The Award-winning Palestinian YA Novel Written in Prison

The book that won the 2018 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category, The Oil’s Secret Tale, was written by Palestinian author Walid Daqqa, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1986 and has served more than three decades:

By Hend Saeed

Palestinian author Walid Daqqa was born in the town of Baqa Al Gharbiyeh in 1961.

When he was 23 years old, in 1986, Daqqa helped plan an operation that resulted in the kidnapping and death of an Israeli soldier. Two years later, at the age of 25, he was sentenced to life in prison. He has thus far served 32 years of his sentence, which makes him among the longest-serving prisoners in the Israeli system.

While in in prison, Daqqa has both gotten married and studied towards his Master’s in political science. He’s published a number of studies and articles, as well as a book about his life in prison, A Parallel Time, which was adapted to a play by Bashar Murkus.

Although some websites reported that Daqqa was punished for publishing this YA novel, his lawyers have denied this and said that Daqqa had permission to write the book. The book was published in Arabic by Tamer institute for Community Education, illustrated by Fuad Al Yamani, and won the prestigious Etisalat Award in the YA category last fall.

In the novel, Daqqa depicts the beautiful, yet sad reality of many young Palestinians. Yet the book is not grim, as he adds a wish-fulfillment fantasy and adventure that sparks hope, philosophical questions, and helps its young protagonist — Jood — achieve his dream.

The story follows Jood, who was born from sperm smuggled out of prison, for which his father lost his visitation rights. This means that Jood has never met his father. He’s now twelve years old and has a lot to tell the father he’s never met about his school and friends. When Jood hears that, once again, visitation rights have not been granted for him and his mother, he grows upset and determined to finally meet his father.

Jood meets with his friends — Samour the Rabbit, Ghanfour the Cat, Abu Reesha the Bird, and Abu Nab the Dog — to work on a plan that will help him cross to the other side of the West Bank Separation Barrier and visit his father in prison.

Ghanfour, who crosses easily, helps them to find the right place to dig under the wall so they can cross, while Abu Reesha watches the road from on high. They manage to cross and avoid alerting security, but they hear shooting from afar and Abu Nab takes them to a hiding place. There, they meet a woman who crosses the wall to get to work, and she tells Jood that, even if they manage to reach the prison, he won’t be able see his father without explicit permission. Sometimes, she tells him, even with permission a person will be refused. He needs to think carefully, she says, and not risk his life on a folly. Jood realizes their plan is incomplete and decides to go back and think it through again.

The olive tree’s secret

Burad the Donkey, who overhears what’s happened, wants to help Jood. So he introduces him to Um Rami.

Um Rami, who has been deeply rooted in the land for the last fifteen hundred years, is set to be moved to the other side by Israeli authorities to be part of street-side décor. Um Rami has seen a lot in 1500 years and knows a secret that will help Jood see his father — a secret that she will reveal to him on the other side — but first he has to hide in her trunk, so he can cross to the other side when they move her.

Jood and his friends spend the night inside the olive tree’s trunk. Unable to sleep, Jood asks Um Rami about her secret.  Before you know the secret, she says, you have to know that a secret is knowledge, knowledge gives you power, and power gives you choices. Jood has a hard time understanding her, and she goes on telling him about the past, the present, and the future. Each era has its plague, each plague has a medicine, and the medicine was and always will be oil.

When they’ve almost reached the other side, she tells him to go down in her trunk and pick the dark seeds and not the shiny ones, to squeeze the seeds, to rub himself and his friends with it, and leave.

An invisible adventure in prison

Jood and his friends emerge from the tree and walk toward the prison. When they reach it, they see families standing out, waiting to visit their loved ones.

Jood wants to help a woman who isn’t allowed to visit her son, but his friends remind him that they’re invisible.

They manage to sneak through the main door along with a car full of prisoners. After that, they have to wait for the other doors to open, and guards are quick in opening and closing the doors behind them. As they reached the cells, they realize that they don’t know which cell Jood’s father is in. Abu Nab imitates the voice of a grown man and pretends to be asking from the next cell. Finally, they discover where Jood’s father is being kept, but they also discover that the doors are locked and won’t open because the prisoners are on a hunger strike and aren’t allowed out of the cells.

They managed to reach the yard, where they look into the windows of the cells while shouting Jood’s father’s name.

Jood’s father hears his name and somehow recognizes the voice as his son’s, even though he hasn’t heard the boy’s voice before. At first, he thinks he’s imagining things, but the other prisoners say they hear it, too. He starts shouting Jood’s name, and Jood reaches his father’s cell.

When he tells the secret of the oil, the prisoners believe the oil can help them escape prison, but Jood isn’t sure. They debate, and Jood and his friends leave after promising they will visit again, and that his journey of the oil has just begun.

Jood’s work

A few days after Jood’s visit to the prison, he sees on TV a number of Palestinian children playing and swimming at the Haifa, Akka, and Tabria beaches. The Israeli TV station declared that no permission had been given to this large number of children to visit the beach, and that an organization must have smuggled those children. Everyone in the prison cell was happy and excited, as they all knew this must be the wish-fulfilling work of Jood.

Daqqa is apparently planning a sequel to this short 95-page novel, The Tale of the Secret of the Sword.

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