Ashjan Ajour, Reclaiming Humanity in Palestinian Hunger Strikes: Revolutionary Subjectivity and Decolonizing the Body (Palgrave Macmillan, December 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ashjan Ajour (AA): The political reality of life in Palestine drove me to engage in this book. I witnessed the hunger strike and participated in solidarity with the prisoners’ cause before starting my research in 2014. I wanted to understand the revolutionary transformation that led the Palestinian prisoners to this action and investigate the meanings the former hunger strikers give to their emancipatory resistance. Also, the absence of academic studies on this contemporary phenomenon compelled me to research a neglected but critical aspect of the politics of resistance in Palestine. There is a lack of academic studies on Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons. There are some limited narrative accounts in Arabic about the collective hunger strikes over the history of prisoners’ movement, but I have not found any academic study devoted to investigating the lived experience of hunger strikers. I therefore decided to focus on hunger strikes, particularly given their prominence as a current form of resistance in Palestine.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA: Reclaiming Humanity is centred on the dispossession of humanity in Israeli prisons and the hunger strike as a process of reclamation. It seeks to articulate the hunger striker’s own philosophy of freedom and the weaponization of their bodies. The book provides narrative and analytical insights into embodied resistance in the face of the colonial machine, showing the intensity of resistance where the prisoners transform their bodies into a weapon. It argues that the hunger strikers, in their interaction with the dispossession of the colonial power, invent “technologies of the self” to challenge and transcend the colonial power. Reclaiming Humanity illuminates the process of weaponization of the body and how the hunger strikers transformed themselves from a “passive” subject into a “resistant” subject, where the collapse of the body is experienced as generating a kind of spiritual strength. It sheds lights on the singularity of the participants’ view of the hunger strike as moving beyond the political into “spiritualization” of struggle.
Settler colonialism is a central paradigm to understand the experience of Palestinian dispossession in Israeli prisons. The discourse of scarifying the body can only be understood in relation to the way in which Zionist settler colonialism aims at the elimination of Palestinian existence, both material and immaterial. The book situates the hunger strike experience in the historical frame of colonised Palestine and in relation to the larger context of the Palestinian struggle and draws a detailed picture of the contemporary Palestinian reality from the vantage point of the hunger strike. Through an engagement with individuals’ experiences of hunger strike, the reader learns about significant aspects of Palestinian society and politics, situating these individuals in a collective historical context, revealing important facets of Palestinian life, and foregrounding the nature and transformation of collective subjectivity.
The methodology draws on qualitative phenomenological research methods as well as sociological approaches to “storytelling” to do justice to the complexity of the hunger strikers’ lived experience. In doing so, I draw upon feminist and decolonizing authors who developed critical approaches to the research process. I extended the methodological framework to include the heart and intimacy and developed what I called “language of the heart.”
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AA: My academic background and interest in the question of subjectivity and resistance led me to this book. My first book, which began as an MA dissertation entitled “Representations of Power and Knowledge in the Discourse of Liberal Women’s Organizations,” focuses on the transformation of Palestinian resistance in the post-Oslo period from a feminist perspective. However, the Oslo moment produced a discourse which did not emanate an emancipatory politics and rather begs the question of what alternative emancipatory political discourses and practices can challenge the dominant liberal discourse. I originally wanted to investigate the revolutionary practices and discourses of Palestinian “resistance fighters,” “political hunger strikers,” and “martyrdom operators,” to examine how they operate as empirical instances of anti-colonial resistance, in order to explicate the dynamics of colonial power and anti-colonial counter-power. However, I soon realized that each form of resistance would require a separate treatment to allow detailed analysis.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA: I hope the book will be read by students, academics, and activists working on prisoners’ rights who would appreciate the book’s insights on Palestinian political prisoners’ resistance. I believe the book has a great potential to attract an audience beyond academia, such as journalists, political activists, and people generally interested in settler colonialism and Palestinian resistance. I think the book appeals not only to academics who work on Middle East and Palestinian studies but also to a wider field of political subjectivity, body and embodiment, incarceration, colonialism, anti-colonial resistance, and self-determination. Moreover, given that this interdisciplinary study cuts across several fields, I hope the book will be of great interest to scholars in interdisciplinary methodologies, feminist ethnography, and decolonization.
