Uncovering the real story of 'The Lioness' of Palestine: Ahed Tamimi's journey of resistance, trust and vulnerability
She was born into an occupation and has been visibly resisting it in front of the world since she was eight years old.
At the age of 16, her cousin was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier and a week later she became a household name after she famously slapped a heavily armed Israeli soldier at the entrance to her home in the village of Nabi Saleh in the occupied West Bank.
"I am more of a messenger to help the world understand what is happening to Palestinians and what it’s like living under this occupation in the fastest and most efficient way possible"
Despite being a teenager, she was trialled in a military court and sentenced to eight months in prison, spending her 17th birthday behind bars.
Upon her release, the media went wild for interviews – she was asked to repeat her trauma, again and again, yet always fully composed, highlighting how she was forced to grow up before her years, like many other Palestinian children living under occupation.
One of the journalists whom she bonded with was Dena Tekuri, a Palestinian-American journalist whom Ahed says dealt with her and her family through a rare window of empathy.
Dena gained the trust of Ahed and her family and the pair wrote a book together titled: They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl's Fight for Freedom – to be released this month in September.
The book takes the reader not just on Ahed’s journey of resistance against one of the most brutal military occupations in the world, but one of knowing who she really is: a young girl who loves football and the path that helped her blossom into the amazing young woman she is today.
“I wanted this book to be in English because Arabic readers will know very well about the situation in Palestine, but this isn’t just about me," Ahed begins.
"I am more of a messenger to help the world understand what is happening to Palestinians and what it’s like living under this occupation in the fastest and most efficient way possible,” she tells The New Arab.
"The book takes the reader not just on Ahed’s journey of resistance against one of the most brutal military occupations in the world, but one of knowing who she really is"
To even get to the stage of writing the book, Dena says it was a natural path of gaining the trust of Ahed and her family, especially in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding the incident that left her being treated without sensitivity and compassion by many other journalists.
It was made very clear to Ahed and her family that Dena was “never just a journalist chasing a story” when dealing with them.
“I was a fellow Palestinian, a fellow human, who cared about them: their pain, their joys, their lived experiences beyond the headlines. I approached them, as I do with everyone I interview, with empathetic curiosity, respect and care,” Dena explained.
This treatment stood out for Ahed and her family. “I came out of prison and I had to repeat my story to the press, each time reliving the trauma as if it had already happened," Ahed explained.
She said leaving prison meant she had to speak about her experience to everyone – from the press to her extended family to curious locals and felt she had to answer different questions, no matter how triggering, over and over again.
However, spending time to herself to heal after her traumatic experience didn’t feel like an option.
"It was also all very new and there was a lot of pressure because all of a sudden I became the face of the Palestinian people. It felt like I had a huge burden on my shoulders and a responsibility to my country and people and it was very difficult for me to deal with."
She added that dealing with journalists, especially as a child, meant many had an air of authority around them and even felt as though they were doing Ahed a favour by interviewing her.
“Journalists need to drum it in their heads that these newly-released prisoners don’t have to accept interviews from people. There are many who act righteous about amplifying someone’s voice but behind the scenes are pressuring the interviewee to speak without even considering their feelings.”
"It was also all very new and there was a lot of pressure because all of a sudden I became the face of the Palestinian people. It felt like I had a huge burden on my shoulders and a responsibility to my country and people and it was very difficult for me to deal with"
There are even times in which journalists ask children complicated political questions that they aren’t used to answering, which could land them in trouble, Ahed fears.
“I had no problem talking about politics in interviews because my father and I talk a lot about local and international politics and I was able to answer them carefully. However, not all children have this background so asking them politically sensitive questions may land them in trouble without them even realising,” she explained.
For Dena, dealing with Ahed and her family through kindness and emotional intelligence rather than keeping their relationship transactional was key in allowing her to open up and taking the step to share such personal parts of her story that allowed the book to be written.
“I was granted the first long sit-down interview with Ahed. At that time the story was still fresh and it was the first time she was able to tell her story in her own words,” Dena explained.
“The process of gaining the trust of Ahed and her family actually began before I interviewed her. I spent the week leading up to her release from prison in Nabi Saleh, getting to know her father, brothers and other relatives. I was filming a documentary about her and her village for AJ+, and it was important for me to intimately understand her backstory,” Dena added.
Writing a book together was just a natural progression of the relationship the two had developed through mutual respect and trust. This took time, vulnerability and a shared passion for the message on Palestine behind their work together.
"The way Dena was able to take Ahed’s personal story in her struggle against Israel’s brutal occupation and mix it with her personality and interests, which then became a “love letter to Palestine’s children”
In this book, Ahed, along with other Palestinian children were humanised. The way Dena was able to take Ahed’s personal story in her struggle against Israel’s brutal occupation and mix it with her personality and interests, which then became a “love letter to Palestine’s children.”
One way this is expressed is with Ahed’s childhood love for football and her dream of being a professional footballer being crushed by the lack of access to fields as a direct consequence of the occupation.
“When Ahed was young, her big dream in life was to be a soccer player and she had posters of Messi and Neymar on her wall but the reality of her life was that there was no chance for the dream to come true. Not only was there no football field in her village, but it was also littered with bullets,” Dena explained.
The intention of showing Ahed’s life from different perspectives allows readers to understand the emotional consequences for children born into an occupation who have never known freedom for a day in their lives.
However, even allowing this to take place means having access to vulnerable sides of traumatised children.
“When Ahed was young, her big dream in life was to be a soccer player and she had posters of Messi and Neymar on her wall but the reality of her life was that there was no chance for the dream to come true. Not only was there no football field in her village, but it was also littered with bullets"
“Journalism can sometimes be rather exploitative and extractive when that emotional intelligence and basic decency is missing,” Dena said of those who forget to consider the emotional state of their vulnerable interviewees.
“You have to approach people first and foremost with humanity. Ask how they are feeling. Acknowledge their pain and the difficulty of their circumstances. Share a little about yourself. Get a sense of whether they actually want to talk to you, but if not, respect that and don’t pressure them.”
Diana Alghoul is a British-Palestinian journalist at The New Arab who is mainly involved in news and feature writing. Her main areas of focus are the Palestine-Israel conflict, women's rights, culture, Muslims in the Western world and food.