You Are Not Forgotten

Reham Alhelsi
My Palestine

My Palestinian sister, my Palestinian brother;
I write this letter today and I see your face in front of me, the face of Palestine. I see your smile; that of a poppy being kissed by the sun. I hear your whisper; that of an olive trees being hugged by the wind. I address this letter to you, for I know your name and you know mine: Palestinian.

2010 was declared the year of the Palestinian prisoners/detainees. Throughout the year, some local newspapers here in occupied Palestine published daily reports about you, your detention, your heroism, published interviews with your families, your loved ones telling of your detention, of the painful visits, of the Israeli oppression and harassment, and telling of how much you are loved, how much you are missed. A photo accompanied every report; a smiling young man with wavy dark hair that is probably grey now with the years and the suffering behind bars, a beautiful young woman whose once bright eyes probably have turned pale today with pain and sadness, a laughing father sitting amongst his children, wife, parents and siblings before being kidnapped from their midst by Israeli occupation soldiers, a happy mother surrounded by her children before she was separated from them by Israeli jailors, a little boy standing proudly near his new bicycle that is now stacked somewhere full of dust waiting for its owner to come home. Every morning I rush to check the page with your stories in one of the local newspapers. I pass my fingers over your pictures as I read how much you love Msakhan, how you tried to return the little bird to its nest and fell off the olive tree, how you impressed everyone with your dakbeh during your brother’s wedding, how you love writing poetry, how you dreamt of a free Palestine. And then I would wish I was able to free you, bring you back to your loved ones, bring you back to your poetry, to your dabkeh group, to your olive tree, and I would wish I could hug you, each and every one of you, and remove some of your pain away and tell you that you are never forgotten, that your pain is not yours alone, it is ours, all of us, because we are all one: we are Palestinians.

And like the tens of thousands of fellow Palestinians, I joined the campaign of the ministry of detainees, the "write a letter" campaign, to tell you are not forgotten. I took a look at the list of names published by the ministry of detainees. And although the lists were incomplete, I wished I could write 7000 letters, a letter to each and every one of you. I knew it was impossible, mainly because I was unable to find the 7000 names. I decided to choose a name from every part of Palestine; one of you from Jerusalem, one from Nablus, one from Im Il-Fahim, Bethlehem, Gaza, Yafa, Jenin. I looked at the list of Jerusalem prisoners and I read the names. I came across prisoners from my family, I came across prisoners from the old city, from Ras Il Amoud, Silwan, Abu Dees, Il-Izariyyeh, Sawahreh, At-Tur, At-Thuri, Il-Isawiyyeh, Wadi Il-Joz, Shu’fat, Beit Hanina, Il-Ram, Il-Sheikh Jarrah. I came across men, women, children, elderly and sick detainees and I couldn’t decide. Each and every name has a face; each and every name has a story; each and every name has a family, has parents, brothers, sisters and maybe a wife and children. Each and every one of you is entitled to a letter, each and every one of you must be told you are not forgotten. I looked at the other lists, read the sentences: 30 years, 40 years, 60 years, 99 years, 999 years! And I thought of the pain of being separated from the ones you love, being robbed of your freedom, of your life; indescribable. I looked at the names of the isolated detainees and I read: isolated since 2008, since 2006, since 2003 and since 2001! And I thought: to live in a tiny cell, isolated from the whole world, even from fellow prisoners, for 9 years! What cruelty! What inhumanity! I could not choose any random name, for you all are my brothers and sisters. I decided to write to everyone on the lists. I wrote and wrote, crossed over and wrote again, crossed over, wrote again and so it went. I wanted my letter to reach you and not be cut short by the Israeli censor. And eventually, after I don’t know how many attempts, I wrote a short message, one to tell you that you are not forgotten. I sent many, don’t know anymore how many. Then I stopped.

