‘I Am a Human Being’: A visit with Dareen Tatour

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The 33-year old Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour is currently on trial in Israel for incitement of terror and faces a possible four years in prison. She is one of hundreds of Palestinians who have been targeted for their posts on social media. She was arrested and detained last October and has been confined to house arrest far from her hometown since January 2016. She is heavily guarded and is forced to wear an electronic monitor around her ankle at all times. On the first day of Eid, an Israeli court issued Tatour a 48-hour pass to visit her family in Reineh, a small Palestinian town outside of Nazareth. Though she had limited time and it was her first opportunity to visit with relatives since October, she agreed to sit with me and my husband Zahi Khamis (also born and raised in Reineh) to talk about her case, her work, and her aspirations as an artist. 

The State of Israel has established a rich tradition of persecuting Palestinian writers and poets. In the 1960s, the government repeatedly targeted and arrested Mahmoud Darwish for his poetry and activism until he finally left his homeland for permanent exile in 1970. Samih al-Qasim was imprisoned several times and wrote some of his most enduring poems about his experiences of incarceration at the hands of a repressive regime.

The Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi humorously illustrated the extent of the problem in a story he told about the legendary Communist poet and politician Tawfiq Zayyad. When Zayyad was elected as a member of Knesset, an Israeli official was apparently angered by his poor Hebrew and shouted, “Where did you study Hebrew?”

“In your prisons,” Zayyad replied without missing a beat.

Despite this bitter history of censorship and suppression, and despite her admiration for these towering literary figures, Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour was totally unprepared for the traumatic ordeal that she would face last October.

At about 3:00 am on October 11, 2015, Israeli police and border guards kicked open the door of the Tatour family home and hauled her off in her pajamas, without even her hijab. The police had no warrant and offered no explanation for the shocking pre-dawn raid. Tatour was terrified and “had absolutely no inkling” as to why they were taking her away. Her father Tawfiq asked the police to let him accompany his daughter. They refused. The family was left in a state of panic and confusion.

It was only after twenty days of imprisonment and four interrogations that Tatour and her family finally learned the exact nature of the charges. She was being held for “incitement” because of two Facebook posts and a poetry video clip that she posted on YouTube.

Nine months after her initial arrest, Dareen Tatour still has trouble grasping how it all came to pass. “Never in my life did I believe that a poem that I wrote could lead to this,” she says. “Up until this moment, I still haven’t absorbed it.” Dareen believes that her ongoing prosecution is based on a deliberate misreading of her work and its cultural and literary context, signaling a disturbing lack of basic democratic rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Until last October, Dareen had been leading a relatively peaceful and private life in Reineh, a small town that spreads out across of series of hills between Nazareth and Cana of Galilee. Her mother Ikhlas is a housewife; her father Tawfiq, is a carpenter whose workshop is in the lower level of their home. Built on a scenic slope behind the local Catholic church, their house is a typical multi-story building surrounded by olive and fruit trees.

With its modest furnishings and unpretentious décor, Dareen Tatour’s bedroom is also typical of the rooms of Palestinian girls and women. The walls are adorned with unframed artwork and certificates of appreciation for her participation in various municipal poetry readings. Her selection of art and posters reveal her decidedly secular political and aesthetic leanings. Just beneath a frayed poster of Mahmoud Darwish, she has penned some graffiti on the wall: “Palestine—my pen, my camera, my photographs…” Above her desk she displays a rendition of a sketch by the revered Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali who was assassinated in London in 1987.

Only one item in the room stands in stubborn defiance of local conventions: a small box of kitty litter on the floor next to the closet. As a general rule, Palestinians here don’t keep house pets.

“You have a cat?” I ask in astonishment.

She grins. “Two!” She scoops up a fluffy cat named Kadi, cuddling it with great tenderness.

Dareen Tatour with one of her cats. (Photo: Zahi Khamis)
Dareen Tatour with one of her cats. (Photo: Zahi Khamis)

Dareen Tatour smiles and laughs easily. Her blue-green eyes—a trait that runs in the family—radiate with an amiable warmth and affection. But occasionally the smile slips away and the contours of her face reveal signs of fatigue and apprehension. A tension beneath the skin. Dark circles under her eyes. The stress and uncertainty have affected her and her close-knit family. “We weren’t able to eat properly for three months…” her father tells us. He stops mid-sentence. His face dims.

