At the Home of a Palestinian Prisoner, Where Time Stands Still

Walid Daqa has been in Israeli jail for more than 27 years, without a single phone call with his loved ones. Now there is some hope he may be released.

Farida Daqa sinks lethargically into her chair, leaning on her walker. Neatly dressed in white, she breathes very heavily, and her face is expressionless. She is 82 years old and slowly losing her connection to the surroundings as her memory grows dim.

Until not long ago, she was still known as “the mother of the prisoners.” For years she made the rounds of the jails in Israel to visit the security prisoners, trying to provide for their needs. She made speeches in the squares at rallies for their release, too. Above all she was concerned about her son, Walid Daqa, and never missed a visit to him: every two weeks, 45 minutes through the grating, over 27 years. For all those years she has been waiting for her son.

Eight years ago, Walid wrote from prison: “I forget to look at the lines that have begun to be etched in my mother’s face, I forget to look at her hair, which she has begun to color with henna to camouflage the white so I will not ask her real age. And what is her real age? I don’t know. My mother has two ages: the chronological age, which I do not know, and the imprisonment age − the parallel age ... I am writing to you from that parallel time. One of the intifada youngsters who came to us told us that many things have changed in your time. Telephones no longer have dials, automobile tires don’t have inner tubes ... We have been here since before the fall of the Berlin wall − and our time stands still.”

In recent years, Farida has been visiting her son less often, because of her deteriorating condition. On one of her visits, about three years ago, Walid saw through the visitors’ window that his mother did not recognize him. His brother relates that Walid burst into tears. He says Walid does not cry easily. When their father was dying of cancer, in 1998, the prison authorities did not allow Walid to bid farewell to him, even in a phone call. Security considerations. Now his mother is fading − and Walid is still in prison. Without a single furlough, without phone calls, without the touch of a hand from any of his dear ones, over 27 years.

Cafe Napoli in Baka al-Garbiyeh was closed this week during the daytime, because of the Ramadan fast. Ostensibly, it’s just another designer yuppie cafe in a relatively prosperous Arab town, with a chicken-breast ciabatta and a grilled bagel sandwich on the menu, but there is no cafe like this one even in Tel Aviv. The walls are covered with photos of the prisoner Walid Daqa, accompanied by quotations from his writings and decorated with a picture of a bird on barbed wire. Outside, alongside the Italian Segafredo coffee logo, are posted photos of the town’s four prisoners − including Daqa − who have been inside since before the Oslo Accords.

This is the cafe owned by Assad, the prisoner’s brother, who was also in prison for three years at the end of the 1980s for his activity in the secular Palestinian movement Sons of the Village. For a while, the two brothers were in prison together.

The family home, too, is something of a shrine to the imprisoned brother: His pictures are on the walls, among them one of Walid as a young gas-station attendant in the Paz station near Ruppin Academic Center, east of Netanya, along with his diplomas, a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and the humanities and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary democracy studies, all from the Open University. Walid completed the two degrees in jail.

When he was arrested in 1986 and convicted of murdering soldier Moshe Tamam, whose body was found in a grove near the Ma’aleh Dotan settlement in the West Bank, Walid was 24. Now he is 51. His black hair, as it appears in photos, has long since turned white. Even at the time of my only visit to him, at Shatta Prison in 2001, he was already going gray. It has been 12 years since then. Daqa used to write me letters now and then, and in all of them he recounted the troubles of his fellow prisoners. He made a strong impression on me during that visit, but I was forbidden to interview him for publication. Since then I have not seen him, and I have hardly heard from him.

From time to time he still writes, in Hebrew, to his pen pal, Dr. Anat Matar, of the Tel Aviv University philosophy department, who is planning some day to publish his essays in a book. Daqa writes a lot about time and its meaning.

One of his recent essays, all of which he writes in Arabic, is entitled “The Etching of Consciousness.” In it he talks about the effect of the years of incarceration on the prisoners’ consciousness. “The oppression and the torture in the Israeli prisons does not resemble the cases of oppression and torture described in international prison literature ... The prisoners are not bound in iron chains all day like in novels. In the post-modern age, the prisoner’s body is no longer a target for injury, but rather his soul and his mind. We aren’t going through what [Czech communist Julius] Fuchik went through under fascism in his book ‘Notes from the Gallows,’ and it isn’t a matter of something like Tazmamart prison [in Morocco] in Tahar ben Jalloun’s book ‘This Blinding Absence of Light’ .. We aren’t in Abu Zaabal prison [outside Cairo], or even in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo ... But in the Israeli prisons you are under worse torture because it is more civilized ... It creeps up on you quietly, it doesn’t usually employ a truncheon and it doesn’t make noise. It lives with you, along with the prison − the time.”

Daqa was convicted of membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell that abducted and murdered the soldier Moshe Tamam. He has always denied that he participated in either the kidnapping or the murder. His brother says Walid was a member of the cell but had no part in the murder. “In a normal country he would have got five years, at most,” says Assad.

Walid Daqa was sentenced in military court to life imprisonment, a punishment that was later reduced to 37 years. In prison, he married Sana Salameh, a human rights activist and lawyer from Tira. Prison authorities have
never allowed them a conjugal visit − in contrast to Yigal Amir, for example. There is hardly a prison in Israel where Daqa, one of the country’s most veteran prisoners, hasn’t served time.

His family members say that following the deal that led to the release of Gilad Shalit, they noticed a marked change in his behavior, after his hopes of being included in the deal − in which more than 1,000 Palestinians and Arab Israelis were released − were dashed. He became impatient and short-tempered during visits. Nonetheless, they say that the position he formed in prison, in favor of peace and against terror, has not changed.

This week a spark of hope was ignited in the Daqa home because there is a chance Walid will be among the 104 Palestinian prisoners released as a good-will gesture by the Israeli government as the peace talks resume. But there is still to be a discussion about freeing those prisoners on the list who are Israeli Arabs. “We feel that maybe, just maybe, this time it will happen,” says Assad, “but we are cautious, very cautious, after all the disappointments of all those years. A fantasy? I have just one fantasy: that my mother will see him in the house. You see her condition. This is the big fantasy, that she will see him outside the prison walls. Then we will introduce him to all children born in the family whom he hasn’t met, has only heard about, and we will show him the new streets and the new houses he doesn’t know. This is the fantasy, to be close to his side and to tell him everything. To show him the stars in the sky, which he hasn’t seen for 27 years. This is how I am fantasizing in his stead.”

The family is very aggrieved at the way Walid and his fellow Israeli Arab prisoners are depicted in the media: “They show him as though he were arrested yesterday, and they already want to release him. Walid has been in prison for 27 years, more than any Jewish security prisoner. If they don’t want to release him because he is Israeli, then they should give him the same conditions as Ami Popper, who murdered seven workers [who has been given furloughs, and permitted to marry and have children], or the settler Yoram Shkolnik.”

Last week Walid’s family celebrated his 51st birthday. Sana brought a cake, his brothers and sisters once again told their children about the uncle in prison whom they have never met. And his mother Farida gazed mutely around at what was happening.