The Israeli prison apparatus is a critical and contested site in the manifold struggle to control communication and information in the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. During the two decades of occupation before the intifada, prisons in Israel and the Occupied Territories housed an average of 4,000 Palestinian political detainees at any one time. Since the start of the uprising this number has increased dramatically, with over 40,000 arrests. This put great pressure on the prison facilities and necessitated the opening of new prison camps such as Ansar III (Ketsi’ot) in the Negev desert, and detention centers like Dhahriyya, just outside of Hebron.

The army even used schools it had closed as temporary holding stations. Prisons incarcerate individuals, but they are meant to do more: to destroy the resistance movement and its networks. They isolate and contain alternative information systems by imposing bureaucratic, disciplinary and “official” channels of information. The inaccessible location of Ansar III, conditions of detention that include holding prisoners incommunicado, the use of confessions as sufficient evidence to convict detainees, the practice of torture during interrogation and the use of informers (‘asafir, or “birds”) inside prison to extract information and undermine prisoner solidarity — in all these aspects the Israeli prison apparatus is constructed in such a way as to perform the combined functions of repression and ideological reformation.

During the intifada, Palestinian activists have developed counter-strategies of communication, instruction, mobilization and organization, inside prison and out. They reconstructed orisons, theoretically and practically, as “universities” for the resistance and a training ground for its cadres. This elicited Israeli attempts to penetrate and intercept these networks of an emergent counter-discourse. The campaign of bogus leaflets attributed to the Unified Leadership of the Uprising is one example of this. The recreation of collaborator networks is another.

Especially significant is Israel’s conscription, through threats, bribes, physical coercion and promises of early release, of informers (‘asafir) from among detainees. Such conscription aims to interrupt the organized clandestine dissemination of political education within the prisons, and to create a fractious “ally” within the ranks of the uprising “outside.”

The Shamed (al-Zafirun bi-l-‘Ar) is a prison novel by ‘Adil ‘Amr published in the occupied territories. ‘Amr writes about those collaborators, their class and political background, their family circumstances, their formation in Israeli prisons and their impact on the resistance movement and on Palestinian society under occupation. A politically motivated, fictionalized exposure and documentation of the psychological and physical techniques of manipulation employed by prison interrogators to secure the cooperation of detainees, The Shamed introduces as part of its own counter-analysis a class critique of Palestinian society that contends with Israel’s program of factionalizing, both theoretically and administratively, the Palestinian intifada.

The novel opens its first section, “Wafa’,” with a classically paradigmatic conversation between two school friends, Wafa’ and Majd, about their respective romantic interests. Majd is in love with Ma‘ata, Wafa’s brother, a political activist who has been sentenced to a long prison term. While her detained fiance has honorably abjured her offer of the “most precious gift” that she has to give to him, Majd promises to remain loyal to him and their common struggle on behalf of the national cause.

She is critical of her friend Wafa’, however, who has been happily receiving the lavish attentions of Wahid, a wealthy young man from another town with no apparent business in their camp. For Majd, the extreme class differences between the two are an insuperable barrier to their relationship. Her objections do not resemble the ethnic biases or class loyalties of Romeo and Juliet or Majnoun and Layla; rather they challenge the distorted class structure of Palestinian society — distortions, according to the novel, that make possible Israeli appeals to a “common interest” they share with a Palestinian elite, enabling collaboration. According to Majd, “the fighters do not cease to struggle even behind bars, while the others just get drunk in the bars of Rome, London and Paris.” Furthermore, she adds, “the poor are of course by nature steadfast (samidin); no one of them would ever think of leaving.” For all the rhetorical force and political weight of Majd’s argument, Wafa’ decides that it cannot be right in the case of Wahid and determines to keep her next date with him. This fateful meeting is postponed until later in the novel.

The second part, “Wahid,” is constructed of two bifurcated but intersecting narratives — suggestive perhaps of Wahid’s own political alienation: the first, told in bold print and in the third person, relates Wahid’s preparations for and anxieties about his forthcoming decisive encounter with Wafa’; the second, in the first person, is Wahid’s account of his arrest and detention and how, in prison, he became an ‘asfur, a collaborator, who continued his work outside the prison following an early release arranged by his “bosses.” Important to Wahid’s self-narrative is the identification of his father’s activities as a land broker, selling Palestinian lands to Israeli purchasers. But Wahid’s own political will is ambivalent at best and he is inadvertently, at least to his own mind, arrested by Israeli soldiers after fleeing a demonstration. Fearful of spending the next years of his life in prison, Wahid, in exchange for promises, agrees to cooperate with his captors. So successful is he inside the prison in harassing, brutalizing and intimidating other political prisoners that eventually he must be transferred, for his own safety, to what detainees refer to as ghurfat al-‘ar, or the “room of shame,” where he remains with the other ‘asafir.

