by Midnight Jones
You may take the last strip of my land,
Feed my youth to prison cells.
You may plunder my heritage.
You may burn my books and poems
Or feed my flesh to dogs …
O enemy of the sun,
I shall not compromise
And to the last pulse in my veins
I shall resist.
– Samih al-Qasim (1970)
We were brought here, from Africa and other parts of the world of palm and sun, under duress, and have passed all our days here under duress. The people who run his country will never let us succeed to power …. We must organize our thoughts, get behind the revolutionary vanguard, make the correct alliances this time. We must fall on our enemies, the enemies of all righteousness, with a ruthless relentless will to win! History sweeps on, we must not let it escape our influence this time! – George L. Jackson (1970)
Before the latest round of bombing began in Gaza, righteous prisoner hunger strikes were raging across the West Bank, protesting a history of state criminality on the part of “Israel” which neither the BBC nor CNN would dare to cover. Then, soldiers of Zionism began arresting “Hamas” politicos in the hundreds, arbitrarily, even re-arresting some militants – whether Hamas, Fatah, PFLP, Islamic Jihad, DFLP or whatever – who had been released earlier in a historic prisoner exchange with their colonizer and occupier.
But it was on the final day of our May trip to Palestine that we visited the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoners Movement Affairs in the brilliant sunlight of Jerusalem. The simultaneous visit to Bethlehem of a Pope who paid respect to the Palestinian right to self-determination was nice enough. But the very thought of such an institution alone astounded me. Neither a “dead” museum nor a bourgeois one in the conventional style of Europe, the fact of its existence in Palestine exhilarated me.
Funded largely by donations from Kuwait, it is just seven years young, although the struggle is old. It assumes the name of a beloved martyr, Khalil al-Wazir a.k.a. “Abu Jihad,” a high-level PLO aide who was assassinated in Tunisia in 1988. It is curated and was founded by a former political prisoner of 10 years himself, Fahed Abu Jah, who informs the world that he learned to read and write in his prison cell.
The museum’s physical structure simulates certain aspects of incarcerated life, here and there. Its entrance is a sort of prison gate, whether of a military checkpoint or an official prison facility it may not matter. Most of its contents document a long history of imprisonment in order to testify and continue the struggle against it in the present day.
Since 1967 alone, Israeli’s have locked up at some point three quarters of a million Palestinian men, women and children, a staggering percentage of the local population of less than 4 million or so people. Roughly 20 percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have had a formal experience of imprisonment, 40 percent of the local Palestinian male population; and this experience of imprisonment typically entails physical as well as psychological torture. (See Abeer Baker and Anat Matar’s “Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel”: Pluto Press, 2011.)
The administrative detentions or juridical as well as extra-legal kidnappings do not cease. No, they increase in the midst of Israeli “war” crimes and crimes against humanity. As does the resistance by Palestinians in Palestine and in its diaspora.
The hallway entrance to Abu Jihad’s 450 square meter building is lined with introductory images and informational text. The first room is dark with sculpture and a series of shadowy, life-size visuals picturing Israeli torture techniques targeting Palestinians. Opposite it to the right during this visit was a room vivid with an amazing, expansive exhibit of political poster art. One poster read, “Secret Prison … Guantanamo Israel.” A catalogue of its contents is available free of charge, like all museum publications, as a rule.
To the left, another room includes a range of important fixtures: enlarged photos of daily life in prison, over here; a glass case enclosing an actual noose, front and center, which has been the “normal” form of execution; and, over there, a massive and beautiful wall of martyrs, from 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank. The names of martyrs are inscribed off to the side of their pictures, for honor and memory.
Yet another, adjacent room proceeds to impart general lessons and data of every kind. Colorful graphics detail in print, for example, the original political prisoners of 1948 (the “Nakba” era mass displacement and dispossession); open hunger strikes; female prisoners; and, remarkably, “April 17, The Day of the Palestinian Political Captive.” Striking, symbolic rock formations connect these various rooms, which only comprise the downstairs portion of this three-story museum with countless stories to be told.
Upstairs, on the second floor, there are rooms full of prisoner arts and crafts. There are also illustrations of prison letters, over time, from periods when all reading or writing material was outlawed to more recent periods when the right to write and write in slightly different formats was collectively won. Any museum visitor can visualize the process of writing a letter on forbidden paper, folding it up to fit into a tiny capsule, and smuggling it out to its destination via this or that capacious orifice.
