The exile is releasing the story bit by bit on his blog, Syrian in Exile. Below are parts 1 through 25, to follow the rest visit his site.
My Coming of Age – Prologue
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
~ William Wordsworth
What can an exiled son do for his
Starving people, and of what value
Unto them is the lamentation of an
~ Khalil Gibran
One Hot Day in Damascus – 1
It is a hot, almost oppressive summer afternoon in Damascus. These are the days when the air doesn’t move, no one wants to move, and it feels like an inhuman effort to simply breathe in the dry, hot air. This is a day when an afternoon nap in the cool, dark quiet is as necessary as a cold drink.
I feel a touch on the arm and I open my eyes.
“Mamdour is here to see you,” says my sister Zaynab.
She has tiptoed into my room to wake me, So sweet, innocent, just twelve years old. I adore her, but at fifteen, I am a world apart from Zaynab’s schoolgirl life of friends, studies, and child’s games.
Mamdour is one of my friends from school. The fact that his birthday is in two days – he will be 16 – flashes through my mind, and I wonder if he is planning a last-minute party to celebrate, and is here to invite me.
Zaynab skips off. I shuffle into my slippers, and walk through the quiet house. Everyone else must still be sleeping – it is so hot. I go through the garden in front of our house.
My house in Damascus is arranged in a style common to my city. You don’t see houses open to the street, or open yards as in Europe or America. Here, the high front gate and walls fully enclose our garden area, and within the garden is my house. It’s a calm, safe place — my home and garden – and to me, it’s an oasis.
I open the door, expecting to see the smirking face of my school friend.
But it is not Mamdour standing there.
Instead, there are two unfamiliar men in suits, standing ramrod straight. Behind them in the street stand three other men. They wear suits, and carry machine guns. The guns are not aimed at me…yet.
In the second or two that my mind wraps around the situation, it is as if hours of deliberation have passed. There is shock, fear, and, strangely, a sense that all along, I have known this moment was coming, and I actually expected it.
“Are you Mohammed?” asks a mustachioed, tall man – an agent for the government, I assume.
Out of my mouth, suddenly dry, I hear myself saying yes.
“Someone who says he’s your brother is down at our station; he’s got problems. Could you come down?”
The agent is being formal and polite, but there is an undercurrent to his tone that I can’t quite identify. His demeanor establishes him as the lead. The other agent just stands there nodding.
“That’s impossible,” I say. “I’m the oldest. And my brothers and sisters are all in the house.”
“Really?” he says. He crosses his arms, and looks at me squarely. “We’d like you to come down to the station anyway.”
I knew what kind of station he was talking about. In Damascus, no one shows up at your door on a hot summer afternoon to take 15 year olds to the police station.
“Why would I need to…”
“Stop stalling, you bastard,” he interrupts. The polite chit-chat is over. “You’re coming with us.”
Zaynab has quietly snuck up to stand behind me, and she starts crying when she hears the tone of the agent.
“Shut up,” the agent barks at her. She runs back to the house.
“Who are you?” I ask, stalling. I need time, I have to get my thoughts together, I have to figure out what to say, what to do. I need time.
He thrusts a security card toward me, but when I reach for it, he holds it firmly, and won’t let me touch it. So I stare at it as long as I can, trying to memorize it, but I can’t read. I struggle to focus but I can’t. Everything is swimming in front of my eyes.
“Where do you want me to go?”
“To the station; I’ve told you.”
“But why?” I ask. I am stalling for time.
The agent grabs my arm. I am wearing pyjamas.
“I can’t go like this,” I say. “Let me change my clothes, at least.”
“They don’t care what you look like down there,” he says.
Both men laugh, nastily, as they size me up. To them, I’m a punk teenager, and I have no right to ask questions.
My sister must have gone to get my father, because he comes up to us. He looks shocked. He also looks as if he is going to cry. My father doesn’t cry.
“What do you want with my son?” he asks the men.
“It’s none of your business.” The lead agent looks at my father — my strong, authoritative, commanding father — contemptuously.
Doesn’t he know that this is my father? No one speaks to my father like this.
“I won’t let you,” my father says.
“You won’t let us?” Both agents exchange a laugh.
“Wait, I’d like to make a phone call first,” says my father.
I’m clinging to his words. He is my father. Maybe he can stop this. Maybe he knows what to do, what to say. He is my father.
“You’re wasting your time, but phone if you want to,” the agent says.
“But there isn’t a phone in the house,” my father says. “I’ll have to go out.”
Good, I think, he will leave and bring back help. I won’t have to go.
But I am wrong.
“No. If you have a phone in the house you could make a call, but since you haven’t, no.”
I see my father’s face fall.
“I have to take him in,” the agent says. “Now enough. Don’t say any more. You see those men back there? They’re mine, and they have orders — no one goes out…no one. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
I hear every word, and as the words reach my brain, and my brain processes them, and then finally, understands them, I realize that my father will not be able to help me.
“Don’t take him like that, at least,” my father says. He has a pleading tone in his voice. “Let him put on his clothes.”
He is almost crying now.
Tears well in my own eyes. Not because I am afraid – even though I am – but I am causing my father such pain. I do not like having the power to make my father cry.
The agents looked at each other, and the lead agent nods his head. “We’ll come with him.”
Che Guevara and Me – 2
My father leads us in – I follow him, and the two agents follow me – to my bedroom.
We enter, and the quiet agent shuts the door firmly, and stands against it, leaning his full weight on the door. We all stand there. I am embarrassed, these men are in the bedroom, they are strangers. They look around, and their eyes fix on a poster on the wall.
It is a Che Guevara poster — the one you of Che in his beret, the one you see everywhere – just not in Damascus.
The lead agent looks at my father and nods toward the poster . “You see?”
My father looks at the poster, then at me. He is miserable. He seems to have shrunk in height in just a few minutes.
The agent tries to open the drawers to my desk, but they are locked. He begins to rattle one, trying to force it.
“Wait. I’ll unlock them,” I say. I get the key from my secret hiding place — I always hide it from my little brothers and sisters – I’m a teenager…I have to have some secret places.
The agent begins going through the drawers, not systematically, just casually, really. My father looks at me, his eyes questioning. His look is asking : “You haven’t got anything you shouldn’t in there, have you?”
My father asks the agent what he is searching for.
“Nothing. Just having a look.” Again, he’s casual. They are calm, these agents.
Inside, I am seething. It is my desk, it is in my father’s house, and here we stand, and neither of us seem able to do anything but stand there and watch them.
They all wait while I get dressed. Like most Arab men I am modest, and it is embarrassing to get dressed with three people in the room. But my modesty must take a back seat. And right now, all I can think of is that I do not want to go out in my pyjamas.
Yes, I know where I am going.
“All right, let’s go,” says the agent. His partner opens the door, and we walk back through the house. The children are still sleeping, but I hear the soft sound of my mother singing from the bathroom on the other side of the house.
We walk through the garden; the air hot, still, unmoving.
At the front gate, my father moves to stand in their way. The lead agent brushes him away calmly, almost gently ~ well, it’s not really gentle, but more absently, as a man would brush aside a branch or cobweb in his way.
“At least tell me where you are taking him?” my father says.
The agent tells him the name of the station. This is a mistake. Maybe my father’s pain, so raw and obvious, has softened the agent a little. Maybe he is thinking of his own father.
They open the gate. The three men with machine guns still wait in the street. In the little square, there are two Land Rovers and a Volkswagen. About 20 men, all with machine guns, are blocking the street. They are all here for me.
Am I this dangerous? But the truth is, they have no idea who I am. I suppose I could be some anarchist holed up with a dozen violent friends or followers. We could have opened the door with machine guns blazing and cut them into dog-meat.
But no. All they found was me, a 15 year old boy, in his pyjamas, waking up from a nap.
We stop a minute by the gate. I look around and see my father silhouetted against the sunny garden. His head is down. I know how he is feeling at this moment. And it is entirely my fault that he feels this way.
My mother has realized something is going on, and despite still wearing her dressing gown, she joins my father in the garden. I can’t hear what she is saying to him, but I can see the frantic, agonized look on her face. I call out to her.
“There’s nothing wrong. Don’t worry.”
The gate is shut behind me.
They lead me into the VW, with an agent on either side, squeezing me between them in the small back seat. The lead agent sits in the front. He picks up a radio microphone, says a few code numbers, and then “We’ve got him.”
I actually feel proud for a minute. This is quite a production they’re mounting simply to bring me in to the station. As if I am a master spy, or someone quite important.
And I am also terrified. Because they don’t sent out agents and guns unless they mean business.
We drive in silence.
While we drive, I am thinking of my mother, and how she was standing there, embarrassed in front of strangers in her dressing gown, how I’d told her nothing was wrong, how the gate had been closed before I could see her reaction to my words.
And I know she is crying now as they drive me away.
I can’t believe that she is having to deal with this pain, pain that is my fault, at such a bad time for her no less. Because my grandfather — her father — died just six days ago.
The Shining Light Goes Out – 3
My grandfather was an amazing man. We always say he had “a light shining out of him.” He was very calm, and very religious, and would read or study the Koran for hours in his room at night. I always suspected that he was a philosopher.
I loved him, and I think he liked me especially.
His house was far from the center of Damascus, so after he died, people came to our house for the next three days. I think it’s what those in the West would call a wake or a viewing, but in Damascus, it’s quite different.
Every evening family and friends came, stopping at the front door on the way in to offer condolences, staying ten minutes if they didn’t know him well, or staying all day if they were friends or relatives.
Chairs were rented, and lined up in rows in our garden. The men sat in the garden, wearing their sober dark suits, for the three days. Every evening for four hours, a sheik read to them from the Koran.
The women sat inside with my mother.
No one spoke, or if they did, only a little and quietly. Bitter coffee was passed around. If you didn’t want any more, you would twist your cup back and forth in your fingers — that way, you don’t have to speak. There was no crying.
It was all so solemn…the dark suits, the quiet, the sheik, reciting in his beautiful deep voice.
Then, a few days later, we had a party — well, not a party, exactly, more of a gathering. About 40 people came to our house — just my mother’s relatives, for a big dinner. Even though it was a sad occasion, and nobody told jokes, or laughed very loud, it’s not solemn as it was days earlier. It was nice having all my family together, and my mother had outdone herself preparing a wonderful meal.
No one mentioned my grandfather’s death either during that dinner. But at one point while we were eating, my mother smiled at something my aunt said to her and a second later, I saw she was almost crying. I suppose a memory of her father had suddenly came back to her. Or maybe she was feeling bad because she’d been smiling…I don’t know.
The guests all left about four. It was very hot that day, I’d eaten a lot and I was tired, so I went to bed. So did the rest of my family.
It is hard to imagine that all this was just a few hours ago.
* * *
The car slows, and then stops. I recognize the neighborhood. We are near my friend Abdulatif’s house. And I know why.
The agents move quickly, and soon I see them leading Abdulatif out.
He looks like he’s going to cry. I am worried about him. I know I won’t break, I won’t say anything. I can handle what is coming. But him…I don’t know.
