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Zoughbi Zoughbi about sumud

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 25.02.2010:

“Sumud requires that you are in harmony with your community, feel the pulses, the pain and the rejoice in the game of community.”

Dr Zoughbi Zoughbi is director of the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center Wi’am in Bethlehem. He speaks in Wi’am’s new office building which looks out towards the Wall around Rachel’s Tomb.

Sumud is very important, not on the level of interpretation, but of implementation. It is very important to keep the Palestinian presence in this country, to have the perseverance, to have the ambitions of the Palestinian people realized in its living context, in terms of a human security where people’s needs are met despite all challenges, pitfalls and difficulties we face.

Not by chance, we are here in front of this wall. Our presence here is sumud by itself. We are against the current policy of the state of Israel to colonize the area, to Judaize it, to extend its territory. And so with our presence here, we are contextualizing this core principle of sumud and materialize it in terms of having an office, people, and activities.

Sumud has been part of the non-violent struggle of the Palestinian people against the colonial presence in this land. Because the colonial powers would like us to disappear. The Palestinians have been using sumud since the time of the Ottoman Empire, whom I also call occupiers, and since the time of British colonialism. It’s not recent. The people in this part of the world have never witnessed a stable situation, we didn’t rule ourselves.

But with relentless persistence, we remained here. I am here to stay. You cannot uproot me. I am like the cactus. Even when the environment is dry I can live.


I am not prepared to be sumud alone without the people. Sumud requires that you are in harmony with your community; feel the pulses, the pain and the rejoice in the game of community. In doing so, you show a wonderful spirit from inside. I might be bitter from outside but I am sweet from inside. What is better than to sacrifice oneself for others? Sumud requires that you are working with the people to achieve their dreams, goals and hopes in addressing the different needs. Needs as defined, for instance, by the needs pyramid of Maslow or by the family of rights – the economic, social, political, civil rights, the right to self-determination, the right to live in a safe environment.

So sumud is not only about being in a place, about an attitude of I am here to stay. It is about working with and for others – 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.

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.

Walk and talk

Sumud means living both the walk and the talk. I cannot sit with hands folded and say, “I am samid” [the one who is steadfast]. I should also not say, in general: One should be steadfast. Rather, I myself should manifest it in work, I should contextualize, incarnate it, not only materialize it but also spiritualize it. I need spiritual nourishment to inject people with hope. Sumud is about having a high morale, wiling to take the risk. It is the manifestation of choice, you choose to stay sumud. It could perhaps be that some time you are put in a position to be in sumud. For instance when you are under curfew you don’t have much choice. However, it is still your choice that under curfew, you relate to others, and doing so you are putting yourself on the brink. There is no sumud without risks, sacrifice and resistance.

Sumud is about communicating your steadfastness to others, sending and living a message. I can explain sumud by telling people: Imagine that the electricity would be cut off in Paris, Amsterdam, New York, for one night – what would happen? If you don’t have a shower every day, if there’s no water, or if there’s no police every day, if there is chaos around you, what to do? Communicating sumud can be in drama, in theatre, in arts, in dancing, in writing, in advocacy, in exchanging visits.

I have been visiting first-nation people, the native Americans. They are sumud. It is sumud to learn from others, to share with others, to be in solidarity with others, to have others in solidarity with you, and to learn from mistakes, pitfalls, in order not to invent the wheel.

People who are not emigrating, are sumud. But sumud can also exist outside the country. People who are going outside for a special reason, whether because they are compelled to do so, as when they were kicked out, or when choosing for an education or business abroad can be sumud.

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 about the sum of the different activities that we conduct since we are here, in this place as well as outside. Sumud is the interdisciplinary area of all the topics related. Even talking with you is part of sumud.

Restorative justice

When we talk about sumud as a strategy and struggle we are also talking about restorative justice. Sumud is about a good cause, a meaningful purpose in life. The idea of sumud is to not inflict pain or harm to others, but to help others to see the reality. This is how I look at it; to let them see that your own life means a lot for their lives. Your existence is very important for the others’ secure existence. And of course, if the others reach that point, they are in a transformative journey themselves on a personal and community level. With sumud you become equal with the other. Only this will lead to reconciliation. Reconciliation will not happen with this mighty military power in the area. With sumud you are bringing the others to their senses, and to an equal level. You are telling the others “You cannot exclude me” or “Don’t dream of kicking me out,” “Don’t try to imagine that I disappear”. At the same time you are telling the others, “Listen, I am not thinking of revenge, I am thinking of building bridges and not walls, of living and others let live, of celebrating life, not death.” Sumud is dissemination of culture. It says: there is life at the end of the tunnel.

Are the Palestinian people sumud? To be frank with you, notwithstanding all the criticism, all the difficulties, I believe that the people are practicing sumud. Still we are sane and human; still we have the psychological balance in our body. I believe that people practice sumud, but of course they should practice it better. Sumud is also criticism, constructive criticism. We need evaluation all the time. Are we doing the right things? What is wrong? How can we fix it, at different levels?” Then also some people use the term to justify certain policies, as happens often in religion and politics. Every time there are some people who manipulate the word and use it for negative reasons, to create power and positions for themselves. But I am talking about the popular movement for sumud, about people who try to make a living, to find ways that keep them going, and create transformations.

At Wi’am we are working at the grassroots, at multiple tracks, we work both with educated people and people who are marginalized. Ours is an interdisciplinary approach, addressing the needs holistically in a process of education, action, and reflection.

For instance, we are building up the garden between the office and the Wall slowly, taking care of reaching out to all human levels. We are working with the kids, the youth, the women. In doing so, we try to be humanly available. In a theological understanding, sumud means you are working in kairos time, not the routine, chronos time. It means that we don’t say: “Sorry, the office is closed, we don’t do it.” Our work is 24 hours. It is a commitment. This is how we look at our center, practicing sumud in different ways.

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 University. The interview was held 14/11/2009.

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