Munir Fasheh (Arab Education Forum)

In light of my experience in Palestine

(especially in the 1970s and during the first intifada 1987-91)


I often reflected on (and wrote about) what I (and others) have done and experienced in Palestine, but this is the first time I reflect on ‘activism’ itself. My immediate reaction is that what you all refer to as ‘activism’, I would like to refer to as manifestations of attentiveness, aliveness, love, freedom, and taking risks. ‘Activism’ sounds too abstract and professional for me, and I don’t remember I ever used it to describe what we were doing. For example, the two most inspiring periods in my life – the decade of the 1970s and the first intifada 1987-91 (both in Palestine) – no one referred to what people were doing as activism. The first time I heard the word used was during the first intifada, and it was used by the mass media and then picked up by political parties and others. My worry stems from my experience where every time a word was used, it could only name what is visible and, thus, I am afraid that using ‘activism’ would contribute to blinding us to much of what people do, that cannot be captured in words, and cannot be comprehended by the mind. Let’s not contribute to the disappearance of meaningful acts. What I am trying to say is avoid making what we name take over and slowly rob communities of acts and abilities that have been vital in people’s lives for thousands of years. What I started realizing, since the early 1970s, is how useful the mind and language are in organizing, planning, competing, controlling, and winning, but how limited they are in their ability to comprehend life in its fullness, richness, depth, and beauty, and how limited they are in their ability to ‘see’ harmony, how things fit together in a natural way. That realization made me ask what would be lost/ ignored/ disvalued/ made invisible by talking only about what the mind can understand and language can express. I believe that this question is relevant to discussions concerning activism.


One reason as to why the two periods I mentioned above were inspiring to me was the fact that there were no leaders and no funds, and no one appointed self as an agent of social change. People were thinking and acting in a more humble and concrete way, and having faith that that would lead to meaningful change determined by people and the realities of the situation, and not by “professionals” who determine the path and the outcome. People’s actions were in harmony with what the Zapatistas articulated 20 years later: changing traditions in traditional ways (and not in tearing apart the social fabric of society). In addition, institutions and organized groups were either marginal (like in the 1970s) or ordered closed by Israeli occupation authorities (like in the first intifada). The absence of leaders and the lack of intervention by institutions provided freedom and released energy within people to act autonomously, and to use ‘structures’ that were part of communities and culture. Everyone did what s/he thought  s/he could do and was good at doing – and be ready to face consequences and punishment by the army. In other words, people and communities were self-governed. What I experienced (in the two periods) dismantled the modern myth that people cannot govern themselves or function without institutions and professionals, and without leaders directing and helping them all the time.

I will tell two stories (both of which happened during the first intifada) to give concrete meanings to what I said above. The first is a story that I wrote about elsewhere but is relevant to repeat here. It is a story (which was a common scene during the first intifada) about a number of Israeli soldiers harshly beating a young man in his early twenties in the central district of Ramallah. Several women rushed toward the scene shouting and trying to pull the soldiers away from the young man. Suddenly, a woman carrying a baby ran up and started shouting at the young man, “I told you not to leave the house today, that the situation is too dangerous. But you didn’t listen; you never listen to me.” Then she turned to the soldiers and said, “Beat him; he deserves this. He never listens. I am sick of my life with him.” Then back to the man she cried, “I am sick of you and your baby; take him and leave me alone.” She pushed the baby into his arms and ran away. The soldiers were confused and left the man and went on. A few minutes later, the woman reappeared, took back her baby, told the young man to go to his home, and wished him safety and quick recovery. I then realized that they were total strangers!

The woman was not acting or pretending; and she was not a superhuman or a hero (as many like to characterize Palestinians). Nor, on the other hand, was she a subhuman or a member of a non-people (as many Israeli and Western experts have been portraying Palestinians for decades). She would not label herself as an activist. She was simply acting humanly, in a spontaneous and compassionate way. What she did is a manifestation of attentiveness, aliveness, freedom, love, and taking risks. Her action brought out the hope in human beings: how incredible and how unpredictable human beings can be. Above all, she did what she felt was good – an attribute usually forgotten in a world dominated by rational explanations, such as power relations, or oppressed vs. oppressors. She acted outside laws, customs, paradigms, and the intension of producing social change, and without evaluating, figuring out, or thinking of consequences. She even risked the possibility of getting her baby harmed. She didn’t ask where the young man was from or his political orientation or religion. She did what she felt was good and right.


