‘A Needle in the Binding’: The legacy of Palestinian prisoner self-education in Israeli prisons

books
Books in the Prisoner’s Section of the Nablus Municipality Library (Photo: Rana Way)

On the third floor of the Nablus Municipality Library, there sits a room of over 8,000 books set apart from the rest. Many of these books are very old and tattered; many of them, in lieu of a normal face, are adorned with images taken from old National Geographic or Reader’s Digest magazines. Some are laboriously written by hand. The spines of the books show a variety of languages, from Arabic to English, French and Spanish. The New English Bible is flanked by The Great American Revolution of 1776 on one side and The Diary of Anne Frank on the other; across the aisle, Edward Said’s Orientalism and The Greek Myths look on silently, next to Elementary Physics and a study of The Chinese Road to Socialism.

One day in 2008, Italian artist Beatrice Catanzaro became fascinated with this section of the Nablus Library. “I would return day after day”, she related, “to pour over every detail- how the work was sown, the notations, the drawings.” A librarian, seeing her fascination, told her a story:

    A few years ago an old man asked me for a specific book. [She picks up and shows me a thick hard covered grey book with old yellowish pages.] He started to explore the perimeter of the cover with his fingers, searching in the bookbinding gap. When [I] asked him what he was searching for, the man looked at [me] with a discouraged expression: ‘in prison I use to hide my embroidering needle in the binding of this book’. 

What fascinated Beatrice about this collection? This 8,000-book collection is no ordinary collection, but the Prisoner’s Section of the Nablus Library. Here are gathered books that lived with generations of Palestinian prisoners behind the bars of Israeli prisons. The shelves are adorned with weathered tomes of economic theory, slim volumes of poetry, well-worn novels, textbooks on mathematics and physics, classic works of philosophy and history, and much more. Personal and political annotations, scribbles and drawings adorn these pages, which captivated the hearts and minds of decades of Palestinian prisoners before finding their way, after the closure of two ex-Israeli military detention structures in 1996, to this library.

PFLP leader Abdel-Alim Da’na, who was imprisoned for a total of 17 years between 1970 and 2004, spearheaded PFLP educational programs behind bars to spread the philosophy of resistance to less experienced prisoners. He explains the foundation of prison pedagogy- “everyone, when they enter the prison, must learn to read and to study. Some people, when they enter the prison, cannot read or write, and we put an end to their illiteracy. Some of them are very famous journalists now, some are poets, some are writing in the newspapers and doing research in the universities, some are men in the Palestinian Authority, some are activists!”

Khaled al-Azraq, a refugee from Aida Refugee camp who has been a political prisoner for the last 20 years, testifies that:

through the will and perseverance of the prisoners, prison was transformed into a school, a veritable university offering education in literature, languages, politics, philosophy, history and more…Prisoners passed on what they knew and had learned in an organized and systematic fashion. Simply put, learning and passing on knowledge and understanding, both about Palestine and in general, has been considered a patriotic duty necessary to ensure steadfastness and perseverance in the struggle to defend our rights against Zionism and colonialism. There is no doubt that the Palestinian political prisoners’ movement has played a leading role in developing Palestinian national education.

ashour
Khalil Ashour (Photo: Rana Way)

Khalil Ashour was a Palestinian political prisoner from 1970 to 1982. Years later, he became Director of the Ministry of Local Government for the PA in Nablus until his retirement in 2005. He was also a central figure in Beatrice Catanzaro’s aptly-titled exhibit in the Prisoner’s Section of the Nablus Municipality Library,  ‘A Needle in the Binding’. Several excellent pictures and stories from Catanzaro’s exhibit, which ran until November 17,  can be found here.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Khalil Ashour wrote a moving personal testimony called ‘The Palestinian Detainee and the Book’. In accordance with the wishes of Ashour and Catanzaro, it is reproduced here in full. 

THE PALESTINIAN DETAINEE AND THE BOOK

by Khalil Ashour 

The tragedy of detention is the deprivation of freedom of choice, or the limiting of this freedom to the minimum. If someone imposed their rules on you and oppressed you, you are their subject even if you are not a prisoner. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have lived this tragedy in the Israeli detention centers starting from the year 1967 until now, and the ugliest image of this tragedy was when Palestinian detainees were prohibited from reading and writing. They were allowed only to write letters of ten lines to their families, and if they were to write more than ten lines by one word or more, the prison administration used to tear up the letter. During this period Palestinian detainees used to spend their time in narrating stories they knew and films they had watched before detention.

