Edited by: Maggie Rosenau
Falling into Insignificance…
This means the beach becomes millions of small pebbles and the sea a big basin of water. Nothing more.
The rose next to the window is just a plant, and the window is a hole in the cave wall, neither valuable nor the same.
It is all in vain, and you are a void among all this.
12 April 2013
The cold reminds you of nothing but warmth—the warmth of mothers, the warmth of the sex of a lover, the warmth of home and whatever is in it. Being in a grave, hanging on the trembling bodies of others around you, looking for warmth in the sweat of their pores—there is no warmth here. Even prisons full of people can be cold. This is already understood.
In the cold winter days, the guards would ventilate the interior of the prison by running large fans mounted on the walls of the corridors to bring the outside air into the prison basement. This was done only on cold days as a form of torture.
On extremely hot days, we would call the guards and ask them to turn on the fans. They argued that these were noisy and disturbing, and that the other guards were asleep. Once, when an elderly detainee had suffocated from heat and lack of oxygen, we begged a guard for the fans, but all he did was order the dead body to be taken outside. Nothing more.
One morning, the fans were running and I woke up to a cold and quiet ward with everyone covering their bodies with blankets. No one talked and no one moved; it was as if everyone were dead. Sometimes you’d feel someone slowly pass by you to urinate and with the same ease walk back to his place and return to silence. Indeed, the cold did not bother us as much as the heat did, which was slowly killing us. This same morning I was telling myself I should take a shower. Since it was freezing cold here, a few days had passed since I had showered. The water was cold as usual. I didn’t get word that any of the older prisoners had been able to shower with hot or even warm water. The shower was installed above the toilet in the cabin located in the left corner of the inner dormitory.
After countless minutes of hesitating and dreading the water temperature, I decided to finally enter the booth and have a quick rinse. I told my friend “Khaled,” who was sitting next to me, to make himself comfortable in my area until I got back so I wouldn’t have to fight and push the other’s to get back to my place. I had to really gather myself to stand up because I felt buried under dozens of shivering, living, male bodies. After making sure my seat was secure, I stood up and walked towards the booth. No one was looking at me and no one was aware of what was about to happen, or maybe at least what was already happening at that moment.
I went inside and took my clothes off, breathing heavily and shaking violently from the cold. I glanced up at the showerhead, turned on the water, and quickly stepped under it. In a matter of seconds, I began to feel something like warm sparks on my body, and then the need to jump out of the shower. So I did— in shock, This is not what I was expecting, so it took me a long moment to understand that very hot water was coming out of the showerhead.
It happened so fast. The sensation of the shift in temperature on my body, my restraint, and the steam of hot water—I was astonished and immediately locked the door. It would only be a matter of seconds before everyone would be able to see the steam.
I went under the shower and let the warm water hit every inch of my body. It was like a healing miracle I had asked for deep in my heart.
Suddenly, someone from outside shouted, “Is that hot water steam? Who’s in there?” And the person sitting closest to the cabin door said, “Anas is in there!” In the meantime, I was trying as fast as I could to clean the sores on my legs until some camarades outside started shouting and telling me to get out immediately.
I ignored their knocks on the door and locked myself in to enjoy every drop that washed over my body. I have never in my life enjoyed and appreciated a shower as much as the one I had that day. I told them to wait a few more seconds and that I was almost done until the Shawish Abu Ibrahim knocked and said, “Anas, come out now, I have to shower right now.” I recognized his voice immediately and turned off the water, put on my clothes, and unlocked the door. The moment I opened the door, Abu Ibrahim pushed it and came in. He stood in front of me and started to undress. I looked outside the door and saw more than 20 detainees gathered in front of the cabin staring at me. I walked out and made my way to my seat, noticing that everyone was now awake and staring at me. Three minutes ago, when I went into the booth, they were asleep. Some couldn’t believe it and asked me if the water was really hot. “Is it hot or is the steam because it’s cold here?”
No one expected that. The dormitory went from very quiet to extremely loud, which is actually forbidden, but no one cared at that moment.
