Salah Ta’amari: The infrastructure of sumud
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 25.02.2010:
Long-time member and military commander of Fatah, Salah Ta’amari fought in the battle of Karameh in 1968 in Jordan as well as in Lebanon during the civil war and the Israeli invasion in 1982. When he was imprisoned in the large Ansar camp in the south of Lebanon, he became leader of the thousands of prisoners there. In the 1990s, with the coming of the Oslo Agreement, he returned to his hometown Bethlehem, where he was elected as member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He presently is governor of the Bethlehem district.
Ta’amari: In order to explain the concept of sumud I will start with Ansar. I was not the most courageous in Ansar, nor the most intelligent or talented. In those respects, there were many who were much better than me. Among the ten thousand of prisoners – Palestinians and Lebanese – there were headmasters, teachers, lawyers, and prominent figures. But there was one difference between me and them. The Israeli invasion into Lebanon made them loose their mental stability. They could not absorb the shock. Their minds were hit. I did absorb the shock, immediately. My mind remained normal and clear, and I coped.
Sumud starts with our mental ability to stay steadfast, to be able to adhere to our culture or beliefs, to what we represent, to what we are. The Israelis did their best to demoralize us, to leave us empty and hollow from inside, without beliefs. They dealt with the prisoners as things or objects and the prisoners accepted that treatment. There was no law. It was in Lebanon, it was not under Israeli jurisdiction. No lawyers and families were able to go there; there were no visits, nothing.
Sign of slavery
When I arrived, I could see in no time what was going on. I remember that the first night I came I asked the guards for light. “Light?” they said, “there is no light.” I asked them for a rug. They said, “There is no rug.” They gave me a kind of hard paper and two-three blankets. I asked for books. They said, “You must be dreaming. There are no books.” I wanted a copy of the Geneva conventions: “No, what is that?” In the morning we had to sit down with our hands on our heads for the daily count. I told them: “I am not going to do that. No matter what happens.”
In the middle of the section where I was put, there was a sort of monument built of pebbles, with the words “peace” on it in English, Hebrew and Arabic. And there was the dome of a mosque with a star of David on it. It was built by the prisoners. To me that was a sign of their slavery. The first thing in my mind was to have it pulled down. Which happened, in three days. I pulled it down with the help of one of the young people. He was with the youth movement which I initiated in Lebanon. I brought the rod of the tent and tightened it to a rope and I told that young man – he was sixteen – “You are the peasant, I am the mule. Let’s plow it.” And it was demolished.
I knew what would happen afterwards. An officer came at the gate of the section. He was like a hunter looking for a prey, wearing a cowboy head. I called for a meeting and told the leaders of the section that I would be taken away. I told them what we needed to do. I wrote down the program of an uprising. I wrote to other sections the same thing. Next day, my hunch was right. They blinded me, put shackles and handcuffs and took me away, and put me in the solitary.
In the solitary, I used to sing. Once they threatened to apply a plaster on my mouth. I told them, I will sing in my mind. Songs were a weapon. Every prisoner had to sing.
After I came back from the solitary, I taught the prisoners to sing. We had four songs. I would wake them up in the middle of the night, stand in front of the barbed wires, and sing. Imagine, thousands would sing. All the villages around us woke up. The Israelis were bothered. When a group sings, they feel closer to one another. They feel stronger. That intimidates the enemy. Your friends would be proud of you. The neutral people would wish to join you.
Nonetheless, almost everybody in Al-Ansar lost faith in themselves. Tens died in the camp. The food was scarce and awful. The Israelis emphasized their supremacy. They were superior militarily, but they exerted that on every aspect of life, and at all times. They were superior in the past and in the present. And so the conclusion was: they will be always superior. It didn’t matter who you were: Moslem, Christian, Shia, Sunni, Maronite, Roman Catholic, or Roman Orthodox. In fact, they used to antagonize the Christians. They wanted to leave everybody hollow from inside.
