letters from prisons


the other day a friend told me about a museum devoted to palestinian political prisoners at al quds university at abu dis. another friend who was at dinner with us at the time and who attends that university as an m.a. student had not heard of this museum. we decided to go there saturday morning before her classes and on my way home. we got off the service and walked onto campus. i didn’t know what to expect. i thought maybe a few rooms in a building. but what we found was something far more extravagant. the abu jihad museum for the prisoners movement affairs, as it is officially called, is in a huge, rather funky looking building on the southern edge of campus. if you look closely at the shot of it above you’ll notice you can see the apartheid wall imprisoning the prisoners’ museum and the rest of abu dis. the building itself and the museum inside is really quite striking in the interesting aesthetic it uses to to tell the story of palestinian political prisoners. there is a sign in the lobby that states the funding for this museum came from the state of kuwait and the arab fund for economic and social development. while i think the museum is rather amazing and tells a necessary story in the palestinian experience, i wonder just how much this museum cost to build and if that money couldn’t have been better spent in another sector of palestinian society (perhaps on prisoners themselves?).


as you walk inside you notice that the interior is made to look like a prison with bars for doors and windows within the museum space in several locations. but at the same time the space gives off a sense of freedom in the way large windows allow lots of light inside. first you see various photographs of israeli terrorist prisons and detention centers and a map, as pictured above, showing where all the various prisons are located. there are other photographs of israeli terrorists in uniform beating palestinians and then an artistic display of paintings showing the various common forms of torture used in israeli terrorists’ prisons. at each point in the exhibit there are explanations with history and context about each aspect of prisoners’ lives.


there are exhibits on martyrs, on old prisoners, on the longest serving prisoners (the two profiled, have thankfully been released in the last year and i can proudly say i was at their welcome party in beirut and nablus respectively: samir quntar and said al ‘atabeh), on female prisoners, on solidarity between palestinian political prisoners and others (notably bobbie sands in ireland), on hunger strikes in prison, on prisoners’ education, on prisoners’ letter writing, on prisoners’ artwork.


one of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the letters. i posted a photograph here of what some of them look like, but there were so many more displayed. you can see how small and meticulous the handwriting has to be. and you can see the capsules in the other photograph that the prisoners have to make in order to smuggle messages and letters out of the prisons. it reminded me of a scene in fateh azzam, ismail dabbagh, ‘abed ju’beh, and nidal khatib’s play ansar: a true story from an israeli military detention center (which can be found in salma khadra jayyusi’s anthology short arabic plays, which i have been teaching in my drama class. there is a scene with kifah gets zahran a present and kifah asks zahran to write a letter home for him because he doesn’t know how. this is a really beautiful part of the play because it initiates the scenes where we see palestinians starting to create schools in the various prison tents to educate one another on everything from hebrew to palestinian history. but when zahran writes the letter we see how space and size become an issue:

KIFAH: Now listen, Zahran, you write what I’m just going to tell you in brackets, so no one will read it except Mayss, understand? Tell her to tell Khulud that I miss her very, very, very much. Make sure you write “very” three times.

Zahran: There’s not much space to write all that, Kifah.


but another favorite part of mine was to see the various aspects of education in the exhibit. from a number of paintings and drawings that depicted prisoners as reading books to cases with books written by prisoners or read by prisoners this was a reminder of what the prison used to be in palestine: the university. scene twelve of the play ansar represents this rather well through a series of vignettes showing students attending various lectures and some of these vignettes are staged so that the lectures are delivered simultaneously and we are plopped into the middle of such lectures as in the ninth such vignette:

The two following monologues are delivered simultaneously, the impression being of lectures going on at the same time in two different tents.

PRISONER 1: For example, in the tenth century Palestine was an exporter of olives, raisins and carob as well as silk and cotton textiles. Jerusalem especially was famous for cheese, apples, bananas, mirrors, lamps and even needles. Yes, needles!

