AEI interview series: “A Christian-Islamic Religious Vision on the Concept of Sumud in Times of the Covid-19 Crisis,” supported by KAICIID (Vienna)

Rania Murra , Director of the Arab Educational Institute / Bethlehem – Member Organization of Pax Christi International

“For us Palestinians, sumud represents life on earth.”

What does sumud mean to you?

The first thing that comes to my mind when hearing the word sumud: How can a person smile and have hope in the midst of darkness? Every day while driving to my work at the Sumud Story House, I pass the separation wall. The center where I work is located in the area of ​​Rachel’s Tomb, in area C. I see the checkpoint 300 in this area now closed by the occupational forces during this period of corona. It’s desolate. These scenes tell me that the concept of sumud is more than just a term or an ordinary word. Our steadfastness is demonstrated by continuing to go to work under the most difficult circumstances. We continue to live and smile despite the political, economic and health problems. We continue to learn, teach and train sumud at a time when we need first to live sumud ourselves.

Sumud is a path of life or a way of life. For us Palestinians, sumud represents life on earth. Each and every human being in Palestine tells a story of steadfastness.

Have you had a special experience, whether at the level of the family or society, which told you the meaning of sumud?

The most difficult thing a person can go through in his life is to experience sumud in the midst of pain. I experienced that most difficult type of sumud when I lost my husband due to a terrible accident caused by a driver who did not have a driver’s license and drove in a stolen vehicle. Despite these transgressions, the driver was able to get away with it and not face the punishment he deserved. This accident of course caused much suffering in our family. Through this experience, my children and I were deeply tested in our sumud. We needed to keep our sumud despite a certain level of corruption and favoritism here in the enforcement of the law, and we did not leave the land. Maybe it is necessary for a person to pass hard times to some extent during which his roots and connections are weakened and put to the test.

Does steadfastness depend on the concept of sacrifice, or can it express joy?

For me, I do not agree that the concept of sumud depends on sacrifice. We as Christians believe that our only sacrifice is made through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Steadfastness is both giving and joy. Earlier I mentioned that smiling can express sumud despite all the difficulties. Sumud is actually an unlimited gift that gives us unlimited joy.

I have my hope renewed every time I go to work in marginalized areas or carry out any nonviolent activity in front of the Sumud Story House through storytelling, singing, walking in silent marches, planting olive trees, putting stories on the wall, or praying. Here I feel that there is still hope and joy in life, we seek through these activities to live the sumud and experience the joy until the victory prevails.

Is steadfastness a Palestinian term, or is it a humanitarian, political, or religious concept? Why?

Sumud is not an abstract concept but rather a way of life. Since it is a way of life, it includes human, political, religious, educational and other aspects. It is difficult to put it under one framework. God affirms that sumud is human because we have lived sumud since creation. God has given every human being the ability to endure, and when a person has determination and perseverance, he or she can withstand all the challenges.

Politically speaking, sumud is essential for us as Palestinians because we live under occupation. This steadfastness was clearly evident during the First Intifada. The fact that we searched for a unified national project helped us to survive as one people. It is difficult for a person to stand up alone. With unity and cooperation, we can survive.

Does each of us have a certain way to demonstrate sumud? How?

I believe that everyone can live his or her sumud in the first place through the family. I can see sumud in my children, especially since we went through many experiences that required a lot of sumud. Therefore, each of us must begin in his inner circle at home before preaching and teaching people the meaning of sumud in life. If I do not live sumud myself, my words do not make sense to the people to whom I try to communicate the meanings of sumud.

I also live and test my sumud in my work with women in the areas of Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. I give them the space to express their needs, problems and suffering, even though I experience the same suffering. This also requires sumud. It is not easy for a Palestinian to hear about the suffering of other Palestinians, especially when women talk about their daily suffering as a result of their direct contact with the occupational forces such as in the H2 area in Hebron city. Here, sumud comes up in learning from the difficult experiences of women and their human ability to endure. While hearing their suffering I try to provide them with support as much as possible. I work with many Palestinian women and youth in the field of advocacy, lobbying and in their peaceful struggle or rights. However, our basic dilemma is that we are under occupation and under a patriarchal society both of which are incapable of granting our rights, security and safety. We often demand things that are difficult to change in this country.

What is the meaning of sumud in the Bible? What are the terms in the Bible which come close to sumud?

There are many stories in the Bible that express sumud, such as patience, fortitude, will and perseverance, mercy, and others. An example is the story of David. We see that King David is an example of sumud, as he lived through difficulties and challenges which required all his patience. His is an example of patience and steadfastness while suffering from problems within his family, from those closest to him. When we talk about the suffering as a result of living under occupation, it is true that it is difficult but in the end it is caused by an external circumstance.  When suffering comes through people who are close or because of corruption, inequality and other shortcomings around us or even inside our own churches and institutions keeping the sumud becomes more difficult. But what consoles or comforts us is listening to the words of God who says: “The Lord does not waste the patience of the pious.”

