Signal-boost: Ethiopian tallitot for a good cause
On bodies, blood, and blessings

Book review: The Hour of Sunlight


I just finished The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker by Sami Al Jundi and Jen Marlowe. I picked the book up on Emily Hauser's recommendation, and I'm so glad I did.

Here's how Amazon describes the book:

As a teenager in Palestine, Sami al Jundi had one ambition: overthrowing Israeli occupation. With two friends, he began to build a bomb to use against the police. But when it exploded prematurely, killing one of his friends, al Jundi was caught and sentenced to ten years in prison.

It was in an Israeli jail that his unlikely transformation began. Al Jundi was welcomed into a highly organized, democratic community of political prisoners who required that members of their cell read, engage in political discourse on topics ranging from global revolutions to the precepts of nonviolent protest and revolution.

Al Jundi left prison still determined to fight for his people’s rights—but with a very different notion of how to undertake that struggle. He cofounded the Middle East program of Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence, which brings together Palestinian and Israeli youth.

Marked by honesty and compassion for Palestinians and Israelis alike, The Hour of Sunlight illuminates the Palestinian experience through the story of one man’s struggle for peace.

This book wasn't always easy for me to read, but it is powerful and it is worth reading, especially for anyone who (like me) may have more access to Israeli narratives about the Middle East than to Palestinian ones.

The book opens with poignant vignettes about Sami's growing up, his yearning to live in Zakariyya (his mother's home village, now Moshav Zecharia) and to have known the Deir Yassin of his father's childhood, his experiences as the son of two blind parents. Here's a taste of his childhood, after he's asked his father for a pair of shoes he knows his family can't afford, and to his surprise his dad has said yes:

I ran right to the shoe store on Salah el Din Street. But my stylish new footwear brought me little satisfaction. My mother was sick, my father had eight children to feed, Samir would be starting college soon, and I had just bought myself a pair of fancy boots to be like my friends. The image of my father's face as he handed me the money floated in front of my eyes. I forced myself to wear the boots every day, swearing never again to ask my father for anything expensive.

Little stories like this one make his childhood something to which foreign readers may be able to relate.

Of course, even the early part of the book isn't simply childhood anecdotes; the clash between Israel and the Palestinians is always already present. His friends are becoming increasingly involved in the struggle against occupation, and as he grows, Sami is, too. Ultimately he joins two of his teenaged friends in making a pipe bomb which they intend to plant at a fruit and vegetable market -- a story which is not easy for me to face by any stretch of the imagination. But even as he's treading this ground, he's also working at an Israeli sandwich shop and developing a crush on a young Argentine Jewish woman who's in the process of making aliyah. His relationship with Israel and Israelis is always already complicated.

As the astute reader likely already knows, the pipe bomb goes off while they're building it. Sami and the one friend who survives both wind up in prison (after an interrogation which definitely crosses the border into torture; that part was hard for me to read, but I understand why it's there. And, in fairness, Sami turns the same clear lens and angry eye on the Palestinian Authority police who later abuse their power and beat him up, too.) Once he enters Israeli prison -- colloquially known as "university," because of the system of self-improvement and education developed there by Palestinian political prisoners -- the book becomes doubly fascinating and moving to me. He writes:

Books expanded my world far beyond the prison walls. I read an average of three hundred pages each day. History, psychology, and philosophy were the serious studies. Poetry, romance stories, and French and Arabic literature were my escape. Writers were like prophets to me. Their characters dwelled inside me as if their experiences were my personal memories. I often crouched against the door of the cell until the small hours of the morning, book in hand, to make use of the small, striped square of light spilling in from the corridor.

