Exploring a national concept
It is now more than ever imperative for Palestinians to stay connected to their land and culture. In view of the continuous and deepening Israeli colonization – settlement-building, legal measures, infrastructure development, economic integration into Israel – it is essential to defend and develop Palestinian society and its communities against further fragmentation, disintegration and collapse. Referring to a presence on the land and a determination not to give in, the sumud or steadfastness concept as widely used among Palestinians has become also increasingly relevant.
As common in the case of national symbols, sumud is an umbrella concept with different shades of meaning, different emphases over time, and also somewhat different understandings related to place and context. Sumud reflects both universal qualities and Palestinian culture and history, whether on the ‘inside’, among ’48 and ’67 Palestinians, or on the outside, such as in the refugee camps in Lebanon.
Here below is a brief overview of the main qualities of sumud as based on literature research and interviews.
- Demography: During the 1970s and 1980s, sumud was often understood as referring to the need of keeping a demographic Palestinian presence in Palestine. Next to a call to stay on the land despite all the pressures it also emphasized, more controversially, the need to have large families. A sizable Palestinian presence, not further decimated by emigration or expulsion, would be necessary to keep the Palestinian cause alive. Sumud is here steadfastness in its most literal meaning: keeping many feet on the land.
- Culture and life on the land: But few Palestinians would nowadays contend that sumud is only staying in and on the land. Sumud means a deep and active awareness of cultural roots. It is an active presence to keep going on with community and family life, the preservation of Palestinian culture in for instance cuisine and dress and architectural forms, sharing the happiness of celebrations and feast days, and conveying Palestinian culture and awareness to new generations. Sumud can mean the quiet sipping of a cup of tea under the fig tree – the famous pastoral scene sketched by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish in the grating context of his own and his people’s condition of deprivation and exile. And Palestinian cultural sumud highlights the value of deep caring: mutual solidarity and community and family hospitality in a traditional rhythm of life.
- Survival tactics in the face of oppression: Keeping going on and staying in the land necessarily involve survival tactics. Typical examples of tactical sumud can be found where people are inventive in trying to create work in spite of occupation and oppression. The flourishing of ‘checkpoint economies’ is a case in point: vendors and street sellers finding work where Palestinian laborers gather and wait at checkpoints. I remember a remarkable case of years ago when a Palestinian woman from Nablus invented and sold special socks to ease people’s prolonged waiting in front of checkpoints.
- Civil courage: The lawyer Raja Shehadeh published a diary book in 1982 (“The Third Way”) in which he defined sumud as more than a survival tactic but rather as an expression of human dignity rejecting both mute subordination to occupation and getting trapped in blind hate. His plea was for civic courage in the face of continuing oppression and humiliation.
- Resistance: Is such civic courage resistance? There have been over the years discussions whether sumud is mainly about the protective preservation of the society and improvised economic survival, or that it can be considered an active form of resistance. The latter option is nowadays stressed more, I have the impression. One can argue that because the very existence of Palestinian society is presently at stake, the act of keeping going on and surviving, with all the required energy, determination and preparedness to sacrifice, is by itself an act of resistance. As the slogan painted on the Apartheid Wall goes: “existence is resistance.” Sumud as resistance is especially exemplified in the unbreakable will of families and peasants not to leave their land while under great pressure. Sumud is refusal to bow. This may mean preserving home and community life under conditions of siege, as in Gaza. Or peasants and town dwellers in the West Bank not prepared to leave their home and land under the pressures of settlement or wall building and continue their ‘normal-abnormal’ life despite being intimidated or offered open cheques to leave.
- Rights and values: Refusing to bow can be heroic but heroism also depends upon the cause of struggle. A few years ago political leader Mustafa Bargouthi mentioned that sumud is never steadfastness for its own sake. After all, Israeli settlers can be steadfast too in staying on stolen or occupied land. Integral to Palestinian sumud is the universal right to live in one’s country, with all the normal citizenship rights that entails. Sumud is also an expression of the steadfast commitment to legally enshrined Palestinian rights including the right of return and self-determination within a vision of equality and non-discrimination.
