To have lived the Israeli prison experience with its numerous large and small details, and to watch Mai Masri’s film “3000 nights” means you will, once again, become a prisoner. But this time, you are a prisoner to the screen throughout the 103 minutes of screening time. While your eyes are fixed onto the pictures passing in front of you, your mind returns to the never absent prison and to those still incarcerated there.
“3000 Nights” documents the story of Palestinian female prisoners through the figure of a prisoner facing Israeli interrogations, torture and violations. The film illustrates daily Israeli violations against Palestinian prisoners, and narrates the story of a pregnant prisoner giving birth to her child within the confines of the prison’s cell, and that of her new-born child.
The film focuses on the stories of Palestinian female prisoners during the 1980s and highlights the experiences of over 15,000 female prisoners arrested since 1967 (according to reports by the Palestinian Commission of Prisoners’ Affairs). The film also points to the plight of Palestinian and Arab prisoners at large.
Mixtures of memories and feelings flow with the passing of every scene. Between the optimism of the will, and pessimism of the mind; the joy of dreaming about freedom, and the pain and suffering of prison. The film’s depiction of a dark, rotten, narrow jail cell reminded me of the cell I had lived in, and within the confines of its walls. With the passing of every scene, I felt I was re-living my time in solitary confinement cells.
A battle of wills
With the start of the film, a number of competing battles came to my mind. There is that battle of prisoners’ will, armed with the justness of their cause and the dream of freedom, and the opposing battle of a whole system equipped with all forms of oppression and violence to break that same will.
Yet, jailers forget that prisoners are never alone in this battle. The prisoners’ families live every moment alongside them and continuously inspire them. Jailers do not know the sources of prisoners’ strength and their ability to resist obedience to power. Jailers do not know that prisoners live their outmost happiness when they force the prison authority to retract on, and concede to, certain issues, even small ones.
Oh, how beautiful is that feeling of being more powerful than your jailer.
You feel and live happiness when you extract a small victory from within the confines of prison cells. Such moments are full of pride despite still being physically confined behind prison bars, and under unjust systems including being placed under administrative detention for undefined periods of time.
With the advent of every new battle, you remain true to the promise you have made to yourself and to your family. Your jailers remain committed to their oppressive policies.
The film’s scenes take you back to the confines and darkness of a prison you have lived in for years. It also takes you back to that state of daily battles; the confines of a prison tent: a cell paradoxically referred to as a “room;” and to daily harassments and violent searches.
The film brought me back to my rusted prison’s bed.
Change to individual forms of struggle
As I was watching the film’s depictions of forms of resistance in the 80s, I felt a sort of disillusionment when I remembered the way Oslo has torn apart the unity of Palestinian prisoners, and the broader national movement. I remembered the intra-Palestinian division and its impact on the Palestinian prisoners’ movement.
The impact of the Oslo accords, and the Palestinian intra-division produced a huge gap in the unity of Palestinian prisoners. Since then, the struggle of Palestinian prisoners became segmented between this and that political party, and their ability to extract new successes for the movement became weaker than ever. More so, the prisoners’ ability to keep the gains they have won became a subject of contention.
Destroying the Palestinian prisoners’ unity was a goal of the Israeli prison service since 1967, and unfortunately, this goal has partially been accomplished due to the lack of unity between Palestinian prisoners: something Israelis were unable to accomplish through their various means of oppression and violence.
At the same time, we are witnessing strange occurrences such as the valuing of narrow political party goals over national goals, and a lack interest in education and national values. As such, and with the absence of unified struggles, political parties are waging their own separate battles against Israeli policies and violations. Furthermore, individual resistance emerged as one of the manifestations of this lack of a unified struggle between Palestinian political parties, and even within the same party. Tens of Palestinian prisoners have resorted to individual hunger strikes as means of protesting their administrative detention including Khader Adnan, Samer Essawi and Mohammad Al-Qeq.
With the film’s scenes on hunger strike, your memory goes back to mass hunger strikes, or what is referred to as “the battles of empty stomach.” Longing, and fighting, for freedom, the prisoners would live weeks, and sometimes months, solely on drops of water and some smuggled salt grains. The prisoners’ goals were extracting spaces of freedom within their cells and improving the conditions of their arrest. The prisoners would succeed in getting some changes despite the violence of their jailers.
