Excerpts from Memoirs of a Militant, My Years in the Khiam Women’s Prison
By Nawal Qasim Baidoun, translated by Michelle Hartman & Caline Nasrallah
Olive Branch Press/Interlink Books (October 2021)
Nawal Qasim Baidoun
In order to carry on with life in prison, you must believe you will be there forever. —Nawal Qasim Baidoun
The prison memoir of Nawal Qasim Baidoun defies the notion that Muslim women failed to play an active role in armed resistance. Much like her sisters in Algeria and Palestine, Nawal Baidoun belongs to a generation of Muslim women in the Arab world who played a significant role in their national liberation struggles.
While many know that Israel maintained a military presence in south Lebanon for 18 years, few realize that for years, during and after Lebanon’s Civil War (1975–1990), Israel ran a harsh prison punishing thousands of inmates in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam. A Palestinian militant from a refugee family in Lebanon, Nawal Baidoun was “detained on suspicion of involvement in an Islamic resistance plot to assassinate Israeli collaborator and agent Husayn Abdel-Nabi,” write Malek Abisaab and Michelle Hartman in their introduction to the book. “Nawal’s experience of detention and imprisonment… sheds light on the life of women who were deprived of sunlight, fresh air, decent food, and the pleasure of living with loved ones for years. But these women did still have a life inside prison. Despite constant surveillance by military and civilian prison authorities, imprisoned women found ways to show each other solidarity and sisterly companionship. Their strategies for doing this are inspirational.” —Malek Abisaab, Michelle Hartman.
In late 1986, my village, Bint Jbeil, like all other towns and villages in South Lebanon occupied by the Israeli enemy, was rife with darkness and deprivation, sorrow and misery. Similarly to the rest of the occupied South, Bint Jbeil was continually ravaged by waves of relentless, merciless terrorism. Each day, the Israeli State and its Lebanese collaborators tightened the noose around the necks of the people in these villages in any and every way they could. This included mass arrests of anyone they suspected of having ties to the resistance, or even of people who frequented places of worship. They also increased taxation on raw materials and other commodities that some merchants managed to bring into the region by obtaining specific permits to cross over from outside the occupied zone. On top of all of this, there was the forced military recruitment of every boy who had reached thirteen years of age to contend with. If families refused, they would find themselves faced with two options—condemn their sons to jail or banish them from home, to go live outside the occupied areas.
It wasn’t safe anywhere, neither on the streets nor at home. No one could ever relax. Someone might even jump out of bed late at night, all aquiver, because of a terrifying pounding on the door: it would be the collaborators, ordering the owner of the house to hurry up and open the door. The collaborators would regularly head to a specific address because they were on the prowl for one of the members of the family living there. And this is how it came to be that in our town, as in so many others, it was difficult to find even one household without at least one family member in prison. Further, any person who so much as grumbled or muttered something that Israeli collaborators might find suspicious would simply be picked up and locked away. This is how Khiam Prison and others filled with hundreds of innocent victims—righteous people.
The prison became a cemetery. The Israelis and their local collaborators made it into something whose name alone still has the power to strike fear in anyone who hears it. As the saying goes, “He who enters is lost, but he who comes out is reborn.”
Despite all this harassment and abuse, many young people in town still managed to find ways to secretly work with the resistance against the occupation.
On 19 April 1988, a Wednesday afternoon to be exact, the target Husayn Abdel-Nabi and two of his agents—Abdel-Nabi Bazzi, nicknamed Al-Jalbout, and Fawzi al-Saghir, both from Bint Jbeil—arrested K.Z. at her place of study in town. They also arrested F.Y. at her home. A strange feeling I’d never experienced before washed over me, but I didn’t do anything or react in any way that showed I was worried, or even that I knew either one of them.
Time passed slowly. All day, the only thing I could think about was getting home, but I had to wait for the final school bell to ring. I finally returned home, thinking about what had happened to my comrades and what would happen to me. My siblings, who were already there, noticed that something was bothering me. But I insisted that nothing was going on and that I was perfectly fine. The whole time, I kept thinking about what had happened and what would follow—how and why had the two of them gotten arrested? Had the local Israeli collaborators figured out what we were up to? Would K.Z. and F.Y. be released if nothing was found? Or would I end up joining them? So many questions were swirling around in my head. The following day, I went to school and kept up appearances. I was surprised that the teaching staff had heard news of the arrests and were all outraged.
One of the women workers at the school said: “The people of the village should all stand together against this, religious clerics should condemn these arrests, there should be a sit-in at the town square. Has the world gone mad? Has it come to this, locking up the girls in town? And why? They’ve taken all the boys, so now they’re coming for the girls!”
