Last Monday, I couldn’t wait for my class to end at 10:00am. My dad doesn’t know how to send a text message, but somehow, while inside the lecture, I received one from him, urging me to come to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As soon as students were allowed to leave, I was the first one out the door. I walked as quickly as I could from school to the ICRC. I stopped a taxi, even though it was a ten-minute walk. I wanted to be there in time so I would not miss any of the weekly protest for Palestinian political prisoners. I expected that it would be a unique protest, especially since the following day was Prisoners’ Day. I was right.
It wasn’t the usual protest that I always see. The street was closed. No cars could pass. The hall inside the ICRC, as well as the sit-in tent in front of it, were filled with people. Artistic touches of anger, steadfastness, and hope were added.
As I arrived, I found Dad chatting cheerfully with a man I had never seen in the ICRC before. His story was worth hearing. His name is Zuhdy al-Adawi. My father and Zuhdy were both released in the 1985 swap deal after spending 15 years in Israeli jails. Dad was released to Gaza but Zuhdy, unfortunately, was deported to Syria. Since then, Dad had never met his friend. However, Zuhdy managed to return for the first time to his birth place about two weeks ago. “After 27 years of separation, we’re meeting here again,” Dad said happily with his arm on Zuhdy’s shoulder.
I could see people crowded around stands on paintings across the street. Dad grabbed my drawing book, which I had carried there to show my friends a new picture, and opened it while saying, “Shahd is an artist, too.” Zuhdy smiled at me and pointed at the exhibition saying humbly, “Awesome! Then you should look at those paintings and tell me what you think.”
“Are you the artist?” I asked excitedly. Zuhdy pulled me close to the stands and answered proudly, “All these paintings are my work from my detention in Ashqelon Prison. It was important for me to exhibit them in Gaza so your generation and the coming generations keep learning about the Palestinian prisoners’ issue through art.” My eyes were captured by his talent and creativity. Every painting told a story full of suffering and challenge. They summed up the Palestinian struggle and the pains and the injustices that Palestinian people suffer, especially the humiliating conditions our political prisoners endure.
“Expressing myself with colors was banned inside prison,” Zuhdy said angrily. “I used to cut pillowcases and use them as my canvas. I managed to smuggle some pastel and wax colors. I used to paint under fear. How could I paint while jailers surrounded me? But with my persistence and my friends’ collaboration, I managed to make these and smuggle them out of jail.”
Zuhdy’s expressive, creative paintings left me speechless. He made me feel happy, happy that the heartless jailers failed to imprison his mind or imagination. He lived in prison, but his heart and mind were free. To see more of his drawings, see Joe Catron’s album here or watch this video.
“Be sure that our prisoners resist in many different ways,” Zuhdy said. “Many writers, intellectuals, and painters arose in prison, from the unspeakable love for Palestine, and from the daily suffering, oppression, and injustice. We have full confidence that can defeat the jailers’ inhumanity. We have a just cause for which we sacrifice and in which we believe, and we are ready to use any possible means to call for our freedom and justice.” With these strong words, he ended his inspiring conversation with me. It will be stamped in my mind for as long as I live to keep on my path, using pencils, words, and every other way to make my people’s voice heard. People like Zuhdy make my pride at being Palestinian grow every day.
That night, we returned to the ICRC to join hundreds of people who gathered to celebrate “the flame of freedom”. Who could be more worth than Hana al-Shalabi to light this flame? She was there with her beautiful, elderly mother, who had joined her daughter on hunger strike despite her age. My heart leaped when I saw them. Excitedly, we surrounded the flame and watched the champion of empty stomachs, Hana al-Shalabi, light it to mark Prisoners’ Day with a symbol of loyalty to those who are still locked behind Israeli bars and a promise that they will be never forgotten, and that we will always call for their freedom. I hope one day, we will light up this flame when Palestine is free and Israeli prisons have been emptied.
On April 17th, many popular events were held throughout Palestine. Prisoners’ Day was different this year. It had a sweet taste as the day Israel released Khader Adnan, another hero of empty stomachs who hunger struck for a record 66 days to protest being held in administrative detention without charge. His freedom put bright smiles of hope on the angry faces of prisoners’ families.
In Gaza, Palestine’s flags colored its blue sky. I left home early, eager to join the events. Marches came from every street of Gaza. All ages and genders, and many disabled people, joined the protest. It was a remarkable scene of unity and compassion between Palestinians in Gaza. Even schoolchildren participated, with their tender voices chanting, “Rise our moon, rise and light the whole universe. We weren’t born to live in humiliation, but to live in freedom.” Marches came from all directions to unite in front of the ICRC. I felt a revolution inside me when I saw thousands of people uniting their voice: “Free, free Palestine.”
Among the protesters, ten-year-old Haitham Al-Zariey, holding a picture and chanting loudly, attracted my attention. “Who is the person in the picture?” I asked him. “This is my uncle Hussien,” he said with a smile of pride. “He has been detained for eleven years. I was born when he was in jail. A few years ago, I learned that I have an uncle held captive by Israel. I have never met him.” When I asked him what he wished he could tell his uncle, he answered, “I wish I could tell him that I am here chanting for his freedom, and the freedom of all other Palestinians in Israel’s prisons. I hope I can witness his freedom soon. I wish Israel at least allow us to visit him.”
I was thrilled by the little boy’s awareness of the prisoners’ issue. Haitham is a small example of the rising revolutionary generation who will go on demanding justice and freedom for all Palestinians. On Prisoners’ Day, we renew our promise to never forget those who sacrificed precious years for the sake of our freedom and dignity. Someday all chains must break. Freedom for all Palestinian political prisoners.