Sumud: new book
Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 22.02.2012:
SUMUD: Soul of the Palestinian People: Reflections and Experiences
Toine van Teeffelen, with Victoria Biggs and the Sumud Story House in Bethlehem
Arab Educational Institute
Culture and Palestine series
Two central chapters:
Chapter 5. A living and human ideal
When the word ‘sumud’ began to appear in discussion during the 1970s and 1980s, it was used to refer primarily to the outcomes that Palestinian people were striving for as a community – the right to remain on the land, the need to resist forced expulsions, the desire to have many children who would inherit the struggle and hopefully the victory. The term was popularised in 1978 by the creation of an Amman-based organisation called Sumud Funds, which had a very practical mission: to provide financial support to residents of the Occupied Territories who needed help to stay. Unsurprisingly, sumud came to be defined by these pragmatic efforts.
Raja Shehadeh’s The Third Way, published in 1982, uncovered a different facet of sumud: its spiritual and human dimension. This aspect has received more and more attention over the intervening years, with people starting to look beyond the practical and economic concerns posed by life under occupation and to think about their own attitudes towards this life. The need to stand steadfast on the land remains central to the concept of sumud, but it is the cultivation of a particular mentality that lies at the heart of the concept, not physical location or strategies for liberation, important as they are.
“In fact, there are two perceptions of sumud: to stay on your land, the national land, and also to stay steadfast in the Diaspora, when you yearn and struggle to come back and keep the connection with your people – by supporting, or being ambassadors, or working in advocacy, or investing in your country, sending delegations. When people are in solidarity with you, it is sumud by itself. So sumud is not only about being in a place (…) it’s a journey or process. Sumud is not static, it is action, life. I should not say: “What a beautiful word, sumud.” Sumud is an art of living, an art of existing and working, manifested in building living stones, building human beings and building relationships between people.”
(Zoughby Zoughby, director of Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre, Bethlehem) (1)
I heard Zoughby’s definition echoed several times in the interviews I conducted for this book. People were adamant that sumud could also be practised by Palestinians living outside Palestine. This insistence on the inclusivity for sumud stems partly from an unwillingness to exclude from the community of samadin Palestinians who are forced to live abroad by poverty, Israeli policy, or both. But it is also because treating sumud as a practical ideal that can only be expressed in a very circumscribed way (staying on the land) does not express the sheer breadth and richness of its true meaning. Equally, the interviewees frequently acknowledged that it is possible to live in the Occupied Territories as a Palestinian and show a painful lack of sumud, such as in the case of those Palestinians who, often because of circumstances in the family, at one point became liable to manipulation and then started to collaborate with the Israeli army.
Location and residency status are not what matter most. Even if Israeli law does not allow them to retain their residency rights, samadin can still keep their inner sense of connection to Palestine and all that Palestine represents and encompasses. Most important to the cultivation of their sumud is a continual awareness of the humanity of Palestinians, which binds the community together even in diaspora. This prepares the ground for practical work, with each person making his or her unique contribution from wherever they are in the world, according to Zoughby:
“Sumud is not a single, demonstrative action. It is not just planting a tree and saying, ‘This is sumud.’ It is about how to nourish the tree, how to trim it, how to harvest it, how to create a healthier atmosphere for all, how to make the field around the tree safe for the kids to play, to show environmental awareness. The last relates to an area of work which we have neglected here. Sumud needs nourishment – socially, psychologically, economically, religiously. Creating supportive institutions is sumud. You need to be a hive. You have to make this place better for your community. You need to work hard, to be productive. In doing so, sumud will create the unimaginable and the impossible. In sumud there is transformation.”
Sumud has as many faces as the samadin themselves. Together, they express Palestine in its totality – the demands of everyday life under occupation, Palestine’s cultural and economic potential, the vulnerability and strength of Palestinian people. As we have already seen, there are some heavy weights pressing down on this inner strength, and each of these pressures requires a special kind of stamina, energy, and creativity if it is to be resisted. How these qualities are manifested will vary depending on the individual’s personality, talents, and particular circumstance. People’s inner strength and vitality express themselves in diverse ways, and this diversity is also an integral part of sumud.
