Palestinian Sumoud as Indigenous Hope: RCPI Fellow Rana Khoury's Civic Engagement Curriculum

December 17, 2021
Rana Khoury, 2021-22 Fellow in Conflict and Peace
Photo courtesy of Dar al-Kalima University

As a Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative Fellow in Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program, Rana Khoury is developing a civic engagement curriculum aimed at Palestinian students in higher education. The curriculum’s philosophy follows RPL Director Diane L. Moore’s framework that “religious influences are embedded in all aspects of human experience.” Khoury explains that “Religion, therefore, in addition to culture and the arts, plays an important mediating role in facilitating dialogue and reflection, and revealing potential fault lines as well as common ground.”

Khoury felt this framework in action firsthand when she attended a Palestinian university in the late 80s, and her experience there remains the driving force for her work on her curriculum today. She says, “I want the new generation of students to have that deeply transformative journey that I was fortunate to go through during my one year of Palestinian university life.” Despite her experience being brief, that year coincided with the first Palestinian uprising, the Intifada. Khoury recalls, “It was a most memorable time for popular civil resistance movements. Israel had forced closures on all Palestinian universities for long periods of time. This is when Palestinian Sumoud came to the forefront.”

Khoury explains Sumoud, saying,“Here, Sumoud translates as steadfastness. It consists of grassroot community practices that persistently cultivate spaces where people, especially women and youth, strategize ways to maintain their dignity, identity, home, and land.” Khoury clarifies that this paradigm is “not to be confused with the neo-liberal, authority-centered, top-down, apolitical definition of resilience.” It is about community will. “Sumoud is the imaginative force that sustains the community’s will to resist for freedom and justice.”

Khoury recalls that when the Sumoud paradigm came to the forefront during the Intifada, “higher education assumed its most transformative role.” She continues, “Academia left its ivory tower and the confines of university walls and held its campuses on the streets. We joined other segments of society—women, elderly, workers, etc.—in a unique, grassroots learning setting. We were not passive learners but involved in the production of knowledge and culture as many engaged in a host of creative approaches and initiatives to keep the momentum of the popular struggle going. As students became creators, innovators, activists, artists, the spark that ignited their commitment and leadership came from our university education. We came away from that experience transformed forever. We understood that education’s real power lies not in it being a vehicle for personal advancement. Rather, it is a communal pathway for freedom and justice, and ultimately for the wellbeing of all.”

The Sumoud paradigm has become foundational to Khoury’s curriculum both because of the Palestinian context of her work and because her target audience is young people. Khoury explains that Palestinian youth, which constitute the majority of the population, are “exposed to a set of realities and conditions that conspire to diminish their sense of agency. Mistakenly, society perceives them as a group of either misguided, complacent, or inactive individuals when in fact they are mainly unequipped and uninspired. The qualities that I hope to see in these young people are the qualities of Palestinian Sumoud, including steadfastness, rootedness, motivation, critical thinking, determination, resourcefulness, commitment, and creativity.”

Khoury hopes to cultivate these qualities in Palestinian youth through a “contextual, competency-based, and action-oriented” curriculum, as well as provide them the needed groundwork to create necessary tools, develop critical mindsets, build a transformative vision, and claim their agency as they navigate their civic engagement pathways.” Khoury’s curriculum is composed of five modes of engagement: a) civic knowledge, b) civic skills, c) fieldwork and community service, d) community building, and e) action. Civic Knowledge will cover topics such as civic issues and values, Sumoud history and paradigm, political and legal systems, current affairs, and rights and responsibilities. Civic Skills will include advocacy and campaigning, analytical thinking, and communication and negotiations. Fieldwork and Community Service will consist of hands-on practical training, volunteer work, and service projects. Community Building will focus on establishing trust across groups, networks, institutions/organizations, and communities. And, finally, Action will implement initiatives, as well as give overviews of past and current popular civil resistance efforts, community actions, and cultural symbols and figures. Khoury plans to have the curriculum actively espouse and put into action the local, traditional Palestinian practices that have sustained the social and communal networks. One example would be al-‘Ouneh, which is a voluntary community support system that is most visible during olive picking season because all come together to help each other with the task.

Khoury emphasizes that “the ideas incorporated in this curriculum are not new. On the contrary, they are old concepts and insights that have proved their emancipatory efficacy at various points in Palestinian history.” By reapplying these ideas in the present context, Khoury hopes to reverse the dramatically diminishing capacity of Palestinian universities to promote sustainable engagement and spark transformative learning. For example, community service, which is a prerequisite in all Palestinian universities, could inspire more sustainable engagement by “endeavors that subscribe to a higher, communal goal” rather than today’s understanding of community service as individual internship. Or, addressing experiences like youth “seeing the statement “To Exist is to Resist” graffitied on sections of the Apartheid Wall, and how important it is to not think of ‘exist’ as a passive state, but as communal action based on their civic and political consciousness,” could open avenues to transformative learning.

Rana Khoury speaks at an event as Vice President for Development and Outreach at Dar al-Kalima University and the Diyar Consortium. / Photo courtesy of Dar al-Kalima University
Rana Khoury speaks at an event as Vice President for Development and Outreach at Dar al-Kalima University. / Photo courtesy of Dar al-Kalima University
During the last 10 years, Khoury has tested some of these curriculum components and found the results very encouraging “as students and future artists performed extraordinary acts of personal and collective agency.” Inspired to continue the work of creating this curriculum, Khoury chose to join HDS’s Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative as a fellow.

 

Of her experience with the RCPI, Khoury says, “The HDS experience has been unique, and I am grateful for the opportunity to develop my project in a vibrant, supportive environment. Being part of a cohort of fellows and being supported by the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative team, has allowed for active engagement and debate on issues closely related to my work.” This is particularly important because for Khoury “being able to identify the paradigm has been the result of rigorous examination of the politics of resilience and counter arguments.”

Khoury shares that HDS has also provided a “wealth of resources,” such as “space to focus on the project and further define its structure, goals and learning outcomes; as well as the opportunity to audit a class and be part of a reading group, which has impacted my perspective on the material from a student’s point of view.”

Most importantly, Khoury has found her time at HDS “tremendously helpful in substantiating the curriculum under theoretical frameworks that can inspire and guide its growth.” She says, “Engaging with the Sumoud paradigm did not come about coincidentally. As a practitioner who has worked for decades with young people on issues related to civil society, I recognized that the tools needed to empower the young people must be inspired by the indigenous understanding of civic engagement. However, being able to introduce it in its present form came about after a lengthy and intensive study of recent theoretical frameworks that address the context of Palestine/Israel. [Because of these theoretical frameworks,] I became fully convinced that an effective paradigm can be embodied through the Palestinian Sumoud, not only because of its innate connection to the land but also because of its lifegiving mechanism of boundless hope.”

This boundless hope is what Khoury wants to instill in Palestinian young people, saying, “most importantly, I would like to see them as Agents of Hope. Hope is a key ingredient that can support the young people, and the community at large, to navigate their lives, maintain their dignity, and innovate while living under the most difficult of contexts worldwide. It is also the tool that inspires the continued struggle of the Palestinian people for freedom and justice. We can even say that Sumoud is hope, an indigenous type of hope.”

Rana Khoury will be implementing her curriculum as a pilot experiment at the Dar al-Kalima University, a relatively new university that is innovative in its vision, philosophy, and leadership and is specialized in arts and culture.

Written by Natalie Cherie Campbell