Sister power (a meeting with family members of Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails)

October 21

The second day of the conference. We go to the morning session, but after lunch we are taken to a place where we are to meet with the families of detained prisoners in  Israeli jails. We arrive in a room, with a podium and some microphones in the front. To the left a row of tables with women sitting in the front row. They are mostly older. Some are wearing a niqab. Two of them are holding large pictures of their sons, and another one has two smaller frames set up in front of her.

  More speeches. One, two, then two video clips, one of which shows a heart wrenching chase by IDF soldiers after a twelve year old boy and his arrest (a young woman with excellent English, Mukarram, interprets). Then Chomsky says a few words. Now we get to hear some testimonies. The older woman with the big poster comes to the front. She introduces herself, says the name of her son and tells the story of his detainment, which has already lasted six years. An official from IUG translates. Then a younger woman, whose husband has been in jail for six years. She was pregnant when he was arrested, so he has never seen his youngest son who is six and just entered school. Apparently this was it for the women’s testimony. Two male intellectuals are now introduced and come to the front to give speeches. We’ve become so used to enduring speeches by men that no one says anything.

After they are done, and when we are about to be asked to go to another room for an exhibit on the prisons, one of the other woman has come to the front. The young woman who was interpreting the video clip before tells us that this woman insists on saying something.

Finally, the lid flies off the pot. This woman, a mother of another prisoner, is clearly trying to contain herself. She asks us what we are going to be able to do, how this visit is going to help her and the others in bringing about a change. She is almost charging at us. It is clear that she is livid, and we suddenly feel galvanized and yanked out of our stupor of enduring speeches and not being able to interact with people outside formal settings, speeches, etc. We feel released, alive. A breakthrough, finally. Now Hagit takes the microphone. She almost shouts that we came to listen to them. Not to one speech after another by men. That is their stories we want to hear. Mukarram translates. She too is now alive. Others of us now speak, –interestingly only the women! I say that we want to have a list of the names of their loved ones in jail. We always get to know the names of all the Israelis, never those of Palestinian detainees or victims, who the media regularly buries in a  mass of victimised (or violent – depending on the slant) groups and never individualises. Verena adds: not just their names, their stories! Then Stephanie speaks and decries that we have not come here to be used for political gains, but to meet those who are most affected by the occupation. That we want to hear each and every of the stories of them, one by one, not just a couple of token ones. In the end we all have tears running down, us, and the women across. It is an outburst, but none of the women appear uncomfortable. To the contrary, they are clearly relieved, released. I don’t notice the men at the front podium anymore, but someone tells me afterwards that a few of them too look relieved. Now the microphone goes the way of the women across the table. We get to hear names, stories. Not the stories of the arrests and the reasons for them. But what the mothers and wives have been enduring. The university official starts interpreting, but Laurie interrupts and asks for it to be the woman interpreter. Mukarram assumes her position, it is clear, willingly.  We are promised to get all the details sent by email, so we will be able to talk and write about them when we are back. After everyone is done, we get up, and the woman who started it all, we love her, comes across to hug Hagit and Steph, and then all of us. I cross to their side, hugs, kisses. It is cathartic. This lasts long moments. One of the males is trying impatiently to edge us into the next room where we are shown more information about the prisons. I pity the men amongst us, for cultural barriers prevent them from hugging these women, who seem to so relieved to have been able to speak freely, to pour out their frustrations and sufferings. It feels good.

All day I have been anxious to go back to the hotel and see Antoine, who is sick like a dog today and had to stay in bed. I realise how much this pales to not being able to see or speak to your husband for years, knowing that he suffers, physically, and psychologically.

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