Khalida Jarrar is a feminist, human rights activist and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. She lives in Ramallah, but has been held by Israel in administrative detention off an on since July of 2015. The following letter was written for the keynote panel of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. You can watch a video recording of the keynote panel here
October 17, 2020
Source: Palestine Writes Literature Festival
From the Israeli Damon prison located at the top of Mount Carmel in Haifa, I extend my greetings to you on behalf of myself and my 40 fellow women Palestinian freedom fighters in Israeli prisons. We extend our salute and due respect is to all writers, scholars, intellectuals and artists who speak the truth and call for the freedom and justice of all people and who defend people’s right to self-determination and oppose the colonial racist domination.
On this occasion, please allow me to also send our greetings and support to all Arab writers, scholars, intellectuals and artists who reject normalization with Israel’s settler colonial system and who have refused to accept the Emirati, Bahraini and Sudanese normalization agreements with the Zionist entity. It is stands such as these that represent the true ties between our people in the Arab world and empower us, prisoners, from within. Although physically we are held captive behind fences and bars, our souls remain free and are soaring in the skies of Palestine and the world. Regardless of the severity of the Israeli occupation’s practices and imposed punitive measures, our free voice will continue to speak out on behalf of our people who have suffered horrendous catastrophes, displacement, occupation and arrests. It will also continue to let the world know of the strong Palestinian Will that will relentlessly reject and challenge colonialism in all its forms. We work to establish and consolidate human values and strive to obtain social and economic liberation that bind the free people of the world together.
Salute to the participants in this closing panel: comrade Angela Davis, colleague and friend Hanan Ashrawi, Richard Falk, the beloved Susan Abulhawa, and Bill V. Mullen.
As for our contribution to this conference, we would like to attempt to bring to you our actual experiences with literature and culture while in Israeli prisons. The most important element in this regard is books. Books constitute the foundation of life in prison. They preserve the psychological and moral balance of the freedom fighters who view their detentions as part of the overall resistance against the colonial occupation of Palestine. Books also play a role in each prisoner’s individual struggle of Will between them and the prisons’ authorities. In other words, the struggle becomes a challenge for Palestinian prisoners as the jailors seek to strip us from our humanity and keep us isolated from the outside world. The challenge for prisoners is to transform our detention into a state of a “cultural revolution” through reading, education and literary discussions.
Palestinian political prisoners face many obstacles in accessing books. For example, books do not reach us at times as they undergo tight control mechanisms and confiscations when brought by a family member. In theory, each woman prisoner is allowed to receive two books per month. However, these books are subject to “scrutiny checks” where, more often than not, they are rejected by the prison administration under the pretext of being incitement books. Depriving prisoners’ access to books is used as a punishment where prisoners are banned from receiving books for two or three months, as I myself experienced in 2017.
The modest library used by the prisoners is also subject to constant inspections in order for prison guards to confiscate any book that may have been brought in without their knowledge. This prompts prisoners to come up with creative means to protect books that are likely to be seized. Preventing books from being captured by prison authorities constitutes one of the most important tasks for prisoners.
With this in mind, Palestinian women prisoners succeeded in sneaking in a number of great books, despite the strict constrictions. For example, in addition to some philosophy and history books, many of Ghassan Kanfani’s books, Ibrahim Nasr-Allah and Suzan Abu-Alhawa’s works were among those that were successfully accessed and studied by prisoners. Maxim Gorky’s novel “The Mother” became a comfort to women prisoners who are deprived from their mothers’ love. The works of Domitila Chúngara, Abd-Arahman Munif, Al-Taher Wattar, Ahlam Mustaghanmi, Mahmoud Darwish, Elif Shafak’s “The Forty Rules of Love”, Les Miserable by Victor Hugo, Nawal El Saadawi, Sahar Khalifeh, Edward Said, Angela Davis and Albert Camus’s books all are among the most enjoyed books that dodged inspections and were successfully smuggled.
