Edited by: Maggie Rosenau
At any point at all this universe – anywhere – you can stand and say: Here is the center, here is the start. And that would be true.
This would be true to say at any point in your life as well.
03, February 2013
The lack of good ventilation and the absence of sunlight in the dormitories was the cause of the spread of many diseases and epidemics, especially head and clothes lice, which was terrifying.
On my first day at Dormitory 12, I was told I would need to clean my clothes at least three times a day, as the lice were in abundance. And on the second of February, head lice had spread to all dormitories, and the jailers had to do something about it in order to keep it from spreading beyond the dormitories.
My hair was long at the time and the itching bothered me. So the jailers decided that morning to shave all the prisoners’ heads. One of the jailers (his name was Hani) opened a small window in the dormitory door to tell us the decision. He made sure to keep his distance from the door, clearly disgusted and fearful that he might become infected.
Hani was a quiet jailer. He did not punish anyone in his shifts. Though at times he would shout and instruct us to keep silent. Each time he opened the door of the dormitory, he looked at me, seemingly full of questions. At least this is what I thought. On February 2, Hani’s primary responsibility was to have our heads shaved. He started the process at dormitory number one and eventually made it to our dormitory, number twelve.
When he arrived, Hani ordered us to come out in groups of five and stand in the corridor facing the wall and wait for our turn. Each time he opened the door to call on the next five inmates, for some reason he looked quietly at me! This sparked an idea. I do not know how or why this idea came to mind, but his glances just said something to me. But my idea required a bit of boldness. Hani was the right person to try this out around because he maintained a calm demeanor and did not punish us. I considered Hani the most humane of all the jailers.
Hani opened the door and called out: who is next? I stood up quickly and raised my hand. Me sir!
Four prisoners and I walked out of the dormitory into the corridor and faced the wall. Hani called us one by one to have our heads shaved while he watched. The task of shaving had been entrusted to one of the dormitory prisoners who was a professional barber. The razor was electric, so it all went very quickly – about two minutes – so I had to take my chance very quickly before I was sent back to the dormitory.
I turned my head away from the wall to look for Hani, who noticed right away that I was searching for him. I think he was about to shout out an order for me to face the wall until our eyes locked and I said: Sir, I want to speak to you alone!
Hani looked at me surprised for a moment, then indicated agreement with a slight nod and gesture to follow him. He walked away from the other jailers and I followed him, my eyes watching every one of his steps.
He stopped at the corner near our dormitory but far enough away from the others so that no one could hear us. Then he said:
Hani: Tell me what is your problem, why you are here in the first place?
Me: Sir, I have been accused of having guns and having questionable connections, and doing theatre productions that are explicitly against the government! But sir, this never happened, I swear. I am just a 20-year old student. The fact that I am here alive and standing in front of you after having been arrested two months ago and questioned every day since proves my innocence. Sir, I appreciate your kindness and everything you do for us. When I look at you I know that you are the only one who can help me!
Hani: Ok, I understand. I will look into your case later to see what the result of the questioning was! However, tell me, how do you think I can help you?
Me: Sir, so simple; you can just reach my father! My family has no idea where I am, or if I am dead or alive! If you could just reach my father, he will do all the rest!
Hani: What is your father’s job? Does he have enough money for this?
Me: My father is a customs broker, sir, and yes, he can pay to get me out of here!
Dear readers, here I should mention that being a customs broker in Syria means you are obscenely rich. Due to the corruption that is permitted by the government, the customs broker can dominate all import and export trucks by collecting high-value commissions in order to allow these trucks to cross. My father is a decent man though. He knows what is right and what is wrong, and his job was is preparing papers for the import-export shipments. He actually has nothing to do with customs directly, though he does have some connections and he has an import/export office.
When I told Hani that my father is a customs broker, I swear his eyes were shining, his speaking changed radically, and he seemed suddenly interested in my case. Then he said:
Hani: So your father can pay two million Syrian pounds? Where does he work and how can I reach him?
Me: Yes sir, he can pay that amount. He has an import-export office in the city center, which you can easily find! But you can’t just go there and tell him all of this. He will not believe you! You need to have proof that you coming as an ally. I can write a short letter explaining my situation and that I sent you to him for help. My own handwriting and signature will be necessary proof for him. Otherwise, he will pay nothing.
