Translated from the Hebrew by Shir Alon

 

In 2017 I visited the former Knesset member Dr Basel Ghattas[1]. At the time he was under house arrest after he was caught, on camera, smuggling cell phones to Palestinian prisoners. Inspired by the long conversations I had with Dr Ghattas on the subject, I decided to write the play Prisoners of the Occupation, about the political prisoners in Israeli prisons.

The play was accepted by the artistic committee of the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, and was rejected a few weeks later by the festival’s steering committee, based on the title, an abstract, and their familiarity with my previous projects. Following the rejection, eight of the groups scheduled to perform at the festival withdrew their participation in solidarity, publicly denouncing the committee’s actions as a violation of freedom of speech. The festival’s artistic director resigned, and the Freelance Actors and Directors Union publicly called its members to boycott the festival, and to refuse participation in protest. A new program was hastily put together, and displayed the monolithic voice of Zionist nationalism.

Earlier that same year, on 17 March, Dr Ghattas was indicted, found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison. A month later I visited him for the first time, while he was under house arrest at his home in the village Rama. Our car climbed the steep roads leading up to the beautiful village, through narrow alleyways and past hidden churches, encountering the occasional police car or undercover vehicle. While we had met a few times at meetings of the Balad party,[2] at that point I knew Dr Ghattas only superficially . I knew him as a political leader, an intellectual, a gifted public speaker and anti-colonial fighter, who, like an anti-apartheid activist, had been imprisoned for his service to his people. At the entrance to his house we were greeted by his wife Sawsan, and then his daughter Suheila. Outside, local news channels and websites were celebrating the incriminating video of Dr Ghattas smuggling cell phones to a prisoner, broadcasting it incessantly. Inside the house, I found a private individual about to be separated from his family and loved ones.

When darkness fell, a breathtaking view materialized from Dr Ghattas’s windows: the yellow lights of Arab villages, the bright white lights of Jewish towns, and between them a road. It was as if the entire conflict had suddenly been spread out in front of us, clearly delineated. The intimacy of that moment yielded a sense of personal and political solidarity, and became the basis for an ongoing relationship.

Dr Ghattas has been spending his prison sentence writing and documenting his experiences, producing materials that will hopefully be published in the future. Meanwhile, I have been working on having the play I wrote in parallel – Prisoners of the Occupation – produced. We exchange letters regularly.

Excerpts of Dr Ghattas’s letters to me are quoted here in an edited and condensed form. Dr Ghattas is due to be released in July 2019.

Einat Weitzman

 

31 July 2017

Dear Einat,

I received your letter yesterday. I was very happy to read it. I don’t know if you sent others following that one. I will mail this letter tomorrow. You can let me know when you receive it by sending word with Sanaʿa or Sawsan.

It has been almost a month. My health is good. I share a courtyard with seven other prisoners. It is of course very crowded, and I hope that the conditions will improve after the recent Supreme Court decision.[3] The most difficult thing, which I simply can’t process or adjust to, is the complete lack of privacy. Late at night after the lights are out I try to get an hour or two to write in my bed (by the way, you have nice handwriting – in the future please write to me by hand and try to write clearly, it will feel more personal than a typed out letter).

I already have a routine – I get up with the morning roll call around 6, go out to the yard at 7, work out for a bit, mostly back exercises and a stroll around the yard. Lately, in order to maintain some of my pleasures from the outside world, I take my coffee outside with me, sit in a corner and drink it slowly with a biscuit or cookie. Only then do I start exercising. The other fellows seem to like the idea, since they have begun to join my coffee corner . . . With prisoners, everything becomes a kind of a ritual, and this is my own private ritual. Afterwards I return to the room, shower (in this heat I have to shower several times a day), then I read a little, listen to the news on the radio, and return to the room by 9.30, when there is a second roll call and room inspection. The internal courtyard is our lifeline; it was a nice surprise to discover it. Other than two short breaks, we can stay in the yard until 7 p.m., when we return to the rooms to be locked in until morning.