PRISONER 2: ‘Asqalan, Dahriyyeh and others were always detention centers, during the time of the British, then the Jordanians followed suit, and now the Israelis. Here, Ketziot, was also a detention center during British days, and they used to call it ‘Oja Hafeer. My grandfather, God rest his soul, was a prisoner there in ’46.


i just finished reading another novel this weekend by john berger called from a to x: a story in letters. berger is a writer whose book ways of seeing many graduate students in english studies are required to read. but i had not really thought much about his more creative writing until my friend jamelie turned me on to his essays hold everything dear last year. he has a number of essays in it about palestine and lebanon and it’s quite moving and beautiful. berger was one of the people to lead the way for a cultural boycott of the zionist entity three years ago in a statement that was published on electronic intifada:

“There is a fragile ceasefire in Lebanon, albeit daily violated by Israeli overflights. Meanwhile the day to day brutality of the Israeli army in Gaza and the West Bank continues. Ten Palestinians are killed for every Israeli death; more than 200, many of them children, have been killed since the summer. UN resolutions are flouted, human rights violated as Palestinian land is stolen, houses demolished and crops destroyed. For archbishop Desmond Tutu, as for the Jewish (former ANC military commander presently South African minister of security), Ronnie Kasrils, the situation of the Palestinians is worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid. Meantime Western governments refer to Israel’s ‘legitimate right’ of self-defence, and continue to supply weaponry.

The challenge of apartheid was fought better. The non-violent international response to apartheid was a campaign of boycott, divestment, and, finally UN imposed sanctions which enabled the regime to change without terrible bloodshed. Today Palestinians teachers, writers, film-makers and non-governmental organisations have called for a comparable academic and cultural boycott of Israel as offering another path to a just peace. This call has been endorsed internationally by university teachers in many European countries, by film-makers and architects, and by some brave Israeli dissidents. It is now time for others to join the campaign as Primo Levi asked: If not now, when?

We call on creative writers and artists to support our Palestinian and Israeli colleagues by endorsing the boycott call. Read the Palestinian call (www.pacbi.org).

Don’t visit, exhibit or perform in Israel!”


more recently, berger produced a video of himself reading ghassan kanafani’s “letter from gaza,” which qui qui wrote about last december on kababfest. the video was played at the zapatistas’ conference in mexico and was published on their website and qui qui published the full text of kanafani’s “letter from gaza” on kabobfest as well.


interestingly berger’s new novel is also about letters. and it is also about prisoners. the book is dedicated to kanafani, which is what made me buy the book in the first place when i found it in al quds a few months ago. but the book is not about palestine. in fact, it is unclear where exactly the novel is set. there are all sorts of confusing location and identity markers in the novel. for instance the “a” stands for a’ida, an arabic name, of a a woman whose lover, xavier, standing in for “x” in the title, is in prison. the name xavier has basque origins. the letters are not dated, so not fixed in a particular time period. nor do they appear chronologically in the novel. and the letters are only from a’ida to xavier–there are none from him to her. but there are notes he left to a’ida on the backs of these letters that do locate the story in a particular time frame–the present. for example, he scrawls a note about hugo chavez on the back of one such letter:

“After almost 200 years we can say that the USA was designed to fill the entire world with poverty–whilst giving it the name of Freedom. The United States empire is the greatest threat which exists in the world today…” Chavez, Moscow, 27/07/2006 (44)

another such note from xavier places him ideologically and chronologically:

IMF WB GATT WTO NAFTA FTAA–their acronymns gag language, as their actions stifle the world.(70)


the novel is beautiful and moving, lyrical and striking. i love that you cannot place it precisely in the world because it means that in many ways this story of a political prisoner and resistance is one that is the same everywhere when one fights for liberation of one’s land. we cannot place a’ida even who calls her beloved at once habibi and mi guapo among other terms of endearment from various languages. but here are some of my favorite passages from the novel that speak to the commonality and specificity of place and struggle across the world. the italics indicate xavier’s notes and the rest is from a’ida’s letters.