I recall that a detainee narrated for us the story “Les Miserables”  by Victor Hugo, in several chapters. He used to narrate one chapter a day, until he finished the story after two weeks. We used to wait anxiously everyday until nighttime to listen to a new chapter. We all felt as if “Jean Valjean” the hero of the novel, was living among us. The last night we were so sad, as “Jean Valjean” was leaving our detention center, knowing that we were never to meet him again. And when the moment of separation arrived, a sorrowful silence fell upon us all.

This was our situation in Asqalan prison in the years 1970-1971. However, in Biet Led, in 1972, the prison administration allowed three things: the first one was to allow the “Jerusalem Post” Newspaper into the prison, which is published in English. One of the detainees who is fluent in English used to translate articles and news relevant to our interests as detainees for freedom. The second was distributing Israeli books which explain and defend the Zionist Movement, the Jewish right to Palestine, and that the Palestinian Organizations are a group of “terrorists” who are going to fail, in order to inject detainees’ minds with the Israeli version of the situation, bring despair to their hearts and smash their morale. The third one was that every detainee’s family is allowed to buy two books every month for their detained family member, however, these books were to be approved by the prison’s administration first, in addition to the fact that they should remain in the prison if the detainee is released or transferred to another prison. This is how the first library was established in Beit Led prison.

However, cultural life in Nablus prison was rather different. The prison was managed by the Jordanian Police before 1967, there was a small library of tens books in this prison. Most of the books were novels, poetry and few school books that talk about the Jordanian History. However books that address philosophy or politics were originally prohibited in the Jordanian Reign. A remarkable improvement occurred during one of the Red Cross’s visits near the end of the year 1972, the delegation handed us a long list of the books that are allowed and approved by the prison’s administration. The list was distributed to the detainees to choose whatever they wanted, it included books about Marxism, Leninism, Communist theory, and Socialist thought. It was a golden opportunity for the Popular Front and democratic front organizations’ members, as their leaders say that they are leftist organizations that defend laborers’ rights, and lead the proletariat revolution from the inside of the Palestinian national movement and Arab nationalism. This was the first time that the communist books were seen in prisons.

Every time a delegation from the Red Cross used to visit the detainees, the number of red books increased, as well as religious books, especially those authored  by Hassan Al-Banna, Sayed Qotob and his brother Mohammed Qotob, as well as Mohammed Al-Ghazali.  Those authors were the founders and poles of the Muslim Brotherhood that was established in Egypt in 1928.

Based on these books, the thoughts that lie within their pages, and according to their viewers and readers, three intellectual trends appeared and spread among detainees. 1. A patriotic and national movement 2. A communist and socialist movement 3. A religious and Salafi movement. Fruitful and rich discussions and debates occurred between these three parties, which improved the intellectual and cultural level of the detainees. These movements also influenced residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as its ideas spread among the populace, especially amongst university students and educated people. When the communist and socialist movements disintegrated as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union after the year 1989, the leftist parties and organizations suffered from a sever tremor, and a deep shock, as they started flopping aimlessly searching for an identity, which resulted in the spread of the Religious and Salafi movement’s values, thus gaining more popularity, as it found itself more free to compete with the national movement. 

In addition, books’ spread in Israeli prisons, and the variation in its genres and subjects, opened new horizons for the detainees; even those who were illiterate, mastered reading and writing. Detained students completed their education, became Tawjihi degree holders, and joined universities after they were released. Those who were interested in language learned Hebrew, English and French. Those with little knowledge read books about geography, history, economy, politics, philosophy, astronomy, religion, and literature. This is how Palestinian detainees turned prisons, through reading and writing into active and living workshops, as a room in any prison used to be calm at time allocated for reading and noisy when holding sessions and conducting debates, regardless of the number of inmates. In order to test erudition and level of knowledge, they used to conduct a weekly “question & answer” tournament, and award the winning team. As a result of this tournament, the spirit of competition spread among detainees, they started reading more, and copying books to send to other prisons that lacked them. It is known that copying books helps in memorizing more than reading. Translations also became common from Hebrew or English into Arabic. Detainees used to hold a special meeting to listen to translated articles’, which used to be read by the translator himself. They even held meetings in order to listen to translated literature.