Despite the hardships, the Tatour family receives us warmly. We are ushered to a comfortable room near the kitchen where the women are busy preparing an elaborate lunch for the first day of Eid. The men are minding the children and setting up chairs and tables for visitors. Dozens of relatives begin to arrive and sit politely in the outer living room, waiting for Dareen to greet them. By evening she will need to return to her house arrest in Tel Aviv. By evening she will be a prisoner again.

We talk over soft drinks, cookies, fruit, and coffee. Her brothers come to greet us, and I discover that her younger brother Yamin was in my high school English class in 1995. I admit with embarrassment that I was a terrible teacher back then, and he admits with embarrassment that they were a terrible class. We share a laugh. Anat, a left-wing Jewish Israeli supporter wearing a flamboyant sundress, also joins us for a time.

This mild, conventional household scene is completely incongruous with the disturbing accusations that have been leveled against Tatour. If the authorities have sought to demonize this poet as a violent and dangerous supporter of terror, they have patently missed the mark. It would be difficult to find a less menacing suspect.

Tartour's electronic monitor (Photo: Zahi Khamis)
Tatour’s electronic monitor (Photo: Zahi Khamis)

Indeed it is her sensitive nature that led Dareen toward the arts from an early age. She started writing poems and kept memoirs since the sixth grade. She wrote every day, and still does. “I have always written what I felt,” she says. “I am a human being—everything I live and experience—I turn it into a poem.”

When Dareen was in high school, the second Palestinian Intifada erupted in the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of the Galilee. The brutal scenes of violence and the tragic murder of unarmed, innocent children had a profound affect on her. She was especially shaken when a young man from the nearby village of Cana was shot and killed in a protest. She began to educate herself and to express her outrage and grief through her poetry.

In one piece called “Rebellion of Silence” she writes about the loss of childhood innocence. She equates this loss with being devoured and raped. “They stole my shadow/shattered the innocence of childhood/killed my white dove.” The speaker of the poem goes on to mourn: “I became like charcoal…I became like the edge of death, blue.”

“I am speaking about the rape of childhood here,” Tatour explains. “I am speaking about the Palestinian mother, about the Palestinian woman. About humanity…Every single human being that is oppressed—that to me is the rape.”

This poem appears in her debut collection of poetry called The Last Invasion which was published by the local press Mutbaat il-Balad in 2010. The book, about love, disappointments, and national suffering and yearning, reached a very limited audience. They printed a thousand copies, but it didn’t sell well. Poetry, after all, is not a highly lucrative venture in any country. Dareen and her father laugh when they tell us about the leftover copies.

“How many?” I ask. As a sister poet, I’m curious.

“Many,” Tawfiq laughs again, gesturing his head toward another room where piles of books are undoubtedly stored.

Tawfiq Tatour (Photo: Zahi Khamis)
Tawfiq Tatour (Photo: Zahi Khamis)

Like the vast majority of emerging poets and artists, Dareen had been working in the margins in near obscurity. She had one exhibit of her extensive collection of photographs of the destroyed Palestinian villages; her book launch was attended by a handful of friends and acquaintances. Some of the local literary figures came to support her, but many didn’t bother to show up. “Even when I uploaded a poem online,” she says, “the maximum I would get would be 20-30 views or likes…I had no idea that writing could change anything. I was just writing to express myself.”

But all of that was about to change. During the upsurge of violence between Palestinians and Israelis last fall, Tatour posted a poem called “Resist my people, Resist them,” which would become the centerpiece of the multi-pronged case against her. Accompanied by dramatic music and familiar footage of Israeli house raids and Palestinian youth clashing with IDF soldiers, the defiant, confrontational poem calls for a sustained resistance against occupation. The clip had only 113 views at the time of her arrest.

The specific subject and inspiration of this poem was the murder of three Palestinian civilians in the past two years: Ali Dawabsheh, the 18-month-old infant who was burned to death by right-wing settlers in July 2015; Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the teen who was kidnapped and burned to death in July 2014, and Hadil Hashlamoun, the unarmed 18-year-old student who was gunned down at a checkpoint in September 2015. “I was in so much pain,” Dareen says. “It hit me hard. I wrote the poem about them. Hadeel Hashlamoun—they killed her at checkpoint because she refused to remove her hijab…The poem is for them.”

Dareen Tatour (Photo: Zahi Khamis)
Dareen Tatour (Photo: Zahi Khamis)

Dareen views her work as a legitimate artistic expression of her personal outrage and pain. It not hard to see the poem in this light. Within a context of conflict, violence, and struggle, it is only natural for an artist of conscience to explore such pressing themes. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Palestinian culture will recognize that the general ethos of Dareen’s poetry clip falls squarely within the precincts of traditional national tropes and iconography.

