Political poetry as a crime: Inside the surreal trial of Dareen Tatour

Arresting a Palestinian for publishing a political poem is extraordinary. Having to prove at trial that police mistranslated her poem is nothing short of surreal.

By Yoav Haifawi

Dareen Tatour at the Nazareth Magistrates Court. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Dareen Tatour at the Nazareth Magistrates Court. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It has been nearly a year and a half since Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was arrested in her home in northern Israel for writing a poem. She spent three months in various prisons, including half a year under house arrest in the town of Kiryat Ono in central Israel. Although she was able to return to her home village of Reineh, she remains under house arrest as the trial comes to an end.

Tatour, 34, was arrested by Israeli police on October 10th, 2015 for a poem she had published on Facebook, along with a number of other Facebook statuses she posted at the height of last wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis between 2015-2016. She was charged with incitement to violence and identifying with a terrorist organization — all because of her poem.

The main clause of her indictment was based on a poem that she had allegedly posted on YouTube under the title: “Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum” (Resist my people, resist them). Another main clause in the indictment relates to a news item, cited in a post on Tatour’s Facebook page, according to which “The Islamic Jihad movement calls for continuing the Intifada all over the [West] Bank…” The same post calls for a “comprehensive intifada.”

The prosecution wrapped up its arguments in September of last year, most of which were designed to prove that Tatour’s Facebook account indeed belonged to her, and that it was she who published the poem and the two Facebook statuses.

In November, Tatour testified and admitted that she had written the statuses. She explained that she was protesting the occupation, denouncing the crimes committed against Palestinians by the Israeli army and the settlers, adding that the police translation distorted her texts. Over three long days of cross-examination, Tatour was grilled by Prosecuting Attorney Alina Hardak, who attempted to push Tatour to admit her “support for terrorism” — to no avail.

Should poets be arrested?

On Sunday, March 19th, Tatour’s attorneys, Gaby Lasky and Nery Ramati, brought two expert witnesses to testify before Judge Adi Bambiliya-Einstein in the Nazareth Magistrates Court.

The first witness was Prof. Nissim Calderon, an expert on Hebrew literature. In his written expert opinion, Calderon stated that there are special rules concerning the expression of poets, describing a long tradition of poets who used harsh words to oppose oppression or injustice — sometimes going so far as to clearly call for violent actions. The poets, Calderon said, were not prosecuted, even by oppressive regimes like the Tsar in Russia or the British Mandate in Palestine.

Dareen Tatour (left) and Professor Calderon (center) speak at the Nazareth Magistrates Court, March 19, 2017. (Yoav Haifawi)

Dareen Tatour (left) and Professor Calderon (center) speak at the Nazareth Magistrates Court, March 19, 2017. (Yoav Haifawi)

To prove his point, Calderon chose three of the most prominent Hebrew poets, bringing specific examples from their subversive texts. He cited Hayim Nachman Bialik, one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry, who once wrote the lines: “With furious cruelty / We will drink your blood mercilessly.” Calderon also cited poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who wrote: “Give me my sword, I won’t return it to its scabbard / What did my lips elicit? I want battles.” Despite these clear calls for violence by leading Jewish poets, the Tsar’s anti-Semitic secret police refrained from arresting or prosecuting them.

The third example Calderon cited at length was right-wing Zionist poet, Uri Tsvi Greenberg. Greenberg openly incited to violence and was a member of “Brit HaBirionim” (The Thugs Alliance), a Zionist organization that violently resisted the British occupation. He was never punished for his poems.

When the prosecutor implied that Greenberg was not arrested for his poetry because the British Mandate did not prosecute inciters, Calderon responded that his uncle was exiled from Palestine for supporting illegal Jewish immigration. When the prosecutor suggested that poets should not necessarily be immune to legal action during times of tension, Calderon said that the British did not prosecute Greenberg even when he called for resistance to their rule.

What did the poet mean?

Both the prosecutor and the judge understood that they have a problem with the police translation of Tatour’s poem. The officer who translated it had no specific expertise in translation. When he was previously asked during his testimony why he was chosen to translate the poem, the officer responded that he studied Arabic literature in high school and has a love for the language.

