GUEST BLOG by Nikki Jeffery
In May of this year a new book was released titled ‘In this place together’ written by Penina Eilberg-Schwartz with Sulaiman Khatib. It is the personal story of peace activist Sulaiman (Souli) and his life living in occupied Palestine. The book documents Souli’s journey from fighting the occupation through armed struggle to a life dedicated to nonviolence. To read his book is to get a window seat into this wonderful person’s view of the world and how he believes that together we can bring peace, freedom and secure human rights for all. His life is truly extraordinary.
As a 14-year-old boy encountering the occupation of Hizma, the village near Jerusalem where his family live and own land, he fights back against the inhumanity he witnesses culminating in him stabbing an Israeli soldier. He spends 10 years in prison – a child upon entering a brutal prison system and an adult leaving at the age of 24 years old.
During his incarceration Souli decides to read about the great leaders in history who advocated peace and nonviolence: Che Guevara’s writings, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Frantz Fanon’s writing about the French occupation of Algeria. He read poetry; his favourite line in a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi a poet of Tunisia’s struggle against French colonialism; ‘that anyone who failed to climb mountains would “forever live among the hollows”. He read novels and history books including ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude, Khalil Gibran into the Egyptian feminist Saadawi, Garcia Marquez into Fanon, Rumi into Sartre’. He taught himself to read in both Hebrew and English.
Within the confines of a prison cell Souli decides that he will follow and encourage others towards a path of nonviolence, towards his dream of freedom, dignity and liberation. This is remarkable. Prisons are fundamentally unjust places and the sheer monotony of prison life often contributes to a slow decline in the mental health of the majority of inmates. Most people don’t leave prison ready for a life committed to peace.
Out of prison and several years later, Souli co-founds an organisation, Combatants for Peace, which brings together communities of Palestinians and Israelis to work towards finding a peaceful solution to end the conflict and occupation. Combatants for Peace is founded and run by former fighters on both sides of the conflict with the idea that Palestinian freedom can coexist alongside Jewish connection to the land. Instead of lofty ideals, his organisation has taken giant leaps to achieve this.
For example, hundreds of peaceful protesters recently gathered in the southern Hebron hills to demand water rights for Palestinians, including Palestinian ministers and Israeli members of parliament. The participants raised banners condemning the occupation and advocating for the right to access water by the villagers. One of the villagers during a Combatants for Peace webinar said that it is this support which gives them hope, to know they are not alone in their struggle.
Part of the uniqueness of this book is that it is a collaboration between Souli, a Palestinian, and Penina, an American Jew, based on years of conversation between them. The complexities of the project are not lost on the authors and both wrestle with the reality and imbalance of power created by occupier and occupied. Penina refers to this as ‘the subtle and not-so-subtle power dynamics of a colonial story’. At times it is possible to feel the struggles Penina wrestled with while writing this book – she didn’t initially agree to the project worried that she would be seen as ‘another Jew occupying Palestinian space‘, but went ahead believing that by making herself invisible won’t erase the power she has, so she would rather see it towering above her.
Penina writes with an honest soul-searching narrative, clearly having spent hours with Souli and reflecting over her choice of words. She creates a story which enables the reader to see Palestine/Israel with fresh eyes, helps us see the power of story and the deep connection both sides have to the land. She writes, ‘We see the process of mutual transformation as an ever-widening circle, one that creates space for more and more stories to be included, one that invites Palestinians and Israelis – and all people – to create a world where everyone, without exception, feels what it is to be free’.
Souli asks in his book that people focus on the message he has and not on him personally, but this is a tall order. It is nearly impossible not to be in awe of him, inspired by his beliefs, motivated by his call to action. It is the same spirit of mobilisation that the lives and personalities of peace leaders like Mandela and Martin Luther King generated in millions of people. The world needs more people like him, humble and kind, being the change they wish to see. Whenever I need to believe that peace and freedom in these lands is possible, I will return to this book.
‘In this place together’ can be purchased from the Educational Bookshop on Salah Ad Din Street, and at The Gateway on New Gate Street in the Old City. Visit the Combatants for Peace website to sign up to join any of their meetings, tours, or group projects.
Guest blog written by Nikki Jeffery