CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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PALESTINE: From inside an Israeli prison

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Amira, Mahmud and ArielAmira Hass' life followed a predestined course. "I was a red diaper baby", she says in the cafeteria of Confluence, the Paris cultural center where a new twist has been added to her life: the Haaretz journalist , well known for her reportages on the Palestinians, is now being written about herself, and has become one of the main characters of a play about the life of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Born in 1956 in West Jerusalem, Amira Hass is the only child of a Sarajevo-born Jewish mother, who survived nine months in the Bergen Belsen extermination camp in 1944-45, and of a Romanian born Jewish father who worked all his life as a permanent of the Israeli Communist Party, ending as a member of the central committee.

"There are three things I always knew about", says Amira Hass, "My name… Then communism: all our friends were communist. For me the world was communist… And finally, the Holocaust: I do not know when I first heard about it, I always knew".

While doing research as an historian, then working for a NGO involved with Palestinian workers, Amira Hass went to Gaza. "I fell in love with Gaza", she says. How could she "fall in love" with such a derelict place? "Gaza people are very warm, open, communicative", she claims. "From the start I was on the side of the political Palestinian activists, people who had been in prison. At that time, I spoke Hebrew with then. I learned Arabic later".

In 1989 she started working as a copy editor for Haaretz, one of the leading Israeli dailies, and in 1993 she was sent as a reporter to Gaza. Three years later, in 1996, she published (in Hebrew) her first book, "Drinking the Sea at Gaza: days and nights in a land under siege", which was published in English in 1999. "Drinking the sea at Gaza" is a chronicle of the daily life of the Palestinians in Gaza, at the time of the first Intifada and after. Altough clearly pro-Palestinian, Amira Hass does not hesitate to criticise Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians when she feels it is justified.

One of her readers was Mahmud al Safadi (his father was born in Safed), a Palestinian militant sentenced to 27 years in jail. Born in April 1967 in the old city of Jerusalem, near the Wailing Wall, in a district where there are no longer any Arab families, Mahmud al Safadi was the youngest child born into a very poor Palestinian family. Although his father, a municipality employee, was not political, he did not prevent his children from getting involved in politics. One of his elder sons, Sabri, was a militant, participating in demonstrations at al Aqsa, and Mahmud followed suite. "My elder brother was a model for me", says Mahmud al Safadi, "I became an activist, and I shared his leftwing ideas".

In 1983, at the age of 16, he joined Habash's FPLP (although theoretically the party did not recruit members under 18) and in February 1989, on the 17th -- the same day he was planning to go underground -- he was arrested for th second time. "We were only throwing cocktails Molotov and burning cars to show that Jerusalem was occupied", he explains. The Israeli authorities did not see it like that, and during 28 days, he was submitted to harsh treatment -- tied to a chair in the rain, kept in a sticking cell, deprived of sleep. In March 1990 he was sentenced to 27 years in jail by an Israeli military court. He was 23.

Mahmud al Safadi went to school in Jerusalem, spending his last year of high school in Ramallah, without graduating. However, he completed his exams in jail, and registered at the Hebrew Open University to study social sciences. He had plenty of time to study and to read… which is how he came to read Amira Hass, and subsequently wrote to her. She answered, but for some reason, her letter did not reach him.

Years later, on 28 August 2004, Mahmud al Safadi was in a jail in Ashkelon,. Amira Hass was based in Ramallah, working on a story about a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners. She was looking for first-hand information on the strike, when one of her contacts gave her the phone number of a clandestine mobile smuggled inside a jail. "I called, and left a message, as if it was a number in a village", says Amira Hass, "and he called back a few hours later. And again two days after". For Amira Hass, the fact that Palestinian prisoners could use a smuggled mobile was not a surprise: she had already spoken to other prisoners in the same way. But her contact with Mahmud al Safadi was different. Soon they were chatting daily…

Mahmud al Safadi says that the Hizbullah prisoners were the first to smuggle mobile telephones into Israeli jails because their families, living in Lebanon, were not allowed to visit them, and it was their only way to connect with the outside world. But they did not share their mobiles with the prisoners of other movements. "We smuggled in our first mobile in 2002, recalls , Mahmud al Safadi. "For us it was a tremendous event, opening a window on the outside world. It lasted three years -- we call it our "golden age".

At first, Amira Hass used this connection in a strictly professional way -- as a reporter, getting information straight from inside an Israeli jail. "I asked him small details about his daily life, away from the bravado of the ex prisoners. In my first book, there is a chapter about Palestinian prisoners, but it is based on memories. Now, I was writing "live" about real-time experiences. I asked him how they cooked falafels, how were their relations with the guards. I queried him how they operated as a group. I asked him also very basic questions -- what are the noises, the voices that you hear, the colours that you see? I asked him to count how many steps there were down to the yard… It gave him the idea of counting many things"…

Mahmud al Safadi cuts in saying "For example, I counted how many days I saw my family in jail: 12 days in 17 years…And my brother Sabri, I did not touch him once in 17 years!"… Mahmud al Safadi had been talking to Amira Hass from inside the toilet corner of his cell -- which he shared with between 7 to 13 other prisoners -- in order not to be overheard by the guards. And also because he found out it was the only place in the cell where his mobile was not jammed by the Israeli prison technicians.

More and more captivated by Mahmud al Safadi's experience and his way of telling it, Amira Hass asked him to write it all down. In October 2004 she spoke to Eric Hazan, her French publisher, about it. Eric Hazan immediately asked "Why do you have to wait nine years until Mahmud is released? Why not write it yourself, basing the book on your conversations with him"?

So Amira Hass started recording everything Mahmud was telling her -- his little quarrels with the guards, his visits, his conversations with the other prisoners, their fight against two big mosquitoes in the middle of winter, a very funny story; and also his life as a child in Jerusalem, the biography of a poor Palestinian family.

When the mobile phone was eventually seized by the prison wardens, he kept sending details through smuggled letters. On 6 September 2006, he was eventually set free on parole, on condition

he returned home by 8 pm every night; registered at the police station once a week, and did not leave the country without permission. His new lawyer, a friend of Amira Hass, who had succeeded in getting him out of jail, later found out that his father's car had been burned by one of Mahmud al Safadi's Molotov cocktails back in 1989.

Free again, after 17 years in jail, Mahmud could now help Amira to complete the book. "We had all the raw material, we just had to edit it", says Amira Hass. But there came a new twist to the story. Some other authors had joined the race. French playwrights Ariel Cypel and Gael Chaillat, also heard about this rare story and asked Amira Hass and Mahmud al Safadi if they could write a play based on it. They did not read Amira and Mahmud's manuscript, but spent hours talking to them -- and they wrote a play, "MurMure" (an untranslatable play on French words, Wall Whispers) whose first draft was read in front of a large enthusiastic audience in Paris. "Murmure" will be shown on 9 January in France, at Confluence in Paris, and later in Israel and in the West Bank.

Amira Hass and Mahmud al Safadi, the authors turned characters, enjoy their new position -- with mixed feelings. Amira Hass feels that in the play she is "not a person, with depth, but a caricature". Mahmud is more enthusiastic, revealing that he is "quite moved and happy to see himself on the stage…This play took me immediately back to prison, to what we went through, me and my comrades". As one can imagine, Mahmud al Safadi enjoys his new freedom -- and his travel to Paris, his first journey ever. But he does not deny his joy is tempered by events in Palestine. "Inside the prisons, we are united. But the outside world is falling apart, fragmented, factions are fighting against factions…All what we have been dreaming of and all we have fought for…is for nothing".

 (The Middle East magazine, January 2008)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2008

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