When Abu Ibrahim entered the booth after almost 40 seconds he came out angrily and ordered everyone to return to their seats because the water had turned cold again. They could have handled it better and quieter, but they were so loud that it was obvious to the guards what was going on inside. When they heard the noise, a guard came and opened the window of the door and asked what was going on. Someone said it was the hot shower. Obviously, they had made a mistake to let hot water into our dormitory, so they turned it off.
Everything felt different to me for a moment. I didn’t care what was going on around me. I went back to my place, as part of the room had been cleared by the gathering around the booth waiting for the shower. I packed up my things and sat on them, leaning my back against the wall, stretching out my legs, and settled into a peaceful state of mind. I was so relaxed that it felt like nothing could ruin this luxurious moment. My muscles were so relaxed and sitting there against the wall, my body comfortable and warm, was pure pleasure and contentment.
At that moment, everything was surreal. To this day, I don’t understand how all those luxurious feelings, content thoughts, and the calm inside me maintained when a voice called out the number seventy-eight. It was as if someone was knocking on my door to wake me up from a dream, or something incomprehensible like that.
The next thing I felt was someone shaking me and telling me to get up quickly as the voice called the number seventy-eight again. When I heard the number for the second time, I convinced myself that I heard the number eighty-seven. Surely no one was calling me because I was lost in the best feeling right then and nothing could destroy that feeling. As the voice screamed out “number seventy-eight!” I opened my eyes, fearfully, and I realized that it was me. I got up and ran to the ward’s door, stepping on those sitting in the way, and stared directly into the eyes of the guard who had called me.
I don’t think it had been two minutes since I left the booth before the call came in. And yet, I was rushing toward an inevitable investigation or torture. So on my way out, I cleared my mind of any peaceful thoughts and mentally prepared myself for the worst.
As I left the dormitory, I stood facing the wall and waited for the guard to close the door. The guard’s name was Maher and he was the most brutal and angry guard I have ever encountered. While I was facing the wall, he yelled and said “Where is your shoe? Somebody throw a shoe at him!” I felt a shoe hit my leg and I turned around to put it on. I remember it being too big for my foot.
He closed the door and said, “Follow me now!”
The guard started running with remarkably loud and fast steps while I followed him. We prisoners are not allowed to look at what is around us while we are outside the dormitory. We were instructed to always keep our eyes to the ground. I walked behind him through the underground corridors up to the stairs, trying not to lose that one large shoe from my feet and also trying not to look around, so as not to lose sight of his steps.
“Faster, faster you son of a bitch!”
When we arrived at the first floor, where all the investigations began, he ordered me to cover my eyes with one of the sleeping masks from the box next to the stairs. I covered them while he watched me just to make sure. Until that moment, I wasn’t sure if I was called in for an examination or something else. What is with the rush? This had never happened before. Examinations were always put on hold. Guards would make us stand along the stairs and face the wall, just to hear other prisoners screaming from torture. But now it was rather quiet. Besides, they usually called us for examinations in the evening, not in the late morning. I was so confused.
When the guard was convinced I had covered my eyes, he ordered me to follow him again. He began running again and I followed after. All I could see and hear under the blindfold were the steps of my feet and the sound of doors opening and closing behind me. We then came to a large door that opened right as we reached it. When the door opened, I felt a cold breeze suddenly hit my whole body, and I knew at once I was outside of the prison.
Maher shouted, “Bring a jeep here quickly!” Someone answered him from a distance, “No jeep, but the car is coming!” After twenty seconds or so, a car quickly drove toward me and parked. I heard a door open and was forced to get into the car. This all happened while my eyes were covered, and I could only listen to what was going on around me. Am I in the backyard where they execute prisoners? Why the car then? Are they going to execute me here or somewhere else? Or maybe they are going to move me to another prison? That happens often—prisoners are moved to other prisons when the branch has something against them! But then why didn’t they order me to take my stuff with me? Maybe it is actually an execution. The thought made me shiver.
