Every week, inmates at the Israeli prison of Beer Al-Sabe’ hold political debates inside their cells. What are the benefits of negotiations with Israel; how useful is the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the South of Lebanon? Hunger strikes in the 70s have granted the cellmates paper and pens and no restrictions on the books they read inside. They want to understand what is happening beyond their cell walls.
Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian militant turned peacemaker, was one of these detainees; it is through his story that we discover what life is like in the prison. It is here, within this democratic community of political prisoners that he begins his transformation from violent resistance to pacifism. In this beautiful memoir, written with his co-author and former colleague Jen Marlowe, he recounts the details and stages of his colourful life.
Inside his cell, Sami devours Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Dostoevsky; books become ambassadors, or a fleeting plunge into a free life. His family become Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. “I tucked Penelope’s faith in the absent Odysseus next to my heart. For many, we were like the dead. Penelope served as a reminder that my family was still waiting for me, loving and respecting me as a living, breathing human being,” he explains.
It is clear how much the authors and their words mean to him. “Writers were like prophets to me,” he writes. “Their characters dwelled inside me as if their experiences were my personal memories.” An hour with Umm Kalthoum, one of the most famous Arab singers who died in 1975, over the loud speaker in the prison, makes him wonder if his mother is thinking and worrying about him.
Sami hasn’t always been so drawn to Ghandi. He was five when he, his siblings and his parents, Palestinian refugees, were thrown out of their Jerusalem home in 1967, and humiliated by the Israeli army. He describes reluctantly learning Hebrew at school, using Israeli money and receiving an eighth grade book called “The Israeli state”. As he puts it, “the occupation entered every corner of our existence”; and in those days he carried within him all the injustice and resentment that came with this.
Bitterness grew into a desire for serious revenge. After Israeli soldiers pay a visit to the workplace of his friend, Abbas, mocking his father, the two friends go to Sami’s old neighbourhood. Where the Al Jundi house once stood are now shiny, new Israeli houses. The two friends take great pleasure in smashing the plant pots outside and throwing stones against the doorbells.
Early in the book Sami meets Galit, an Argentinian, Jewish woman he works with in a sandwich shop. When she proposes they meet for a drink outside work he is torn. “How could I go for coffee with the enemy?” he asks himself, whilst making plans to meet her the next Saturday. Though he and his friends are resisting the occupation, his relationship with Israelis is more complex than he once thought; they are not all soldiers, mocking his friends and family.
But it’s not enough. As Sami twists the heads off matches, and stares at the can of gasoline he and his friends use to make a bomb, it is easy to believe that he is not entirely convinced about “damaging the Israeli economy”. Are his doubts the afterthoughts of a bad conscience or the effects of peer pressure? Either way, fashioning the bomb leads to his arrest, torture and imprisonment for ten years in what he describes as “an enormous grave for the living”.
Sami is released whilst the first Intifada is raging on the streets. At this point the reader starts to wonder how much more pain one person can take. With the subsequent rise in hope and then disillusion with the Oslo Accords, the hardship that Sami has faced throughout his life is glaringly obvious. His story reveals the horrors of what people in Palestine live through, and the negative effects of violence as retaliation.
He turns to more peaceful ways to fight the Israeli occupation, and is also discerning of the Palestinian side. He meets a Palestinian policeman in Ramallah on the 15 November 1997 who screams at him for having an Israeli ID and number plates. “Even if Israelis did come to Ramallah to celebrate the day with you, you should respect them!” he tells Adel.
Adel is just one of the many characters Sami introduces us to in “The Hour of Sunlight”. In fact, Sami Al Jundi can be best understood through the people he meets, whether they are real or living inside his books. He has the ability to listen to people, to understand them, reflect on what they have said and most importantly, he has the strength to either reject their opinion or change his own mind after a conversation.
Later we meet Joel, a colleague, who enjoys his privileged status as an Israeli Jew to challenge soldiers protecting the illegal settlement of Erfat. “This is the West Bank, not your land! You should be back in Israel, not serving this extreme government!” he tells them. Later, it is Joel who announces to twenty-five Israelis and Palestinians at a seminar about peace and religion, “Sami has a Masters in human relations… what you have, Sami, is more than a Master’s degree.”
Each part of Sami’s autobiography brings with it a new emotion. Sadness as we read about his life growing up. Esteem at his resilience in prison for ten years, anger that he chose to make the bomb (what about Galit?) and pride when he talks about his work with non-violent, co-existence centres and that he has transformed to peaceful ways of fighting the resistance.
His frustrations and fears, feelings of injustice, tinged with hope, are a prism through which to explore the realities of life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.