John Berger and Everyday Acts of Sumūd

John Berger documented the creativity and resilience of Palestinian communities over several years, considering it a ‘paradigm’ of how communities everywhere struggle for justice in their daily lives. Juman Simaan explores how a culture resists the forces of colonialism and the role writers and witnesses play. 'I hoped that my presence among the farmers as they harvested olives and planted trees, and telling their stories, was an act of solidarity and resistance'.
is a Palestinian academic living and working in the UK. He is interested in studying the everyday life of communities struggling against political and social injustices, and how their unique ways of surviving and thriving can inform activism, theory and academia.

The work of sumud, from childbearing and building to testifying and fighting, continues 1

– Edward Said After the Last Sky: Palestinian lives

 

A man asks us for a lift to his village near Aʾl khalīl. Salim is returning home early from a working day in construction on the other side of the separation barrier, which – not having a permit – he crosses every day out of sight of the soldiers.

Salim has a beehive in the village and made one ton of honey last year. He tells me proudly that his bees fly across the barrier to Israel to suck the nectar from the blossom there – as he sees it, an act of resistance by the bees in defiance of the barrier that doesn’t allow the humans of the West Bank to cross without a permit. Salim asks what I do here, and tells me about a family he knows whose land ‘has been eaten away by the barrier’; they are now separated from their olive trees and unable to access their land.

After we drop Salim off, my thoughts keep turning back to the bees, returning with their nectar from across the barrier, from flowers planted by the occupiers, enjoying a freedom not possible for their human keepers, to make the honey of resistance to benefit the occupied. I regret not exchanging numbers with Salim so we can later take up his invitation to visit his house, meet his family and taste his honey, but we are in a hurry to reach home before the weather worsens. I think of the other communities in Palestine whose everyday lives deserve to be highlighted, such as wage labourers and Bedouins. I wonder perhaps if in the future I or others can tell the stories of these groups’ forms of daily resistance, which I am seeing everywhere – even in the way of life of Salem’s bees and the honey they make.

A paradigm of daily resistance

This entry in my journal described a late winter day in 2015 in the southern hills of Palestine, where I was staying to help plant olive trees and meet olive growers for doctoral research I was conducting. My ancestors had tended their olive groves in the northern hills before the country was colonised and divided, after which they became landless labourers. I wished to return to my home country to learn from those who preserved their traditions of working the land. I wanted to explore the effects of Israel’s military occupation on farmers’ daily life, and how they were responding to the colonisation of their lands, the segregation of their communities and the restrictions on their daily activities.

The story that emerged is of a community’s survival and resistance, and of their striving for a more just future. Acts of daily resistance were everywhere both in the olive groves, and in the works of John Berger I had been immersing myself in. John Berger was an anti-capitalist art critic, author and activist who championed the causes of marginalised communities, among them peasants’ and migrant workers’ in Europe. Berger was one of the most prominent witnesses and friends of the Palestinians. He died in 2017 and left us with letters, essays, novels, poems and sketches infused with references to this unique daily resistance as a mode of existence and practice. One of Berger’s first encounters with Palestinian culture of resistance was with children’s drawings of their realities during the Iʾntifāda (uprising) of the late 1980s. Faithful Witnesses is a beautiful creation by the Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata who, influenced by Berger’s Ways of Seeing, compiled a collection of children’s drawings of their forbearers’ lands, everyday life under military occupation and their dreams and visions of peace and justice they had never lived through.

Berger wrote in the book’s preface:

The territory these children paint has its own spatial laws[…]Their space has always been stolen, and the theft has always been covered by raised guns. Look at their pictures. The children taught themselves how to resist. They invented their secret. Their secret was to imitate the air, which nothing can confine and through which everything is visible.

