The poet’s trial: The battle of the narrative

The following article was published in Hebrew in Siha Mekomit (Local Call) and Haifa Ha-Hofshit.

Translated by Idan Kramarge Bar-Haim

An additional session for hearing the defense’s witnesses was scheduled for Sunday 19.3 at 11:30 am. At the scheduled time we gathered at the 3rd floor of the Nazareth court – Dareen Tatour, her father Tawfiq, the lawyers Gaby Lasky and Nery Ramati and about ten of the poet’s supporters. In the same time, more groups of prosecutors, lawyers and clients whose hearings were scheduled for the morning assembled at judge Adi Bambiliya-Einstein’s door. Since our hearing was expected to be long it was postponed until after all others are finished and only started around 14:30.

Is it acceptable to arrest poets?

The first witness of the defense was Professor Nissim Calderon, an expert on the study of Hebrew poetry. In his statement he gave examples of poems which contain a call for violent resistance against different governments and explained that in all those cases no legal procedure was taken against the poets. He especially mentioned poems published by Bialik and Tchernichovsky in tsarist Russia and Uri Tsvi-Greenberg’s poems written during the British occupation (“mandate”) in Palestine.

Dareen and friends waiting for trial March 19

Waiting three hours for the trial to begin – Nazareth court, March 19

Most of the statement can be summarized by the following quote form it: “The same tradition distinguished well between a poem’s reaction and a common person’s reaction. The extremism, refusal for compromise, and violence were perceived by readers, critics, and also by the government, as immune to legal prosecution. That is because a poet’s extreme writing was seen as his right, and duty, for a very intense and emotional expression, and also answers to the aesthetic requirements of artistic writing. No one has mistaken very erotic love poems for an indecent act of public nudity, and no one has mistaken very extreme revenge poems for an illegal call to actual violence.”

In the counter-interrogation, the prosecutor attempted to attack the statement from every possible direction. Is the privilege of freedom of speech in poetry given to every poet, even a novice? Even for someone who only wrote a single poem? And how does he determine that Tatour is a poet and her writing is a poem? Professor Calderon was not confused and repeatedly clarified his principle position for the wide freedom of speech that should be given to poets. He started reading segments of Tatour’s poem as it appears in the indictment to prove by the rhythm and style that it is indeed a poem, and eventually mentioned that in the indictment itself the accusation is the publication of a poem. In her attempt to dispute Tatour being defined as a poet the prosecutor “forgot” claims she herself has stated in earlier sessions that Tatour is “dangerous” because she is a poet, and as one has influence on the public.

Lawyer Gaby Lasky

Lawyer Gaby Lasky – all the objections were refused

I think the strongest point of Calderon’s position was the comparison to the dark regime of the Tsar in Russia and the British mandate which did not pretend to be democratic regimes. Despite that, those regimes did not see fit to arrest poets who expressed themselves in a more radical way than the expressions in Tatour’s indictment. He also mentioned that Uri Tsvi-Greenberg was not arrested for his poems even when he called for violent resistance to the British mandate while Britain was at war against Nazi Germany.

At the end of the statement, to show that the case is not poems designated only for elitist literary classes, professor Calderon quotes from the poem “Maoz Tsur Yeshuati” the part “when you shall make a massacre / from your barking foe”, and explains: “Every year Jews sing with their children about their enemies, calling them barking dogs, and saying that they should be slaughtered. And it is legitimate that they sing, as they have a dark record with their oppressors, and they know that a poem about a massacre is not a massacre”.

I, as someone who in the past caused chaos in a family Passover gathering because of my objection to the song “Spill your wrath upon the gentiles”, can’t identify with the justification of “Maoz Tsur”. But it is certainly not acceptable to prosecute every person who expresses such a blunt call for violence.

The best of the poem is its lie

Professor Calderon appeared as an expert on Hebrew poetry, but when he was asked about Dareen’s poem he fell in the trap of the most predictable Israeli reaction. He said that the poem calls for violent resistance, relying on the distorted translation in the indictment and the common Israeli prejudice that the term “Shuhadaa” (which in colonialist-speak is distorted to “shahidim”) refers to those who perform acts of terrorism.

He was even asked if the poem could lead to actual violence. The advocates objected: It is the regular practice in Israeli courts that the expertise required to determine the danger of a certain statement and the likelihood that it will lead to violence is reserved to the “professionals” of the GSS. Since the prosecution did not bother bringing an expert witness to verify the danger of the poem, they cannot close that gap with an expert on Hebrew poetry. The judge allowed the question, and professor Calderon said confidently that the poem could lead to violence, but it should not matter to the principle that the poet should not be prosecuted for writing it. Tatour should be treated the same as Bialik, and Israel should not be less democratic than the Russian Tsar.

The second and main witness in the hearing was Dr. Yoni Mendel, a researcher of the Arabic language in its social contexts, who works in translating Arabic literature to Hebrew and is an expert on the role of the Arabic language in the relations between Jews and Arabs in the country. The statement he presented to the court, at the defense’s request, included a translation of the poem that is the subject of the indictment to Hebrew, criticism of the police translation and many comments to explain the world of Palestinian content that stands behind the short lines of the poem.

One significant difference between the police translation and the version Mandel presented was, of course, the line about the shuhadaa: the policeman translated “and you shall follow convoy of shahidim” (just distorting the Arabic word, not translating it to Hebrew) while Mendel wrote “and you shall follow the convoy of martyrs”. In the explanation he refers in details to the Israeli practice of not translating the word “shahid” to the exact term, “martyr” (“Halal” in Hebrew), while creating a deformed term around which were built negative Hebrew contexts which are not the characteristics of the Arabic term. Leaving Arab words in the translation and avoidance of using a fitting Hebrew word also helps to alienate and to prevent the acceptance of the text in its general human context.