The second story was told to me by Kamal Abdul Fattah, professor of geography at Birzeit University. It is a story of a boy in Jenin who was running away from soldiers, and he entered a house, where a woman was sitting on a chair, preparing some food. When she saw the terror in the young boy’s eyes, she told him to hide under her gown. For her, doing what was in her judgment good was more important than thinking whether it was appropriate or in accordance with custom. Her love for that boy (a stranger) and the impulse to do something to protect him were far more important to her than obeying a law or conforming to a custom. Her action was a manifestation of love, doing good, being attentive and alive, acting in freedom, and taking a risk.


It is exactly in the sense embedded in the actions of the two women, that I use the word love here. What was manifested by their actions was that love is stronger than rules, laws, and customs, and that it is intimately connected to doing good. But these are not possible without freedom – inner freedom. It is exactly such actions that I am afraid would be made invisible (and slowly disappear, obviously unintentionally) by stressing ‘activism’. My fear is we will start perceiving activism as a ‘profession’ and activists as professionals.


The fact that both stories involved mothers is not an insignificant fact. What has kept Palestinian communities functional have been acts by people who did what they did as a matter of living and as a manifestation of love for others, and not as a result of planned and organized thinking. It is exactly in this sense that mothers in Gaza, for example, have been indispensable in the survival and sanity of people there, in spite of the insanity of what Israel has been doing since the 1950s – almost non-stop. [I believe one day the Gaza mothers will be looked at as an embodiment of the miracle of humanity.] No one referred to them as activists or to what they were doing as activism, and I hope no one ever will.


The voluntary work movement is an example during the 1970s that embodied what I mentioned above. It was too beautiful to give it an organizational name, such as activism or social change. Such words do not do justice to the spirit of what was happening.


I am not saying that ‘activists’ in Palestine did not have an impact, or that activism is useless or meaningless, or that people who seek change should not be doing so. What I said above is not against activism or NOW activism or change. All that I am saying is pointing out how important it is not to repeat the mistake of forgetting what has been the backbone for the survival of communities throughout history; to avoid falling into the belief that everything and all acts can be understood and organized. What I am trying to say is that what kept the Palestinian society viable and kept life going are not activists and change agents but those who were part of daily life, acting in love and freedom, such as mothers. In a sense, I am talking about humility and dignity, which – at least in my experience – activists and change agents usually lack.


It is from this perspective that I see, for example, the question “what important questions can be used to invite/ engage people who do not currently think of themselves as ‘activists’ into exploring their roles in the NOW activism?” as an example of how we may be blinding ourselves to see aspects that cannot be comprehended by the mind and cannot be expressed in concepts and through language. By asking people who do not currently think of themselves as ‘activists’ to “explore their roles in the NOW activism”, won’t we be perceiving “NOW activism” as a reference, seeing people through the eyeglasses of whether they are activists or not, rather than seeing them as they are and, thus, being open to how they perceive and describe themselves?


That’s why I feel uncomfortable with phrases that were used in some of the forwarded materials, such as ‘social change’ and ‘paradigm shift’. A most fundamental change, for me, is changing one’s perceptions; and a most profound and honest way of living is to live outside paradigms, to live with full attentiveness, aliveness, love, freedom, and taking risks. What helped people survive in Palestine has been their ability to live outside paradigms – to create life anew, almost daily. This ability is crucial in the world today.


The case of the Palestinians is not unique; many others exhibited what I said about Palestinians. The threat of Hispanics to America that Huntington speaks about in his book “who are we?” comes from people who simply live their own way and refuse to play the game of competition in living or to believe that they would be left behind if they don’t learn English. In other words, their ‘threat’ does not come from activism but from living; from being alive, loving, and free in their actions and interactions. Similarly, Blacks who responded to oppression through music and dancing… Should we call that activism? I wouldn’t. Same with the Zapatistas... All these cases reflect the power embedded in every culture (in the sense that a culture represents a ‘world’ where things fit together, rather than separate ingredients to be put together in an artificial way within institutions under the title “interdisciplinary” or “intercultural”).