Abdulatif is put in one of the Land Rovers, and he doesn’t see me.
We drive away, and continue in silence. After about 15 minutes, I realize I know the neighborhood. We are near my Uncle Ziad’s house. As our three car caravan drives past his house, I see everything there is closed and shuttered. I suppose they were all asleep. They’d only left my house a few hours earlier.
We stop in the square. Even though evening is approaching, it is still hot, the air motionless. Even the trees in the circle in the middle of the square look dusty and dry.
Everyone gets out, including me. It is here Abdulatif sees me, for the first time. He looks shocked. I see in his eyes that he wants to talk. Perhaps I look the same to him. But we cannot speak to each other. Not now.
We stand in the late day sun, looking at a non-descript four-story building. It’s nothing special. No one could possibly guess from the exterior what the building hides inside.
The lead agent calls over some men who are standing outside the building.
“Take these bastards in to the prison,” he says.
Night Falls – 4
There goes a river
dragging an ocean behind it.
The Cigarette – 5
We walk through the building. There is no one in the corridor. There are locks and chains on all the doors. We are led to the top of a set of stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, someone has written on the door “Entering, lost; leaving, born.”
I don’t have time to think about what this means, because one of the men quickly rings a bell, the door is opened, and we are led inside. We enter a small corridor, and stop in front of a door where another agent is waiting.
Here, Abdulatif is led away. He looks back at me as if he will never see me again. I wonder if that may be true.
I am shoved into a small, bare office, about 5 meters square. A very fat man sits behind a desk. Two other men stand in front of the window. Through the window, I can see some kind of courtyard beyond it – there are birds, trees, flowers – signs of life.
The man who was in the corridor shuts the door.
“Sit down and don’t say anything,” says the fat man. He is very calm, and speaks in a neutral voice.
One of the other men pulls over a chair, and carefully sets it facing the wall, and points to it. I sit down. I don’t know what will happen.
The fat man carefully removes a set of electric hair clippers from his drawer, and walks over to me. He turns on the clippers, and begins cutting my hair. He moves swiftly, and great chunks of hair fall from my head.
I am so proud, some would say even vain, about my thick, wavy black hair. I’m furious, but I suspect that I should not let them know. I don’t dare put up my hand to feel how much is left, but as big handfuls of hair fall on my knees and chest, and then drop to the ugly, institutional-looking floor, I fight back the urge to cry. So instead, I speak.
“Tell me what it is. Maybe you have the wrong boy!”
The fat man yanks my head back hard. “I told you to shut up!”
When he finishes, he gestures toward the hair. “Pick it up, and put it in the bin in there.”
I pick up big wads of hair, my hair, and throw it away. I still don’t dare touch my head.
They take away my watch, my keys. They don’t ask about my money and I don’t say anything, thinking it might be useful to me later.
They take my belt and shoelaces. I may be 15, but I know very well why they do that.
The fat man says “Take him to Section 1.” The two men lead me to a big room, under the stairs.
A guard outside stands at the door. He unlocks it, I enter, and then he locks the door behind me.
Inside, I survey the group. There are 20 men in the room, all with bare feet. They all look at me intently as I stand there.
I feel embarrassed, and I don’t know where to look or what to say. I touch my head. I am almost bald.
The prisoners start asking me questions. “Who are you? Why are you here? What have you done?”
I tell them my name. “I haven’t done anything and I don’t know why I’m here,” I add.
They are used to vague answers. Growing up in Syria, we all are.
One of them offers me a cigarette, and I take it.
The Tyre – 6
They start asking more dangerous questions. “What’s going on outside?” “Is the Army in Lebanon?” or “What do people think out there?”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know who is listening.
A man at the back of the group catches my eye, and he put his fingers up to his lips, signaling to me to stop talking. I know what he’s trying to tell me.
“I don’t know anything at all,” I say, trying to appear like a muddled 15 year old.
When the prisoners realize I wasn’t going to talk, they are irritated with me.
“The kid’s not a political,” one of them says. “He’s probably a pimp.”
“Or a drug-pusher” another adds.
There is a hierarchy in this prison, as in most Syrian prisons. There are also common criminals…thieves, rapists, drug dealers, pimps, even murderers. But they are considered a different breed than the political prisoners, those imprisoned for speaking out against Hafez Al-Assad, or the ruling Al-Baath party, and held as prisoners of conscience.
I look from face to face, trying to determine which one might be a political, which one a criminal.
I sit on the floor, and look around the dingy room.
I stare at the yellow walls almost entirely covered with graffiti.
I watch the door with its little square opening.
I hear people running up and down, over our heads. I hear doors being locked or unlocked, and door chains rattling. Telephones are ringing, ringing, ringing. The soundtrack of prison.
I sit only for a few minutes, and a guard comes to get me. He leads me back to the room where I had my hair cut. The fat man and the two others are still there. The guard leaves, closing the door behind him.
“Put him in the dulab,” says the fat man.
I know what the dulab is. I am afraid.
“No! You don’t even know if I’ve done anything wrong yet.”
“You could make us put you in it, but I can tell you it would be better for you if you got into it yourself,” the fat man says calmly.
What can I do? I just sit there and look at him stupidly.
One of the others reaches under the table, and drags out a tyre. It is between the size you’d see on a car and a truck. He leaves it on the floor next to me.
I don’t know what to do. The agent gives me a little push and I step into the tyre.
“Now, sit down,” the fat man says.
It’s all so calm, so measured, it feels very surreal to me.
My feet are placed inside the tire, and I am sitting on the floor outside it. The other agent is helping me, and then he suddenly pushes my head down, and pulls the tyre up over my back. My head is against my knees, the tyre is over my knees and the back of my neck.
He forces my elbows under the tyre. I can’t move, not an inch. I can hardly breathe, my lungs are squeezed so tight. He pushes me over so I was lying on my bent back. I feel like a tortoise being tormented by children.
I am helpless. My feet are in the air. One of the agents takes off my shoes and socks.
The fat man sits sat behind his desk, watching me impassively. I can’t see the other two.
They all wait. I wait.
For a few minutes, nothing happens.
It is unbearable. Somewhere, in the building I hear the shrill ring of the phone.
The two men go over to a cabinet, and from behind it, take out two bamboo sticks, each an inch thick and a yard in length.
I start to shout. Why are you doing this? I haven’t done anything.”
The fat man responds calmly. “You’re not here to ask questions. Be quiet. “
I know what is coming. Everyone in Syria knows about it. We call it falaka.
Each of the two men takes a bamboo stick, and they begin to hit me across the soles of my feet. The first blow registers pure pain, a pain I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life.
It feels like someone is shoving a red hot skewer into my brain.
They take turns, and they don’t hurry. They hit me only three or four times a minute. They aim for the sensitive point where my toes join my foot, or else the middle of my foot.
The pain worsens with each blow.
I scream. And I start to cry.
Each time they hit me, I think it can’t hurt any worse. And then, they swing the bamboo in huge arcs through the air, and new pain adds to the old pain. Screaming, excruciating pain fills me completely.
After 50 blows I am numb. It’s like dripping water on a plate. At first, it spread and spreads, and then it finally fills the plate and it can’t spread any wider. That is like my pain.
I am crying now, and not screaming.
After 75 blows, the fat man tells them to stop. It has been almost 30 minutes.
All I see in front of me is pain. All I can think about is pain.
One of my two tormentors pulls me up, pushes my head down, pulls the tyre off me, and lets it fall. I collapse. I want to just lie there on the floor. I want to never move again.
They make me stand.
I am disoriented, and I’m weaving back and forth.
My feet hurt so badly I can’t stand properly. I try to balance on the outside edges of my feet.
I almost fall down again. If I do, I know I won’t get up.
The fat man grabs a bamboo stick from one of the men and begins hitting me on the tops of my feet. It makes me jump. That’s the idea.
I suppose I’d get gangrene if my circulation doesn’t start again up. And they want my feet in good condition for the future.
He keeps hitting my feet.
After a few minutes, I am so dizzy I’m sure I will faint.
“Take him out and give him some water,” the fat man instructs.
They lead me into a kitchen on the same floor. They fill a plastic bucket from the sink, and give it to me. I try to hold it, but I’m too weak to lift it to my mouth, so one helps me. Just as the water gets to my lips, he tips the whole bucket on me.
They roar with laughter.
I look at them, and even through the dizziness, haze and pain, I feel a smile forming. I realize that they are simple-minded, to be so easily amused. This is something that encourages me. I am smarter than them.
One of them gives me my shoes and socks to carry, and they took me back to the room filled with all the prisoners. They push me in and lock the door behind me.
Nobody speaks…they just look at me.
I sit there, feeling humiliated, rubbing at my feet, trying to lessen the pain.
The man who signaled me earlier comes overs and introduces himself as Ghasan. He’s brought his blanket, rolls it up to make a pillow, and tells me me to lie down, and adjusts it under my neck. He brings me a cup of water. He sits with his back to the others, and massages my feet slowly, talking to me quietly.
“Be careful in here,” he says. “There were two agents in here before. Don’t talk. Be strong with those people. Don’t give in.”
He speaks so kindly that I want to cry. But I don’t.
“You probably don’t need any advice; I imagine you and your mates are pretty dangerous,” Ghasan says, and smiles.
I want to be.
“What makes you think we’re dangerous?” I ask him.
He tells me that the room I am in is especially crowded because they’d emptied some single cells, cells where we were to go later. That surprises me. What sort of people had they been expecting?
Telephones are ringing again. I’m quickly growing to hate that sound.
I can’t hear what the others are saying. But I know they’re talking about me. They glance at me, whisper to themselves, and look over at me again.
I sit for half an hour, while Ghasan continues to rub my feet.
A guard arrives, and tells me to come. I have only been in this building for three hours. I hobble back to the fat man’s office. I can hardly force myself to stand still. I want to run, even if they shoot me in the corridor — but I stand there without showing them any emotion. I am determined to be strong.
The same two agents are in the room, with the fat man.
He tells them to put me back in the tyre. I am about to yell “No!,” but at just that second, the phone on his desk starts ringing. Everyone stops. Why do we all obey the telephone as it if were God?
I didn’t know who he is talking to, but I listen to his side of the conversation.
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t. We’re having a lot of fun down here this evening. We’ve got a guest here. I’d like you to see…Oh, yes, we’ve got them all…no, all right. I’ll see you later.”
He is smiling through this conversation and looking at me, as if we are sharing a joke.
He puts down the phone – his smile fades quickly off his face — and says to the men “Come on.”
They force into the tyre and start beating me again, exactly as before. It hurts the same.
After a few minutes, I start shouting, “Just tell me what you want. I’ll tell you what you want. Just tell me what you want.”
I know it is information, or admission of guilt, they want to beat out of me.
But they keep beating my feet. I can’t breathe, the pain is searing through me.
When they stop, the fat man announces “NOW we want you to talk!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. I’m feeling brave mouthing off to the fat man, but at the same time, terrified.