I stopped because I thought of how unfair it was of the ministry to publish only a few names. Everyone joining the campaign would be writing these very same names. I imagined you all sitting in your cells and only a couple of you receiving dozens of letters because some names were published, while the rest of you wondering why you no one remembered you. I thought of all the Palestinian detainees, of all of you, all of you locked up behind Israeli bars, all those among you who spent more time in Israeli jails than with your families, all those among you who try to remember your mothers gentle touch while being tortured by Israeli jailors, all those among you who try to recall your father’s kind words while being interrogated by Israeli terrorists. I thought of the children, the women and the elderly, I thought of all the Jordanian, Syrian and other Arab prisoners among you who love Palestine and love freedom, and who sacrificed their freedom for Palestine. I thought of every human being locked up in the dungeons of Zion and thought how insignificant a letter is compared to your sacrifices. What would you tell a prisoner who is spending his 33th year in Israeli dungeons? What would you tell a mother whose children are growing up away from her? What would you tell a cancer patient screaming from pain every night while we go to work, eat and sleep and maybe, because there is a campaign, we write a letter?

I remember the time when I often wrote letters to my uncles. Like you, they were locked up behind Israeli bars and their only crime was their love of Palestine and their yearning for freedom. Writing to them felt like a national duty; something I had to do. I wrote letter after letter after letter, and only got a few back in reply to the ones I sent. I knew there is Israeli censorship, and that all letters are read and controlled, parts might be crossed out or even whole letters withheld if they contained one word that might not appeal to the inspecting Israeli soldier. I knew that my letters would reach my uncles days, maybe weeks, maybe even months after I had sent them. I knew that my uncles were not able to reply to every single letter I sent and thus I cherished the few I got from them, no matter how little they contained. I wanted so much to tell them how much I am proud of them, of Palestine and of the resistance, of the people demonstrating everywhere against occupation and oppression. But I knew if I wrote these things, the letters won’t reach them and the most important thing to me was that the letters arrive to my uncles, that they know they are not one second forgotten, that they are not alone suffering in the jail, that we are suffering with them, missing them, thinking of them every minute of the day. I did my best to make the letter as personal as possible and at the same time, out of fear of the Israeli censor and never being allowed to write again, I tried to make the letter as impersonal as possible. I wrote of insignificant things; I wrote of school and of the weather.

I wrote of the weather, of the blue sky over Palestine, and hoped they would remember how we used to watch the clouds and laugh at the figures we imagined in them. I didn’t dare mention the clouds of tear gas that were strangling us day and night. I wrote of the olive trees, the apple trees, the fig trees and the vineyards and hoped they would see the playgrounds of childhood. I didn’t dare mention the destroyed fields, the uprooted trees and the olive trees that were stolen and replanted at the entrance of settlements as decoration. I wrote of the hills and the poppies and hoped they would see the Palestinian spring and remember our flower-search adventures. I didn’t dare mention the alien settler houses that are popping on every hill and murdering the flowers. I wrote of school, of classes, homework and exams, how tiresome it all was. I didn’t dare mention schools that were bombed and school children that were hunted down by Israeli snipers. I wrote of housework, of dusting and washing the dishes and how boring it all was. I didn’t dare mention playing with my friends because I feared reminding them of their childhood friends who were killed by Israeli soldiers. And although I knew that my uncles in their imprisonment knew exactly what was going on outside their prison cells, knew of the ongoing oppression, I kept telling writing to them that we were all fine, that everything was fine. I didn’t dare mention my little cousin who wakes ups crying at night after nightmares about Israeli soldiers beating her mother. I didn’t dare mention that the Israeli soldiers beat my grandmother several times with their rifles and clubs, how they often raided the house and left destruction behind them, how they shot and injured my friend, how they demolished our neighbours’ house, how they kill, how they destroy, how they oppress and oppress. I didn’t dare mention so much, because I wanted my uncles to know that despite all the Zionist terror we are steadfast, that despite the Zionist efforts to kill us and kill our souls we are alive and our hearts are beating and our souls are thriving, stronger than ever, yearning for freedom, full of hope, that despite all we are unbreakable.

