“Shut your mouth up,” barked a huge, scary Israeli soldier at me, like a rabid bulldog, whenever I challenged his orders. This is not even a fair comparison; a bulldog, despite his intimidating appearance, can be quite sweet and loving on the inside. Well, this soldier was anything but! So maybe criminal describes him better. He and a dozen other soldiers smashed through my aunt’s apartment window in the middle of the night last Thursday and took hostage my aunt, Suha, my 22-year old cousin, Hanin, my 69-year old grandmother, and me.
That night of terror — and defiance — is unforgettable. It brought back memories of an earlier invasion, when Israeli soldiers came to occupy our apartment and tried to expel us. I was five then. I felt powerless, terrified and sick, and my knee kept shaking. I asked my mother what to do to make it stop, while my father was busy confronting the soldiers: “You will not take our home while we’re alive,” he said. “We are unarmed except with our rights and our dignity.” He kept repeating this, over and over, so it stuck in my mind. I was so worried that they might hurt him, and my knee kept dancing. Mama suggested that I walk up to one of the soldiers and look him in the eyes. I hesitated at first, thinking she must have gone crazy; that guy’s gun was literally bigger than me. But I finally did. To my surprise, he immediately took his eyes down, avoiding any eye contact. I triumphantly said, “Yes!” and my knee stopped shaking. I learned the true meaning of the word defiance – tahaddi, in Arabic.
I was sleeping over at Suha’s last Wednesday night. I woke up a little after 1:00 am to Hanin’s voice calling me at the top of her lungs from the corridor. She meant to alert me before the soldiers could enter her room, where I was sleeping. She didn’t want me to see a soldier’s face behind a large rifle when I opened my eyes. She later told me how a similar experience had deeply traumatized her when they arrested her father the first time, in 1992, when she was still three. With time, she forgot everything about that horrible night except the haunting details of that Israeli soldier’s face.
They kept all four of us in the living room, with several soldiers watching us. They were looking for Hanin’s father, Ahmad Qatamesh, who is a political scientist, an author of many books and such a kind and giving person. He wrote about his almost six-year experience in prison under “administrative detention” (with no charges or trial), about what he thought of war, of the Palestinian Authority, of Arab revolutions, of socialism, and many other things, as Hanin told me. You can’t arrest someone for telling the truth, or for writing what he/she thinks. An opinion is never wrong when you don’t force it on others. In my view, everyone should be free to think, to write, and to oppose injustice.
I asked the soldier to close the door, as it was terribly noisy upstairs. The soldiers were breaking down the neighbors’ door, although Suha told them they are away in the U.S. “You go close it yourself,” he said. I was too nervous to get up, to be honest. I dug in the yellowish couch I was sitting on, trying to hide that I was literally shaking. I felt my skin was turning into the couch’s color. “You’re the ones illegally breaking into people’s homes!” I shot back. “Shut the f*** up,” he yelled, again, in a thundering tone. I did, but I felt really bad, afterwards, that he succeeded to shut me up. I started finding excuses for my behavior—they are big and armed, and we are all alone. They could hurt us if we challenged them. I couldn’t speak. My mouth was beat-boxing, as my trembling lips could not produce proper sounds. Then finally, I learned how to overcome my fear.
My old memory of my encounter with the soldiers in our apartment flashed back, and I felt empowered. I decided not to shut up, no matter what. Our obedience has never made Israeli soldiers any less ruthless, I thought to myself.
We were kept hostage until they find Ahmad, we found out. Hanin used the excuse of going to the bathroom to alert her father who was staying at his brother’s that night. When she returned to our “prison,” the living room, the home phone rang. The Israeli commander jumped and answered it. It was Ahmad! Hanin was angry that he called, as she was hoping he would somehow avoid arrest. The thought of losing him again horrified her. But Ahmad’s calculations were different, Suha later explained to us. The Israeli commander threatened him saying: “If you don’t turn yourself in, we will mess the house up and destroy the furniture.” Ahmad, who was enraged, shouted back loudly enough so even we could faintly hear some of his sentences: “You are an occupation force that is illegally in our house … You cowards, leave my family alone. If you want me, come and arrest me at my brother’s house. I am not going anywhere.” Ahmad wanted to protect us all, clearly, and felt no need to escape as he had nothing to hide.