I got into the car and two armed soldiers pushed me into the middle of the back seat with their rifles and sat beside me. There was a moment of silence. No one said a word. It was as if they were waiting too. Then, the soldier on my right started poking me with his rifle saying words like murder, traitor, sold your country for money, etc., while the other soldier kept to himself. As the first soldier continued to poke me with his rifle, I asked, “sir, may I say something?”
The soldier: What do you have to say?
Me: Sir, my body may not have lice because I just took a shower five minutes ago, but I swear my clothes are full of lice. I’m only saying this so I don’t harm you by getting lice on your uniform.
When I said that, both soldiers kind of jumped away from me and held onto the doors. The soldier on my right also stopped nudging me. A few moments later, someone got into the car in the passenger seat. This person turned out to be the head of the Investigations Department. That was the title he used when he began to question me as the car drove off.
Investigator: Number seventy-eight! I’m the head of the investigation department, so don’t try to get smart here, I know literally everything about you and what you’ve done. Now tell me where you hide the weapons and the Thuraya device?
Me: Sir, I have been charged with both of those offenses, and I have been beaten several times by officers trying to find out where I hid things that I have never seen or touched before. Sir, I swear I don’t even know what this Thuraya device looks like, I have never seen it before, and I only found out about it when I was first questioned here.
Investigator: I just told you not to lie and try to get smart, we’ll find out soon anyway.
Me: Sir, may I ask you for a favor?
Investigator: And what is that now?
Me: Sir, can you uncover my eyes, I promise I won’t look at your faces, I just want to see the road and the life out there.
Investigator: Hmm, alright! Just for a while. But you have to answer my questions. Uncover his eyes!
When the soldier to my left uncovered my eyes, I looked to the window behind him and was so amazed by what I saw—daylight, fresh air, highways, side streets and people walking on them, stores and restaurants with people shopping and eating, cars passing by, and people avoiding looking at me. It was as if they knew exactly what was going on in the car, or they looked away after realizing what or who was in the car. And then the colors! So many colors! I was so amazed at how many colors I was seeing. It seemed as though not much had changed outside, but me—I had changed a lot. In that moment, while noticing so many details, it occurred to me just how foreign the luxury of living on the outside had become. I had even lost a sense of experiencing colors beyond gray. But maybe none of that matters anymore.
Investigator: Seventy-eight! Where is your brother now?
Me: I’m not sure sir, I’ve been locked in the cell for more than 4 months, so I really can’t help in this matter!
Investigator: I meant where is he staying, his friends, what is he doing now, school or university, where does he prefer to stay?
Me: Well, the last thing I know, he’s a third-year senior in high school, so he could be anywhere, I don’t know what school he’s enrolled in now.
Investigator: What about your mother, is she home now?
Me: Sir, I don’t know what my family has been up to for some time. What day is today?
Investigator: It’s Saturday afternoon!
Me: She might be at my grandparents’ now, but sir, what about my mother?
Investigator: No need to worry. Do you know where we are going now?
Me: I asked myself that question the moment you took me out of the building, sir.
Investigator: I think you know this road, don’t you? Tell the driver where you live!
Me: Yes sir, that’s the street where I used to live, you will go straight to the big mosque.
Investigator: Then take the first street to the right after the mosque, pass two more streets on the left and turn onto the third. There, in the first building on the second floor, we will find your family home! We know all about you, seventy-eight!
Are they taking me home? Is this a release? But I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone else—that they released someone and took him home! Now that we’ve passed the big mosque, there’s no doubt we are heading to my neighborhood where I grew up, and where I might meet my family again today. Why is everything so surreal today? First the hot water and now I’m outside! Are they messing with me? Is this a game? Is it a different kind of torture? And why am I suddenly so scared and frightened? Something is definitely not right here.
When we turned onto the street after the mosque, the investigator ordered the soldier next to me to cover my eyes again—which he did—and I went back to not seeing anything, or maybe to not being recognizable to others. I dismissed the hope that they were taking me home, but the car suddenly stopped, all four doors opened, and everyone except the driver left the car.
