Today is Palestinian prisoners day.
To mark the day, and to honor the thousands of men, women and children who are directly impacted by Israel’s detention policies, which has long been a central element in upholding occupation, I would like to offer an excerpt from the book that I co-authored with my brother Sami Al Jundi, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker.
Sami, a Palestinian man from the Old City of Jerusalem, spent ten years in Israeli prison. He was arrested at the age of eighteen for his involvement in militant activities resisting Israeli occupation. Sami describes that nearly every waking hour in prison (aside from two) was spent either sitting on his mat reading, or sitting in a circle with fellow prisoners and discussing what they were reading.
The two hours a day not spent in study?
One was the hour the prisoners were permitted to go outside to the courtyard–the hour of sunlight.
The other was the hour each day that a song from the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum was played over the prison loudspeakers:
(note: to understand the passage, it is helpful to know that Sami’s mother was blind.)
I was homesick whenever I was sick or in pain. Our hour each evening with Umm Kulthum had a similar effect. We sat in the cell listening to her voice emanate from the loudspeaker, each of us in our separate world. It was the one time of day we allowed ourselves to indulge in memories. I sat on my mat the entire hour, knees bent and arms wrapped around my legs, my head bowed down, closing myself off from my cell mates. I thought about my mother. She loved me more than anyone else in the world did—and by getting myself locked away in prison, I had broken her heart. As Umm Kulthum’s rich voice filled the prison and penetrated each prisoner’s heart, I wondered whether my mom was thinking about me at that very moment and whether she was crying. I cursed myself for the times I had shouted at her because I did not like the food she had prepared. I imagined her warm voice as she would caution me, “Sami, you need to take care and be gentle and kind with other people.” Words coming from her mouth always sounded like prayers. Before I left the house each morning, she would ask God to protect me and remove any bad person from my path. And then, pressing her hands against my cheeks, forehead, lips, and nose, she would make a copy of my face to store in her mind. She knew instantly by touching my face whether I was happy or angry or sad. She read my face like Braille. I felt the same soothing breeze listening to Umm Kulthum as I felt when my mother read my face.
To stop the approaching tears, I forced my thoughts to my classmates and friends. What did they look like now? What were they doing? Some of them might be in university, others married and starting families. What did they think of me? Did they see me as a hero? Or had I disappeared from their consciousness entirely? Umm Kulthum made me yearn for the Old City streets, my school, the souq, my home, playing cards with Abbas and Badawi. Umm Kulthum finished her song and the guards shut off the loudspeaker. We sat for a moment in silence, then shook off our feelings and returned to our books.