Four months after her release from an Israeli prison, Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour received the Oxfam Novib PEN Award for Freedom of Expression in The Hague in January. Oxfam Novib, the Dutch affiliate of the international charity Oxfam, said it awarded Tatour the prize to highlight “the growing repression of critical voices in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Nicaraguan writer and journalist Gioconda Belli and Italian journalist Roberto Saviano also received the prize that was first awarded in 2001.
After a three-year ordeal of prosecution, jail and house arrest, Tatour was sentenced last August to five months in prison for a handful of social media posts and a poem titled “Resist, my people, resist them.” She was convicted by an Israeli court of “incitement to violence” and “support of terrorist organizations.”
The literary freedom group PEN International said that she had been targeted by Israeli authorities “for peacefully exercising her right to free expression through poetry and activism,” and had demanded that all charges against her be dropped.
Tatour always maintained her innocence, defending her social media activity and poetry as forms of protest against Israel’s crimes. She spoke to The Electronic Intifada after the 17 January event.
Sense of victory
“I felt a sense of victory over the occupation because they tried to silence my voice and prevent me from writing poems,” Tatour says when asked about the award ceremony, though she confesses to “contradictory feelings.”
“Suddenly I found myself in front of people, reciting poems. It had a strong impact on me,” she adds. “I couldn’t separate between the pain I felt from my time in prison and the joy” of being at the ceremony.
“I tried to convey this feeling to the people in the room,” she says. “They helped me to be there in that victory.”
She credits the blogger Yoav Haifawi who consistently reported on her trial, and PEN International, for sustaining her through her ordeal. “Their support strengthened me to continue,” she says. “I will stay grateful forever.”
International attention to the persecution of a relatively unknown Palestinian poet turned Tatour into a symbol of Israel’s assault on freedom of expression. This can have consequences for her treatment by Israeli officials, which she experienced during her journey to the Netherlands.
“Everybody passed through the main entrance without a problem but I was picked out by a female officer who took my ID card and started to interrogate me,” she recalls of her treatment at Tel Aviv airport. “I arrived at 1:10am and then they asked me ‘what time is your flight.’ I said at 5am. The officer asked, ‘why are you so early? You must have a reason to be so early.’”
After many questions, Tatour then waited for her friend Ofra Yeshua-Lyth who would accompany her on the trip.
“Every seven minutes an officer came and asked me where I am going,” Tatour says. “I wanted to draw some money so I looked for an ATM. The guard followed me all the time. Then Ofra came.”
It didn’t end there. At the X-ray machine, the security staff did not like that Tatour was carrying camera equipment. “They strip-searched me. They took me to a separate room.”
Ofra was ordered to leave. “I had to take off my jacket, my shoes, scarf – everything,” Tatour recalls. They even confiscated the hairpin Tatour used to hold her headscarf.
“All the time I was scared that they wouldn’t let me go. In the airplane, I had a feeling that I was free, but still I harbored the feeling of being afraid.”
A poet in Arabic with a magic pen
Tatour, now in her mid-thirties, has been writing poetry since she was 9 years old. “I felt the need to express what I feel inside me and to put it on paper.”
One time in the second grade, the teacher asked her class what they would like to be when they grow up. “Most students said doctor, lawyer or engineer. I said I want to write. I remember this as an important moment,” Tatour says.
“I write about what I feel, whatever I see and whatever touches me. My life now is a piece of paper and a pen.”
Last year, Israel’s so-called Nation-State Law – which has been likened to apartheid-era legislation in South Africa – stripped the Arabic language of its official status. That was a direct attack on the 1.5 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.
But when asked in which language she writes, Tatour replies without hesitation: Arabic.
In prison, Tatour says, the guards denied her requests for writing materials. “You, especially you, will not have a pen and paper,” she recalls them saying.
“But I invented a magic pen,” Tatour says with a big smile. “I had a severe headache in al-Jalameh prison. The guard gave me a yellow paracetamol tablet. I held it in my hand and imagined it as a pen. I wrote with the tablet on the wall but it left no traces.”
“I felt cold and started to play with the zipper of my sweater,” she says. By accident she pulled the slider off the zipper.
“I looked at it and tried to write my name on the wall with it,” she says. “It worked!”
“My headache disappeared and I kept the tablet in my pocket because it had inspired me. I was saved by the tablet. The tablet was my magic pen.”
Tatour wrote two poems on the wall. She titled the first “Feminist impressions tattooed on the wall of a cell,” and the second, “A poet behind bars” – both have been translated to English.
During her trial, Tatour was jailed for three months before being sent to house arrest. After she was sentenced to five months following her conviction, she was sent back to prison to spend the remaining two months behind bars.
“I was back in the same cell and the poem was still there,” she says laughing. “I asked for a sweater to repeat the trick with the slider of the zipper to write on the wall with my magic pen.”
“I wrote all that happened to me on that wall, from the moment I entered prison to when I came back, and the three years of house arrest.”
She also added the poem “Resist, my people, resist them” to the wall.
“I am a feminist,” Tatour says, adding that she has found inspiration from other women poets. Two of her main influences are Palestine’s Fadwa Touqan and Iraq’s Nazik al-Malaika
“Of course I read Mahmoud Darwish and other poets but I relate more strongly to Touqan and al-Malaika,” she says.
“Some people say that I am like Darwish but I don’t like that at all because I am Dareen,” she observes. “I respect Mahmoud Darwish a lot, but I don’t want to be compared with him.”
Others, she says, dismiss her work, but Tatour insists it has its place.
“We don’t have many Palestinian female poets who have written about the resistance,” she says. “Fadwa Touqan was the first and I am the second. I will never reach what Mahmoud Darwish achieved. He is a giant.”
When asked to capture who she is in a few words, Tatour replies: “alienation, exile from a homeland, I feel I am a home by myself, a pen and camera, loneliness, love, human.”
The audience at the award ceremony was moved when Tatour read her poem, “My freedom”:
They closed the door on me in a cell
They locked the handcuffs
Tightened the grip
They banned the light from coming in, and it grew darker
So I drew a bulb on the walls
They wiped the wall and seized my firefly
So the sun in my eyes glowed in the night
They covered my eyes, and gagged my mouth
And I let the poetry in my heart light it up
And I ignited the feelings within my soul
The lantern of my poems erased the darkness
They can tie my hands with chains, but they won’t imprison the pulse of life within me
They’ll never kill that feeling inside me
[Reposted from The Electronic Intifada.]