These words, which she voiced out loud with no reservations, still resonate with me today. This working woman had a political position that not one of my colleagues on the teaching staff would dare show openly at school.
Somehow the school day ended, and I managed to make my way back home. The incident had paralyzed me, but I tried to act completely normally for fear that my siblings might notice something. Then my time was up: the moment I had been waiting for arrived—that is, the moment of my arrest.
It happened at six fifteen in the evening, on Thursday, 20 April 1988—the fifth day of Ramadan. I was busy preparing for the iftar. Just five minutes before the breaking of the fast, I heard wild knocking on the door to the house. I could feel my heart beating stronger and faster than the pounding at the door. I hurried to see who was there, and I was shocked to find three collaborators with the Israeli occupying army standing there: Husayn Abdel-Nabi, aka Enemy-Nabi, Kamal Salih, from Ayta al-Shaab, and Fawzi al-Saghir, from my own town, Bint Jbeil.
I asked them, “What is it? What do you want? There is no one here but my brother who is not even thirteen years old, and my two sisters, younger than me.” It seemed that my turn had come. Husayn Abdel-Nabi just looked down at his hand and said to me, “Are you Nawal Qasim Baidoun?”
“Yes,” I replied, “What do you want?” It turns out that my name was written on the palm of his hand.
“Come with us to town, we’d like to ask you some questions. It won’t take long and then you can come back home,” he told me.
“What do you want from me? What do you want to ask me about?”
“Come with us, you will soon know everything there is to know.”
At this point, Fawzi al-Saghir interrupted saying, “We would like to clarify a few things with you, it will only take five minutes. Don’t worry. This may all turn out to be a simple misunderstanding.”
But this was neither a misunderstanding, nor would it take five minutes. Wasn’t this what they always said, though it typically led to years of detention in an Israeli prison?
The car stopped outside of a room from which a tall, dark-skinned agent emerged, weapon slung over his shoulder. This was at exactly seven o’clock in the morning. I knew what time it was because I’d heard the news broadcast begin in the car.
Fawzi al-Saghir ordered me to get out of the car and go into a room that had doors on either side, leading to more rooms. As soon as I climbed out, the guard carrying the weapon asked me: “So what’s up, did you finish Law School?” I stared at him and wondered how he knew I was in Law School. Mere seconds later, I found myself inside a large room where a tall, dark man wearing civilian clothes was waiting for us. I found out later that it was the interrogator named Wael, or at least that’s what they called him—they didn’t use their real names.
A few seconds later he asked me my name and I gave it to him. He ordered me to take off my jewelry and then went to make a phone call. I could make out only a bit of what he was saying. “Come down here and bring handcuffs and a bag with you.” Moments later, two young women wearing civilian clothes entered the room. One was a full-figured boxy blonde; the other one, who was rather thin with jet-black hair, was holding iron handcuffs in one hand and something black in the other. She asked me to hold out my hands and I was shocked that she spoke to me in Arabic with a Lebanese accent. At first glance, I’d assumed they were Israelis and would speak Hebrew. She then put a black bag over my head.
I couldn’t bear it, so I tore it off. This lady collaborator reprimanded me loudly, “Don’t ever do that again.” She put it back on and tied a blindfold of the same color over my eyes. I couldn’t see anything and felt as if I were suffocating. She tugged the edge of my sleeve and told me to follow her. I asked, “Where to?” She retorted sarcastically, “To the cinema! … Now walk and don’t ask questions.” Blindfolded, I was afraid of bumping into something, so I followed close behind her.
We walked a few steps and she told me to stop. After this I heard the click of a lock turning, and then the creak of a metal door opening. She ordered me to lift one foot and then the other so I could enter the room. She unlocked my handcuffs and ordered me to remove the bag from my head and untie my blindfold. I did both. I found myself in a room that was barely a meter or two long and half a meter wide. “So this is the place you imagined…” I thought. Then she told me to put my hands behind my back. She locked handcuffs on them and did the same with my feet. She propped me up on the ground and said, “Don’t move.” Then she left, locking the cell door on me. The top of the metal door had a peephole of scratched up glass which was difficult to see through.
As I took in my surroundings, I felt like someone was putting their hands around my neck. I looked around and thought, “Where am I? What is this?” The first thing I noticed were the words written on the cell walls and scratched into the door. They were the names of young women and men, their dates of incarceration, and also words about their families, their mothers especially, and the homeland. There were also Qur’anic verses. At that moment, I found myself unable to concentrate on any specific thought. I felt dazed, as if I were sleepwalking. Suddenly a very clear image of my family appeared to me—I could see my parents and siblings. My mind was plagued by so many questions about their reaction to my arrest and what would happen to them. Only after this did I find myself thinking about what was in store for me in this place.
I was in Khiam Prison.