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The story of sumud

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 16.07.2008:

Lecture at the conference about The Future of Palestinian national identity, Inash al-Usra, El-Bireh, 21-23 March 2008

By Toine van Teeffelen/Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

Narrating identity

Stories help to develop and express identity. They create a people, a place and a history. Conversely, denying identity is taking away one’s story.

Much of my professional work has been in the field of “story and Palestine.” In the Netherlands I was involved in studies about how the Palestinian story has been systematically negated in common or popular discourse about the Middle East, such as in popular literature. In Palestine I have been associated with educational organizations that worked in the opposite direction – the construction, through story, of a national identity of Palestine.

Here are two personal experiences that motivated me to go deeper into the latter direction.

My daughter goes to a school in Bethlehem and follows the Palestinian curriculum. When she was seven years old, a couple of years ago, it happened that she had to study a chapter in civics about the Palestinian refugee camps. She learned the names of the camps in Gaza, West Bank, and the Arab countries by rote. But when I asked her whether she knew what refugees were, she said she didn’t. She did not know about the story of the refugees and the camps, and the origins of the refugees. She learned about the central Palestinian symbol of the refugee camp without its story.

I was surprised and arranged a meeting with her civics teacher who expressed his own dissatisfaction with the curriculum, at least as far as the representation of the Palestinian narrative is concerned. This story motivated me to go further into the issue, together with others already active in that field. Right now the YMCA/Advocacy. Ittijah from the Galilee, and AEI-Open Windows in Bethlehem work on public advocacy regarding the representation of Palestine in the Palestinian and the Israeli curriculum. The essential aim is how to develop and strengthen an open and human Palestinian narrative in education.

The second story is about a school-based oral history project a few years ago, in which I had the good luck to be involved. At St Joseph in Bethlehem, female students of 16-17 years, encouraged by their English teacher, interviewed older persons in their family and community, and wrote their personal stories. One student interviewed her grandfather, whom she had never asked before about his experiences during the British mandate time and the 1948 war. She was mesmerized by his story of courage and strength in coping with the hard circumstances at the time. When her grandpa soon died afterwards, she felt that the interview was a way of restoring her lost contact with him. By listening to his story, she was in fact able to tell him goodbye almost at the moment of his death. After this oral history project, the St Joseph teacher continued with a diary writing project, up until this very day.

Narrating is connecting. The teacher involved in the oral history project called this process of connecting “the golden chain of stories.” Connecting with history, with memories of place and community is similar to what the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once called the experience of feeling a “historical sensation.” Often unexpectedly, through an eye-opening event like talking with an older family member in jointly shared oppressive circumstances, you feel that you become part of a history and you start to identify with it, even be inspired by it. You feel that this history becomes your own. The words are not dead as in rote learning; they become alive and one’s feelings resonate with the experiences of a community. To emphasize this element of connectedness, the book that came out of the girls’ oral histories at St Joseph was called “Your Stories Are My Stories.”

Stories which resonate

Which stories help to evoke this historical sensation or resonance? My assumption is that to a large extent it is about bringing back the human element. Stories about daily life are especially helpful. It is the daily life setting which connects. Daily human concerns and values are to a large extent the same all around the world: Most of us are led by the concerns of raising or sharing a family, and we struggle to preserve the values of education, work, and health. When we talk about humanly connecting with history, place and community, it is essentially about bringing back this daily life perspective. Extraordinary achievements within a daily life context are particularly inspiring. When common people show outstanding human qualities in ordinary life while facing difficult demands and constraints, including pain and loss, you cannot help to feel involved.

This, is my assumption, ties a person with histories and stories around the world. It is, I think, a common experience, wherever you live. Huizinga stated that historical sensations are not limited to feeling connected to histories of one’s own community. It is in fact not uncommon to feel this magic moment of human closeness while hearing about stories from other communities (and then, one can add, it often happens that afterwards you look at your own community in a different way). But here we deal with stories that express a common cultural identity such as the Palestinian identity. What needs to happen to establish resonance with the stories of your own community?

