His story starts with the young Yousef being stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, arrested, taken to an Israeli prison and beaten: Israelis being horrid to Palestinians, a familiar motif.
We then move to the story of his grandfather, Sheikh Yousef Dawood, iman of the village of Al-Jainya (population about 400) in Jordanian-ruled, Israeli-occupied West Bank and Mosab’s father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, the favourite son who followed his own father, Sheik Hassan, into being an Islamic cleric. As Mosab explains, being a religious leader in Islam is a very broad and authoritative social role:
Because values and traditions have always meant more to the Aranb people than government constitutions and courts, men like my grandfather often became the highest level of authority. Especially in areas where secular leaders were weak or corrupt, the word of a religious leader was considered law (p.7).Mosab’s father was assigned to a mosque in the city of Ramallah, where religious observance was very lax. He worked hard, with limited success, to build up the mosque. Sheik Hassan then sent his son to Jordan, for more advanced Islamic study (Pp5-8).
Mosab then takes us through the history of the Muslim Brotherhood; its founding by Hassan al-Banna, its struggles with the Egyptian monarchy, its involvement in Nasser’s coup and its suppression by Nasser. We get a sense of the power and effectiveness of the organisation based on the side of Islam that cares for widows, orphans and the poor, that engages in welfare and facilitates education as well as that side which leads to jihad (Pp9-11). Mosab’s father was trained in Jordan by the Muslim Brotherhood, energised and engaged by the positive side of Islam. Mosab doubts that his father has ever allowed himself to see the other side of Islam:
Islamic life is like a ladder, with prayer and praising Allah as the bottom rung. The higher rungs represent helping the poor and needy, establishing schools, and supporting charities. The highest rung is jihad (Pp11-12).Muslims vary where they are on the ladder:
Traditional Muslims stand at the food of the ladder, living in guilt for not really practising Islam. At the top are fundamentalists, the ones you see in the news killing women and children for the glory of the god of the Qur’an. Moderates are somewhere in between.Mosab never felt able to talk to his father about where what he had sought had led, such not being done in his culture.
A moderate Muslim is actually more dangerous than a fundamentalist, however, because he appears to be harmless, and you can never tell when he has taken that next step towards the top. Most suicide bombers began as moderates (p.12).
Then it is on to 1977-1987, when Mosab’s father was at the forefront of trying to breathe life into the stagnated Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. Mosab’s father married the sister of one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, who had come to Palestine with Mosab’s father. Mosab was born, the first of several children. We are introduced to the tragedy of permanent refugee camps: places not built to function properly because they are only “temporary”—physical inadequacy creating social dysfunction breeding pathological, grievance politics. Consider Al-Amari covering about 22 acres, one of 19 West Bank camps:
By 1957, its weathered tents have been replaced by wall-to-wall, back-to-back concrete houses. Streets were the width of a car, their gutters flowing with raw sewage like rivers of sludge. The camp was overcrowded; the water undrinkable. One lone tree stood at the center of the camp. The refugees depended on the United Nations for everything—housing, food, clothing, medical care, and education (Pp13-14).Reading Son of Hamas, it becomes clear that one of the fundamental failures of Israeli policy has been failing to provide avenues for Palestinians to develop aspirations beyond the politics of grievance. (That UN, Arab and EU policy have all conspired to do the same is true, but beside the point—Israel bears the consequences far more than any of them.)
Mosab’s father, living simply on a limited income, was successful in reinvigorating the local mosque. In 1987, he took a second job teaching Muslim students in a private West Bank Christian school. His wife raised their six children (four sons, two daughters). Mosab briefly tells the story of his upbringing, raised in love, admiring his father greatly, the enormous local cemetery looming over his neighbourhood (Pp13-18).
Then it is back to the Muslim Brotherhood. It having expanded to include many educated and professional folk, a dispute erupted between the Gazan and the West Bank leaders, the former wanting to take a stand against Israeli occupation the latter not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria where attempted coups had led to great repression. In 1986, a secret meeting in Hebron of seven people, including Mosab’s father, founded HAMAS, deciding to take the next step of civil disobedience. Mosab describes this as his father taking a few more steps up the ladder of Islam (Pp18-20).
Hamas was looking for a pretext to start an uprising. It came in typical Middle Eastern style, via a tragic misunderstanding. An Israeli was stabbed to death, four Palestinians died in a traffic accident, the rumour spread that they were killed in retaliation and the First Intifada was sparked off (p.21).
Mosab’s father is arrested by the Israelis and Mosab flirts with becoming a stone-throwing adolescent. The detention of Hamas leaders fails to suppress the Intifada, which becomes more violent: Palestine, and particularly Gaza, being a land with many grievances but a dearth of alternative aspirations. (And some of the resistance tactics seem to be designed to increase grievances and frustrate alternative aspirations, such as school strikes.)