Abdelfatah Abu Srour is the director of the Ruwwad Cultural Centre in Aida refugee camp. He grew up in that camp, but as a young adult he left Palestine to pursue advanced studies in France. He decided to return in order to take up the refugees’ cause. He regards both these choices as a personal expression of the sumud that he sees around him in the camp (2):
“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.”
As a man immersed in Palestinian culture and heritage, Abu Srour is particularly interested in the value of memory and what it means for sumud.
“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.”
Bethlehem University professor Adnan Mousallem, a specialist in oral history, also focuses on the unity and joy that spring from the practice of sumud. He is not only attuned to the concept’s value on an individual level, but to its relevance to Palestinian society as a whole. He sees it as a glue that both holds his own beleaguered society together and makes it strong enough to reach out and learn from very different societies (3):
“Sumud is a broad, active, human concept. It is refusing to let yourself be dehumanized. Let me give you an example. Part of showing your presence is keeping your ability to laugh. Laughing is a defensive mechanism. You are laughing, chatting, joking, so that you can continue to be like a human being. When you become totally pessimistic you are really saying, I am ready to die, I don’t want to live anymore. You dehumanize yourself. Humor is essential to be able to stand up and stay steadfast. It’s part of saying: I am here and nobody can deny my presence here… Sumud is worth to be given courses about at Palestinian universities. You can come across sumud in Palestinian poetry, essays, the literature of resistance. It’s a multidisciplinary subject. Take poetry. Mahmoud Darwish exemplifies the poetry of steadfastness. His small village was completely wiped out, but he didn’t give up, he went to a neighbouring town there and he practiced his poetry of resistance, also in exile. His poetry is definitely about Palestinian identity.”
“Sumud can be applied to architecture. Look at these beautiful homes all around the place, it shows that people are not hopeless. I looked at the terrain in Bethlehem ten years ago, when there were wide open fields around and now, when there is no space left for homes. Building a home, especially a traditional home, in traditional architecture, is an assertion. If people were so desperate, they would ask themselves, why should I build a home? Religion is related to sumud. The religious community gives you needed spiritual support, so that you don’t become hopeless. Again, sumud should be viewed as a broad, human subject. Part of steadfastness is that Palestinian people are people who believe in interfaith dialogue. You shouldn’t be close-minded. You want to live in this land, but in a good atmosphere, where people are dialoguing with each other, as in a normal society. Steadfastness does not mean that you close your mind and just stay on the ground.”
Mousallem’s comments on close-mindedness raise an interesting point. In the past sumud has sometimes been confused with stubbornness, perhaps because of the enduring stereotype of the stubborn peasant who is resistant to any sort of change. It is important to be clear that true steadfastness requires an enquiring and respectful spirit, in addition to a profound awareness and appreciation for one’s own heritage and traditions. This symbiosis gives strength to the community.
Nora Carmi, until recently the programme coordinator at Sabeel (the Palestinian Centre for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem) nurtures a spirituality that is based on her Christian belief in the beauty of humanity and the entire created world, of which even her oppressors are a cherished part. She speaks of harmony in creation, and argues that sumud preserves that harmony by making it possible for her to reach out to people who are very different from herself (4):
“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… 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.”
For Walid Mustafa, a Bethlehem University professor in geography, the most important aspect of sumud is the beauty it brings to everyday community life. His definition of homeland and community is not nationalistic, or even overtly political, but surprisingly prosaic – and consequently all the more powerful. (5)
“Remaining in your homeland is not only sacrifice and suffering. Sumud is a lifestyle, for people living now and for generations to come. You are practicing the joy of living, in this environment, on this land, with these people. I like here to quote a Russian poem. It says that ‘for me, the homeland starts from the bench in front of our house, in front of the street where my grandmother and my mother, together with other ladies, sat and talked about the issues of life’. Sumud is about the beauty of daily life. When you remember your homeland, the beauty comes to you, it is part of you. So when you practice sumud you are not suffering all the time, on the contrary, you practice the love for the land. By practicing sumud we show how much we want to continue living in it as previous generations did.”