In the case of Palestine, not any story from Palestinian daily life is likely to create a specifically “Palestinian” resonance. We would have to look to daily life stories which somehow point to central Palestinian experiences that are part of the collective memory.

The symbol of sumud epitomizes, I think, such a central experience. It is based on Palestinian stories in which common people show extraordinary qualities while facing extraordinarily difficult demands, pain and loss in daily life. This symbol I wish to explore in the rest of this paper. At the end I will come back on the potential of sumud as a concept not just to reflect a central Palestinian experience, but also to connect with human experiences across cultures and contexts.

The meaning of sumud

Sumud has a double meaning which is also clear from its English equivalent: steadfastness. On the one hand, it relates to a vertical dimension of Palestinian life, “standing strong” on the land, having deep roots. On the other hand it indicates a horizontal time dimension – an attitude of patience and persistence, of not giving up, despite the odds.

Why does sumud centrally resonate the Palestinian experience?

Sumud is, in essence, an assertion opposing the denial of Palestine. The denial of Palestine has of course been a central Palestinian experience. There has been no time when Palestine or the Palestinian identity was not at risk. Because of this identity-at-risk Palestinians have been continuously challenged by fundamental and sometimes politically motivated questions such as who is a Palestinian, where is Palestine, what is the connection between Palestinians and Palestine, and – in present times most urgently – is the Palestinian cause viable? In opposition to the Zionist image of Palestine as a land without a native people, an image which aims at destroying the Palestinian narrative, sumud asserts; I am a Palestinian and this is my land. It is an assertion of the core cause and an assertion that this cause will not disappear.

The symbol of sumud has been subject to various discussions and also criticisms. Historically, there is the question whether it relates to a particular stage of grassroots community building, in advance of and preparation for the non-violent resistance of the first Intifada in the 1980s. Alternatively it is seen as a feature that characterizes Palestinian history throughout. I will take here the last perspective.

Originally, sumud was the name given to a fund in Amman (established in 1978) assigned to help keeping Palestinians in Palestine, and given this origin, there has been the discussion whether sumud is a top-down concept, or whether it can be employed as a source of inspiration for community building from below. I think there is no reason not to apply sumud in the second meaning.

Another discussion relates to whether sumud is a form of resistance or rather survival. The concepts of struggling or active sumud have been developed to emphasize the resisting element and to suggest that sumud should be understood in a dynamic and active manner. It should however be possible, in my view, to take the position that resistance and survival can be understood as a combinable or overlapping set of meanings.

An even more fundamental discussion relates to the shortcoming of national symbols in general and sumud in particular. It is about the tendency of such symbols to become frozen, to loose their human story-like meaning and to become part of political discourse divorced from reality on the ground.

When we consider sumud as a story concept and not just as a static identity symbol we can avoid some of these last problems and show its potential for a pedagogy of Palestinian national identity.

In the following I will dwell on four aspects of sumud which relate to its potential to raise a pedagogically human and open perspective:

 Its democratic or participative character, the openness of this symbol to many different life stories

 The agency or willpower it demonstrates

 Its esthetic perspective

 The possibility of connecting sumud with wider human values and circles of community.


Raja Shehadeh’s diary The Third Way dating back to the early 1980s, explained the story of sumud as one of courageous citizenship in which in principle all Palestinians can participate, not just in the political field but in all aspects of life. Essentially, such stories are about the will to keep and assert the Palestinian identity, to keep the commitment to the land, family and community, and to keep going on with daily life despite the extreme adversities one faces.

This spirit is expressed in the typical stories of Palestinians who refuse to leave their land(s): for instance the family rebuilding their home again and again after each new demolition; the peasant who continues to cultivate his land in the face of expanding settlements, the family going on with life despite being surrounded by the Wall on all sides, the stories of families who maintain the fabric of daily life despite imprisonment during prolonged curfews. Many of these stories are to a greater or lesser extent shared by people in Palestine. Many of them have been documented in diaries, human rights accounts, interviews and journalistic articles. Though they express pain, they have become part of the collective memory that forms the Palestinian national identity.