We eat breakfast at 9.30 a.m. and a combined lunch/dinner at 5 p.m., and we prepare both meals by ourselves in our rooms. There’s a hot plate and cooking utensils, except for knives . . . but prisoners always find creative solutions. This is a special arrangement for the Palestinian political prisoners, and it’s convenient and beneficial, since we eat well and haven’t been subjected to prison fare. So far I have been treated as a guest, and my cell mates haven’t allowed me to join in the cooking.

The two most difficult things for me are time, which passes so slowly, and the terrible heat . . . I know I will get used to them, but not yet . . . How can one get used to total helplessness?

My family can visit once every two weeks. So far I’ve had two visits. They take place on Sundays, and it really is a holiday for the prisoners. Everyone congratulates each other with loud congratulations – ‘Mabruk!’ Anyone who does not receive visitors is visibly depressed.

I read a lot and am keeping a journal, and I have also started writing a memoir, slowly and cautiously, but I’m making progress.

When standing at a certain spot in the yard, at a particular angle, it is possible to see the peak of the Gilboa mountain, and this makes me very happy. Despite the walls and the high fences, there is still a mountain to gaze at. This is the kind of pleasure that only someone locked up in a room or a yard with walls on all sides can understand.

I will continue writing after I hear that you have received this letter.

With friendship and appreciation,

Basel

 

26 August 2017

Dear Einat,

I received your long beautiful letter, it warmed my heart.

The number of letters I can send to you is limited. According to prison rules, I am allowed to mail only two letters each month. On the other hand, there is no limit on the number of letters I can receive, so you can write me whenever and as much as you want. I suggest that we write to each other regardless of whether we receive letters – you should always know that there is a letter on its way to you every month.

I am adjusting to my new reality here. The older prisoners tell me that I have adapted very well, and that I already look like an old-timer. But that’s very far from the truth. Time still passes very slowly, and the loss of privacy, the crowdedness of the room and the heat are all very difficult for me. What helps me get through the day is devising a schedule that has gradually become my daily routine, and I keep to it now almost religiously.

This Sunday is visiting day for the families of prisoners from East Jerusalem. Our turn, the turn of the Israeli prisoners, is next week. We’ll begin preparing on Friday. Everyone stands in line to get their hair cut. The barber is a volunteer, another prisoner. We wash our uniforms, hang them up to dry, and iron them on the Saturday. Every prisoner tries to be in their best shape for their family. In our local prisoner slang, we say that the prisoner is the visitor, not the one being visited. My reading of this is that once every two weeks the prisoner embodies his best self – for forty-five minutes he successfully breaks down the prison walls, visits his family, and realizes his freedom. As they come back from their visits, everyone is luminous, faces smiling, congratulating one another: ‘Mabruk ziyara, mabruk on your visit!’

I have also noticed how zealous the prisoners are about cleanliness and order in the rooms. Twice a day, after meals, we wash the floors, and on Saturdays we do a general overhaul and clean the entire room. I feel that this is part of the legacy or culture of the political prisoners, bestowed from generation to generation, as well as a statement of pride and dignity. It is as if the prisoners are telling the prison guards: ‘Yes, you lock us up like animals in a pound, eight men to a twenty-two-square-meter room, and you expect us to live in it like in a pigsty – but no, we will not. We will keep it clean, orderly, hygienic. We will live like the human beings we are.

In my ward there are many prisoners who were released in the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 and were arrested again in 2014, after enjoying four years of freedom.[4] Two of them, sharing a room with me, got married and had children, and now their children come to visit them in prison . . .  All of us follow the news together, especially the ongoing negotiations with Hamas. We sit and analyze and predict what might be. One of the two sleeps above my bed. He is my age, but blind, and has two young daughters aged two and four. The daughters came to visit him today, along with his wife. The prison guards let the daughters in for a few minutes to sit with their father and hug him, and he returned so happy. Every other Sunday, when there are no visits, he plays a recording of them he has on DVD, and sees them that way, by which I mean he hears their voices. He has spent more than thirty of his fifty-eight years in prison.

