Memoirs of a Militant, My Years in the Khiam Women’s Prison

15 October, 2021

 

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

Naw­al Baidoun’s mem­oirs are avail­able now from Olive Branch Press.

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.

Before Prison

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?

Entrance Procedures

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.

 

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