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Abdelfatah Abu Srur, interview about meanings of sumud

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 26.11.2011:

The sumud interview series explores the meanings of the concept of sumud, or steadfastness


Abdelfatah Abu Srour is director of Al-Rowwad (the pioneers), the cultural and theatre training center at Aida camp in Bethlehem.

Let me give you a quick summary of what sumud is. Sumud is continuing living in Palestine, laughing, enjoying life, falling in love, getting married, having children. Sumud is also continuing your studies outside, to get a diploma, to come back here. Defending values is sumud. Building a house, a beautiful one and thinking that we are here to stay, even when the Israelis are demolishing this house, and then build a new and even more beautiful one than before – that is also sumud. That I am here, is sumud. To reclaim that I am Palestinian, wherever I am, is sumud. To reclaim that you are a human being, and defending your humanity, is sumud.

I will tell you about my life story. I have been one of those people who have been lucky to obtain a scholarship, study outside, stay in France for nine years. And still during any beautiful moment or happy occasions there, I was thinking why can’t we have that in Palestine? So in a sense, there was all the time a life of Palestine in me even while I was outside. That happens to a lot of Palestinians outside.

I looked at my father. He had been living through the Ottoman Empire, the British and the Israelis, with this dream once to return, but also with this continuous fear that we will be once again chased away. He did not want to invest anything in the country, like building a house, or buy a land. He always kept thinking: maybe the Israelis will kick us out again.

On the other hand, my mother said: we are here to stay, this is our land and here we are. She was always the one who took initiatives and invest more in being here. She has always been the one to keep the keys to the doors that do not exist anymore, in Beit Natif, north of Hebron, where we come from. It is not far from here, but in a way, since we are prevented to go there, the United States is closer.

When I earned my PhD in chemistry. I returned to Palestine thinking that Palestine was only waiting for me to save it [laughs]. I did not marry with a French lady to get a French passport, or did a marriage of convenience as my friends proposed, so as to travel and make my life easier. I compared myself to other Palestinians who did not have this luxury of traveling, and asked myself: Why me? I didn’t want to give myself the choice to run away in case the situation deteriorated. Of course, it did deteriorate, and greatly.

My general thoughts about Palestine took primacy over my individual thoughts about my own future. When I returned I worked with the Beit Jala Pharmaceutical Company. I monthly earned 1000 shekels [about 250 US dollar] as a salary, although I had a PhD. Some of my friends, like those who worked in Israel and earned more, told me: “So what is better, your PhD or what we have?” They were driving a Volvo or a Range Rover or whatever. I told them: Your interest is there; my interest is somewhere else. Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated further after the second Intifada, so they came in deep trouble. They couldn’t find a job, they sold their cars. Fortunately, some of them are still doing fine.

Beautiful resistance

Being in France helped me to look at ourselves from the outside, and see how others looked at us, how the media presented us. On the one side, they present these poor, miserable Palestinians, and on the other hand, these ugly, violent, barbaric persons who are only capable of the language of violence, who are born with genes of hatred and violence, who are subhuman. On that view, Israel has every right to kill, destroy the Palestinians for all the crimes committed against the Jews.

So I asked myself how can we change this; how can we say that we are here on our land? While having all sympathy for the suffering of the Jews, in which we are not part, we refuse to pay the crimes for the others. We have to reclaim and defend our humanity. And we want our children to be able to reclaim and live this humanity. Whether we are Moslems, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, we are all equal partners in making a change. And this should bring our children happier days.

That’s why we at Al-Rowwad use the concept of beautiful resistance: we are human beings, and we have this beauty and humanity in us. We should use the beauty in our humanity; using theatre, using arts, standing behind the camera instead of always standing in front of it, to tell our story from our own point of view, creating our own images. Al-Rowwad’s project “Images for Life” expressed exactly this philosophy: that we should tell our own stories, without diplomacy, without trying to please the others. The others have to listen to what we have to say. They can agree or not agree – that’s their problem. But we have to get this out of us. Our children have to get this out of them.

Because we as human beings have this beauty within us, we have the right to resist the dehumanizing occupation in every way. Resistance that helps us stay here and not to be desperate, not to leave or withdraw from the challenge. Resistance that helps us to remain samadin, steadfast on our land, in pursuing our values as human beings.

Keeping our humanity is difficult at all levels. For instance, the simplest values which make us into human beings have been transformed into just repetitive slogans divorced from reality: words like justice, freedom, peace, human rights, love. Nobody believes in what we are saying when we want to bring these values back into reality.