Finally, on the top or third floor, there is a room devoted to the major work of a massive national project of archiving prisoner writings across Palestine as a whole. There, a column of library books is surrounded by countless binders, one book on Africa with a silhouette of the continent on its cover peeking out from the center. The Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoners Movement Affairs is a place worthy of its scrupulous name.
It is located approximately 50 to 100 feet inside the campus gates of Al Quds University in the Abu Dis village of Jerusalem. But “Israel” has built its shameless Apartheid Wall so that it segregates and dislodges Abu Dis, Al Quds and Abu Jihad from the rest of their Jerusalem. From the windows of the museum, and the rest of the university campus routinely raided by Zionist soldiers, is visible that giant and offensive wall.
Tagged with the graffiti of resistance, the Apartheid Wall stands in stark contrast to the honorific wall of martyrs erected inside the museum. This is a people’s museum devoted to those human beings battling “inside” prisons by those human beings battling, and increasingly imprisoned, “outside.” There is the geography of oppression or repression, on the one hand, and there is its essential antithesis, its opposition, which is examined so well by Alex Lubin in his recent book, “The Geography of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
The stories I heard on this day of my visit would resonate powerfully. I heard the story of the “Bus 300 Affair” of 1984, when a small group of men from Gaza took over an Israeli bus and aimed to re-route it and its passengers to the Egyptian border in their attempt to free hundreds of prisoners from Israeli captivity. The Israelis managed to recapture the bus, shooting two of the Palestinian men in the process and, afterwards, brutally murdering the other two in captivity.
Controversy ensued and led to the resignation of the head of the Shin Bet “security agency,” who would go on to receive a presidential pardon, of course. How could this “incident,” which is featured in a documentary film entitled “The Gatekeepers” (2013), not call to mind Jonathan Jackson’s attempt to free his brother, “Comrade George,” and all our “Soledad Brothers” in the Marin County Courthouse Rebellion of Aug. 7, 1970?
I also heard the story of a Palestinian woman who gave birth in prison to a son from whom she was separated upon his second birthday, as is Israeli prison policy. The anguish of mother and child is featured in another, poignant film entitled “First Picture” (2007) by Akram Al-Ashqar, an Al Quds University professor and filmmaker; and it is even available for viewing on YouTube.
How could this story not call to mind the autobiography of Assata Shakur, who described herself as a 21st century “escaped slave” and “Maroon Woman” in her open letter to a previous pope, from her political exile in Revolutionary Cuba? The stories I heard on this day, within these walls, they would resonate powerfully indeed.
And, I’m told, after this visit, a poster of George Lester Jackson is now hanging in the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoners Movement Affairs – in Falasteen (Palestine).
The Pope from South America’s show of respect for Palestinian self-determination was met with racist vandalism in Jerusalem. A group of ultra-conservative Zionists vandalized an Old City church, in response, with racism which does not deserve to be called graffiti: “Jesus is garbage,” it read, in Hebrew scribble.
Over in Bethlehem, by contrast, we saw an especially awesome piece of graffiti art on the Apartheid Wall expressing a specific solidarity with the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and Guantanamo Bay prisons in addition to a general solidarity – in Arabic script – with African peoples in North America at large. I beheld this sight again in my mind’s eye at Abu Dis, Al Quds, Abu Jihad.
Let us now see the world follow Palestine’s lead here in the construction of much-needed “Museums for Prisoner Movement Affairs” any and everywhere prison movements have been made necessary. Let us see the construction of many more living, fighting institutions like this magnificent trailblazer in Quds, in Jerusalem.
“You may take the last strip of my land, feed my youth to prisons…. I shall resist.” A pan-Arabist icon from Palestine recently passed on in the middle of Black August – between Gaza and Ferguson, Missouri: Samih al-Qasim (or Sameeh al-Qaseem) was a poet, Communist revolutionary and an ex-prisoner, like the Black Panther Field Marshal George Jackson, who once had a poem by the Palestinian published under his name mistakenly in The Black Panther newspaper, after his assassination at San Quentin: “Enemy of the Sun.”
Back in 1970, one shared the work of the other and their power voices were really just that kin. We must “make the correct alliances this time,” yes, we enemies of the “enemy of the sun.” Viva viva Palestina! Yes, despite empires of dollarism and Zionism, long live Falasteen (Palestine)!
Midnight Jones is the pen name of a university professor of Literature and Black Studies in New England.