I hope that the book will contribute to the impact of Palestine scholarship that ties into the literature of anti-colonial resistance in colonised Palestine by developing an in-depth account of the experience of the Palestinian hunger strikes and to disseminate knowledge on the way in which the Palestinian prisoners challenge the Israeli Prison Authorities’ (IPA) technologies of power and how they experienced and responded to the processes of dispossession exercised on their bodies. The main objective of the book is to contribute to the study of the Palestinian struggle and give voice to the discourse of the hunger strikers and their philosophy of freedom and self-determination. It seeks to articulate the hunger strikers’ own philosophy of freedom and the weaponization of their bodies as a mean of reclaiming dignity and humanity. The interviewed hunger strikers felt that the research is bearing witness to their suffering, and this was a key reason for them agreeing to be interviewed. Their expectation of the book was that their voices and stories will be heard to expose Israeli practices. They think that their counter-narrative has been silenced and misrepresented. As one of the interviewees put it: “Israeli propaganda made us terrorists, racists, and suicidal, and through our stories we want to show who the terrorist is.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA: Drawing on a decolonial feminist lens I am working now to expand the gendered focus of the book to address the gendered methods of oppressive techniques and torture that the IPA use against Palestinian women detainees, and in particular the manner in which the IPA use techniques of gendered violence. I focus on women’s political agency and the reconstruction of the gendered body and sexuality. I examine modes of gendered emancipation and transformation.
J: Can you speak about your positionality as Palestinian and what challenges you faced in completing this work? How did you navigate the structural, personal, or other hurdles that might have otherwise compromised your ability to complete the research or writing process?
AA: I am a Palestinian with a commitment to the politics of resistance and decolonization and I engaged in this research and wrote from a position of an embodied researcher in the space of settler colonialism. I said in my book that despite my background as a Palestinian and awareness of the nature of repression we live under occupation, but I did not anticipate the level of violence and human suffering in Israeli prisons. I was confronted by things that disturbed me deeply. I have witnessed pain, heartbreak, and the complexity of extensive resilience. The hunger strikers’ stories are rich and complex and required resilience. The work on this book was hard and emotionally exhausting for both me and them because it originates in the painful stories of Palestinian hunger strikers and from long hours of listening to their accounts and interpretations of their experience. These interviews occurred a short time after the release of hunger strikers from Israeli prisons. I was part of their families’ pain and heartbreak and I met with their loved ones while some of strikes were ongoing.
The other challenge has been the writing process, as the empirical data is very rich and complex and required resilience to make sense of it. I experienced difficulty in writing up the transcriptions of the interviews. I did not follow up the suggestion to seek counselling in order to deal with the emotional aspect of my work, as I do not see my pain as an individual pain, but rather as connected to the pain of all Palestinians, a collective pain. I needed to address it through writing because it is part of the research process. To deal with this challenge, I tried to articulate some of my research interviews in a free writing semi-fictional form in parallel to my academic work, in an attempt to produce a piece of research that is genuine and faithful to people’s suffering. I also had some challenges related to access and mobility. Many Palestinians are denied access to study abroad and I experienced difficulty in returning to the United Kingdom after my field research in 2017.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)
A prison is a house of love, a house of wild desires and mindless jealousies. There passions are comparable in their intensity only to an impassioned devotion to an idea. Although the political criminal imprisoned for an idea, like the common criminal suffers and burns because of sensual deprivation, he burns from his idea as well. Yet the political prisoner has an advantage, however, doubly inflamed. While burning for or in an idea neither banishes nor mitigates other passions, it certainly outshines and outranks them. The political inmate is master of himself to the degree that he is devoted to his idea body and soul. (Milovan Djilas, cited in Segel, 2012: 133)
The above quote from the Yugoslav socialist partisan and dissident Milovan Djilas, with its metaphor of 'burning for an idea', is echoed in former hunger striker Hasan Safadi's testimony of his experience as a Palestinian prisoner:
Our resistance embodies our humanity… [which] lies in the idea of sacrifice for freedom. It is like the candle that burns and consumes itself for others… It lights the way for the other including you, you write this research so that you can see the road … For us this is our humanity, to sacrifice for the other. Those who have gone away [the martyrs] did not take anything with them but they just sacrifice the self for the other.
But the exceptional act of hunger striking is revealed, through the interviews, as being more complex than simply an act of self-sacrifice for an idea of liberation. The hunger strikers’ discourse around the sacrifice of the body is constructed in relation to the way in which Israeli settler colonialism aims at the elimination of Palestinian existence and this book considers the human suffering and predicament of Palestinian political prisoners in the context of their agency over their body and how they understand it as a worthwhile cost for gaining freedom. It reveals both the potential and the limitations of hunger strike resistance in the context of colonised Palestine and sheds light on the participants’ own interpretation of their actions and the meaning they accord to them.
The Palestinian hunger strikers are motivated by the desire for the rebirth of a confiscated life. This mode of resistance is a sort of ‘return to life’ in a revolutionary praxis where prisoners turn their bodies into weapons against the violence inflicted by Israelis on both their bodies and their souls. They creatively explore new forms of subjectivity – new modes of living and thinking. They are not simply the product of a colonial power, but rather constitute themselves through a creative transformation that emphasises the agency of the self in its refusal of the imposition of victimhood.
Mazan Natcheh, one of the interviewed hunger strikers, draws an analogy between the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2011, and the Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons.