These sumud stories show an element of hardiness, of steeling perhaps, often associated with the peasant’s connection with the land. This strong commitment is not just expressed by staying on the land or in your house, but also by the will to continue with one’s daily life.

One way of classifying sumud stories is according to the kind of human willpower that sumud demonstrates, the kind of extraordinary human quality shared by many Palestinians that challenges adversities in conditions of pain and loss. That human quality can have different accents and appearances; it does not need only to express, for instance, a quality of hardiness.

Thus, it can be about preserving the ability to dream and to imagine another reality when you live in a black tunnel. Several of the diaries at St Joseph school have been about dreaming. Or it can be about maintaining the ability to joke under the most serious and heavy of circumstances. It can be about longing and looking for beauty when faced by the ugliness of the Wall and other barriers. About keeping a human view of your adversary when you are yourself being dehumanized. Or it can be about taking the initiative when there seems to be no choice. All these abilities have as a common denominator: to stay human in Palestine, to keep an irrepressible human spirit under the most trying of circumstances. These stories form a cultural repertoire of proudly expressing a common identity.

From a pedagogical point of view the bringing out and collecting of such stories is a rewarding enterprise. Not just in terms of learning how to interview or write such stories but especially because they help to connect with people and communities, help to increase a deep feeling of appreciation. In fact, preserving the stories is a gift to the community and the nation. Nothing builds community so much as sharing extraordinary human stories taking place in daily life despite the pain and loss one experiences.

Many people like to tell their stories of sumud and to have them recorded. They can be put in books, on the Internet, and in films. That has in fact been done in many cases, including in a range of recent Palestinian diaries published in English. These years, several schools in Palestine have encouraged diary writing. Writing down stories of sumud is in fact itself an expression of sumud. Registering and documenting stories in an accessible manner is an important practical aspect of regaining the national story. Inspiring Palestinian stories of daily life are innumerable but they are still spread out and fragmented over especially the Internet. People are not aware of their existence.

Internet documentation is nowadays becoming more important for educating about the national identity. I am myself involved in the site which documents stories about the cultural identity, including stories in the spirit of sumud. It is a wiki website which encourages people themselves to submit stories or photo stories and other items in an organized and controlled manner. Such a website is participative and people-oriented, in the same way as the stories of sumud are.


Narrative connects the past of who we are with the future of how we will survive and reach out to our dreams. This is done in an expanding present where we share space and relationship with communities (Lederach). The present is expanding because there is choice, even under the most restrictive and oppressive circumstances.

Sumud stand for the spirit and energy of Palestinians to make a choice even though one stands with the back against the wall. The choice is both positive and negative. Positive, as for the assertion that “one keeps going on with keeping going on.” Negative, as for the refusal to resign to humiliation, discrimination and oppression. Both add to a sense of achievement. Sumud is perhaps not liberation but it is definitely an achievement at a personal and community level.

Here is an important pedagogical issue at stake. It is a truism that education is about hope. Hope not an easy optimism but a hard-won awareness that there is always, even in the face of the most extreme adversities, a human perspective and human choice. Many of the stories of Palestine that circulate among Palestinians are failure stories. To bring back human achievement stories, with their support for self-appreciation and pride because of the will to make human choices, is by itself an educational achievement.

Taking sumud center stage can even help to look at Palestinian history with different eyes, emphasizing certain elements which in the known, “official” stories have been backgrounded. For instance, in the history writing about the Nakbeh it is not common to pay attention to the moments when Palestinians were courageously holding on at military or civil levels. But such stories, with their unknown heroes, exist and could be inspirational sources of hope, also today.

