Hundreds of Palestinians are arrested, interrogated, and sentenced to Israeli prisons for their pronouncements made on Facebook each year. But the most absurd case of them is that of poet Dareen Tatour. Perhaps one reason Tatour’s row was heightened is the strangeness of how her ongoing trial is a mixture of poetry and legal proceedings, which has caught the imagination of the literary world.
Another reason is the fact that Tatour, since her arrest on October 11, 2015, chose the hard path of standing by her words and waging a Sisyphean battle to prove the legitimacy of her protest in Israel’s biased courts. She is paying a high price for her pertinacity. It would have been easier to do like everybody else and sign a plea deal. In August 2016 the prosecution agreed to close the case with nine months of imprisonment, if she would only admit that she incited violence. Taking into account the three months of time she already served in jail after she was initially detained, Tatour could walked free on March 2017 if she had taken the deal. Instead, she is still under house arrest, not allowed to touch the internet and prevented from publishing any of her works. And, according to Israeli “legal tradition,” if she is convicted in this trial she still could face a longer period in prison, retribution for her “stubbornness” and “wasting the court’s time.”
Solidarity meets denial
The big prize of all of Tatour scarifies in her struggle is the extraordinary solidarity campaign. It includes an international petition calling for her immediate release and the dropping of all charges, signed by world-famous intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, and many well-known poets and writers. Her case was also adopted by Pen International and highlighted during World Translation day in 2016, the day of the imprisoned writer in 2016, and world poetry day in 2017. Pen America also adopted the case, incorporating readings of her poems in their August 25, 2017, event “Distant Lives, Forbidden Voices” in New York. Pen America is planning farther action before the verdict, which is expected on October 17.
Locally, solidarity from Palestinian writers’ unions both in the West Bank and within the Green line is a routine matter. But there was also unprecedented solidarity from Israeli poets, writers and intellectuals, mostly in a high-profile petition that was published on October 2016 at the one-year event on Tatour’s detention. Of course, it helped that all the texts for which Tatour is accused did not contain any call to violence, not even violent resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation.
All this solidarity was completely ignored by the Israeli authorities and the Israeli mainstream media, which is defined as anything more pro-government than Haaretz. In court, the prosecutor, Alina Kaufman, continues to press forward the case with rare dedication and vigor. From time to time, Kaufman complained to the judge that she doesn’t like how the media covered the case. Judge Adi Bambiliya replied that she is lucky as she does not read the news.
Tatour’s lawyer Gaby Lasky has repeatedly applied for easing the conditions of Tatour’s home arrest, but the prosecution objected to any relief claiming that Tatour still constitutes grave danger to state security.
The only indirect sign that the prosecutor was affected by the solidarity campaign came when she submitted her summaries. Tatour’s poem is fully cited at the center of the indictment and along the trial the prosecutor claimed that being a poet made her more dangerous as she might influence public opinion. But in the 43 pages of detailed and hateful summaries submitted over the summer, the prosecutor carefully and strangely altogether avoids the words “poet” and “poem”, speaking instead about “texts” that were published by the accused, and about her “public standing.”
The wall of silence breaks
Finally the wall of silence and denial on the part of the Israeli government fell altogether when supporters of Dareen Tatour called for an artistic solidarity event in the Jaffa (Yaffa) Theatre on August 30, 2017. And when the walls fell, we faced a wave of threats and inciting language from top Israeli politicians printed in Israeli mainstream media.
Apparently Zionists aren’t in a position to enter an argument about freedom of expression on an intellectual level. But the event in Yaffa gave them the platform to appear in a frequent pose – as bullies. I already wrote in detail about the threats to cut funding to the Yaffa theater, using the recently passed “Nakba Law,” and how it snowballed from lunatic fringes to the minister of “culture,” Miri Regev. I will only add here that over the last days before the event, Israel’s finance minister, the supposedly “centrist” Moshe Kahlon, who has the actual power to cut the theater’s funding, joined the threatening chorus with some strong words of his own.
On the day the solidarity event for Dareen Tatour, the event was discussed not only in most Israeli papers but also on mainstream radio and television channels. So much so, the organizers hardly had time to prepare for the event itself. It is not beyond the scope of this report to expose the hypocritical and biased coverage in the Israeli media, with many writers competing to defame Dareen Tatour’s poetry (which they didn’t read) and echoing the prosecution’s lies about “incitement to violence and terrorism.” But, just like their attempts to silence Tatour’s cry for freedom, they made her voice heard worldwide. In the end the threats against the solidarity action helped to make it the great success that it was.
Some 250 people attended the event. The little hall of the Yaffa theater was not enough to hold all of them, even with some sitting on the stairs and in a storage space. The organizers had to broadcast everything on a special screen to the big public that gathered in the wide entrance hall. But the success wasn’t only the attendance, it was felt even more in the contents and the spirits of the event.
