An Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square

Reading material such as thisgives one hope that the Umma will reconcile with the West.  Most present day commentary listens far toomuch to the minority radical Islamic wing that is feared even more by Muslimsthan the West.  That fear was exploitedby autocrats to avoid democracy everywhere.

That such groups can be bannedfor been undemocratic in their philosophy is rarely considered as if a liberaldemocrat should be equal to either a communist or a Nazi.  All such groups need to be sorted out fordemocracy to prosper.

Conversations with the variouspeoples soon uncover the reality that an educated man or women is sharing acontinuity of aspiration and culture everywhere and that commonality is vastlygreater than apparent differences.  It isonly among the ignorant that narrowness of lifeways makes it difficult to findcommon ground.

The second lesson is that this systemshould be established for all prisoners of all types.  It is an inspired sociological experimentthat clearly worked.  Try it on the usualrun of prison inmates and they will reform themselves.  The drain on prison resources is the cost ofmaintaining a library.

From An Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square 

One Palestinian’s Odyssey in a Middle East Ablaze 

As pro-democracy demonstrations sweep across the Middle East, oustingdictators in Tunisia and Egypt, many inthe West have expressed surprise that such a strong, sophisticated vision of ademocratic future is being articulated by ordinary citizens and grassrootsmovements in the Arab world.

I have not been surprised. Sophisticated organizing for democraticreform and justice has a rich legacy in the region.  In fact, watchinganti-Mubarak demonstrators taking to the streets en masse to demand truedemocracy, freedom from repression, and the right to be stakeholders in theirown political and civil systems caused me to reflect on my friend Sami AlJundi, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem who has spent the last twodecades working for peace and a nonviolent end to Israeli occupation. He is, inmany ways, a product of that legacy.

Sami’s political awakening came in 1980,when he was inducted into a highly organized, democratic community and, at theage of 18, began a program of serious study, reading hundreds of booksincluding:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract 
Makarenko’s Pedagogical Poem 
The writings of Ho Chi Minh, Basil Liddell Hart, and Angela Davis 
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Imam Ghazali 
The Call of the Wild by Jack London 
Arab Nationalism Between the Reality of Separation and the Aspirationfor Unity by
Munir Shafiq 
The complete works of Dostoevsky. Twice.

These were not parts of syllabi for courses in political science andliterature. Sami was not in a university. He was a Palestinian political prisonerin an Israeli jail, incarcerated for building a bomb with two friends intendedto be used against Israeli security forces.

The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of Sami’s friends. He andhis other friend were arrested by the Israeli secret service, tortured,interrogated, and finally sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison, respectively.

It was in prison that Sami received his higher education. The veteranprisoners in his jail had established a complex, intricate, community-basedsociety with self-governance. This included a program of study for the newprisoners via a curriculum created and overseen by an education committee.

Previously, political prisoners had been forced to work in Israelimilitary factories, making netting for tanks and building crates to holdmissiles. The prisoners revolted, burning down one of the factories, and thenmade a collective decision: their efforts and energy would go only towardstheir own people. They won access to books, paper, and pens through hungerstrikes and other acts of resistance.

A Palestinian Odyssey

For the first three years of his confinement, Sami sat with five othernew prisoners in a circle on the concrete floor of their cell for six hours aday, six days a week, being instructed in great detail by two oldercellmates/teachers. One of them covered the background of Fatah (the secularPalestinian national liberation movement that Sami was a member of) and theother taught the history of rebellion and revolution in the modern world, fromthe Bolsheviks in Russiato Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas and the Vietnamese movement that defeatedthe French and Americans in a decades-long war. Their lessons were pepperedwith comparisons to and anecdotes from places as distant and disparate as Ireland and South Africa.

After the six hours of group meetings, Sami and his fellowprisoners would sit on their mats, each with a book, reading in silence for therest of the day. The books were assigned, but the education committee mixed thefare. A dense political volume like Mahdi Abd Al-Hadi’s The PalestinianIssue and the Political Projects for Resolution would be followed with avolume of poetry or a novel like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel WasTempered.