As I walk around the courtyard, I feel as if an entire people has been imprisoned with me here. You sometimes find the grandfather, the father, and the grandson all in the same yard.

The number of young men aged eighteen to twenty who are imprisoned here is astounding. More than half of the prisoners in this ward are from the period of the ‘knife intifada’.[5] They are truly children. Some of them have had only a minimal education. They don’t know their heads from their asses, not to mention anything about the history or geography of Palestine . . .  These children spend years of their lives in prison because spontaneously and instinctively they opposed the occupation . . . Knowing to resist the occupation requires no minimum age or minimum education or minimum knowledge . . . They are freedom fighters in every sense of the word. I hope that they will take advantage of their time here to mature and get a proper education. Today I gave the first lecture in a course I have agreed to teach to prisoners enrolled in the Open Alquds University.  What an amazing sense of closure. Only a few months ago, and in fact throughout my years as a Knesset member, I supported Palestinian prisoners who were pursuing a university education by supplying them with books. I also negotiated with the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education to ensure prisoners’ diplomas would be recognized. And now I find myself in prison, teaching those same prisoners. It is astounding how life plays with us.

 

31 August 2017

Today, after almost two months in prison, I cooked dinner in our room for the first time. I made mujadara in the authentic fallahi style, which means with cracked wheat, lots of onion (fried until it’s dark red), lentils and olive oil. Everyone loved it. I felt like I’d passed a test with flying colors.

The challenge was to prepare the dish in a room without a kitchen, with a minimal amount of dishes and utensils, and a simple hotplate . . .  but it came out well and I am very pleased.

 

15 October 2017

My very dear Einat,

Greetings,

This week I moved to the room next door. It was only to change the scenery a bit and to live with new friends. I thought it might give me new experiences and re-ignite my memoir writing, which for some reason had dried up in the past two weeks . . . Other than me, everyone here is young. In the former room we were four ‘old-timers’ and four young guys, so now in the new room the average age is much lower. You know me, I like spending time with young people.

Last week I got the flu, supplemented with a headache and a cough . . . It came after two friends in my room got sick, so it was clear that everyone would eventually get it. The worst of it passed after forty-eight hours, but the cough remains, bothering me day and night. This too shall pass.

When I was ill I discovered another legendary tale of the Palestinian prisoners here. Everyone, and especially the old-timers, is a natural doctor. They have immense amounts of knowledge (probably accumulated and passed down between generations) on natural medicine and immunizing the body against disease, much of which comes from Palestinian folklore. The moment people found out I was sick they started coming by with advice. A few even made their own natural potions and brought them over. All this, of course, developed as a response to the insufficient health services provided in the prisons. Here there is a clinic with only one part-time doctor, who is also responsible for the nearby Shata prison. Unless it is a life-threatening emergency, a prisoner waits two or three weeks before he can visit the clinic. So the bottom line is that it’s best not to get sick at all, but to stay healthy.

At the end of the day, the most difficult punishment that the Palestinian prisoner is subject to is isolation from the outside world. Yesterday a copy of the Palestinian journal al-Quds arrived, an issue three or four weeks old. It was a very valuable thing! Even though it no longer had any value as a news source, merely the pleasure of holding an issue of al-Quds in my hands and leafing through it was equivalent to obtaining something of great worth.

This is the real story. The state of Israel manages to isolate and disconnect thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are under administrative detention without having been charged. There is no distinction between them: the fate of a young man locked up for public disturbance is the same as that of a prisoner sentenced to several life sentences. Both of them are disconnected, isolated, and entitled to see their first-degree relatives once every two weeks, if they are lucky . . . This practice in itself is a crime against humanity, to my mind, and should be brought to the consideration of some international legal court.

I am writing a kind of a diary in Arabic. At the beginning I used to write every day, but lately I write every few days, and I also include poetry and recollections of my political and social activism. Now I have the chance to do work that I have dreamed of beginning for a long time. But it is not at all easy. I have discovered that merely from a psychological point of view, it is incredibly difficult to transcend my surrounding circumstances and immerse myself in distant periods and mindsets. It is especially hard to prompt my memory, since I don’t have any supporting materials, or anyone to talk to and reminisce with. I am trying not to write a straightforward history, but instead to write in a more literary manner, and this is difficult as well. Sometimes I discover that I get carried away, and end up writing a very dry account of the unfolding of one event or another, but then I stop and can only take up the chapter again after a few days. Even though it is coming along slowly, I am pleased to have started. Answering letters also occupies a large amount of my time, but I find great pleasure in it.

