Women’s Nonfiction on Political Detention: From Iraq to Palestine

“Keep still, the stories will come to you if you listen”
By Nora Parr

Photo by Amal Eqeiq

Between them, the nine authors collected into Hafla li-Tha’ira [A Party for Thai’ra/the Revolutionary] lived nearly 50 years in Israeli prison. They saw babies born in confinement and raised so that they only knew the locking of doors. Others saw their children only through panes of glass.

The volume was launched at SOAS, University of London, on Monday 19 March.

With more than 40% of Palestinians having now spent time in an Israeli prison (according to Adameer this means close to 50% of all men) what prison is and means for the national cause had all but been settled. Absent, however, were the stories and experiences of women prisoners of conscience.

This was an absence felt acutely by Iraqi author, activist, and once-prisoner of the Baath regime, Haifa Zangana. Having escaped execution in Baghdad, Zangana settled in London and from exile has worked constantly to bring attention to atrocities in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Having authored her own prison memoirs in the haunting Dreaming of Baghdad, as well as seven other novels she has turned her attention to other women who, like herself, have suffered the abuses of torture and imprisonment.

In her second season as an author with the Palestine Festival of Literature, she broke off from the group to meet a number of Palestinian women interested in the idea of writing about their prison experience.

While these women had told their stories before, recorded as testimonials to half a dozen prisoner support organizations, this project was set to be something different.

Organized into three sections—‘In Prison,’ ‘Hostages,’ ‘And Life Begins,’—14 vignettes relate a sense of the prison experience that is rarely addressed openly. Most impressively the final section ‘And Life Begins’ tackles the intersection of imprisonment and a return to life under Israeli occupation.

Two chapters by Rose Musleh in the second section, ‘Hostages,’ make a very clear link between the prison cell and regimented life inside a controlled intuition and life in the West Bank. These narrate the end of the siege of Ramallah Both inside and out of formal incarceration women are subject to the control of a military overseer.

Release from prison, then, is not a ‘return to normal.’ The title of this final section almost seems facetious. Its chapters from Nour Bourhan, Ayia Kamil, and Mai Ghussein show the thick ties of memory that link life back with their families to the patterns and community formed while interned.

For Kamil, it is setting a table with plastic glasses that recalls the hoarding and ingenuity of prison life.  When she tries to explain to her sister that the women never would have used the dishware so casually, but instead would save it; to make earrings, small pots, and even kitchen tools—her sister only half listens and continues what she is doing. For Ghussein, it was the smell of wet earth. This transported her back into the netted-off prison yard, closed to everything but the pouring rain.

The stories are delicate and nuanced. “The best way to read them,” Zangana reflected, “is for the reader to keep still, the stories will come to you if you listen.”

Knowing from experience that the “language of prison has its own logic” different from the formal literary expectations of Arabic, the work settled on a mix of colloquial Palestinian and more Formal Arabic grammar. This made it easier,  Haifa explained, for writing to absorb some of the words that seem to belong to the prisons alone, and the ‘prison Hebrew’ that most detainees learn.

To escape both the tropes of talking about prison that the Palestinian national narrative has forged, and at times rigid grammar of writing, Zangana encouraged experimentation. Explaining the process, Zangana said she encouraged contributors to “Write about dreams, draft letters, or try to explain to someone about being bored without boring them.”

The result is a collection of stories where, as Zangana explained, “weakness is powerful.” These women (who participated in the resistance through military or political operations, planning, or simply handing out leaflets) become vulnerable, worried about the most basic matters of life.

Where the male hero somehow cannot show weakness, in this collection of narratives from Palestinian women, we learn how to craft a kitchen knife from a tin can, and the recipe for a Birthday cake (for a two-year-old Tha’ira, born to her mother in detention) cobbled together from pilfered canteen biscuits, powdered milk, and every bit of love and motherhood that the fifteen women who helped raise her behind bars could spare.

Hafla li-Tha’ira is available for free download from e-Kutub.com and for purchase in softcover from Amazon.

Zangana is current working with a group of Tunisian women, also former detainees, on a similar volume.

Nora Parr is an OWRI Postdoctoral Researcher at SOAS, University of London with the AHRC-funded project Creative Multilingualism. She teaches on Arabic and Comparative Literature and in Palestine Studies.

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