Defying Carcerality: Prisoners Writing Behind Bars
April 17 2022

The Israeli regime and its prison service have, under various “security” pretexts, consistently worked to hinder Palestinian prisoners’ cultural and academic life. For instance, in 2011, the Israeli authorities declared that prisoners would no longer be able to pursue their higher education at the Open University of Israel, in retaliation for the capture of an IOF soldier. This decision was held up by the Israeli Supreme Court.

In its response to multiple petitions submitted on behalf of Palestinian prisoners, the apartheid state’s Supreme Court  stated that “higher education is not a right for people classified as security prisoners.” In its response to a 2015 petition submitted by Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel ­­– the Supreme Court reiterated its position, arguing that “higher education funding for prisoners [comes] from ‘terrorist organizations’ and aims to strengthen their positions within the prisons.” This attack by the carceral authority was by no means original. It was a continuation of previous restrictions intended to hinder Palestinian prisoners’ academic and cultural development. Indeed, certain imprisoned Palestinians were only able to secure access to books, notebooks, and stationery following decades of struggle.  

The restrictions imposed on Palestinian prisoners are not simply a matter of access to books, education, university matriculation, and the autonomy to organize study sessions. As Hedi Viterbo writes, the attack on education and prisoners’ studies is an attempt to hinder the “ability to ideationally traverse the prison’s confines, thus imposing a sort of mental incarceration that operates as extra punishment” and to impede “the movement and continuity of thought from one generation of Palestinian inmates to another.”

Despite all of this, the cultural and political formations that Palestinian prisoners have long engaged in have allowed for moments of escape, of flight, from the depoliticization and fragmentation that the Israeli carceral regime has long sought to instate among the prisoners’ community.

Interwoven with acts of smuggling and defiance, writing and engaging in politics from captivity have emerged as key areas of  confrontation with the settler-colonial state. The prisoners’ myriad of cultural and political productions, which are  part of broader Palestinian prison literature, pave the way for a politics that rejects submission, and which offers radical imaginations of justice and freedom. These products, along with the processes involved in bringing them to light, exemplify an escape from the imposed mental incarceration, and more importantly, assert the political nature of imprisonment and the intimate connection that the Palestinian prisoners’ movement has to the liberation struggle. This helps explain the attack that the Israeli authorities have long been waging against various forms of education, production,and thinking that prisoners engage in. Former prisoner Walid al-Hodali’s writings are an example of what these productions might mean politically.

Rejecting Defeat; Calling for Action

“In 2007, I was arrested for twenty months for the novel I wrote, and in 2014, I was arrested for four months for the movie which was produced based on the same novel,” Walid al-Hodali proudly asserted during our 2020 meeting in his Ramallah-based office at Bayt al-Maqdis Center for Literature.[1] With a great sense of pride, he then boasted that his novel had been ranked the fourth-most read at al-Bireh’s municipal library over the past five years. As he recalled, the novel came right after works by Agatha Christie and renowned Palestinian author, Ghassan Kanafani. The novel, titled Sata’er al- ‘Atma loosely translated to Curtains of Darkness in English –  narrates the interrogation that ‘Amer, a Palestinian freedom fighter, undergoes at al-Mascobiyya and Asqalan’s interrogation centers, and the tools that the Israel Security Agency (ISA) devised to break ‘Amer’s silence and force him into making a confession.

The novel is based on al-Hodali’s experiences in Israeli interrogation centers during the 15 years he spent in captivity. It specifically deals with the changes he witnessed in the modes of torture employed by the security agency following the 1999 High Court of Justice’s (HCJ)  ruling to ‘ban’ torture, while permitting its use under pretexts of ‘security’ and ‘ticking bomb’ scenarios. ‘Amer, the novel’s hero, is presented as an experienced political prisoner who manages to withstand the brutal tactics of interrogation employed by the ISA during his multiple years of imprisonment. During his recent arrest, however, he is taken aback by the newly devised interrogation methods he witnesses in the interrogation centers. At first, he is left in a small cell, with none of the Israeli interrogators approaching him. He continues to wait in anticipation for the brutal beating, shaking, and stress positions he has grown accustomed to from previous stints in interrogation rooms. But none of the interrogation methods enshrined in his mind and soul come his way. He is approached by interrogators who instead employ sleep deprivation tactics, deception, and threats of arresting his family members during his first 80 days of interrogation. ‘Amer, however, understands this sudden change of tactics, and realizes that it is intended to break his will and psychologically distress him as to force him into making a confession: an option he refuses, despite the pain and isolation. He keeps reminding himself of the justness of his cause and opts out  of confessing – or even interacting with his jailers – in order to escape the pain of betrayal and self-destruction.