They go back to beating me again, and my sense of what is going on leaves me, and my mind is alone with the pain.
I rouse out of the swirl of pain to realize that they have inexplicably stopped. The two men take me out of the tyre, make me stand up again, and again beat me on the tops of my feet so I jump. I’m beginning to feel as if the pain is a box, and I’m locked inside.
The fat man comes over, calmly hands me a blank sheet of paper and a pen. “Now, go back and write everything about your life.”
The guard brings me back to the room full of prisoners. But this time, he doesn’t just shove me in and lock the door. He enters with me, roughly pushes me to a corner of the room and pushes me down by the shoulder. He turns to the room of men. “We don’t want anyone to go near him. Got it?”
No one replies. The guard stands there, looking fixedly like a hawk, at the men. Then, he turns back to me.
“Ring the bell when you’re done.”
I lay there, paper and pen at my side. I can’t even think about writing yet, because every nerve ending feels like it’s on fire. Pain fills me completely. Even though only my feet had been beaten, the effect of waves of pain has left me quivering and weak throughout my body.
I lay there, wondering what to do. I have no idea what the fat man wants me to write. Anyway, how could a small piece of paper be enough to write “everything about my life?” Everyone in the room was unusually quiet, casting furtive glances at me, but not speaking to me.
Finally, I sit up, take the pen in hand, and write.
“I am a student; I’m preparing for my certificate.”
I know this is not what he wants. I could write a long account of innocuous things, and I probably will later. But first I have to see what they know and what they particularly want me to talk about.
I ring for the guard. “I’ve written about my life, but I don’t know what he wants,” I say.
He doesn’t answer, instead, he pulls me out of the room, and takes me back to the fat man’s office.
From behind his desk, the fat man looks up from his paperwork. “Have you written what I told you to?” he asks calmly.
“I didn’t know what to write,” I answer.
The guard takes the paper from me, hands it to the fat man, who looks at it for a moment.
He explodes. He jumps up, turns red, and begins screaming.
“You bastard, you little bastard!” His face is twisted with fury, his vocal cords look like they are going to pop out of his neck.
He then stops, narrows his eyes, and looks at me coldly. “Okay, this bastard doesn’t want to talk, put him in the tyre,” he says icily.
I am starting to feel panicked, because I realize that I have enraged him. I hadn’t been beaten with much rage the last two times. But this time, they might kill me.
“I’ll talk,” I shout. “ But tell me what you want me to talk about!”
“Put him in the tyre!” he says. The two men are moving towards me.
This time, my panic makes me protest. “No! I will not get in that tyre!! Just tell me what you want!!”
He says nothing, just nods toward the tyre. The guards grab me and force me into the tyre.
They launch into beating my feet again, this time with even more vigor than before. I am shocked, because I can’t believe that this, my third round of falaka, hurts just as badly as the first and second.
I am not getting used to it. It never starts to hurt less.
They are beating me this time in a faster rhythm than before. Every two minutes they stop, and the fat man asks questions.
“Who are you working for?” More beating, more pain.
“Who pays you?” More beating, more pain.
I can’t answer, because I am overcome with the pain. There are no answers for those questions anyway.
“How did you set off that bomb in the university?”
A bomb? His questions are getting more irrational and nightmarish.
More beating, more pain.
“Who gave you antigovernment propaganda to distribute in the Arts Faculty at the University?” Did Saida give them to you?”
I don’t know what he is talking about, though I know Saida. I don’t tell him. More beating, more pain.
“What’s your code-name in your organization? ”
More beating, more pain.
All these questions, and lots more like them, are fired at me, very fast, like slaps, really too fast for me to even answer if there were answers.
But they are all irrelevant anyway. I can’t answer any of them, and I don’t. The beating continues.
Then, finally, it stops. The guards pull the tyre off of me, and the fat man hands me two pieces of paper and the pen again.
“Now you are going to write the answers to all those questions I’ve asked.”
The agents are leading me away, but this time, we are not going toward the roomful of prisoners. We are going through the kitchen and into a prison yard. It is sunken, one floor down from the street level, and surrounded on all sides by walls. My uncle, who lives just a few buildings away, has never imagined such a place exists.
We go through the yard and into another corridor, set across the yard. There are around 20 men in it, sitting or lying. On the far side are a dozen small cells, each with just enough space for one or two men. I am led to the seventh cell.
“Knock on the door when you’re finished,” he says, and locks the door behind me.
I sit there and look around me. It is a small cell, perhaps 5 x 8, and the walls are the same dirty yellow painted wood I saw in the prisoner room. There is no window, unless you count the miniscule square opening in the door. They hand in your food, or give you orders, through the small opening. I notice smudged graffiti all over the walls, verses from the Koran and of course, numbers everywhere. What are the numbers? They can’t be days to release, or days there, because no one has sentences. No one knows when he’ll get out.
I sit down on the floor, and notice in one corner, down by the floor, written very small, is political graffiti.
“The Fascists will finally go,” reads one.
“If people want life, then fate must listen and answer,” says another.
I look at the two blank sheets of paper and I think about the questions I am supposed to answer.
I sit, and try to muster some energy to concentrate, despite the pain.
I do feel stronger than before, though, at least in my mind, because I know those questions have nothing to do with me. I know they didn’t know anything.
After I sit for a long time, I write: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t done anything wrong and neither have those people you asked me about, as far as I know.”
I finish writing, but I don’t knock on the door. I know what will happen, and I want a few minutes of peace – when nothing is happening to me. I need to be alone.
I sit there for half an hour, then an hour, then another half hour. I can’t really concentrate.
I’m looking around the cell, and I notice a calendar drawn on the opposite wall. I crawl across the floor and look at it more closely. Some prisoner had been keeping track of the days: he’d been in that cell for a year and a half. Suddenly, a feeling of depression overcomes me, and I realize I can’t bear sitting in the cell another minute. I knock for the guard.
Someone comes and takes the paper through the opening in the door, but nobody comes to take me out. They’ve taken away my watch, but I think it’s around 10 at night by this time. I only handed over the one sheet of paper I’d written on; the other I fold very small and put it in my underpants. I may want it later.
A half hour passes, and the guard comes, and leads me to the fat man’s office. He is very controlled, and stares at me with an icy look.
“You haven’t given us much information, I’m afraid. I want to know exactly about everything. Your friends are all here, as you know.”
I don’t know that anyone else is here besides Abdulatif, but he could be telling the truth.
“They’ve already talked,” says the fat man. “I advise you to do the same. I’ve got plenty of information on you already, about the things you’ve done.”
“How can you expect me to tell you I’ve done things I haven’t?” I ask.
“You’re a liar, you little bastard!” His eyes are bulging, the rage is returning.
He motions to one of the men, who gets behind me, and pins my arms behind me. The fat man smiles horribly
“OK, so you don’t want to talk…”
He turns away, towards his desk, and then fast as a snake striking, he turns back and delivers a powerful blow across my face. I am knocked off my feet, under the table.
The man who is holding my arms must have been surprised too, because it knocks him off his feet.
I lay under the table, barely able to move, my ears ringing.
The man who had had held my arms yanks me to my feet. I think the fat man is going to smash me again – this time I brace and clench my teeth — but he doesn’t.
He just looks at me coolly. “Now you are going back to your cell and you are going to write everything you know about the bombing, and activities at the university…and Saida too, of course.”
I am heading back to my cell. Once there, I sit, and I write more or less what I’d written before, but this time it’s a bit longer and in different words. I make some effort to answer the questions I’d been asked, but I don’t say anything that could harm anyone. After a while I knock and hand over the new piece of paper.
Again, I wait.
I sit there in the dark, it’s approaching midnight now, I suspect. Two guards finally come and lead me out.
By now, I am assuming that we’re headed back to the fat man, but they are leading me in a different direction. We are headed upstairs, out of the prison — which is only in the basement level – and go up the stairs to the third floor.
They seat me in a chair in a small, very dark room. Two men enter, and one roughly ties a blindfold over my eyes.
I sit in the chair, and I feel a different fear. It’s bad enough when you can see a blow coming, but it’s especially frightening if you don’t know when or from where it’s coming from, or what part of you might be hit.
But no one hits me, and I grow more nervous. After 20 minutes or so, I can’t keep my body tensed anymore waiting for blows.
I hear a voice that asks me if I can see. “No,” I say, and I’m telling the truth. The blindfold is tied tightly, no light is getting through.
“OK, then, walk.”
I stand and take a step or two, and someone leads me out a door. Then, I am turned around. It is like a child’s party game, except this is no party. I take another few steps and then I stop.
Are they going to make me fall down the stone stairs? Or walk out a window? People die of “accidents” in prison all the time — everyone knows that.
But they push me on. I still have no idea what rooms we are going through, or where we are in the building.
The whole building belongs to the government — everyone knows that; what the people outside don’t know is that there is a prison, mostly underground, here.
They open a door and push me into a cool room. I hear the air conditioner humming. They leave me, I think; at least the door has been closed again.
I can feel a very thick, soft rug under my bare feet. It must be the office of someone important. I just stand there. No one had told me to do anything. I have no idea how many men were in the room. One? Twenty?
I know there is at least one man, however, because he is talking on the phone across the room – from the distance of his voice, I can tell the room is quite large. Perhaps there are others who are being quiet because he is talking?
He has a strong, deep, voice and it resonates with warmth. I listen to what he is saying: “How are the children?…And the baby?…How is little Maher’s cough?…Yes, I’ll bring it when I come home, but I’m going to be a bit late, my dear. Is there anything else you want that I could pick up this late?…OK. Kiss the children for me. I’ll see you in an hour or so…goodbye, my dear.”
I start thinking of my parents, but make myself stop, because I sense that I could very easily start to cry. And I am not going to cry in front of them.
He has hung up the phone, and I hear him approaching me. He is very close.
“What do you know?” His voice has changed completely, it is hard and cold, a metallic voice.
“I don’t know,” I say. He slaps me, hard. I put my arms up…too late.
But some man grabs them, and holds them behind my back. My toes dig into the rug. Another question, another answer, another slap, another question, another answer, another slap.
He keeps moving around me. I never knew where the next question or slap is coming from.
He asks all the same questions, and he asks them several times. Each time I answer, I get hit.
Somehow, I don’t think he even cares about the question. He just wants to humiliate me, a boy with a shaved head, blindfolded.
All this lasts about ten minutes and he says, “Take him back to his cell.”
I am turned around, and feel myself being pushed out the door.
“Walk,” says a guard.
I do, slowly, carefully, feeling ahead of me with each step before putting my weight on it. They laugh and my childlike steps. When we get to the stairs, they give me a little push and I more or less fall down a step. I am frightened. I had no idea whether I was going to fall 8 inches, or 3 stories. My heart is pounding.
They nudge me on. I go down the stairs, slowly, step by step, feeling the wall all the time. They are snickering and laughing – they think this is very funny.
Finally, we get to the door of the prison and they pass me over to other guards there.
“You should have seen this bastard crawling down the stairs. He thought he was falling into hell.” All the guards laugh together.