In fact, talking about these values is now a joke. Imagine, at present we are more afraid of “peace” than of war. The powers that be control what these values mean. Oslo has been a perversion of all values associated with peace. Peace has been presented as a psychological affair between individual human beings. It is supposed to be a miracle when we and others are shaking hands. In fact, it’s complicity of justice with hypocrisy.

New vocabulary

We have a lot of new vocabulary which entered our language. “Terrorism” is now set opposed against the fight for freedom from occupation. Any country or people would say hallelujah to resistance when they are under occupation, and would consider the resisters as heroes. But Israel has dictated words which add to a new imposed vocabulary. Remember, every occupier has labeled opposition to occupation as some kind of terrorism. In fact, Israel does not have the right to talk about us as terrorists, because it has built its state on terrorism.

How can we keep hope and belief in our human values? That’s a core element of steadfastness. It’s part of our humanity not to accept changes on the ground when Israel dictates us a code of behavior or priorities that pushes everybody to despair. Then we betray our humanity. I cannot accept that people say: “We are desperate” or “we cannot do anything.”

Steadfastness is in fact related to the idea of social entrepreneurship promoted by Al-Rowwad. Everybody is a change maker. Nobody has the right to say: I can’t do anything, I am hopeless. As Palestinians we don’t have the luxury of despair. This is part of an imposed discourse and a dictation of a code of behavior. Because the suggestion of hopelessness says: Just accept what the international community and Israel wants you to accept.

For instance, they say: Jerusalem is Israel, and you can have your own capital in Abu Dis and Al-‘Azzariyyeh [Bethany] and you call it the new Jerusalem. It is a dictation that we cannot allow Palestinian refugees to return to their lands. When you look at the maps, 80% of the 531 villages destroyed by Israel are still empty. 75% of the Israelis are living on 15% of their land. The Palestinians are supposed to accept the realities on the ground – the land expropriations, the destruction of agriculture, the Wall – and forget the core issues.

But we are not like marionettes that shake their heads in acceptance, kissing the hands of the international community for whatever they give us. It is our right to be here, not the right of a French Jew or a Jew from elsewhere to come here and claim the land. The refugees still cherish their right of return, still keep Palestine in their thoughts, still keep the symbols of Palestine. That is also sumud, not accepting a policy of despair, not accepting to forget our rights in a land or space that has been erased from the map.

Names have been changed, and new Hebrew names have been given to villages, cities and streets. But the Palestinians still remember their histories and they have children and grandchildren who too remember. Sumud is preserving the identity, the memories, the customs and habits, the popular arts, the attachment to the land, the values that make us into human beings, across generations. It is about attachment to the Palestinian embroidery, the meals, the hummus, falafel, tabuleh [Palestinian salad] – now misrepresented as the traditional food of Israel – as served during national, historical or religious events. Preserving memory and history helps to keep faith in the future and to have hope.

Not only sacrifice

Sumud is not only sacrifice. Focusing just on sacrifice can sometimes mean a focus on despair. Some people don’t find anything to change, except killing themselves, for making people realize the importance of what they believe in. These people who have such courage, such generosity, even the willingness to sacrifice their lives – they are better alive for their countries than dead. These people can do miracles when they stay alive. They have such passion, such love, such power to create a change. For Palestine, for us, for humanity – they are better alive than death.

After all, why should we kill ourselves in order to prove that we are doing something for our country or for humanity? Is it necessary that sacrifice is required to make people aware? Is it necessary that we have massacres rather than that we act on the long term so as to make a change? No mother would say, I have carried my child for nine months and suffered the pain of delivery, and raise him or her bit by bit, to have him or her getting an education, a diploma, to be proud that they are better than us – and then to see her child killed, to bury a daughter or a son. We want our children to bury us. It is not us who should bury our children.

As for us at Al-Rowwad, we have focused a lot on tours, nationally and internationally, with theatre, dance, choir, and so on. And a lot of people who have little or no background on Palestine had been saying that “you are like us.” Even Palestinian ambassadors were saying: what you were doing by touring in a week, is more than we can do in five years, with all our speeches and conferences. It’s because people connect with you as a human being. It is similar when people come to Palestine and see the realities in front of them rather than learning about them through books and films. This can be a life-changing experience. It is as if people are affected by a virus and come back again and again to Palestine.

This country has its magic. When people come here, listen what the children say. They say: Hallo, how are you, what’s your name. They don’t say: go away, you are this or you are that. They have their values. So the message is that we have to go back to our own perspective and values and have to find first the peace within us before talking about the peace with the Israelis and the others.

This interview is part of a series about the concept of sumud or steadfastness made by Dr Toine van Teeffelen, anthropologist and development director of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem, supported by Gabriele Klein and Anne Cheyron, students of Paris XII (Paris-East) University.

Interview January 2010

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