- Perseverance over time. Besides its spatial dimension, its being connected to the home small and large (i.e. the family home and the homeland), sumud is defined by time. Sumud is about a long-term determination more nourished by hope than optimism. It resembles resilience in its meaning of being able to veer back. A prototypical example of sumud is the sacrifice and willingness of communities to rebuild their homes for the xth time after recurrent Israeli army demolitions.
- Grassroots development. Sumud is sometimes equalled to what is more properly defined as conditions of sumud. To enable a long-term perspective of sustainable presence in the land, of preserving and developing the culture, and fostering inner strength and determination against the odds, a host of conditions is required – social, economic, political, psychological. During the 1980s and the first Intifada a sumud grassroots movement was aimed at developing self-sufficiency through small agricultural enterprises and cooperatives. Other movements at the time were directed at strengthening people’s sumud by developing medical, psycho-social and other support facilities for marginalized communities. Of course many forms of international solidarity or exchanges have supported sumud morally and practically. When the Palestine/Israel conflict is more like a marathon than a short run, there is the continuous need to strengthen the inhabitants’capacities to protect themselves and develop the land.
- Cultural communication and preservation. Cultural communication plays an important role in keeping the sumud concept and its contents alive. Sumud arts started in Palestinian paintings and literature decades ago but it also transpires in much present-day popular culture and symbolism, including the ubiquitous image of the olive tree with roots deep in the land. For the staying power of sumud in real life the continuous documentation of people’s stories of sumud is imperative.
- International. Sumud resonates with not just Palestinian but also other struggles. In Latin America peasant movements made use of the comparable concept of ‘relentless persistence.’ Scholar and activist Naomi Klein connects sumud to the struggle of indigenous peoples in northern America to protect their lands and in the face of climate change. In the beginnings of the Arab Spring, sumud was one of the buzz words in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Sumud overlaps with South African ubuntu in its focus on community life and mutual solidarity. Opting for a ‘third’ way between resignation and hate is a well-known choice made by international peace movements. The theologian Mary Grey connects sumud to Biblical meanings and finds it relevant to pilgrimages and feminist themes.
Yet, sumud is not a panacea for everything related to the Palestinian struggle for rights.
First, by its very breadth as an umbrella concept it runs the risk of being appropriated as a mobilizing but rather empty slogan.
Second, there are fundamental questions about sumud as strategy. One can argue that some features of sumud like the stubborn, steely determination not to leave are very important but at the same time limited in their strategic and tactical approach. Present-day life requires strategic flexibility and a continuous trespassing of internal and external borders of all kinds. Some activists have added an adjective to sumud in order to neutralize its static meanings, like ‘active’ or ‘resisting’ sumud, or sumud understood not as ‘steadfastness’ but as ‘standing fast’ – sumud transformed into a verb. It is further relevant to keep in mind that sumud points only to the contours of a strategy, and in practice a mainly local strategy by that. Nor does sumud say much about the concrete contents of a strategic solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict, the so-called ‘endgame’. At most one can say that for any meaningful endgame, distant as it is, sumud is a fundamental requirement.
Still sumud has something pertinent to say about Palestinian strategy, and not only in regard to the local and broader development efforts of staying on the land and community building. Sumud is about reclaiming the Palestinian story. Palestinians have often been stereotyped as extremely ‘active’ – as terrorists – or as extremely ‘passive’ – as powerless victims. But among the multitude of real life Palestinian self-narratives sumud is an important one. In its emphasis on human agency in daily life it defies both mentioned stereotypes. Here sumud can be eminently helpful in Palestinian education as well as in international education on Palestine.
In order to understand history as well as possible liberating futures, master stories are needed which are culturally specific but also general enough to allow for the many local and personal stories to give human accent and liveliness to the general story. And those stories have to be brought into resonance with stories of human struggles elsewhere. Here too sumud, when applied carefully and intersectionally, can help to meet a continuing challenge on the path to forms of Palestinian liberation.
Toine van Teeffelen
Bethlehem, November 2018
Toine van Teeffelen is an anthropologist working with the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem, West Bank (http://www.aeicenter.org).
For literature and interviews about sumud, including those used in this blog, please write to: email@example.com