However, books such as “Notes from the Gallows” by Julius Fučík and Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” were never able to escape the jailers’ measures and restrictions. As a matter fact, none of Gramsci’s books were allowed into prisons due to what seems to be a very hostile stance by the occupation authorities towards Gramsci.
On the brighter side of our lives, some books written by prisoners inside prisons were able to sneak their way through to us, one of which speaks about the imprisonment and interrogation experiences in Israeli prisons, entitled “You are Not Alone”. What I am trying to say, my dear artists and writers, is that your books that are displayed in book stores worldwide are subject to pursuit and confiscation by Israel’s occupation prison authorities if we attempt to access them — your books here are arrested like our people are.
Access to books is not the only struggle facing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. I will attempt to give you a sneak view of our lives, keep in mind however, that our Will requires of us to remain strong as steel.
Israeli prison authorities impose oppressive measures on a daily basis demonstrated by applying isolation policies through solitary confinement. They also deprive us of family visits, prevent entry of cultural & literary books, and completely ban educational books. They also ban singing in all its forms. Revolutionary and regular songs are banned.
Furthermore, we are not allowed to buy more than the one radio we have access to. The radio is an important source of information that connects us to the outside world by delivering the world news. But the radio is more than that to us…It is a tool that connects us with our families and friends as they call-in and send messages through the various Palestinian radio programs.
Israeli prison authorities also do not allow any type of assembly or gathering. They continuously punish women prisoners through reducing items that can be purchased from the “Canteen”; the only “store” available.
Prisoners are continuously monitored through scrutiny of surveillance cameras that surround every corner of the prison, including the (Al-Forah) square. This square is where women prisoners are allowed to feel the sun for five intermittent hours each day outside their locked rooms and steel windows. Our rooms are also subject to rigorous and provocative inspections at all hours of the night or day in search of any piece of paper with writing on it. You can imagine how difficult it was for me to get this note out to you.
All of the above and more forces us to device various methods to thwart these policies. Some details and items may seem trivial outside prison, but hold great importance for us women prisoners inside. For example, the pen is important, the paper is important and books are considered a treasure. All of which constitute tools used as part of our survival and struggle against the occupation, and also to develop ourselves.
On a happier note, we find that many prisoners despite struggles mentioned, especially those with high sentences, have enriched literature by publishing novels, which I hope will earn the attention of Arab and international writers. In addition, the Prisoners’ Movement has published a number of studies and researches that shed light on the reality of conditions in Israeli prisons. I myself have conducted a study in 2016 while in prison on “the State of Women Prisoners in Israeli Prisons”. The study focused on the effects and violations against Palestinian women and children prisoners inside prisons. In 2019, I prepared another paper on “Education inside Israeli Prisons”, which was published in Ramzy Baroud’s book on education and women prisoners entitled “These Chains Will be Broken”.
Unfortunately, I have not seen the published version of the book due to my current re-arrest. In the mentioned paper, I presented the challenges education faces in prison, one of which being Israel’s persistence in preventing us to carry out any educational process in prison. Their aim is clearly to isolate prisoners, both men and women, and to break us by transforming us into individuals with no hopes or plans for a decent future. Prisoners, on the other hand, give their utmost to thwart attempts of the prison authorities through innovating creative methods to gain the right to education.
We are now seeking to start university education for the first round of women prisoners, as a second stage of our struggle to claim the right to education. This will mark the first time in history where Palestinian women prisoners, especially those with high sentences, are able to earn a university degree while in prison. In the near future, an update will be available on this subject including challenges faced.
Part of the university educational program is based on integrating Palestinian, Arab and international educational experiences through resistance literature. The program will also include research and scientific studies available to us in prison in an attempt to deepen women prisoners’ analytical capabilities and to identify their ambitions for their future.
The whole initiative aims to inspire and strengthen women prisoners’ self-confidence by encouraging them to consider the prison a place for creative, cultural and human development. We hope that the initiative will strengthen women prisoners’ convictions and abilities to create change in society once we are liberated.