On the 80th day, one of the interrogators informs ‘Amer that he is to be sent somewhere else. Transported in the infamous boosta, he finds himself in Asqalan interrogation center, with an exceptional approval to use physical means of interrogation against him following his designation as a ‘ticking bomb’ by the Israeli security establishment. The interrogation methods he was accustomed to then return: the ISA subject him to stress positions, shakings, beatings and tightening of handcuffs. Following ten days of ‘military interrogation,’ however, he emerges victorious, without uttering a single word to his interrogators, fully aware that he has won the battle against Israel’s security agency and its torture methods.[2] The ISA eventually transfers him to prison, where he receives a hero’s welcome from fellow prisoners, who admire his courage and ability to withstand duress without giving in.

Curtains of Darkness, and the story of censorship that al-Hodali relays, are situated within both the broader censorship that the Israeli state has long been practicing, and the Palestinian discourse and practice encouraging the withstanding of the ISA’s ever-evolving interrogation tactics. In exposing the tactics employed in interrogation rooms from his enfleshed experience, al-Hodali is teaching the potential Palestinian prisoner-to-be how to build and constitute resilience inside Israel’s interrogation rooms. The author strengthens the concept of resilience inside interrogation centers through his vivid depiction of ‘Amer as a true believer in the justness of his cause; an unbreakable faith despite the physical and psychological torture inflicted  against his captive body.

Al-Hodali’s novel continues a tradition of works written by prisoners aiming to dissect the colonial encounter inside interrogation rooms. The interrogation room is a space where Israeli power and violence are put on crude display. In effect, to use Lena Meari’s words, it assists in generating the samed (steadfast) self: the detainee who rejects the infliction of violence and power, and who fully grasps the particularities of Israeli interrogation methods prior to arrest. 

The Impact of Prisoners’ Writings

Over the years, the Israeli authorities have devised sinister measures to further isolate Palestinian prisoners, deny them rights secured following decades of struggle, and fragment what once was a unified prisoners’ movement capable of steering and influencing the broader national struggle. The intention behind these policies is not solely to imprison the body and mind, but also to reshape the political imprisonment experience and, in effect, attempt to reshape the entire Palestinian population and force it into submission. The multifaceted attack on prisoners’ education and cultural and political productions constitutes part of today’s reality of Palestinian imprisonment. In the face of this reality, however, Palestinian prisoners have subsequently devised ways to counter the carceral regime’s policies and to forcibly re-inscribe the political nature of their imprisonment. Situated as a rejection of submission and defeat, prisoners’ writings and culture productions, along with the trespassing of authority they entail, emerge as central tactics for countering carceral power and violence. The vast body of prison literature, of which al-Hodali’s work is one example, is an attestation to the fact that the Israeli project of deforming Palestinian political imprisonment has not entirely been achieved. On the contrary, these writings continue to instill steadfastness in the face of Israel’s war against the existence of Palestinians.


[1] Excerpt from an Interview with Walid al-Hodali, Ramallah, August 26, 2020.

[2] ‘Military interrogation’ is the euphemism used by the ISA to refer to the use of violent physical methods (i.e., torture) in its interrogation of Palestinian detainees. Through this term, the ISA and the Israeli government attempt to present other interrogation methods as not constituting ‘physical’ measures while in reality torture has never left the Israeli carceral regime.

About The Author: 

Basil Farraj is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. Basil's work focuses on political prisoners, violence directed against them, and ways they resist the incarcerating regimes. His work reaches for intersections of memory, resistance and art by prisoners and others at the receiving end of violence. Basil has previously conducted fieldwork in a number of countries including Chile and Colombia.

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