All these stories are written from the same ink, yet they are different in nature and focus. This is the beauty and power of sumud: each person’s story is valuable, and each tale adds another page to the greater story that is still unfolding in occupied Palestine.
Chapter 6. Mapping sumud’s meanings
The human definition of sumud that emerges in all the interviewees’ stories had a difficult birth. Although Raja Shehadeh explored sumud as a vital part of Palestinian non-violence in The Third Way, he seemed later on wary of using the term. His fear was that the term would not survive its dogmatic use as a slogan. Sloganeering is a way of stripping all meaning from a concept, rendering impossible the fruitful interaction between word and action that Paolo Freire describes in his writings. It leaves no space for thoughtful questioning: sloganeers demand that their followers pledge loyalty to a struggle, without giving them space to ask about the nature and direction of that struggle. When the word rather than the deed is stressed, the life is taken out from both. Then sumud becomes propaganda. Conversely, when sumud is considered only a deed, there is a risk that the word will come to refer to a frozen list of acceptable activities. You are just staying on your land, and that’s it. But as Mousallem says, sleeping in your home is (normally) not an act of sumud, nor is sumud just determination to remain in a particular building on a particular plot of land. Critical and creative thinking is needed to keep the concept alive. Freire: “To speak a true word is to transform the world. Word without action is mere verbalism, word without reflection is mere activism.” (1)
Without critical, value-based thought and self-reflection, another more frightening risk emerges, the separation of sumud from justice:
“Steadfastness refers not only to our Palestinian character of never – ever – giving in. It refers to our standing up to overwhelming odds time and again without a single friend in our corner. It is about our being beaten and abused in every way known to humanity, only to get back up with our heads held high. This is impressive; but if steadfastness were understood only in this way, it could easily be exchanged for a different, less appealing word: stubbornness.
Not giving up, in and of itself, is not an admirable quality. After all, the rather unsavoury and racist group of Hebron’s Tel Rumeida settlers could also be described as steadfast. After all, they too display ‘unwavering loyalty’ or ‘firm convictions’ and they seemingly ‘never give up’. What makes our steadfastness admired and mythologized around the world is the combination of not only our perseverance, but the justice of our cause and the methods by which we have chosen to pursue it.” (Mustafa Barghouti, political leader of the Palestinian National Initiative) (2)
Barghouti’s words are a reminder that sumud, while rooted in the Palestinian experience, should act as a sheltering tree for every person who needs its shade. It is about universal rights and values, standing in the service of a larger human cause. As the Quaker author Jean Zaru wrote in her book Occupied with Non-Violence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, “Sumud means to remain steadfast on one’s land and, more generally, to remain steadfast in service to one’s homeland and to the struggle for freedom.” (3)
From definition to meaning
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine is ongoing. Those people outside of Palestine who have heard of the Nakba are often tempted to use the term as shorthand for the mass expulsions of 1948, when in reality it is still happening – it has just assumed a different but equally dangerous form. In addition to house demolitions and land confiscation, there is psychological erasure, epitomised by Golda Meir’s infamous pronouncement that, “There is no such thing as Palestinians; they never existed,” and illustrated by the widespread use of the term ‘Arab’ over Palestinian in Israeli political life. All these experiences, a fact of Palestinian life for over sixty years, have given Palestinian steadfastness a basic meaning: the assertion of one’s existence as opposed to political and cultural attempts to deny that existence.
Some people argue that it is pointless to try and define sumud, as it is so very natural. Nothing has to be explained about the concept, because what could be more normal than living in one’s home and land in an everyday setting, a setting characterised by family and friends and the taste of the olives plucked from that one tree in the back garden? But when the home itself becomes a place of oppression, even a prison, staying does become a choice – an extraordinary choice to preserve an ordinary life. According to scholar and activist Mazin Qumsiyeh, who recently published a volume about popular resistance in Palestine (4), sumud in Arabic implies a degree of agency that the English ‘steadfastness’ cannot capture. Sumud is about actively keeping your ground even though you are longing for that moment that homely life will be natural and quiet.
