Twilight Zone / Prison within a prison
Smuggled letters, memories of hunger strikes, photos of the 220 prisoners who died behind bars - Palestinians inaugurate the museum of their underground
Synthetic grass symbolizes the good earth; red bathroom tiles represent the blood that has been shed; the six scarred concrete pillars stand for the walls and fences. It's naive to the point of being pathetic. But why six pillars? "Six is many," explains the director and curator, Fahed Abu al-Haj, a former prisoner himself, ignoring other possible associations Israelis might have in this part of the exhibit.
Al-Quds University in Jerusalem presents: the Abu Jihad Political Prisoners Museum. In other words, the Palestinians have established their own version of the Yad Labanim institution - the Israeli sites of commemoration for fallen soldiers. Built at a cost of $850,000, the museum is housed in a stylized three-story stone structure that looks like a cross between a high-tech firm and a community center. Combining naivete and sophistication, propaganda and documentation, it features a glass elevator that travels silently between the air-conditioned spaces and an impressive archive on the heights of the third floor.
Some 10,000 photocopied and bound letters written by prisoners in Israeli jails; documents and monuments; arts and crafts; a culture of bereavement, heroism and commemoration - the Palestinian narrative, and all of it revolving around the Palestinian prisoner. No other nation has seen a quarter of its daughters and sons incarcerated. There is no Palestinian home without a prisoner or a detainee, whether in the past or the present. And now the museum. An ethos is born.
The Arab Foundation of Kuwait donated the funds, and the museum was built on the Al-Quds campus in Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem, the only campus in the world that is imprisoned behind a wall. In fact, the wall, as originally planned, would have cut the sports field off from the rest of the campus, and it was only thanks to the international connections of the institution's president, Sari Nusseibeh, that the route was shifted west by a few dozen meters. Now the sports field is part of the campus, all of which is imprisoned behind an eight-meter-high wall of concrete, which splits the town in two.
A prison within a prison, the museum overlooks the wall from every window. It is open every day except Thursday and Friday from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., entrance is free and Israelis are wholeheartedly invited. After you have tried almost everything else in this endless summer, here is another suggestion for an educational excursion: the Abu Jihad Political Prisoners Museum in Abu Dis.
Our tour starts outside, with the person they regard as the first Palestinian prisoner - Jesus Christ. In the garden, we ascend and then descend stone steps, cacti planted all around, intended to represent the Via Dolorosa, the path where the prisoner Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Now we leap ahead 2,000 years, straight to the concrete wall, a model of the "Apartheid wall," as our guides describe it.
Potted plants are everywhere. The blossoming cacti planted in concrete cubes represent the concrete cubes of the checkpoints. The sabra, or prickly pear cactus, symbolizes Palestinian forbearance, based on the Arab source of the word "sabra," which means patience. The guide: "All Palestinians are patient in the face of the Israeli attitude toward them." Israel is not the only place that has propaganda-spouting guides. The huge window in the building's facade is designed as a symbol of freedom, or, if you will, a symbol of free love. Every stone has meaning. A few months ago I visited a very similar place: the Apartheid Museum in Soweto, South Africa. Same design, same message.
Pictures in the exhibition: black-and-white photographs of arrests. Israeli troops run roughshod: beating, dragging, punching, tying, kicking, throwing, spitting, pulling, strangling, seizing. A map of torments is affixed to a plastic sheet: the 27 prisons, detention facilities and interrogation centers, which every Palestinian knows by heart. Central prisons in red, interrogation centers in yellow. Since the Oslo accords, most of this activity has been transferred inside Israel, contrary to the Geneva Convention. Only two facilities remain in the occupied areas: Ofer and Hawara.
Another plastic sheet displays 76 methods of interrogation and torture, from savage blows to the "shabah" and the "banana" - the notorious binding postures - to preventing prisoners from meeting with a lawyer. The guide: "The photographs show the attitude toward the Palestinian prisoner."
Color photographs secretly taken by prisoners depict their day-to-day lives, including ping-pong and standing at attention for roll call. A photograph of a monstrous pile of spent cartridges of smoke grenades that were thrown at prisoners demonstrates another aspect of life behind bars. And there is a transparent cube with a noose inside, commemorating the 50 Palestinians who were executed during the period of the British Mandate. The farewell letter written by one of the executed, Fuad Hijawi, to his family on June 18, 1930, could have come from our own Underground Prisoners Museum.
And here is the wall of death: the names and portraits of the 220 prisoners who died in Israeli captivity. From Khalil Siyam, from Nuseirat refugee camp, who, according to the information here, was killed after being taken prisoner on June 8, 1967, two days into the occupation, to Jamal al-Sarahim, from Hebron, who died of an illness in prison on January 16, 2007, 40 years later. On a green slate are the names of the 64 Palestinians who spent more than 20 years in Israeli prisons, from Sa'ad al-Ataba, behind bars since July 29, 1977, who has just entered his 31st year in prison, to Khaled al-Jaidi, from Rafah, who has been imprisoned since December 1986, 21 years. "We have to update it with 10 more names," Abu al-Haj says.
