Hope in the midst of despair: Lessons from keynoter Sa’ed Atshan

Author: Grace Sullivan

On April 12 and 13, the 2024 Notre Dame Student Peace Conference sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies grappled with the theme “Peace by Piece: Disrupting Dualities in Peacebuilding.” This year’s keynote speaker, anthropologist Sa’ed Atshan, delivered an inspiring presentation titled “On Faith, Peace, and Justice: Reflections from a Queer Palestinian Quaker” that drew on his personal experiences to offer ways to remain hopeful during times of despair.

While calling to de-exceptionalize the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Atshan shined a light on the specific issues within Israel/Palestine and cast it out to illuminate how many of the issues within this conflict exist in the context of the global processes we see throughout the world. From the military-industrial complex to settler colonialism, these issues of injustice are prevalent all around us. In the conversation surrounding his personal experiences of injustice in Palestine, Dr. Atshan beautifully articulated what it means to be a queer Palestinian that has intrinsically wrestled with survivor's guilt while also wanting to be a force for change. He describes moments where he questioned:

“Why do I get to be alive? Why do I get to be free? Why do I get to have a voice when so many are voiceless?”

In the same breath, he explained how he has coped with these feelings by striving for inner peace so he can enact meaningful change in the world. To create this change, we must remain hopeful that it will occur. Atshan shared a Cornel West quote, saying, “Hope is not the same as optimism. [...] Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against [oppression]. [...] To live is to wrestle with despair yet never to allow despair to have the last word.” By tracing his personal experience through themes of sanctuaries, spirituality and ancestors, Atshan critically analyzed how these spaces, both physical and intrinsic, can cultivate hope.

Atshan described how people have always found ways to survive in apocalyptic conditions. While this is true in the literal physical sense, it is also true in the preservation of the mind and soul. One of these sanctuaries in Palestine is the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker school that has existed in Palestine for more than 100 years. As a former student there, Atshan follows the importance of education in cultivating the mind and instilling hope throughout his academic journey. He has received a BA at Swarthmore College, a master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a joint Ph.D. in anthropology and middle eastern studies and an MA in social anthropology from Harvard University. He then went on in his professional career as a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University and returned to Swarthmore College where he is currently an associate professor of peace and conflict studies and anthropology. Additionally, Atshan was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Collegium of Scholars at Morehouse College.

Spiritually, Atshan found hope through his faith. Atshan emphasizes how he did not choose to be Palestinian, but he did choose to be Quaker. With the core values of pacifism and equality, Atshan found a community that emphasized peace amid chaos. He described moments when he could hear sounds of war during the First Intifada all around him while being in the deeply spiritual place of a Quaker church.

To stay grounded, Atshan describes how he rests on the shoulders of his ancestors. Figures from civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin to the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt influenced Atshan’s views on human rights and the value of social theory. The ancestor he holds closest is his grandfather, who he described as a critical thinker who understood Palestine as a pluralistic place. Unfortunately, his grandfather lost his carefully cultivated personal library in the Nakba, or “the catastrophe.” Atshan describes how his love of literature and academia has served as a way to stay close to his grandfather.

Currently, Gaza is suffering from a “scholasticide”: the utter destruction of all universities, the murder of many deans and professors and the destruction of historical archives and libraries. Additionally, the complete erasure of academic spaces, scholars, and intellectual resources means there is not one person who is enrolled in school. In the United States, academia is under threat in a different way. With ongoing gun violence, “Don’t Say Gay” bills and freedom of speech related to Palestine under threat, we are witnessing a moment where the sacred sanctuaries of academia are being exploited and erased. To cope with this reality, Atshan poses ten ways we can remain hopeful in the midst of all the destruction erupting around us:

  1. Be true to ourselves and our values while maintaining more consistency in our values surrounding peace and justice.
  2. Lead a life of meaning and purpose.
  3. Count your blessings: do not take anything for granted.
  4. Refusing to look away and bearing witness to suffering.
  5. Praxis in being action oriented in the world: If you see injustice you must change it with your hands, if you cannot you must change it with your tongue, if not then with your heart.
  6. Seek out our chosen and given families while cultivating community support.
  7. Build sanctuaries
  8. Cultivate spiritual practice.
  9. Connect with your ancestors.
  10. Give yourself permission to dance.

Atshan’s authenticity and generosity in sharing his personal experiences to emphasize the importance of sanctuaries, spirituality and ancestry was one of the most impactful things I have had the privilege of witnessing. We must remain critical of how the world operates around us while cultivating hope that change is possible. While change takes time, Atshan reminds us to cultivate a practice of patience in the gradual generation of global change. By using physical and intrinsic sacred spaces to support our endeavors, we can develop the ability to recognize the pain and suffering in the world and actively fight against injustice all while remaining hopeful that change will occur. Atshan shared the wise words of the Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran: “The deeper sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.” He concluded his presentation by stating how we must feel the deep pain and anguish that permeates our world while holding onto faith that this cavity can be filled with joy. For there is a reason hope is the bedrock of human existence, it is what keeps us alive.

Check out Dr. Atshan’s book, “Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique.”

Originally published at ndsmcobserver.nd.edu on April 24, 2024.