[This article is part of a bundle of content produced by Jadaliyya’s Palestine Page Editors on Palestinian Prisoners. This bundle engages a range of subjects centering the Palestinian prisoner in the realm of carcerality and colonialism, as well as resistance to them. Click here for a full list of articles and compendia included in this bundle.]
I write from the parallel time where space is still. In the parallel time, we refer to your units for measuring time (such as minutes and hours) only when our time and space collide in the visitation rooms. This is the only moment when we have to use your temporal units. In any case, these are the things that remain unchanged in your “time,” and we still remember how to use them.
So begins “Parallel Time,” a letter Walid Daka wrote in 2006 to mark the first day of his twentieth year in prison. The time and space collisions of “our time” and “prisoners’ time” are those forty-five-minute visits that occur across the prison room’s fortified glass windows. In this letter, Daka lists some of the momentous events that occurred during his years of captivity, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf Wars, the first and second Intifadas, the Oslo and Madrid accords. “Our parallel time dates to the beginning of this revolution and prior to the establishment of many of its political parties,” he writes.
It precedes Arabic television channels and our capitals’ “hamburger culture.” Actually, we have been here before the invention of cell phones, modern communication devices and the internet. We are part of a history, and history, as is well known, is a state and an act from the past. Except for us. We are a continuous and endless past. From this past we address you in the present lest it becomes your future.
In “Parallel Time,” Daka points out the similarities and interchanges that characterize Israeli modes of control across the multiple sites of imprisonment since 1948. This multiplicity is made manifest in the spatial fragmentation of Palestine, which was supposed to be temporary but has in fact become permanent since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993. The prison, both material and metaphorical, extends beyond the confines of captivity and has mirrored itself in Palestinians’ divisions and myriad spatial and temporal configurations. Daka describes a fragmented Palestinian reality, emerging from numerous failed promises, to warn: “How can one ensure that the deconstruction of Palestinian identity does not take place as it grows in these opposing temporal and spatial contexts?” Referring to a discussion of the meanings and articulations of time in captivity, he wonders what might protect the ultimate denigration of the political subject, and thus the loss of the struggle for liberation? He ends the letter by asserting that holding onto love is his modest and sole victory over his jailers.
Small and Large Prisons
Walid Daka was born in 1962 in Baqqa al-Gharbiya, a Palestinian town in the areas conquered by Israel in 1948. He was arrested and imprisoned on 25 March 1986, when he was twenty-four years old. Now he is fifty-nine. He is one of twenty-five Palestinians arrested prior to the failed Oslo Accords in 1993 whom Israel refused to release in 2014.
Over his thirty-six years in Israeli prison, Daka has been a prolific documenter, analyst, and philosopher of the reality of captivity. One of his recurring themes is the policies put in place over the years by the Israel Prison Service to distort and fragment the Palestinian prisoners’ movement and, by extension, the broader Palestinian political and social collective. Israeli authorities’ attack on Palestinian prisoners’ education and study programs, Hedi Viterbo argues, constitute an attempt “to hinder the ability to ideationally traverse the prison’s confines, thus imposing a sort of mental incarceration that operates as extra punishment” and to impede “the movement and continuity of thought from one generation of Palestinian inmates to another.”
All of Daka’s writings have been produced in his cell, and many have been smuggled out into the world. Or, as he describes it, from the “small prison” to the “large prison.” They illuminate carceral literary and artistic productions. Following Daka, we argue that the targeting of Palestinian political prisoners’ education and cultural production is reflective of wider Israeli strategies of cultural domination through elimination. Palestinian arts in general, and those emerging from the space of the prison in particular, are often overburdened with euphemisms of resistance and agency. Given the wider context of settler colonialism in Palestine, acknowledging the resistant capacity of arts is warranted. However, the focus on identifying resistance, as Lila Abu Lughod reminds us, ends up disguising the power relations within which acts are enmeshed.