My blindfold is removed, and I’m led back to my cell.
And my first day in prison comes to an end.
Welcome to Number 7 – 9
I love all those who banish me,
who crowned my brow with chains
and waited to betray me.
I am trying to sleep, but I can’t. I have no idea if they are going to come for me again. And there is a naked light bulb that is always lit. I hear men snoring or mumbling in their sleep in the corridor.
Finally, I doze off, and am awakened by the sound of a telephone ringing. For a second, I don’t know where I am, and then I remember. I feel my stomach drop.
I am laying there with my eyes open, trying not to think.
At what I late learn is around 8 in the morning, a number of guards come around and unlock all the cells, but they leave the doors closed. This, I learn, will happen 3 times a day, about 8, 2 and 9. This is the time those of us in the cells can go to the lavatory. The men who sleep in the corridor are free to go whenever they like.
A guard comes to Cell Number 7, my cell, opens the door, and calls me to come out. I follow him out. My feet are swollen, but the pain has finally subsided. My whole body aches though.
In the lavatory, I learn, I can close the cubicle, thank God, but there’s a square opening in the door so they can watch me. This time he doesn’t, though. I am returned to my cell and locked in, and they continue on down the row to Cell Number 8.
I am handed a cup of tea through the hole in the door. The tea comes not from a guard, but another prisoner. It’s actually quite hard to tell at first who is a guard, and who isn’t, because agents and guards don’t wear uniforms, just street clothes. And the guards don’t carry pistols.
He also hands in a piece of bread and some cheese. I can’t eat anything, the thought of food makes me feel nauseous. But I drink the tea.
I can hear low conversations in the corridor, but I’ve been told not to even look out of the door. When no one is around, I look out anyway, carefully. But I don’t dare speak to anyone — they are all too far away, and someone will hear me.
By now, my parents are awake at home. They probably did not sleep. My mother has already cried until there are no tears left. I know. Even though he feels he has to be stronger than my mother, to help her, I know my father has cried too. Thinking of them crying in their room, trying not to let their misery spread to my little brothers and sisters, makes me want to cry, too. I try to think of something else. I have to be strong if I’m going to survive here.
I watch a tiny ant walking along the floor and start up the wall.
She is here voluntarily, I think. Even the fat man is no more dangerous to her than anyone else. Then, I start thinking about my mother’s fanatical cleanliness, and how there are never any ants in our house.
No, I have to change the picture.
There is tapping on the wall near my head. I concentrate on the place where it comes from. Nothing. Then, tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap.
Who is in that cell?
You can’t give anything way by tapping, can you? So, I tap back. Tap tap. Once more each, and then nothing.
Slowly and silently, to my amazement, a piece of the wall near the floor begins moving sideways. I think I’m having a hallucination, but I move in closer, and see it’s real. It’s a small piece of wall, only about the size of my hand.
I hear the sounds of someone talking so I move my head so I can see who it is.
It is a middle aged man, named Mustafa. He tells me there are tiny secret panels like that between all the cells (I look to the other side of Cell 7 and I can could see he is right). He says they’d been cut by prisoners long ago, “May Allah give them peace.” He makes it sound as if it had been hundreds of years ago. Or maybe as if they are dead.
He asks me why I am there, “A nice kid like you?”
I am not a kid, I think. I’m not sure why I feel so defensive.
“I don’t know why,” I said. I have to be careful. He might be an agent, pretending to be a prisoner, after all.
We talk, mainly he tells me some of his stories of how he came to be in prison. The cell is becoming hot as the heat of the day is settling in, and I hear someone outside call “Number 7!” Mustafa quickly slides the panel across the hole, and I get up, standing on the outside edges of my feet.
A guard unlocks my door, and leads me to the fat man’s office. There are two others there. I know what to expect, but he says, almost pleasantly, as if he were the host, and I were the guest: “How did you spend the night?”
“It was all right,” I say.
He waves his hand towards the last paper I’d written. “So far, of course, we haven’t got anything from you, have we?”
He stares at me, and I don’t answer.
“Unfortunately,” he continues, “yesterday I was very busy and I couldn’t devote much time to you. But I’m happy to say all that’s finished now and I can concentrate on you. I want us to start again from the beginning.”
I still don’t answer.
In front of him is an open ring binder, with about 20 sheets of paper in it. It is my file, and all those pages are about me.
“I don’t want to hit you today,” he says. He gestures toward the window. “It’s beautiful outside, and I don’t want to spoil my morning, so I’m going to give you a chance to spend your time differently. You’re going to your cell and you’re going to write the answers to the questions I asked you yesterday. Do you understand me?”
I say yes, and am taken back to my cell.
I realize perfectly well that there, I must continue to write exactly the same thing each time. If I change anything, they will think I am concealing something.
I write, “I’ve had nothing to do with any bombs in the University or anywhere else. I’m not working for anyone, so no one pays me. I’m not a member of any group and you know the only name I have. I’ve never passed out antigovernment propaganda. I know this guy, that guy, they’re friends of mine, but I’ve never been involved with them politically. I know Saida, too, but just as a friend. I’ve never heard her saying anything against the government. I shouldn’t be here.”
The fat man’s morning is going to be spoiled — mine too, I know. I give the paper to the guard, and I wait.
About 2 p.m. it’s lunch time. A prisoner hands me rice, bread and an apple. I am not hungry, but I eat the apple and a piece of bread, and give back the rice.
After lunch, I am called to the fat man’s office. I can immediately see he is angry, but he sits quietly.
He has my three papers laid out in front of him on the desk. He looks from one, to the next, to the next. Then he looks at me.
“All these are the same,” he says. “Into the tyre.”
They shove me into the tyre, and start right in on beating my feet. The pain stabs, throbs, stabs again, and eventually, I feel as if there is pain in every part of my being. I am only aware of the sensation of pain.
They beat me continuously and savagely, stopping only for the fat man to ask more ridiculous questions about the nature of my organization, our funding, our plans.
I answer the same each time, and the beating continues.
After a while I am crying constantly, and can’t stop.
More questions, more beating. It goes on for almost two hours, and I am nearly fainting with pain and exhaustion.
But I don’t change what I was saying.
I am dragged down to my cell. The guard throws me in, and I pass out, unconscious.
I’m Very Dangerous – 12
I hear noise, and then I realize there is a knocking on the door of my cell, and I open my eyes. No one comes in, or speaks to me. They probably are knocking just to rouse me.
I hear the fat man – he’s walking in the prisoner’s section, which is unusual – and he’s yelling to the prisoner who gives out our food.
“That bastard in No 7 is not to be given any food until we tell you; is that clear?”
I hear him talking to a guard in the corridor.
“I don’t want anyone to get near his cell or talk to him, not anyone. Here’s some paper. Give it to him. He knows what to write.”
He leaves. The guard hands the paper through the hole in the door.
I’m lying on the floor, trying to think of how to write the same answers in a different way, and I hear Mustafa tapping. The panel slides aside briefly.
“You must be very dangerous,” Mustafa says, ‘if no one’s allowed to talk to you!”
I feel proud. Even though I know I’m really not dangerous. At least not yet.
I write my answers, give the paper to the guard, and waited.
I have to guess at the time, but I think it is about 7 in the evening when I am taken back to the office. Besides the fat man and his two torturers, there are two men I haven’t seen before. I suspect, I’m not sure why though, that they are even higher ranking than the fat man.
One of them – I later learn his name is Haitham – does most of the talking.
Haitham comes over and says: “Come on now, you know we know. We know you’re the leader, you’re the one who knows everything about your organization, and we want to know what you now. We know you’re a Marxist, we know you know Saida, and I think you may be the secretary, or the leader of Saida’s brother’s organization.”
I sit, impassive, listening.
“Now, Mohammed,” Haitham continues.” We know everything you’ve been saying. You boys are so stupid, really. Our eyes and ears are in every street, almost every room. Don’t you realize that yet?”
He picks up my file, glances at it, and continues.
“You go about saying things like ‘The government has gone too far for even the best intentioned men in it to turn it around now. There’s no hope of any improvement, by peaceful work inside it now.’ You go about saying things like that and you imagine the walls, the trees, are deaf.”
He puts the file back down on the desk.
“You talk to Saida, even if we weren’t watching you. We’re watching her. Don’t you think we’re listening?”
He picks the file back up and begins to read again.
“You said, ‘the government wants to dominate the Palestinians in Lebanon. As long as the Palestinians were isolated, our government called them brothers, but as soon as those brothers made common cause with the left wing there, (and they only did that because that start of the civil war there found them too weak, alone), we sent the Army to Beirut, and now we’re fighting our brothers, no matter what the government says we’re doing there.’”
Finally, I’m beginning to get a sense of the situation.
“First of all,” I say, “that organization was almost finished because one of the brothers was dead and the other was in prison. And secondly, would I be the leader of two groups?”
I realize they are just trying to see what a net thrown at random might have in it when they pull it back in from the sea.
“I want you to talk about those organizations, and everyone’s job in them,” says Haitham. “I want to know what you’re trying to do. I want to know how you get your weapons.”
“Weapons?! What weapons?” I can’t believe how they can claim to have eyes and ears everywhere, and yet come up with such ridiculous ideas.
“You were seen carrying boxes of weapons into your house two weeks ago,” says Haitham.
This is a lie. I want to call him on it. I want to taunt him back by saying “And you did nothing? You didn’t arrest me then?” But I know this will get me a beating, so I don’t say it.
I do decide to speak, though. “But your men didn’t find any weapons in my house, did they?”
Haitham smiles slightly. “Oh, we haven’t really looked there, yet.”
Are they going to my house? There are no weapons there, of course, but my family! What will they say to my family about my life here? My mother will go crazy.
“There are NO weapons, and there is NO organization,” I say fiercely. “Who has been telling you all this?”
Haitham slaps me, hard. I have made him angry, and his face is turning red.
“You little bastards!” he says from behind clenched teeth. “You’re not here to ask questions, you’re here to answer them! Put the donkey in the tyre.”
I am surprised that he has called me a donkey. The word in Arabic is actually one of the worst epithets one can use, Despite the barbarity of these men, I haven’t heard anyone else use this word since I arrived at the prison.
The beating starts, and it’s the same routine. The same questions, the same answers, the four or five blows, the same pain, the same tears.
Finally, they take me out of the tyre and Haitham looks at me and says sharply: “I’ll have you here again this evening. We’ll see what happens then.”
I am led back to my cell, and left with more paper.
So Far from God – 13
I imagine my friends — but which ones? – are being questioned and tortured like me and I desperately want to get in touch with them so we can agree on our story. I’ve been told by Mustafa in the next cell that Abdulatif was in Number 5, next to his. He’d told me that just before we had to stop talking the last time. Now I am looking forward to talking to Abdulatif.
I tap on the panel and ask Mustafa if he will open the other side and let me talk to my friend.
There are lots of guards about for some reason, and we have to be quick.
“What are you telling them?” I ask Abdulatif:
“Nothing,” he says. “Just rubbish.”