With much esteem and appreciation,

Basel

 

8 December 2017                                                                

Dear Einati,

I am writing you from Hadarim, my new prison, for the first time. I received one letter from you dated 16 November, together with your beautiful pictures. I am fine in every aspect, and I hope to return to the Gilboa prison soon. I was promised that this will indeed happen, but I am doubtful, so I continue sending letters and pushing for it. After all, there is no logical reason for transferring me to this new prison. This move will cause a lot of pain and anguish to my family who lives far away. Sawsan and Suheyla have visited me once so far, and I expect another visit in two days.

I was transferred here in a regular police van and I went through the same painful ordeal I have talked about so often when I was outside.[6] Now I have experienced it myself. I will write you about it in detail some day, right now I feel too exposed here. Therefore I will not write much, taking necessary precautions, and I ask that you do the same. I have returned to the same routine of reading and writing after this great upheaval, which had upset the routine I established in Gilboa. It wasn’t easy to return to it here. The letters that arrive here remain under examination for long periods of time, and I get the impression that everything will be more difficult here.

Tomorrow my family is scheduled to visit, but now the visits are a cause for worry, not only joy. Thinking about the hassle of traveling from Rama all the way out here . . . Last time Sawsan took a train to Acre and another one, for three and a half hours, to Be’er Sheva. There she met Suheila, who had driven down from Jerusalem, and they drove another hour to get here. And then she has to do this whole way back . . . twelve hours on the road. Madness. Some families come on organized carpools and it takes them even longer.

Are you getting along? I was surprised to find Palestine, a channel broadcasting from Ramallah, among the available TV channels here – it is the Palestinian Authority’s official broadcast. This channel is not available in Gilboa, the prisoners here fought to have it. Other Arabic news is only available from the Saudi channel al-Arabia, which is the mouthpiece of the Saudi regime. The Saudis founded this channel in order to compete with al-Jazeera and had very little success, but the Israeli Prison Service decided that this is what we need to watch. Beyond that there are only the sport and movie channels. I read Yedioth Ahronot of course. On my first week here I was in a different ward where one of the prisoners gets the daily edition of Haaretz, it’s incredible that he gets it every day. I am looking into getting a subscription myself for a month or two. Haaretz is not distributed daily in Gilboa, it only arrives by mail so it is always about a week late.

It is very very cold here at night. This is another significant difference from Gilboa. Most of the time the window is left open, even while we sleep. In extreme conditions the window is only half open – this is a firm habit among the prisoners, apparently it is a response to how crowded the cells are. The cold air is better than catching a disease.

I will send this letter tomorrow. I will try to do it via express registered mail, even though I am unsure when and whether the outgoing mail goes out . . .

With friendship,

Basel

 


 

[1] The Knesset is the legislative branch of the Israeli government.

[2] Ghattas is a member of Balad, an Israeli Arab political party also known as the National Democratic Alliance. Balad’s political goal is to redefine Israel as a binational, rather than as a Jewish state, and to ensure democratic rights for all its citizens.

[3] On 13 June 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court mandated an increase in prisoners’ living space.

[4] In a 2011 agreement between Israel and Hamas, more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

[5] The 2015–2016 wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, also known as ‘Habba’ or ‘the outburst’ by Palestinians, is known as ‘the knife infitada’ due to stabbings perpetrated by Palestinian attackers. The prisoners in the ward with Dr Ghattas were largely arrested for throwing stones.

[6] The posta, or the van the police uses to transfer prisoners, is notorious for its lack of comfort and for the violence the prisoners encounter in it.

 

‘Letters from Prison’ was first published in Granta Hebrew, issue 8: Texting You.

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