During Tatour’s testimony, the prosecutor wanted her to provide her own Hebrew translation of the poem. She refused, adding that she does not know Hebrew well enough to translate poetry. The prosecutor then wanted her to read the poem in Arabic so that the court’s translator will translate it, and thus the words would be attributed to her included in the protocol. She refused.

Yoni Mendel at Dareen Tatour's trial, Nazareth Magistrates Court, March 19, 2017. (Yoav Haifawi)

Yoni Mendel at Dareen Tatour’s trial, Nazareth Magistrates Court, March 19, 2017. (Yoav Haifawi)

Perhaps the prosecution felt some relief when the defense brought its own Hebrew translation of the poem, done by Dr. Yoni Mendel, an experienced literary translator and Arabic expert. His translation was significantly different from the one that appeared in the indictment. Mendel, too, provided expert testimony, claiming that the police’s translation had deliberately and systematically distorted the text to make it appear extremist and violent.

The most blatant contradiction between the two translations was in the following lines: “Do not fear the tongues of the Merkava tank \ The truth in your heart is stronger \ As long as you are rebel in a land \ That has lived through raids but wasn’t exhausted.” The last two verses were translated by the policeman to “As long as you resist in a land \ Long live the Gazawat and will not tire.”

The police officer omitted the word “Gazawat” in Arabic, likely because he could not find the proper translation into Hebrew. In his testimony, Mendel explained that the word was used by Arab tribes at the time of the Jahiliyya (what Muslims call the period before the founding of Islam) to describe attacks on tribes for the purpose of robbery or enslaving women. Tatour’s text clearly uses these lines to refer to the raids that Palestinians are subject to; the police translation, somehow, managed to transform the victim into the aggressor.

Who are the martyrs?

On a more profound level, much of the emphasis on the translation — and a great deal of the cross-examination — focused on the sentence: “Follow the convoy of martyrs.” The Arabic word for martyrs, “shuhadaa,” was not translated into Hebrew by the police translator, but rather was grammatically adjusted into Hebrew and became “shahidim” — an Israeli transliteration that, for most Israelis, conjures an image of Palestinians who were killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis. Mendel showed how basic Arabic terms keep their original form in such a way that neutralizes their original meaning and the basic human empathy that underlies them. Divorced from their original context, Arabic words like shahid or intifada acquire a new, threatening meaning in Hebrew.

Mendel went on to explain that for the Palestinian Arab public, the word shuhadaa refers to all the victims of the occupation. In the specific context of Tatour’s poem, Mendel supported this interpretation with the fact that Tatour’s poem referred to three specific martyrs: 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli Jews; Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby who was burned alive with the rest of his family in their West Bank home; and Hadeel Al-Hashlamon, who was shot and killed by the army at a checkpoint in Hebron.

The prosecutor tried to prove that Tartour was not referring to murdered Palestinians, since no one wants to be murdered. Mendel explained that the call to “follow the martyrs” does not mean a desire to die, but rather refers to a more general concept of adhering to Palestinian heritage. This includes embracing bereaved families, never giving up the struggle, and refusing to accept solutions that deny Palestinian national and human rights.

Tatour has became a symbol for Israel’s persecution of Palestinians over political expression, mostly on social media. Many poets, writers, intellectuals, and activists, both in the country and abroad, have expressed their solidarity with her, calling for her immediate release and for the charges against her to be dropped.

The fact that leading intellectuals such as Calderon and Mendel volunteered to provide testimony during a grueling cross-examination (Mendel was grilled for five hours) is a prime example of just how much this particular trial resonated with much of the liberal public. Even defenders of freedom of expression and the arts have begun collecting money to help with Tatour’s legal expenses.

The last witnesses in Tatour’s case will be called to testify on March 28th, which will likely the last hearing before the verdict is read in a few months. Tatour faces up to eight years in prison, and an appeal from one or both sides is likely in such a high profile case. In the meantime, Tatour remains under house arrest and may stay in detention for a full two years before the court comes to a decision over the meaning of her poem.

Yoav Haifawi is covering Dareen Tatour’s trial in his blog, Free Haifa