As pro-democracy demonstrations sweep across the Middle East, ousting dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, many in the West have expressed surprise that such a strong, sophisticated vision of a democratic future is being articulated by ordinary citizens and grassroots movements in the Arab world.
I have not been surprised. Sophisticated organizing for democratic reform and justice has a rich legacy in the region. In fact, watching anti-Mubarak demonstrators taking to the streets en masse to demand true democracy, freedom from repression, and the right to be stakeholders in their own political and civil systems caused me to reflect on my friend Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem who has spent the last two decades working for peace and a nonviolent end to Israeli occupation. He is, in many 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 the age of 18, began a program of serious study, reading hundreds of books including:
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 Aspiration for Unity by Munir Shafiq
The complete works of Dostoevsky. Twice.
These were not parts of syllabi for courses in political science and literature. Sami was not in a university. He was a Palestinian political prisoner in an Israeli jail, incarcerated for building a bomb with two friends intended to be used against Israeli security forces. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of Sami’s friends. He and his 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 veteran prisoners in his jail had established a complex, intricate, community-based society with self-governance. This included a program of study for the new prisoners via a curriculum created and overseen by an education committee.
Previously, political prisoners had been forced to work in Israeli military factories, making netting for tanks and building crates to hold missiles. The prisoners revolted, burning down one of the factories, and then made a collective decision: their efforts and energy would go only towards their own people. They won access to books, paper, and pens through hunger strikes and other acts of resistance.
A Palestinian Odyssey
For the first three years of his confinement, Sami sat with five other new prisoners in a circle on the concrete floor of their cell for six hours a day, six days a week, being instructed in great detail by two older cellmates/teachers. One of them covered the background of Fatah (the secular Palestinian national liberation movement that Sami was a member of) and the other taught the history of rebellion and revolution in the modern world, from the Bolsheviks in Russia to Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas and the Vietnamese movement that defeated the French and Americans in a decades-long war. Their lessons were peppered with 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 fellow prisoners would sit on their mats, each with a book, reading in silence for the rest of the day. The books were assigned, but the education committee mixed the fare. A dense political volume like Mahdi Abd Al-Hadi’s The Palestinian Issue and the Political Projects for Resolution would be followed with a volume of poetry or a novel like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered.
When Sami graduated from the mandatory courses, he was free to determine his own reading and composed a list of 70 titles. Taking advice from the older prisoners, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels topped his list.
Given the mainstream media’s emphasis on the role of inflammatory Islamic rhetoric in the Palestinian resistance movement, one might assume the prisoners’ reading list would have been replete with books focusing on anti-Israel indoctrination. In reality, Sami underwent the intensive equivalent of a liberal arts education.
He emerged from his decade in prison well-versed in Greek and Roman classics, Russian literature, world history, philosophy, psychology, economics, and much more. He read The Odyssey and The Iliad three times each. He read the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. He read the letters that future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from prison to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, a future prime minister herself. Sami describes the prison library as “an ocean.” The texts mentioned above only skim the surface of his deep plunge into world literature.
This education system was just one element of the remarkable society that Palestinian prisoners built inside Israeli prisons. They held elections every six months for a prison-wide council and steering committee. They divided themselves into committees chaired by the members of that steering committee, responsible for education, communication with the Israeli guards, security, and intra-prisoner affairs.
Sami served several times on the elections committee and the magazine committee. When his cell got hold of a contraband radio, he and his cellmates became the news committee, surreptitiously listening to radio reports at night and stealthily disseminating the news in headline form to the other cells each morning.
There were daily book discussions in the cell, weekly political meetings between cells, and monthly gatherings of the entire 120-person section or corridor of cells to take up thorny topics of disagreement among members of the different Palestinian resistance movements jailed together. When the prisoners engaged in any joint action, such as a hunger strike, the decision would be made collectively after lengthy deliberation.
Israeli guards sometimes revoked the privileges of the prisoners as a form of punishment. The harshest punishment of all was the confiscation of pens, 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 of nonviolence, democracy, and equal rights. Undoubtedly, he was influenced by a collection of speeches he came across by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the teachings of Gandhi that he read. But much of the human being that Sami grew into emerged from the society the prisoners had painstakenly created, with its emphasis on reading, discussion, reflection, democracy, solidarity, and equality.
