Theater of the absurd: The Jewish state vs. Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour

What is a poem, what is a translation and who is a translator: The trial of an Israeli from the Galilee exposes regrettable aspects of local culture

Dareen Tatour, 35, of Reina in northern Israel, was charged in November 2015 with incitement to violence and support for a terror organization, over three items she posted on Facebook and YouTube. According to the indictment, one video shows masked men throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli forces. In the background, Tatour is heard reading a poem she wrote, whose English title is “Resist, my people, resist them.”

The day after uploading the video, she wrote in a post: “The Islamic Jihad movement hereby declares the continuation of the intifada throughout the West Bank. … Continuation means expansion … which means all of Palestine. … And we must begin within the Green Line …for the victory of Al-Aqsa, and we shall declare a general intifada. #Resist.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office interpreted this text as support for Islamic Jihad and a new intifada.

The third, allegedly criminal, post was uploaded five days later. It was a photograph of Asra’a Abed, a 30-year-old Israeli Arab woman who was shot and wounded by police after waving a knife at officers in the bus station in Afula in October 2015. Tatour captioned the image, “I am the next shahid,” or martyr.

Two days later the police arrested Tatour at her home. In her request to hold Tatour for the duration of legal proceedings, prosecutor Alina Hardak cited the “real danger to public welfare” posed by her posts.

After initially denying any connection to the Facebook page and the image of Abed, Tatour told investigators that, like other Arab poets, she writes about prisoners and her homeland. She stressed that her intentions were nonviolent, that she doesn’t want to be a shahida and that she favors only peaceful means.

In January 2016 Tatour was released, after being fitted with an ankle monitor, to house arrest at the home of her brother in Kiryat Ono, which has no internet access.

After successive relaxations of the terms of her house arrest, Tatour holds down a part-time retail job, but is still prohibited from accessing the internet. A verdict is expected soon.

The diligent prosecutor proved, in an unprecedented discussion of ars poetica in the halls of justice, that Tatour is not a real poet.

Hardak insisted, for seven hours, on solving the riddle of poetic theory: Who is a poet? The discussion centered on the “reliability” of the poem’s Hebrew translation. I was not in the courtroom, but I present here an absurd play in two acts, from the court transcripts.

Act One: Who is a poet?

Witness: Prof. Nissim Calderon, who teaches Hebrew poetry and edits a poetry journal. Cross examination: About two hours

Prosecutor: You begin by assuming the accused is a poet.

W: Yes.

P: You agree that you have no prior acquaintance.

W: I read the indictment, and there’s a poem there, and the person who wrote the poem is a poet.


P: Who defines a poem?

W: There is no authoritative entity. … What the poet defines as a poem is a poem.

P: How do you know the poet defines it as a poem?

W: It was published in short lines, and when it has a rhythmic element we can reasonably assume it’s a poem. … “Resist, resist my people,” that’s musicality that stems from repetition. There’s a musical and literal connection in the refrain. … The prosecutor also understood that it’s a poem.

P: If I write a text eight lines long, and after every two lines, two lines are repeated, is that a poem to you?

W: Yes.

The prosecutor delves into the differences between prose, poetry, a figure of speech, reliable poetry and imitative poetry. She apparently disagrees with generations of giants. Tatour is not a poet, even if this isn’t her first poem in Arabic and contains a rhythmic element and short lines that repeat. If she is a poet, the trial is a farce; in a democracy, poets are not tried and cut off from the world for a year and a half.

In a democracy, poetry enjoys creative freedom, minority opinions must be heard, etc. The prosecutor won’t allow Tatour to be called a poet, because if she is a poet, Israel is China or North Korea.

The prosecutor begins to realize that she is arguing with a leftist academic. She tenses when the expert explains that the poem was written in a genre customary to Palestinian national poetry, that there are thousands like it and they have parallels in all national poetry traditions, including Zionism.

When the witness says there is no authority to determine what is a poem, the prosecutor resolves to prove that the court is hearing a leftist disguised as an objective witness.