And today, dear brothers and sisters, writing to you, I don’t dare mention how your sacrifices are used to promote "others". I don’t dare mention how some who claim to represent us use your suffering as a bargaining chip, use your cause as a playing card, remember you when it pleases them and serves their interests and ignore you when they get the orders to do so. I don’t dare mention how they are selling out your and our rights, how they are cashing in on your and our suffering. I don’t dare mention how your homes are raided, your families detained and tortured not only by the Israeli occupier but also by those who coordinate with the occupier, who negotiate with the occupier and who claim to represent us. I don’t dare mention how you, all of you comrades, are no longer seen as one, as the children of Palestine, as heroes, but are categorized according to the wills and terms of the occupiers, of those who "pay", of some of who claim "solidarity" with you and us. I don’t dare mention how they will only support your cause and your fight for freedom when you and your fight for freedom apply to their categorization. I don’t dare mention how they set up blogs, write one petition after the other, beg this and that international figure to demand the release of the "chosen ones" amongst you because they are categorized as "peace activists", because they are categorized as "non-violent activists", as if you were the "war activists" or the "violent ones", as if you were the ones to be forgotten, the ones who don’t count. I don’t dare mention how your mothers cry in secret and how your fathers shake their head in sadness when they see calls for the release of some, while many of you remain no more than a number to add to the end of their petitions. They forget or choose to forget that resistance is legitimate, that the occupation is illegitimate. They forget or choose to forget that occupied people have the right to fight their oppressors, to defend their families and their homes with whatever means they choose or see fit. They choose to ignore that real solidarity knows no boundaries, no limits and no classification, that if the Palestinians choose armed resistance it is their choice and if they choose peaceful resistance it is their choice, and that if they choose both, it is and will always be the choice of the Palestinian people and no one, NO ONE, has the right to dictate to the Palestinians steadfast in occupied Palestine what they have to do and what choices to make and what categorizations to follow.

I don’t dare mention so much, but I will tell you that even if some abandon you and forget your suffering, we haven’t and never will. They talk of you in conferences, in their speeches, reduce you and your cause and your suffering to a mere number, tossed here and there, but to us you all have names, have faces, have a story to tell. They talk of understanding your suffering, of knowing it. No, don’t listen to them, for they know not what imprisonment is, they know not what oppression is, they who coordinate with the occupier. Don’t listen to them when they tell you they feel your suffering or when they tell you they are as imprisoned as you are, they who live in villas next to refugee camps, those who ride Mercedes that come extra with a driver, those who dine and wine in luxury restaurants and hotels in Tel Aviv. They know not what it means to hunger for freedom, because they sold their own freedom and want to sell ours. They don’t know what it means to remain steadfast in a dark cell, dream of the blue sky over Jerusalem, the sun shining over Al-Jalil, the fresh breeze over Akka, because they deleted these from their memory as well as from their maps. Don’t listen to them, for they seek captivity while you seek freedom.

Dear Palestinian sister, dear Palestinian brother,
Every morning and every evening, and the time that is in between, my grandmother used to wonder what her children were doing. 3, 4 and often 5 of my uncles would be imprisoned at the same time. With every meal, my grandmother would wonder what they were eating, if they were eating. On feast days she knew little happiness. She never had a moment’s rest while even one of them was in a Zionist jail. I think of her and think of your mothers, your fathers, brothers, sisters, partners and children. I don’t have the words of the mother who hasn’t hugged her child for over 20 years. I don’t have the words of a father who lies dying and hopes for a final smile from his detained child. I don’t have the words of a child who yearns for the parent, and in several cases both parents, who have been locked up away since many countless nights. But I know what it feels like to be locked up, to be humiliated by Israeli jailors, to be interrogated by Zionist criminals, to count the minutes, the seconds, and I know how it feels to hunger for the face of someone you love, to watch them through barbed wires and not be able to touch them, to want to cry at the injustice but keep a smile plastered to your face. I wish I could write a letter to every single one of you, I wish I could hug every one of you, I wish I could tell you how much we love you. The campaign is over, but you are not forgotten. Many of us know what it means to be imprisoned and how it feels. We feel with every one of you, we feel your suffering and pain, we hear your thoughts and cries, we touch your tears and heart beats. We feel you and think of you when we go sleep in our comfortable beds while you sleep on rotten mattresses in cold cells. We write about you in our blogs, while you hunger for a book to read. We sing about you and your heroism while you hunger for the voice of your parents, siblings and children, while you hunger for the singing of the birds in the early morning, for the music of the fields on a rainy day. The world might forget you, those who claim to represent us might forget you, they might ignore you, but we won’t and as long as you are not free, we won’t be free and no matter what they claim, because your captivity is our captivity, your freedom is our freedom. Your steadfastness makes us strong, keeps us strong. We won’t tire, we will fight for the freedom of each and every one of you: you are all one, you are all heroes; the heroes fighting for justice; the heroes of Palestine.




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