Activism, movement building, and fighting structural inequality

Dear friends,

Below, please find a blog post that I wrote for Hedgebrook, a phenomenal women’s writing residency and community of women writers that I have been a part of since 2010.

Activism, movement building, and fighting structural inequality

The play ended and my colleague Carlton Mackey (founder of 50 Shades of Black) invited the audience to share one-word reflections on their experiences. The students at Bowie State University, an historically Black institution in Bowie, MD sat in silence for several moments before their words came pouring out:

 “Familiar.”

“Discrimination.”

“Baltimore.”

“Relatable.”

“Ferguson.”

“Reality.”

 The play, called There Is A Field, tells the story of a 17-year old boy who had been killed by the police.

But it was not situated in America. The play was about Aseel Asleh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was killed by Israeli police on October 2, 2000, one of 12 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces at the start of the Second Intifada.

Read the rest here.

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Students at Bowie State University watching There Is A Field

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Filed under Asel Asleh, Black Palestinian solidarity, Palestine/Israel

Nabeel Rajab in prison (again) for Tweeting

Dear friends,

There has been a lot of pain in the last weeks. Between fatal attacks in Baghdad and Istanbul, the massacre of predominantly Latinx and Black Queer folks in Orlando, and the recent murders of two young, Black lives by agents of the state…it has been difficult to keep going, let alone to hold space for everyone who is suffering, everyone who is experiencing repression, everyone who is in pain.

I’m asking you to take a moment to learn about, and hold space for, those suffering in the tiny Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, where my friend Nabeel Rajab, prominent human rights defender, was re-arrested a month ago because of his audacity to Tweet criticism of the regime. If found guilty, Nabeel could spend up to 13 years in prison.

The U.S. and the U.K–who enable the Bahraini regime–hold direct responsibility.

I hope you will read my op-ed (in the Huffington Post), and consider the connections between the pain of Nabeel and his family to the pain of all those experiencing–and resisting–injustice, all over.

Baba, sumoud!” (“Daddy, stay steadfast!”)

Ten-year old Malak Rajab called out these words as Bahraini police led her father, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, from his home to waiting police vehicles in July 2012. His crime: insulting the Prime Minister in a tweet.

I filmed Rajab and his young daughter in their front yard from the upstairs window of their house; I had to film clandestinely, as I had entered the country under false pretenses—Bahrain was denying entry to nearly all journalists and human rights defenders. But I captured the girl’s defiant resistance as she trailed after the police who had her father in tow. Later that day, I witnessed her fear as the reality settled in: she did not know when her father would come home.

Read the rest HERE

In solidarity and in struggle,

Jen Marlowe

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Malak making the sign for “Sumoud” or “Steadfastness” in front of a poster of her father, the day he was arrested in 2012 for a Tweet he sent which criticized the regime. Rajab is now re-arrested on similar charges

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Each one is a world

This morning. Learned that another COPINH activist, a colleague of Berta Caceres, was found murdered in Honduras.

Last night–thousands in the streets all over the U.S. demanding an end to state violence that disproportionately targets Black people, in the wake of police extra-judicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Also last night–5 Dallas police officers murdered, more wounded, in an act that will make everybody–especially activists in the movement for Black lives–not more, but less, safe. In the past weeks–ISIS attacks in Bangladesh, Istanbul and Baghdad killing hundreds, on the heels of mass murder in Orlando.

And in the midst of all this–remembering two years since Israel’s horrifying assault on the Gaza Strip.

Sometimes there are no new words. At this moment, at least, I have no new words. Instead, I want to re-post some of what I’ve already said, already written–pieces that affirm life, humanity, the dignity inherent in every human being. This piece–about Gaza, and about my friend Amer Shurrab–is also (in its message) about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Berta Caceres and her courageous colleagues in Honduruas, the Pulse massacre vicitims, all of the victims of all of the attacks.

Each of them, a world.

View from the donkey's saddle

7:34pm

We were sitting at Lincoln Park in West Seattle, with a handful of friends who had gathered for a picnic potluck, awaiting others who would be joining us shortly.

A Facebook message came through on my Smartphone from my friend Yousef Munayyer.

Hey Jen, just saw some news about a young man from the Shurrab family in khan yunis being the latest victim, Name is Tayseer. Have you heard from Amer recently?

