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Sumud: Soul of the Palestinian People

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.02.2009:

By Dr. Toine van Teeffelen

Sumud points to a central, modern Palestinian quality and experience, aptly rendered by the double meaning of its English equivalent, steadfastness. On the one hand, it is about preserving a presence on Palestinian land, on the other about keeping a presence in time, having patience. The word “despite” is an essential element too – sumud is about persevering despite all the oppression and hardships that Palestinians face. Examples abound: the peasants and families who stick to their place despite land expropriations or the building of the Wall, the mother who keeps raising her family despite ongoing curfews, the house owner who rebuilds his “illegally” built house for the nth time, the student who earns a certificate despite prison sentences or long daily waiting times at checkpoints while on the way to school or university, not to mention speaking up even while going on with daily life at a time when there are massacres all around, as in Gaza.

As a national project, sumud underlines the importance of preserving the communities on Palestinian land, whether in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, or in the 1948 territories. In essence sumud is saying no to the continuing Zionist and Israeli state policies that aim to deny and erase the Palestinian presence on their lands, whether planned by physical and violent measures, social fragmentation, or cultural obliteration. Sumud suggests staying put, not giving up on political and human rights.

Sumud has gained so much relevance among Palestinians because it is an affirmation of the collective presence on the land. It not only recognises the importance of numbers and demography in deciding about the future of the country but also serves to keep spirit and hope high. We are here to stay, is the message, but not as a subjugated people. Perhaps the centuries-long domination of Palestine by external or occupying powers has brought into the Palestinian character a certain hardiness and stubbornness, typical for the indomitable peasant trait of holding on to the land. In 2002 when Moshe Yaalon, Israeli chief of staff at the time, said, “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people,” he did not reckon with Palestinian sumud.

As a key term in national discourse, sumud was introduced at the end of the 1970s when “Sumud Funds” was established in Jordan to make the continued presence of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem economically possible. In political analysis during the 1970s and early 1980s, it was applied to the stage of keeping the Palestinian community intact through grassroots community building when, at the time, there was not yet a sustained and broad movement of struggle against the Israeli occupation. Sumud has also often been seen as the contribution to the national struggle by Palestinians who remained inside in Palestine, complementing an armed struggle from outside.

Among political activists, there have been debates about whether sumud can be considered a form of resistance – was it not too much of a passive, even static term, pointing to an effort to survive rather than to challenge the adversary? But for many Palestinians nowadays, to exist in Palestine is a form of resistance. In fact, the attitude of sumud can be easily connected to active forms of non-violent resistance which, after all, include as a major strategy the theoretical and practical refusal to cooperate with the adversary. The concept resembles others used in grassroots resistance against domination; for instance, peasants in Latin American countries have been using the comparable term “relentless persistence” to refer to their struggles for peace, justice, and human dignity, combining love for the land and its communities with the active protection of rights.

At the same time, the concept has travelled beyond politics in the strict sense of the word. In Palestinian culture, arts, and design, sumud has become symbolised by the olive tree that is deeply rooted in the land, by the cactus that survives the harshest of circumstances, and also by the Palestinian woman and mother as symbols of continuity and connectedness across the generations. These symbolisations point not only to the strength of sumud but also to the love for the Palestinian land often expressed by still images of rural communities, including those destroyed in 1948.

Looking at those paintings and reading the poetry of sumud, one is struck by another shade of sumud’s meaning: simplicity of life. In a way, sumud represents the longing for the rural community life of Palestine, in the shadow of the fig and olive trees. Read Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish for beautiful and painful expressions of that longing.

While paintings and poetry create images, other genres, such as diaries and documentaries, have brought out the narratives that show the many Palestinian experiences of sumud. Published diaries such as those of the lawyer Raja Shehadeh, the architect Suad Amiry, and the pastor Mitri Raheb convey the human effort to keep daily life going in the face of all imaginable hardships, big and small – such as sieges, around-the-clock curfews, incoming bullets and rockets, and of course, checkpoints. Who else is able to face such circumstances over such a prolonged period of time? Sometimes I tell my Palestinian wife that if Dutch citizens were to be collectively transplanted to live under Israeli occupation, they would barely be able to survive for even a few days.

Reading Palestinian diaries, you feel that sumud is also a homely concept. What matters is not only continuing to protect the physical well-being of the family but equally the small, grounded things of daily life – the coffee, the welcoming, the mutual relations between neighbours, the caring for a mother-in-law. In fact, in his first diary entitled The Third Way (1982), Shehadeh wrote about his understanding of sumud as a third way between subordination to oppression on the one hand and being imprisoned by the impulse towards violence on the other. At its foundation, sumud is about keeping one’s humanity and soul, and it is therefore an eminently educational concept as well. It is about the core narrative and identity of the Palestinian people – the ability to challenge injustice and oppression, to fight for rights, but also to laugh, to see hope, and even to keep a belief in humanity that still prevails in Palestinian life, despite the impossible circumstances – where nothing less than the existence of a beautiful community is at stake.

Dr. Toine van Teeffelen is an anthropologist and the development director of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

February 2009

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