To Light a Candle
To light a candle
By Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD
On Thursday 10/2/03 I was interviewed on a Palestinian TV station on the death of the great Edward Said (passed on the week before), and on the third anniversary of the latest Palestinian anniversary (9/29/02). On Sunday, 10/5/03 my father passed away and one year later, I reflect here briefly in sadness, gratitude, and pride, on the anniversaries of death of these two highly influential people in my life and the beginning of the fifth year of Palestinian uprising against the occupation.
Edward Said and my father belonged to the same generation of Palestinians, a generations whose life was shaped by their witnessing of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe. That is the period between Nov. 1947 and early 1949 when 3/4th of the native Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) were removed in a process that today would be called ethnic cleansing. This was a pivotal event that shaped the lives of these Palestinians and will shape the lives of generations to come even after justice is restored (and it will). An Israeli prime minister said: the old will die and the young will forget. The old indeed die but the young never ever forget. How could they? It would be asking me to forget my father Butros or my mentor/friend Edward Said. My son will not forget his grandfather nor where he comes from, neither will the many other grandchildren and great grandchildren. My writing this is also an act of willful remembrance and resistance. So I hope you allow me to tell you about those two humble, different and yet similar, individuals and what they mean to me, just one of those who were supposed to forget.
I first met Edward Said in 1982 and last saw him just three months before his death. Edward perhaps needs no introduction to most of you. His many books influenced a whole generation going to US universities over the past 35 years and remain must read for all. They were also influential around the world and translated into dozens of languages. "Orientalism" caused so many people to start listening to other (native) voices rather than be blinded by the classic attitudes of European studies of the East, studies that to this day suffer from lack of depth and simplistic generalizations. This book is a must read to those who instinctively feel something is wrong in todays world when we have Americans speaking or writing to other Americans about what Americans should do about countries like Iraq! His seminal book "The Question of Palestine" remains the tour de force for careful study and historical dissection ofd the many mythologies foisted on the West by the Zionist movement. His book "Out of Place" is the kind of self examination seldom seen by so many intellectuals of his stature. His gentle reminder of the bancrupcy of rhetorhic and need for replacement of old models of ethnocentric nationalism with concepts of citizenship and shared humanity are classic. Edward challenged all of us and provided a role model. His probing questions, his meticulous work, and his deep emotion and intellect left an indelible mark on me as I am sure millions of others. I could go on and on but suffice it to say that in the coming decades, I truly believe that Edward Said will be more and more recognized as an intellectual giant of the second half of the 20th century.
My father was not an author and is certainly not well known outside of Palestine let alone be comparable to the intellectual genius of Edward Said. He was a simple teacher and a school principle of an elementary public school in Bethlehem. He is known among other teachers and mourned by his many students who remember their elementary school education. His is an average Palestinian story, six children, many grandchildren, a house in an ancient village going back 5,000 years, and a commitment to family, land, and people. He kept building and teaching so many generations even among the most difficult circumstances. He suffered under occupation but refused to let it bring him down even when it was so difficult to travel to get treatments for his cancer due to Israeli restrictions. He would not hate those who tormented him and his people (he hated their actions!). Instead, he taught his children and his students the value of caring and hard work (he was especially critical of rhetoric and impressed with results). He died surrounded by his surviving sister and brothers, his wife, his children, and a large extended family. Over 2000 people attended his funeral and paid condolences.
The natural deaths of such loved ones is made more difficult as we see the unnatural death of so many. In the year that passed, hundreds of Palestinians were murdered and a monstrous apartheid barrier is being built to steal water and resources and land and squeeze the "unwanted" who are reduced to "non-Jews" in a land desired by those with a racist ideology. Thus, it is not any easier to mourn while we watch the US government (under pressure of special interest) continue to support the murderous actions of the Israeli government. Here is a segment from a message from my sister in Palestine received yesterday (this sister works in Jenin and was not able to be with us at home when my father died last year):
"It has been so hard these past few days to see what has happened in Gaza. We had no classes today it was a strike (mourning) because of what happened. Israeli helicopters have been bombing the refugee camps in Gaza. So far there are over 50 who got killed and over 200 wounded. One of the most horrible scenes I have seen on TV yesterday was a Palestinian from Gaza who was directly hit by an Israeli missile. In the Muslim religion, all the body parts must be buried. So, everyone was joining to collect the flesh and bone pieces from the walls and ground. That was not the hard part, the hard part was seeing his friends and relatives reaction. In addition to that there have been the scenes of people digging out their loved ones from underneath the ruins of the houses that the Israelis demolished without prior warning. I wonder if the Lord will 'ease the suffering of my people…' someday."
To my sister, I say: keep the faith and keep writing and praying and working for justice. Our father and Edward Said never met and their life trajectories were different. Yet they were and are still linked by an eternal bond to all of us rooted in Palestinian history and woven to all humanity and they always told us to keep the hope alive. We should be encouraged that despite 160 years of destructive Political Zionism*, our cause has never been more morally visible to the rest of humanity (even pundits in the US media and the US government know it in their hearts but lie about it). The poet called Palestinian resistance and continued existence despite these lengthy efforts with billions spent to obliterate us analogous to "20 impossibles", but I think its is as natural as the re-growth of the Palestinian cactus after 530 villages and towns were destroyed (see http://cactus48.org and http://palestineremembered.com). The past, the present, and the future are ultimately a collection of what people exist and what they do with their lives. So each of us, Edward and my father and all past, present and future people, shape life not only during their/our life but the future itself.
These two gentlemen (gentle men) and so many millions of others followed the tested wisdom of "light a candle better than curse the dark". We light our own small candles using the flame they left. We can increase the effect of their lives and their relevance to future generations by acting as lenses and mirrors to amplify and grow the lights they left us and never letting go of the flame. It is the least we can do in memory and in appreciation for the legacy the previous generations leave us. So we all light more candles and connect to the future and we shall never fear the darkness during our short life on this planet.
* The British Empire hired Lieutenant Colonel George Gawler (1796-1869) who issued a report titled "Tranquilization of Syria and the East: Observations and Practical Suggestions, in Furtherance of the Establishment of Jewish Colonies in Palestine, the Most Sober and Sensible Remedy for the Miseries of Asiatic Turkey" in 1845 (published in London). This was followed by immediate British support and matured with the first Zionist colony in Palestine in 1880 well before Hertzl join in.