The way he said it wasn’t entirely convincing. I’m not thinking he is a traitor, that he will willingly betray any of us, but I’m afraid he’s not strong enough for these bastards. I can hear it in his voice.
” I want you to do exactly as I say,” I tell him. “Tell them you don’t know anything, and if they keep on, I want you to tell them to ask me. Do you understand me?”
Yes, he says. I still suspect he doesn’t – he will talk. I wanted to cheer him up, though, so I make the victory sign, down where he can see it. We hear guards outside, and close the panel quickly.
He worries me.
I turn back to the issue of my statement, and look at the paper on the floor beside me. I hardly notice my pain. I am wracking my brain, trying to remember where I’d said all those things Haitham had read about.
I had said them, of course, exactly as he read them. But where? When? To whom?
And then it comes to me, and I know.
I remember two conversations with him, and because I hadn’t really trusted him very much, they were the only two we’d ever had alone. Thank God for that, I think. I’d been asking him how he could be a member of the Ba’ath party, and not object to what they were doing to us and our country. He said he was in the left wing of the party, and though he didn’t agree with the leaders, lots of people like him were members.
I’m sitting there, going over these conversations I’d had with Mamdour, line by line. I have no doubt that every word I’d said is in that spy’s report. They wouldn’t have minded if he spoke a little against the government, just to draw me out. What was weird was how accurate Mamdour had been. It was if he’d had a tape recorder under his shirt, and yet I’m sure he hadn’t.
I’m scratching out another useless “Confession,” and then I’m waiting. The guards come to take me away again, and this time, I’m going to yet another new place – this time on the second floor. The room is empty, except for a single table. Quilts are fastened all over the walls — to deaden the noise, I suspect.
Haitham enters, joined by two other men. He reads my latest statement, scowls at me angrily, then tears it up savagely, and snarls: “It’s the same fucking thing again, isn’t it?”
“There are lots of things we haven’t tried on you yet,” he says, walking around me. “You can’t imagine what they’re like. Electric shocks. You could be put in the bottle.”
What is the bottle, I’m wondering?
Haitham narrows his eyes, and looks at me.
“Sometimes, boys like you get fucked in here. Would you like that to happen to you? You have no idea what it feels like to be tied against a wall with your arms and legs spread out.”
Just the thought makes me sick.
“You’re just a boy. What’s the point of suffering?” he asks. “Don’t make it difficult for yourself — and us. “
“You mean you want me to talk about things I haven’t done?” I ask.
Haitham shakes his head. “No, I don’t want that. I want you to write about the things you HAVE done.”
I am quiet, and he waits.
And then Haitham breaks the silence. “Back in the tyre.”
No matter how many times I go through this, it is still as bad as the time before. I am never prepared for it. I can never think of anything else. I can never stop screaming. I can never be quiet.
They finish beating me, then hit my feet with sticks to make me dance for a few minutes, and Haitham says, quite casually, “I’ll see you in the morning and see if you’ve changed your mind.”
I am led to my cell, but the guard doesn’t leave me with a paper this time.
I am too tired to wonder what that might mean. It is already around one in the morning, and in spite of the pain and the naked light bulb illuminating the hot, fetid air of the cell, I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. The second day is over.
My father told me much later that he’d gone to the mosque that morning, quite early, and sat there reading his old Koran. He kept thinking of me, already a day in that prison.
“I’ve read the whole Koran, and this is my reward, having my son taken to prison?” he pleaded.
The, filled with regret, he immediately began praying for forgiveness.
I suppose that was the farthest from God he’d ever been in his life.
The Ripening Shed – 14
it is written
the act of writing is
holy words are
sacred and your breath
brings out the
god in them
~ Suheir Hammad
When God Closes a Door… – 15
On my third day there, I wait, but no one brings breakfast. It is hot, I am thirsty, and I sit, staring at the graffiti on the walls.
There are no guards in the corridor for some reason, and some of the men out there are talking to me through the door. They ask me why I am here, but I don’t want to say anything.
I ask if they know where my other friends are in the prison. None of the men knew, but one says he will try to find out for me.
On some farms, farmers build a small shed where they can put the fruit so that it ripens more quickly. Today, with already unbearable heat, and my mind racing around uncontrollably, I realize my cell is my ripening shed.
Do I deserve to be here? Have I committed crimes? I guess it depends on who you ask.
Kids where I come from — it’s different here, I suppose — are brought up on politics. After all, in countries where the government is repressive, people have to talk at home, and children can’t always be sent out of the room. Then, too, parents often want to be sure that their children continue the struggle, and so they especially want them to hear what is being said.
Some children pay attention and some don’t. I was one of the ones who did.
There was political talk in my house since I was a young boy – it was usually led by others, though, as my father wanted nothing to do with politics.
What I think of as my political life started when I became a teenager. I began talking to older people, and especially Mr. Aziz, my English teacher. Mr. Aziz was about 26, and he knew exactly how to talk to young people, how to get us thinking about something without telling us what to think. He would drop a few words into a muddy conversation that would let us see into the center of it clearly. I got to know his general ideas, but I never did know his actual affiliations; he wasn’t interested in proselytizing for any group or party.
Sometimes, a small group of his favourite students were invited to his house, and I was always included. He had a small, comfortable house, but to me, it might have well been a Parisian salon…I thought it was the utmost in sophistication. We could smoke cigarettes, and speak freely, and we had passionate discussions that lasted late into the night.
In every conversation, Mr. Aziz would suggest a book. Later, I’d find these books he spoke of, read every word, and be prepared to discuss them on the next visit. I lived for these discussions, and these books.
It all felt very grown up.
We didn’t just talk about politics; we talked about Islam, religion, art, revolutions abroad, history – so many things. But we talked and talked until our heads were full of ideas swirling around like stars.
It sounds like an obsession, all this talking, but that’s all we can do in a country like mine. So much of our repressed energy goes into talking.
Mr. Aziz was in charge of setting up all the field trips at my school as well. A coach would be hired, and we’d go off to the seaside for the day, or to another city, or just into the country. He always brought along several of his own friends on these outings, and frequently, we’d all break up into groups, for more discussions.
Our little group loved Mr. Aziz — – and he us.
I became his favourite, and earned his trust. He actually trusted me a great deal. It seems strange, given that he was twelve years older than I was, but it never felt that way. I’d visit him at his house or he’d come to mine. We were always left alone at my house, because he was my teacher and in my culture, we hold you teachers in such high esteem. There is a saying in Arabic: “Become the slave of the man who teaches you even one letter.”
My family thought he was teaching me, and so he was. He was teaching me how to think about the world, about my country, and what my role could or should be.
My network of friends became bigger. Through Mr. Aziz, and then through the people I met through him, I met people from many different parties, with different ideas, but they were all left-wing.
And then, Mr. Aziz disappeared.
He just disappeared. We didn’t even know if he was alive or not, or what prison he was in. Disappearances like that aren’t rare where I come from, but there was no one who’d dare complain and no one to complain to. It’s like death.
After Mr. Aziz disappeared, life had to go on, and it was with renewed intensity that I threw myself into my reading. Before his disappearance, Mr. Aziz had lent me a book of poetry by a famous poet, Abu Ammar. Some of the poems were lyrical, some were political. But all of it spoke to me, in a way I couldn’t imagine.
A few months after Mr. Aziz was taken away, I saw a poster announcing a poetry reading. Abu Ammar was coming to my University. I went…but when I got the room, it was crammed with people, and I couldn’t get in. I was horribly disappointed…not only because I was so in awe of his poetry, but somehow, I felt that connecting with Abu Ammar was a way to honor Mr. Aziz.
“But when God closes a door…”
My Real Education – 16
The day after the reading, I was talking with my friend Abdulatif, and he said Abu Ammar was actually visiting another neighbor of ours that evening. We rushed to that house and asked if they’d mind if we came to meet Abu Ammar, and we were invited.
The evening was a great success. Abu Ammar paid a group of four of us attention, and seemed very interested in our ideas. It was safe to talk there, and we talked about changing our government — no, destroying it, really. We talked about poetry, too, and some of the countries he’d visited. We asked him so many questions, I was sure he’d tell us to run off, but he didn’t. He listened to us, and patiently answered every question.
That night, everyone circled around Abu Ammar like planets. We were drunk on him, his words and ideas. He took the four of us aside and said, “Why don’t we have a party? Drinking, singing, wouldn’t you like that?” We were thrilled, and a date was chosen.
Abdulatif still thought of himself as our leader, the one who’d introduced us…I think he saw himself as Abu Ammar’s favorite already. But Abu Ammar told me, much later, that he’d only thought of the party because of me. At that same time, he said something very strange. “When I first shook hands with you, I felt tremendous energy and power coming through your hand.”
It was all so heady for a teenage boy. I was flattered, having someone so famous interested in me.
The party took place days later in the house of a friend of Abu Ammar’s, in the hills outside Damascus. Abu Ammar brought everything. As he’d suggested, we sang and we drank. The music, the heat, the laughter, the jokes – we were all feeling as if in a dream.
We were eating the most delicious foods, drinking whiskey, and free to say exactly what we wanted.
All this excitement went on till 5 a.m. and the four of us had to go to school…and we did, but I was the one in the worst condition. When the Dean happened to see me, he called me into his office, looked at me closely — I’m sure he could tell I was still drunk from my eyes — and kindly sent me home without a word about my condition.
After the party, Abu Ammar and I became friends. I was increasingly included in his activities, and invited along for meetings with important people he knew. I soaked up every word of amazing conversations. And I didn’t just listen – sometimes Abu Ammar or the others asked me what I thought.
After a group get-together, he would often tell me to leave with the others, and then meet him later at his house or a cafe, and our conversations would continue. He was in Damascus for about two months, but after three weeks or so, it was as if we were friends for years.
We often walked down the street hand in hand – men often do this in Arab countries, and it is not considered provocative. Even so, when they saw a balding man of 50 and a high school boy of 15 together, some people began saying I was his boyfriend. We he heard about it, he laughed: “So what? Do you care what they think?” and neither of us did. Because our connection was never anything like that.
During these short weeks, he introduced me to new people, new ideas, and deeper ways of looking at things. It was as if I had enrolled in an intensive course of education on political thought. My ideas were beginning to formulate.
I wasn’t at home much those days. Our evening meal was always about 8, and we were all expected to be there, but more often than not I wasn’t. My father and I argued about my coming home for dinner, or staying in for the evenings, but with all that excitement outside, I couldn’t stand being home all evening. I’d get in near midnight, and there’d be another argument.
During these weeks, the only time I wasn’t talking, discussing, arguing, or learning with Abu Ammar or his friends was when I was sleeping or in a classroom. School seemed secondary though. My real education was going on elsewhere.
Finally Abu Ammar had to leave Damascus — he moved around a lot. Everything would have seemed very gray then, if it hadn’t been for all the new friends I had made in that short time, people introduced to me by Abu Ammar.
Like Saida, for example, who was a student at the university.
