Book House The Lead

“We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders”: A powerful and inspiriting memoir by community activist Linda Sarsour

Linda Sarsour
  • “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance” is a memoir by Linda Sarsour.


  • Linda Sarsour is a Brooklyn-born Palestinian Muslim American community activist, and she has been recognized for her award-winning intersectional work. She served as national co-chair of the Women’s March, helping to organize the largest single-day protest in US history.


  • The book follows Linda as she learns the tenets of successful community organizing, and her fights for racial, economic, gender, and social justice. Throughout, she inspires you to take action as she reaffirms that we are not here to be bystanders.


  • Read an excerpt from Linda Sarsour’s book “We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders” below.


Like most first-generation American children, I knew what it was to live in two worlds. From the time I was four, I would spend summers with my grandparents in the West Bank of Palestine, in the place my parents have never stopped calling “home.” In El Bireh, my sisters, cousins, and I ran together in the streets, made friends with neighborhood children, rode horses into the hills, and helped Yumma’s father, Grandpa Atif, pick fruit from his orchards. On weekends, we attended weddings.

The banquet hall in my grandparents’ neighborhood had four floors, and most Saturdays there would be a wedding taking place on each of those floors. In a village where everyone knew everyone, families would go from one ceremony to the next, celebrating each union. Usually, we had stayed up late the night before for the prenuptial sahra, which was a joyful block party with lights strung from house to house along the street, and tables overflowing with sweets, stuffed grape leaves, olives, peanuts, and coolers full of drinks. Music blared from large speakers set up on the sidewalk, and men danced jubilantly in the street. At some point in the night, they’d belt out traditional songs, while someone followed along on the flute. Since both sets of my grandparents lived on the main road, these nighttime festivities happened right outside their houses, which meant that when we children tired of weaving in and out of the revelers, we could climb to the roof and watch the entertainments from up there. Many nights, we fell asleep under the stars.

My paternal grandfather, Ahmed, stayed inside on these evenings. He seldom left his home anymore, except to sit in his backyard dozing under a cloudless expanse of sky. It never occurred to me to question his isolation from the rest of us until an afternoon when two cousins and I were in the front yard playing and laughing loudly. Suddenly Seedy Ahmed came barreling out of the house, waving his cane and roaring at us as he chased us into the street. I was seven years old and so confused until one of my older cousins sat me down. “Linda, Seedy Ahmed has no idea who we are,” he explained, tracing circles with his forefinger next to his head. “He thinks we’re some neighborhood kids making too much noise during his afternoon nap.”

Seedy Ahmed’s dementia was just one of the sobering truths I would be asked to accept that summer. Another was that some of my cousins lived in a mukhayyam, or refugee camp, on the edge of town, where they shared a single room inside a box-shaped cinder-block house set down in a ravine below the sidewalk. Five minutes away stood soaring luxury homes belonging to exiles who had prospered in other countries and returned to build extravagant mansions in their old village. It was a stark and painful juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, a disparity that felt wrong to me even then.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson of that summer came on the day we visited one of my uncles in an Israeli prison. At twenty-four years old, my mother’s younger brother had already been in jail for a year on the day I went with Sitty Sarah, Yumma, and his young wife to see him. My grandmother had been up before daybreak, cooking favorite family recipes, rolling grape leaves stuffed with minced lamb and vegetables, and making sweets to take to my uncle. The trip was an all-day excursion, with a long drive by car to the edge of a desert where we joined several other families for a bus ride through rocky terrain to the jail.

The prison itself was a low-slung building constructed of unpainted concrete blocks set against a gravelly hill. The scrubby desert stretched out around us as far as the eye could see. Inside the building, along a long, dimly lit corridor, groups of a dozen or more men were held in windowless cells fronted by chipped, green-painted iron bars. Visiting family members would stand at those bars, two at a time, and greet the prisoners, who were dressed in regular jeans and T-shirts. In addition to gifts of food wrapped in foil and wax paper, relatives would bring toiletries and changes of clothes for the men, and sometimes cigarettes and reading material.

Always a talkative child, I fell silent that day, taking in the drab and unfamiliar surroundings. I remember how my uncle and his wife laced their fingers through the iron bars and shared a kiss before letting go. On the way back home that evening, as the bus bumped along the desert highway, returning us to the place where we’d parked our car, I peppered my mother with questions.

“Why is Khalo in jail?” I asked her. “What did he do?”

Yumma explained that my uncle had been married for exactly three weeks when Israeli soldiers swept him up with about fifty other young Palestinian men whom they claimed had been involved in an uprising against the Jewish state. My uncle tried to tell them he’d simply been walking home to his new wife, but his explanation fell on deaf ears. He was found guilty in a military tribunal and incarcerated. The length of his sentence we did not know. This was not unusual. With the continued expansion of Jewish settlements on land seized from Palestinians in the West Bank, young Arab men were routinely arrested to thin the ranks of protestors and break the back of the resistance. These men could be held for years, released only when the Israeli civil authority decided to let them go. In my uncle’s case, the jail sentence would last for another year.

“But why are so many people protesting?” I pressed my mother.

We were back in the car now, headed for El Bireh, and home. As pink and orange streaks washed the evening sky, and the refugee camp where my cousins lived came into view, my mother recounted the recent history of our people. She told me about the nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” I had heard the word before; coincidentally my two brothers had been born one year apart on Nakba Day, May 15. But that car ride home was the first time I grasped the lasting consequence of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that had led to Palestinians’ somber observance of that date.

For my people, Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, had been the destruction of our homeland. By the next day, Nakba Day, three-quarters of a million Palestinians had been forced to abandon their homes and the lands their families had occupied for generations. Their mosques were razed to the ground, their houses demolished, their possessions taken, their cemeteries and olive groves destroyed. Hordes of exiled Palestinians poured into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, and amassed on the West Bank of the Jordan River, becoming refugees overnight. Prohibited from returning home after the war, some seven million descendants of those refugees remain a displaced people seventy years later, the majority of them restricted to territories occupied and controlled by Israeli security forces.

In the most stark terms, the barrier to Palestinians’ right of return has been a matter of numbers: Israel will continue to bar Arabs from reclaiming their original lands as long as the number of Arabs continues to exceed the number of Jews. With Israel’s population standing at roughly eight million in 2018—a number that includes one and a half million resident Arabs—welcoming seven million more Arabs as citizens with full rights under the law would render Jews a democratic minority. This prospect has stymied peace talks for decades and rendered the notion of a merged state—the “one-state solution” proposed by so many international observers—a nonstarter for Israel.

Of course, at seven years old, I could not fully comprehend the depth of the conflict that had fueled such agonizing cycles of intifadas and war in my parents’ homeland. After that year, however, my summers in Palestine would never be quite as innocent and carefree as before. I now knew the story of my people. Their resistance was in my blood.

Excerpted with permission from We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance, Linda Sarsour, Simon & Schuster. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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