Choices imply dilemmas. Looking and thinking through hard dilemmas is another educational opportunity. We discuss in our youth groups in Bethlehem the issue of staying steadfast in the homeland or leaving the country, the last action perhaps considered as a contribution to the national cause but from outside the country. Such discussions tend to go deep. If you go deep into existential dilemmas which relate to the preferred life story, you face questions such as: What is my sense of place in the world? What is the meaning of home and place? Who am I? From the perspective of Palestine’s national identity, the understanding of such dilemmas may lead one to learn more about the cultures and wisdom of Palestine and its values, and may even lead to the holy books of Islam and Christianity which have much to say about steadfastness and commitment as life choices.

There is a wider issue here. Values such as sumud open up and frame certain fundamental dilemmas in life. It is possible to take central Palestinian experiences other than sumud and show that they evoke different dilemmas. In terms of a pedagogy of national identity it would be for instance possible to choose the value of traveling as reflecting another fundamental Palestinian experience. Edward Said wrote about the value of living in the ghurba (exile). While deeply painful and unsettling, it can be productive for viewing the world with different eyes. He spoke of his preference for travelers above sultans who stick to their seats. Traveling can be a way to become familiar with world cultures. It can be about a return to the homeland experienced from different perspectives and angles. Traveling can also be about letting oneself loose, which is an interesting educational experience by itself. In his latest diary book, Shehadeh spoke about the sarha, an old Palestinian custom of hiking without destination. In such understandings, traveling can promote educational values of mobility, flexibility and change. Traveling is so central a metaphor of Palestinian life that sumud and traveling, both understood in a context of extreme adversity, uncertainty, pain and loss, might be seen as the yin and yang of Palestinian life and identity.

The aesthetics of sumud

To identify, to develop and communicate sumud requires an aesthetic sense. Narrating is an Art. As many Palestinians convey their pride and pain in relation to the homeland, they have done so by translating that into esthetically developed forms. Sumud has been expressed in symbolic paintings, poetics or graphics of the land and its community, such as in the form of the image of the olive tree with its roots deep in the land and branches reaching out to the sky. Part of the educational challenge here is to build skills and to identify genres in which an artistic sense of sumud can be conveyed, showing the beauty of a moral spirit that at the same time is affected by suffering and loss.

One can give judgments about and discuss the aesthetics of artistic expressions of sumud. I am not artistically educated and would be reluctant to join that discussion. But from an educational point of view I think that a main challenge for an aesthetics of sumud is to encourage Palestinians to discover the extraordinary qualities and deeds of Palestinians facing the challenges of their besieged lives.

In my organization’s experience with school and university youths in the Bethlehem area the problem is not so much a lack of telling or even writing talents. It is rather the difficulty for many people and youth to discover the extraordinariness of their own or family’s or community’s stories. They often feel they have nothing special to tell, as if the subject of telling about daily life in Palestine is not worth for others to know about, because “everybody already knows it.”

The trick, for teachers and trainers and others working with youth, is looking at reality as if you see it for the first time, to create this sense of wonder and, in the Palestinian context, also of fresh anger, needed to see the impossibility of life here and its injustices but at the same time discovering people’s spirit of refusal and resistance.

Discover what you know, said Paolo Freire. For resonance with your own community’s stories, you sometimes need to take a step back, a different perspective. Here a heightened sense of aesthetics and identifying new ways of expression and communication can help. At St Joseph, students first wrote diaries in English, then wrote a script of some of each other’s diaries for a drama play, then with the help of professionals developed it into a combination of dance and theater. Using different aesthetics, their ordinary-extraordinary stories about life during curfews helped them to communicate basic human qualities from fresh perspectives.

Wider communication

Because of this deeply human quality, sumud resonates wider than the Palestinian community. Showing inner strength under extreme adversities is a universal phenomenon. A Dutch peace worker told me that the Palestinian stories of sumud reminded him of the spirit to which many Czechs stuck during the times when they were oppressed under foreign influence, before 1989. The stories of sumud are in fact good to share with people and youth abroad, who often hold stereotypes of Palestinians as either terrorists or powerless victims. They give a different dimension to understanding the Palestinian experience. People everywhere are interested into this extraordinary quality of staying put and staying human. Sumud is, paraphrasing the words of the German philosopher Schopenhauer, about the great will to live human which connects all the single intentions behind people’s life stories.