But therein lies the problem. The Israeli power structure and authorities have never been in the business of considering, much less endorsing, Palestinian traditions of social and artistic struggle. They are not in the business of recognizing that when a poet writes, “resist my people, resist them” she is not necessarily talking about armed resistance, but about all the various forms of daily, everyday struggle, including writing poems and creating art.

In clear contempt for Palestinian culture, rights, and freedom of speech, Israeli authorities have reduced every nuance of Tatour’s poem to the single prosecutable charge of incitement.

According Dareen and her father, the state has specifically latched onto three images in the poem, but the case has largely hinged on the narrow, negligent interpretation of one line, which reads: واتبع قافلة الشهداء  Wa atbaa kafilat al shuhadayi. This phrase can best be rendered into English as “Follow the caravan of martyrs.”

One witness for the prosecution, a policeman with no literary or academic expertise, has translated “atbaa” into a Hebrew verb which denotes a physical action, as in to “follow in the footsteps of the martyrs.” According to his highly charged reading, Dareen has literally called upon her people to become martyrs for the cause.

Dareen vigorously contests this interpretation as reductive and misguided. First of all the prosecution has demonstrated a deliberately racist misunderstanding of the word martyr. For Palestinians, martyr doesn’t means “suicide bomber” or “terrorist;” for Palestinians the word martyr is someone who dies for a cause, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The designation martyr includes the innocent victims of the war and occupation, children like Ali Dawabsheh and Mohammed Abu Khdeir. When she writes about ‘following the caravan of martyrs,’ Tatour is talking about those children.

She is equally offended that the connotations of the verb ‘atbaa’ have been erased. For her, to follow the caravan of martyrs doesn’t mean to follow in their literal footsteps, it means to follow along metaphorically. It means to see them off, to bear them in mind, to stay present with them, to trail behind in grief and sorrow.

A carefully textual analysis of the poem reveals that she is indeed speaking about the martyrs that Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed. She laughs at the irony: “Even if they interpreted it that way [to literally follow in the literal footsteps of the martyrs]—it doesn’t work with the subject of the poem. How would I ask people to join a list of people that they created? You cannot possibly call for following in the footsteps of martyrs that they have killed.”

The egregious mischaracterization of the concept of the martyr is at the heart of another charge against Tatour. Two days before she was arrested, Israeli security forces shot and wounded a student from Nazareth named Asra’a Abed who had been waving a knife at a bus station in Afula. It was proven later that Abed was mentally ill and was actually trying to commit suicide. She was quickly exonerated and released.

The video footage of the incident, which shows several armed soldiers surrounding Abed and gunning her down, upset Dareen. Soon after, she posted a photo of the young woman from neighboring Nazareth lying wounded on the ground. She changed her profile picture to read: “I am the Next Martyr.”

The Israeli government claims that this post proves without a doubt that Dareen was planning to initiate an attack. Dareen dismisses this accusation as categorically false and absurd. She maintains that the authorities have totally ignored the surrounding context, fundamentally misconstruing the meaning of her post.

As a veiled Palestinian citizen of Israel, she fears for her safety every time she walks out of her house. “I am the Next Martyr” is a cry of solidarity against persistent anti-Arab racism and violence; it conveys the idea that every Palestinian is a potential target, every Arab could be the next victim of police brutality or vigilantism. In this way, posting “I am the Next Martyr” to Facebook would be akin to posting a Black Lives Matter slogan like “Hands up, don’t shoot!” or “I can’t breathe.”

Dareen argues that the entire case against her is political theatre primarily designed to make an example out of her—in order to further suppress free speech and undermine Palestinian cultural resistance.

She has a point. It stands to reason that if the Israeli government were genuinely worried about incitement, they might engage in some soul-searching and change their disastrous policies of land seizures, settlement, exclusion, and military occupation. The ongoing killings, arrests, and indefinite detentions of Palestinian children and youth must surely constitute the greatest incitement to more violence—a far more damaging provocation than a poem or Facebook post.

What is remarkable about the whole Kafkaesque situation is the surreal, even comedic, image of a courtroom packed with police, lawyers, judges, and witnesses all sitting around parsing a poem, unpacking a single word. The spectacle surely illustrates both the undeniable power of the pen and the perils of engaging this kind of aggressive literary criticism in a court of law. Scholars, linguists, literary theorists, professors, and students of literature have spent millennia trying to determine if there can ever be a single, correct, determinate interpretation of a complex work of art. Dareen is paying a steep price for the State to find out what most experts already know: the answer is no.