I love your secrecy. It’s your candour. Two F16s have passed over flying low. Because they can’t break our secrets, the try to break our eardrums. I love your secrecy. Let me tell you what I can see at this moment.

Crammed windowsills, clotheslines, TV satellite dishes, some chairs propped against a chimney stack, two bird cages, a dozen improvised tiny terraces with their innumerable pots for plants and their saucers for cats. if I can stand up I can smell mint and molokhiyya. Cables, telephone and electric, looping in every conceivable direction and every month sagging more.Eduardo still carries his bicycle up three flights of stairs and padlocks it to a cable by his chimney. (29)

One by one the birds appeared; they didn’t fly into the tree, they appeared on its branches like prayers. Gassan’s house was destroyed by a missile, aimed, they claim at a hide-out! The birds perched there on the branches of the apple tree like answers, answers to questions which have no words. Watching the birds, I finally cried.

Gassan wasn’t there when his house was destroyed. He had gone to the market and was playing cards with some cronies. When he heard the news, he foundered and fell to the floor, making no sound.

The next day I accompanied him to the ruin. There were several epicenters where everything had been reduced to dust, surrounded by tiny fragments. Except for pipes and wires no recognisable objects remained. Everything which had been assembled during a lifetime had gone without trace, had lost its name. An amnesia not of the mind but of the tangible. (120)

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere, and the smallest event somehow refers to them. Consequently the activity of the rich is the building of walls–walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, armed frontiers, media misinformation, and finally the wall of money to separate financial speculation from production. Only 3% of financial speculation and exchange concerns production. I love you. (149)

My phone rang and there was Yasmina’s clipped voice–finches chirp quickly like this when their tree is at risk–telling me that an Apache had been circling above the old tobacco factory in the Abor district, where seven of ours were hiding, and that the neighbouring women–and other women too–were preparing to form a human shield around the factory and on its roof, to prevent them shelling it. I told her I would come.

I put down the telephone and stood still, yet it was as if I was running. Cool air was striking my forehead. Something of mine–but not my body, maybe my name A’ida–was running, swerving, soaring, plummeting and becoming impossible to sight or get aim on. Perhaps a released bird has this sensation. A kind of limpidity.

I’m not going to send you this letter, yet I want to tell you what we did the other day. Perhaps you won’t read it until we are both dead, no, the dead don’t read. The dead are what remains from what has been written. Much of what is written is reduced to ashes. The dead are all there in the words that stay.

By the time I got there, twenty women, waving white headscarves, were installed on the flat roof. The factory has three floors–like your prison. At ground level, lines of women with their backs to the wall, surrounded the entire building. No tanks or jeeps or Humvee yet to be seen. So I walked from the road across the wasteland to join them. Some of the women I recognised, others I didn’t. We touched and looked at one another silently, to confirm what we shared, what we had in common. Our one chance was to become a single body for as long as we stood there and refused to budge.

We heard the Apache returning. It was flying slowly and low to frighten and observe us, its four-bladed rotor blackmailing the air below to hold it up. We heard the familiar Apache growl, the growl of them deciding and us rushing for shelter to hide–but not today. We could see the two Hellfire missiles tucked under its armpits. We could see the pilot and his gunner. We could see the mini-guns pointing at us.

Before the ruined mountain, before the abandoned factory, which was used as a makeshift hospital during the dysentery epidemic four years ago, some of us were likely to die. Each of us, I think, was frightened but not for herself. (167-168)

Each new death prepares us for something–of course for our own deaths–mine not yours, nothing could prepare me for yours, I’ll sit on the earth, your head in my lap, their cluster bombs exploding, and I will refuse your death. Each new death also prepares us for a carnival, a carnival held under their very noses, and about which they can do f*&% all, not even with their Predator Drones. I’m thinking of how they shot Manda. (174)


there is so much more that is beautiful and amazing about this novel. i strongly recommend it. but i will leave you with berger himself speaking about palestinian prisoners among other things in a beautiful, eloquent fashion:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s