Do you think it is logical that a human burns their body? Why do you think Bouazizi burned himself? Is it reasonable that a man burns his body? Because the pressure is great. He would not have burnt himself unless he felt that the pressure was more than his capacity. He found that burning is easier, burning the self was easier than the reality he lived. Let’s make a projection to Palestinian contexts. If we apply this to our reality, we find the hunger strike easier than the reality we live in.
However, a major difference between Bouazizi and the hunger strikers is that the hunger strikers are not aiming at death or suicide, but rather at resisting and putting pressure on the colonial power in order to liberate themselves. They use the only weapon that they have, their bodies. Natcheh declared:
Everyone who reads your research should understand that we don’t love torturing ourselves. We tried many other means. We didn’t reach this point without thought. We boycotted appearing before Israeli courts. We returned our meals in protest. We tried many ways... We even refused to take our medicines when we were sick. When these means did not make any difference, we decided to go on hunger strike.
For them the hunger strike is a death for life. ‘I love life, I did not want to die’ – this sentiment was repeated by most of the former hunger strikers I interviewed. Mohamad al-Kik:
Who said the hunger strike is a rational act? It is not rational at all, but it is produced through irrational conditions. Therefore, the equation is ‘irrational + irrational = rational’ ... something irrational was born due to the irrationality of the occupation practices against us. The Israeli crime led me to undertake the illogical thing. Do you think depriving me of my children and devastating my life and my work (as a journalist) is logical? Therefore, my persistence to go on hunger strike is not logical either. Yes, there is no sense of rationality residing in the idea of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. It is not rational to endanger our bodies (there is a probability to lose some of our organs), or to cause suffering to our families and children either during our starvation or perhaps death (as there is a probability to die). However, the irrationality of my hunger strike became a very rational act because I wanted to emancipate myself and achieve my freedom. Freedom is logic. All revolutions which have happened in the world prove that irrationality becomes something natural for emancipation.
In the hunger strikers' view, their act is embedded in relation to violence, and the repressive technologies of power inflicted on captive subjects which deprive them of normal life. Mohamad al-Kik again: ‘By violence, they aim to dispossess us of our humanity. But on the contrary this violence creates our humanity… such humanity might take us to death. However, this risk of death maintains our humanity’.
The research participants describe the severe dispossession imposed on them as turning them into 'living dead' in the Israeli prison system. Ahmed Qatamish expressed this as ‘time without time’, to describe the phenomenology of captivity and how it confiscates the duration and future of Palestinian detainees. From the standpoint of the hunger strikers then, their action is an act of restoring humanity. Munir Abu Sharar emphasised the human aspects of political struggle in the hunger strike:
Since the occupation is very inhuman, our response to occupation is very human. We are engaging in a huge human conflict and our humanity necessitates our struggle until the end. The whole experience is human from the moment of my arrest until my hunger strike, and I would even say since the moment of Zionist invasion to our land. We defend the sublime and noble values of our humanity and therefore our struggle is human.
Some of the research participants argue that they are engaged in a form of revolutionary humanity that emerges from the anti-colonial struggle to expose and uncover Israeli occupation practices, particularly the Israeli propaganda which turns Palestinians into “terrorists”. Al-Kik declared: ‘I wanted to show the whole world who the terrorists and racists are, and how our humanity is exploded at the hand of Israeli’s assault and repression’. He describes the humanity that is reborn out of the ‘inhumanity and racism of colonisation’ by emphasising the inhumanity of the occupation:
It is normal when we live under these conditions that we quest for our life and humanity, we quest for our subjectivity. When I live under inhuman conditions, I decide to reject dehumanisation. I want to expose the inhumanity of occupation, and by our resistance our humanity is reborn … resisting racism and assault is a form of humanity.
The research participants articulate a form of humanism tied to love and sacrifice. Abu Sharar reported that he captured his humanity in this experience. He links this form of humanity with love for his homeland and political cause. Love is conceived by many hunger strikers as the engine of their resistance. As Ayman Hamdan observed:
Love is a powerful weapon for humans to use in resistance. If the human being does not love his homeland, it is difficult for him to resist. If we Palestinians don’t love our land, we will not defend it; if we don’t love our families we will not fight for them. I believe in my cause and I am still insisting on defending my land and my cause … love inspires our fighting and patience.
Love is associated by the prisoners with hope. As Abu Sharar declared:
If we don’t aspire to hope we don’t need to torture our self with hunger strike. To maintain a hunger strike you live on hope. All our conflict with occupation is built on the hope to end the occupation and … live in freedom without constraints. Therefore, all our lives are marked with hope.
The participants’ interpretation of their experience and the meanings they give to their embodied resistance emphasise the human dimension of their anti-colonial struggle which they regard as not only national-political but also universally human in kind. Accordingly, the book is centred on the dispossession of humanity and the hunger strike as a process of reclamation and seeks to articulate the hunger strikers’ own philosophy of freedom and the pivotal role within it of the weaponisation of their bodies.