When Poetry is a Crime

Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour will not be able to click and read the words I write here. She is under home arrest, trapped in the small town of Reinah in northern Israel with her parents. Whenever she needs to leave the house she must be accompanied by a court-approved guard. She wears an ankle monitor that tracks her movements. She is banned from using the internet. Her computer, with all her poems, has been confiscated.

Two and a half years ago, more than a dozen policemen swooped on her house at 3:30 in the morning. She was arrested and taken to the local police station, still wearing her pajamas, for hours of questioning, accused of supporting terrorism and inciting violence against the Jewish state. Her crime? Posting poems on social media. Her words, clumsily interpreted by a policeman with no background in literary translation, have been used as evidence against her. The title of one of her poems, “Resist, My People, Resist Them,” is apparently enough to go to jail if you happen to be Arab. Another text posted on Facebook includes the word shahid (martyr) which means “victim” in Palestinian culture. For Israelis, however, it connotes a suicide bomber, a person prepared to die while murdering others.

As a literary translator, I believe translation in its purest sense can be a bridge to understanding others, “a lens into the underground life of another culture”, as Cynthia Ozick noted. In this case, however, the clumsy translation offered by the prosecution has become Tatour’s indictment. In the latest hearing, Tatour was deemed a danger to the Israeli public and it is likely she will be sentenced at the end of the month to years in prison.

But these attempts to suppress Tatour have had the opposite effect. She now writes on a daily basis in a notebook, and has also begun painting. It passes the time, she says. Meanwhile, her poetry has been published in a number of literary journals abroad. This poem, for example, was published in the literary journal The Brooklyn Rail, translated from Arabic by Andrew Leber:

Detaining a Poem

One day,
they stopped me,
shackled me,
tied up my body, my soul,
my everything…

Then they said: search her,
we’ll find a terrorist within her!
They turned my heart inside out—
my eyes as well,
rummaged through even my feelings.
From my eyes they drew a pulse of inspiration;
from my heart, the ability to sketch out meanings.
Then they said: beware!
She’s hiding weapons deep in her pockets.
Search her!
Root out the explosives.
And so they searched me…

Finally, they said, accusing me:
We found nothing
in her pockets except letters.
We found nothing except for a poem.

PEN International recently issued a statement demanding Tatour’s unconditional release. PEN’s President, Jennifer Clement, wrote the following: “Dareen Tatour is on trial because she wrote a poem. Dareen Tatour is critical of Israeli policies, but governments that declare themselves as democracies do not curb dissent. Words like those of Dareen Tatour have been used by other revolutionary poets, during the Vietnam war, during other liberation wars, and they can be found in the works of Sufiya Kamal of Bangladesh, of Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, and so on.”

It is true that Tatour has advocated for Arab unity in the face of oppression. It is also true that she regularly cites the names of Palestinians killed or harassed by Israel. But, she claims, she has never encouraged violence. Her words have been misconstrued, her freedom of speech curtailed.

Tatour has also received support from Israeli writers, among them A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading writers: “It’s impossible to know whether this government attributes such importance to poetic imagery that it pounces like this on a Palestinian poet, or whether its complete lack of understanding of poetry causes it to treat every word like a drawn knife.”

Nissim Calderon, a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, gave evidence at her trial, saying that “the verdict is a blow to one of the deepest traditions of Hebrew poetry — the poet’s freedom from being put on trial over his words.”

Tatour has been writing poetry since she was a child. Her favorite poets are Fadwa Tuqan and Nazik al-Malaika, Arabic language writers from Palestine and Iraq. Until her arrest, in fact, Tatour only read in her mother tongue. Recently, she began reading Federico García Lorca in translation. “Poetry delivers messages of humanity that are common to us all,” Tatour told me. And last week, when I visited Tatour, she showed me a pile of poetry books in Hebrew sent to her by local poets sympathetic to her plight. “I suppose I have the Israeli authorities to thank for this,” she said wryly. “It’s exposed me to Hebrew poetry for the first time.”

Alma Katz is an Israeli poet who has visited Tatour several times. “It’s an absurd situation — the Israeli government has put a megaphone to her mouth instead of silencing her,” Katz explained to me. “We have a responsibility toward poetry in any language, including Arabic.”

She is not the only one who thinks like this. Last week, I attended a reading of students at the Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv, where I teach literary translation. One of the students, Maytal Strul, prefaced the reading by noting that in Israel today, reading poetry in public is a privilege that Tatour, the same age as Maytal, is not able to enjoy. “This reality, in which poetry of resistance is forbidden, is insufferable,” she said.

Meanwhile, Tatour awaits sentencing. “It’s not so bad,” she says. “I have my books, I have a pen and paper and if I go to prison, I will take them with me.” We talk some more, we read poetry together. Her face lights up as she reads and her face breaks into a smile.  Before I leave, she scribbles some words into a book of poetry she published some years ago, and then hands it to me as a gift. I read her words when I get home, two hours later, and realize she has not lost her sense of direction, nor her humor. “Poetry,” she writes in Hebrew, “will always remain the single and beautiful reality that connects all cultures. Incitingly, Dareen.”

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