In tiny handwriting, on letter paper in soft pastels - here are the letters of prisoners that were smuggled out. Administrative detainee - in jail without trial - Imad Seva used to write me letters like this from Megiddo Prison, but now I see that his miniature handwriting, which had so amazed me, is a talent shared by many prisoners. The adjacent exhibition shows the tiny capsules in which the letters were smuggled out. "From the heart of the terrible suffering and the never-ending pain, from Ashkelon Central Prison, I want to send you, my dears, warm regards," a prisoner writes to his family. The original of the letter that Khalil al-Wazir - Abu Jihad - smuggled from Baghdad into an Israeli prison in 1986 is also on display here. Two years later, Abu Jihad was assassinated by Israel in Tunis, and now there is a museum named for him.
The 12 major hunger strikes, another myth of heroism and revival, in which four prisoners died, are commemorated on the next wall. From Abd al-Qader Abu al-Fahem, from Jabalya, who died of hunger in Ashkelon Prison in May 1970, to Hussein Avidat, from Jerusalem, who starved to death in the same prison in October 1992. The guide Al-Haj took part in a hunger strike in 1980 in Be'er Sheva Prison. He spent 10 years in prison, from the age of 16 to 26, entering ignorant and emerging better educated, he says. Two of the others in the squad, Fahri Barghouti and Na'al Barghouti, are imprisoned to this day.
Nowhere in the museum is there a word about what the prisoners did that resulted in their incarceration. Are they ashamed of their actions? The name of the most famous current prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, is also nowhere to be found. "He is a new prisoner," the director explains.
A landscape of olive trees is seen through the window as we make our way to the second floor. Even the stairs are fraught with meaning. The first four steps are made of used, scarred stone, "to symbolize the prisons," and those that come after them are shiny and new, "to symbolize what is yet to come - peace and the release of the prisoners."
On display are prison diaries, written on Israeli school notebooks that the prisoners bought in the canteens. The handwritten diaries set forth the prisoners' impressions, line after line of experiences and distress, some of which were later published as pamphlets or books. "The Hunger Uprising Behind the Iron Bars" and "Intifada Nights Behind the Iron Bars" are the titles of the two books by Abu al-Haj, the museum director. "Sick Prisoners in the Palestinian Reality" is the title of another pamphlet on display, written by the prisoner Suleiman al-Najab. Some of the items are dedicated to the Palestinian female prisoner and the imprisoned mother.
Most of the second floor is dedicated to work by prisoners, items that recall the "hobby shows" of our childhood. There are models of Al-Aqsa Mosque made from every possible material, a vase made from the shells of pistachio nuts, a decorated oud and boats of "the return" made of matches. There are also works by freed prisoners, mainly naive color drawings, such as one of a herd of deer with a white sailboat in the background. The famous 2005 "prisoners' document" is also on display here, now forgotten as though it never existed, like all the documents of peace.
"I do not know my mother's real age," the Israeli prisoner Walid Daka writes in Arabic, English and Hebrew, in a particularly striking work, adorned with drawings of birds. "My mother has two ages: the chronological age, which I do not know, and the arrest age, the parallel age, which is 20 years. I write to you from the parallel time. For everyone who does not know, we are stuck in parallel time from even before the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we are here from even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the first Gulf War and the second and the third. Before Madrid and before Oslo and before the eruption of the first intifada and the second. Our age from the parallel time is the age of the revolution."
Walid Daka has been in prison since 1986. I once met him. It was in 2001, in Shata Prison. Since then another seven years have gone by. Daka was convicted of taking part in the abduction and murder of the soldier Moshe Tamam. If Daka were a Jew who had murdered an Arab, he would have been released long ago; the same if he were a Jew who murdered a Jew. If he were a Palestinian from the territories, he would have been released in a prisoner exchange deal by now. But Daka is an Arab from Israel, and no one cares about him or his punishment. Now at least his work hangs in a museum.
There is also video art, excerpts from life in Nafha Prison and other facilities. The longest scene is of the release of prisoners. The scrolls that hang on the library level also exude hope: "Do not despair. The day will come when we will be released. You must understand that our freedom will arrive. Wait for me, I am on the way," a prisoner wrote to his family. Some of the notebooks and diaries in the archive are perforated: the IDF raided the previous prisoner archive, which was located in Ramallah, and soldiers defaced some of the material, shooting the diaries. From the archive window the wall appears again: on it is a red painting of Che Guevara.
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