Keeping your ground relates to labour, too. At its simplest level, sumud is about plain survival. Palestinian social scientist Rima Hammami (5) has studied ‘sumud economies’, focusing on the industries that have sprung up at checkpoints – such as when bakers or greengrocers set up stalls of produce in front of the queue, or taxi drivers form a rank there. In the second Intifada, some farmers were even hiring out their donkeys to enable people to cross the rugged hills instead of waiting for hours at roadblocks.
I remember myself that one woman in Nablus once decided to knit ‘checkpoint socks’ that were designed to keep the feet extra comfortable if the wearers had to stand up for a long time. Flowing from these creative strategies is an awareness that sumud has to be about more than personal benefit or survival. ‘Checkpoint socks’ do not just exist to protect blistered feet, but to enable you to remain standing as part of your community, shoulder to shoulder with one another, in a flesh-and-blood illustration of the words that have been spray-painted on the separation barrier near Bethlehem: “We are bigger than this wall.” This attitude fosters hope for the future, a profoundly important quality in sumud. Samadin are always on the lookout for opportunities to bring about change, even if what they can do is relatively small.
Palestine’s dark history of ethnic cleansing and endless, meaningless negotiations have imbued samadin with an awareness that liberation does not lie just around the corner. As the Bethlehem-based Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb once said, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not “a hundred-metre run but a marathon.” (6) It is about a long breath, a deep breath (7), about a different rhythm which makes life possible – that militant patience once again. In this attitude, sumud combines idealism with realism, an approach that the noted Palestinian-Israeli writer Emile Habibi flippantly termed ‘pessoptimism’. (8) Sumud is not about harbouring grand visions and ideals, but recognising the promise of a different future in the most basic activities of life. The endurance demanded by these aspects of sumud do not amount to masochism, but a willingness to embrace the consequences of one’s choices. Choosing to resist is itself a liberating act, as Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are rarely offered the chance to make any sort of political choice. This is one that they can take to their hearts and freely make their own.
Perhaps surprisingly, sumud is also the capacity to enjoy life. Palestinians do not have available to them the instant pleasures that are there for the taking in the developed world, but they have access to a joy that is grounded in the culture and the customs they are working so hard to preserve – even things as simple as the cup of coffee under the grapevine. Joy nourishes the spirit, even though it is much affected by pain. Visitors to Palestine sometimes say that despite people’s suffering a Palestinian restaurant still looks livelier than restaurants in many other parts of the world. Hospitality is always there yet the suffering is real and never far away. Hemingway’s definition of courage as ‘grace under pressure’ comes to mind. (9) This balance between strife and joy reflects wisdom that is also found in many other parts of the world – the Tao teaches that the audacious courage that prepares one to take on suffering should be balanced by a gentler courage that enables one to rejoice in being part of humanity. (10)
Living the joy of sumud invites attention to another aspect of sumud: its beauty. At first, any talk of beauty may sound jarringly out of place when applied to a country where checkpoints, walls, fences, and other obstacles are never far away. However, philosophers have argued that the aesthetic ideal of beauty cannot be separated from the idea of moral beauty, and sumud is a good illustration of this insight. Though the context of sumud is ugly (because oppression is ugly), beauty shines through the behavior of the samadin. Their integrity and their values, expressed through their way of life, appeal to the heart as well as the senses.
Sumud is closely connected with the heritage of Palestine, which has a hidden beauty of its own. We will return to this cultural beauty later on. It is important to stress here that both moral and aesthetic beauty may well be contagious. Learning about sumud creates a sense of attraction, a desire to go deeper into the ideal. As always when people show themselves at their best – whether through cultural activities (like women showing the Palestinian embroidery, lovingly and painstakingly done), their beautiful integrity, or both combined – others feel touched. This is the source of sumud’s great communicative power.
Recently, academics conducted research about the contagious power of laughter, optimism or sadness. Such emotions turn out to have a ripple effect on people both close to and distant from to the “senders.” Would it be far-fetched to assume that the sumud lifestyle is contagious too, and that this is part of the reason why it is found so widely in Palestinian society?