Amer Shurrab was, as a matter of fact, sitting across the picnic table from me at that very moment.  He  had come for a few day visit from Monterrey, where he is finishing his MBA. Though we had planned the visit weeks before the shit hit the fan in Gaza, the timing of it felt oddly right. I think it felt somewhat comforting to Amer to be surrounded by people who had some notion of what he…

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Celebrating Eid in Gaza amidst the rubble of war

I spent the Eid last year in Gaza, with families who experienced unimagineable horrors during the successive Gaza assaults. Today is 2 years since the 2014 Gaza war began. I re-post here what I wrote about Eid in Gaza last year for +972mag, holding in my mind and in my heart all who have been brutalized (in Gaza, in Minneapolis, in Baton Rouge, in Orlando, in Baghdad, in Istanbul, and in so many other places.)

Excerpt below:

Wafaa Awajah’s family had scarcely taken their seats in a circle of plastic chairs when her brother hitched up his pants to show me the scars on his leg from where he had been injured by an Israeli soldier. Another brother had also sustained injuries from the army; he, too, showed me his wounds. As Wafaa passed around a tray of chilled soft drinks and bowls of nuts and sweets (as is customary during the Eid celebration) a third brother told me of how years ago a settler had hit him with his car–intentionally, he believed–as he was riding his bike on the side of road. A fourth brother had been imprisoned on two occasions, not by the Israeli army, but by Hamas. “For speaking too much,” he told me with a grin, when I asked him why.

Read the rest HERE

Awajah kids on horse back

The Awajah children enjoying a horse and buggy ride during 2015 Eid in Gaza

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Filed under Gaza, Human Rights, Palestine/Israel

“The war is manifest right here where I am” (Response to The Hour of Sunlight from George Wilkerson on NC’s death row)

(Some more thoughts from my friend George Wilkerson–this time responding to having read “The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker,” the book I wrote with, and about, Sami Al Jundi.)

(Intro)

I just finished reading your book and answering those questions (below.) Fuck—it’s a game-changer. For real. It’s going to take me some time to pull it all together, but your book has impacted me in a profound way, and there’s a storm of ideas and emotions banging inside me. It brought some deep-rooted ideas to the surface of me, helped me articulate them. In many ways, watching Sami’s transformation was me watching my own. It would take a book more more to express the similarities.

The underlying principles of conflict and conflict resolution are formulaic and can wear the clothes of racism, sexism, classism, etc. I believe anyone involved in activism ought to read it. It perfectly describes conflict through the lens of a Palestinian embedded in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Admittedly, most people involved in conflict never see past the surface issue of racism, sexism, etc—but Dr. King and Gandhi did. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to share it with others here and recommend it to everyone I know involved in social activism.

book coverI knew next to nothing about the situation over there, but now I feel conversant. Seldom has any on book impacted me so deeply, inspired me, enlightened me, educated me, humbled me. There is a treasure trove of experience and philosophical achievements contained in your book.

[…] I understand the war is manifest right here where I am (where each of us is, in fact) and I actively fight it. Not only do I try to demonstrate the love of God to those around me, but I also try to take it to the next level and participate in large-scale activism projects.

Q: Were there any experiences that Sami had growing up as a Palestinian boy living under Israeli occupation that felt familiar to you, or that you could relate to?

A: This is such as complex question—or rather, requires a complex answer. To be honest, I identify with Sami on so many levels as a human being struggling to make sense of the world around me. Culturally, we are very different. The unique reality of being Palestinian living under Israeli occupation disconnects most of the world from relating, though our common humanity allows me to relate to his emotions; what caused his and mine differ, but the effect was the same.

Rather than give a detailed list of similarities and differences that link he and I (or divide us), I would like instead to highlight one example, distill it to a principle, then show the universal applicability to each of our lives as members of the human race.

On page 2, paragraph 2, Sami describes “…joining a line of [vehicles] heading west (off road); creeping around rocks and trees on a path in the Hebron Hills that scarcely existed, all of them filled with Palestinians going to work inside the green line, none of whom had permits from the Israeli army to be there…They did this to bypass the checkpoint. It was illegal, according to Israeli law, and it was dangerous, but what choice did we have? We had the right to work and feed our families.”

I point this out because, ultimately, we’re all just trying to survive and “feed our families.” This value becomes the superceding law. He claims it as a “right”—but where do rights come from? Are they inherent, or granted by authorities? My argument isn’t about whether his claim is valid or not. It’s about the consequences of the idea of rights.

If I believe I have a right, it will shape my emotions and behaviors and thoughts, most especially if it’s violated, or if an obstacle stands in the way. Laws are secondary. Rights violations are at the heart of conflict…or desire is: one person wants one thing, one person wants another, so they fight. Who actually has the right is debatable, and depends on which moral framework (religion/secularism, etc) and laws one uses. It’s tempting to pick a side.