This brings me to the last point I would like to share here about my ‘activism’: every time I felt attentive, alive, loving, and free, I felt like I was re-inventing the wheel, re-inventing what has been re-invented a thousand times before. In other words, if pressed, the way I would describe myself is one who never stopped trying to re-invent the wheel! Whether in relation to the voluntary work movement, working with teachers and students, creating activities with children, or to what I was involved in during the first intifada (when schools and universities were closed for several years), or to what I did at Tamer Institute or have been doing since 1998 with various groups in the Arab world (and beyond), I feel that I was involved in all of these as a way of re-inventing what has always been there. I was re-inventing in the same sense and same spirit that a new baby is born. Every time I felt I was re-inventing an act, or the meaning of a word, or what culture has, it was as if life was starting all over again. For the past few years, I have been active in re-inventing the inspiration and wisdom in a statement articulated 1,400 years ago by Imam Ali: qeematu kullimri’en ma yuhsenoh – which has been since 1998 the source of my ‘activism’!

The image I use to describe what I’ve done  since 1971 is the image of watering plants. Seeds have all what it takes to flourish and grow. Similarly, every person is uniquely complete (as the Indian proverb puts it). Watering plants is the closest image I can give to how I perceive ‘activism’.


In short, what I am saying boils down to the following: just like my institutional knowledge, not only makes my mother’s kind of knowledge invisible and valueless but also gradually disappear; just like market economy, not only makes subsistence living invisible and valueless but also gradually disappear; just like education, not only makes learning through living invisible and valueless but also gradually disappear; and just like the medical institution, not only makes the healing ability of the body invisible and valueless but also gradually disappear, similarly my concern is that visible and articulated activism will not only make spontaneous acts that stem from attentiveness, aliveness, love, freedom, and taking risks invisible and valueless but also gradually disappear.


*  *  *

I sent the above reflections on July 2, 2006, before the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Beit Hanoun (in Gaza Strip, Palestine). What Lebanon and Gaza brought out very clearly (in spite attempts by institutions, such as mass media and academia, to make it invisible) was the reference that nurtures people’s daily lives and their thoughts, expressions, and actions. I lived through the Nasser era, through Arab nationalism and socialist visions, and through the era of national liberation, the Palestine Liberation Organization (with the exception the first Palestinian intifada)… their reference (whether as politicians, academicians, writers, development activists, or revolutionaries) was western (in relation to ideas, perceptions, values, and discourse). What shaped their minds, expressions and actions was the either the liberal capitalist model or the socialist communist one. I use ‘reference’ here to refer to what nurtures people’s daily thoughts, expressions, images, perceptions, and actions. In contrast to nationalist and socialist movements, Hezbollah’s reference is within. This is the secret and the mystery in what they have done in the face of formidable technology, weapons, and financial and political support from all major powers (US government, all European governments, most Arab governments, the UN, and major mass media networks). Part of Hezbollah’s reference is feeling the injustice that happened 1400 years ago that is still part of people’s daily lives. Their “activism” – if we insist on using this term – springs from that history, from people’s faith, memories, dignity, hospitality, mutual support, and realities, including knowing the geographical terrain of the place where they live. Just like in other aspects of life, if activism is purely rational, I suggest that people think twice before they embark on doing what they plan to do. If what drives them is just being convinced of it intellectually or morally, but it does not form the “substance” of their daily living, what they do would still be admirable, but won’t be sustainable or deep. Any activism that does not touch people’s personal lives and, instead, follows a plan designed by the mind alone would most probably be short-lived, shallow, ineffective, or even harmful and may lead activists to feeling burnt out. Any one who perceives themself as an activist should ask about the reference that nurtures what s/he does.


Similarly, the reference of people’s reactions in Beit Hanoun (in Gaza, Palestine) – especially women – to the continuous targeting via air strikes by Israelis of people and homes, was also from within. Quoting Rory McCarthy in the Guardian on Dec. 5, 2006, “…hundreds of women… marched into the town of Beit Hanoun in the middle of an Israeli incursion to free… [those] holed up inside a mosque. Two of the women were killed, but the crowd succeeded in freeing [them]… In the following days, crowds of men and women staged sit-ins at… houses, the Israeli military had warned, were about to be destroyed. The Israelis had to call off their air strikes.” [It is very revealing to mention here what the Human Rights Watch organization wrote: “civilians must not be used to shield homes against military attacks… Palestinian leaders should be renouncing, not embracing, the tactic of encouraging civilians to place themselves at risk…”!! Palestinians are encouraged to use democracy, but when we do, the whole “democratic” world denounces and starves us! And we are encouraged to use non-violent acts, and when we do, even human rights groups denounce us! Really, the modern western mind has been corrupted!]


In short, what is significant about what people did in both places is the fact that their reference is what they could do with their bodies, within their communities, and driven by connection to land, history, and culture. It points to the immense vitality and resourcefulness of people, communities, and cultures – which form the real solid basis of “activism”.