For us as Palestinian Christians, our Holy Bible mentions many stories and verses that talk about suffering and the patience of people. We read about the Lord’s promises to the mourners, the oppressed and the widows. Each of these promises shows us a different aspect of how to be steadfast. There is no reward for a person who does not stand up. There is only reward to those who are patient and see the light of God in the midst of all the challenges. God allows these in order to test our perseverance through the circumstances under which we live.

One of the stories that touched me and which I very much appreciate in the Bible is when one of Jesus’ disciples – Judas – betrayed and delivered Him to the Roman army for His crucifixion. This experience can be similar to our suffering in the occupied homeland when people lack the values ​​that they advocate and do not live by them, and when we call for the application of the law but we do not apply it, or when we call for equality between men and women but also do not apply that.

The story of the prodigal son is one of the family stories that carry many meanings and values, including the values of sumud, endurance and fortitude as evident in the father who endured the leaving of his son after he took his share of the inheritance. However, he returned to his father after losing everything he owned. The father received him with hugs. Here, the father’s sumud appears in forgiving his son. We see at the same time the other son, who was loyal to his father and respected him. He stood in wonder at his father’s attitude and felt angry that his father did not ask about him but on the contrary received his brother with warmth in spite of his departure from home. This story represents sumud by the act of giving. The father gave everything to his children with love and joy and he forgave them.

There is also a beautiful biblical verse in the Epistle of James 1: 3-4 that expresses sumud:  “… because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” And also James 5:11: “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”

Through these stories, examples and verses, God wanted to convey to us a way to live our life on earth.

Do you think it is important to include the term sumud in Palestinian education? Why?

I believe that sumud should be included in all curriculum materials but no single unit should be devoted to it. This is because sumud is a way of life. It must therefore be applied to each and every situation in a specific way. Sumud must be taught in Christian and Islamic religious education, where Christians and Muslims can learn about this concept or values as it is found in their holy books. Also, it is very important to include sumud in the civic education curriculum, by highlighting sumud within the unique Palestinian experience, and showing Christian-Muslim steadfast living together on the ground. Most importantly, we live sumud in our daily life, and we reflect upon it as we go to work and study despite the presence of obstacles such as the wall and checkpoints.

It is also good to highlight in the curricula of civic and religious education how sumud started within our lives as Palestinians.  The first Intifada was very important. Has it come from the outside, as a teaching, or does it come from the inside, from our suffering as Palestinians?

I believe that more research must be done on the concept of sumud, its meanings and way of life, as it is an essential part of our life. Accepting and loving the other despite the differences represents sumud. I work with people from different, Christians, Muslims, city, village, camp, Bedouins backgrounds. And I think that sumud in terms of respecting diversity in unity is important and essential.

We find it difficult to cope with the difficult circumstances that we live during the coronavirus crisis and the health and safety requirements of social distancing. However, the Palestinian people always stand by each other in crisis, joy and sorrow. When showing steadfastness, solidarity, mercy and love we act for one another. We are accustomed to embrace, kiss, and dance together. Now In the time of corona we refrain from doing such things out of fear for our souls and the souls of others, all God’s valuable creation. We as Palestinians have an experience that differs from the rest of the world going through the same crisis. We currently live under the restrictions of both the corona crisis and the occupation. Basically we live in a big prison all the time. Large countries have now experienced what it means to be chained and imprisoned due to the spread of COVID-19. The West may learn about sumud from us as a people under occupation.

Can the term sumud be used in multi-religious education (living together classes), as it is a value shared between the Christian and Islamic religions? If so, can you give examples.

If people do not believe in the things they do, it is difficult to make a change. For example, if I do not believe in living together and sumud and do not live it, it is difficult to make any change in the other. The change begins first with the self. Afterwards influencing the other becomes easier. The person who lives sumud can teach sumud. He or she sets an example of sumud to follow in the face of challenges.

As a Christian, I try to follow the word of Christ in one of his important verses: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a clear message on the importance of our love for the neighbor who may be any person on this earth. Every person I meet must feel that he is my neighbor by accepting and understanding him and working together in promoting moral values and sumud.

I do call on the Ministry of Education and the Palestinian Curriculum Center to integrate interreligious education into the Christian and Islamic religious education textbooks. I do also recommend the integration of Christian and Islamic lessons into co-curricular classes and activities in order to live the values of tolerance, respect of differences, recognizing similarities and knowing the other religion.   

Is there a risk that sumud will be understood as a politicization of education? There are some parents and teachers who have difficulty understanding sumud because it is a term associated with politics. What is your view on the subject?

Sumud is a patriotic concept and raises a patriotic feeling. A free nationalist person is a person who understands the meaning of steadfastness while a person who carries the ideas of separating and dividing the Palestinian people on the basis of political affiliation does not know the true meaning of sumud. A person who does not believe in God can show sumud, and therefore sumud is a concept related to human life. Steadfastness is a human concept first, then it is a religious concept, an educational value, and it can also mean loyalty to a free country not under occupation.