Memoir a microcosm of the Palestinian experience

I write in response to Raymond Deane’s review of Sami Al-Jundi and Jen Marlowe’s book The Hour of Sunlight (“Book review: Waiting for redemption in ‘The Hour of Sunlight’,” 30 March 2011). For full disclosure, I worked with the authors for Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem, from 1996-2004.

Rather than engage with Al-Jundi’s actual experience and narrative, Deane uses the review for a cliched critique of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Deane’s account misrepresents the book, as well as Al-Jundi’s character, work and vision.

Sami Al-Jundi’s biography is a compelling portrait of Palestinian life, sacrifice and struggle under occupation — as a child in Jerusalem, a young adult in Israeli prison and during more than a decade of work for nonviolent conflict transformation, with the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence and Seeds of Peace. Al-Jundi’s account is a microcosm of Palestinian historical experience — he is a child of 1948 refugees who is driven from his home in 1967; a teenaged Fatah cadre whose friend kills himself making a bomb in Al-Jundi’s bedroom; a veteran of ten years in Israeli security prison — abused and tortured by interrogators and guards — then arbitrarily brutalized again, by Israeli and Palestinian Authority police, following his release.

These events all occurred before Al-Jundi began work with Seeds of Peace. They make up, by Deane’s own count, two-thirds of the book — yet Deane glibly passes over these 35 years of Palestinian life in a single paragraph. It is the equivalent of starting a review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in Mecca — ignoring a riveting personal narrative that evokes the history of a nation.

Sami Al-Jundi’s biography is full of compassion, creativity and resilience — on the part of his parents, both blind, who raised a tight-knit and politically conscious family of 15 in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter; on the part of Palestinian prisoners, who while incarcerated developed intricate educational and representational systems constituting what Al-Jundi proudly calls “the most democratic place in the Middle East”; and Al-Jundi himself, whose conscience, humor and uncompromising humanism shine forth in defiance of confinement and repression.

It was Al-Jundi’s humanist ideology, above all, that attracted him to Seeds of Peace. A photograph of the earth, bearing the slogan “All One People,” hung from the rearview mirror of his Ford Transit van. In the same vehicle, he brought hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli youth across checkpoints to see each other’s starkly different realities — for themselves. Al-Jundi’s dedicated work brought about extraordinary experiences, opportunities and relationships that would have otherwise been impossible. The memories and networks forged in those years remain a point of pride and inspiration for all of us who were Al-Jundi’s colleagues and proteges at the Jerusalem Center.

The vibrant program that we built together with so many youth faced tremendous challenges — including the brutal killing of a leading youth activist, Aseel Asleh, by Israeli police in October 2000, and the death of the program’s founder John Wallach in 2002. Al-Jundi and co-author Jen Marlowe kept the program thriving through all of the above. In 2004, new organizational leadership aggressively implemented changes in the program which clashed with Al-Jundi’s dialogical vision. This led to organizational conflict, the demise of the Jerusalem Center, and the humiliating terminations of Marlowe and Al-Jundi — which their book recounts in unsparing detail.

Deane’s review makes no mention of Al-Jundi’s accomplishments with Seeds of Peace, to the experiences that inspired him to say that “when I work with Seeds of Peace, I feel that my soul is speaking.” Instead, Deane focuses selectively on the bitter end — portrayed as inevitable due to the program’s alleged “whitewashing of the occupation.” Deane fails to mention Al-Jundi’s stories of Palestinian participants becoming outstanding advocates of their cause, and Israeli participants becoming aware of the realities of oppression. Al-Jundi, by contrast, describes the organizational conflict that led to his firing as the betrayal of the “soul of Seeds of Peace,” the ideals that guided his work — ideals he continued to support in the wake of this final layer of personal tragedy.

The book’s title, taken from Mahmoud Darwish, refers to the brief window of outdoor time granted to prisoners. This metaphor eludes Deane, who asks, “When is the ‘hour of sunlight’ … in this chronicle of failure and humiliation?” The first answer is that Al-Jundi’s shining moments took place in those crucial sections of the book which Deane fails to mention. The larger answer is that no means of political struggle — whether armed or nonviolent, through dialogue or negotiations or rebellion — has yet succeeded in liberating Palestinians. Living in collective conditions of confinement and repression, Palestinians must struggle to defy boundaries and restrictions, and seize brief and vulnerable moments in the sun. Sami Al-Jundi created many such moments in daunting conditions, and that is the power of his life and his memoir.

Ned Lazarus teaches Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University.