Skinny jeans, cockroaches and a kangaroo court—Mariam Barghouti’s diary of a Palestinian in an Israeli prison

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Mariam Barghouti being released from Ofer Military Court. (Photo: Free Mariam Barghouti/Facebook)
Mariam Barghouti being released from Ofer Military Court. (Photo: Free Mariam Barghouti/Facebook)

On April 11th, I was arrested in the village of Nabi Saleh and wrongfully charged with stone throwing as well as assaulting a soldier. The testimony of a 20 or so year old soldier was enough to push for indictment and send me to Hasharon jail held in Israel.

There I was in the same jail cell with Lena Jerbani, Muna Qaadan, Intisar Sayyad, Alaa Abu Zaytoon, and Shireen Issawi.  I am eternally grateful for the kindness and love they showed me, for their patience, and of course for putting up with my awful singing.

The below are excerpts from my jail journal diaries that I have written throughout my stay in Hasharon. These journals are written by me, but this is hardly about me. It’s about the harsh, macabre reality these women have to face. This is a fraction of a fraction of the ugliness some of these women have endured for years, one of them for 11 years.

If one word describes these women, it’s endurance.

Entry one:

After 12 hours from bus to bus, from one dark cold box, to an even darker and colder box I was finally brought to Hasharon. I was placed in room number one with five other women. I was dirty, afraid, tired, hungry and distraught. I found an empty top bunk bed with Fulla (barbie) bed covers and five sleeping women. At that moment, I was greeted with a half-awake Muna Qaadan.

I wanted nothing more than to climb into the bed, lay in the fetal position and sleep. I wanted nothing more than to be a child again. But the reality we live in wouldn’t allow it. On the top bunk there were stickers of Tweetie, mushroom houses, Cinderella and other children cartoons. The reality is that they’re probably there because they’re some of the few things Israeli forces will allow inside the jail cell; in my head, however, I couldn’t help but think of them as stickers that resemble these women’s hijacked innocence. Their hijacked childhood. So they make up for it, by putting little toys and cartoon stickers around. My first night, I pretended Fulla’s hand printed on the bed sheets was mama’s hand extended from her bed in Ramallah to my bunk in Hasharon. My first night, I cried. I hadn’t cried in ages and on April 12th at 4:00 am I finally cried.

Shireen Issawi. (Photo: Ramallah Bantustan)

Shireen Issawi, sister of former hunger striker Samer Issawi was transferred from Maskubbiyeh in Jerusalem where she was in solitary to Hasharon earlier in April. Issawi suffers from back pain due to the awkward positions she was placed in whilst under interrogation and when being transferred from one jail to the other.

Shireen is being held unjustly in Israeli jails as she states that “Israel is targetting any lawyers that are active in the case of Palestinian prisoners especially those that are in contact with the families of prisoners.” Despite the pressure and harassment Issawi underwent, in jail she always held a smile and made jokes at almost everything. At one point, jokingly, Lena Jerboni jests and asks “why are you always talking, Shireen?”

“I was in solitary, I have to workout my tongue again! Let me laugh!”

Shireen is joy.

Entry two:

Jail (Hasharon), is unpleasant, the situation, environment, treatment, commodities, the are all organized around psychologically ruining the individuals involved. The game of psychological manipulation begins way before you enter the jail cell. It begins with the start of colonialism.

But here, it’s different. It’s more tangible, less abstract and definitely harsher. The buses (read one by two boxes) they put you in are filled with trash, pests, and of course you’re cuffed by the feet and hands. Even if one isn’t cuffed you still can’t move. All you hear outside is Hebrew, yelling, police singing obnoxiously and of course the occasional banging on your door.

The most humiliating part was the occasional “check up” where different officers open the hole in the door for a few seconds, close it, I hear laughter and then another does the same. It’s as though I’m the latest specimen in their experiment with lives.

How are we so quiet with this not even in our backyard, but right here, in our front yard?

Israel’s idea of democracy is interchangeable with the abuse of the “other.”

Lena Jerbroni. (Photo: Ramallah Bantustan)

Lena Jerboni is currently the longest serving Palestinian female prisoner. She was sentenced to 17 years and has served 11. In jail, Lena is considered the dean of the prisoners. All of our affairs went through her first. Despite her young age, she acted as an older sister to all of us. Some prisoners, although older than her call her Khalto [auntie].

As I craved a cigarette and asked for one. Lena turns her head towards me and firmly says, “No. We don’t have slaves here.”

Lena is one of the strongest women I met and the most fragile. Jail has become everything she knows. At one point during my incarceration we had a conversation in which myself and the other girls were trying to explain the style of skinny jeans and what they were.

We laughed. We laughed extremely hard. However, inside our souls wept. Wept for the reality of existing but not living, and we wept out of fear of jail becoming the only reality we knew.

Lena is wisdom

Entry three:

It’s day five of me being in prison. Half of the time I spent from one bus (box) to the next. This strategy is designed to break you. To make you dread going to court and to crave stability, even if it comes in the form of an unjust jail.

It’s day five and I’m already accustomed to the cockroaches. They’ve become the reminder of outside interaction. It’s only day five and I’ve become so indifferent. So numb. I know I did nothing wrong so let them do what they want. I’ve read too many books, I know better, I know the conviction rate is 99.7-percent for Palestinians, innocent or not. And we’re all innocent.