We want to move from describing Palestinian artistic productions as mere or a priori acts of resistance just by virtue of being Palestinian in order to analyze the contexts and historical conditions of these productions and the structuring forces to which they respond. These productions should be understood as arenas of elaboration of an emerging, fragmentary, not-yet-fully-articulated mode of politics. This means taking account of contradictions. For example, some arts may challenge certain power relations while upholding others.
Control Through Time
In 2021, his thirty-fifth year in prison, Daka wrote “Control Through Time” for a conference on Global Carcerality. In this piece, he extends his dissection of the modern prison and its associated modes of control, now aided by the Palestinian political-elitist establishment which has not only has lost “its ploy and will, but also its potential for imagination.”
Israel has managed to impose at least five prisons on Palestinian communities: ‘48 areas, Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the diaspora. Each of these prisons has its own temporal and spatial reality along with its unique legal and political reality. With the passage of time, these separate entities—at first destined to be temporary in nature—have become near permanent. This reality could create opposing identities. The question thus becomes: how does one ensure that the deconstruction of Palestinian identity does not take place as it grows in these opposing temporal and spatial contexts? What is to be done until liberation?…How can we ensure that Khaldun does not become Dov, as Ghassan Kanafani once warned in Returning to Haifa? If time is divided along these contexts, and between various Palestinian spatial and geographical configurations, then what might unite the Palestinian people as to safeguard their identity? How can this be done knowing that the occupation possesses a “time chisel” able to shape the identity of place given that the occupation does not only hold the ability to divide time in relation to physical space, but also controls the division of hypothetical time as well?
These lines appraise Palestinian political reality as it relates to both small and large prisons. Building upon ideas from his previous writings, Daka invokes Ghassan Kanafani’s characters of Dov and Khaldun as a cautionary tale about the complete loss of Palestinian identity and, more importantly, the loss of any compass guiding the struggle for liberation. In Kanafani’s story, Khaldun became Dov when the Palestinian family left their home in Haifa. In a sense, Daka forewarns of yet another moment of defeat where Palestinian identity and struggle loses its ground in a sea of “Israelization.” Yet, in a fashion resembling the optimistic tone with which Daka ends “Parallel Time,” he refers to the ongoing resistance by Palestinian prisoners against prison authorities as a site where defeat is not taken for granted, and where it is perceived as that which must be changed. He writes, “I’ve always stood amazed in front of the will and power of a young man—not exceeding twenty years of age and weighing 50 kg—in undertaking a hunger strike, withstanding pain and hunger with no previous experience whatsoever.”
The smuggling of Daka’s writings out of the small prison and into the large prison demonstrates the continuously unfolding modes of resurgent and liberatory politics—modes that continue into the present, despite the tightening of settler-colonial control. While he remains imprisoned behind Israeli bars, his writings make interventions into the different Palestinian geographies, highlighting mechanisms of control, management, and erasure as they manifest in the different geographies of Palestinian livelihoods, as well as the shifting modes of Palestinian confrontation. This shift is well illustrated in the remaking of “Parallel Time” into a play, and the aftermath.
The Parallel Time: From Text to Play
In 2014, Haifa-based Palestinian playwright Bashar Murkus produced “Parallel Time,” which was largely inspired by Daka’s writings. When the play was staged at al-Midan Theater, it was proclaimed as a public expression of support for the just cause of Palestinian prisoners.
Like actors in their own unforgiving script, the Israeli public was outraged by the play and “Parallel Time” was heavily attacked in Hebrew-language media. The Israeli government categorized it as “inciting terror.” What was the nature of this alleged incitement? It was Palestinian cultural defiance of the Israeli state’s categorizations and disciplining mechanisms. In 2015, Israel enacted its reprisal by defunding al-Midan.