The irony in all of this, Dareen says, is that she was completely unknown before last fall. Her arrest and trial have suddenly raised her profile to an international level. “They exaggerated how big my audience is, but ended up enhancing my audience.” If anything, the ordeal has made her take her role as a poet much more seriously. “It has been traumatizing” she says, “but at the same time it reaffirmed the artist in me…They used their force…they used their might… they tried to imprison thoughts, but they have not succeeded.”

Dareen’s next court date is less than a week away on Monday, July 18th. At this hearing the judge will decide if she can come home to live in Reineh for the duration of her trial, which is far from over.

I ask about her prospects, and Tawfiq shrugs. “We don’t know. This judge smiles a lot, but she is a former prosecutor.”

Dareen Tatour and her father Tawfiq Tatour (Photo: Zahi Khamis)
Dareen Tatour and her father Tawfiq Tatour (Photo: Zahi Khamis)

No matter what happens, Dareen doesn’t intend to give up writing and publishing. The entire debacle has strengthened her resolve. She believes that women’s voices are particularly significant at this stage in history. “It is very important for women to not hide their voice, no matter how oppressed they are. They should fear nothing because fear is the continuation of the crime.”

True to her vocation since childhood, Dareen has been working on a collection of poems that address her experiences of arrest and detention. She has no access to the internet under the terms of her house arrest, so she spends a lot of time reading and writing. She already has another collection of poems and a novel called “An Appointment with the Whales” prepared for publication. The problem is that these two completed works are stored on her laptop, which has been confiscated.

Dareen’s entire body of work—all of her files, her photographs, her drafts, poems, prose, and private correspondence are in the hands of her antagonists. The thought of such a violation makes me gasp audibly.

“They have everything?” I ask. It’s an intolerable punishment to inflict upon a writer and artist.

She shakes her head sadly. “Everything.”

“Will you ever get it back?”

Her face clouds. “I don’t know. Insha’allah. Insha’allah…”

But it turns out that the theft and looting of her computer is not what hurts her the most. What hurts the most, she says, is the deliberate assassination of her character. “The most difficult thing in all of this is the accusation of terror, because I am completely opposed to terror. And so as far as I am concerned, this accusation is itself criminal.”

As we get up to say goodbye, we pass a roomful of aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews who have been waiting respectfully to see Dareen. We greet them briefly and step out into the afternoon sunshine. Tawfiq takes a minute to show me his workshop.

“How’s business?” I ask.

“Pretty slow.”

Most people are buying their furniture ready-made these days from big box stores and outlets. An Ikea has opened up near Akka. I consider the financial stress on the family—the lawyers, the loss of income, the need to rent an apartment for Dareen and her brother in Tel Aviv. It’s so unfair.

And yet, today, they are slightly optimistic, even cheerful. Dareen is home until evening, and it is Eid. Soon they will be sharing a celebratory meal.

As we head toward the car, preparing to drive up the hill toward our nearby home, Tawfiq shows me his olive and fruit trees with considerable pride. Some of the olive trees are ancient, hundreds of years old.

For the Palestinians who remain in the Galilee, everything is rich with sentiment and meaning. Poetry is not just poetry, and trees are not just trees. To cultivate and nurture them is yet another form of sumud and resistance.

Translations and photographs by Zahi Khamis

Read Kim Jensen’s update on Dareen Tatour’s case here

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Just think, the Israeli security apparatus is prowling around keeping tabs on obscure Palestinian artists who don’t have many readers. It’s incredible when you think about it, that Israel can actually perceive a threat from poetry! And to think that an Israeli court will hear arguments about differing interpretations and translations of poems. Look at the ridiculous position Israel has backed itself into, being the judge and jury over (translated) Palestinian literature. I hope it… Read more »

thank you so much kim and zahi, this was an incredible read.

As a poet myself, I am stunned by this–now this, this is really BIG Brother On Steroids!

“Most people are buying their furniture ready-made these days from big box stores and outlets. An Ikea has opened up near Akka. I consider the financial stress on the family—the lawyers, the loss of income, the need to rent an apartment for Dareen and her brother in Tel Aviv. It’s so unfair. ” I don’t understand why Dareen is under house arrest in Tel-Aviv and not her actual home. And has to pay for her… Read more »

Poetry is a natural output of a healthy, positive society. This is why you never see poetry come out of the Zionist kibbutz or WASP neighbourhoods in Northern California.