Sami describes the prison community, the bonds which form among the political prisoners, the discussions and conversations. He also recounts the hunger strikes for better living conditions, the experiences of mistreatment and suffering, the experience of becoming an "elder" prisoner who is now tasked with teaching the newbies when they arrive. He writes about his unease with being expected to teach Fatah ideology; even while Fatah leaders were beginning to move toward a peace negotiation process, their prison curriculum inside the Israeli prison system was still focused around armed struggle. He writes:

I wanted to teach my students about Gandhi. I was drawn to the idea of "White Revolution," the phrase we used for Gandhi's tactics against the British occupation of India. I wanted them to read about the Hindu man who came to Gandhi, blood still staining his hands from having murdered a Muslim child. Gandhi instructed the man to find a Muslim orphan of the same age and raise him, providing him with a father's love and an Islamic education for twenty years. I had contemplated the anecdote for months when I first encountered it. How easy it was to destroy a soul -- the baby had been murdered in a matter of moments -- and how much time, effort, and love was required to build a soul.

Sami learns not only from his fellow prisoners, but from his family. His blind mother, he learns, has been spending her Fridays visiting prisoners from Lebanon who have no one to visit them; visiting the elderly and infirm in the Old City on Sundays; and going to Hebrew classes on Monday nights, because, as she says, "I have to understand what the soldiers are saying when the other women and I protect the kids from being arrested during demonstrations."

Probably the most moving part of the book, for me, begins once Sami is out of prison and slowly beginning to form relationships with Israelis despite the tremendous difficulty involved in finding common ground. His friends, who have been involved with the struggle for Palestinian liberation, don't entirely understand what he's doing or why; but, he writes:

From the moment I had stepped into Muriel's apartment with Israelis and Palestinians ready to sit together and really talk as equal human beings, I had felt, for the first time in my life, as if I had come home.

Sami becomes involved with the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence, where he meets co-author Jen Marlowe. They write beautifully about that journey. That part of the book brings me both joy (watching Sami's trust and hope grow) and also inevitably sorrow (because I know, reading this now, that the changes for which he hopes have not yet come to pass.)

Through Sami and Jen's narration, I watch as Seeds of Peace changes and matures. We see Israeli and Palestinian kids, whose initial friendships have been nurtured at a summer camp in Maine, beginning to interact "back home" as well. We watch as Palestinian kids visit Israeli homes for the first time -- and vice versa. We watch as Sami is invited to his first Pesach seder (a scene which is particularly moving for me for a variety of reasons.) We watch as the Israeli and Palestinian kids come to love and understand one another. At the height of this section of the book, the kids travel together, in their green Seeds of Peace t-shirts, to Jordan to see Egyptian singer Ehab Tawfik -- who sees them in their matching garb, asks who they are, and then after a tense moment, urges the enormous crowd to join him in chanting in support of peace.

And then Ariel Sharon heads for the Temple Mount, and the second Intifada begins, and it all falls apart. Violence mounts. Suicide bombings intensify; border control becomes tighter and Palestinian kids can no longer enter East Jerusalem. Some Seeds in Gaza make video messages for their Israeli counterparts, trying to explain their shattered lives. Some Israeli Seeds, for their part, struggle with whether and how to do their compulsory army service. One Palestinian Seed, a boy named Aseel Asleh, is killed by Israeli police during a peaceful demonstration -- wearing his green Seeds of Peace t-shirt at the moment of his death. (Jen Marlowe has since written a play about Aseel's life and death, called There is a Field.)

I devoured the earlier part of the book; I found this latter part of the book painful enough that it took me several days to my work my way through it. I didn't want to watch as the dreams of peace and coexistence which Sami and his colleagues had nurtured were dashed and destroyed. Reading that felt like reliving the experience of slowly watching the peace process disappear.

That said, the book still manages to end on a note of hope. I come away deeply glad to have read it, and glad to have gotten to know Sami through this literary medium. As Jen writes in her introduction,

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Sami is his unshakeable belief that not only is it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to live together on this land, but that both peoples would benefit from the presence of and relationship with the other.

May it truly come to pass, speedily and soon.


If you'd like to learn more before buying a copy, there's a brief excerpt from the book at Spirituality & Practice, and the co-authors are interviewed on GRITtv.