The Israeli settler state requires the dispossession and elimination of the Palestinian as a prerequisite for its own spatialization. This elimination takes the form of brute force, including murder and assassinations, imprisonment, house demolitions, and besiegement. But it also takes the form of indirect and structural violence, including attacks on Palestinian culture by destroying, plundering, and appropriating its infrastructures. Indeed, Israeli culture is predicated on the systematic denial and suppression of the indigenous Palestinian culture. No wonder, then, that Palestinian cultural centers in Jerusalem, Haifa, and elsewhere are targeted, or that Palestinian artists and cultural practitioners are arrested, or that the settler state targets Palestinian political prisoners’ cultural and political formations with calculated fragmentation, depoliticization, and isolation.
Suppression of the culture of Palestinians is as old as the Israeli state because these are coterminous projects. In 1958, Mordechai Namir, chair of Israel’s Arab Affairs Committee, devised a plan to “divert the Palestinians’ attention from their daily realities to more benign subjects.” The state, Namir contended, should establish and fund musical bands and entertainment groups in order to channel Palestinians’ attention to the cultural field. The presumption was that state-made and managed cultural outlets could service the goal of producing political quiescence and even complacency. The clear objective was to distract Palestinians from the material realities of living under settler colonialism.
Al-Midan came into being under a different name: In 1994, Israel’s minister of Education, Shulamit Aloni, granted state funding for a new Palestinian cultural initiative, which was originally named “the Arab-Israeli Theater.” This name was an intentional misrecognition of Palestinians in Israel as “Arab Israelis,” a manifestation of the cultural logic of settler-state domination and indigenous erasure. The timing of this new initiative coincided with the Oslo process in which the state was negotiating the political rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. It marked a new chapter in Israel’s colonial cultural politics aimed at liquidating Palestinian presence within its borders, this time through a state-funded culturalist attempt to dissociate Palestinians across political lines. As Daka reminds us, “each of these prisons has its own temporal and spatial reality along with its unique legal and political reality.”
Several years after its establishment, the project was renamed al-Midan Theater.
The journey of “Parallel Time” as a text written within the small prison to its production as a play in the large prison is especially important and useful to understanding the power relations that enmesh Palestinian culture in the post-Oslo era, but it is also a creative, artistic act that challenges the parameters of the status quo. Murkus’ play was a refusal to succumb to Israeli conditional funding and an insistence on highlighting the plight of Palestinian political prisoners. This play does not offer a holistic politic of resistance, for arguing so neglects the severity of the Israeli disciplinary regime. Rather, its journey from a text smuggled out of an Israeli prison to a play performed in Haifa does point towards an emerging mode of politics that rejects the determinations imposed by Israel upon spaces of Palestinian lives and livelihoods. This is a mode of politics that constantly reverberates through Palestinian prisoners’ writings and artistic productions.
“Parallel Time” is now fifteen years old, and Daka remains imprisoned. Indeed, his warning that “your future” will resemble “ours” is even more salient in the contemporary political context of Palestine. Yet, the cultural and political formations that Palestinian prisoners have long engaged in allude to moments of escape and flight from the depoliticization and fragmentation imposed by the Israeli carceral regime.
Daka’s great gift is his ability to re-center the Palestinian prisoners’ movement as a location for struggle over identity, for liberation and against defeat. Indeed, it seems as if Daka is telling us: if prisoners, living under Israeli control over their time and space, refuse to be defeated and continue to confront the settler-colonial regime, then all of us can. Daka’s warning is thus a critique of an entire political and cultural establishment that has long distorted the meanings of liberation and freedom and has paved the way for a defeatist discourse. But these warnings are also a space of possibility for imagining a potentiality for liberation and for rejecting submission extending from, and through, Israeli prisons.
The play, “Parallel Time,” the fury it aroused, and the consequences that resulted demonstrate Israel’s relentless suppression of Palestinian prisoners’ writings as well as its intent to censure and neutralize Palestinian cultural productions in the areas occupied in 1948. Daka’s writings, as well as those by other prisoners, can therefore be read as a clarion call for Palestinians in the large prison.
 Ahmad Sa’di, Thorough surveillance: The genesis of Israeli policies of population management, surveillance and political control towards the Palestinian minority (Manchester University Press, 2014): p.42.