It’s often easy to stumble across individuals who awe you with their intellect, dazzle you with their perceptiveness, or move you with their tenacity.
To come across all of these features was, I thought, impossible. Until I met Dr. Suaad George Genem.
Earlier this week, Suaad visited the University to present a lecture prior to the screening of ‘Paradise Lost’ (2003), a documentary film made about her impact on the northern Palestinian village of Fureidis.
As the plucky Arab-Israeli documentary film-maker Ebtisam Salh Mara’ana interviewed friends, family, and fellow villagers in a bid to track down Suaad, her story was eked reluctantly from those who remember her.
Although the lecture took place two nights ago, it has taken me a while to ponder what to write about the event.
This is in not part due to the uneventfulness of the evening; contrastingly, it is because too much occurred – in my mind at least.
As I left the lecture hall, my mind was buzzing with thoughts, my hand aching from frantic scribbling, and my heart moved by not only her painful story, but her sheer courage in surviving not one, but three Israeli jail terms, yet still making a whopping comeback.
The lecture began with a brief overview of Suaad’s family history: originally from Tantura, the tragic fate of the village was delivered in a seemingly calm monologue, but the tears in her eyes were too clear to inspire belief in her stoic demeanour.
Often regarded as ‘the forgotten massacre’, pre-1948 Tantura was a thriving agricultural village in northern Palestine, until the evening of 21 May 1948, when the Alexandroni Brigade of the Israeli Haganah swept in and with brutal swifteness rounded up the villagers, led them to a ‘safe hut’ in a field, and then shot each and every one.
How the story survived is an equally tragic episode: one of the villagers, badly wounded, pretended to be dead amidst his murdered villagers until the Israelis left, and then made his way to Fureidis, where he alerted the residents.
Approximately 200 civilians died that night.
Having heard these stories as a child, Suaad grew up not to accept her tragic heritage, but to question: why?
Most children are told just ‘no’ throughout their childhood. My parents taught me never to accept just ‘no’, so when I started school I was quite curious. ‘What do you mean, no?!’ It should be, ‘But why?’ or ‘Yes, but why?’
From curiosity and an aversion to the word ‘no’, Suaad gradually began to question the occupation.
Why, of the sprinkling of villages along northern Palestine, was Fureidis spared? Why did none of its female students ever gain an education higher than school? Why did all the women work from such an early age as maids and servants of the Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa?
With such inconsistencies buzzing in her mind, Suaad soon attracted the attention of the omnipresent Israeli authorities, and soon was arrest and imprisoned for the first time in the 1970s.
Her crime? Holding aloft a Palestinian flag. In those days, she told us, even wearing a combination of black trousers, red top, and a green scarf (the colours of the Palestinian flag) would be enough to incite an Israeli arrest.
The amazing twist in the tale is that her fellow villagers did not support her; too afraid to lose their jobs, they shunned her and complained bitterly that she had put their livelihoods at stake. Why could she not just find a decent Palestinian boy and get married?
The fools! They should be thanking me! I raised their heads up, I made them see that this is wrong! It’s our land, our villages, our flag! They are cowards who care more for their money. They must look up!
Her sense of exasperation throughout the lecture, and indeed the documentary, was tangible, and as her tale continued her endurance of further jail terms for equally trivial acts continued to emerge.
In the early 1980s, Suaad successfully enrolled in a law degree in Italy and during the course of her stay she participated in a demonstration for Palestine.
One would think that residing in a European country during the nineties would provide a degree of freedom; it was not to be.
Israeli spies located in Italy bugged her phones, upturned her flat, removed the wheels from her bicycle, and distributed pictures of her participation in the march amidst the Israeli authorities.
Upon her return to Palestine, far from utilising her degree, Suaad was arrested, stripped of her law license, and slung in a cell.
It is at this point that her personal revolution began to take place.
One day, a friend sent her a prospectus for the University of Exeter, and taking a chance, she applied for the Ph.D. program in International Human Rights Law.
As the days after her application passed by, she held up the cover image of Northcote House located on top of a rolling green hill, and placed it in front of her cell window.
I would spend all day looking at it. Instead of the bars on my window, I would imagine one day walking up that hill, going to university, getting on with my life. I never dreamed it could happen.
But it did, and upon her arrival on campus, Suaad walked to the bottom of the hill that had sustained her courage and looked up:
I just looked, and thought of all my time in the Israeli jail. Here I was! This was real. It wasn’t paper, a prospectus, but here, and I was here.
Suaad passed her Ph.D., and is now a Lecturer in International Law, married to an Englishman, and with a young son at a local school in Exeter.
But every summer, she returns to Fureidis and touches the land and takes some with her back to Britain.
There are a million and one things I wish I could share about the measly two hours passed in what is possibly the most inspirational lecture I have ever attended, but it would never end.
Suffice to say: Suaad George Genem – the lesser known heroine, survivor, and muse.