When I get out of the taxi I see him. Lost in thought, he sprays an orange tree with water. “Good afternoon!” exclaims my father. My uncle, Bassam, turns around and drives his wheelchair down the mountain to greet us. He smiles. He has a special smile that lives up to his name. I bend over to kiss him, his cheek feels clammy. I cherish this memory. Today, a year ago, not only my uncle, but also a Palestinian national icon passed away.
Bassam Shaka’a is married to my father’s sister. In 1976, he was elected mayor of Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He once told me that if his family had not lost their land and orange groves in the war of 1948, he would have become a farmer.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he led strikes, demonstrations, and civil disobedience against the construction of settlements with other elected Palestinian mayors. The Israeli military administration responded with collective punishment. Schools were closed, people were arrested en masse and the city was regularly banned by general curfews. The Israeli authorities tried to deport him in vain. In 1980 he lost both legs in a bomb attack by a terrorist organization involving Israeli settlers.
Born in the Netherlands, Palestine and the oppression of its people entered my life clearly when I was six years old. When we heard the news of the attack on his life, I remember seeing him on the news. Lying in a hospital bed. We heard his words:
‘They have taken my legs off me, but this only means that I am closer to my country. I have my heart, my head and a just cause to fight for. I don’t need my legs.’
After returning from the hospital, his popularity had increased enormously. To limit his freedom of expression, the Israeli military administration placed him under house arrest and the other elected mayors were fired.
In every visit, Bassam was not only my uncle, he also became my teacher. He taught me more about Palestine and Nablus than anyone else in the world could do. Even more important, he taught me the true meaning of freedom. He made me fall in love with the city and its people. He taught me about the meaning of politics — a vehicle and an instrument one needs to learn how to use for the good and the right thing to do. He learned me that one can learn from every experience, good or bad. And he told me once that if he wouldn’t have become active in politics, he actually preferred to be among the farmers on the land, his beloved land.
He told me how important it is to be united when one struggles against oppression. For as long as Palestinians have resisted policies against them, successive powers have tried to undermine their unity and foment divisions. He warned against this. And he proved to be right.
Bassam Shaka’a was critical not only of Israeli actions but also of the Palestinian leadership. According to him, the Palestinian Authority created division rather than freedom and self-determination. In addition, he was extremely critical of its corruption.
In 1999, the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat placed him under house arrest for signing a petition calling for an end to corruption. Bassam didn’t want to rule over anyone, and he didn’t want anyone to rule over him. He was independent and steadfast but above all a national compass for generations of Palestinians. Not only did he witness oppression but also resistance to oppression, not only injustice, but he also saw how his people struggled each in their own way to put an end to injustice. He told me that action should always be based on those possibilities you read in histories different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties.
I admired his optimism. It was based not on wishful thinking but on his view that in times of injustice there is always resistance against injustice, not just silence in the face of tyranny but defiance. He taught me that history is full of instances where people, against enormous challenges, have come together to struggle for freedom, and won, not often enough but enough to know how much is possible.
He showed that there are always human beings who will step out of line and do something good, however small. And even the smallest, most unheroic of acts adds to the pile that may be ignited by some surprising circumstance into tumultuous change. This is not just wishful thinking but has been proven all through history. He showed me how often we have been surprised by the sudden emergence of a people’s movement, the sudden overthrow of tyranny and oppression, the sudden speaking out when people are silenced.
There is always the human potential for change: the suppressed indignation, the common sense, the need for community, the love of children, the patience to wait for the right moment to act, in concert with others. Bassam Shaka’a was not only loved by his people, but he himself was a man of the people. His wisdom will continue to inspire and be a compass for many generations.