Liberating a Palestinian Novel From Israeli Prison

Liberating a Palestinian Novel From Israeli Prison

Liberating a Palestinian Novel From Israeli Prison

The Trinity of Fundamentals, a book Wisam Rafeedie penned while imprisoned, is a stirring account of dissidence and resistance to the Occupation.


When Wisam Rafeedie was imprisoned in Askalan prison, he received a letter from the Palestinian prisoners’ movement leadership in Nafha prison that contained a curriculum for prisoners. Rafeedie was surprised to find his own novel, The Trinity of Fundamentals, listed in that curriculum. The Trinity of Fundamentals is a fictionalized account of his nine years of hiding from the Occupation in Palestine, which ended in his capture in 1991. He wrote it during his imprisonment at Naqab prison in 1993, a few years after he was captured by the Israeli occupation army. Throughout the process of writing his novel, Rafeedie distributed excerpts of it through the clandestine system of circulation established by the prisoners, which moved materials and information across cells; various sections were transferred via pieces of bread dough or pill capsules that were thrown across cells. Eventually, his attempts to smuggle his novel out of the prison through this method was thwarted by the interception of the prison guards who subsequently confiscated it the year it was completed.

It’s a good novel,” one of the intelligence officers told Rafeedie, who, in response, demanded that the guard return it. Of course, the Israelis refused. Rafeedie, who had poured his experiences into the novel, was unable to reproduce it and eventually accepted that it had been stolen. As a consequence, and until the moment of receiving the letter in 1996, he figured that his novel was exclusively in the hands of the occupying enemy.

But as it turned out, The Trinity of Fundamentals was being widely read across the Occupation’s prisons. Another copy had been made, unknown to both Rafeedie and the prison guards. Through the novel’s secret journey across prison cells, one of Rafeedie’s comrades in prison, moved by the words, had decided to hand-transcribe it in its entirety. The preservation of the text in the face of Zionist suppression and its subsequent dissemination was made possible by his fellow imprisoned comrades, who liberated it under the very nose of the prison administration. The novel’s liberation was made possible by a clandestine physical journey—from its passing between one prison cell to the next, all the way to its exit from prison and its first official 1998 publication in its Arabic original.

Today, The Trinity of Fundamentals is now reaching English-language readers by way of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), an organization of young Palestinians and Arabs whose vision is to mobilize Palestinian youth in exile, to strengthen their role and assume responsibility and accountability to the Palestinian national liberation struggle. The first English translation—done by Muhammad Tutunji and collectively reviewed by a group of 14 PYM members—as part of the organization’s political education committee, the Popular University, will be published later this year by 1804 Books. By disseminating this text to an English-reading audience for the first time, the publication of the novel carries on the tradition of defying Israeli attempts to intercept, destroy, loot, and criminalize Palestinian knowledge production.

The Trinity of Fundamentals tells the fictionalized story of Rafeedie ’s experience of evading the Occupation between 1982 to 1991. It is written and told from the perspective of Kan’an Subhi, a 22-year-old Palestinian man who forgoes the most fundamental aspects of life—including human companionship and his engagement—in order to serve the Palestinian revolution as a leader in hiding. The novel places Kan’an’s decision to go into hiding within a larger historical context: as part of a strategy of the Palestinian movement—following its exile from Lebanon in 1982—to protect leadership from imprisonment and repression at the hands of the Israeli state.

This strategy marked an important transitional stage: The movement needed to build new and different tools and tactics of struggle and organization after 1982. The tactic of going into hiding in Palestine was unheard of at the time, and Kan’an faced the difficulty of explaining this decision to both his fiancée and his mother, who did not understand why he would not just turn himself in and serve a few years in prison as he had already done and as was the common approach at the time.

The continuous cycles of imprisonment, however, disrupted the capacity for resistance in the homeland: If resistance could continue underground free from the Occupation’s repression, then the revolution could more effectively build organizational capacity, longevity, leadership, and experience. This work was made possible by and supported various forms of popular resistance across the homeland, including the intensification and expansion of popular institutions into new areas. For nine years, no one in Kan’an’s family knew he was alive besides his mother, who kept this secret from the Occupation and was the only familial connection he had throughout.

Firmly situated in this history of political strategy is Kan’an’s deeply personal account of his political experience: the internal contradictions between what Kan’an calls his “trinity of fundamentals”: the three pillars that define Kan’an’s life in hiding—love, revolution, and life.

The novel begins the day that Kan’an is captured in 1991, with the craven sounds of soldiers attempting to break into his safe house—what he calls the “primitive ritual” of Israeli bombardment. Kanan’s narration quickly moves back in time to 1982, the year he went into hiding. Shifting back and forth between the story of his capture in 1991 to his memories over the past nine years, the novel recounts both the experiences of Kan’an and the Palestinian national liberation struggle: the pain of breaking his engagement, the events of the First Intifada, Palestinian university politics and the student movement, his loving relationship with his mother, the first Gulf War, and more. Far from dour or heavy, the book is enlivened by Rafeedie’s humor and incisive social and political critique.

