogical in the sense of being oriented towards sharing experiences and informal learning.
If we use sumud as an umbrella term for the stories of daily life under occupation, oppression and dispersion, we should also not forget that these stories – together with letters, interviews, and whatever comes to us on the Internet – are significant sources for future historical documentation. They show the small stories and memories woven on the threads of the national Palestinian story. The sumud stories are excellent materials for learning about Palestinian identity and the reality beyond the very general lines of history. Oral history projects that bring out the details of daily life in the past and allow for surprising cross-connections with the present are an example. Collecting and understanding sumud stories are active ways to engage the learning process, in and through the community, and can thus contribute to new ways of education. They show the diversity of the Palestinian experience within an overall connectedness and national unity.
Sumud invites Palestinians to learn about the identity of the land through the little stories of the land and its beauty, such as the memories and stories of people and communities living on it; the popular practices on/in the land including agricultural work, religious worship, and traveling; and the meaning-making associated with those practices. Hearing about, discovering, and also reconstructing the detailed stories of the land are types of learning about Palestinian identity and roots that are not usually provided in formal education.
Sumud as resistance
But there is a question posed by many. If sumud is a positive expression of the continuity of the many different threads of Palestinian society, history, and relation to the land, how then do we look at the discussions among Palestinians that have frequently flared up in the past and have cast doubt on sumud as an expression of national resistance? Is keeping on with daily life not different from actively and nonviolently challenging the occupation? Does sumud not come close to the ‘survival mode’ – just preserving life without nourishing the desire to change the oppressive reality? Is there no need to add an adjective to sumud so as to give the concept a more challenging and dynamic quality, as provided for instance by the expressions ‘resistance sumud’ or ‘active sumud’?
Sumud is a struggle to preserve one’s home and daily life. For Palestinians, home is usually an extremely precarious reality, often put in question or brought under legal or military pressure. A not uncommon Palestinian experience is to literally become an exile in one’s own homeland. The very effort of preserving one’s home and going on with ordinary life can be viewed in the Palestinian context as a refusal to give up on one’s home and a willingness to make sacrifices. In brief: to exist, to go on with daily life, is to struggle.
But, again, is sumud in its meaning of living such a struggle similar to sumud as ‘resistance’? The notion of ‘resistance’ implies the development of a broader view that goes beyond preserving daily life and keeping one’s head high. In fact, viewed in a more critical light, the sumud struggle can seem to point to a rather inflexible defensive and protective posture, reminiscent of the hardiness, the ‘steeling’ property of a peasant culture with its somewhat inward orientation towards ‘staying where you are’ and ‘never giving up’. Sumud points to a stubbornness born out of a history in which, each time anew, conquerors and occupiers took control over Palestine and in which common people had to find ways to protect themselves against the dominating powers. Without many other options than staying on the land, the sumud of peasants can be extremely hard to break but may also have been tactically, inspirationally immobile.
We think that this criticism holds true, by and large, especially at a time when means of communication and mobility are radically different from the past. Staying sumud in the Palestinian land should not necessarily mean staying wherever you are. In fact, doing so can sometimes be a maladaptive response (called ‘perseveration’ in psychology). This is especially so when there are no conditions that allow one to stay put in a meaningful way, or when there is a better way to contribute to the community’s overall persistence by taking on another role or position. Examples are not difficult to find. A study or work experience abroad may do wonders for Palestinian youth who want to make a creative contribution to the national cause (even though the experience of not being able to find appropriate work or study in one’s homeland is deeply disturbing in itself).
It should thus be possible to define the qualities of sumud in different ways, less purely affirmative and defensive, and more flexible and dynamic (and containing even ‘light’ and ‘humorous’ ingredients). Such qualities are perhaps more suggested by another word also used to characterize the Palestinian mentality: ‘resilience’ – the veering back from adverse experiences. From the perspective of protecting the community and maintaining a presence on the land, sumud can be viewed in the context of a resilient, pro-active advocacy that uses the powers of modern means of communication.
As a form of resistance, sumud can, for instance, be shown to take on a more energizing, challenging, and imaginative view of the concept of home, or of the practice of making a home, or of giving new meaning to home while protecting it. A home or the daily-life environment that characterizes or surrounds the home can be recreated for tactical purposes in a struggle against expropriation of land and the building of the Wall. For instance, the nonviolent movement in the village of Bil’in to the west of Ramallah used to place playground tools in front of the bulldozers and the soldiers in order to show how the building of the Wall there jeopardizes the fabric of daily life. The movement also put caravans on land that was threatened to be disowned or excluded. House and home can be moved to the ‘frontline’ as part of a challenge. Less courageous but also extremely valuable is the documentation and publishing of home and daily life under threat of disappearance, such as in the form of family stories and family trees available on the Internet.