Through hunger striking, prisoners manage to make their way to the highest point in sky. They are fully aware that what they will face is not easy as all of the occupation’s forces will unite against them, and in order to break their protest.
When the strike continues for weeks, you become worried that your body will fail you and as such you rely on a weapon which never fails you: that of the will. When, four weeks after the strike, you are sent to what is supposed to be a hospital, the bed becomes your new jail cell as your right leg is shackled all day, and left hand is shackled all night. Your chains become a companion of yours, and you are continuously unable to sleep. Reaching the bathroom every two hours, due to the high level of water intake, becomes an almost impossible task. It is a journey with lots of pain in the hands, legs, back, chest and head. And with ongoing harassments from the jailers who are continuously saying “you will die here without achieving your demands.”
My heart beats because of you
As the hunger strike goes on, you are inspired by the experience of thousands who have been through this before and have emerged victorious. The memory, and stories, of the Palestinian hunger strikers who died after being force-fed accompanies you throughout your hunger strike, and beyond.
You read one of your son’s smuggled letters, in which he writes, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” quoting the late Bobby Sands. At the sight of this letter, your eyes tear up, and the body’s physical weakness and its pain becomes a source of strength. Your spirits reach the highest point of the sky. Then you send your family a few words encompassing all meanings: “my heart beats because of you,” you say.
Our children grew up sharing our pain and suffering, and they are continuously longing for our freedom. Their story begins with the first detention order.
The administrative detention maze
The maze begins with the Israeli West Bank’s military commander issuing of an order, based on the recommendation of the Israeli intelligence, to send the prisoner to administrative detention. The order is issued on the base of suspecting the prisoners’ “danger for the safety of the region and the public”. You tell your family, “Do not worry. It is a short period. I will soon be back with you.”
As soon as the first six months pass by, you realize that this is only the beginning. The snow boll rolls over and over, and gets bigger. Despite that, the dream of freedom keeps renewing itself, and you hope for freedom with the end of the new administrative detention period. You start telling yourself; perhaps they no longer think I am a danger to their safety and the safety of their public. ”They have released many prisoners – I might be as lucky as them!”
Your eyes never leave the prison’s door. You look and wait. Every passing paper can be your detention renewal order.
As soon as your virtual release date nears, you family begins to continuously ask, “Anything knew?” You answer, not yet, but don’t be too hopeful. “A renewed detention order is always a possibility.” Your hopes and those of your families rise as days pass by. But a stroke of a pen by the military commander is enough to renew your detention for yet another undefined period.
How do you tell your family that you won’t be with them? How do you tell your children that their hope for a release must be delayed for undefined months to come?
Yet, despite all this, hope for release is renewed. Life is meaningless without hope. You start creating your own happiness through reading and reading, and you long for every moment of communication with your family who always manage to lift up your spirits. When your brother asks you for name-recommendations for his soon to be born daughter, you quickly suggest Farah (Joy, in Arabic): hoping for joyful days to come.
The detention order renews every six months. The Israeli intelligence and security apparatus continue to chase our dreams. A new detention order comes in hours before the supposed release date.
This game of unjust and illegal administrative detention continues. Your only option, as the late Mahmoud Darwish says, is to “raise hope.”
And you continue in the prison fighting against minds wanting to destroy you morally. Your story, and that of others, is like to that of Sisyphus and his stone
One of the most important responses to administrative detention was the 2014 hunger strike which lasted for over two months. Such was also the hunger strike of Mohammad Al-Qeq who waged a hunger strike for 94 days demanding the end of his detention. Al-Qeq emerged victorious by forcing the prison authorities to agree to release him when his detention order ends in May/2016. A similar challenge to administrative detention was waged by, amongst others, Khader Adnan and Samer Essawi whose will won over an ugly form of incarceration belonging to this colonial regime.
Mai Masri’s film succeeded in two ways: first, in re-activating our memories about the struggle of Palestinian prisoners. Second, in its ability to bring closer the prisoners’ resistance and resilience to the Palestinian youth of the current uprising we are witnessing.
For our memories to stay alive, every story of those fighters for freedom must be documented in more books, studies and films. For, as the late Palestinian writer Salman Nator says, “If we lose our memory, hyenas will eat us.”
This article originally appeared in the Journal of Palestine Studies.