Nora Carmi: interview about the meaning of sumud
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 07.12.2011:
“Sumud is More Than a Concept”
Nora Carmi is coordinator of the community development and women’s programs at Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.
I think of sumud more than just a concept, as I see our being as a gift of God. This means that life is sacred. Because of this beautiful gift, we have to do our best to live abundantly. The basic principles that guide any human being and that guide me too, are grounded in theology. As a believer in God’s creation, this is what keeps me going. It is our (and my) responsibility to preserve life, including my own, as far as it is possible, but doing it in such a way that the whole community will flourish.
For somebody whose faith really pushes me to be who and what I am, that means that there is something much bigger than us that says: endure, accept, resist non-violently, stand up for your rights, but without harming others. Bring out the truth as much as you can, and act to bring about a change.
Sumud, in the Arabic understanding, is about resistance, non-violently; about resilience, endurance, and tolerance. These concepts are not static, but active. For me the basis is that we have been given life and because of that we have to do our best to promote life.
Active sumud is definitely resistance, but what kind of resistance? For many years while studying I used to think about the Scripture reading of Ephesians (6: 10-17) that speaks about the different armaments that you have to wear in order to be able to serve God. These are my guiding lines and it is very much about sumud.
“ 10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil [I also say evil]. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (NRSV)
You can find all this in sumud too: the choice for righteousness, working for justice, and prayer and perseverance. You might move back one step because you will be disappointed at times, but afterwards you will go foreword by putting your trust in a creator, in God.
In our context as Palestinians – and I am now not speaking about Palestinian Muslims or Christians – there have been many threats against our existence; there has been much suffering. We had to do more than the normal effort to live abundantly; we really had to keep fighting to remain steadfast. For me, as a Palestinian Christian, who has been part of the conflict since 1948, this has always been the guiding basis.
After 1967 we had the chance to emigrate to Canada. My husband and I decided, “No, whatever happens, we want still to remain in the country.” And we did. My husband was a tourist guide without work, and the Israeli travel agents sought him out. But he refused the offer for many years and kept working with the Palestinian travel agents! We were blessed because we had two children who were educated abroad. They could have done much better by staying abroad, but they came back and they are samidun [those who are steadfast] in this land. This is my personal Palestinian context.
I realize that our daily existence under 43 years of occupation represents the many forms of sumud: not accepting the facts on the ground: waking up and going to a checkpoint and living the humiliation but still wanting to do something – not only for our sake as Palestinians, but also to change and bring back the oppressor into that beautiful harmony of the creation of God. I think that last aspect is also part of sumud. This is what propels me, moves me, to be part of a wonderful human community, resisting, non-violently. For me the model of Jesus Christ has always been my guiding point, you cannot do it alone. You can decide not to leave the country, and live poorly and accept all the suffering, but without living and sharing in the community, it cannot be done. Sumud is a personal and gratifying acknowledgement of being tools on earth. It is more rewarding when you know that you are not all alone. The words of Jesus come to my mind and ring in my ears, “Be not afraid, little flock.” You are not alone in the flock, you have your brothers and sisters.
If I am a Palestinian Christian and I believe in this gift of God, I have to keep working not only personally for myself but also for the community. Together, we stand firm.
The sustainability of sumud comes from the principles and awareness that you are an integral part of a community at a very young age. It is the values but also the acceptance of sharing within a community, which brings the community together.
I have lived in this part of the world for 63 years. I worked with the YWCA before working with Sabeel. That’s how I became connected with the refugee camps. I learned the meaning of the word sumud in the refugee camps without realizing how important the teaching of the Muslim women with whom we worked was. In Jalazon camp (that still has a special place in my heart) where the YWCA runs a pre-school attended by most of the children of the camp, We worked with women whose children were killed, who saw their homes demolished, but who still could say, amidst all their deep suffering: We believe and trust in God. We will stand firm and resilient no matter what happens too us. Evil cannot last. We all know that there are families who did not just lose one child, but two or three, or whose children were thrown into prison. For me, Jalazon refugee camp has really become a symbol of sumud. While we were trying to give development skills to women, we ourselves were at the same time gaining so much from the women’s own experiences and abilities, their strength and sharing. Sometimes you believe it is not possible to have that moral strength.
People’s moral strength is also related to their memories. Memories are inherited from one generation to another. But what are the lessons learnt from those memories? That is also important when keeping up sumud. Memories can be about the key of the home that was left behind, or a picture of a tree that was uprooted. However, with all that there is also the human aspect. These are not only material things. It’s what this house has as connections, relations, joys and sorrows, that matters. That is what binds people. So memories are important in order not to forget, but they are also connected with human reality.
And in sumud, in standing firm, you realize that there are things in the memories to which you cannot go back. You try to go foreword. That’s another way of being true to the memories, of standing firm, and finding ways for continuity over the generations. I am a Palestinian refugee from West-Jerusalem. I know that I can never go back to live the kind of life as before, or even being compensated. But, again, standing firm does not mean only looking at your own rights, but at the general, communal welfare. In that aspect, Palestinian women have tried to keep the unity, as women who are part of the community, who are part of the unity of the family, which is so essential to the Palestinian culture.
This is something what I have learned as a woman: I believe, with no offense to men, that the nature of women helps us to endure more – maybe not physically – but to endure more because of our concern for our children, for the unity of the family, of the community. We put out our hands to help not only our own children, but all children around in the neighborhood. You don’t think about somebody’s religion, about the other as being different. I am really part of this humanity, of God, and it is our responsibility and right to preserve the dignity of humanity. This is what really keeps us samidun, standing steadfast and standing firm.
Nothing stands alone, as concepts and experiences are closely related. What makes us human beings is not one aspect, but the whole together. That human wholeness, that connectedness, is part of sumud. The national movement of sumud is not only part of Palestine but it is everywhere now. In some places more than in others, and in some places one becomes so focused that one loses the other aspects. But sumud cannot be separated from those other aspects.
As for Palestinian women, we know that the women were in the avant garde with the men; they were accepted in that national fight. Later they became not needed, because we had a quasi-state. Then the women started to fight and stand firm and stay sumud for their own rights as women. You keep the person as a whole to serve the nation as a whole, and to be able to be part of the community as a whole. Sumud is for the dignity of every single person. And then you bring it from the person into the community. Then the community becomes larger, and you connect it with international rights, which give you the right to resist. And there is here also a definite link towards other faiths. When you start with the moral values that you have to preserve humanity and creation, we can all work together.
Sumud can be done in many ways, in your daily life but also in all kinds of expression, like drama, painting and drawing. By expressing it, you keep it going. Personally I don’t think it ever ends. You can get rid of a certain political situation, you can get liberation in a sovereign state but even in a sovereign state you have to make moves to keep that wholeness, and that wholeness is part of sumud.
This interview, conducted on 3 March, 2010, is part of a series about the concept of sumud or steadfastness made by Toine van Teeffelen, anthropologist and development director of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem.