In 2016 Israel, a Palestinian Writer Is in Custody for Her Poetry

For the past few years Dareen Tatour has been posting poems, all written in Arabic, on her blog and on Facebook and YouTube – these are the scenes of her crime. 'I am in the State of Israel, a democracy,' she says. 'I never thought I would be arrested for poetry.'

Dareen Tatour in Nazareth District Court on May 8, 2016.
Rami Shllush

In the city of Kiryat Ono, where the acclaimed poet Yona Wallach was born, on a street that bears the name of Janusz Korczak, in a building where an Israeli flag covers the mailboxes – a writer has been under house arrest for months because of poetry that she wrote.

An electronic cuff is attached to her ankle. She is not allowed to use a cell phone or computer or to leave the apartment. The court ruled that the poet, an Israeli citizen, must be exiled at least 40 kilometers from her hometown, to reduce the existential security threat she poses. Accordingly, her brother rented this tenement apartment in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv, where, together with his fiancée, he keeps watch on his older sister day and night. They were appointed temporary warders by the court, to ensure that the poet does not endanger security. The brother, S., resigned from his job as a nurse in a large hospital in the center of the country and broke off his studies in biotechnology.

The state objected to this arrangement, appealing the decision to the district court and almost taking the case to the Supreme Court, until the prosecution deigned to agree to allow the poet to be held in custody in this apartment. But that only happened after she spent the first three months of her detention in three prisons – Kishon, Damon and Hasharon. Only after she was ordered to be held until the completion of legal proceedings against her, which will take many more months, was she permitted to move to the Kiryat Ono apartment.

The door is opened by an attractive young woman, who looks younger than her 35 years, barefoot, wearing a white kerchief and a tracksuit. The electronic cuff covers a pink sock. Meet Dareen Tatour, from the village of Reineh, near Nazareth, the daughter of a carpenter and a homemaker. In the past, she has worked as the proprietor of a shoe store, as a secretary in a beauty parlor and as a caregiver for the elderly; she studied software engineering, communications and cinema.

Her warm laughter bursts out immediately and will punctuate much of our conversation. Tatour projects captivating personal charm, directness and inner fortitude. She laughs a lot. And the truth is that the story of the abuse to which she’s been subjected – State of Israel vs. Tatour – is riddled with comic episodes, so funny you could cry. But there is nothing amusing about her story. The bottom line is dismal and disturbing: In 2016 Israel, a poet is in custody for her poetry. Her arrest stirred next to no interest or protest here.

She’s been writing since her childhood; writing, she says, is the most important thing in her life. She published her first book of poems, “The Last War,” in 2010. For the past few years she’s been posting poems, all written in Arabic, on her blog and also on Facebook and YouTube – these are the scenes of her crime. She is also a photographer, combining her photos with her writing. An exhibition of her work was recently held in the Tawfiq Zayyad Center in Nazareth.

But everything came to an abrupt halt in the predawn hours of October 11, 2015. A large force of police swooped down on her parents’ home in Reineh, where Tatour was living, in the dead of night, recalling the most repressive regimes. At about 4 A.M., a number of policemen – Tatour doesn’t remember how many – entered the house and the whole family woke up in a fright. She had no idea why they’d come, nor did they bother to tell her. They said only that they were there to arrest her. Her father suggested that Dareen change clothes. She was certain she would be back immediately. She was handcuffed, and the police confiscated her personal computer and her cell phone.

Two days earlier, Israeli security forces shot and wounded a female student from Nazareth, Asra’a Abed, who had brandished a knife in the Central Bus Station in Afula. Tatour posted a photograph of Abed on her Facebook page. It would later emerge that Abed, who had survived the shooting, had not intended to perpetrate a terrorist attack but wanted to commit suicide, and she was released from prison. Tarour had previously posted images of the infant Ali Dawabsheh and the teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, victims of Jewish terrorism, and had written below them, as she did beneath Abed’s photograph: “I am the next shahid” – or, martyr for the cause. Now Tatour explains that she meant that every Palestinian is liable to become the next victim. Israel decided, however, that her intent was to perpetrate a terrorist attack. She laughs at the idea.

That was the beginning of the Kafkaesque saga of her arrest. After being taken into custody Tatour was left, shackled, in the courtyard of the Nazareth police station until 7 A.M. “Do you want to be a terrorist? Are you the next shahid?” her first interrogator asked, adding, “You look like a terrorist.”

After 10 days of incarceration in the Kishon facility, Tatour learned that she had been put under arrest because of poems she had posted on her Facebook page, particularly “Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum,” which a police officer translated in court as “Resist, my people, resist them.”