Here’s an example: Let’s say America passed a law saying it was okay to rape women and children. Would that be okay? Why not? For those who wish to justify their behavior of doing or desiring those things, they will claim they have the right—according to law. For those who wish to argue/protest it will cite laws they believe supercede it. They may even fight/kill each other, believing they’re right.

As a Christian, I accept the values of God. By doing so, He establishes my framework for reality, my morals, my rights, defines right/wrong, etc. But someone from another faith may have opposing morals, values, etc. It is powerful! Ideas (ideology) has tremendous consequences. My “life of crime” flowed from doing what I felt I needed to do to survive. I’ve done a lot of things which are considered illegal according to American law. Even now, I break prison rules because I obey a higher moral law. For example, we aren’t supposed to give other prisoners anything, but I give (and receive) anyway because I can’t stand to see someone go hungry.

Q: Was there any character that reminded you of yourself in any way?

A: Every character in the book mirrored me in some way, i.e., I saw myself in them. The beautiful and the ugly.

Q: What were your responses to Sami’s prison experience? What, if any, aspects felt connected to your own experience in prison? What did not?

A: I sympathized with him, and felt compassion toward him, especially when they were being “interrogated” and abused. Other than that extreme abuse, our prison experiences were nearly identical: the guards, the medical, the food, the divisions.

Q: Sami describes the system of organization that Palestinian political prisoners built: the education system, the self-governance system, the way older prisoners nurtured the growth of younger prisoners. Is this something that happens in U.S. prisons?

A: I can’t speak for U.S. prisons as a whole, because I don’t know. I only know about this prison I’m at. The way Sami described it wouldn’t work here. The Administration would squash it immediately. Sami and his group were political prisoners. They shared a common goal. Over here, we aren’t political prisoners, and there are any number of cliques, gangs, faiths, etc—all with their own goals/values. The Administration would label such a group as a “Security Threat Gang,” and put everyone in isolation.

However, we do have an informal way of applying that same principle of education. The guys who share similar values converse, meet together on the rec yard, eat together, share/discuss reading material, attend the same classes.

The “governance system” is called “the convict code.” As an ideology, it’s distorted and only promotes crime, the suppression of justice, and violence—yet many live by it, even above their religious system.

I relate to Sami’s personal growth, too. I’ve followed the group and then saw its flaws, hypocrisy, betrayals, and so on. I too found a higher way. I too see the foolishness of hate and violence. As a Christian, I’ve come to understand God’s way is straightforward: It’s all about love.  “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.” “God is love.” “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” It doesn’t matter what we do, in terms of “good deeds”—if they aren’t done from a heart of love, they count for nothing. “Love is kind and patient. It doesn’t envy or boast, and isn’t proud. It isn’t rude or self-seeking, nor easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs (forgives). It doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices with the Truth…” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Being here, I’ve come to learn there are many things that divide humans: race, culture, sex, age, greed, pride, etc. First, I must have the courage to see, then to feel, then to act. It’s about building relationships. If I can’t build relationships on a one-to-one level, lasting relationships that cross the divides, how can I hope to bring peace between two cultures? It begins on a granular level of two people. If we can figure out how to build solid, lasting relationships on that level, then we can work our way up.

Q: Is there anything else about Sami’s prison experience that would be interesting or important for prisoners here in the U.S. to think about, study, engage with?

A: The one thing that was striking was their solidarity and how powerful it was. You know this already, but I never thought of it til I read it in your book: there’s a distinction between “unity” and “solidarity.” I believe solidarity subsumes unity as a necessary component, but it also connotes action, bearing responsibilities in an effort to reach goals. They emphasized learning about their history, and the history of others who were oppressed, how they handled it, etc. They operated from a common knowledge base, which strengthened their unity. The more we have in common, the more each member cares for the common good. They willingly suffered and bled together. I believe your book is the perfect entry point for anyone who wishes to understand the philosophical (ideological) and practical mechanics of a revolution. It touches on every aspect and gives a point of reference for those interested in exploring individual acts deeply; it gives a sort of overview. It speaks honestly about the hopes, dreams, obstacles, betrayals, and so on, even about the corruption. The book is worth of study or being part of a curriculum about the topic —I’d consider it mandatory reading. I’ll bet if Sami would’ve had this book when he first entered prison, it would’ve changed the pace of his education and transformation.

Q: The lack of indictments in the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (and more) and have sparked protests and resistance which some have called a renewed civil rights movement. Does this struggle in the U.S. have similarities to Sami’s struggle?