As we have seen, sumud unites concepts that appear to be opposites. Some aspects of sumud are related to the immediate tasks of keeping house and caring for a family, while others relate to the preservation of the Palestinian community on a national and also international level.
The most essential meanings of sumud can be found in the syntheses displayed by the last column: resistance as part of a personal lifestyle; the integration of one family’s needs, labor, values, networks and interests into the community’s struggle; the ‘pessoptimist’ mentality that is found in oppressed societies everywhere; the ability to find joy and beauty even in occasions of suffering and struggle; and communicating the local and the homely within the national struggle. In fact, a family’s sumud system can be seen as a set of nested eco-circles that places individuals at the center and the family, extended family, community, and social polities and their ideologies on the outer rings. Sumud is never more clearly in evidence than when individual families are plunged into the broader national and international struggle, such as when villagers are forced to defend their livelihood from the encroaching wall, and are supported by locals as well as internationals.
This multi-layered definition of sumud makes it easier to see why sumud lends itself so well to narrative accounts. Popular narratives about ‘people’s journeys’ often deal with the struggles of communities and nations. They may contain descriptions of courageous deeds that verge on the truly heroic. These deeds may take place in all landscapes of life. However, these breathtaking stories usually start (and often end) in a humble and homely environment, where the focus is on the faces of family members rather than on the grandiloquent speeches of politicians, and the thunder of shelling is muted by the sound of a child singing playground songs by the fire. These things are the bare bones of sumud. It is impossible to have sumud and not to have stories – and stories are something that everybody carries inside them. Sumud’s power to direct, unify and reconcile is to be found here.
Any discussion of how sumud can be cultivated is essentially a discussion of how to support human life under adversity. When the word ‘sumud’ was becoming a common part of Palestinian discourse, back in the early 1980s (though the phenomenon to which it refers was already there since the beginnings of the Zionist colonization of the land), people often spoke about it as a precursor to the development of broader political and economic strategies for Palestine’s liberation. Its defensive, protective side was stressed. The 1970s saw the development of a social grassroots movement that aimed to help the most vulnerable people in Palestinian society – women, young people, peasants and Bedouins, those living in the shadow of the rapidly developing settlements. It was felt that these activities were the embodiment of sumud, and they would eventually equip people (especially those living in rural communities) with the tools they needed to remain on the land. Supporting these practical initiatives is one way of fostering sumud. Mustafa Bargouthi calls this “resistance development”. Such a philosophy is founded on “the dual principles of supporting the people’s power to withstand the hardships of the occupation and reducing dependency on foreign funding and foreign aid.” The strategic aim of the Palestinian struggle, under this philosophy, must be to “make the costs of the Israeli occupation and its apartheid system so great as to be unsustainable”. (11)
However, such strategies are only complete when they take into account sumud’s community aspect, and how this can best be nurtured and protected. A Birzeit University-based mental health study conducted during the Second Intifada shows this clearly. (12) The researchers’ primary aim was to assess the resilience of Palestinian youngsters whose lives were being damaged by conflict, but they were adamant that they needed to focus not just on resilience as an individual trait, but as a wider social phenomenon. “We also argue that the concept of resilience developed in predominantly Western settings ignores a local idiom of communal care and support.” As Palestinian culture honours community, this is the first place to look for an understanding of how to foster and support sumud.
Awareness of one’s place in social time is a crucial part of sumud. It is crucial to a community’s heritage too, an important dimension of sumud. Sumud would not be possible without community memories, such as a grandfather’s recollection of a traditional wedding dance, a compilation of village recipes passed down from a great-great-aunt, or family stories that are still told in the dialect of a village that no longer stands. Many of these memories are at risk of being killed off by Israeli government policy towards Palestinians, which focuses aggressively on dismantling and splintering communities; globalisation, which can lead to cultural distinctiveness being dissolved in an amorphous global soup; or simply lack of interest.
