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Budour Hassan: Telling Jerusalem’s Untold Stories

We first encountered Budour Hassan on May 13, 2022, during the funeral of assassinated Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. As the crowd of mourners slowly moved from the Old City church in Jaffa Gate toward the Latin cemetery on Mount Zion, a woman’s voice pierced the silence: “Ma khli’na n‘ish bithul—khli’na n‘ish bi-huriyya.

Within seconds, the crowd passionately repeated the chant that they had not been created to live in humiliation but rather to live in freedom. The chanter switched lines as though pulling from a deck of cards, going from one Arabic rhyming chant to another in a strong, loud, and unshaken call.

The voice was striking. Turning to locate it, we found that the voice came from a young woman wearing sunglasses. She was blind, but she seemed to know exactly where she was going. In fact, she was the one leading the crowd forward.

This young woman was Budour Hassan.

Feature Story Revered Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh Is Laid to Rest as Evidence Mounts of a Targeted Killing

From symbol to legend: The life, untimely and violent death, and historic burial of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh

Headshot of Bodour Hassan

Budour Hassan

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Arda Aghazarian for Jerusalem Story

International Law and Human Rights

Hassan, 33, is an articulate legal researcher and writer who moved from her hometown of Mashhad (northwest of Nazareth) to study law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008.

“Back then, the experience was overwhelming,” she recalled when we met with her some weeks later. Hassan has two sisters and a brother, and although her family supported her move, they were initially concerned about her living in Jerusalem. After all, she was a 19-year-old female blind student moving to a volatile city. Roaming the streets of Jerusalem intimidates even those with perfect vision. Of her family, she said, “They opposed my path at first; none of them are quite as rebellious as I am.” Still, she insisted.

“When I first came to Jerusalem,” Hassan related, “I was in shock.” Although she had grown up in the north, she had not been exposed to such direct confrontation with the Israeli military and police. “Independence is not so easy,” she shared, referring to both her personal journey as well as the national struggle, yet from Hassan’s voice, it is clear that she is not one to be easily intimidated. Not only did she manage to complete a law degree, but she would also pursue an MA in international law (also from the Hebrew University). In 2017, she began working as a legal researcher at the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC). She resigned in 2022 to join Amnesty International as a researcher.

Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC)

A center that advocates for Palestinian rights in for Palestinians in Jerusalem

“When I first came to Jerusalem [from Mashhad], I was in shock.”

Budour Hassan

Hassan has established a name for herself as a legal researcher, writer, and speaker. On May 13, 2021, she appeared on “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman and described how Palestinians are resisting decades-long settler colonialism and fragmentation. She participated in various local as well as international high-level sessions on human rights in Palestine. In June 2021, she spoke on behalf of the International Service for Human Rights at the 30th Special Session of the UN Rights Council.

Giving Voice to Untold Stories

Hassan is passionate about storytelling, which she finds therapeutic. “They never sat us down for therapy,” she said. “As Palestinians, we consider mental health as a luxury, but in fact, we are not healthy as a peoplewe have a huge amount of pain. We have many issues. We as Palestinians are collectively damaged.” Telling these stories, she explained, is therefore a powerful tool by which oppressed and traumatized people can regain their sense of agency, capture their own narrative, and share it in the communal space.

She finds her haven in literature and poetry, which help her writing. She takes comfort in the classics—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolfe, and Tolstoy are among her favorites—and draws courage from reading African American and Latin American writers.

Hassan writes to bring to light untold stories, such as those of Palestinian shuhada and detainees. While there is no shortage of either, the public generally hears about only a few.

Hassan also investigates the circumstances surrounding the withholding by Israel of Palestinian corpses killed during attacks on Israeli soldiers or settlers or merely suspected of committing them, a practice that Israel unofficially halted in 2004 and then officially and openly resumed in October 20151 and that the Supreme Court upheld in 2019.2 From that point up to July 2022, according to local sources that track these data, Israel has withheld 104 Palestinian corpses of Palestinians, much of which remain in freezers at the morgue for some putative future use as bargaining chips.3 

Hassan also draws attention to the approximately 250 other individuals who have been buried by Israel in the “cemeteries of numbers” where their only identification mark is a number on a metal plaque.4 The cemeteries are closed military zones; the public is banned from entering. This practice, she points out, denies families a fundamental human right and violates burial traditions as the final act of respect that can be accorded to the dead. As Hassan put it in an article she wrote for ROAR magazine:

Hassan is passionate about storytelling.