When Sami graduated from the mandatory courses, he was free todetermine his own reading and composed a list of 70 titles. Taking advice fromthe older prisoners, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels topped his list.

Given the mainstream media’s emphasis on the role of inflammatoryIslamic rhetoric in the Palestinian resistance movement, one might assume theprisoners’ reading list would have been replete with books focusing onanti-Israel indoctrination.  In reality, Sami underwent the intensiveequivalent of a liberal arts education.

He emerged from his decade in prison well-versed in Greek and Romanclassics, Russian literature, world history, philosophy, psychology, economics,and much more. He read The Odyssey and The Iliad threetimes each. He read the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. He read theletters that future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from prison tohis daughter, Indira Gandhi, a future prime minister herself. Sami describesthe prison library as “an ocean.” The texts mentioned above only skim thesurface of his deep plunge into world literature.

This education system was just one element of the remarkable societythat Palestinian prisoners built inside Israeli prisons. They held elections everysix months for a prison-wide council and steering committee.  They dividedthemselves into committees chaired by the members of that steering committee,responsible for education, communication with the Israeli guards, security, andintra-prisoner affairs.

Sami served several times on the elections committee and the magazinecommittee.  When his cell got hold of a contraband radio, he and hiscellmates became the news committee, surreptitiously listening to radio reportsat night and stealthily disseminating the news in headline form to the othercells each morning.

There were daily book discussions in the cell, weekly politicalmeetings between cells, and monthly gatherings of the entire 120-person sectionor corridor of cells to take up thorny topics of disagreement among members ofthe different Palestinian resistance movements jailed together. When theprisoners engaged in any joint action, such as a hunger strike, the decisionwould be made collectively after lengthy deliberation.

Israeli guards sometimes revoked the privileges of the prisoners as aform of punishment. The harshest punishment of all was the confiscation ofpens, paper, and books. Books, according to Sami, were the prisoners’ souls.

The Impact of Prison

Prison did not further radicalize Sami in the ways one might expect,nor did it stoke a desire for revenge or for the further use of violence.Instead, locked away, he began to develop a worldview grounded in principles ofnonviolence, democracy, and equal rights. Undoubtedly, he was influenced by acollection of speeches he came across by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as theteachings of Gandhi that he read. But much of the human being that Sami grewinto emerged from the society the prisoners had painstakenly created, with itsemphasis on reading, discussion, reflection, democracy, solidarity, andequality.

Sami speaks with nostalgia of the weekly “criticism” meetings that theolder prisoners in his cell facilitated. He approached the first such meetingwith trepidation.  No one, after all, likes to be scolded for doingsomething wrong.

He was taken off-guard when the prisoner-facilitators started themeeting by criticizing themselves. Then, turning to the younger prisoners, theybegan with positive feedback, noting, for example, who had participatedactively in group discussions. The prisoners were also given the opportunity tocritique each other, but only after each had criticized himself first.

Sitting in those meetings, Sami came to realize that much of the goalof this prison society was, as he puts it, to build the humanity of the youngprisoners. Political books and discussion provided intellectual stimulation,literature engendered empathy and compassion, and carefully facilitateddiscussions fostered connection and solidarity.

Prison as a place of study is hardly unique to Palestinians. Though inthe United Statesprison is notorious for intense violence, political prisoners worldwide havehistorically used their time of incarceration to educate themselves. Malcolm X famously taught himself to read and write in prison. Long Kesh prisonin Northern Ireland, wheremany Irish Republican Army volunteers were jailed, was regularly referred to as“the university of Long Kesh.” While locked away on Robben Island for 27 years, Nelson Mandela received aBachelor of Laws degree from the University of London.

