Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Sumud (Steadfastness)

Found on Palestine Telegraph:

Palestine, September 23, 2009, (Pal Telegraph) - Associate professor and former Dean of Arts at Bethlehem University, Dr Adnan Musallam teaches in its Department of Humanities. He obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the contemporary history of the Arab world and the Middle East.

He has conducted research and published widely on the contemporary history of the Middle East, Palestine and Bethlehem. Among other things he teaches oral history. He is member of the advisory board of AEI-Open Windows.
See also his website, at

It is inevitable that when you talk about sumud you talk against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict, how 750,000 Palestinians were dispersed, how despite all the difficulties, the Separation Wall, the permits, the settlements, the high rate of unemployment, especially in Gaza, and so on, that the Palestinians have been able to stay steadfast on their land. Despite what others tell about you, and what they are doing to you, you are here to stay. You are part of the land, and you do not want anybody to move you.

Part of steadfastness is that you face this phenomenon, which is throwing you out of your house, trying to negate your presence, disconnect you from your roots, to put you in nowhere. Against this, sumud is trying to prove that you exist, on your land and everywhere; that you are worthy as a human being. You remember that in the 1970s the Israelis, like prime minister Golda Meir, said that there was no such thing as Palestinians... The Palestinians have proved that they are in place. The Palestinian cause is still there, it is all the time in the world headlines.

Palestinians refuse that their destiny becomes like what sadly happened to the Indians in North America, who were put in ghettoes. Sumud is that you stay in history. Palestinians don't want to be denied the right to self-determination, to have their own state with East-Jerusalem as its capital. They want to be like other peoples. Without steadfastness our demise would be pretty clear. Steadfastness relates to the essence of the Palestinian case and is indeed the soul of the Palestinian people.

Despite its centrality in the Palestinian struggle, sumud is also problematic for Palestinians. If you go and look into reality, you see Palestinians in every place, in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and so on, scattered all over the world. They left because of the 1948 refugee problem, the 1967 refugee problem, and because of the lack of job opportunities. Many have chosen to leave the land, to go and search for a better life. People are fed up; they want to live a life like a normal human being.

Let's not be idealistic. Many Palestinian Christians and Moslems are leaving the land, finding steadfastness not to be worthwhile at this stage. It's tiring for them, for their children, they find elsewhere more opportunities. When we say that this is not happening, we hide our heads in the sand. The ongoing departure from the land is not good for the steadfastness of those who remain. It is a big loss for the people in the West Bank and Gaza. The land is emptied gradually. Although everybody says that numerically we are stronger than the Israelis, I believe that the more we leave, the more we loose in steadfastness.

Emigration is not just a Christian phenomenon. This is a stereotype. It is true that emigration started in the 19th century among the Christians from the Bethlehem area, but now it is really all over the place. Last summer, I had two history classes, I asked the students to do an oral history project, and we concentrated on the phenomenon of emigration. It's obvious: both Moslems and Christians emigrate. All have relatives all over the world. Emigration occurs in all Palestinian strata, all regions, among those working on the lands, town dwellers, in the refugee camps. You cannot even say that the middle class or the urban society is leaving more than others. You can only say one thing: that the rich leave more than the poor. The people with a lot of money have left the country. They take the money and invest it in a factory in Latin America, for example.

The peasantry and sumud

Even the peasants, who have a special contribution to give to steadfastness, are leaving.

Let's take a historical perspective on the last issue. The problem is that since the early time of the British period the peasants have been leaving their lands, from the 1920s on, because of the high taxes. The state policy was to create hard circumstances so as to uproot the Palestinian people, and make room for the Jewish homeland. So many Palestinian peasants left to work for the railroads, or work for British workshops. To be a laborer in Haifa was more profitable than to stay as a farmer. They didn't leave the country, but left agriculture.