Refusing to return corpses of Palestinian martyrs is part of this war on Palestinian memory, as Israel seeks to turn the dead into numbers and to prevent Palestinians from celebrating them as heroes. The policy, however, has completely backfired: withholding the bodies has created a strong bond among martyrs’ families and has only increased people’s respect for the martyrs’ sacrifices.5

Hassan wrote a research report for JLAC about the Israeli policy of withholding Palestinian bodies titled, “The Warmth of Our Sons: Necropolitics, Memory, and the Palestinian Right to Mourn.”

Hassan also writes about the overall struggle of Jerusalemite Palestinians to live as families in their own homes, largely due to Israeli policies that prevent family unification, deny residency rights to children, and withhold building permits (see Precarious Status).

As well, Hassan writes about regional (e.g., Syria, Algeria) and global (e.g., South America) issues pertaining to human and women’s rights.

Her avid reading may explain the natural flow of her words as she expresses herself eloquently in both English and Arabic. Hassan has written for various media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Jadaliyya, Middle East Eye, Huffington Post, 7iber, Bidayat Magazine, Mada Masr, and Electronic Intifada. She also has her own blog, “Random Shelling.” 

Being a blind journalist is admittedly challenging. In a 2016 interview with al-Jazeera, Hassan said, “People are surprised that someone can be blind and a journalist.” But she compensates for her lack of sight by acute listening. “I’ve learned to become a very good listener,” she said. “I focus on their voice, on their words, the lilt of their voice—the very small details that I imagine if you focused on someone’s face too much, you could miss.”6

Hassan writes to bring to light untold stories.

Popular Resistance

Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral was hardly the first Jerusalem funeral that Hassan attended. In fact, exactly 11 years earlier, Milad ‘Ayyash, a 17-year-old boy, was shot during a demonstration in Silwan commemorating the Nakba; he died the next day. The Israeli policeman who shot him was questioned, and the case was quickly closed.7 Hassan joined in the demonstrations protesting the teenager’s murder.

Hassan participated in several key demonstrations and events in Jerusalem: the protests against the forcible evictions of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in 2009, the Great March of Return of 2011, and the protests by the Tal‘at feminist movement, which took off in 2019 after the murder of Israa Ghrayeb, 21, by her family in Bethlehem in an “honor” killing. The latter protests denounced both the occupation as well as patriarchy and raised the slogan that “there is no free homeland without free women.”8

A demonstration in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah, March 19, 2021

A demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, March 19, 2021

Credit: 

AFP, Photo by Ahmad Gharabli 

But for Hassan, perhaps the most alarming event she witnessed in the city was the annual Israeli flag march on “Jerusalem Day”:

“The first time I saw this ‘flag march’ was on June 1, 2011. It happened to be a Wednesday,” she remembered. “The forceful way in which Israeli youth barged into Bab al-Amud [Damascus Gate] shouting hateful slurs, calling for the death of Arabs, was horrifying and atrocious.”

After living in Jerusalem for some time, however, Hassan became inured to the city’s harsh reality; it has “become the norm,” she noted.

Flag March in Jerusalem 2022

The flag march in the city on Jerusalem Day, May 29, 2022

Credit: 

Activestills

The Jerusalem Effect

“Jerusalem has a way of changing your plans and expectations,” Hassan reflected on the person she used to be before she moved to the city in 2008. “It shakes you. It does what could resemble a second birth. It not only makes you mature but turns you into a different person altogether. It strips the naivete and innocence from you.”

Hassan was a university freshman when Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008. It came as a surprise to her that “Once war breaks out, there is no left or right wing in Israel. The civilian and the military are the same in this context, because all individuals are required to serve in the military.” She described the Israeli mindset as “an imperialist, colonial, military ideology. Harsh settlers, on the other hand, are more straightforward: They are in your face, with no makeup on.” Meanwhile, the seemingly advanced and politically correct institutions cover a different type of invisible violence; a type of “colonial matrix of domination and control under the guise of security and order.”