I was part of the negotiating team and the elected committee of the prisoners. How to defy the Israeli policy? I started with statistics. How many prisoners were there? That was very easy to know. Who were they? Also that was very easy to know. It was the male society in the south of Lebanon, Palestinians and Lebanese. All the breadwinners. We counted how many teachers, students, headmasters we had. How many languages. We knew more than eight languages. Because we had teachers, students and headmasters, I told them to start classes. Let’s speak languages. Let’s give lectures.
To be steadfast, you need to maintain unity. That was very tough. Those who were in the prison camp did not belong to the same caliber. There were drug addicts and thieves, and there were freedom fighters. They rounded up everybody. What did they have in common?
What made it very tough for me, was the split in Fatah and the PLO. In 1982 there was fighting between the groups in the Beka’a, in Lebanon. I didn’t want this fighting to be reflected on the prisoners. That would have been a disaster. I had to keep in touch with Yasser Arafat, Abu Jihad, Abu Musa, and Ahmed Jibrin. I managed to keep communication lines with them.
Then we had to propose the rules in the camp. Unity is connected to a high morale. A high morale is the outcome of unity as well. Unity could only be begotten by justice and fairness. We developed the rules, I wrote pamphlets. Because of the cold I used to wake up at four AM. I had hundreds of people to write down the rules, using all kinds of things: pencils or ballpoints stolen from of the Red Cross or the soldiers. I called it the prisoners’ guide. The rules were about how to maintain unity, how to deal with the collaborators, how to maintain a high morale. My stand was very solid. They did not intimidate me. They tried, but they could not.
When we talk about steadfastness, it is not about the guns, it is not about high numbers, it is not about suicide missions. Sumud comes from the inside, your belief in yourself, in what you represent. This is the basic element, the infrastructure of sumud. Without it, there is no sumud. If you don’t believe in yourself and in what you are, you will loose.
Sumud and the land
This also applies to the relation between sumud and the Palestinian land. When you believe in yourself and in your ability to defy your enemy, you adhere to the land, no matter how tough it is. You will not say, “Ah, I cannot get enough from this land; it is better to sell it, to get rid of it.” In your mind your land is part of you. Part of your beliefs. I might go and buy a piece of land here but it will not become part of me. It will become a commodity, for the market. That’s not sumud.
That’s why if you want to talk about sumud, go to a certain village – it’s even not a village, it is at the heart of the Etzion settlement – called Beit Iskaria. There is an old man there, 96 or 97, maybe even a hundred. He is not allowed to build a wall or a shade to hide his cattle from the sun. They will pull it down. To me he is the symbol of sumud. Many times, they attacked him, beat him – in fact, he beat them too. They could not intimidate him.
Not going to leave
I came back in 1994, after 30 years. I left for three times. I declined every invitation I received to go to all kinds of countries in the world, whether when I was a minister or a governor or parliamentarian. But I am not going to leave, not even for a visit. I want to be buried here. This is my hometown, this is my country, I will not leave it, no matter how difficult it is.
But to be honest, I enjoy every minute of living here.
When I was in the legislative council, I was a speaker of one of the 11 Committees, the Land Committee. I used to invite the committee in the field. We went to a village and convened there.
Every time I went there, I never failed to find something that elated me. Once I went to Salfit, and I went to a village which was destroyed maybe hundred years ago, in a tribal conflict. I was demoralized, and there was nothing to raise my morale. I was depressed and I walked back to my car. Luckily the car was far away. I looked at the stone walls, the kind which we build in our fields. Then I suddenly saw a kind of wild flower, which I had not seen in decades. When I saw it, something was lifted inside me. It made my day. My morale was rescued.
The location of my house is also part of sumud. Coming back, I could not live in my family’s house in Bethlehem, because it is too small, and the car cannot reach it. Also, the Israelis came to it, several times. I didn’t want them to harass me every now and then. So I moved to the farthest spot to the east of Bethlehem. I live there, and everybody asks me: Why are you living there? It’s so remote. But I want to show that I am connected to the land. When I want the young people to adhere to the land, I want to be a role model for them, and not just give them instructions.
It is now the time that I need to generate my own source of steadfastness. How do you do that? It is as if you weave a rope out of your own flesh. It is as simple as that.
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.
Date of interview: January 2010