A: One thing you’ll notice about me, is that I try to look for the deeper issue. On the surface, what’s going on over here has no real connection/parallel to Sami’s struggle, because the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is uniquely complex: just about everything that can divide people are dividing them. I am not politically correct, and know it, so I’m careful about how I speak about the situation here—it’s so sensitive and volatile. What I’ll do is look for the deeper issue. I’ve mentioned we’re in a war, one in which people like you and I are fighters. I understand it as spiritual, but it can be explained in secular terms. Racism, classism, etc—all these represent hate, and are obstacles to peace. They are all symptoms of a deeper sickness. These things divide humanity itself. It’s not a problem between unarmed black men and cops; it’s not a problem between Palestinians and Israelis; it’s not a problem between rich and poor, male and female, religion and religion, gay and straight, prisoner and society, gang and gang, white and black. Those are all symptoms of the same problem. It boils down to a lack of love, a focus on one’s own interests…at the cost of others’. The war is between love and unlove; I say it like that because hatred, indifference, ignorance, all are enemies to love. Without love, true agape love, there can never be peace. There will only be appeasement. No doubt, reaching a truce is better than actively being at war, but human nature always gets in the way. Greed and pride, lust for power. We put band-aids on cancer. Band-aids are temporary, superficial solutions.

 

 

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“Ideals are our north stars:” Reflections on THERE IS A FIELD from death row

(Dear friends, 
I sent a copy of my play “There Is A Field” to my friend George Wilkerson, who is on North Carolina’s death row. George is part of a drama group that is considering performing the play. With his permission, I am posting here his reflections upon reading the play, which are both on the play itself and the larger Palestinian/Israeli conflict. If anyone has comments or responses for George, please post and I will send them to him!)

Hey Jen,

I finished reading There Is A Field. It’s very poignant. You have a gift of making people relatable–of finding the common humanity in everyone. I thought it was clever of you to  begin the play with the emails. It allowed me to view their intimate exchanges without asking anything of me, without arguing for/against anything. It had the effect of drawing me in, of investing emotionally with the sibling relationship; I have 3 brothers and one sister. That shared experience gave me a framework for understanding.

I identify with Aseel, in that people tell me I’m an idealist. The way it’s said is as if6idealism is disconnected from reality. Like I’m just a dreamer. However, to me, idealism is what shapes reality. Ideals are our north stars. They guide us, give us direction,  provide a point of reference. Ideals have practical applications. They are governing principles…

One thing I see [in the world] is reactionism. There’s a temptation to demonize the oppressors and lionize the oppressed, but the issue isn’t so clearly defined. Just to be clear, oppression is wrong. Period. However, it doesn’t justify the reverse racism or prejudice that is common amongst the oppressed. I believe Gandhi said it well: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Think: If I allow your treatment of me to determine my behavior and beliefs and how I treat you (and others of your race), then I don’t stand for anything. I am a puppet in your hands. Then, if you allow my treatment of you to determine your behavior, etc, then where are we? We are trapped in a vicious feedback loop. Dr King recognized this, so did Gandhi, which is why they advocated nonviolence. They said, stand firm, adhere to our beliefs. Do not compromise your integrity. Someone must break the cycle. Someone must take the first step. Someone must set the example. It says, “Do unto others as you want done unto you,” not “Do unto others as is done to you.” You know?

I won’t pretend to know a lot about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. As I read your play, and now your book, having connected with your real-life characters, I see a temptation within me to only see their side of the story. However, I recognize that there are more sides to every story. I sympathize and am moved to compassion for their (the Palestinians’) struggles. But if their roles were reversed, would they do the Jews any differently? I see Christians persecuted and martyred in Muslim-controlled countries, run out of their homes, their families slaughtered. None of it is okay. None of it is justifiable. Killing Jews because they killed Palestinians because they killed Jews because they killed Palestinians is not okay.

I know it’s not politically correct to speak like this, but every party involved is in violation. Christians persecute Muslims; Muslims kill Christians; Jews kill Muslims; Gays hate Christians, saying they are “intolerant” even while they themselves are being intolerant of Christians, as if Christians’ intolerance justifies their own. It’s madness. Where does it end?

Picking sides only furthers it. I am a Christian, but I believe Christianity is about LOVE. I may disagree with others’ beliefs and behaviors, but I love/accept them nevertheless. I’m not anyone’s judge.

I believe this is the place Aseel had reached. Beyond the rights or wrongs of any one religion, there is a field. We are that field: humanity. Without the religions, the biases, the prejudices, there is a law written in every heart which tells us how we ought to treat one another. It is woven into the very nature of us. This begs the question of why we hurt each other, then, if it is within our nature to love. This is a question, the answer to which determines everything that follows. Sin. The entrance of sin corrupted our nature. But I’m not here to preach. I’m here to tear down the veils, and to demonstrate humanity as God designed us, ie, to live a life governed by love.