Such ways of seeing are ever-present in Palestinian art. Ghassan Kanfani, a Palestinian writer and activist, coined the phrase ‘literature of resistance’ (muqāwama) referring to writing as means to confront Israeli oppression of Palestinian communities. Kanfani’s piece ‘Letter from Gaza’ was an inspiration for Berger’s 2008 novel A to X. For Berger, Palestine represented the international struggle for justice against the forces of globalised capitalism and imperialism. Visiting for the first time in 2003 he began to consider Palestine a ‘paradigm’ of how communities everywhere struggle for justice in their daily lives. For Edward Said, a Palestinian American thinker, Palestine ‘provides the test-case for a true universalism’ and the fight for human dignity and freedom. That paradigm is nowhere clearer in Berger’s work than in his essay ‘Meanwhile’ 2 , in which he considered all of us – in varying degrees – as captives living under the rule of globalised financial capitalism. Berger urged us to learn from the ways in which our fellow prisoners, incarcerated in real-life prisons, seek small spaces in which they can enact their solidarity with each other and express their freedom and self-determination; and find ways to communicate with the outside world

From ‘Faithful Witnesses: Palestinian Children Recreate Their World’ by Kamal Boullata

Olive growing as daily resistance

Berger visited Palestine over several years to learn for himself about its people and their daily lives. Farmers, land, trees and their stories featured in his essays ‘Undefeated despair’ and ‘Stones’, published in the collection Hold Everything Dear. Berger was especially drawn to the olive tree and olive farmers, and the resilience and creativity in communities, where the trees were considered to be members. Berger termed this attitude ‘the stance of undefeated despair’, a phrase that resonated with the notion of sumūd (daily resistance)

The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

Listen…

The olive trees on the topmost terrace look tousled; the silver undersides of their leaves are far more visible than usual. This is because yesterday their olives were picked. Last year the crop was poor, the trees tired. This year is better. According to their girth, the trees must be around three or four centuries old. The terraces of dry limestone are probably older.

To demonstrate the meaning of olive farming, Berger quoted the Palestinian author Mourid Barghouti – ‘For the Palestinian, olive oil is the gift of the traveler, the comfort of the bride, the reward of autumn, the boast of the storeroom and the wealth of the family across centuries’. Berger also reported the violence done to olive trees: ‘A few nights ago, the uncle says, they cut it down with a chainsaw’.

The centrality of the olive tree and what it provides motivated my study of the daily lives and struggles of olive growers in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Berger’s artistic and political commitment to justice, and his themes of imprisonments, solidarity, survival and resistance, informed my own observations of everyday experiences in the olive orchards, hills and villages in the oPt.

I met Aʾbū ʿAṭālla, an olive farmer living in the West Bank of Palestine, who decided to move from the town he grew up in to live on land he co-owned with his extended family. He was motivated by his fear that the family was at risk of losing their groves, as has been the case for thousands of acres of family-owned holdings in Palestine. Uʾm Yāsyn, Aʾbū ʿAṭālla’s wife, told me: ‘As long as we protect the land, we will preserve ourselves. We will stay put on our land.’ The family felt it was their mission to defend it and their way of life. As a child, Aʾbū ʿAṭālla learnt from older relatives to love farming despite the hardships involved. The origin of the word fallāhyn in Arabic – describing Palestinian peasant communities – means people who till the soil, become self-reliant and better themselves.

The origin of the word fallāhyn in Arabic – describing Palestinian peasant communities – means people who till the soil, become self-reliant and better themselves.

The family lives among their groves in an area known locally as Wādy Aʾl Shyfaʾ (the valley of healing). Since the establishment of an illegal colony, bordering their land, in the 1990s, the family has experienced continuous harassment. Waste was thrown onto their land by settler-colonisers. Members of Aʾbū ʿAṭālla’s family were shot at and raided by soldiers searching their home for arms and ‘terrorists’, or any ‘structures’ defined as illegal by the construction ban. Aʾbū ʿAṭālla was held for hours by the IDF (Israel’s army), with no reason given. Many of their workers were stopped and searched, and some banned from entering the land. The family was given orders prohibiting them from planting trees near the colony’s fence. They received offers to sell their land or relocate to a different site, but they adamantly refused to do so.