Exposing the logic of persecution
The organizers, including poets Tal Nitzán and Alma Katz, writer Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, actress Einat Weizman and producer Khaled Jabarin, succeeded to build a program that was short, diversified, informative and intense. Journalist Orly Noy, the host, described Tatour’s ordeal since she was arrested on October 2015, spent three month in jail, and is now under home arrest while her trial drags on for a poem and two posts on Facebook. Dareen’s father, Tawfiq, thanked everybody for their solidarity and accused Israel’s prime minister and his ministers of incitement against the Arab population and against anyone that tries to struggle for a world without occupation and racism.
Gaby Lasky, Tatour’s lawyer, spoke about the paradox at the core of the indictment. Dareen wrote “I’m the next martyr” after a Palestinian teen, Muhammad Abu-Khdeir, was burned to death. She was protesting the killing of the innocents, and her words intended to say that any Arab in this country could be killed for no reason. The prosecutors misinterpreted Tatour’s words as a call to violence, distorting the meaning of the Arabic word for martyr, “shahid,” as if it meant a “terrorist.”
Activist Anas Abudaabes from the Naqab described his own experience at the solidarity event. At the time of the November 2016 wild fires, he was arrested for publishing a satirical post denouncing those that were celebrating the fires. His interrogator used Google Translate to challenger his explanation of the post, after three judges consecutively signed off to remand him in jail.
Breaking the chains of silence
As the trial drags on, Tatour’s conditions in home detention were somewhat relieved, but at the same time, successive court decisions try to more hermetically silence her voice, of which the latest states that she is not allowed to publish anything, directly or indirectly through others. (She is also prevented from accessing the internet, even reading the news, or from attending any political gathering). One way around this blackout is republishing Tatour’s previous works. So poets Sheikha Hlewe and Rachel Peretz translated some of the poems that were read by Dareen Tatour on International Women’s Day in Nazareth in 2013. Some of these translations were published in Haaretz’s literary magazine and were read in Yaffa in Arabic and Hebrew. Speaking mostly about the oppression of women, these poems sound prophetic today, speaking about the persecution of the innocent and about “chewing my shackles.”
Fellow poets read selected works in solidarity: Tal Nitzán read two poems by Bertolt Brecht. Yaser Abu Areesha read a poem dedicated to the Arab women that are victims of violence and murder. Eitan Kalinski read a poem describing how the Hebrew language was contaminated and defeated by serving the occupation. Michal Ben Naftali read thoughtful excerpts about victimization from her book “The Teacher.” Finally Dana Amir read a poem that she wrote especially about Dareen Tatour’s ordeal on the occasion of the solidarity event.
The highest point of the evening was a short play where all of the dialogue was taken directly from the minutes of Tatour’s absurd trial. It was directed by Einat Weizman and actors Doron Tavory and Liora Rivlin read the texts, changing labels to let the audience recognize what character was speaking at each time. It exposed the absurdity of the prosecution’s position, trying to define what a poem is and what are the rights of a poet, during a counter-interrogation of defense experts Professor Calderon and Dr. Mendel, as highlighted in an article by Yehuda Shenhav in Haaretz. But the scene selected by Weizman showed further political context of the trial. The prosecutor tried to “discredit” the defense witness Mendel by asking him whether he claims that the Palestinian people live under occupation…
At some point the two translations of the poem that are at the center of the indictment were both screened at the back of the stage, and we saw the reenacted charged and scrutinized courtroom row over meaning of the most sensitive line of Tatour’s poem: “follow the convoy of martyrs.” We heard Tavory read the words of Dr. Mendel explaining that, in the context of the poem, all the martyrs that are mentioned are Palestinian victims like Muhammad Abu Khdeir and the Dawabshe family, and, for these reasons, the only logical explanation of that line is to care for victims and their families and to not give up Palestinian rights; it was not a wish to be killed.
In the trial itself after the prosecutor said she probably understood that the poem didn’t contain any call to violence, belatedly shifted her central accusations to a video that Tatour used in the background while reading her poem. The video was not presented in the court as part of the prosecution’s evidence, but was used in the trial twice during cross examination. At the solidarity event the video was, for the first time, presented in public as part of the theatrical reconstruction. It is an iconic “intifada mix.” It shows stone-throwing youth in the West Bank village of Silwad clashing with Israel soldiers. In the context of the long conflict, it is a very mild film. The “Molotov cocktails” that were mention in the indictment are simply not there. Nobody is hurt on either side of the confrontation. It was climatic and anti-climatic at the same time – could posting such a video really be the “dangerous incitement” where, according to the prosecution, puts state security in danger?
A star performance by Tamer Nafar
I first met Tamer Nafar under not so different circumstances.
