“There is no alternative to resistance”: Wisam Rafeedie’s The Trinity of Fundamentals

Reviewed by Kirsten Mairéad Gill

Wisam Rafeedie, The Trinity of Fundamentals, trans. Dr. Muhammad Tutunji. New York: 1804 Books and the Palestinian Youth Movement, 2024.

In Palestinian Arabic, sumud, meaning steadfastness, connotes an ethos of resistance based on staying put and enduring. The act of waiting, rooted to the land like a tree or a rock, becomes a revolutionary act in the face of the Occupation’s ever-increasing encroachments on land and freedom. I am not an Arabic speaker; I ask my sister, who is, to explain the various tenses of sumud by putting them in a sentence. She writes: “the people of Gaza and Palestine are displaying great sumud in the face of catastrophe, they are samidoun (those who are steadfast), in fact they are the Asmad (the resisting) people of our generation.”

Reading Wisam Rafeedie’s The Trinity of Fundamentals is a lesson in sumud. A fictionalized account of the author’s nine years in hiding from the Occupation, the novel renders the durational and often event-less scale of his waiting in epic form. First published in Arabic in 1998, the novel was recently published in English translation as a collaborative effort by the Palestinian Youth Movement. It is a miracle that it exists at all. Written in the Al-Naqab Ansar 3 prison following Rafeedie’s eventual capture in 1991—drafts were wrapped in dough and thrown into neighboring blocks to evade detection during frequent, spontaneous cell searches—Rafeedie believed the novel to be lost when a prison guard apprehended the finished copy during a raid. Unbeknownst to him, however, another inmate and comrade from Gaza had transcribed a second copy and smuggled it out of the prison, having fastidiously folded the sheets into pill capsules and swallowed them. During a second prison stint, this time at Al-Nafha, Rafeedie was shown a syllabus for a prison course at al-Naqab and was shocked to find that it listed his novel. To reach him, the novel was again transcribed on small pieces of paper, folded into fifty-four pill capsules, and smuggled by three comrades through six prisons. Rafeedie smuggled it once more, tucked into his briefs, when he was forced to transfer to another prison, and finally managed to pass it off to a visitor, leading to its publication in 1998. Multiple times, Rafeedie’s words passed clandestinely through the bodies of prisoners, ingested and excreted, the language of resistance mingling with fluids and flesh in active revolt against the bodily discipline of the prison.

The novel that went to such lengths to exist tells the story of Kan’an Subhi, a lightly fictionalized version of Rafeedie. A young member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP, or “the party”), Kan’an’s security is compromised when an arrested comrade confesses. Rather than send Kan’an into exile in Lebanon, a common practice until the 1982 negotiated withdrawal of combatants from the Lebanese camps, the party decides that he will go underground. The story of the clandestine life he leads in the nine years that follow is constructed as a series of extended reflections during one evening that Kan’an awaits and endures capture, finally discovered by the Occupation. To do justice to a story of transformation that is both personal and political, and of a life spent in isolation yet dedicated to the collective “we,” Rafeedie develops a unique style melding autofiction, political analysis, party logistics, and history, with detailed accounts of the first Intifada and the Gulf War given new light by the PFLP perspective.

The story starts where it ends, with Kan’an’s capture: after nine years, the Occupation is at his door, banging like “members of a cannibalistic tribe.” As Kan’an endures the ransacking of his safe house and the Occupation’s assault on his body, he conjures memories of his “secret life” in hiding, returning first to the university at the cusp of his call to go underground. The university—specifically, Birzeit University in the West Bank—occupies a central place in Kan’an’s story and the organizing work of the PFLP. Kan’an’s revolutionary life starts at the university, which is “not only a hotbed of resistance and political organization,” but also “an example of a modern and enlightened society that was not closed in on itself. The university was open to new ideas and the free exchange of opinions, a society in which the full spectrum of ideologies… had someone to carry their banner.” Rafeedie describes a university policy of support for students, an “atmosphere of democratic and intellectual competition” that became a hub for working-class residents of the refugee camps and a locus for the establishment of the organizational cells of the resistance. In other words, the kind of university that we yearn for and aspire to. What are the forces we are fighting that see such openness and exchange as a threat? What kind of world do they imagine? Reading the descriptions of Kan’an’s activities at Birzeit, I cannot help thinking of the scholasticide in Gaza and the targeting of pro-Palestine activists on U.S. campuses. If nothing else, these acts of persecution and repression may allow us to recognize that the work that we do in the university context is deeply consequential. Birzeit also prompts comparisons to campus activism and the Black Student Union at UCLA in the late 1960s (and COINTELPRO’s infiltration of the BSU, leading to the murder of Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins Jr.), the student movements at City College and Columbia, and the many other attempts to turn universities into “permanent bases of resistance.”[1]