Yoni Mendel waiting to testify March 19

Dr. Mendel waiting to give evidence in Nazareth court, March 19, 2017

Another segment, in which the exact translation is actually the opposite of the police translation, is in the lines: “Fear not the tongues of the Merkava tank / for the truth in your heart is stronger / it is strong as long as you rise in the motherland / a motherland that knew attacks but is not exhausted”. In the police translation, instead of the last two lines, appear the lines: “As long as you resist in the motherland / Long live the ghazawat and may they not tire”. The reversal of meaning in this sentence summarizes that which exists in the entire text – while the text is written from the viewpoint of the victim of the attacks, who resists them out of the desire for truth and justice, the distorted police translation attributes to the writer the call “long live the ghazawat”- once again keeping the Arabic word, which the translating policeman explained in his testimony as relating to the invasions of Arab tribes for robbery in the Jahiliyyah days before Islam.

It can be argued whether or not a poem could have an exact translation. I think the strongest argument of the defense in a trial that revolves around a poem is that any translation of a poem, and even reading the poem in the original language, is necessarily a subjective interpretation. It is hard to see how the understanding of a poem could be “beyond all reasonable doubt” as required in criminal law. In any case, Dr. Mendel made an honest attempt to understand the words of the poet, in the context of Palestinian concepts, based on his expertise in the subject matter in the political and social context. That is the opposite of the policeman translator, who not only lacked the skills required for professional translation but also added a deliberate twist to the phrasing in order to achieve his incriminating goal.

A very contrary interrogation

At the beginning of the investigation we enjoyed a comic relief when the prosecutor asked Dr. Mendel, casually: “I suppose you are used to giving professional opinions and that you were paid for this opinion?” to which he answered: “I didn’t get any payment, should I have asked for it?” He made it clear that he does not know the defendant and never met her, and that he agreed to a request to give an objective opinion in court free of charge. That is the first time he appears as an expert witness in court.

The prosecutor understood that Mendel’s testimony was very important in establishing the explanations of the defense for the poem, and did everything to undermine his credibility. She presented opinion articles he wrote in Haaretz newspaper in 2012 with the title “Great experts on Arabs” and in 2014 with the title “Hamas – Is there really no one to talk to?” quoted parts out of context and attacked the political views of the witness. The defense lawyers requested the judge to limit the counter interrogation to questions referring to the subject of the trial and the expertise of the witness as a translator, but the judge rejected all objections on their side and allowed the counter interrogation to go on for almost five hours.

A large part of the counter interrogation revolved around one line of the poem, the one referring to the martyrs, the “shuhadaa” (plural of “shahid”). Mandel explained time and again that the Arabic Palestinian context of the word Shahid is different than the Israeli image created around it. While the Israeli see the Arab first of all as the aggressor who uses out-of-context violence, the Palestinians see themselves as victims of dispossession and occupation, and even if there is popular uprising it is mostly a reaction to the violence of the occupation. If you say the word “Shahid”, an Israeli first thinks of a suicide bomber who explodes on a bus, while a Palestinian first thinks of a woman with cancer who dies because she was not allowed to pass an army checkpoint.

Mendel strengthened his interpretation of the translation of shuhadaa as referring to victims in the full context of the poem, in which all the martyrs mentioned are victims: Muhammad Abu-Khdeir, a child from Jerusalem who was kidnapped and burned alive, Baby Ali Dawabsheh who was burned with his parents in his home in Duma, and Hadeel al-Hashlamoun who was shot at an army checkpoint in Al-Khalil.

The prosecutor tried to prove that those are not the people the poet refers to while saying “follow them” because no one would want to be murdered as they were. Mendel solved the paradox in a reverse way: The call to follow them does not mean wanting to die, but the will to remember and not abandon the victims, embrace the Palestinian bereaved families and object to an agreement which will not include the assurance of the rights of the Palestinians.

Near the end, after hours of exhaustion, the prosecutor presented Dr. Mendel with three videos from YouTube which show violence or calls for violent attacks by Palestinians (we as an audience did not actually see what they contained) and demanded him to translate them to the court. The witness translated parts of the videos while the prosecutor rebukes him: “You say you’re an expert on translation?” Since neither the prosecutor nor the judge could understand the content in Arabic, it is hard to see how such a trial could actually be designed to test the expertise of the witness in translation.

At a certain point, the prosecutor presented the witness a part of a video and requested him to describe what he sees. He wearily answered he saw another scene of the unending violence of both sides. It appeared that as far as the prosecutor was concerned, he failed the test for not rushing to be abhorred by the Palestinian violence.

Eventually, it seemed the actual intention of the videos was revealed: the prosecutor asked to add the videos that were presented to the witness as part of the evidence in the court case. By those videos, the prosecutor tries to set the Israeli narrative, just as the witness explained it, showing the Palestinians as aggressive attackers out of context, and to addict the court to “terrorism snuff”. The advocates objected to adding the videos and argued that the fact the videos were presented to the witness does not make them in any way a part of the evidence. The legal argument turned into a battle of insults and shouts, and eventually the judge announced the discussion of the validity of the videos will take place in the next session.

At 20:15, an exhausting day of waiting and hearings finally came to an end.