"I will carry my soul in my palm,
And cast it into the abyss of death,
Either a life that pleases a friend,
or a death that angers an enemy."
When I asked my uncle Khader Shaat, 47, about the poetry verse that he inscribed on the embroidered, handmade notebook about 30 years ago in Asqalan Israeli prison, he told me that it was the fuel that made him survive.
"Clinging to a life of freedom kept me alive," he said, remembering the notebook he made out of black fabric and framed using many beads.
Khader Shaat was detained when he was 17, sent to prison as a child, and released as a very strong young man.
From 1948 until today, Israel has detained and attacked many iconic, educated thinkers and revolutionaries as a way to suppress their voices, lessen awareness, and hide the truth. But the Occupation doesn't discriminate. According to the 2023 report of the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, there are currently 4,850 detainees in Israeli prisons, among them 31 women, including eight mothers and 160 children.
Israel detains these children for nothing more than being Palestinian. You may be walking in the street, performing your prayer at a mosque or a church, doing your job at a company, studying for your exam to a school, or whatever and whenever. The accusation is homelove. They want the young Palestinians to grow up with fear, to stop raising their voices, to never defend their land.
Khader spent four years in Israeli detention facilities, and a part of him still exists in prison. He relives his experiences there through his memories, stories, and art.
"I still remember that some inscribed their emotions on letters or prison walls by their blood [spilled during] interrogation. It is known that the prison walls are a huge picture of emotional documentation. We used to know previous detainees through their writings."
Pictures drawn in blood link decades of legacies of people who have been imprisoned and tortured by Israeli guards. A hidden archive of poems, letters, drawings, and handmade objects—containing stories of resistance, messages of despair, and hope—amass behind prison walls. Throughout each resounds a pulsing call for freedom.
I asked my uncle about the first piece of art he produced. "It's not easy to handle where to start, but what I can tell is that Palestinian detainees inscribe their emotions and resist through crafts," he said.
Sometimes prisoners draw on handkerchiefs, or embroider different symbols of life and hope: broken chains, olive branches, white pigeons, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock.
Khader showed me what he painted in 1995 in the Asqalan prison as a gift to my mother because he couldn't celebrate her graduation with her. In the piece, a white pigeon holds a letter as it flies to Rafah—my uncle's city. The letter frame is colored blue and red.
"I always used blue in my art," Khader explained. "It reminds me of the blue, wide sky—the sky I couldn't feel for years in prison."
Behind the pigeon wings, Khader painted the Dome of the Rock. For him, the image is a symbol of freedom, as this pigeon can fly to see the Palestinian places that he cannot. A candle's bright light represents waiting for hope after darkness, and all the years he passed alone full of longing. Surrounding the scene, written in a red evocative of the blood others used to write on prison walls, is a message: "O, Bird of Happiness, tell my loved ones that their memories and love are in my heart."
Homesickness is a common theme. In addition to paintings, people being detained also make necklaces from silk and flint stones shaped like the map of Palestine. They plait silk strings and engrave the stone for a month or two to send it as a gift to their families outside.
Stones are tough to engrave, especially by the small pieces of metal the prisoners gather from the barbed wire surrounding the prison. It takes time, effort, blood, pain, and injuries to come out with a heart-shaped stone or an inscribed word.
"Who taught you?" I asked.
"Old detainees teach the young. Some inscribe, some sculpt, some write or paint or draw or spin. One piece of art can be made by as many as 20 prisoners."
Creativity becomes a way for those who are being detained to communicate to loved ones. Frustrated by the inability to touch or hug family and friends, those inside Israeli prisons turn to crafts to express love and devotion.
Palestinian crafters spend months collecting tinplates of their toothpaste in order to smooth them and produce a photo frame. Mothers send this frame to their children to capture a family photo—without them. Husbands send it to their wives.
"I was always distinguished by my calligraphy. I wrote many letters to my cellmates for their families."
When someone gets news about their family members, whether bad or good— death, birth, graduation, and marriage included—they translate their feelings into diaries, poems, and narrative.
"Many illiterate detainees would sit next to me to dictate what to write. I sit. He sits. I grab white paper. He breathes. I wait. He dictates: 'To my dear Mom.' I write it down. He chokes. I wait. He bursts into tears. I leave the paper, hug him, and console him," Khader recalled.