But Kan’an is forced to leave the university behind to go into hiding. Kan’an’s solitary and monotonous life underground defies expectations for revolutionary activity, often conceived as directly confrontational, embedded, and active, if not violent. While his relegation to the confines of a series of safe houses resembles a condensation of the logic of enclosure dictating life in occupied Palestine, the spaces become “liberated territory,” small bubbles of freedom in an occupied land. In these spaces, Kan’an’s revolutionary work takes the form of writing. He writes and reads, smokes and waits. In his waiting, Kan’an reminds himself that “sumud also means to be still and await the coming advancement.” Spending his days writing communiqués and pamphlets and tracts for the party, adhering to the letter to the strictures that he has been ordered to follow, Kan’an becomes a revolutionary through language.

In this sense, the extraordinary lives of the text that Rafeedie has written—its successive smugglings in body and bread—are not merely incidental or anecdotal; rather, they describe an embodied relationship to language that pervades the novel itself. When the party first communicates the terms of his confinement, the language strikes Kan’an as “condensed words, abstract, deaf words, dry words fitting for a report.” Repeated in bold throughout the novel like a mantra, these same words eventually “become concrete in his daily life and seared into his skin.” The transformation of language from abstract to lived and embodied coincides with a transvaluation of his sentencing: from a mandate, it becomes a choice that carries a particular freedom. This transformation reaches an apotheosis during the assault by the Occupation on Kan’an’s safe house. His first act in this final standoff is to retreat to his hidden cave with his “secret papers,” and prepare himself to burn them if the Occupation forces enter. These papers were his only companion, the record of his secret life, and the medium that connected him to his people’s struggle: “They were teeming with life, archives of struggle… They intensified his political life, laying it out in those smooth, soft, line-filled pages. Kan’an would not surrender them even if the enemy pointed a gun at his head. How can one surrender part of his body to anyone?” Waiting until the last moment to burn them, the fire fails, and Kan’an resorts to stuffing the papers in his mouth and shredding them with his teeth until they go down. The act literalizes frequent invocations of his books and papers as “sustenance” and “nourishment,” and achieves a final joining of contradictions: self and revolutionary work, theory and praxis, body and language, official stance and the vacillations and doubts of the “inner self.”

In this upside-down world where imprisonment is freedom, the only thing truly strange and alien is the occupation itself. In a surreal inversion after Kan’an’s capture, we encounter its agents primarily through their footwear: “an unsightly collection of sneakers, leather shoes, and combat boots” that swarm around Kan’an while he lies face down on the floor with his limbs bound. Their loss of soul is so profound that the footwear becomes the subject. That is, it is the footwear, not the subject, that acts: “The sneaker is surrounding me, his knife is tearing up my world and my memories. The boot is unhinging the doors of my life, flipping it upside down. Its toe is pressing on the reservoirs of my short-term memories and spilling over into my present. You want the shoe to take down my affidavit, my confession, and ask me to sign it? Forget it.” Combat boots and sneakers indicate distinct roles (combat boots are foot soldiers, brute force, young and inexperienced; sneakers are intelligence officers) with so-called identities and subjectivities whittled down and shaped to fit. Subjects are reduced to nothing more than their military-issued objects, their gestures restricted to those which the objects dictate: cut, stomp, tear, kick.

Kan’an remains unyielding throughout this assault. “There is no alternative to resistance,” he reminds us, addressing a lover in his memory. “Our day will come, I don’t know when, but it will come, and our efforts will not be wasted.”

While you read The Trinity of Fundamentals (which you should), I want you to think about these words—a life—smuggled in orifices, accumulating accretions, carried by body after body after body. Consider the body of the text, the text as a body and a life, a “secret life” that refused to allow itself to be desecrated by the Occupation. Think of Rafeedie’s/Kan’an’s life’s words taken like the eucharist, first by himself and then by comrades. (The eucharist metaphor is not out of place: Kan’an was raised Christian and, in his isolation, develops a personal religion based around the “three fundamentals”—life, love, and revolution.) And then think of the libraries, personal and public, bombed in Gaza, paper shredded and illegible;[2] and the master’s and doctoral theses sold for cooking fires on the streets in Rafah, scant fuel for scanter food.[3]

While I read, a prayer takes form in my mind: May our words become flesh. May we live by them.

[1] Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, “Living in the Lion’s Mouth: the UCLA Murders (1968-1969),” Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (London and New York: Verso, 2020), 440.

[2] https://www.instagram.com/p/C3FV0WyI9KW/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igsh=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==; https://librarianswithpalestine.org/gaza-report-2024/

[3] From an Instagram post that I can no longer find.

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