One of the cultural activities also was that a group of detainees worked on preparing and distributing magazines, where they would hand write their articles in notebooks. Here one can see how the desire for learning, reading new books and self-education, was spread amongst detainees, as it was their priority. Books played a pioneering role in the significant change in detainees’ lives and hearts, and the clear evidence was that detainees were different when they were released; different than how they were several years ago when they were arrested. They occupied important and influential positions in society after they were released, in fact, some of them were top students at universities, and some of them went on to complete their MA and PHD degrees.

It is natural for detainees to pursue any mean in order to free themselves from imprisonment, and search for a way to escape from their harsh and bleak reality. Those who are deprived of bread dream of bread, and those who are deprived of freedom seek freedom. The Palestinian prisoner resorted to books in order to dream and free themselves through words as well as to escape to an alternative to their lived reality. If the book was a novel, the prisoner lives with its characters and moves amongst them from one place to the other, eavesdrops on their discussions, experiences their feelings, and walks around in their homes. This feeling creates another life for the prisoner, another world, and another reality. 

Hence, books transferred and freed prisoners, even if it was temporary, it is the path to their salvation, as it also brings new ideas to the reader, and new beliefs, it introduces us to different lived experiences, which leads to a widening of horizon and an openness towards difference. The more books a human reads, the more minds he tackles and deals with, the more he enriches his knowledge.

A book is a spring of knowledge that quenches the intellect’s thirst for learning, blessed are those minds that are forever thirsty. 

A book is a new world – we add to the world we know a space for another. The book is a transformation tool from a state to a better one, if we listened carefully to what it says and comprehended what it means. A book does not redeem humans from illiteracy, ignorance, delusion and myth only, it redeems one from corruption, bad manners, bad behavior, narrow mindedness, and bias. 

Books reveal your true self, guide you to what you will become, and illuminate your world just like the sun lights your day. There are two truths in this world, the first is is God which is a permanent truth, and the second; the world, is temporary. We came to this life to read the second truth in order to understand the first, and those who do not know are the ones who do not read.   

About Ben Lorber and Khalil Ashour

Ben Lorber is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Nablus. He is also a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He blogs at freepaly.wordpress.com.
Posted in Israel/Palestine, Occupation

{ 8 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Walid says:

    Very impressive stories about the Palestinian spirit that will never be broken by Israel no matter how hard it tries. Fascinating how Les Miserables was related to the others by the prisoner that had the book and was doing it chapter by chapter as he was reading it and how the prisoners felt that Valjean was there in the prison with them. Another was of the prisoner that was hiding his embroidery needle in the binding of a book.

  2. MarkF says:

    The last few paragraphs moved me immensely. This is one of my all-time favorite Mondo posts, an inspiring story.

    • annie says:

      yeah, this is an out of the ball park fantastic, inspirational article.

      awesome Ben Lorber and Khalil Ashour

      check out the cover art for the exhibit. someday when i go to nablus i will visit the third floor of the Nablus Municipality Library.

    • john h says:

      Great story of hope and expanding horizons in the midst of despair and all the other de experiences.

      Yeah, those last few paragraphs have it, especially this from the last:

      There are two truths in this world, the first is God, which is a permanent truth, and the second, the world is temporary. We came to this life to read the second truth in order to understand the first, and those who do not know are the ones who do not read.

  3. chocopie says:

    I loved this article! I was fascinated to learn about something I’ve never heard of before, and it’s so inspiring. The first time I ever met any Palestinians was years ago when I went to a party in grad school and a couple guys from the West Bank were talking about their time in Israeli prisons when they were only teenagers! I was shocked by their stories and that’s when I started to learn more about the situation in Palestine and Israel.

    Considering the large numbers of incarcerated Palestinians, the self-education program is a brilliantly productive use of months and years that would otherwise be wasted. I’m married to a Palestinian man who is a tireless, life-long learner, as well as incredibly hard-working and professionally ambitious, and the thwarted potential of so many Palestinians living under occupation, blockaded, and imprisoned by Israel is painful to contemplate. Thanks for this amazing report.