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Feature image by Yolanda Djajakesukma on Unsplash

6 June 2024

Exclusive Extract: The Prison As a Text by Layan Kayed, translated by Roba AlSalibi

This translated text, written by Layan Kayed in August 2021 while she was incarcerated by the Israeli settler regime, is one of many Palestinian prison literatures which have long engaged in confronting captivity and offering visions for liberation. Originally published in our latest summer issue, Wasafiri 118: Abolitions — Writing Against Abandonment this piece of life writing, translated by Roba AlSalibi, powerfully deconstructs the themes of humanisation, freedom of Palestinian prisoners and people, and the abolition of prisons altogether.

You can read and download the full piece online for free during the month of June, or purchase the print issue, Wasafiri 118

Since its establishment in 1948, the Israeli settler-colonial state, like other settler-colonial contexts, has employed incarceration as a tool of subjugation against the Palestinian indigenous population. In fact, many of the prisons now used by the Israeli settler state to supress Palestinian resistance were first established under British colonial rule for the same purpose. Since then, political imprisonment in the Palestinian context has played an integral part in wider Israeli settler-colonial policies of eliminating the Palestinian body and any form of resistance to the Zionist project, as well as destroying the formation of a collective Palestinian political community.

Palestinians face some of the highest rates of incarceration of any global population; one in five Palestinians has been imprisoned by the Israeli colonial regime at some point in their life. Since 1967 and the military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, over 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned by the Israeli colonial regime (UNHRC). In November 2023, there were around 8,300 Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, including 350 children and eighty-five women (CNN). It should be mentioned that Israel is the only state that prosecutes children in military courts, and that the regime usually arrests them in violent night-time raids and even subjects them to torture and abuse (AP News). Moreover, more than 3,000 Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons indefinitely without charge or trial under a procedure known as ‘administrative detention’, which can last months on end (CNN). All Palestinian prisoners are subjected to various forms of systematic torture and physical and psychological violence, including severe beating, sexual abuse, long interrogation hours, sleep deprivation, and threats of detaining and torturing family members, among others.

Israel’s carceral violence and prison policies essentially aim to strip Palestinians of their political agency and subjectivity, and to isolate them from the Palestinian community and the collective struggle for liberation. Importantly, incarceration racially positions Palestinians as always already ‘terrorists’ upon whom injury and punishment should be inflicted. Despite the unimaginable brutality and dehumanisation of the Israeli carceral regime, Palestinian detainees have turned the prison into a site of confrontation where they assert their political agency and will to live. Hunger strikes, collective actions to improve prison conditions, escape, and the smuggling of political writings are some of the means through which Palestinian prisoners resist their confinement, challenge the status quo of the prison system, and join the wider struggle for liberation.

The following translated text is one example of Palestinian prison literature, which has long engaged in confronting captivity and in offering imaginaries and visions for liberation. Layan Kayed, a former detainee and a university student, wrote this text in August 2021 while she was incarcerated by the Israeli settler regime. Her piece is a powerful and a beautifully written account of the prison experience and one that destabilises the dichotomy of humanisation versus heroism. She describes the various kinds of loss that Palestinian detainees experience in Israeli prisons and the psychological impact of prisoners’ structural isolation from their communities. The humanisation of prisoners in the text does not mean to negate their political agency and resistance to Israel’s carceral regime. Rather, the author speaks of prisons both as sites of loss and grief and as sites of confrontation and protest. The text’s conclusion is that it is not only the freedom of Palestinian prisoners that is central to the Palestinian struggle for liberation, but the abolition of prisons altogether.

Maysoon does not take the claim that incarceration inspires one’s instinctive literary and artistic senses seriously. She is responsible for the prison ‘wing library’, has a good sense of humour, and attributes prisoners’ enthusiasm for reading fiction to their need for an escape, and to the scarcity of stories. She sees that the space and time of stories allow events to progress and develop at an imaginative pace.

The text and the prison exchange roles; the text is a document which encloses the prison, and the prison is a document ripped by the text.

The prison then acquires a further dimension which is dominated by meaning, for there is no such thing as a completely objective world devoid of symbolism and meaning. Expressions relating to the dichotomy of freedom and imprisonment are not invented or monopolised by a person or a specific nation, even as they bring this dichotomy to life. Rather, these expressions allude to a collective imaginary that is constantly reinventing itself and that regularly expands with photos of new prisoners, or with the addition of years to their old photos, and with prisoners’ stories or those of their family and friends. This collective imaginary is ingenious enough to leave us confused about which led to which: the ‘Oh, Prison Darkness' poem [written by Syrian journalist Najib al-Rayyes in 1922 when he was exiled by the French colonial authorities for his engagement in the anti-colonial resistance movement], or the act of defying the prison guard’s subjugation. It is ingenious enough to convince us that ‘the detention room will not last forever, nor yet the links of chains’ (Darwish), and it has enough of that sweet naivety to make us laugh while we burn under the scorching heat: ‘it’s the sun of freedom’. Or, as Khaleda would say, ‘freedom disappeared, and its sun remains’. The collective imaginary can also be a romantic feeling whose gentle sails can’t withstand the ice of reality. Khaleda and Amal share their food with the free birds, placing a piece of bread on the cell’s window to be ‘food for an immigrant bird’. After long hours of waiting, cold and hungry, they look for that piece again.

In imprisonment we draw our letters and our poems from the same linguistic intensity of the collective imaginary. Language is the suitcase of hope and the only window for sadness. And writing is oscillating between the constrained reality, ‘without being dragged by it’, and the expansive horizon, without indulging in it. We therefore live the prison as a text because it makes us have wide-open conversations with the people and things around us, at times, and people and places far away, at others. Writing is fascinating in both its presence and its absence. When it arrives, it takes us on a magic carpet to see and talk about peoples and trees and about crisis and cities, so that when we return to the prison, we have broken from its familiarity to see it for the ugly truth it has always been. When writing descends, it helps us spill out the day’s residues and the ‘ordinary grief’ [Journal of Ordinary Grief is a collection of prose essays written by Mahmoud Darwish], and it makes us more intensely pure.

Writing offers us a ladder to glance from above, to assemble the random and small events into a bigger and more meaningful puzzle. Through it we disrupt our isolation and its psychological, social, and intellectual manifestations, and we become, at least in our minds, subjects and objects amid events. We live the prison as a text, whilst exceeding its narratives of valour or suffering and by transcending self-identifications as merely ‘prisoners’ to wander through the sources of our identities and causes.

Layan Kayed is a Palestinian activist currently pursuing a master's degree in sociology at Birzeit University.
Roba AlSalibi is a Palestinian researcher at the University of Oxford.
Latest Issue - Summer 2024
Wasafiri 118: Abolitions - Writing Against Abandonment

Our summer special issue, Wasafiri 118 — Abolitions: Writing Against Abandonment, guest-edited by Farhaana Arefin and Dr Abeera Khan, explores the work of those organising against the degradation of life under racial capitalism from India to Lebanon, Palestine to France. In this issue, writing is offered as a tool for liberation, with language as resistance to enforced isolation for incarcerated people, and translation as a tool for building solidarity across borders.

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