By Betsy Brinson and Gordon Davies. Friends United Press, 2014. 142 pages. $35/hardcover.
Sumoud, artfully prepared by historian Betsy Brinson and her spouse, Gordon Davies, draws upon archival photographs, oral histories, and secondary accounts to tell the history of the Ramallah Friends Schools in Palestine’s West Bank through the eyes of its community of students and teachers. Because of its extensive use of photos and a storytelling approach to history, Sumoud is accessible to a wide audience, although it may be of particular interest to those who have engaged with the Ramallah Friends Schools through participating on a Quaker workcamp, visiting on a delegation, hosting a Palestinian student or speaker, or teaching at the schools.
The book is organized into seven chapters covering topics such as the origin of the schools, religious study and Quaker values, the evolution of the curriculum, and the effects of war and occupation on the life of the schools. An introduction provides an overview of the role of Friends United Meeting and other Quaker partners in the schools, and appendices include a timeline of the schools, a listing of Ramallah Friends School principals and directors, and a useful bibliography that includes archival sources, Ramallah Friends School sources and authors, and general background reading for those interested in learning more. Although my family has long been connected to the schools and I have read many of books written by early teachers at the school, I still found much to learn, particularly because the book is written primarily from the perspective of Palestinian students and teachers rather than American missionaries. Photographs, historical and contemporary, punctuate the book, providing snapshots into the life, times, and personalities of the school since its founding of the boarding school in 1889.
The book’s title Sumoud comes from the Arabic word for “steadfastness,” which captures the nonviolent persistence in conducting “normal” activities of life that at times require extreme resourcefulness and determination due to the ongoing challenges of the Israeli occupation and on-going conflict. Numerous stories in the book reflect this steadfastness and insistence on pursuing high quality education despite, or even because of, the political and economic situation in the West Bank. For example, the Friends school was a leading partner in the Educational Network, which helped coordinate educational activities even when Israeli authorities closed schools for months during the First Intifada (1987–1991). During the Second Intifada (2000–2005), I know students who had to sneak past Israeli tanks parked outside of their houses in order to get to class. However, as the book demonstrates, such stories of teachers and students continuing their work despite pay cuts or difficult physical circumstances date back to the earliest years of the school; the book recounts stories from the days of the British and Jordanian occupations as well.
Perhaps more importantly, however, Sumoud documents stories of hope, happiness, and memories of friendship and growth. From picnics and basketball games to new and expanded facilities and beautifully kept grounds, the book provides a glimpse into the lives of students and teachers who have crossed these thresholds for over a century, pursuing dreams, achieving excellence, and engaging in some of the same daily rituals of students everywhere. The counter positioning of history, school activities, and the impact of the political context provides the reader with a sense of both the universal and the particular, a connecting with the (primarily) Palestinian students and teachers comprising the Ramallah Friends Schools on the basis of shared interests and experiences, while also recognizing the unique challenges they have faced. Sumoud documents Friends’ historical concern with education and women’s equality even as it also shows the different ways these concerns have been implemented over time and across cultures.