Other inspiring and imaginative examples of a more ‘mobile’ expression of the spirit of sumud can be taken from the artistic sphere. Take the following description of the painting The New Walk of Samira Badran:
In her piece almost five meters long, The New Walk, meandering images of artificial limbs reflect on the universal conditions of oppression in face of the onslaught of man-made tools and barricades, which result in all forms of incarceration. In this work the prosthesis is a metaphor for the indomitable spirit of the Palestinians who seem always to find alternate routes to crossing barriers. The congested artificial limbs – some broken, others bandaged – do not beg for sympathy, instead their seemingly frenzied march portrays boundless determination and resilience, a tribute to the Palestinians’ steadfastness in the face of military and political domination, and that despite all constraints, they continue to cross artificial boundaries and barricades .
Here the essence of steadfastness is seen as the ability to keep the spirit moving on, crossing boundaries along alternate routes, despite pain and sacrifices.
Another point is in place here. Much of the value of the spirit of sumud is related to its communicative power. Communicating Palestine by showing practices of sumud helps to provide a human image of Palestinian reality that breaks through the familiar media stereotypes of passive or angry victimization and terrorism. Showing and communicating sumud thus contributes to the important task of creating an international image of Palestine that is beyond rhetoric and seen from an internal Palestinian and human perspective rather than interpreted and distorted by others.
An active understanding and communication of sumud apply to the so-called sumud peace house, which AEI-Open Windows has opened opposite the northern watchtower at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. The Wall there snakes through the area of northern Bethlehem in such a way that the neighborhood has lost its vigor and life. Families move away whenever possible. How can local people resist a Wall? At first sight there is no way. A wall is not an adversary; it is a block of concrete. As it once was said, the only thing you seem to be able to do after the Wall is erected and you live inside, is to walk around in circles like mice. In fact, one reason that the Wall has been built may well have to do with the reduction of human contact points between Israelis and Palestinians (from the West Bank), because such contact points are essential for any active and challenging forms of nonviolent resistance, individually or collectively.
Active resistance while in confinement may thus sound like a contradiction. However, through the peace house and similar initiatives near the Wall another ‘contact point’ is created – one between humans/humanity and the Wall. Sumud can be communicated directly in front of or even on the Wall through any media genre or practice that one can think of: diaries, video, film, visual memories, drama and plays, (inter-)religious rituals, traditional customs and festivals, even dinners. By communicating daily life and the ‘art’ of life lived against the odds, normal life is put in opposition to the oppression of the Wall. By showing, even celebrating, life and by creating and reclaiming spaces of life next and in opposition to the Wall, the relation between human life in Palestine and the Wall is defined as one of comprehensive contrast. Think about a piano concert under the military watchtower with children around, or a Rap concert next to the Wall, or artistic, festival-like life that is created near a house surrounded by the Wall on three sides (as is the case with the house of the Anastas family opposite Rachel’s Tomb). Performance artists often make use of contrasts to create surprising effects. Here Sumud will communicate to a worldwide audience contrasts between beauty and ugliness; fragility and massiveness; dignity and disdain; thanksgiving and military arrogance; voices and suffocation; life and death. Essential to this resistance is communicating a reversal of the Israeli image of the Wall as a protection of Israeli daily life against Palestinian violence. Instead, the Wall is shown for what it is – the killer, expropriator, and divider of Palestinian life, land, and community. The involvement of media, including the use of media by the civil community itself, will be extremely important. Publicity about sumud practices is needed to shame the adversary as long as he persists in disregarding the humanity of the other. Of course, the final goal of the nonviolent struggle cannot be other than the removal of the Wall itself, making possible the concrete vision of a new reality.
There is also another, final side to sumud. Even with the Israeli adversary it is desirable to have human relations, if only to challenge him or her to help end the occupation; to jointly see the possibility of a different reality – a transformation of the status quo on the way to equality and justice -; and to allow for honest (self-) criticism. For Palestinians, the Wall kills communities by separation. Refusing that separation, an initiative such as the sumud peace house is designed to be an open house, a place of conviviality and sharing food, and thus a sign towards peace – in line with the slogan: “Not walls, but bridges.” The house will point to liberating, border-crossing experiences to some extent characteristic for that neighborhood in the past, when many Israelis used to come over to shop or visit a restaurant (even though Israeli-Palestinian interaction under occupation has inevitably been tainted or corrupted by power inequality). The concept of sumud will be applied in an open-minded, flexible, imaginative way. The house’s activities, including in the field of inter-religious encounters and prayers between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, will aim to create a mezzaterra, an inter-zone, in which surprising connections will help to create a different order and community life, and defy Israel’s obsession with separation.
We started with the statement that symbols can contribute to or express hope. But as we tried to make clear, the attractiveness of the concept of sumud is located in the fact that it not only touches a basic Palestinian ‘snare’ but also that it is potentially much more than ‘just’ a symbol, left to be admired but out of touch with lived realities. In our opinion, it can best be realized by living and communicating people’s experiences in daily life in both its embodied and spiritual-imaginative dimensions. The practice of sumud helps to communicate people’s and citizens’ voices, open up the diverse memories of the land and its people, and make the nonviolent struggle to preserve home and community against occupation more deep and encompassing. Last but not least, it shows the human dignity of a people that has been continuously dehumanized, here and internationally. Sumud is a choice for renewal of life.