The way I give people my friendship immediately is because I believe in love. Sure, people have hurt me and no doubt will again. But I heal, and quickly, because I forgive. Refusal to forgive is what keeps wounds open. The more people hurt me and I forgive, the stronger I get.

–George T. Wilkerson

 

 

 

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Filed under Asel Asleh, Black Palestinian solidarity, Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Palestine/Israel

Made in Deir Yassin

(Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Nakba. The Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the ongoing displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, a process that was set into motion with the creation of the state of Israel. I offer here a segment of The Hour of Sunlight, the book I co-wrote with my dear colleague and brother, Sami Al Jundi. Sami’s origin on his father’s side is Deir Yassin, a village that was depopulated shortly before the creation of Israel, in which an infamous massacre took place. This passage took place when Sami was approximately 17 years old, in 1979.)

(Excerpt from The Hour of Sunlight by Sami Al Jundi & Jen Marlowe)

Now that I had dropped out of school, I needed work. Our neighbor Abu Ahmad had a job in a large Israeli factory making kitchen cabinets. They needed more workers. Abu Ahmad and I took an Egged bus to the factory to talk to the supervisor, Giora, about a job. The factory was in Givat Sha’ul. Givat Sha’ul had been built on the ruins of my father’s village, Deir Yassin.

deir yassin

The depopulated village of Deir Yassin

Giora, a big blond man with thick glasses and the knitted skullcap typical to settlers, looked at me disdainfully but hired me right away. My job was to deliver sections of cabinets to their next destination on the assembly line, shuttling back and forth with a small forklift. I also wrapped the finished cabinets in thick plastic, preparing them to be shipped to Europe.

Giora barked orders and shouted at us, even at workers older than his father. The word Arab was added to whatever other adjective he slung at us, whether dirty or lazy. There was only one non-Arab working with us—an old, balding Iranian Jew named Rahamim. Rahamim was quiet, gentle, and a bit peculiar; he combed his thinning hair over his bald spot with a toothbrush. Giora did not spare Rahamim his abuse; Rahamim was Mizrachi after all, only one step away from being Arab.

More than hating Giora, I hated working in an Israeli factory located in Deir Yassin.

“Where’s your job, Sami?” people in the Old City asked me.

“Deir Yassin,” I had to tell them.

“Deir Yassin? Aren’t you from Deir Yassin?”

I lowered my eyes and shrugged.

My grandmother visited from Jordan. Tears sprung to her eyes when I told her where I worked. “Is your Uncle Abu Ismail’s house still there?” I did not know how to tell her that only a few buildings from the original Deir Yassin remained, and the Israelis had turned them into an insane asylum.

My grandmother gripped my arm tightly before I left for work the next morning.

“Sami, please. Bring me a fig.”

During my lunch break, I walked to the heart of Deir Yassin. I watched the crazy people wandering in the yard between the homes of my people. When no one was watching, I plucked a fig and a lemon from nearby trees. I gave them to my grandmother that evening. She held the lemon to her nose, breathing deeply the fragrance of her village. Then she cradled the fig to her cheek. “The figs in Deir Yassin,” she said. “There are no figs in the world like those from Deir Yassin.”

The next day I wrapped the cabinets, staring out the large window overlooking the valley covered in fruit trees. All the workers here were nothing but traitors, and I was the worst of all. We were disrespecting the blood that had been spilled here. Maybe the souls of the massacred were still hovering in their demolished village. How could I possibly justify myself to them?

Before wrapping the next cabinet in the thick plastic, I carved words across its face with a screwdriver. I did it again the next day, and the next. The following week, I plugged the forklift backward into the charger, mixing the electric signals and blowing out its circuits. Each time shame overwhelmed me, I found some new way to sabotage the work.

Abu Ahmad figured out what I was up to. “Sami, you have to stop this. You’re going to cause problems for all of us.”

I looked straight into Abu Ahmad’s eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The manager began to receive phone calls from Europe about defective cabinets. It was obvious that I was the culprit; I was the only one with access to all stages of the assembling.

“You piece of rubbish, you disgusting Arab, I’m going to fire your ass! I’m calling the police!” Giora shouted at me.

I shouted right back, “You want to call the police, you fucking settler, fine! Call them! But you can’t fire me, because I quit!”

I stormed out of the factory and never returned. But I smiled each time I imagined customers in Belgium and Italy unwrapping their new kitchen cabinets, only to find the Arabic words I had carved deeply across their doors:

Made in Deir Yassin!

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Filed under Human Rights, Palestine/Israel