The court room in Ofer consists of a trailer and in it some chairs and a bench. Military court consists of a judge that has already decided you’re guilty and the only thing being negated is your punishment. Saying it’s absurd is the understatement of the century.

Ironically, whenever I’m being moved from one bus to another one of the police has to say “Israel is the only democracy in the world.” well, at least they’ve upgraded from “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Intisar Sayyad. (Photo: Ramallah Bantustan)

Palestinian prisoner Intisar Sayyad has been in Israeli jails for two and a half years and is scheduled to be released June 9, 2014. She spoke to me about the “bosta” which are are cells hidden inside buses that prisoners are transferred in. Israel uses these to break the prisoners and make them wish to be charged with anything at all, simply so that the dreadful journey will end.

Instisar recalls her trips in the bosta: “At one point I begged my lawyer to have them charge me just so I don’t have to endure those humiliating and painful trips.”

Intisar had the warmest heart and kept reiterating her nostalgia for her kids and their hugs. She kept comparing me to her 19 year old son, saying “You’re almost as old as my son, I haven’t seen him in a long while, but you remind me of my son.”

My last night there at 3:00 am as I was being taken from Hasharon back to Ofer for my third trial in one week, a half awake Intisar looks at me, takes a gray sweater from her clothes and gives it to me. She has known me for a few days and the kindness she has showed me measures to that of an eternity. She says, “take this habibti, it’s going to be a cold one.”

Regardless of how little they have, the prisoners always managed to share everything. When one appears to be in pain another consoles and a third ensures that the room is sanitary and clean. Their togetherness is outstanding.

Intisar is warmth.

Entry four:

Jail, like colonization, is ugly. The girls here have developed such an intense sense of humor that helps them cope with the shit around them. We have glorified them for so long, like we do with most people coping with their misery. We drape the ugliness and we should stop.

They are not superheroes. I see the hurt, their pain, the nostalgia, the longing. Their hears are broken, their souls are jaded and that’s okay to feel. We need to acknowledge the negatives rather than hide them with a facade.

The girls are needle point organized, I think however that this ideal is adopted throughout their time here to gain a sense of control on what seems to be an uncontrollable situation.

Time passes by so slowly here, eternity’s definition should be Hasharon.

I tried to make games for the girls, even to get them to meditate or try and change up the mood a little. It worked, for about 5 minutes and then I realized, horrible things are meant to be horrible. There is no bright side to unjust incarceration.

Alaa Abu Zaytoon. (Photo: Ramallah Bantustan)

Alaa Abu Zaytoon just 21 years old has served a year and three months since her arrest. She was sentenced to two years.

The entire time Abu Zaytoon kept recounting the time she has left of her sentence. Her dream is to have a baby girl and name her Nagham, “so she can be my music,” she used to say.

Alaa, had the patience to sit down with my stiff hands and teach me how to craft jewelery and to do my laundry with the supplies we were allowed.

She had such a whimsical voice and was constantly making fun of everyone.

Alaa is patience.

Entry five:

I recall when I saw my lawyer after a weekend in jail I felt safe again, and then he looked at me and said they’re looking for indictment. I cried and I remember apologizing to my lawyer for crying. Then I saw friends and family in the court and I wanted nothing more than to cry in their arms.

I felt weak. Weak and guilty.

Guilty, because I am showing my weak side out and publicly. We have an indoctrinated dogma that we should always be strong. Never weak. That’s what’s fucking us up. It’s okay to be weak, long as you don’t allow it to control you and stop you from doing what you can. But it’s okay to be weak and to acknowledge it.

We are not invincible superhumans and the world needs to fathom that. Enough with the romanticism. Being here gave me the greatest reality check of all time. Sharing a four by three room with Intisar, Muna, Lena, Alaa, and of course Shireen put things into perspective.

In a few hours I’ll begin the box journey to Ofer again. Hopefully it’s the last time and the final trip I have to make.

I hope to never see these women again, unless it’s when they’re free.

Muna Qaadan. (Photo: Ramallah Bantustan)

Muna Qaadan, aged 42 with the spirit of a 20 year old was the first prisoner that I met. She’s from Jenin and her detention has been extended for the 14th time by Israeli forces. Muna got engaged in jail and looks forward to being free and married.

She was the one that always gently caresses our hair, or sternly commands us when things need to be done. She was commanding but gentle.

Muna is longing.


This article was originally published on Mariam’s blog, Ramallah Bantustan on May 22, 2014.

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I alternate between tears and gooseflesh.

Mariam, this is incredible. My words cannot do it justice. Thank you and the beautiful women you have introduced to me.

May they all be free soon and forever.

I nominate these women for consideration for the genesis Prize (‘the Jewish Nobel’) for making the world a better place ‘’Tikun Olam.’’: “The Genesis Prize was presented to Bloomberg by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony attended by international dignitaries, Nobel laureates and business leaders from around the globe. American comedy legend Jay Leno hosted the event and Grammy-winning pianist Evgeny Kissin, a new Israeli citizen as of late last year, performed. ”… Read more »

Thank you Mariam for showing us the lives, the faces and the hearts of women the Israeli occupation and the world powers barely admit even exist. I’m in awe of their bravery, touched by their hopes and determined that others should know them also.

Wow! Incredible piece.

Thanks, Mariam. Very interesting read.