Palestinian sumud stories resonate with similar stories from other countries. That is one reason why they are so effective for communication across cultures and contexts. Let me give you, in ending this talk, another personal story which illustrates this and which connects Dutch and Palestinian situations and histories.

When I worked in Amsterdam some 20 years ago, I used to pass daily along the Anne Frank house, watching the queues of international tourists. At that time I did not relate to Anne Frank much, never felt a historical sensation, even though Anne Frank’s story is to some extent constitutive of the Dutch psyche. You may know about Anne Frank’s story of sumud. As a Jewish girl, she was locked up during the Second World War in a room at one of the Amsterdam houses along the canals. She wrote her diary until she and her family were caught and killed in the concentration camps. Her diary writing was an act of sumud. For me, Anne Frank’s story became alive when the diary project at St Joseph started. Teenager girls of the age of Anne Frank participated. In preparation for the diary project the girls learned about girl’s diaries from other contexts, such as from Sarajevo during the civil war in former Yugoslavia or from an Indian teenage girl in 19th century US. When they first read Anne Frank’s story, they rolled their eyes according to the teacher. The Second World War and the occupation of Holland by the Germans was not a setting to which they easily could relate or desired to relate. But after a while they started to identify with Anne Frank, not in the least because they could understand Anne’s predicament of being closed up in a room. After all, curfews have been a familiar phenomenon in Palestine.

After a while the interest in Anne’s diary grew. The teacher asked me to bring more books of Anne Frank, in English. As a reliable courier I brought books from the Steimatsky bookshop in Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As an international I of course did not face problems of traveling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The teacher said that even from the distant Ta’amreh area to the east of Bethlehem there were parents interested in reading Anne Frank’s story. So the story left its mark.

Now it happened that one of the diary writing girls lived in a house which was occupied by the Israeli army during the siege of the Nativity Church, April 2002. This house oversaw Bab al-Deir, Nativity Square in Bethlehem. The family was obliged to live in one room. They even had to get permission to go to the toilet located on the same floor. The girl, like her classmates, continued their diary writing, indeed an act of sumud under such circumstances. At one point she went to the Israeli soldier in the corridor and asked him: “Do you know the story of Anne Frank?” “Of course,” the soldier said and added, “Do you want to read it?” “No,” said the girl, “I read it. But I want you to read it!” A very challenging and courageous remark, under the circumstances. As for me, after learning about that moment I started to become myself interested in Anne Frank’s story. Sometimes a historical sensation goes along an unexpected traveling route.

The symbol of sumud can and should indeed travel into different directions.

Diaries and histories from Palestine

Suad Amiry, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Ramallah Diaries, Granta, London, 2005.

Susan Atallah and Toine van Teeffelen, The Wall Cannot Stop Our Stories: A Palestinian Diary Project. (English, with separate teacher manual and DVD). Published by Terra Sancta/St Joseph School for Girls, Bethlehem, 2004.

Mitri Raheb, Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble. Fortress Press, 2004.

Raja Shehadeh, The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank. Quartet, London, 1982

Raja Shehadeh, The Sealed Room: Selections from the Diary of a Palestinian Living under Israeli Occupation September 1990 – August 1991, Quartet, London, 1992

Raja Shehadeh, When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary of Ramallah under Siege. Profile Books, London, 2003

Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape. Profile Books, London 2007.

St Joseph School/Terra Sancta Bethlehem, Your Stories Are My Stories: A Palestinian Oral History Project, Culture and Palestine series, 2000.

Toine van Teeffelen, Bethlehem Diary: 2000-2002, Culture and Palestine series, Bethlehem, 2002.

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