She cites an event the witness took part in, “Poetry in the Shadow of Terror,” in Tel Aviv.

We can only assume that the prosecutor will demand regulations and a code of ethics for poets. The Culture Ministry will establish a licensing unit for poets, with rules against poetic negligence. The Public Security Ministry will guard against impersonators, who may be jailed without charges. The Health Ministry will revoke the license of a poet who has suffered an attack of lunacy or divine inspiration (whichever comes first).

Now the indefatigable prosecutor must prove that “shahid” means terrorist. She asks her translator to take the stand.

The witness is an old man, with 30 years in the Nazareth police. For the first time in his life, he is being asked to translate a literary text into Hebrew.

When his translation was submitted to the court, he apologized for flaws and omissions. Much was lost in translation. And “shahid”? He got stuck in the middle, between Arabic and Hebrew. “Shahid” is “shahid.” For the prosecution that’s enough, because in Hebrew culture a shahid is a terrorist.

But the next witness, an expert on translation for the defense, enumerates various dictionary definitions of shahid: a martyr, one who has fallen in battle, a victim.” I assume the prosecutor realized that once again she had before her a witness who is not objective and has leftist views. Apparently it’s important that every word in Arabic have only one meaning in Hebrew, even if it’s removed from its semantic context. For the prosecution, it was preferable to leave shahid in Hebrew transliteration, and to rely on its meaning in Hebrew culture — as though a word in Arabic and the meaning with which it was burdened in Hebrew are identical.

Act Two: Who is a translator?

The witness: Dr. Yonatan Mendel, a translator and researcher of Hebrew-Arabic translation. Cross examination: about five hours.

In the cross examination, during which it seemed that the witness had become the accused, short films (unrelated to Dareen Tatour), were screened that showed scenes of rioting all over the West Bank. The soundtrack repeatedly voiced words such as “shahids,” “terror,” “blood,” “the sanctity of the land” and “the right of return,” until to Jewish ears it seemed as though these were quotes from the poems of Uri Zvi Greenberg we studied in class: “Blood will determine who will be the sole ruler”; “A land is conquered with blood. and only when conquered with blood is hallowed to the people with the holiness of the blood”; “A return to the village is a miraculous return, the felled tree returns to connect to its source”; “I hate the peace of those who surrender.”

P: Do you consider yourself an objective witness?

W: Yes.

P: How good is your knowledge of Arabic?

W: It’s excellent.

P: When you’re listening, it’s hard for you to understand. Why?

W: There’s a difference between simultaneous interpretation and translation of a written document.


P: In your opinion, is the Palestinian people a people living under occupation?

W: The Palestinian people are a divided people, they don’t live in a free country.


P: Do you think that there’s a right to resist the occupation?

W: I’m in favor of nonviolent resistance.


P: You claim Israelis automatically interpret “shahid” as related to terror.

W: Correct.

P: You say the Israeli-Jewish interpretation of the word is really distorted … and every Palestinian who hears it understands it as “those who have fallen” and not as “shahids”?

W: I would say more as “victims,” not as “aggressors.”

P: Previously your wrote “those who have fallen” as opposed to “shahids,” and now you’re saying “victims” as opposed to “aggressors.”

W: The word shahids — in Hebrew it’s fraught, the vast majority of the shuhadaa, or in Hebrew “shahids,” are civilians who didn’t go out to harm Israelis.

P: In the police translation it sounds like a call for violence.


P: You translated “one who rises up,” whereas he translated “one who resists.”

W: The root of the word in Arabic is kuf-yud-mem — and I’m looking for a similar root in Hebrew, “rose up.” “”Resisted” is not a mistake, but “rose up” is more appropriate.

Maybe someone will also propose the “Translation Law,” since it’s impossible for a specific word to have several translations.

