This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
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.