The article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
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 ten and fifteen 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.