In his recent book Hidden Histories (13), the social scientist Basem Ra’ad provides a critique of how imperial colonizers and adherents of certain theologies have distorted the history of the Levant in order to serve imperial goals, fit their religious beliefs, or both. He calls for a “full listing and annotating [of] all books, articles and archives related to Palestinian and regional heritage, as well as existing scholarship and documentation from all sources, in all languages. An inventory of ancient regional customs, popular medicine, farming practices, religious beliefs, superstitions and language expressions.” The aim would be to see how these tessellate with their present-day equivalents. In this way the cultural continuity of Palestine would be re-established, and the values characteristic of that culture rediscovered.
Communication is one way of resurrecting and sustaining cultural and community memory, which brings us back to storytelling. Knowing and sharing stories of cultural identity, and of the origins of a people’s connection to their land, identity and cause, are vital for bolstering people’s spirit on their road to liberation. For a Palestinian, one of the most effective ways of supporting sumud is to tell his or her story. For an international supporter, sumud is fostered through listening.
The remainder of the book explores the different manifestations in more depth, illustrated by personal stories from Palestine (including those gathered from the Rachel’s Tomb area of Bethlehem). The interview excerpts given in preceding chapters have shown that sumud can encompass anything that express will to go on living under duress, be that involvement in non-violent resistance or commitment to revitalising Palestine’s lost cultural traditions. The book will conclude with a discussion of how this sumud can be nurtured from an educational point of view, enabling young Palestinians to confront the injustices in their lives with joy and beauty in their hearts – a joy that stems from pride in their heritage and a profound awareness of who they are and what they have to give.
A glossary of sumud
As noted earlier, the historian Adnan Mousallem has called on people to take sumud seriously as an educational field. He mentioned several academic disciplines that relate to sumud, such as architecture, life in the diaspora, history, and psychology of sumud. Here is a list of related concepts that have emerged during our discussions so far, and that readers may want to bear in mind as they journey through the remaining chapters. They can also act as a springboard for independent further research.
Resilience, nowadays a central concept in the field of mental health, is closely linked to sumud. It stresses the dynamic aspect of veering back on course after being brought low by circumstance. It is common in Palestine to hear talk of Palestinians’ resilience, their ability to come back from setbacks. As mentioned, there has lately been a movement towards a more social understanding of resilience which does not only focus on personality traits, but on the utility of social resources. (14)
Courage. During the last two decades a major movement in psychology – ‘positive psychology’ – has asserted that the field of mental health has previously focused far too much on trying to solve psychological deficiencies rather than on identifying people’s strengths and encouraging them to draw on those as a way of facing life’s problems. This new approach requires people to draw courage from the fact that they exist as they are, instead of trying to become somebody different in order to escape their demons. Research on courage has moved from the military battlefields to the family living room, looking at optimism, zest for life, and hope as crucial ingredients. (15)
Steadfastness. The Bible and the Qu’ran treat human steadfastness as a reflection of God’s own loyalty to human beings, his creatures. Consequently Palestinian sumud is veined with theological or spiritual concepts: faith, obedience, patience, compassion and love. More research is needed on sumud as an integral part of the major monotheistic religions practised in Palestine. (16)
Non-violence. This is the sumud-related concept that is most explicitly related to prolonged conflict, discrimination, occupation, and colonisation faced by Palestinians. It is a book in itself, as it is characterised by many different approaches and attitudes. It has been variously known as soul-force (one literal translation of Gandhi’s satyagraha), relentless persistence (firmeza permanente in Spanish, sometimes used as an umbrella term for the tenacity exhibited by peasants struggling for their rights in Latin America), and Zivilcourage (a German term for a courageous action undertaken out of a sense of responsibility towards one’s community). Sumud has parallels with all of these. (17)
A sense of connectedness with the land and the community. The African concept of ubuntu (freely translated: “I am because we are”) is a concise expression of the popular Palestinian understanding of community sumud. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Laureate, wrote about this flesh-and-bone connection to the community in his book Istanbul, illustrating the concept of huzun, a melancholic and painful sense of affinity with a cultural and natural environment which is (at risk of) being lost. (18)
5. A living and human ideal
(1) Interview by Toine van Teeffelen, January 2010, http://
(2) Idem, February 2010, http://www.spiritofsumud.ps/gal124
(3) Idem, August 2009, http://www.spiritofsumud.ps/gal-12.