Throughout, the commander and some of the soldiers treated us as if we were animals in their farm—their farm! With every arrogant order, with every dirty look, with every aggressive move, their racism and hateful soul completely swallowed up any sense of humanity they may have once had.
The four of us decided not to show them our fear. Don’t get me wrong, we were scared to death, all of us, but we hid it. After a while we noticed how a lot more scared and nervous they were. When I got up to fix my pants, for example, two of them quickly pointed their guns at me. I said, “Cowards!” That did not go well with them. We decided to start up a conversation with each other, ignoring the soldiers’ very presence. We talked, laughed, and talked again in loud voices. They must have thought that because we are women, Palestinian women (well, I am technically still a child), we would cry, scream, and beg for mercy. Boy, they had us all wrong! We developed a new form of peaceful resistance: TLI—Talk, Laugh and Ignore!
I thought some music would help us relax. They had confiscated all our mobile phones, but I carefully hid mine for the right moment. I put “Li Beirut,” a song by the Lebanese diva Fairouz. The lyrics, set a romantic Spanish tune, talk about Beirut, its beauty and resistance in the face of destruction by the Israeli army. They hate our humanity and cannot stand anything beautiful about us, so they try to destroy it. Many innocent women and children were murdered by them, in Beirut, as in Gaza. They violently confiscated my phone and turned the music off.
We started asking them questions, non-stop. “We hope you won’t steal our valuables from the rooms?” “We never take anything that is not ours,” one shouted indignantly. Hanin replied, “Other than stealing our land every day, you have stolen precious items from Palestinian homes during previous invasions!” Their commander appeared again, giving them new orders. I could not resist saying, “You so remind me of sheep. He’s your shepherd, and all of you are just mindless followers.” One of them pointed his M16 at me, and said: “Shut the f*** up!” So I said: “If you hate the truth so much why don’t you refuse to follow his orders? Why do you insist on terrorizing us?” He repeated his favorite insult and moved closer, with his rifle pointed at my face. Suha jumped and shouted at him, “She is only 14, do you have anything human left in you?”
I was boiling with anger, but I refused to give them the pleasure of watching me cry. They were not only humiliating me, they were also trying to make me a silent victim. I didn’t want to shut up. And I didn’t want to be submissive in anyway. I have had enough already. I wanted them out, now. I was very tired and sleepy. But I still wanted to show them what a Palestinian teenager is made of! Images from Tunisia and Egypt filled my head, and I felt proud.
What bothered me the most was that they used my mobile phone to call Ahmad while they were trying to find his brother’s house to arrest him. I wish I didn’t have my mobile with me. I am exhausted. I wish I could disappear and only return after they had left. They split up; some of them remained in the house holding us hostage, while the rest went to arrest Ahmad. We were terribly worried about him. Only when their mission was accomplished did they let go of us. Before leaving, the last one looked at Hanin, who was about to collapse, and teased her: “We took your father. I will take care of him!” So she screamed: “Criminals! He will take care of himself.” We were anxiously waiting for them to leave, to be free, but also to finally express our emotions freely. Hanin and I cried our hearts out—a mix of fear, deep worry about Ahmad, and even deeper anger.
When they finally left we all just sat there trying to understand what had just happened. For a minute we thought we were in an endless nightmare. We couldn’t remember every single detail that had happened until much later. It was as if we were there but at the same time we were not. Sleeplessness mixed with intense horror can do that to you, I guess.
After I calmed down, I felt guilty how at one point in the confrontation I hoped to disappear and only return when they had left. How could I just wish to escape like that? To go away without challenging their occupation and racism? To abandon my dream of a free Palestine? To run away as if I didn’t care about others? What was I thinking? That can’t be me. I am a girl. I’m a musician. I am a student. I have a family that loves me. But I’m Palestinian, and at the moment that is a lot more important to me than all the rest. I am human, first, and Palestinian, second. Being Palestinian is in my roots. They can kill me; they can steal my land, as they’re already doing, continuously. They can cut our olive trees, as they often do! They can take away everything, but never our identity, our dignity, or our hope to be free.
They can never shut me up.
Nai Barghouti is a 14-year-old Palestinian ninth grade student, flutist and composer living in occupied Ramallah, Palestine. She is describing her experience of being taken hostage during an Israeli army raid recently.