Land grabs from Palestinians began in the late Ottoman period in the 19th century, when land reforms led to privatisation of communal land and sale of land to large landowners and European Zionist settler-colonialists. This process accelerated during the British Mandate between 1918 and 1948, leading to two peasant-led rebellions in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1948, the Nakbā (catastrophe) led to the expulsion and dispossession of the majority of the native population from their villages, towns and lands, after which the state of Israel was established. Since 1967, when Israeli forces occupied further Palestinian land in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, colony building has been encroaching further onto fertile land. Land colonisation and living conditions in the oPt led to two major organised Iʾntifādas (uprisings) in the 1980s and early 2000s, leading to further oppression by the IDF, land segregation and restrictions on movement. Authorities have been constructing an illegal segregation wall that is effectively annexing still more fertile land.

A family harvesting their olives in the village of Battir in the West Bank

During field trips I passed barriers that were part of a system of hundreds of checkpoints and gates obstructing families from reaching their land. Farmers are obliged to apply for permits to allow core family members to access their land during certain times of the year – usually at times, such as harvest and planting, when a shortage of hands is most disruptive and disabling. At the same time as restricting access in this way, Israeli authorities use an Ottoman law that allows confiscation of land from its owners if they deem land to have been unworked for a certain period.

Such injustices did not go unnoticed by Berger. He described settlements’ ‘virtual message to the surrounding countryside’ as ‘hands above the head, above the head I told you, and walk slowly backward’. Berger observed: ‘Building the settlement towards the west, and the road leading to it, involved the cutting down of several hundred olive trees. The men working on the site were mostly out-of-work Palestinians. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.’

This violence against trees and olive growers aims to divorce the native communities from their land, and to prevent them from engaging in activities essential for their survival.

This violence against trees and olive growers aims to divorce the native communities from their land, and to prevent them from engaging in activities essential for their survival. These restrictions are imposed on the majority indigenous communities, while settler-colonisers – a minority in the oPt, many of whom arrived from Europe and North America – enjoy the benefits of living on the land, travelling and working anywhere as they wish. This, and the demand for cheap labour in Israel and the colonies, have forced many to shift from being self-reliant fallāhy communities, to working as wage-labourers dependent on a strict regime of permits, movement restrictions and little social security.

Despite, or because of, the colonisation of land and the oppression of communities, farmers continued to survive and resist and strive for self-determination.

From learning about the everyday lives of olive farmers, from my conversations with them, and from my readings of such thinkers as John Berger and Edward Said, I began to see examples of daily resistance, or sumūd, everywhere; and I wanted to tell their stories.

A way of being, knowing and becoming

Everyday acts of sumūd emerged as a vocabulary olive growing families used to describe what they do to enable the activity of olive growing to continue against the odds. The urgency of witnessing and reporting stories of survival and sumūd, as a challenge to a system of oppression, are elements that the practice of sumūd shares with the notion of ‘undefeated despair’ Berger observed in Palestine. But unlike the seeming passivity of the attitude of ‘undefeated despair’, sumūd is enacted for the survival of the peasants’ threatened way of life, and for the purpose of producing new skills and knowledge for themselves and others, as well as for the purpose of becoming more sovereign and self-determined people.

For Berger, ’it is not only the future of peasants which is now involved in this continuity. The forces which in most parts of the world are today eliminating or destroying the peasantry represent the contradiction of most of the hopes once contained in the principle of historical progress’; the forces he referred to being the negative consequences of globalised capitalism and colonialism that are destroying land-based, small-scale and family-oriented life ways.

The structures of oppression however have not succeeded in stopping people from growing olives, a major activity in Palestine since the Bronze Age. Working the land and growing olives have seen a revival since the 1970s and 1980s, when the colonies began to expand further onto indigenous land. Uʾm Yāsyn told me: ‘Staying put on the land is our only jihād.’ The term jihād in Arabic means ‘striving’ or ‘exerting oneself’ in making effort to fight oppression. The family saw their determination to hold onto their land and way of life as a means to resist the conditions created by the colonisation and segregation of their lands and their communities. They were engaged in collective acts of sumūd, whereby they persevere on to their land, and hold on to their trees and daily activities to enable the continuation of their communities and to express all aspects of their identities: the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, cultural and political.

