“Oral histories always beg the question of what lives and cultural forms are isolated, erased and made insignificant by bringing this narrative to the fore,” Livia Wick writes in the introduction to her book, Sumud: Birth, Oral History and Persistence in Palestine (Syracuse University Press, 2023). Wick’s research unfolds against a historical backdrop of how Palestinian oral history embarked upon different trajectories from the Nakba onwards, notably the shift in 1967 to Palestinian nationalism and the contributions made through gender and class, notably the involvement of Palestinian women in Palestinian narratives.
Wick notes, “Oral history in the contemporary Occupied Territories is a gendered and classed genre of witnessing in Palestine, often co-produced by young, refugee and rural, working class women.” The book’s focus on giving birth in Palestine brings together a host of narratives from women and medical professionals, as they navigate their personal lives, ideologies and activism within the context of Israeli colonialism and military occupation.
Wick’s research reveals that many medical practitioners viewed their role in a pragmatic manner and not necessarily as part of the Resistance, as did many Palestinian mothers who the author interviewed. Yet Israel’s military occupation features prominently in the oral narratives on birth, as mothers and medical practitioners navigated closures and their impact, as well as the restriction Israel places upon the medical profession. “New mothers’ narratives were largely depoliticised and denationalised,” the author explains, yet it is Israel’s occupation that is the root of many concerns women shared in terms of relationships within the family structure. Birth, the author explains, is also associated with stories of loss in terms of how the family structure undergoes changes due to the Israeli military occupation. Therefore, while sumud is associated with non-violent acts of Palestinian resistance, it takes its toll on Palestinians’ daily life.
The book notes that memory does not follow a linear trajectory, and that oral history also employs various forms of language. Midwives’ oral narratives, for example, speak of poverty, struggle and uncertain futures. Sumud is described as the mere act of remaining in Palestine, while problems related to work and wages are linked to the British Mandate and Israel’s military occupation. Midwives linked education and employment to financial independence. “Midwives present a narrative in the oral histories of a gendered person with a strong sense of self, who is largely disengaged from male kin,” Wick notes. Indeed, their narratives stand in contrast to those of doctors working in Palestinian state institutions, who link their work to a struggle of survival against Israel’s military occupation.
Doctors resort to sumud to contextualise their work in terms of resisting Israel’s military occupation, with notable reference to 1967 and the first Intifada. The hospital of Makassed features prominently in the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s promotion of sumud, which was funded by donors, notably Arab governments, as part of the intention that would aid Palestinians in surviving, while other resistance acts would end Israel’s occupation. Wick notes, “Makassed, therefore, does not merely have the support of continued funding but also the stability of an entrenched ideology that drives the funding.”
Midwives’ narratives of Makassed centred more on the complexities they faced in their work at the hospital, and described doctors as dissociated from the roles of assisting births. The midwives, Wick notes, “identified the doctor as privileged elite whose self-ascribed role is based on the labour of others.” For midwives, for example, sumud meant remaining in proximity with their social base and providing services according to women’s expectations, thus bringing a subaltern slant to oral history.
Wick provides important historical context for the Palestinian popular health movement in the 1970s, where doctors educated in the Soviet Republic and other socialist countries returned to Palestine to bring medical care to rural areas, thus addressing class inequalities and inaccessibility. The concept involved bringing medical care to people, instead of vice versa, while a focus on preventive medicine became the focus of the health movement. Women’s health was prioritised, and the outreach was performed through home visits and the use of mobile clinics. The popular health movement faced considerable challenges due to its “Illegality” as Israel issued no permits for further health services development. Bureaucracy eventually altered the movement, with Palestinian factions influencing the movement and, eventually, the impact of foreign funding altering a Resistance movement into a resemblance of a non-governmental organisation.
Women’s narratives are at the helm in this research, not only due to the focus of the study but, also, as the writer explains, the willingness of women to participate in oral history on a larger scale than men. As Palestinian oral history is usually more synonymous with the Nakba, Wick’s research brings a new dimension to the reader that is equally compelling and illustrates a more in-depth focus of Palestinian narratives and experiences that is very much overlooked.