Hani: That sounds good. I will do this for you, you seem a nice person and I would like to help you. For now, go have your head shaved and get back to your dormitory. Later this afternoon I will come over with a small paper and a pen for you to write your letter. Also, you need to keep this a secret. Do not tell anyone about this conversation. Now go!
I cannot explain how happy I was! I went back to my place at the wall but was almost jumping from joy on the inside. The sound of the razor was buzzing loudly in the corridor and my turn came. I walked to the barber, stood close to him, and bent forward so he could start shaving my head. Under any other circumstance, having my hair shaved off would have been a sad and uncomfortable thing, But now, as I watched my hair fall into the trash, I was just focused on being happy about what I had just achieved. As the razor glided across my head, I took handfuls of my hair and threw them in the trash with a smile!
After we were clean-shaven, we returned to our dormitory. I kept touching my bald head, and for the first time in months, I felt so comfortable and happy. I don’t know if I felt lighter because of the shave, or because I was able to speak with Hani, or both. The reason was not really important – the important thing was that this was the first time in a very long time that I felt a real psychological comfort.
Back in the dormitory, we all stared at each other, taking time to figure out who each person was with their new look. Everyone burst out laughing at my new look and I laughed with them at first. But then I lifted my finger to my mouth and gestured to keep calm because the jailors were standing in the corridor just outside our door. If they heard us making so much noise they would punish everyone in the dormitory. What would we have to laugh about then?
I returned to my place and the laughter from my fellow inmates continued. My transformation was apparently extreme to them. It was so nice to see them happy and amused, forgetting all the shit that usually happens here. It was so nice to be able to enjoy the moment.
Later that afternoon, Hani opened the small window in the door and looked around for me among about a hundred people. As soon as he saw me, he instructed me to come outside. Yes, sir!! Then he said:
Hani: Here is the pen and the paper. Write to your father the message and tell him that I am coming with another colleague so he will not be sacred!
Me: Yes sir, I will write it, but where?
Hani: Just sit down and write quickly before anyone comes!
So I sat down and wrote to my father this letter:
“Hi dad, it is me, Anas! Am fine and alive. As you see, this is a small bit of paper so I will keep my words short. Dad, I have sent Sir Hani and his colleague to negotiate with you about a payment process to get me out of Prison No. 235. So you know it is your son who is writing this letter, open my drawer and you will see a collection of Chekhov’s theater playbooks. And please don’t sell the scarlet guitar! Keep it for me until I am back. Send my peace to my mother and show her this letter so she can rest assured. I love you both.”
In the end, I signed my own father’s signature to make sure no one would use the letter against me. What I actually did, was play a little trick on Hani! I then gave him the letter and went back to my dormitory. As I sat back down in my place, I turned to the cellmate next to me and told him everything that had just happened, as well as my concerns. My cellmate just looked at me and said: Well, what worries you?
So many things concerned me. Talking to Hani might either save me or keep me here forever. Or I might even face death. You see, because there are two lies in the story I told Hani. If he were smart enough he would have figured this out earlier, but the money-talk blinded him from doing any investigation!
The first lie was about my father’s job. My goal with this was to see Hani’s lust for money, then force him to help me by sending that letter to my father to inform him that I am still alive and in which prison I was.
The second lie was about the payment of my father’s capacity and willingness to pay such a large amount. Deep down, I was certain that my father would never pay any such money to these people! Because something similar had happened before. When my uncle was arrested, my father and his brothers paid more than a million Syrian pounds to get him released. But the people who came for the money tricked us. They kept the ransom for themselves and left my uncle in prison. Who can sue such villains in a country with such great insecurity and an unfair system of justice? My father is no fool and would not make the same mistake. He certainly would not pay without the guarantee of a promised exchange. So this whole situation could become a problem that might lead to more violence on me or my family. How Hani decides to react when my father refuses to pay has me quite concerned.
I could only wait and see. But that night I could not sleep and started imagining detailed scenarios as I sat propped against the wall watching 100 men sleep deeply around me. I tried to stay calm.
To remain calm during a storm is to be able to listen, walk, talk, laugh, pay attention to smells, and do whatever your mind wants without forgetting that you are looking for solutions to your problems and that there is a storm.