It was in April 2002, when Israeli forces re-invaded Palestinian towns in the West Bank that were supposed to be autonomous under the Oslo Accord. Tamer and other members of his newly established Palestinian Rap group DAM joined a small protest vigil in their town of Lod and were arrested by Israeli police. After a week or so in detention they were released to house arrest. I used the opportunity to visit them with my kids that were exited at the opportunity to meet their most admired singers.
While we were there we heard Tamer’s story of the detention. It was a quiet vigil and there were no “disturbances,” but one of the demonstrators held a sign in honor of the “innocent martyrs.” The Arabic words from the placard “shuhadaina al-abrar,” were translated by the police to mean “suicide terrorists” (in Hebrew). At the time the judge said he couldn’t decide on the correctness of the translation–and remanded their detention until a professional translator could be found. This same distorted translation, which cost Tamer and his friends a week from their lives, is now at the center of the prosecution’s crusade against Tatour that has already lasted two years.
When we decided to make a solidarity event for Tatour, the first person we telephoned was Tamer Nafar who, despite now being an internationally-known performer, just said yes and came.
The night finished with his star performance, accompanied by Itamar Ziegler. He performed two of his big hits, “I’m not political”, which could have been written especially for Tatour’s trial, and “If Only,” the theme song of the film “Junction 48.” Feeling at home with the Yaffa audience, he also tried a work in progress performance of “Walking Johnny,” which may be another big hit sometime soon.
The entire event went on with enlightened spirits. We can be together, we will not be silenced. Thanking everybody for coming, Orly Noy said that we proved that we can sometimes fight for justice and be happy all at once.
Miri Regev steals the show
Not to be out-performed, the next Sunday (September 3) Minister of Culture Miri Regev published the same video that was shown at the solidarity event, with Tatour’s voice reading her “Resist” poem. But in Regev’s posting, the poet’s name was removed and she posed the question “Where was this video displayed?” Some smart social media users promptly replied to Regev’s riddle: “It is easy; it was displayed on your wall!”
What made Regev’s Facebook post so ridiculous is the fact that Dareen Tatour was initially dragged from her home in the middle of the night while still under house arrest, for posting this video. In the indictment the prosecutor wrote with dramatic sternness that the video was viewed 153 times!!! Yet when Regev published the same video garnering more than 62,000 views, no one came to arrest her. Were the police and prosecution serious about their claim that posting this video constituted danger to state security, they should have arrested Regev on the spot.
A few hours later Regev posted another video, “solving” the enigma and declaring that the Yaffa theater was a stage for the promotion of terrorism. She also published a letter that she sent to the chief of the Israeli police, demanding that the organizers of the solidarity event, as well as the management of the Yaffa theater who agreed to rent out the hall, be interrogated for “undermining the state.”
In this second video Regev not only targeted the Yaffa theater, she also spat fire at the state’s attorney for allowing all this to take place and at the minister of finance, Moshe Kahlon, for continuing to fund the theater. Some political analysts, like this brilliant video by Assaf Harel, connected this fiery talk with Regev’s urgent need to defend the house of her patron, Netanyahu, which is crumbling under the mounting pressure of corruption investigations.
The real threat is the Nakba law
The attack on the freedom of expression didn’t stop with Ms. Regev. On September 6 the legal adviser for the ministry of finance announced, after considering several complaints by the ministry of culture, he found two performances at the Yaffa theater deserved punishment from the still untested 2011 “Nakba Law.” According to his opinion, the solidarity event with Tatour, as well as Einat Weizman’s play in which she read personal letters of Palestinian prisoners, could be regarded “incitement to terror.” The theater could be punished with reduced state funding, or even issued high fines.
Apparently the “sensitive” content in the solidarity event was the reenactment of the trial’s proceedings and the display of the video with the “Resist” poem (which was displayed in the trial too at the prosecutor’s request). By accusing the event organizers of “incitement to terrorism,” the whole absurdity of this surreal trial is reaching new levels. But past experience with Israel’s racist legal system can’t exclude any absurdity from being enforced in the name of the law.
The next step should be inviting the Yaffa theater’s management to a hearing in front of a joint team of the ministries of finance, culture and justice, as two of them have already announced their view about the case. Meanwhile emergency meetings of artists, theater managers and representatives of different cultural institutions were held and many of them expressed a resolve to stand by the Yaffa theater.
A Haaretz editorial published on September 8 declared this to be the battle that the defenders of culture in Israel just can’t afford to lose.
Daren Tatour is locked in her home in Reineh in northern Israel, hardly believing that all these battles are the result of a poem that she posted online. She is like a child that had a bad dream and landed on a ghost train. Over the last two years that train just keeps taking her to new unexpected scenes, some horrific, some laughable. She is waiting to wake up from this nightmare, to be the owner of her life again, and to be able to publish her next book of poetry.