Ṣumūd is often translated into English as steadfastness, staying put, or resilience, but this has been too limited a definition. Raja Shehadeh introduced this concept and praxis in The Third Way: A journal of life in the West Bank. He described acts of sumūd as the ‘third way for ‘defeating the defeat’: an alternative to hating the other and to leaving the land. Shehadeh told stories of everyday creativity, personal acts and small rebellions, such as when he maintained his fake smile and politeness despite the great anger he felt when stopped by a soldier at a checkpoint one day – a carving-out of small, hidden spaces for freedom and self-determination, as observed by Berger among the incarcerated. Shehadeh related stories of the sumūd of families when their homes were raided in the middle of the night without justification, or of friends who lost innocent loved ones, shot by soldiers – all of whom continued to live on their land and persisted in resisting the military occupation. As a lawyer who founded a land-rights organisation – Al-Haq – Shehadeh witnessed fallāhy communities resisting the confiscation of their lands, stories that resembled what I witnessed during field visits.

 It is up to us to remember and record […] But if my sumūd as a lawyer is to mean anything, I must at least be able to tell my people’s stories.’

Shehadeh’s sumūd was expressed through the writing of his memoir. He explained the inner process leading to this attitude, which seems to exemplify what Berger called ‘the stance of undefeated despair’. Shehadeh wrote that Palestinians ‘cannot fight the Israelis’ brute physical force but we must keep the anger burning […] It is up to us to remember and record […] But if my sumūd as a lawyer is to mean anything, I must at least be able to tell my people’s stories.’

For him, sumūd acts both as a motivator for and as means of action: ‘Ṣumūd is watching your home turned into a prison. You […] choose to stay in that prison, because it is your home, and because you fear if you leave, your jailer will not allow you to return.’ It is born of an internal struggle people face in deciding how to respond to their daily conditions. They have to choose between either ‘acquiescing in the jailer’s plan in numb despair’ or becoming madly hateful of ‘your jailer and yourself, the prisoner’. It is from this foundational inner dilemma that it develops ‘from an all-encompassing form of life into a form of resistance that unites the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.’

The illegal separation wall segregating communities from their land in the West Bank

Edward Said described sumūd in the lives of workers and peasants in Palestine as ‘a form of ‘elementary resistance’ that turns presence into small-scale obduracy.’ Said observed Palestinians continuing to participate in their meaningful occupations ‘often without much hope or horizon, with the result that alienation from work is now gradually being assimilated and transformed into a prevailing attitude.’

This ‘elementary resistance’ of workers echoes what Berger wrote of the realities of peasants and workers in Europe in his trilogy Into Their Labour. He thought of them as a class of survivors, and compared their tradition of survival to ‘the image of a path [which] is apt because it is by following a path, created and maintained by generations of walking feet, that some of the dangers of the surrounding forests or mountains or marshes may be avoided. The path is tradition handed down by instructions, example and commentary.’

The tradition of sumūd is also an act of resistance which has become an expression of Palestinian identity and ‘being’ in the world. As a way of ‘being’, sumūd is guided by a consciousness and a moral code, or a means of Knowing and of creating new knowledge and skills. For instance, olive farmers I met formed cooperatives that aim to educate and raise consciousness about sustainable ways to farm the land. They also formed alliances with Israeli and international activists who visited them during planting and harvesting seasons to help in deterring harassment from soldiers and settlers, while exchanging skills and knowledge about ecological means to work the land. This type of sumūd has two purposes: firstly, to recognise and be alert to the ongoing injustices and the unequal dynamics of power that threaten to divorce people from their tradition, land and survival activities; secondly, this deeply embedded consciousness is used as a response against such injustices. This socio-political and quotidian awareness manifests in a diversity of ways, and is embedded in the young in Palestine by keeping the memory of the past alive, despite the attempts by the Israeli authorities to erase that memory.

