Book Review – The Hour of Sunlight

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The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, co-written with journalist Jen Marlowe (author of Darfur Diaries), tells the remarkable story of Sami Al Jundi. Recounted as a first-person narrative, it’s told with rare honesty, sparing no one and illuminating aspects of Israeli and Palestinian history and identity that few in the West would otherwise have access to.

TheHourofSunlightSami’s parents are blind refugees who moved to the Old City of Jerusalem seeking education and jobs. In 1967, five-year-old Sami and the rest of his family were kicked out of their beloved home, which was demolished to make way for Jewish settlement. They moved to another area of the Old City, where Sami and his friends had many colorful and sometimes hilarious adventures. But the bitterness kindled in Sami’s heart intensified as the hardships and injustices of the occupation worsened and death began to stalk his community.

Inspired by young guerrillas in Vietnam and Lebanon, Sami begins to flirt with the idea of militant resistance. When an ill-prepared friend comes to his house to try to fashion a crude bomb (meant for use against buildings or soldiers, not civilians), disaster strikes. The bomb explodes in his friend’s hands, killing his friend, and he is seized by Israeli soldiers who bind and torture him for days before throwing him in jail for ten long years.

In jail, a teenaged Sami finds that a highly organized and democratic system of education has been set up by the inmates, who ply him with hundreds books by Medieval Arab philosophers, Russian novelists, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. He learns about Mahatma Gandhi, ancient Greece, the Enlightenment, the history of war, and Arab politics. He absorbs everything quickly and moves up the ranks until he is a respected and well-known teacher and leader in the Palestinian prison system.

When he’s finally released, the First Intifada is raging, followed by the delirious hope unleashed by the apparent victory of the Oslo Accords. Unfortunately, as the 1990s progress, the checkpoints only worsen, Israeli violence continues, Palestinian suicide bombings begin, settlement expansion accelerates, and extremist groups on both sides gain ground.

Sami, who in prison had contemplated non-violence as a tactic for political change, joins the Palestinian Center for Non-Violence and later becomes a founding member of the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence, which sends Israeli and Palestinian children to a camp in Maine each summer and facilitates dialogue and joint activities once they return to the Holy Land.

Sami throws himself into the work, driving all over the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel in his trusty sky-blue Ford Transit, which he dubs Al Buraq (after the winged horse-like creature that transported Mohammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and back all in one night), picking up Israeli and Palestinian children, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Seeds of Peace organizes countless activities that forge real friendships across the lines and in many cases open minds that had otherwise been tightly shut. The stories of the children’s bravery and compassion are truly inspiring.

Sadly, the Second Intifada erupts in late 2000 and threatens to demolish everything they’ve built and much more. But while Seeds of Peace can survive even the devastations of 2002, another force threatens to destroy it more thoroughly than violence ever could.

The writing style is understated, and more than forty years are covered in 331 pages. Dozens of colorful characters pass by like confetti without enough time to do justice to all of them. But given the difficulty of fitting so much joy and pain and history into such a small space, the authors do a remarkable job, and it’s a quick and enjoyable read.

The book is also refreshing in that it’s a cross-section of Palestinian life written not by a member of the elite but by a man whose only higher education came in prison and who made most of his living as a driver before finding his calling in peace work. Sami is scathingly critical and deeply loving toward both sides, though he reminds the reader several times that their situations and levels of power are far from equal.

Like the conflict itself, the book has no clear resolution. It chronicles times of great fear, hope, disillusionment, and confusion as it takes us through one man’s trials on the uncharted path of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It starts with bewildered pain and anger, leads to violence, transforms through education and humanization into hope, devolves into cynicism, rises to action, ends in frustration, and picks up and keeps on trying.

The book is a faithful telling of one man’s story that’s a microcosm of the Palestinian story and, in the end, of the human story. Readers can judge for themselves what was effective, what wasn’t, and why.

Pamela Olson’s book Fast Times in Palestine will be published next month.

About Pamela Olson

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine. She blogs here.

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