(4) Idem, March 2010, http://www.spiritofsumud.ps/gal-
(5) Idem, August 2009, http://www.spiritofsumud.ps/gal-5.
6. Mapping sumud’s meanings
(1) Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York:
(2) Mustafa Barghouthi, “… and he stood steadfast before
Goliath.” This Week in Palestine, February 2009.
(3) Jean Zaru, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian
Woman Speaks. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2008.
(4) Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Popular Resistance in Palestine: A
History of Hope and Empowerment. Pluto, London, 2011.
(5) Rima Hammami, Sustaining Life in a Geography of
Adversity, Prince Claus Fund Journal, no. 13, The Hague,
(6) Mitri Raheb, Culture as the Art to Breathe, August 17,
(7) Mary C. Grey, The Advent of Peace: A Gospel Journey to
Christmas, SPCK, 2010. “Taking the long breath of sumud
means sharing God’s own steadfastness, compassion and
vulnerability… “ (87).
(8) Emile Habibi, The Secret Life of Saeed: The pessoptimist.
St Martin’s Press, 1985.
(9) In: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 edited
by Carlos Baker, Scribner Classics, 2003, 199-201.
(10) Tao Te Ching, “One of courage, with audacity, will die. One
of courage, but gentle, spares death. From these two kinds
of courage arise harm and benefit.” See: Wikipedia, under
(11) Mustafa Barghouthi, What we Palestinians need, 14 August
(12) Viet Nguyen-Gillham , Rita Giacaman, Ghada Naser and
Will Boyce, “Normalising the abnormal: Palestinian youth
and the contradictions of resilience in protracted conflict.”
Health & Social Care in the Community, Vol. 16, No. 3. (May
2008), pp. 291-298.
(13) Basem L. Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the
Eastern Mediterranean. Pluto Press, London, 2010.
(14) See for the connection between the mental health concept
of resilience and sumud: Toine van Teeffelen, Hania
Bitar and Saleem Habash, “Resilience in the Palestinian
Occupied Territories,” in Michael Ungar (ed.) Handbook
for Working with Children and Youth: Pathways to
Resilience Across Cultures and Contexts, Sage 2005. In a
leaflet of the Resilience Project, Michael Unger, a leading
Canadian researcher on resilience and founder of the
Resilience Research Centre states: “Most commonly, the
term resilience has come to mean an individual’s ability
to overcome adversity and continue his or her normal
development. A more comprehensive and progressive
definition of resilience has emerged from our work
internationally. ‘Resilience is both an individual’s capacity
to navigate to health resources and a condition of the
individual’s family, community and culture to provide
those resources in culturally meaningful ways.’ This
definition shifts our understanding of resilience from
an individual concept, popular with western-trained
researchers and human services providers, to a more
relational understanding of well-being.”
(15) In 2004, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman’s
book, Character Strengths and Virtues (American
Psychological Foundation), proposed a classification
of positive traits. The Virtues in Action (VIA) Institute
classifies human strengths in six categories: Wisdom and
Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and
Transcendence. Courage is broken down into four main
subcategories: Bravery, Perseverance, Honesty, and Zest.
Zest or vitality is defined as, “feeling alive, being full of
zest, and displaying enthusiasm for any and all activities”.
Zest is a character strength in the midst of trying
circumstances. Grit is perseverance and passion toward
(16) In: The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works
is Dead (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002),
liberation theologian Elsa Tamez says that James calls
the poor to a very militant kind of patience, by employing
the Greek military terms for patience, hypomone and
makrothymia. Some meanings of sumud are close to such
understandings of patience.
(17) For “relentless persistence,” see Phil McManus and Gerald
Schlabach, eds, Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action
in Latin America. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Pub.,
(18) Mario Hendricks from South Africa, an ecumenical
accompanier for “peace in Palestine and Israel”, a project
of the World Council of Churches, compares the strong
communal identity of the village of Yanoun in the West
Bank, to ubuntu (EAPPI, 27-6, 2005). For huzun, see Orhan
Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City, Faber and Faber,