Uʾm Yāsyn and Aʾbū ʿAṭālla wished for their young son Yāsyn to become an agricultural engineer when he grows up so he can stay on the land, in order to continue to work and protect it for the future generations. There’s a Palestinian proverb that I repeatedly heard used among farmers: ‘We plant for our children, and our children plant for their offspring.’ This inter-generational and historical aspect of sumūd is essential to the survival of communities here because, as Berger reflected: ‘A people or class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history’.

 

Writing as an act of solidarity

Berger’s bridging between his political and artistic vocations reassured me that my own political and academic concerns, for civil and political rights, cannot be separated. Berger’s work expressed an attitude of kindness and empathy towards the communities he visited, it was also an act of solidarity and a call for collective action against forces of injustice.

And so I am here, a figure in a dream that some of my ancestors in Poland, Galicia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire must have nurtured and spoken about for at least two centuries. And here I unhesitatingly identify myself with the just cause and the pain [on] whom the state of Israel (and cousins of mine) are afflicting to a degree that is tragically totalitarian. (‘Stones’)

Into Their Labour ‘has been written in a spirit of solidarity with the so-called “backward”. Whether they live in villages or have been forced to emigrate to a metropolis. Solidarity, because it is such women and men who have taught me the little I know.’

Linking his act of writing with the cultivation of the courage needed to speak truth to power and stand with the weak, Berger, like Shehadeh and Said, not only preached this belief but acted on it. In 2006 he led a call for the boycott of cultural and academic institutions that support the apartheid-like Israeli system in historical Palestine. The call was supported by a hundred international, Arab and Palestinian artists, film makers, musicians, authors and actors. In it he stated: ‘What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us.’

Like the peasants, migrants and workers elsewhere who have inspired Berger, olive farmers showed me how they continue to exist, confront injustices and imagine a better future, despite living in what seems to be an unbearable situation

Sharing sumūd with the world

Communities in Palestine taught me essential lessons of survival and resistance. Like the peasants, migrants and workers elsewhere who have inspired Berger, olive farmers showed me how they continue to exist, confront injustices and imagine a better future, despite living in what seems to be an unbearable situation. They inspired me to seek means of seeing and telling that give justice to their unique inner lives and their daily realities as well as their community ethos, leading the way to imagine a different and more just world for all.

Olive harvesting

Those stories of olive farmers and their sumūd are told to readers and all humans concerned with everyday lives and struggles of communities anywhere in the world. Everyday acts of sumūd highlight power inequalities and dominance – not just political or social but cultural and epistemological. Everyday acts and their narration represent a means of being in the world and acting on it; they provide a model for knowing and producing knowledge, essential towards achieving individual and collective human rights for present and future generations who are fighting for their traditions, survival and flourishing.

Berger ended his essay ‘Undefeated despair’ as follows:

In the stance I keep referring to, there’s […] quality of a way of sharing which disarms the leading question of: why was one born into this life?

This way of sharing disarms and answers the question not with a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance […] and this way disarmingly answers the question despite history. One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments: the time of Becoming.

Palestinian olive farmers would recognise that stance as something similar to the sumūd, which they shared with each other and with me. I hope that olive growers’ practice of everyday resistance would resonate with other communities resisting colonialism and other forms of oppression, as well as authors, artists and academics whose works tell these communities’ stories.

 

This essay is taken from an original paper written for’ John Berger Now’ – a conference held at Canterbury Christ Church University  in September 2017 that celebrated Berger’s works.

 

1 From After the Last Sky: Palestinian lives, (1999, p. 113). This book was a collaboration between Edward Said, a Palestinian American scholar, and Jean Mohr, a Swiss Photographer who also co-authored with John Berger two works: A Fortunate Man (1967) and A Seventh Man (1975). Like those books, After the Last Sky combines textual reflections and photographs that highlight daily experiences, and the resilience and resistance of marginalised communities.

2 Later published under the title ‘Fellow Prisoners’ in 2011

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

Read more
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *