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When Arab political prisoners write

Haifa Zangana is a good example of a committed intellectual, and not just with a specific cause. After being imprisoned for her membership in the Communist Party of Iraq, in 1975 she went into exile in London, where she has developed a successful career as a journalist and writer. Over the past few years, she has made efforts to ensure that other express Arab politicians also portray their experiences of jail, torture and humiliation in black on white. The result is three collective books that compile the texts of more than 30 Palestinian and Tunisian women of diverse ideologies: A party for Thaera (2017), Salt notebooks (2019), and The girls of politics (2020). The first two have already been translated into English, and the third into French, with its launch scheduled for next month.

The project has been haunting the restless mind of Zangana, who currently resides between the UK and Tunisia, for years. “The idea of ​​organizing writing workshops for Arab political prisoners was born in 2007, at a conference held in Toronto and organized by the Iranian academic Shahrezad Mujab on the importance of historical memory,” says Zangana, a petite woman with a look penetrating. “The reason is very simple: women should write their own story rather than letting others write it for them. Compared to other regions, women in the Arab world write very little. There are very few authors ”, she laments.

The historiography of Tunisia and Palestine has already dealt profusely through essays and books with the fight against oppression carried out by the various political movements in which the thirty women formed by Zangana militated. However, these stories, mostly made from academic coldness and distance, lack the human component. “The texts had to be creative, picking up the details and depth of human experience so often ignored by historians as tangential or unnecessary. All the participants had their own exceptional stories. The only thing they lacked were the literary techniques to put them on paper ”, says the writer, who assumed this role of trainer and coordinator after having published three books in Arabic, three in English, and four collections of short stories.

The three books of express Arab policies. From right to left, ‘Salt books’, ‘A party for Thaera’ and ‘The girls of politics’.

The first book to see the light was A party for Thaera, developed after several trips to Palestine. May al-Haj was one of the novice writers most excited about the experience. “I saw an ad for a writing course, and I didn’t hesitate. It is an opportunity that I have been waiting for a long time ”, she comments via email. “In the workshop, Professor Haifa encouraged and motivated me a lot. I wanted him to write about my experience, but at first I lacked the tools that I later learned, “adds Al Haj, who spent six years in jail between 1991 and 1997, accused of participating in an attack on an Israeli settler. Freed thanks to the Oslo accords, hers is a very tough story, as are the rest. “In A party for Thaera, the participants were imprisoned by the Israeli occupation and therefore all their writings reflect what the daily struggle to end the occupation means, ”says Zangana.

The second work was Salt notebooks, funded by the NGO International Center for Transitional Justice. In it, a dozen Tunisian Islamist women tell of the ravages of the repression exercised by the Ben Ali regime against the Ennahda party. Illegalized by the dictatorship, this moderate Islamist movement won the first elections after the 2011 Revolution, and since then it has been part of most governments of the post-revolutionary period.

For Auatef Mezghani, a 20-year-old when she was sentenced to six months in jail in 1992 for distributing leaflets against the Government and belonging to an illegal organization, the process of learning and writing her text was cathartic: “When I started writing I felt that I was going to to evacuate from my body the momentum of some memories that occupied it for years … Typing the letters, I felt in a refuge. My words exuded emancipation, revelation, rebellion, communion and victory… One by one, they were testimony to an experience of spiritual torment and physical helplessness. There were no crying for me, just a sense of peace.

Zeineb Ben Said, a retired philosophy professor, recounts similar feelings. She is also Tunisian, but belongs to another generation and treasures a completely different symbolic universe. Like the rest of the contributors to the third book, The girls of politicsBen Said was an activist in the 1970s for the left-wing Perspectives movement, the first of importance to challenge the authoritarian regime built by Habib Bourguiba, the father of the Tunisian homeland after gaining independence from France in 1956.

Zeineb Ben Said, one of the most prominent members of the Perspectives political movement.

Zeineb Ben Said, one of the most prominent members of the Perspectives political movement.

“Writing has a restorative, cathartic value. It is a way to remove a very intense pain, internalized for many years. It also serves as a rehabilitation against an injustice that affects all dimensions of being. But not everyone can do it. A couple of women left the workshop because the pain of reliving those moments was too strong, ”she says slowly and in flawless French, which she was able to perfect during her student stay in bustling Paris in the early seventies.

Ben Said, an elegant and highly educated woman, not only suffered a three-month ordeal in a police station, but was deprived of his job at the public school for six years. The experiences of the Perspectives activists were different, hence the interest in the informative value of a book that “has aroused great interest”. “The ostracism of the regime was harder for us, because society did not understand why as women we got into politics, which was a man’s thing. In addition, in our case, there was a component of gender humiliation, because the police made us undress. But they were sentenced to longer prison terms, which could reach twelve years ”, recalls this militant woman, who points out that one of the merits of the book is that of having placed police ill-treatment in the public debate, a The scourge that almost a decade after the Revolution has not yet disappeared.

Women were sexually assaulted and raped in Ben Ali jails. And in a society like the Tunisian, exposing this publicly is very very hard

Hamida Ajengui, Islamist activist from the Ennahda party

“The use of denigrating language is a tool of humiliation and control and its use against women is almost universal. The threat of rape and sexual abuse are also common in women’s stories, ”explains the Iraqi writer. While Ben Said claims that the humiliations did not cross the threshold of sexual assault in the 1970s, Hamida Ajengui, an Islamist activist with the Ennahda party, offers a more stark account of the repression in the 1990s. “Women were sexually assaulted and raped in Ben Ali jails. And in a society like that of Tunisia, exposing this publicly is very, very hard ”, he asserts.

Despite the hostility professed by many Islamist and leftist militants in Tunisia, Ajengui and Ben Said are among those who recognize themselves in the pain of their adversaries. “We are all Tunisians, both those on the left and the Islamists. We were all tortured the same. It’s not that one was slapped and the other was punched, “snaps Ajengui, a stout woman always dressed in a hijab.

Zangana is very satisfied with the result of the three books. The glass ceiling is also very present in the world of the arts, including literature. “In the workshops we reflect on why we write less. Some factors are common to other cultures, such as lack of time when having to take care of the family, or limited command of the language due to having a lower educational level. But others are typical of the region, such as the importance of oral culture. We are the daughters of Sherezade ”, affirms the Iraqi writer, who does not rule out adding new pieces to this literary saga to include new Arab countries.

There is still room to reach a thousand and one stories.

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