Edited by: Maggie Rosenau
We wait for a ribbon of sunlight. There is nothing else to do. We wait for a thread of freedom, and when it comes, we don’t know what to do. There is, however, certainly nothing else to do or wait for.
But waiting for whatever it is you are waiting for is like tending a cactus. Even if you leave or forget it, the thing does not die. Instead, it grows, becomes a hedge that surrounds you. It will do you no harm if you remain still and do not obscure the air, but despite this, and just by imagination, you will experience its prick, as you will experience the suffocation.
Back then, in the ward Nr.12, I met so many kinds of people—the good ones and the bad, the troubles makers and calm ones, the crazy ones and those who were on their way to madness, and those who hold onto hope and others who lost it and left us. People of all ages sharing food, jokes, smokes, destiny, and their life stories. They say that just before you die your whole life flashes fast before your eyes, and that’s how it was for us, though much slower. With each moment you survive in there, the scenes of your life pass slowly before your eyes. It’s crazy how memories work, how all that chemistry in your brain mixes smells, touch, and visions inside your head to create a clear picture, experiences to relive. You feel it and live in it, again and again. And we enjoy telling and retelling our stories. They are all we have, our only truth.
As with any dormitory in any political prison, there is always one prisoner who has been detained longer than any other. We called him the oldest prisoner. The guards call him “Shawish.” This prisoner is primarily responsible for the safety and quiet of the dormitory, and pretty much for everything that happens. He is also responsible for bringing prisoners in violation of the dormitory laws to the hallway to receive punishment and beatings from the jailers. Most often, this person becomes the most hated one in the cell.
Our Shawish, however, was so lovely and quiet most of the time. His name was Abu-Ibrahim, and I suspect he was in his early forties when I met him. He had a wife and three kids who were living in Deir Ez-Zur—the Syrian city from where Abu-Ibrahim came. He was never unfair to anybody, and whenever someone made a mistake or spoke loudly, he reminded that person to be quiet before sending him outside to the guards. The system was organized to operate by maintaining fear. If the guards heard any noise coming from the dormitories, they would shout loudly in anger, and call for the Shawish in each cell to send out at least five prisoners for punishment. Those five must be sent out within one hour or a matter of minutes, depending on how angry or bored the guards are. If the required number of people do not come out, then the Shawishs are punished for each absent prisoner. It is the cruelest role to be given and forced to play.
Abu-Ibrahim was a folk singer. He had a beautiful voice and would sing low and quiet so the jailers would not hear, for singing was forbidden, along with group prayer and the recitation of religious texts. These matters have painful consequences if they are heard or noticed by the jailers. Although Abu-Ibrahim was liked by some jailers for his calmness and compliance with the rules throughout the days of his imprisonment, he was very careful that his singing was not heard outside the dormitory.
There is something I forgot to mention about the number of detainees and the way they sleep or sit in general in any prison dormitory. You see, there are what are known as “elite detainees.” These people understand themselves to be above the others with whom they are imprisoned. And of course, they do receive special treatment by the jailers, by receiving extra rations of food, allowed to order others to do anything that serves them, and by maintaining extra space to sleep without any physical contact with the rest of the prisoners. Sometimes they kick the person who encroaches, even an inch, on their private space, or even touches their bed.
To earn the status of “elite,” you could be a criminal or a government supporter who got arrested for shady dealings, but you are not a political prisoner. In essence, an elite is simply a criminal who landed in the wrong place—this place: Far’ Falastin.
In Dormitory No. 12 there was a distinct mixture of the elite: one of them was a car thief, another murdered his own sister as an “honor” killing. There was also the ill-mannered sheikh—a perpetually angry young man, ready to hit anyone, regardless of their age. And then there was the good, kind Shawish. The elite have no authority over the Shawish, but the Shawish is expected to respect them and not cause trouble because many of the elite establish relationships with the jailers. Those connections can be used to hurt the Shawish.
I got to know Abu-Ibrahim the day I entered the ward No.12. That first day I had five cigarettes and a lighter that I somehow managed to keep well-hidden and bring safely into the cell. I saw Abu-Ibrahim sitting and looking in the faces of the newcomers. When I saw him looking at me, I tried to make my way toward him, careful not to come too close to anybody. One of the elite—the car thief—shouted at my face and ordered me to go back to my spot. He scared me, to be honest. I didn’t expect to be treated as though I had intentionally crossed into his private property. He would have shot me if he had a gun, so I stepped back quickly. But Abu-Ibrahim called me to come over to him and ordered the thief to shut up. I approached his bed and he nodded to me to sit near him on the mattress lying on the floor of the dormitory. So I did.
Me: Thank you so much for your kindness. My name is Anas. I wanted to ask you if you would like to smoke a cigarette with me.
Abu-Ibrahim: Do you have one?
Me: I have five.
Abu-Ibrahim: You are lucky they did not find those cigarettes with you. Yes, I would like to smoke one with you. You can call me Abu Ibrahim. What is the reason are you here?
I lit one of the cigarettes and told my story. When I finished, I asked him the same question: Why are you here and how long have you been in this place?
