Sunday, October 30, 2005

"We Are Not Simply Martyrs!"

Mohammed spoke with Gaza's youngest imam last week. The interview was published in Morgenbladet (in Norwegian) on 28 October.

"May I speak with Mr. Amjad please?"

I was telephoning to arrange an interview and discovered Gaza's most popular celebrity answers his own phone. "Mr. Amjad?" I repeated.

" Sheikh Amjad, please," he corrected me.

Amjad Abu Sido can properly be called an honorary Sheikh at the age of thirteen, a rare, but not unheard-of achievement in the Islamic world. In a culture where reciting the Holy Quran is not just a devotional act but an art form, many children start learning the sacred texts by heart at an early age. A few with unusual diligence and a gift for oratory memorize all 114 suras (chapters) by their early teens and are often called "Sheikh."

Impressive as that may be, young Sheikh Amjad has far exceeded that achievement and stunned a congregation of hundreds in a Gaza City mosque last week when he preached the principal sermon at Friday midday prayers. The slender boy, barely five feet tall, appeared in an imam's long white tunic and turban in the pulpit normally reserved for the most senior preachers and mesmerized an overflow crowd. Letting a thirteen-year-old have the central place at Friday prayers during the holy month of Ramadan is an extraordinary honor, but perhaps an inevitable result of Abu Sido's yearlong rise to fame.

It all began when Sheikh Amjad, a pupil in a private religious school, read a short essay he had written in front of his class. His teachers were so impressed with his mastery of classical Arabic and his delivery, that they arranged for him to give a short talk at the local mosque. Other invitations quickly followed, and soon there were many from all over Gaza who traveled to hear him wherever he preached. Last week, if it seemed incongruous when the revered imam, Sheikh Abu Fathi Lafi 67, called for praying Azzan at Al Julani mosque in Gaza City, then yielded the pulpit to a boy who still speaks with a child's voice, there was no lack of maturity in the young Sheikh's words. In impeccably crafted Arabic, he urged the worshippers to seek justice and solidarity within Palestinian society, while warning them against hypocrisy.

Afterward, Raed Said, one of the worshippers, said, "I found his thoughts and his presentation very moving. We should all be proud to have such a splendid young imam. Frankly, I think he's much better than some very experienced and famous preachers!" Nidal Issa, an official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Gaza said his ministry decided to allow Sheikh Amjad to preach on Fridays because "he is a sound boy, an excellent speaker, and a strong personality." Abu Sido has a full calendar of speaking engagements in Gaza for months ahead.

Abu Sido himself, however, wears his fame lightly. "It makes me happy when people come to the mosque to hear me, or any preacher." And he is quick to explain that his role model is the late Sheikh Abdel Hamid Keshek, a famous Egyptian imam, whose sermons and lectures, preserved on tape, he has studied exhaustively. "I'm deeply inspired by him, a knight of the pen and the platform. It's no secret that I'm always trying to imitate his mannerisms," he says. "I admire his courage in carrying the truth, his patience, his deep kindness. And his delivery is so strong, people are moved even by hearing him on tape, years after his death." Sheikh Amjad, however, back up impressive stage presence with his own scholarship. He has obviously thought deeply on Islamic issues, and has memorized most of the Holy Noble Quran, plus the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. "But any talents I may have," he says, "are gifts from God."

Sheikh Amjad comes from a poor family in the western part of Gaza City, the son of a taxi driver. His parents divorced years ago and his father has remarried. "My father can help us only a very little," he explains. "He has his own financial difficulties." Lately, the Ministry of Religious Affairs have been giving him a stipend of US$110 every few months, which the Sheikh shares with his mother to cover their household expenses.

It is a surprisingly humble setting for someone who is fast becoming a magnet for international media attention. The European press, even the Israeli newspapers, have written about him, although he considers the latter a mixed blessing. "The Jerusalem Post said I'm a Hamas member—I am not," he said sternly. "Another Israeli paper called me a member of Islamic Jihad—I am not. I am independent of politics and factions, and I intend to stay that way." .

While the Sheikh never preaches about politics, the Occupation and all its ramifications touch his life as much as any Palestinian's. One of his dreams, the Sheikh admits, is for the Ministry of Religious Affairs to get him a permit to travel to Jerusalem and preach at Islam's third holiest site, the Al Aqsa Mosque. And, he said, he hopes for the release of Palestinian political prisoners and the end of the Occupation. Someday, he added, he hopes to finish his theological studies in South Arabia.

More immediately, he says, it would be wonderful if he could afford an internet connection—a dream completely at odds with his family's very slender income. But surely, a thirteen-year-old, even a thirteen-year-old Sheikh, can be allowed an impractical dream. "After all," he laughs, "I'm still a child!"

Ironically, Sheikh Amjad may have a better chance of fulfilling a more serious ambition: He would like to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "I want to tell him," he says, "that among our young people are many potential sheikhs, young geniuses. All of them should have encouragement and the opportunity to develop their talents. The children of Palestine are not simply martyrs!"


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