"The worst and hardest moment a detainee faces is when Israeli officers interrogate him, [enduring] days of severe psychological and physical torture and humiliation," he added. "After this, no one remains the same. We all become different people."
Palestinian prison literature is an independent and rich genre that reveals some of the untold violent experiences that people are subject to while detained. The novel Curtains of Darkness was written by Walid Hodali, who was sentenced to 15 years. In it, he documented the severe torture methods that the prisoners faced at the hands of interrogators, who tried to withdraw confessions. He depicts the details of the continuous shabeh, in which the prisoner is tied to a chair for hours, his hands and feet tied to his back.
"Do you know Bassam Al-Sayeh, the Palestinian prisoner who passed away in 2019 due to medical negligence in Israeli prisons?" my uncle asked pointedly.
I stared intently. "Yes, he had cancer"
"He has another detained brother, Amjad Al-Sayeh. When prison authorities issued Bassam to receive medicine at [Assaf Harofeh] Clinic, they refused to allow Amjad to accompany and support him. Lonely, Bassam died spending his last breaths alone."
Some observers say that in the '60s and '70s, Gaza belonged to Israel during the day and a handful of young freedom fighters at night—until Israel hunted them down. Some were assassinated or executed during arrests. Others spent decades in prison.
Amjad translated his tears into a narrative book called A Goodbye Smile, titled after the last smile and hug between the two brothers. The book details the cruelty leveraged against Bassam's family, how Israeli guards said Bassam's body would not be released to the family until his corpse served the remainder of his three life sentences in prison.
Thinking of the book and Bassam's death called up painful memories for my uncle. One night when he was sleeping in his cell, he all of a sudden jumped out of his rusty bed. Suffocating and sweaty, he gasped in the dark and tried to let the nightmare pass. It was about dying alone in prison, never to meet his family again, never to feed his beloved cat Runa again, never to hug his mother again, never to plant a tree with his father in the small yard again. He was afraid of dying incomplete.
He was afraid of leaving without a last goodbye. It was only a passing nightmare for my uncle. But for Bassam, it was reality.
Detained Palestinians don't just suffer the loss of their years or their family members, but they also mourn the loss of the only hope to have a legacy outside the prison. They live in fear of losing their art.
"I had a rich notebook where I poured my years of fruitful knowledge and experience," Khader sadly told me. "Israel confiscated it."
Every three or four months, Israeli occupation forces invade the cells to confiscate or damage what Palestinian detainees create. Thus, many cannot save their work unless they succeed in passing it to their lawyers and family when visiting, or to a soon-released detainee.
"When I left Be'er Sheva prison and gained my freedom in 1997, I only had letters. At that time, it was a bloody, brutal period, and Israeli prison authorities banned crafts," Khader told me.
Creating art in prison is limited as the Israeli forces hardly allow for the Red Cross (ICRC) or families to provide materials that Palestinian detainees ask for. Detainees care about cultural, educational, and literary issues as much as their health and food.
In many cases, imprisoned Palestinians go on collective strikes in order to fight for such needs. These strikes are another story of suffering.
In April 2017, 1,500 detainees went on strike to better their lives and demand medicine and family visits. Among their demands were allowing for newspapers and books, as well as the ability to learn at Open Hebrew University in prisons.
After 41 days, they finally suspended their strike, celebrating this achievement. But in other cases, they wait for long months and then receive nothing.
With all this potential to create, if those detained were free, what creative inventions would they contribute to humanity? How many stories would be released?
"I think I produced more than 100 pieces [while detained]" Uncle Khader said with pride.
Amazed and excited, I asked Khader to show me more handmade art. Suddenly, the conversation changed. His voice faded, his smile disappeared, and his eyes shrunk a little. The wrinkles of age and sorrow were clearly painted on his face.
"Israeli bulldozers entirely demolished our old home in 2004. You were only three years and don't remember. There, under the rubble, I lost all my photos, memories, and handicrafts —the ones I made and the ones my detained friends gifted me after release."
Israel chases Palestinian crafts inside and outside prison. They fear our art. They fear our memories.