What was suprising to me, however, was the intricate community built bythe Palestinian prisoners, with enormous care taken to nurture and educate theyoung. The path that Sami set out on, while in prison for constructing a bomb,led him to an unshakeable belief that Israelis and Palestinians can and mustwork together to build a common future of peace with justice. I had neverconsidered the possibility that a decade in prison might not harden a prisoneragainst his jailers but provide him with the intellectual and emotional toolsto become a passionate advocate for reconciliation.

Prison was instrumental in shaping Sami’s worldview and his growth as acourageous and critical thinker, thanks not just to his determination to study,but to the fact that older political prisoners viewed the development andeducation of a younger generation as their primary human and political task.Sami’s own proudest moment, he would later tell me, was when it was his turn tobecome a teacher.

From Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square: connecting the dots

As I watched the events in Tahrir Square unfold, leading to PresidentMubarak's ouster, I experienced the same excitement and inspiration I firstfelt when Sami began describing his prison experience to me.  There arestriking parallels between the two in terms of solidarity, human connection,and incredible organization.

For example, neighborhoods in Cairo organized their own volunteerguards to make sure their streets and homes remained safe; people set up ad-hocclinics in Tahrir Square; demonstrators banded together to protect the EgyptianMuseum and its priceless treasures from regime-friendly thugs andlooters.  And according to a Democracy Now report by SharifAbdel Kouddous, when a group of demonstrators associated with the MuslimBrotherhood began to chant “Allah Akbar!” the crowd drowned them out with thechant, “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!”

But I watched with dismay the way the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority(PA) responded to the protests. It seems reasonable to expect that those whostruggled for their own people’s freedom would be quick to support an Egyptiannonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet the PA banned and suppressed solidarity demonstrationsin the West Bank -- and such repression ofpolitical expression was no isolated incident. The once revolutionary Fatahmovement has become the corrupt, authoritarian, and self-serving Palestinianleadership we see today.

There are complex reasons for this transformation, including the factthat, though some of Sami’s former cellmates now hold high positions within thePA, much of the current Palestinian leadership is drawn not from therevolutionary prison generation, but from PLO members who returned from exilein 1996 after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.  In addition, thoseaccords created the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government without astate.  The political goals of a national liberation movement and thepolitical project of nation building were absorbed by an entity (the PA) thathad functionally become a sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation.

Beyond the specifics, there is the issue of the nature of poweritself.  Once a regime -- any regime -- is in power, its tendency is to dowhatever it takes to cling onto, consolidate, and expand that power, even atthe expense of the very ideals it came to power to uphold.

Whatever the mixture of reasons, if there is a parallel to be drawnbetween the incredible Palestinian political prisoner community of the 1980sand the inspirational people’s revolution emerging like a tidal wave in theArab world today, there is also a warning to be offered.  Today’sPalestinian Authority provides a lesson for the people of Egypt. It isnot enough to struggle for freedom and democracy against an authoritarian ordictatorial regime (or, in the Palestinian case, an occupying power). Once therevolutionaries obtain power, the struggle for those same core values becomeseven more difficult and critical.

May Palestinians and Egyptians gain strength and solidarity from oneanother as they demand freedom as well as a meaningful political voice. Maythey learn from each other as they build enduring institutions of democracy andpluralism. May they continue to nurture hundreds of thousands of courageous,critical thinkers.

The people’s revolution is still unfolding in Egypt and allover the Arab world, including the occupied Palestinian territories. Where it will lead is unknown.  If, however, it maintains (or, in the caseof the Palestinians, rediscovers) its roots in ideals about a caring communitythat nurtures the humanity of its young, as in Tahrir Square and as in theIsraeli jail where Sami Al Jundi went to “university,” then genuine socialchange in the Arab world is inevitable.

Jen Marlowe is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author,playwright, human rights advocate, and founder of donkeysaddle projects.Her new book, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisonerto Peacemaker, co-written with and about Palestinian peace activist Sami AlJundi, has just been published by Nation Books. Her previous book wasDarfurDiaries: Stories of Survival. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audiointerview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for onePalestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)

Copyright 2011 Jen Marlowe

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