THE HOUR OF SUNLIGHT
by Sami Al Jundi and Jen Marlowe
Nation Books, 2011
I have known Sami Al Jundi for nearly eight years. We first met when he was still the supervisor of the Seeds of Peace Center in Jerusalem in 2003. My colleagues and I were exploring potential subjects for our first documentary film, Encounter Point, which was still in the early stages of production. At the time I was skeptical about Seeds of Peace. Coming from a human rights background, and feeling a sense of urgency to quell the bloodshed and oppression of the Second Intifada, I had little patience for programs that brought together Palestinian and Israeli children. I didn’t feel we had time to wait for them to grow up and to assume positions of influence in their societies. Our collective backyard was burning and we had no time to waste. Little did I know that years later I would be working alongside so many of its alumnae.
In the heart of East Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, in a beautiful stone building tasked with bringing these youth together, I did not anticipate meeting a man like Jundi. One could expect bitterness from a man imprisoned in Israeli jails for ten years for what I would later learn was a botched attempt at building a bomb. It wasn’t just that he was one of the few people who could summon quotes from Russian, American, and Brazilian literary luminaries as well as from Christian Scripture, the Qur’an, and the Torah. What surprised me most was that Jundi was at once restless, perpetually on the move, and strikingly patient.
Jundi’s coming-of-age story is chronicled in the illuminating book, The Hour of Sunlight, co-authored by him and his friend, former colleague and author/documentary filmmaker/playwright Jen Marlowe. The title derives from Mahmoud Darwish’s stunning poem, “On This Earth.”
Like Darwish’s poetry, Jundi’s life is a tale of dislocation, of yearning, of delight in the details and a reverence for the written word. The son of refugees from both Deir Yassin and Zakarriya, Jundi was raised in the Old City of Jerusalem by two blind parents—a unique experience by any measure—and became a refugee himself at a young age.
The Hour of Sunlight would be a riveting, textured, humorous, and tragic account for anyone to read—about growing up amid displacement and the political stifling of a people. Yet for those of us who care deeply about ending the violence, enmity, occupation, and repression that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian context, this book is a must-read. It is no wonder that Israeli author Akiva Eldar called The Hour of Sunlight “the most authentic account of the Palestinian refugees’ painful ordeal that I have ever read.”
By tracing Jundi’s family’s history, he and Marlowe paint a vivid, multidimensional picture of Palestinian society in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel and the subsequent military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem after 1967. It is a narrative seldom heard in English. Jundi reveals the contradictory emotions inherent to this conflict—from his attraction to an Israeli co-worker, to his humiliation at the hands of Israeli teenagers, to his ambivalence as he and his buddies plot to detonate an explosive device.
At one point Jundi is sentenced to jail. But rather than atrophying from a decade of confinement, he flourishes. He becomes a “student” in a highly sophisticated, rigorous political prisoner-led “university” system within Israeli jails. The fraternity and intellectual challenge offered by his fellow inmates elevates him. He finds freedom in reading, and nurtures his appetite for learning, for teaching, and for philosophical inquiry. Sadly, toward the end of his sentence, an influx of new prisoners imperils this intellectual ecosystem.
Once released, Jundi begins to focus on the next generation of Palestinians. He does not want them to lose a decade of their lives on misguided actions that ultimately don’t further the cause of Palestinian freedom. His conviction leads him to co-initiate the Seeds of Peace Center for Israeli and Palestinian youth in Jerusalem with a Jewish American friend, Ned Lazarus. Jundi and Lazarus’s intention is to reconvene Palestinian and Israeli alumnae of the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Maine upon their return to the Middle East.
Together the two sacred spaces that consume most of Jundi’s life— “university” and Seeds of Peace—acted upon Jundi much the way Crozer Theological Seminary did on Martin Luther King Jr., prompting Jundi to encounter the world’s deepest thinkers, and to reimagine the nature of relations between individuals and peoples. To his horror, they are both undone by those who see the world solely through the prism of power and ethnic pride. Jundi and Marlowe recount in exhaustive detail how Seeds of Peace eventually pushes him out, closes the Jerusalem hub, and refocuses its programmatic center of gravity.
The Hour of Sunlight, aptly titled, reminds us of what is precious and fleeting: the fabric of our communities; the values we choose to instill in our children; the fragility of altruism; and the transcendental power of education to challenge our normative assumptions. Without resorting to clichés or righteousness, the book also reminds us of the limits of even the most courageous of individuals in the face of structural challenges. This is not a traditional hero’s narrative. More of a Vernon Johns than an MLK, Jundi struggles to nurture and confront the next generation so that perhaps it will deliver the freedoms that he, his fellow Palestinians—and Israelis—so desperately deserve.