Although she was unprepared for (and shocked by) the multifaceted nature of the Israeli colonial apparatus, she identifies a silver lining. She had never before seen the tenacity with which Palestinian Jerusalemites defended their right to live in their city. “They insist on remaining despite all the determined efforts [by Israel] to kick them out.”

“Jerusalem strips the naivete and innocence from you.”

Budour Hassan

Although it is at times suffocating, yet the “little things” in Jerusalem have their own ways of offering comfort, she shared.

She particularly appreciates sitting on the stairs of Bab al-Amud/Damascus Gate while sipping a cup of tea. “Something as simple as a fresh cup of tea or a warm breakfast,” in her opinion, can help a person briefly tune out its brutality. In this way, Hassan finds that Jerusalem “embraces the broken, the exiled, the tired, and the exhausted. Historically, it has accepted all of them,” Hassan stressed: “We have no other place. There is no other place that can give you such a powerful sense of belonging.”

Blog Post A Bab al-Amud Morning

An evocative video vignette that shares the experience of a typical weekday morning on the steps of Bab al-Amud (Damascus Gate) just outside the Old City. Part of our series on Jerusalemites' favorite places in the city.

“There is no other place that can give you such a powerful sense of belonging.”

Budour Hassan

Angry yet Confident

Whether speaking or writing in Arabic or English, Hassan’s voice is powerful. She uses her words carefully, each sentence deliberately crafted. Hearing her speak, her words are precise; her syntax thoughtful. In her writings, she insists that neither she (as a woman with a disability) nor the Palestinian people (as the oppressed) are interested in sympathy.

As a blogger, she identifies herself as an angry woman of color. When asked about her anger, she says: “I did not plan to become this person.” Jerusalem should probably take much of the credit for that: “Jerusalem is brutal. It’s quite hard to live here and not to feel anger about the circumstances.” With that said, she admitted that she had no idea that moving to Jerusalem would boost her self-confidence so dramatically.

“Jerusalem is brutal. It’s quite hard to live here and not to feel anger about the circumstances.”

Budour Hassan

In her blog, Hassan writes about living as a blind young woman. She shares how she had initially been stubborn and refused to use a cane, perhaps out of pride. However, she eventually came to terms with it, and that saved her a lot of hassle. Now she is able to navigate the busy streets by herself.

For those who cannot see, Jerusalem offers plenty of cues for all the senses. “I memorize the places from their scents. There are signs everywhere, from cobbled streets, textures of the roads under one’s feet, to the sounds of the people and the smells in the surroundings.” She cheerfully described her walking path toward the ka‘ek cart near the pharmacy, up to al-Zahra Street beyond St. George Hotel, off to the falafel spot, and on to the dry-cleaning store. She described the smell of the gas on the way, the garbage disposal, the shawarma shop, and the spices, all of which are affirmative hints and clues that guide her in her solitary walks. “This is the type of joy,” she said simply, “that is worth fighting for.”

Hassan is grateful for and appreciative of the collective embrace she experiences during specific moments, such as the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh. The events of that afternoon offered some measure of healing. “Sharing a common space with random yet like-minded people in a meaningful ceremony is such an empowering experience,” she notes. This sense of being “united in our anger” nurtures an exceptional sense of trust in those around us, “as though we are all family.”

Notes

2

Heba Nasser and Shatha Hammad, “Supreme Court Allows Israel to Continue Holding Bodies of Killed Palestinians,” Middle East Eye, September 9, 2019.

3

Bodies or Bargaining Chips? Live with Budour Hassan,” Palestine Deep Dive, accessed June 26, 2022.

4

Kaamil Ahmed, “Mourning the Missing in Israel’s ‘Cemetery of Numbers,’” Middle East Eye, April 20, 2019.

5

Budour Hassan, “Fighting to Bury Their Sons: On the Necropolitics of Occupation,” ROAR, January 24, 2016.

6

Matthew Vikery, "Blind Journalist Seeks Out Palestine's Forgotten Voices," Al Jazeera, March 3, 2016.

8

Hala Marshood and Riya Alsanah, “Tal‘at: A Feminist Movement That Is Redefining Liberation and Reimagining Palestine,” Mondoweiss, February 25, 2020.

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