After Abu Ammar had gone, I saw quite a lot of her. She had to attend her university lectures, so we couldn’t meet as often as I had with Abu Ammar, but we still spent a lot of time together. Saida was beautiful, she was passionate, she was incredibly smart. We could talk for hours about psychology, poetry, religion, and of course, politics.
In my country, we don’t talk about politics as an isolated subject. It’s a lens through which we view the world, really.
Saida and I also talked about love, and even sex. But we didn’t do anything. She was a passionate woman, but not about romance. She had suffered too much in other ways.
One of her brothers had been killed by the agents, and the other was in prison, with a life sentence. Their house was regularly searched in the middle of the night. They never knew when banging on the door meant another one of the family would be taken in, to disappear or die.
According to Saida, her mother, who didn’t understand any of this except her children’s pain, was a shell of her former self; the light had gone out of her face.
Saida was strong and I think she’d really looked hard at what the government and its agents could do to her and had decided to continue. She had no hope. And she had nothing but hope.
All this is to say that in a short amount of time, I had quickly become familiarized with radical politics. It was clear to me. Our government, the government of Hafez Al-Assad and his Al-Baath Party — was fascist. There was no hope of improving the situation by regular means. The government had to go…it had to be destroyed – and by any way possible.
“Any way.” What does that mean?
I don’t know how well people in the West can relate to that. We all know what it means, of course, but can most people believe it is ever necessary or justified? In the West, governments can be moved, changed, even toppled, with only votes. We can’t.
We couldn’t write angry letters to government officials or elected representatives. No one would dare to there. In the West, one can say nearly anything about a politician. For us, we have to look around before we say anything.
We considered assassination because we wanted to frighten the government. We knew we needed to engage in a form of blackmail, to make them afraid to do anything to the people, afraid to do just what they want without concern for what we would think or do. Our targets were going to be the secret parts of the government, their agents, especially.
At that stage, we were still just thinking about it, we weren’t ready yet. We had no weapons, and we knew it would take some time to get them. We’d have to go to Beirut, stay there for awhile, and build relationships with the left wing there, to show that we were serious, before we would be trusted to buy weapons.
In school, I talked to everyone, but, generally and carefully at first. I’d often start those conversations with “Have you heard the news today?”
When I found someone who already had ideas, or was strong-minded and smart, then I’d want him for my group. Otherwise, I’d just spread ideas and hope they’d begin to work. If you’re going to be useful, sometimes you just have to drop a few seeds and leave them for other suns and rains.
I talked to neighbors and people I knew in the street, and in their houses, too. Older people would sometimes tell me I couldn’t speak against the government. “God says that’s wrong,” they’d say.
And I would challenge them: “Where? Where in the Koran does He say that?”
I found that so many people were quite sure about what our religion says, and yet they were wrong. They hadn’t really studied the Koran at all. Ignorance is the rock bad government is built on. And religious ignorance is a particularly solid rock.
So when I was taken away from my home, and brought to prison, in a way I was innocent. Yet I wasn’t an innocent person. I wasn’t dangerous…but I was going to be.
But you don’t throw people in prison for what’s in their minds, do you? Or for what they might do in the future?
About 4:00 in the afternoon, they come for me. I am so hungry, and even more thirsty, because I still have not received anything to eat or drink today.
We go to the fat man’s office, but he is not there. Instead, another man sits in the chair. Haitham is also here. He is going to be my interrogator again. And his two torturers are here, of course.
Haitham introduces me to Aburamsat, sitting in the fat man’s chair. They apparently occupy the office on alternate days.
Haitham and Aburamsat are both smiling at me.
“We’ve got this bastard and we’re working on him. We’ve stopped his food and we’re just waiting now to see if he’s going to change his mind,” Haitham says.
Then Haitham asks me, “Well, Mohammed, what’ve you decided?”
I told him I didn’t see any reason to change my mind because I hadn’t done anything.
“You’re fucking difficult,” he says.
The two torturers grab me and shove me in the tyre.
This time, Aburamsat himself picks up the bamboo stick, and he begins slashing my feet. As bad as the other two were, Aburamsat is much worse. I can tell he likes hearing me scream. And I scream so much, I can’t even hear anything else.
He stops every once in a while so Haitham can ask me the now familiar questions. I offer up the same answers, and the falaka starts start again.
Finally, it ends. Aburamsat hands me another blank piece of paper, and as the two men lead me away, I hear him call after me, “We’ll see you again tonight.”
I can’t imagine their days, men like Aburamsat, or Haitham. They fill out papers, take phone calls, write reports, and in the middle of it, they fit appointments to torture innocent prisoners into their busy schedules. Then they go home, smiling, to their wives and children, stinking with other men’s pain.
Back in my cell, the air is like an oven, baked by the Syrian summer sun. Even the tiles on the floor are hot. There is nothing to cool my burning, swollen feet…not even for a second.
I look at that calendar on the wall; a year and a half…and some men had been in here much longer than that. It is like being in a tunnel that stretched so far ahead I can’t even see a dot of light at the end.
My tongue is dry. It keeps sticking to the roof of my mouth.
I hug my knees and rock back and forth, like a child.
I look at the piece of paper Aburamsat has given me. After a while, I pick up the pen and write. I’m not sure why, as I should know better, but I feel compelled to say something new.
I write “I’ve spoken to people against the government, how terrible our inflation is, how everything’s getting worse.”
I sit for hours, and about 8 p.m., I am led back to the office. Haitham is holding my latest confession.
He sneers at me. “Ah, you’ve learned something at last! You’ve started to talk. I knew you would. I want you to talk about other things now.”
“All right,” I answer. “I’ve said a few bad things about the government, but they’re true; everyone knows that; they didn’t need me to tell them.”
Haitham is getting surprisingly angry at my vague criticisms of the government. “So you believe that stuff you’ve been saying?”
“Well, that’s the way it is, isn’t it?” I say.
There is a second’s pause; then Haitham says “Take off your clothes.”
I just stand there.
“I said…TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES!”
I can’t move. I can’t speak. I feel beads of sweat dripping down my back.
The two guards come over and began taking off my clothes. My mind won’t function. I can’t move.
Aburamsat walks over and stands next to me, watching the guards strip me.
“Don’t be shy,” he says. “Take off your clothes the way you used to when you were going to be fucked.”
I can’t catch my breath.
The guards finish stripping me. Thank God, they leave my underpants on.
Haitham comes toward me. He is holding something in his hand.
He has a device that looks like a flashlight, long enough to hold perhaps 4 or 5 batteries, but instead of a bulb on the end, it has two metal prongs sticking out of it.
Haitham touches me on the chest with it.
Everything in me is ripping apart a million miles an hour. I jump. I howl.
I throw myself into the corner, and try to conceal myself there. I can’t imagine anything other than pain, other than trying to gain away. I feel as if I’ve lost any humanity – I am reverting to wild animal.
The guards start to drag me back, and I fight them, harder than I’ve fought at any time in prison. I am babbling in fear. But the two guards yank me back to the middle of the room, and Haitham stands, smiling. He holds the electric prod in front of my face, and waves it back and forth, taunting me.
I am a mouse in front of a snake. I don’t move, I can’t move – except I’m shaking involuntarily.
He gives me another shock on the chest.
I can’t even scream when I get the electric shocks…I howl. It’s the end of being a man or being whole. It feels as if it shatters every part of my brain into a million pieces.
I again throw myself to the floor, away from him, but he corners me, prod in hand.
For half an hour, off and on, he shocks me.
I feel as if my head will detach from my body…I shake, I howl.
I feel damned. I have found hell.
I wasn’t even feeling pain anymore – I was pain…screaming, white, hot, electric pain.
In between shocks, he asks the usual questions. I don’t tell him anything new, but that’s only because I’ve rehearsed so many times in my cell what I am going to tell them.
It is hard to imagine it ever stopping, once it starts.
But finally, it stops.
“Get dressed,” he barks.
I am very frightened now. I didn’t know that anything could be worse than the falaka.
“Now you’re going back to your cell and you’re going to write, properly, this time.” He dismisses me with a cavalier wave.
I can hardly walk back. I feel tired, exhausted, every cell spent and depleted. As the guards bring me back to my cell, I can barely move — I have never felt this tired in my life. They dump me in my cell and I collapse.
All I can hear in my own head are my screams and howls, and I fall unconscious.
As I come to a bit later, I hear moaning. I wonder if it is me. But I open my eyes, and I see a man on the floor curled up in the corner of my cell.
Blood is coming out of his mouth. I sit up with a jolt. The man appears to be in his 30s, I don’t know exactly. He is crying, so I know he is alive.
He is dressed only in underpants and a singlet. His shirt and trousers are under his head as a pillow. I pull myself over to him and look down at him. His eyes are closed; he doesn’t see me.
His back is covered in crisscrossed red and blue lacerations, and his back and legs are covered in blood.
What have they done to him?
He is lying in a fetal position, with tears running out of his closed eyes, and a trickle of blood dribbles out of his mouth.
I am sitting over him, and I feel sick. They are not just bad, these men, they are monsters.
I cry quietly as I watch over him for and after thirty minutes, he slowly opens his eyes. Perhaps he notices the concern in my eyes, because he doesn’t get frightened; he just tries to smile.
I ask him what had happened, and he just quietly says: “As you see.” He can’t even say the words.
His name is Razouk. He is there for smuggling arms. Not into the country, exactly, but through it. He’d bought 25 machine guns in Iraq and was trying to take them to Lebanon for the Palestinian war there.
He’ d strapped them somewhere under the boot of his car, but they weighed down that end. Something about the way the car looked at the border made them search it. They thought the guns were for Syria. But he was Lebanese and was only interested in the trouble in Lebanon.
He is very weak and there is nothing I can do for him. I have nothing…not even water.
Just an Ordinary Girl – 19
At 9:00 they come to take me to the toilet.
My mouth is like cardboard. I am so thirsty, I can’t think of anything but water. While I am in the bathroom stall, I consider my options. I am horrified, but I need to survive, and so I drink. I am desperate, and yet disgusted with what I must do in this place.
I am quickly led to Haitham’s office on the third floor. There, he waits, holding a stick, a shorter one than the ones they use for falaka. There are some extra people in there, too, I don’t know who they are.
He asks the usual questions, and get my usual answers. He hits me, just anywhere, from time to time, but it is humiliating, as it is meant to be, and not terribly painful.
This time he concentrates on Saida. He asks me how I know her. How long I’d known her. Who introduced me to her. I tell him how I’d met her through her brother, who I was in school with, and that I’ve known her for a year or so.
“Anyway,” I say, ” I know lots of girls and Saida’s just one of them. She’s just an ordinary girl. There are thousands of them — why does it matter about her?”
Haitham hits me with his stick.
“You bastard! You know she’s not just an ordinary girl perfectly well. She’s an enemy of our country.”
“How could she be?” I ask. She isn’t going to blow up the Army depots, is she? She’s not trying to be president, is she?”
He hits me hard for that.