And that’s how the discussion of a poem in Arabic is conducted in Hebrew, by people who don’t have a sufficient concept of Arabic. Equipped with a Robinson Crusoe mentality, they are certain that Friday will speak their language, and believe that every word in a language that they don’t understand has only one meaning in Hebrew. All the more so, when it comes to a familiar word like “shahid.”

The long hours that the court spent surrounding the issue of the translation are a masquerade, trickery. Does anyone really think that such a discussion can be conducted in Hebrew? The translation came up because the prosecutor — like everyone else in the courtroom — doesn’t understand Arabic. Because if the discussion had been conducted in Arabic, an official language in Israel, the court wouldn’t have needed a translator. We would expect a prosecuting body with integrity, which time after tme repeated the presumption of objectivity, to bow its head and to set aside the case.

But the prosecution also knew about a 2015 study that found that only 0.4 percent of Israeli Jews are capable of understanding a complex text in Arabic. For its own reasons, the prosecution did not set aside the case. On the contrary, its determination to assemble a cast for the theater of the absurd only increased.

P: [The poem] is not referring only to the West Bank.

W: Correct.

P: And actually there’s also a reference here to within the Green Line.

Like a shot in a concert hall, the Green Line is the issue. That’s the unfortunate boundary line that has long since been erased from the Jews’ maps, in an impressive colonialist process. Nobody talks about the Green Line any more except for our prosecutor, the anti-Semites at the United Nations and a handful of peace envoys who visit the region from time to time. The Jews no longer have a Green Line, Yesha (Judea and Samaria) is here, and this is the land of our forefathers, and the Jews cross the Green Line, but only the Jews. And so that the Palestinians — in other words those who are called Israeli Arabs – don’t cross the Green Line, it has to be etched into their awareness.

If Dareen Tatour had lived in a village near Ramallah, I believe nobody would ask her if she’s a poet. They would jail her without charges for incitement. But within the Green Line, such measures are extreme, so it must be proved that she isn’t a poet. In the end, the prosecutor is doing what she’s supposed to do: to frighten, to deter, to censor poetry and to turn a poet into an enemy. All that remains is to call her an “inciter.” If we say it enough, it will succeed. And what about all those who weren’t suspected of incitement, despite their words. A senior MK (“Anyone who pulls out a knife or a screwdriver — you have to shoot him to kill”); a senior Likud member (“The Sudanese are a cancer in our body”) and a prime minister (“The Arab voters are going in droves to the polls”). The list goes on.

Nobody in the courtroom could see that this was a theater of the absurd: That before us was a prosecutor arguing in Hebrew about the interpretation of Arabic words, whose meaning can be understood only within the Arabic poetic tradition. Whereas the debate was not about the poem, or about its quality, but about the quality of the translation into Hebrew.

And still, within all this confusion, with the learned assistance of the prosecutor we learned several basic facts about the state of culture in Israel. What is a poem in Arabic: One that can be explained in Hebrew, because in the original language it has no existence. What is a translation: That which uproots the sapling from its soil and its cultural environment and plants it in foreign soil in order to create a Tower of Babel of words. Who is a translator? Some who is authorized by the government to find a for every word in Arabic only one interpretation in Hebrew. What is a prosecution: That which will do anything in its power to prevent Palestinian national poetry within the boundaries of the Green Line. And what is a poet? Someone who reveals the depths of her soul and the lies of the government. The prosecution’s question reveal what it is trying to conceal: That there are people who are groaning under oppression and loss of rights and are not eligible for privileges like the Jews.

In a response statement, the State Prosecutor’s Office said that every judicial proceeding in Israel is conducted in Hebrew, including the one under discussion. “At the same time, the course of the discussion was translated for the accused into Arabic by a court-appointed interpreter, even though the accused is a Hebrew speaker.

“As far as the content is concerned, as indicated by what is attributed to the accused in the indictment, this is a poem that was publicized as part of a video clip showing violent scenes from the intifada, and not as a separate text.

“The translation of the text that accompanied the video was done by a veteran policeman whose mother tongue is Arabic. It’s a literal translation that didn’t presume to interpret the words.”