Decolonizing The Mind: An Interview With Palestinian Poet Dareen Tatour

She was jailed for "inciting violence" and "supporting terrorism" through her poems

From attempted rape to naked searches and exploiting a woman’s body to verbal and sexual harassment, Dareen Tatour says all the things she experienced in prison were cruel to the highest degree.

Can a poem be criminalized? With a power greater than guns, a poet’s crime is that of imagination and literary resistance — challenging the approved narrative and renewing political consciousness — in a system that once regarded the word “Palestine” as a threat enough to be censored in children’s textbooks in West Bank.  

Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour (39) was persecuted for something that every artist does as a matter of vocation. She was arrested for her poem, Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum (Resist, My People, Resist Them) that she wrote after dozens of young Palestinian men and women were shot in cold blood by Israeli occupation soldiers and extremist groups in 2014 and 2015.

From attempted rape to naked searches and exploiting a woman’s body to verbal and sexual harassment along with being tied up in hospital beds when sick, she says all the things she experienced in prison were cruel to the highest degree. She tells Kasturi Chakraborty how some Zionist groups attempted to kill her multiple times since she was released from prison and that she will never be free as long as the occupation exists. 

Being a poet who was jailed for daring to dream of a free Palestine and never lowering her flag until the end of the occupation, Dareen’s extraordinary case has reignited the torch of determination and hope which has been used as an inspiration by many artists for their artistic expressions to resist the occupation.

Originally from Reineh in Israel, Dareen Tatour is currently in Sweden with an International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and PEN scholarship for writers and artists at risk for a period of two years. She says nothing can stop her from writing and even if she is imprisoned again, which she expects on her return to Palestine, she will not stop.

 Excerpts from the interview:

Q. How did everything unfold before the court convicted you on charges of “inciting violence​”  and “supporting a terrorist organization”? 

A. In 2014-15, Palestine witnessed cold-blooded killings perpetrated by the occupation forces and extremist groups. Martyr Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered in Jerusalem, the family of 18-month-old Ali Dawab was burnt alive, and young men and women were shot dead in barbaric acts

These painful incidents deeply impacted me and I wrote a poem ‘Resist, My People’ on October 2, 2015, as an expression of everything that I saw. It was published on my Facebook page. Also, as a political activist, I published some news articles and blogs about the closure of Jerusalem by occupation authorities and the deprivation of our right to pray freely in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

On October 11, around 3 am, a large force of Israeli soldiers and police came to my house and arrested me. That was the beginning of almost three-year detention. I was released only on September 20, 2018.

Q. For how long did you serve in the prison and for how long were you under house arrest?

A. At first, I was kept in prison for three months, then I was placed under house arrest for a period of three years. Afterwards, the occupation court sentenced me to imprisonment for five months. So I returned to prison to complete the sentence.

Q. Would you call yourself free now? 

A. As long as the occupation exists in Palestine, I will never be free. After finishing my sentence, I was subjected to a lot of harassment the Israeli occupation forces tried every means to prevent the publication of my books and writings, and Zionist groups tried to kill me thrice. 

Q. Where are you currently residing? 

A. I am in Sweden with an International Cities of Refuge Network and PEN scholarship for writers and artists at risk for a period of two years.

Q. How would you describe the conditions inside an Israeli prison especially for women prisoners?

A. It was a very difficult period. Occupation prison is hell on earth. I was among those female prisoners who were deprived of even basic human rights. My co-prisoner imprisoned for six years, Nasreen Hassan from Gaza has not been allowed to see her children till date.

Another friend sentenced to 16 years in jail, Shurooq Dwaiyat from Jerusalem was not even allowed to embrace her mother and family during visits. Each time, they had to kiss through a glass partition, a heart-rending scene in itself.

My friend in prison, Israa Jaabis, has been unjustly sentenced to 11 years. She is deprived of treatment and suffers from burns all over her body. 

Where are the rights and humanity in this case? Am I talking about the bad and burnt food given during the period of detention? About regular naked searches, about solitary confinement, about not being able to see the sun for months? About exploiting a woman’s body and putting pressure on her to confess to the accusations leveled against her! About verbal and sexual harassment! About attempted rape! About not giving the appropriate treatment? Doctors and nurses sexually harassed some female prisoners while they were in the hospital! About being tied up in a hospital bed while I’m sick? 

All the things I experienced in prison were cruel to the highest degree.

Q. Were you inspired to write about anything you had experienced in prison?

A. Everything I lived through during the period of imprisonment and detention! I wrote about every bit that inspired me. They had arrested me for a poem, and I came out with three books in three years. Even I wrote about those insects that were sucking the blood out of my skin. I wrote about the pain of my captive friends and I wrote about every moment I lived in the hell of the occupation.

Q. Were you the only one who was arrested then?

A. I was not alone during the prison period. Sixty eight Palestinian women were arrested with me, and some of them are still in prison serving a 16-year sentence.

Q. How do you fight the absurdity and dangers of criminalizing speech? 

A. There is no force that can imprison words and art. I am a very ambitious person who believes in God, and I always find a way to continue my struggle, my art, and my resistance through my poems to this occupation. What is important is that I remain faithful to my rights. I am not afraid of anything as long as I know that I am defending the highest cause in the world, the cause of my homeland Palestine.

The occupation entity claims itself as the democratic state in the east, but this is a lie. Their democracy is only for the Jews, and the biggest proof of that is the number of Palestinians imprisoned only for their writings on social media. My case was one of the issues that was known internationally, but there are hundreds of similar stories in Palestine. This is apartheid.

I never stopped writing. Continuing to write despite everything is bayonets. And my recent book in English, My Threatening Poem – Memoir of a Poet in Occupation Prisons is the answer.

Q. You have received the OXFAM Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression (2019), the Danish Carl Scharenberg Prize (2017), and the prize for “Creativity in Struggle” (2016) in the online magazine, Maayan. Do you think it all came at a price? 

A. I didn’t do anything wrong. There are no feelings of regret, and if I went back in time, I would write the same poem and publish it. I believe in my rights and my poems. The occupation will regret it, not me. They could not prevent me from continuing with my writing, I write and I will keep writing. Even if I am imprisoned again, and this is to be expected when I return to Palestine. I will still not change.

Recently, I published some of my writings in prison as a book, and now I am preparing a second book for publication. It will be a collection of poems in Arabic and English.

I am trying to get screened a Swedish version of the play I wrote in prison. I am also working on a film that tells the story of my arrest. I practice photography as well.

Q. What message do you for all Palestinian activists, artists, and journalists facing arbitrary arrests, and the ones who are still languishing in Israeli jails?

A. I would tell every human being or an artist who has been imprisoned to not stop broadcasting your art. Your voice will rise and the occupation will end. Freedom begins when the soul is liberated from its chains the first of which is fear when all prisons become fleeting.

And as I said in my poem, “Resist, my people, resist them”:

Do not fear doubtful tongues;

The truth in your heart is stronger,

As long as you resist in a land

That has lived through raids and victory.

Resist, my people, resist them.

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