Sami speaks with nostalgia of the weekly “criticism” meetings that the older prisoners in his cell facilitated. He approached the first such meeting with trepidation. No one, after all, likes to be scolded for doing something wrong.
He was taken off-guard when the prisoner-facilitators started the meeting by criticizing themselves. Then, turning to the younger prisoners, they began with positive feedback, noting, for example, who had participated actively in group discussions. The prisoners were also given the opportunity to critique each other, but only after each had criticized himself first.
Sitting in those meetings, Sami came to realize that much of the goal of this prison society was, as he puts it, to build the humanity of the young prisoners. Political books and discussion provided intellectual stimulation, literature engendered empathy and compassion, and carefully facilitated discussions fostered connection and solidarity.
Prison as a place of study is hardly unique to Palestinians. Though in the United States prison is notorious for intense violence, political prisoners worldwide have historically used their time of incarceration to educate themselves. Malcolm X famously taught himself to read and write in prison. Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland, where many 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 a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London.
What was suprising to me, however, was the intricate community built by the Palestinian prisoners, with enormous care taken to nurture and educate the young. 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 must work together to build a common future of peace with justice. I had never considered the possibility that a decade in prison might not harden a prisoner against his jailers but provide him with the intellectual and emotional tools to become a passionate advocate for reconciliation.
Prison was instrumental in shaping Sami’s worldview and his growth as a courageous and critical thinker, thanks not just to his determination to study, but to the fact that older political prisoners viewed the development and education 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 to become a teacher.
From Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square: connecting the dots
As I watched the events in Tahrir Square unfold, leading to President Mubarak's ouster, I experienced the same excitement and inspiration I first felt when Sami began describing his prison experience to me. There are striking parallels between the two in terms of solidarity, human connection, and incredible organization.
For example, neighborhoods in Cairo organized their own volunteer guards to make sure their streets and homes remained safe; people set up ad-hoc clinics in Tahrir Square; demonstrators banded together to protect the Egyptian Museum and its priceless treasures from regime-friendly thugs and looters. And according to a Democracy Now report by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, when a group of demonstrators associated with the Muslim Brotherhood began to chant “Allah Akbar!” the crowd drowned them out with the chant, “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 who struggled for their own people’s freedom would be quick to support an Egyptian nonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet the PA banned and suppressed solidarity demonstrations in the West Bank -- and such repression of political expression was no isolated incident. The once revolutionary Fatah movement has become the corrupt, authoritarian, and self-serving Palestinian leadership we see today.
There are complex reasons for this transformation, including the fact that, though some of Sami’s former cellmates now hold high positions within the PA, much of the current Palestinian leadership is drawn not from the revolutionary prison generation, but from PLO members who returned from exile in 1996 after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. In addition, those accords created the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government without a state. The political goals of a national liberation movement and the political project of nation building were absorbed by an entity (the PA) that had functionally become a sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation.
Beyond the specifics, there is the issue of the nature of power itself. Once a regime -- any regime -- is in power, its tendency is to do whatever it takes to cling onto, consolidate, and expand that power, even at the expense of the very ideals it came to power to uphold.
Whatever the mixture of reasons, if there is a parallel to be drawn between the incredible Palestinian political prisoner community of the 1980s and the inspirational people’s revolution emerging like a tidal wave in the Arab world today, there is also a warning to be offered. Today’s Palestinian Authority provides a lesson for the people of Egypt. It is not enough to struggle for freedom and democracy against an authoritarian or dictatorial regime (or, in the Palestinian case, an occupying power). Once the revolutionaries obtain power, the struggle for those same core values becomes even more difficult and critical.
May Palestinians and Egyptians gain strength and solidarity from one another as they demand freedom as well as a meaningful political voice. May they learn from each other as they build enduring institutions of democracy and pluralism. May they continue to nurture hundreds of thousands of courageous, critical thinkers.
The people’s revolution is still unfolding in Egypt and all over the Arab world, including the occupied Palestinian territories. Where it will lead is unknown. If, however, it maintains (or, in the case of the Palestinians, rediscovers) its roots in ideals about a caring community that nurtures the humanity of its young, as in Tahrir Square and as in the Israeli jail where Sami Al Jundi went to “university,” then genuine social change in the Arab world is inevitable.