The poem constituted the fifth count in her indictment, whose main points are incitement to violence and terrorism, and support for a terrorist organization. The latter charge is based on the fact that she copied a news flash from the Islamic Jihad website to her Facebook page. This is its text: “The Islamic Jihad movement hereby declares the continuation of the intifada throughout the West Bank Continuation means expansion which means all of Palestine And we must begin within the Green Line for the victory of Al-Aqsa, and we shall declare a general intifada.”

“I was born into the intifada,” she tells us this week. “Every demonstration of ours relates to the intifada. Our struggle does not cease for a minute. They [the prosecution] treated the intifada as terrorism. I did not mean what they thought I meant. But we are constantly in the intifada.”

Dareen Tatour in Nazareth District Court.
Rami Shllush

Her brother is busy reading “The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy” in Hebrew. Colorful fish swim in an aquarium. A violin – her brother’s – is hanging on the wall.

“I never imagined that in a democratic country, I would not be allowed to write and publish,” Tatour says. “It was really hard for me to swallow that. They told me that my poetry is dangerous and encourages terrorism. I was offended. Truly offended. It was a trauma for me. I am in the State of Israel, a democracy – in quotation marks – and I never thought I would be arrested for poetry. That I would be told what may and may not be written. So what is the difference between our country and Egypt? I’ve been in detention for seven months, and ultimately it’s detention for having an opinion. So how is Israel different from a dictatorship?”

She was transferred to Hasharon Prison, in central Israel, where she was incarcerated with the dozens of other women who are in prison for “security offenses.” When the cells filled up to capacity, she was moved to Damon Prison, near Haifa.

“They opened a new branch,” she jokes. “Afterward, they decided that I was very dangerous to the public and to my family, friends and everyone around me, so they decided to keep me out of Reineh even after I was released to house arrest.”

The state objected to her parents’ home for her house arrest and also to her uncle’s home, in Gush Halav (Jish), in Upper Galilee. She must be held 40 kilometers from her village, no less, the court insisted. And in all this time, she says, she did not cry, not for a minute.

Meanwhile, Tatour passes the time writing and reading. She’s currently reading Ofra Yeshua-Lyth’s “Eretz, Brit,” in Hebrew (English working title: “A State of Mind: Why Israel Must Become Secular and Democratic”), and writing poems and recollections of her incarceration.

The translation of her poem in court into Hebrew by the police officer was amateurish and distorted her meaning, she says now. For example, she wrote, “Follow in their footsteps and go on reading,” which the policeman translated as “Follow in the footsteps of the shahids.” A three-minute clip she uploaded to YouTube, which includes photos of several Palestinians who were killed by Israeli security forces, also became incriminating evidence. The clip was viewed by 113 people.

It’s exceedingly difficult to understand the protocol of her trial, based as it is on screenshots, “penetration reports” (about the hacking of computers and phones), and other Orwellian terminology. The fact that she has 4,800 Facebook friends made her even more dangerous.

Two weeks ago, the court relented and allowed her “refreshment hours”: On weekends she’s allowed to go outside for two hours.

In one court session, the prosecution hurled another charge at her: participation two years ago in a memorial assembly for the victims of the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasem (when Border Police troops shot to death 48 Israeli civilians). Her interrogators asked her about her political views; she told them she’d voted for the Joint Arab List in the last Knesset elections. They asked if she was religious. “What does ‘religious ‘ mean for you?” she asked. “I wear a head covering, I pray and I fast during Ramadan.”

Tamour says emphatically, “I am against all violence. But it is my right to ask why you [i.e., Israel] killed those you killed. There is no law in the world that prohibits me from stating my opinion. I am against terrorism. Certainly I am against terrorism.” Her brother relates that she is against the knifing attacks, saying to him, “To kill someone only because he is wearing a kippah? I am against. And I am also against what the state is doing in the territories.”

One day in court she saw a female detainee crying. She asked her who she was. “I am the one who staged the event in Afula, in order to commit suicide,” the woman said. It was Asra’a Abed. Tatour told her, “And I am here because I published a picture of you.”

Tatour is now apprehensive that she will be forced to go into exile. “I don’t think they will leave me alone,” she says. “I cannot live without poetry. They will examine everything I write. Therefore, I will do what every poet who wants to be free does: leave. I will look for my life elsewhere. It is very hard for me to say this, but it comes after much thought. They want me to stop writing. For me to be a poet without a pen and without feelings. But if I cannot mourn for my compatriots who are being killed, how will I be able to be a poet?”