They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom

By Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri, One World, 2022, hardcover, 288 pp. MEB $25 

Reviewed by Delinda C. Hanley

they called me a lionessx250FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not an impartial reviewer of this passionate memoir co-written by Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri. Tamimi graced the cover of our March/April 2018 Washington Report. In my office I have a huge protest sign depicting Ahed Tamimi and her mother Nariman, left over from 2018 solidarity marches calling for their release and an end to Israel’s practice of arresting and detaining Palestinian children. The Tamimis had been imprisoned since their pre-dawn arrest at home in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh on Dec. 19, 2017. Their crimes? The diminutive 16-year-old girl had slapped an armed Israeli soldier following the point-blank shooting of her 14-year-old cousin, Mohammed. Her mother’s crime was embarrassing Israel by recording the “slap heard ’round the world.” 

After their video went viral, the two were arrested and protests erupted around the world. Tamimi writes, “I was not the first child to be arrested and detained by Israel, nor would I be the last, but my case seemed to be drawing attention to Israel’s abuses in a way that hadn’t been achieved before.” While Israeli soldiers or settlers are barely slapped on the wrist for murdering Palestinians, Israeli lawmakers urged lengthy sentences for this child. One Israeli journalist, Ben Caspit, wrote, “We should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.” Mother and daughter were sentenced to eight months in Hasharon Prison. 

Tamimi’s award-winning co-author Dena Takruri, who has fearlessly reported on injustices around the world, seamlessly blends a deeply personal story with the history of an apartheid state and the constant humiliation and cruelty endured by the indigenous Palestinians. Indeed, the beginning is a heavy read as Tamimi shares her family’s history and the brutality of Israel’s occupation as the nearby illegal settlement of Halamish confiscates the village’s beloved spring and land. Soon the reader is swept up by the Nabi Saleh community’s unarmed grassroots resistance movement against incursions and harassment by soldiers and settlers. 

You feel like you are right there with the child as Tamimi recalls one summer night waking up to see an Israeli soldier’s rifle poking through her open bedroom window. Your fury mounts as wantonly destructive IDF soldiers raid her family home, toss their belongings and steal their computers, over and over. Somehow, through it all, love, laughter and strength triumph, uplifting the reader.

My favorite part of the book was reading about Tamimi’s time in prison, which she says helped her grow, learn to work with a group and always fight for the interests of the collective. Despite an over-crowded cell, and girls having to take turns sleeping on too few bunk beds, the prisoners became supportive, life-long friends. Tamimi was fortunate that Palestinian lawmaker Khalida Jarrar, repeatedly arrested and subjected to administrative detention or imprisoned “for inciting violence,” managed to teach classes to her fellow prisoners who were missing their education and exams. Jarrar was denied a temporary release from prison to attend her daughter Suha’s funeral in July 2021. “My time in her classroom is one of the many reasons I’ve never viewed this chapter of my life as a loss,” Tamimi explains.

The authors do not gloss over excruciating descriptions of strip searches and relentless interrogations without the presence of a parent or lawyer. There are also frightening narratives of Tamimi’s rides in the bosta, a freezing bus divided into cells to transport shackled prisoners, some of them insane, from various prisons to court. “The psychological toll of riding in the bosta was enough to break anyone,” Tamimi recalls. On her first bosta ride she endured “an onslaught of verbal harassment” from neighboring cells, and an Israeli man exposed himself while he leered at a shocked Tamimi. “Later, two others took off their clothes and had sex with each other for all the riders to see. As a 16-year-old girl who hadn’t witnessed anything beyond a kissing scene in a Hollywood movie, I was appalled. I closed my eyes and tried my hardest to fight back tears.”

Will there be pushback from parents or other “thought police” patrolling public libraries? Parents might object to a 16-year-old reading this. But they should be objecting to a child enduring terrible treatment, in a country supported by U.S. taxpayers. 

“When they throw you in prison, the occupation forces want to see you broken and defeated, your spirits as low as the ground,” Tamimi writes. “When, instead, you dare to defy their system of oppression by laughing, it shows them that not even prison will break you or stop you from caring about your cause. Laughter sends a powerful message: We’re still alive, we’re still laughing, and we love life.” That is a lesson everyone can learn. 

Each year approximately 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, are detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine. The most common charge is stone throwing, for which the maximum sentence is 20 years in prison. According to Save the Children, these kids “face inhumane treatment such as beatings, strip searches, psychological abuse, weeks in solitary confinement and being denied access to a lawyer during interrogations.” Beyond facts and numbers, this book portrays what happened to a child enduring this treatment. 

A traditionally pro-Israel publication, the Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Palestinian parents fear for their children as Israel’s far right rises.” It notes that increasing numbers of children are rounded up in near-nightly raids in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. More than 30 Palestinian minors have been killed in 2022, and with a far right-wing government now forming, even more children are in danger. That is why it’s urgent for all of us to read They Called Me a Lioness, and gift copies to libraries, classrooms, newsrooms and legislators’ offices.

Delinda C. Hanley is executive editor of the Washington Report.

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