Abu-Ibrahim: I do not know where to start, but we desert dwellers love to hunt. In the past, hunting was a way of survival, the source of our food. For many today, hunting is just an enjoyable hobby. I am a good hunter. I spent most of my youth on the hunting grounds. Even on the night of my wedding, I had gone out hunting just to be mentally prepared for that night. My mother once told me, “Hunting will be a reason for your end one day.” I think she said that in response to my severe irritation with the hunting rifles we had back then. Nevertheless, my mother’s prophecy was fulfilled. I was returning from a hunting trip with one of my friends in mid-summer 2011. We were on our desert bikes with our rifles when we were stopped at a checkpoint by a Political Intelligence branch. When they saw our rifles, they immediately threw us to the ground and started beating us. No questions—they just attacked us. They put us on a bus with other civilians who they have also beaten. When the bus was full, we were sent to the Political Security Branch prison, where I attended the first and only investigation about my supposed crime. Everything after that has just been a few questions.
The investigation was about our hunting rifles. I tried many times to explain that I had licenses for each hunting rifle I owned. But when they heard that I owned more than one, the beating intensified and they had no interest in seeing the evidence. Things then escalated: the issue began with possession of weapons and developed into the accusation that I was dealing with external parties to undermine state security.
Throughout my torture, I was suspended from my ankles and my fingers were nearly touching the ground. I was subjected to all kinds of beating and electric shocks while I stated the truth and denied their accusations about belonging to hostile outside parties. But I eventually reached the limits of what I could endure. When I could no longer feel my hands, I was willing to say anything to be released from suspension and brought down to the ground. Torture works for the torturers. And that was my end, I think.
I did something no reasonable person would do. I told the jailers I was ready to say anything, as long as they let me down and gave me some water. I was so distraught that I told them I was willing to sign a paper they could later fill out as they wished.
When they heard this, a perverse sense of success shone in their eyes. They brought me down, put a pen in my hand, and indicated to me where to sign. The paper was blank. I signed and was sent out after they announced this as the end of my investigation.
That evening, one of my tormentors came and told me I would stay here for several months until the road between the desert and Damascus is ready to cross. But before he closed the dormitory door, he turned and said, “By the way, I forgot to tell you that we registered your confession as possessing over a hundred guns. You distributed these to the rebels.” As he walked away, I became numb to all my pain and my broken bones. I went into shock knowing I was imprisoned for unjust and inhumane reasons. I was a political pawn.
After three months they transferred me to this prison and I have been here for a year and two months. I have told all the jailers my story and many believe me because back then there was no free army or anyone fighting the government. It makes no sense to arrest an apolitical desert hunter in the middle of nowhere, but they agreed on the mistake that I made—signing a blank paper under torture. My case was referred to the military court, and no one comes out innocent or alive from those trials. So here I wait for the moment of execution with a smile, because I know that I will die an innocent man. Can we smoke another cigarette, please?
His question jolted me back to the present. I looked into his eyes and recognized a contentment that has no explanation—the smile on the face of one waiting for the unknown. I smiled back and handed him another cigarette.
During my imprisonment, I held a lot of love in my heart for Abu Ibrahim, for his kindness and patience for us—the one hundred detainees.
I watched him every night, as he looked long at the window, this grave’s window. I could feel him flying away with his imagination, dreaming about reaching his family and children. If only this were a nightmare he could wake up from. Abu Ibrahim was a source of strength for everyone and was full of optimism while everyone was awake. When he told me his story, he had already spent a year and two months in this dormitory. According to others who survived our imprisonment, he was detained for another year. After our release, we tried to communicate with his family and relatives, but it was a dead-end.
The jailers always promised the elite they would get out sooner or later, so the elite were able to enjoy themselves. They could lie down and sleep without anyone touching them, and they always received extra rations of food and cigarettes. They were rarely sent out for punishment, as they often promised to help the Shawish get out. But Abu Ibrahim remained for two years.
During my imprisonment, I witnessed the release of the ill-mannered sheikh, who used to kick anyone who touched his blanket/bed. He would often step and trample on others while making his way to the toilet in the corner of the dormitory. Never apologizing or even giving eye contact to show he was sorry to step on us. When he was released, everyone was happy to be rid of his baseness and trampling. And I think that day was one of the few you saw the joy in the faces of the detainees, as we were finally free of a great annoyance for good.
The release of the car thief was a joy for many as well. I do not know the full details of his story, but I heard that he stole a car whose trunk was full of anti-government leaflets, and he was arrested during a search at a security checkpoint. He was arrested and later confessed to having stolen the car. Since it was not his property, he was sentenced to spend eight months in Dormitory No. 12.
He was a terrible man full of hatred toward Muslims. He was the only person in our cell from a Christian family. But he was also an atheist, so we were careful to not be seen by him when we prayed. If he saw someone praying, he would shout out their name and jump fast to knock on the cell door to alert the jailors. The jailers would pour out their anger on that person.
His release was a moment of great joy. We all congratulated ourselves as we congratulated him: Ah finally you will be leaving us in peace and we will never see you again! This was one of the very few hilarious moments, and I still laugh every time I remember it.
So, no matter how many thorns line your path, may tranquility guide you along the way. Know that true souls become the stars on the roof of your tent. So when you leave, leave a part of your heart for them, for they may need it to warm them when you are gone.