“You little bastard. Do you think we’re stupid or something? We know exactly what she’s trying to do, we know exactly who ‘s in her group, we know exactly where they get their instructions.”
He is a fool to say this, and now I know he has no idea what he’s talking about. She would have been killed or put in some kind of prison by now if they’d really known all that, if it were true.
“Now, how well do you know her?”
“I’ve been to a party or two when she was there. I’ve sat in a cafe having a drink with her a couple of times with other people.”
“Yes, yes,” Haitham says, “but you’re not answering my question. How well do you know her?”
“Socially, fairly well, I suppose,” I say.
“We’re more interested in how well you know her politically,” he says. He puts hand to chin and thinks for a moment. “But maybe the two are connected. Maybe if she wants you in her group, she’s let you fuck her?”
I am furious at how he is talking about Saida. “NO!” I yell.
“Oh, come now,” he says, smiling. “Everyone knows what she’s like: you wouldn’t have been the first or the twenty-first for that matter.”
I don’t answer. When I think of Saida’s pure passion for change in our country, and how this man is perverting it, I can only muster disgust.
“Well, now I want you to go to your cell and write about your good times with Saida, you know, about kissing her, about fucking her, all that.” He hands me another paper.
I say nothing, but I know why they want that. They have nothing on her politically, and it’s not so easy taking young girls in, so they want to get her on a morality charge. Even with a secular government, Syria is an Islamic country, and we have some strict laws on the book.
“I have not done anything like that with her,” I protest. “It’s against Islam!”
They all roar with laughter.
“Against Islam!” Aburamsat said. “What do you know about Islam? You’re a Marxist; you don’t believe in God!”
“But I do,” I say. And it’s true.
Though at this moment, I don’t really know where God might be, or what interest He might be taking in my particular ordeal.
Haitham goes back to providing a detailed description of how he images I fuck Saida. He relishes this, dragging out every word of his perverted, filthy fantasy. It’s clear that he is enjoying every minute – this is for his own entertainment above all. He is disgusting.
I am feeling pure hatred. I feel like hitting him or spitting in his face.
He can tell how much I hate him at this moment, and he hits me again.
“All right, you bastard, now you go off and write. If you satisfy me with what you write about kissing and fucking Saida, I’ll let you out tomorrow.”
Back in the cell, I am not in much pain, but I still can’t do anything for Razouk. The blood is no longer coming from his mouth, and his back is drying up. He talks a bit about his hopes for Lebanon, and the Palestinians, but he is still weak and falls asleep again.
While I was gone, they’d fed him. But there was no food for me.
The third day is ending.
Dangerous Enemies – 20
“History is made by men and women,
just as it can also be unmade and re-written.”
~ Edward Said
A Glass of Water – 21
The next morning, a prisoner brought breakfast to Razouk. It was a mistake because he shared it with me. They should have taken him out of the cell to feed him. Somehow, I didn’t feel very hungry, but I ate a little bread and cheese and we shared his tea.
Just before lunch one of the guards got antsy with the trusty for feeding Razouk in our cell. He realized he’d shared his food. The result of this was that before any food was handed out at 2, Razouk was moved to cell 6, and Mustafa was put somewhere else. Not just for lunchtime, I mean, but for good. So, no lunch. I wasn’t really hungry, it was just the idea of food that attracted me.
No one bothered with me till late afternoon, and I imagined that there was something very important going on in the building, perhaps someone big (how I thought of dangerous enemies to the government. I was wrong – they’d just been questioning my friends.
I sat in the hot box. I could hear the prisoners outside talking quietly. My mouth and throat were so dry I tried to get up some saliva but I couldn’t, and trying made me feel sick.
I was taken to Aburamsat’s office, asked the same questions (including all those disgusting ones about Saida), amidst intervals of falaka torture.
Bu there was something new; he had a few answers that I hadn’t given him.
I said carefully” What makes you think that?” “Your friend Nizar told us. (So he was there too!)
Aburamsat continued: “he’s not as difficult as you. He’s not difficult at all. You stupid bastards. You’re ready to overthrow governments and you can’t even choose friends decently, can you? “
I didn’t answer him. I’d never really trusted Nizar, not from the start, and I’d never told him anything really important. Abdulatif had told Nizar about me and my ideas and then we more or less had to include him. We’ll, he’d saved himself but at least he couldn’t say too much.
What would he have talked about, that I certainly wouldn’t have, was our English teacher, who’d talked a lot to his favorite students about politics, government, things like that.
Anyway, I hobbled back to my cell, this time with more questions to write answers to than before.
I wanted to talk to Abdulatif in No 5, but Razouk in 6 was asleep, and I couldn’t disturb him to open the panels to Abdulatif’s cell.
Two hours or so later, I was sent for, to a new office, on the 1st floor. There was a man I’d never seen before sitting behind the desk. The TV was on; a serial about our beautiful Queen Zenobia who led a revolution against the Romans. It was wildly popular, even among those people.
He continued watching it for five minutes or so until it ended, while I stood there. Then he began asking questions. Without tyre or stick.
He asked all the usual questions, and got my usual answers. Questions about Saida– but not disgusting ones this time — questions about my organization, and my code name, questions about that teacher, thanks to Nizar, and also thanks to him, my friend Abu Ammar had now joined the list of those there were questions about. I disliked that especially, but I’ll tell you about that later.
My open file was in front of him. What a lot of information for just 3 or four years. He wrote down every one of my answers carefully, and I think exactly, just getting everything clear.
I was taken back to my cell. I t was the first time I’d entered it without having just been tortured. But my hunger and third were pretty bad at this point.
I wanted to talk to Abdulatif through the 2 panels, but there was no time. They came for me again and took me up to Haitham’s office. He told me to sit down and he pulled his chair over, next to mine and spoke to me, I won’t say kindly, but not angrily, anyway.
“Well,” he said.,” you haven’t eaten since Tuesday morning; you don’t want to go on like that, do you? Aren’t you hungry?”
I could hardly speak, my mouth was so dry, but I managed to say “Yes.”
“Wouldn’t you like some food?”
If he could read the pain in my eyes…but he said, “OK, then, let’s talk now and we’ll see. What do you want to tell?”
I moved my mouth, but no words would come out. I hadn’t drunk anything for days.
“OK, you can have some water,” he said, and rang for a guard. He kept talking while the guard was away, but I didn’t have to answer him. The guard brought me a glass of water and I swallowed some quickly. It felt as if the tissues of my mouth and throat sucked up the water directly, like blotting paper. The rest I let trickle down my throat as slowly as I could. Haitham took the glass from me and put it on his desk.
He asked about Abdulatif, and Nizar, about Abu Ammar. He began speaking about the teacher…he asked “Do you know why he’s in prison now?” I said I didn’t, but anyone in the country could have told you; to be opposed to the government there is a crime.
He asked questions about Saida and mentioned her brothers for the first time. What did I know about them? I said “I know you’ve killed one of them and put the other in prison for life.”
“Do you know why?”
“yes: They spoke against the government.”
Haitham sneered “Don’t be stupid. They were being paid by other governments to make trouble in Syria and you know it perfectly well.” That was rubbish.
He continued, “We’ll do the same to anyone who tries to make trouble here. you’re still young and that’s better fro you. I’m ready to help you if you talk. Don’t worry.”
They really think, after torturing you, that five minutes of “friendly chat” is going to make you collapse.
I said “I haven’t got anything to say. My friends and I aren’t what you call an organization, I swear to God.”
Don’t talk about God,” he said.
Telling the Truth – 22
“But I’m really telling the truth. It’s all I’ve got.”
When he saw that I hadn’t given way an inch, that was the end of the friendly chat.
His voice changed, and he was angry. He asked me if I thought I’d like another couple of days without food. I didn’t say anything. “They’ll give you more paper downstairs, and you’ll write everything you know,” he said — sometimes the words changed a little, but never the idea.”
But I really haven’t anything new to say,” I said.
So in the cell, I wrote the same old things, but this time, I wrote a bit about my teacher too. I handed out the paper.
After diner (I mean, after the others’ had dinner), they sent for me.
Haitham and Aburamsat were there in the office, and they were clearly angry. I supposed they’d read my most recent answers, but I couldn’t see the paper anywhere. Haitham said “Naturally, we want to finish your case, but we’re not really in a hurry…take your clothes off.”
There was no point resisting. I stripped myself, this time, except for my pants.
But before they did anything to me, Haitham began talking about someone new. “You know Hisham, of course.”
I did. He was an Iraqi, a refugee in Syria, studying philosophy at the University. He belonged to an Iraqi political group and I knew him. We’d talked sometimes.
Remember, almost everyone I’ve ever known well has been older than me. As usual, though, we’d just talked — not planted bombs or set up assassinations. Talk is dangerous, though, to some governments; they’re not like those in the west. They’re not intelligent enough to let people talk in the open. No one talks in the open there except about the weather, the children and the price of meat.
Haitham said “Well, Hisham has joined us today — I mean, he’s one of you, now, one of us.”
He and Aburamsat both laughed at that. “What do you know about him? Was he trying to organize you, or get you into his organization?”
I said that I’d known him, that I’d talked to him, that I hadn’t known about his organization (that wasn’t true) and that he hadn’t tried to get me into it, if he had one.
“How did you meet him? What did he talk about?”
I lied, “Oh, we talked about the government once or twice, but mostly we talked about the University, because I wanted to stud in his program there.”
Naturally, they didn’t believe that, and they were getting angrier.
“This little cunt never tells the truth,.”
“I only know Hisham as a friend,” I said. “We drink coffee together, we talk about ordinary things, like everyone else.”
There was a moment of silence, and then I knew it was going to be bad.
And it was.
They put me in the tyre and Aburamsat began beating my feet, harder and faster than usual. It was agony, and I was shouting. Then Haitham came over with his torch. When he poked my thighs/shoulder with it, I thought my heart would stop. I howled, maybe silently, I don’t know. In the tyre, with your lungs so compressed, you haven’t got much air you can howl with.
Aburamsat began hitting me just anywhere that was exposed. The torch. I was almost out of my body with pain. Aburamsat began beating me regularly where my bottom joins my legs, it was tender there, and it hurt far worse than being hit on the feet.
The torch again.
I didn’t howl, I was a human howl. I managed to wrench an arm free and tried to get my hand over my leg to block the next blow, but it was much harder and when it hit my hand, I heard a finger crack. Or felt it. or both. I don’t know. It was the worst yet– at least 90 blows of the falaka, and the torch. My head was shaking violently. How easy it is to rip off everything that makes us civilized, or even men; a rat in a dog’s mouth may feel just the same.
Anyway, I never said “I’m not going to tell you…” but always as little as possible, though it makes no difference.
You might wonder how I always seemed to know how many times my feet had been smashed when at the time, I couldn’t count or even think at all. The reason is that back in the cell corridor, the prisoners can hear the screams; one blow, one scream, or the howls when they use the torch. The prisoners know the difference. No one talks when someone is being tortured upstairs. The prisoners count softly together. If you know, later, it’s because someone there tells you.