Mosab contrasts the PLO, (“even as a young boy, I saw the PLO as corrupt and self-serving” [.p33]) and Hamas, which was rising in power and influence. The arrest of Mosab’s father meant his family lost the extra income he earned teaching Muslim students at a Christian school; the family struggled on little income with little or no support. His father was released, and they used Mosab mother’s dowry gold to buy a house: his father was to be continually re-arrested and released, putting the family under great strain. The Intifada became increasingly violent, as younger, more radical activists demanded blood for those (largely teenagers) killed by Israeli soldiers: Israel now faced attacks from within its own borders (Pp34ff).
The kidnapping and murder of an Israeli border policeman led to a massive Israeli crackdown on Hamas, which saw Mosab’s father deported to Lebanon. Mosab’s family were not cut off from Mosab’s father, except for occasional glimpses on news bulletins. The deportation led to Hamas and Hezbollah forging links (p.51). Then came the profound shock and surprise of the Oslo Accords, which polls found were strongly supported by Palestinians, but not Mosab’s father, who trusted neither the PLO nor the Israelis (p.52).
Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 worshippers in a Hebron mosque while wearing his IDF uniform set off further cries for vengeance and was followed by the first official suicide bombing (Pp53-4). Arafat and the PLO made a pragmatic argument for the Oslo Accords as the best deal available in adverse circumstances: Hamas remained opposed (Pp55-6).
Mosab explains that Hamas was not an organisation in the conventional sense, “it was a ghost, an idea”. Gaoling, or even killing, its leaders did nothing to stop its growth. While the PLO was ultimately a nationalist body, seeking a national solution:
Hamas, on the other hand, Islamized the Palestinian problem, making it a religious problem. And this problem could be resolved only with a religious solution, which meant that it could never be resolved because we believed that the land belonged to Allah. End of discussion. Thus for Hamas, the ultimate problem was not Israel’s policies. It was the nation-state Israel’s very existence (p.58).Mosab asked his father about a suicide bombing that had killed many civilians, including women and children. His father replied with a story about being unable to kill an insect. Suicide bombing was not something he would do himself, but he could rationalise somebody else doing it. “At that moment, my view of my father grew much more complicated” (p.59).
The assassination of Rabin, Arafat’s negotiation partner, led to the PLO repressing Hamas, imprisoning many of its leader and activists—including Mosab’s father in Arafat’s compound. Hating Israel and secular Palestinians, Mosab moved to trying to get guns. The classmate involved with him was stupid enough to talk about the guns (which turned out not to work) on the phone. He and Mosab were both arrested (Pp61ff).
In prison Mosab was tortured (fairly lightly, by the grim standards of the Middle East). Then he is interrogated, politely and respectfully, over a decent meal, by Loai, the Shin Bet captain for his area, before being moved into solitary confinement for days. Loai offers him the opportunity to work for Shin Bet, which Mosab accepts as making the best of a bad situation. Mosab continues to be imprisoned, ending up in Megiddo prison, dominated by Hamas (the various Palestinian organisations police their own inmates). Mosab’s story becomes a prison story, detailing the fetid prison atmosphere of fear and suspicion. He comes the clerk for the internal Hamas files on inmates, attempting to identify collaborators. Files that were highly pornographic, detailing bizarre sexual confessions (Pp98-9). He sees Islam at its most unattractive:
… the Muslims I saw in Megiddo bore no resemblance to my father. They judged people as if they thought they were greater than Allah himself. They were mean and petty, blocking a television screen to prevent us seeing a bareheaded actress. They were bigots and hypocrites, torturing those who got too many red points—though only the weakest, most vulnerable people seem to accumulate those points. Prisoners who were well connected walked with immunity (p.106).Mosab’s father was released from Palestinian Authority detention, to be imprisoned by the Israelis in Megiddo prison. Mosab is sentenced and released at the end of his term.
Two months later, he is contacted by Loai. In various highly secure safe houses, he is simply engaged in conversation about life in general. He is steadily trained, experiencing it as a process of Shin Bet “building him up”, paid some money and then given his first assignment: go to university and get his bachelor’s degree. The Shin Bet staff are polite and respectful, including of his religion: he finds the person Loai most resembles is his father. Mosab’s worldview is profoundly shaken (Pp113ff).
Then, literally at Suleiman the Magnificent’s Damascus Gate in Jerusalem (where Saul of Tarsus had his famous visionary encounter), Mosab encounters an Arabic-speaking Brit who gets him interested in a Bible study group. The New Testament in Arabic becomes his reading companion, along with attendance at the study group and church services. The contrast between the morality of the Gospels, and the religious engagement of his new Christian friends, with his experience of Islam is a revelation that steadily eats away at him over the next few years (Pp119ff).
This review is concluded in my next post.