Dispatches from Imprisoned Poets

Photo by Wael Alladiqi, from “I Dream of a Cell of Cherries” by Souha Bechara & Cossette Ibrahim

Photo by Wael Alladiqi, from “I Dream of a Cell of Cherries” by Souha Bechara & Cossette Ibrahim

Two women, one imprisoned for her words and the other for her armed resistance. One a poet painting her reality behind bars, the other picking up poetry to keep her sanity. One was always engaged in her craft and the other self-identified as a bad poet, more interested in escaping confinement than honing a craft.

Dareen Tatour was arrested by Israeli police on October 11, 2015 for her poem “Resist My People, Resist Them” and for two Facebook posts. Souha Bechara was arrested in 1988, at the age of 21, for the attempted assassination of the head of the South Lebanese Army, a mercenary militia funded by Israel to maintain the occupation of south Lebanon.

Dareen Tatour spent three years in a combination of prison and house arrest before being released. Souha Bechara spent ten years in solitary confinement in the notorious Khiam prison and was released in 1998 after an intense Lebanese and European campaign.

What follows is two poems. The first is by Dareen Tatour which she wrote when she was in jail. The second poem was written several years ago, after poet Zein El-Amine spent a day interviewing Souha Bechara at her home in Beirut.

Zein El-Amine was born and raised in Lebanon. His poems have been published by Wild River Review, Folio, Foreign Policy in Focus, Beltway Quarterly, DC Poets Against the War Anthology, Penumbra, GYST, Joybringer, Folio and Ghostfishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology and Citylit.

His short stories have appeared in Uno Mas, Jadaliyya, Middle East Report, and Bound Off.

شاعرة من وراء القضبان
بقلم: دارين طاطور
في السجن قابلت أناسًا
لا رقم لها بل لا تحصى…
وهناك القاتل والجاني…
وهناك السارق والكاذب…
وهناك الصادق والكافر…
وهناك الضائغ والحائر…
وهناك المجرم والجائع…
وهناك المرضى بالوطن
قد جاؤوا من رحم الألم
عاشوا مع كل الظلم…
حتى أن صاروا أطفالاً واغتصبت كل براءتهم
وانصدموا من قهر الدنيا
بل كبرت احزانًا…
قد عظمت مع كل الكبت…
كالورد في تربة ملحٍ
واعتنقوا الحب بلا خوفٍ…
وكان الذنب إذ قالوا
نحب الوطن بلا حدِّ…
ما عرفوا ابدًا ما فعلوا…
فصار العشق جريمتهم
والسجن مصير العشاق
وبدأت أحاور في روحي
في لحظة شكيِّ وشرودي
ماذا عن جرمك يا نفسي
لا أعرف معناه الآن…!؟
الشيء الواحد قد قلته
أني أفصحت بأفكاري
فكتبت عن الظلم الجاري…
خططت بحبري أهاتي…
بقصيدة شعر أكتبها…
التهمة قد لبست جسدي
من اخمص قدمي للرأسِ
فأنا شاعرة في السجن
شاعرة من بلد الفن
كلماتي التهمة في الحكم
القلم أداة الاجرام
الحبر دماء الاحساس جعلوه الباصم الشاهد
من أجل النطق بتهمتنا…
إسمع يا قدري ياعمري
ما قال الحاكم والقاضي
فقصيدتي صارت متهمة
وقصيدتي صارت إجرامٌ
في بلد الحكم – الحرية –
السجن مصيرالفنان…

A Poet Behind Bars
(Dareen Tatour; translation Zein El-Amine)

In prison I met people,
people without a number, countless.
There is the killer
and the assailant,
the thief and the liar,
the faithful and the infidel,
the lost and confused,
the criminal and the hungry,
the homeland-sick
born out of pain.
They’ve lived every injustice
until they reverted to childhood,
their innocence breached,
traumatized by an oppressive world
they grew …
grew in sorrow…
steeled by oppression,
like roses in salted soil.
They embraced love without fear,
their sin was in saying:
“We love the homeland without limit.”
They didn’t know what they had done,
so their passion became their crime.
I began to search my soul
at the moment of doubt and distraction,
“What is my crime?”
Its meaning escapes me now.
The one thing I had said
Is that I searched my conscience,
documented an ongoing injustice,
inked my sighs
with a poem.
Dressed in accusation
from head to toe,
for I am a poet imprisoned,
one from the country of art,
my words an exhibit in my trial,
my pen evidence.
The ink, the lifeblood
was made to stand witness
against us.
Listen my destiny my life
to what the judge said,
for my poem stands accused
and my poem became a crime,
in the land of law and freedom
incarceration is the artist’s fate.

How to Write a Poem, According to Souha Bechara

(Zein El-Amine)

Sit in their circle.
Don’t let your eyes linger
on any object in the room.
Extract yourself
from your body. Watch
the man with the hairy hands
describe the rape of your body
to the body. Watch him
as he begins to beat the body.
Focus on the arc
of your liberated lower molar
and make it everything:
try to guess where
it landed, crawl to it,
find it, save it for later.
Think about putting it back
in one day. Ignore
the wheeling of the cart.
Ignore the stripped cable
dangling above you.
Find the tooth.
Make solitary confinement
your longed-for-solitude.
Climb the walls:
Press your palms on one
wall, fingers pointed
to the ceiling. Press
your feet against the other
wall. Build pressure,
step up with one foot
and up with one hand.
Repeat until your back
touches the ceiling. Now
survey the room. Do this
once at mid-morning
and once at mid- afternoon.
Repeat daily. Do this
for a decade.
Make that crack
under your door
your world: lie down
and face the door; look
past the roaches,
fleas and lice
into the compressed light;
wait for it to be
interrupted. Study the soles
of your captors.
Match the voices
with the soles,
match the soles
with the names.
Catalog them:
the pigeon-toed,
the limping soles,
the canvas ones,
the wooden ones.
Delight at new soles.
Find a piece of graphite.
Separate your toilet paper
into plies. Stretch
your scroll on the floor.
Prostrate yourself.
Grab the graphite
between thumb
and forefinger.
It will feel crippling
at first, your words
will be undecipherable,
but you will
eventually write
your tiny words
with smooth curves.
Set your intentions.
Don’t think of meanings,
think of the time
it will take to write
your microscopic epic.
After all, this is about time
not about metaphors
or similes or such.
It’s about rhyme
and meter.
So limit hope to the word,
then extend it to the line,
then to the stanza,
then reach out for the winding night.
Now write your first faint line.