The chapter devoted to Wahid is the longest of the five and develops in extensive detail, from his beating of cellmates to his attempted but failed rape, under assignment, of a 13-year old prisoner, and through the lengthy conversations between Wahid and the various “captains” who manage him, the systemic minutiae of Israel’s collaborator project. When Wahid is finally released, his specific commission is to seduce young women into compromising situations at Fatin’s hairdressing salon, drug them, and then take photographs to be used by the military authorities in obtaining their cooperation in turn. In the meantime, Wahid also assists in the secret police’s covert execution of Nidal, a Communist activist and former prisoner legendary for having turned the prisons into “liberated space.” The section ends with Wahid still wondering and fearful for his own credibility and safety lest Wafa’ should decide not to keep her appointment with him at Fatin’s salon.

“Fatin’s Salon” is the novel’s third chapter. Young Fatin obtained the permit from the military authorities for her business, located auspiciously on the town’s main street, only by promising them that she would assist in their use of the premises to monitor the leaders of demonstrations and blackmail young women. It is in this salon that part four, “The Meeting,” is set. Wahid is still worried: “What will happen to me if the people learn what I am doing?” He is more concerned still that he fail to carry out his assignment and the reprisals this may bring from the side of his Israeli “bosses.” Majd, meanwhile, growing more and more suspicious, has made inquiries. Ma‘ata, she learns in one of her monthly visits to him in prison, has heard of Wahid through the prisoner network, and a party comrade expands and confirms for her Ma‘ata’s misgivings. But Wafa’ has already kept the appointment and is betrayed by her lover-collaborator.

In the final section, “Honor” (al-Majd), Wafa’ is summoned to appear at the headquarters of the secret police where she is shown the incriminating photographs taken of her in Fatin’s salon and threatened by the interviewing officer with their publication if she does not agree to “work with them.” Stunned, but still resistant, Wafa’ is granted by the officer a week’s time to consider the proposition. She returns home where she turns to her brother Ma‘ata’s prison notebooks to assist her in her deliberations. Al-I‘tiraf khiyana, “confession is betrayal,” is their slogan, but Wafa’ reflects too on the differences between her struggle and that of her brother:

She was living a new battle with the secret police just like her brother Ma‘ata had lived it. But her brother’s struggle had been an open struggle, a struggle in full view of the people, and with all the people gathered on his side. He had chosen his path himself, had not been driven to it by passions or emotions. He understood all that. “His cause has only one side to it, but my struggle is many-sided. My struggle is with the eyes of the people, with society’s contempt for my family. Can the people understand what my situation really is? Can Arab values forgive my innocence? Can oriental customs exonerate today what they forbade yesterday? Can I conceal the marks of my crime?”

Majd, however, arrives to convince her friend Wafa’ to undertake that “many-sided struggle,” reminding her of the example of other women who have struggled before her and that the Israelis, in any case, cannot afford to publish her pictures, which would reveal their tactics and expose their collaborator network. With their decision, the two young women challenge not only the occupation’s authority and control over the public domain but also the traditional Arab patriarchal cult of shame that Israeli secret police are manipulating. The Shamed ends with the villagers’ projected reprisals against Wahid and his fellow collaborators. The Shamed presents itself as a novel (riwaya) at once realistic and allegorical, mobilizing social forces against each other: Majd means “honor”; Ma‘ata, “gift”; Wahid, “alone”; Wafa’, “redemption”; and Fatin, “clever.” But ‘Adil ‘Amr’s prison text must also be read as a counter-novel, a cultural documentary and a political manifesto, in which the traditional novel’s conventions and paradigms of romance and family are precisely those formulas that are manipulated by the Israeli state and its prison apparatus in order to sustain the very system of collaborators against which The Shamed has been written. Implicit in the novel’s political and structural argument, then, is the premise that the projected popular effort to counter Israeli occupation must itself be a challenge to these narrative paradigms and social romantic conventions.

How to cite this article:

Barbara Harlow "Prison Text, Resistance Culture," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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