I don’t recall being brought back to my cell at all, or being dumped in it.
An Egg – 23
When I woke up on my fifth day, I felt I ought to move my body, and I did, just getting up and walking a few steps in the cell. I couldn’t move my right hand. Where they hit it, it had swollen to twice its usual size.
I didn’t need to use the toilet, but when they offered me a chance to go to the bathroom, I did, as I needed water. I took my turn, wasted, and drank a little.
A couple of hours later, someone called my name softly. A boy I hadn’t seen before was lying with his head next to the little gap under my door. I lay down and he said “Aren’t you hungry?”
I told him I was.
“OK, I’ll give you an egg.” Stand up and look through the hold — but carefully, from the side. I’ll peel the egg and put half of it at a time in your mouth when no one’s looking. Be ready.”
That’s what we did. I got an egg, and I didn’t even know the boy.
I did get to know him later. His name was Rafik. He was about 8 years older than I was, and a Palestinian. You know the Palestinians who’ve been thrown out of their country live in camps in other Arab countries, but it leads to uneasy guests and irritable hosts sometimes. Often.
The Syrian Army was in Lebanon then, where there were, and are, lots of Palestinian camps — won’t go into that now — and where there are armies, people get killed (the English have learned that from Ireland, haven’t they?) Anyway, our army had killed some Palestinians and their coffins had been shipped from Beirut. In the Palestinian cemetery the mass funeral became an angry demonstration against the government. (Arabic brothers, remember.) Men shouted why aren’t soldiers going to Israel, instead of killing Palestinians in Beirut. And then, the police got pretty violent, too, and seven young Palestinians including Raffia, smashed up the police station in their camp. They escaped but were caught the next day. There were lots of clashes like that in those days.
An hour after eating the egg, I knew it had been a mistake. I was ravenous. I managed to attract Rafik’s attention, and when he moved near my door I whispered, I’ve got to get some more food; can you get any?” He said “Sit down and I’ll throw some bread to you.” Then he walked up and down the corridor several times and finally threw a piece of bread under the door to me. I tried to eat it very slowly to make it last, but I couldn’t.
When I thought of the bread hitting the dirty floor, I remembered my mother’s immaculate kitchen where nothing that fell on the floor could ever be eaten….not even something that was going to be cooked. I thought, too, of a slap I had from my father — probably more than once — for playing about at the table and knocking a piece of bread on the floor. It couldn’t be eaten and he’d say “That piece of bread is a gift from God.” He was right. I’m ashamed to say it, but I thought about all that after I’d eaten the bread. That came first.)
At lunchtime, I heard plates rattling and cups being set down on the tiles, but I got nothing. I couldn’t stop thinking of food. Hunger filled me. I even took the risk of getting near enough to the hole in the door to see what they were eating. I still remember. It was rice with a piece of chicken. I can still see the little black marks on the brown skin from the grill. Courgettes with tomatoes. A banana. I didn’t want to, but I kept picturing food to myself. The strange thing was that I was so hungry, and yet lots of the dishes I brought to mind and looked at up close as if through a magnifying glass revolted me, and I’d have to change the picture, quickly, before I got sick.
When they’d all finished, the empty plates were taken away, and no one was looking, Rafik managed to pass me half a banana.
About 3, I was sent for. I walked like a blind man, from hunger. I was seeing stars. My head kept going around.
Haitham and Aburamsat were there. I could hardly stand up. Haitham said “Well, what have you decided? Are you going to talk?”
“I have nothing more to say.”
“All right, I’ll ask you about something: tell me about that camping trip you took with that Marxist teacher of yours. Who else went?”
I told him.
“And what did you do there in the mountains where no one could see you?”
“Just what people always do on camping trips: nothing special. It was just for pleasure.”
“Pleasure, eh? Is that what you call pleasure? Learning how to use guns? Training to be a guerilla?”
“that’s not true!”
He slapped me. It almost knocked me over I was so weak.
“You’re lying, you little bastard!”
“No, I’m not!” I said. “And it wasn’t where no one could see us. There were lots of other people camping around there at the same time.”
“Really? Well we can prove you’re lying this time.”
“One of your friends has told us all about it.”
:”Who is it?”
I was furious, going mad. I had enough trouble without that. “It was your good friend Nizar.”
“But he wasn’t even there!”
“But he heard all about it when you came back.”
“Just let him say that in front of me!”
The two men looked at each other, and smiled. “Haitham said “All right, we will. You’ll hear it from his own mouth.
They led me to a first floor office and put me behind a curtain. A few minutes later, an agent brought Nizar in. Haitham said “You remember that camping trip you told us about this morning? Did Mohammed tell you that they were learning to be urban guerillas there?”
Nizar said “Well, no, not exactly.”
Aburamsat said “Not exactly!? What do you mean?”
Nizar said lamely, “Well, that’s what I imagined.”
I heard him get a great slap for that.
“We’re not interested in your fucking imagination! We want facts!”
Well, it had worked out well for me, but I’ve always had the idea that Nizar told them that guerilla rubbish in the morning and changed his story in the afternoon, but not because he knew I was there. God knows why. I don’t know if that’s right though, to be honest.
Haitham and Aburamsat were furious. They called me out. Nizar and I looked at each other for a second. He could see how pale and weak I was. I probably looked like I was dying. I looked at him angrily, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. We were led off separately to our cells.
Around the Campfire – 24
I’ll tell you about that camping trip. That poor English teacher of mine, and I and six other boys went. It really was a camping trip. The usual clumsy tent-erecting and food snatched off the fire before it’s really cooked because you’re so hungry in the mountain air, and jokes. I won’t say we didn’t talk late into the nights about politics, but that’s no more than millions of Middle Easterners do in tow — it’s just safer in the open country.
Nizar wasn’t on that trip anyway…and he really didn’t know anything about it. Telling more of the truth than you should when you’re being tortured is one thing; inventing lies because you think it’s what they want to hear is another.
I wanted to have a word with him.
I had my chance sooner than I expected. Nizar wasn’t in a little cell like mine, so he didn’t have to be taken to the toilet as I did. He could go when he liked. That evening, when I was escorted there, Nizar was waiting in the queue with five others. There was some sort of disturbance, perhaps a fight, back in the corridor we’d just come through, and the guard left me for a minute. It was enough. I pulled Nizar aside and snarled at him. “Why did you tell them about the camping trip?”
“I didn’t!” He said.
I knew he was lying. “They didn’t know about it yesterday, today they do!”
“No, they knew already.”
“You’re a liar,” I said. “Listen…if you say anything more, I’ll talk, myself. I’ll pull the roof down on both of us.”
He whined. “But I didn’t.”
I said, “Look, I haven’t eaten for days, and I’ve got enough problems in here–don’t make any more for me, please.”
“But I haven’t told them anything,” he said.
“You’re a shit and a coward, Nizar.”
The guard returned and took me back. I felt a bit better because all that had been burning in me, and now I’d spoken to him.
You can trust yourself.
There was a prisoner named Radwan that I began talking to under my door at night. Gradually, while I was there, I got to know him very well. He’d been the editor of a political paper, but he’d already been in the prison for six years. I learned a lot from him.
On that fifth day of mine, I hadn’t even met him yet, but I’m telling you about him now because of that camping trip. It turned out later that Radwan’s wife knew one of Mr. Aziz’s relatives who used to visit him in his prison, so finally I knew where he was. I asked Radwan if he’d ask his wife, the next time she visited him, to pass on a message to Mr. Aziz through his relative: “Send my regards to him and tell him that I’m in prison too, that we’re on the same road.” I thought he’d like to know that one of his seeds had sprouted, that his students were fighting too.
Much, much later, I got a shock: He sent me an angry message: You shouldn’t have gotten caught. You could have worked outside better than in. There’s nothing wonderful about being in prison.
Well, I was learning.
Shocking – 25
Long after supper time, I had to go back to Haitham’s office. The guard told me to wait outside, and in a minute Haitham came out and said “Take off your clothes,” angrily. I knew it was going to be more serious that time.
I was almost fainting, and I didn’t move, so Haitham hit me on the head with his stick. “Come on! Move! Take off all of them”
Almost crying, I did. All of them.
You know, we never take off everything in front of anyone except our wives. I was holding my clothes and he pulled them out of my weak hold and dropped them on the floor.
“Now, go in.”
I went into his office. There were about seven men in there and I wanted to die. My blood was boiling in my head. God, I wanted to be indifferent, I tried, but I couldn’t.
I was pushed into the center of the room. Everyone looked at me. I was almost fainting.
Haitham said with a nasty smile:
Come on, tell us how you used to get fucked. Don’t be shy.”
Everyone laughed. I wanted to turn inside out, to get every surface of my body away from their eyes.
Haitham said “No wonder Saida didn’t let him fuck her with a little cock like that!” There were more things like that, but I don’t want to dig them up again. I was so humiliated.
Haitham gave an agent a sign and he went out and returned with an empty wine bottle, and set it up in the middle of the room. Haitham said, “Come on, Mohammed, sit down on it.”
For a moment, there was silence. My brain didn’t want to understand. Then I was in shock, I couldn’t see, but I said to myself, “Don’t expect anything else from them; be strong.”
In those seconds I decided I wouldn’t not sit on it, even if they killed me. I said “I will not sit on it.”
They laughed. One of them said “it’s too thick for his bum,” but some other monster said “Oh, No, his bum’s loose from being fucked. It’ll be OK.”
I got to the corner of the room, but the guards dragged me back, and tried to force me onto the bottle, but I fought like a wild animal and they couldn’t.
Haitham hit me, twice. One of those guards picked up the bottle and tried to stick it up me, but I fought him off. They laughed, but they were serious.
I started to cry. Please, don’t do it. I’m not that sort of boy, really. I’ve been telling you the truth, and you don’t want to believe me!”
I wasn’t just crying, I was screaming — and almost fainting, at the same time.
There was a horrible minute of silence, and then Haitham said, “take the bottle away.” I don’t have any idea why he did.
Things quieted down then. If that’s right to say when Haitham’s next question was “How would you like to be shocked on your balls?” I was so frightened I got against the wall, but he followed me holding the torch out. He started prodding me with it here and there — but no where he’d threatened. I howled. I was shaking apart. I tried to get away, but the room wasn’t big enough and there were lots of people in it. There were the usual questions.
Then a guard grabbed my arms from behind and held me — I don’t suppose it took much strength. Haitham pulled down my lower lip, slowly moving the torch nearer and nearer. He gave me two shocks on my lower gums.
I screamed before the prongs touched me, but when they did, it was beyond anything I’d ever felt. It was as if my whole head was blown off — or shaken off more exactly. I had heart palpitations — they felt like convulsions. Every muscle in my body leapt..it was like a frog in the laboratory.
He moved the torch first near my eyes, then down my body toward my genitals. I thought I’d really die if he touched my cock with it. I was terrified. The noise from me must have been awful.
He didn’t give me a shock there, but right next to it in my groin. Then they let me got. I got dressed. I kept stumbling, going downstairs. In my cell, I fainted.