This initiative aims at contributing to the overall liberation struggle against Israeli Apartheid and gender inequality by empowering women prisoners to further their education and enter the workforce when they are freed.
I want to note that during my preparation of this statement, we held two educational sessions for women prisoners who registered for university education. The two sessions were on English and Arabic languages respectively.
What caught my attention was that during the first session on the English language, I requested that each prisoner fill out a mock university application and to identify the field of study they wish to pursue. I would like to share some of the applications that I received:
Shorouq: a prisoner from Jerusalem who is sentenced to 16 years and has served six of those years thus far. She was arrested while attending Bethlehem University with a major in “Tourism”. Shorouq’s dream is to become a tour guide. She chose her major in tourism because she wants to educate the world about historical places in Palestine. She is particularly interested in guiding tours in Jerusalem due to the continuing annexation, theft, violations and distortion of the landscape imposed on the city by the Israeli occupation.
Maysoun: a prisoner from Bethlehem who is sentenced to 15 years in prison and has served six of those years thus far. She was arrested while attending university with a major in literature. Maysoun is an avid reader even in prison. She loves literature. She portrays literature as a method to form one’s future. Literature, in her opinion, requires the reader to think and answer many questions concerning a particular topic raised by the novel or a literary work at hand. She believes this leads to critical thought and cultural development.
Ruba: Ruba is a 3rd year sociology student attending Birzeit University. She was arrested three months ago and is still in detention. Ruba has the desire and readiness to continue her studies upon her release. According to her, the reason for choosing sociology as a major is to develop her academic knowledge and analysis of social and class structures in society, and their impacts on women.
In my attempt to understand the motives behind these women’s aspirations and dreams, I decided to discuss the issues in more depth with the women themselves. I found the common denominator amongst them to be rebellion. Rebellion against oppression and imposed restrictions. A definite rejection of the occupation policies in preventing education for women prisoners. An inner force to challenge the control used against women prisoners aiming to isolate and transform them into desperate women who have no dreams or plans for the future.
Other motives include resistance against the occupation’s plan to obliterate Palestinian identity and history. These women also want to break away from stereotypical and gendered professions that society designates for women. That is why they chose majors such as: tourism, literature, sociology and critical theory.
As for the second session on the Arabic language, we focused on autobiographies and worked on the different methods for drafting autobiographies. Women prisoners were divided into groups that discussed various biographies including that of the Bolivian labour leader and feminist Domitila Chúngara, “Let Me Speak”, which speaks about the miners’ experiences and struggles in Bolivia.
In addition, we studied biographies and autobiographies of established Arab writers such as Taha Hussein’s “Al-Ayyam”, and Mourid Barghouti’s “I Was Born There, I Was Born Here”.
The session also included analysis of literary texts such as Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish’s entitled “Uncertainty of the Returned”, which was a speech delivered by Darwish at Birzeit University at a celebration of the liberation of Southern Lebanon in 2000.
The education sessions, presentations and discussions enriched women prisoners’ knowledge and encouraged them to continue reading books and novels. We are turning the prison into a cultural school where prisoners learn about other experiences and where we spoil the occupation’s attempts to isolate us from the rest of the world.
In conclusion, our struggle for liberation inside prisons starts with protecting resistance literature. We are conveying our voices and stories as we write them under very difficult circumstances. When we are caught, the price we pay is heavy at times, especially when our punishment is solitary confinement or banning of family visitations.
A case in point is the price paid by the prisoner Waleed Daqa who was placed in solitary confinement for smuggling his novel outside prison to be published. This constitutes another challenge we face in the framework of the “Two Wills” — the Will of the freedom fighters and that of the colonizers, as expressed by the freedom fighter Domitila Chúngara in “Let Me Speak!”.
We, the Palestinian women prisoners, also say “let us speak… let us dream… let us be liberated!”
Thank you for listening and for giving me the opportunity to participate in this conference.
Political prisoner, Damon Prison
October 17, 2020
This letter is translated from Arabic by Jamileh Abed