That was a big loss for Palestinian agriculture. On the other hand, the Zionists brought more and more people and tied them to the land; it was a kind of Zionist steadfastness. On our side, throughout the mandate period and after, people have been leaving the land. Nobody guided them, supported them to stay on the land. Even now, we don't know how many peasants are staying on the land, whether they are keeping sumud, or whether they work in the city or in Israel during the day and at the end of the day go back to their land. I don't know how much of that commuting contributes to steadfastness. I don't know whether Israel's Wall and checkpoint policy to keep people outside of work in Israel contributes to steadfastness here in the West Bank, I am curious about that. The people who have been prevented of working in Israel - do they now work on the land? I hope so. I don't have the exact figures.

Of course I don't blame the people, it is not because they love to work as laborers but because they need to. As a human being I can understand that in the end people need something to live on. Who am I to tell them not to go? Am I supporting them to stay on the land, with jobs so that they can stay? There are so many things that work against steadfastness. The Palestinian Authority is so limited financially; it is dependent on financial contributions from other countries.
During the British mandate time sumud was there with the Palestinians as a collective consciousness, not as a concept, slogan or label. "I am ready to face dire consequences but I don't want to leave," that mentality was certainly there. When examining steadfastness historically, I would start doing research on sumud by focusing on the people in their relation to the land and the leadership. In the 1930s we had the big six-month strike of 1936; a revolt broke out in 1937-9, and then in 1938 all Palestinian leadership was in exile. Shortly often the Nakbeh took place, people were scattered allover the place, without a leader.

That is in fact part of the Nakbeh. The only signs of hope came from such leaders as ‘Ab Al-Qader Al-Husseini and cadres like the more secular jihad organization at the time. Husseini's martyrdom in April 1948 was really a big blow to the Palestinians. I do believe that the April 1948 battle at the Qastel [near Latrun to the west of Jerusalem] was a turning point. The Nakbeh started there. On April 9 you had the big massacre of Deit Yassin. And at the 11th the villagers fled because they were afraid that there would be more massacres like Deir Yassin. You need to have a leader who tells you: "Stay, I am coming to fight for you." The leaders should support you, they should make sure that you don't leave the land, don't emigrate.

That call to stay was more effective in 1967. Soon after the Israeli victory, the Israelis started with their loudspeakers to call the people to leave. Some got afraid of that, including the refugees of 1948, who fled for a second time and went to Jordan. But the rest of the people, no. They asked their leaders to go to the incoming Israeli forces and tell them: "Here we are. Don't do anything with us." The word sumud may not have been used, but it was there. And people remained in their homes, and they worked, and made a living. You fight for your life and you love this land, and you want to stay here. Nobody needs to tell you about sumud because you do it on your own. Sumud has been there all along but nobody examined it. Maybe some leaders started to use it as a slogan, in the 1960s, 70s and the 80s, but for the people it was a real thing.

Despite all the difficulties, despite all the contradictions, they showed that they were here.

A human concept

What does it mean? Sumud doesn't mean that you go and sleep. Just staying here, not speaking out nor doing anything is not sumud. Yesterday I heard about a small town south of Bethlehem, called Maesara. Like in Bil'in, they display steadfastness. They have marches, they prove that they are here. Sumud is about showing and telling others that you exist, so that nobody can deny your existence. Sumud is voice, communication.

Sumud is a broad, active, human concept. It is not allowing to let you being 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 neighboring 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 terrains 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.

Also in another sense steadfastness shouldn't be narrowly defined. It includes all Palestinians, those living inside and those living outside. Sumud should be a comprehensive and inclusive concept. It is possible from outside Palestine to contribute greatly to the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. For instance, when you fight for the recognition of the Palestinians as a people like other human beings. This, too, has to be examined, the steadfastness agenda for Palestinians outside. Sumud is worth to be researched.

This is the second part in a series of interviews with Palestinians about the concept of sumud or steadfastness made by Dr Toine van Teeffelen, who is anthropologist and development director of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem. The series contributes to the Spirit of Sumud cultural tourism program at AEI-Open Windows ((

The first interview, with Dr Walid Mustafa, can be read in the Palestine Telegraph, the on-line newspaper:

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