Given its historical and political content and themes, The Trinity of Fundamentals is a novel that fits into many genres. It is a prison novel insofar as Rafeedie wrote it in captivity and it became a staple of Palestinian prisoners’ curriculum; it is a historical novel insofar as it narrates a significant period of Palestinian, Arab, and global history, including the popular uprising of the First Intifada, the strategy of establishing a secret guerrilla movement in Palestine, the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; it is an epic novel, insofar as it documents the thrills of Kan’an’s experience of underground resistance without romanticizing the challenges he faced and his sacrifices; and it is autobiographical fiction, as it is based on Rafeedie’s life between 1982–91, and so shares a lot with with autobiographies from other national liberation struggles, such as Malcolm X’s and Assata Shakur’s.

At its core, however, The Trinity of Fundamentals is a revolutionary novel. It depicts an uncompromising commitment to a cause, confronting colonialism, the individual and collective choice of resistance, political sacrifice, the relationship between the revolutionary and revolution, and the endurance of revolutionary optimism in the face of the movement’s setbacks.

The novel destabilizes idealistic illusions or shallow romanticisms pertaining to revolutionary struggle, depicting the internal conflicts between political commitment and personal need. As Kan’an asserts, we should “beware of romanticizing my world, my revolution is anything but. Neither is my experience. My experience is about daily revolutionary action that is tiring and exhausts one’s nerves, the same as the experiences of thousands of Palestinian revolutionaries.” Since its publication in Arabic, The Trinity of Fundamentals has carried significant political meaning for the Palestinian movement.

If a significant element of the Palestinian struggle in diaspora is waged at the level of ideas, then this English translation and publication aims to intervene in that arena by upholding the tradition of Palestinian resistance. The fact that The Trinity of Fundamentals is being published in English only further reaffirms the act of resistance that has led the novel from a prison in the first place: It represents an effort to produce, preserve, and popularize Palestinian literature and knowledge as a collective national endeavor. When PYM first approached Rafeedie about translating his novel, he enthusiastically encouraged the project. He wanted to put this novel in the hands of the Palestinian people and those who stand with them. Access to The Trinity of Fundamentals is a right, which has only been guaranteed through the efforts of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement and Rafeedie’s comrades in and outside of prison during the 1990s. The repeated attempts to destroy, steal, and suppress this novel, have for decades been countered by collective refusal to allow this story to be lost. Now, three decades later, the translation will arm future generations with the tools to reinforce a commitment to Palestine, despite any geographical distance.

Palestinian prisoners are at the heart of the Palestinian national liberation movement, and for this reason their knowledge and writing faces unimaginable recrimination by the Occupation. As Rafeedie himself wrote to his family in 1992 from behind the walls of al-Khalil central prison after nine years of living underground and immediately following four and a half months between interrogation rooms, torture cells and solitary confinement:

I am confident that, regardless of the terrible days that have passed, the future is yet bright. My conviction of a better, brighter future is overwhelm­ing. For me this conviction of a better future is like the conviction of a young child knowing that his mother will feed him when he becomes hungry. The ultimate future that history holds for our people is bright and flourishing. No matter how long it takes, the suffering of our people will be abolished…. On the personal side, I am going to attempt to address the questions that I can anticipate your asking: marriage, family life, and my studies. Let me be very clear and up front with you from the beginning, that the road I have chosen is a road of deep conviction. It is a road that I do not plan to diverge from until I am in my grave.

Rafeedie’s message to his family represents the conviction of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement, who are still at the forefront of the Palestinian peoples’ struggle. We encounter this very conviction in the novel’s character of Kan’an. For Kan’an, it is ideological conviction which allows him to remain steadfast, no matter how difficult: “My life is not enjoyable, but I was molded to endure hardship. Man has immense potential which is expanded by ideological conviction.”

Armed with this ideological conviction and vision, Kan’an maintains Palestinian revolutionary optimism even in the face of defeat and capture. As Kan’an boldly says in response to a list of consequential political setbacks for Palestinian liberation:

Those are the headlines of our times—we are in the stage of retreat and collapse. But we were here before the Intifada broke out, and we will still be here after it is over. The people who made the Intifada and made the revolution after it can renew it with even greater vigor. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) may go where it pleases but we will go only to one place: towards our national objectives. In order to get there, we must hold on to the only correct and sound logic, that of the revolution.

The Trinity of Fundamentals teaches anyone committed to the Palestinian cause what Palestinian liberation requires: conviction, organization, and vision. In the face of relentless attempts to liquidate the Palestinian cause, this novel is a testament to these requirements. Throughout the novel, Kan’an affirms that “being revolutionary means swimming against the tide, not making peace with the current state of affairs.” The delivery of Kan’an’s story as a liberated gift from Israeli prisons to all those who stand with Palestine upholds this principle: the refusal to make peace with the present state of things.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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