The investigator called out at that moment and said, “You stay with him, the rest follow me now!”
Then I heard several footsteps hit the ground, fast and hard. I was sure that more than five soldiers had passed by the car. I don’t know exactly where we were parked and had no idea what was going on!
When I heard the soldier who had stayed behind light up a cigarette, I turned to his direction.
Me: Sir, can you please uncover my eyes just for a minute? I just want to see my street!
Soldier: I am not allowed to do that—it could cause me trouble with my commander.
Me: Please sir, just for one minute. I miss this place and I don’t know if I will ever have the chance to see it again.
Soldier (asking the driver): Can we uncover his eyes for a minute?
Driver: It’s not my business. If you want to do it, then do it, but then cover him again before the investigator comes back!
When the cover was removed from my eyes, I saw my street, full of soldiers—maybe twelve soldiers—standing in front of my house, waiting for someone to open the door.
It appeared we were parked at the entrance to the street, blocking it so no one could enter or leave. People opened their doors and several women from my neighborhood quickly approached the soldiers. I knew at once that my mother was not home, but my sisters were.
I know, because this was a method among the mothers in Damascus—one they used to protect others’ homes in their absence when their daughters were home alone. They tell the other women in the street to guard their homes and daughters in case of an arrest campaign. A soldier confirmed this as he came back to the car to say my mother was not home, but my older sister was.
Then a man with deep red hair walked out of my house and started to approach. I recognized him. He was our French teacher who helped us learn the language after school. He was obviously scared and seemed to just be trying to leave the street. When he got close enough to look me in the eyes, he recognized me and gave me a sympathetic smile.
I looked around and watched this scene with tears in my eyes. When the soldier near the car noticed my feelings, he too seemed to feel sorry for me:
Soldier: Don’t even think about crying now. You are a man, so act like one! Do you smoke?
Me: Yes sir, I smoke!
The soldier lit a cigarette and handed it to me.
Soldier: Do you know the red-haired man? He looked at you like he knew you!
Me: Yes sir, he was my French teacher. I think he teaches my sister. She is doing her high school graduation exams.
Soldier: How long have you been detained?
Me: Since last December. Today is day number 124!
Soldier: What are you being charged with?
Me: For possession of a Thuraya satellite phone and a rifle.
Soldier: And have you had them or do you know anyone who has?
Me: Certainly not, I’m a 20-year-old student. If I really had something like that, the authorities would be able to find it after 124 days! Wouldn’t they?
Soldier: Well I’m 21 years old. Being our age, there is no reason for them to think you’ve never had a gun. Besides, I’m not here to question you. Everyone in this country has been screwed and affected by this war for the last two years. I hope you get out soon if you’re really innocent.
Me: Sir, why did they bring me here and what will happen to me now?
Soldier: I don’t know, I was ordered to participate in this mission! Hey, they’re back, throw that cigarette away, quick!
I threw the cigarette out the window and the driver called out, “Cover your eyes now!
Before I pulled the cover over my head, I took one last look at my street. I saw soldiers walking out of my house, one by one. Two of them were holding desktop computers. I recognized one of these as my own computer. The other was new; maybe someone had bought it when I was in prison. Other soldiers were holding electrical devices like portable playstation, some mp3 and mp4 players, and the rest had bags in their hands, probably full of as many CDs and DVDs as they could find.
They were walking toward the car when I noticed a woman stop next to the car and look carefully as if to make sure if it was really me. The driver yelled at me again to cover my eyes, which I did.
The woman approached the window and asked:
Neighbor woman: Anas, is that you?
Neighbor woman: Are you okay?
Me: Yes, I’m fine, will you tell my mother!
Driver: Go away!
Neighbor woman: I will tell her! Take care of yourself—your parents are doing their best to get you out!
The soldiers then passed by her to open the car and load the things they had taken from my house. The chief of the investigation shouted for everyone to get into the cars, which they did.
There were apparently many cars, as I heard several doors close, but I didn’t dare look to see how many there were. I stayed silent as we drove off and left the area. I thought about the same questions I was asking myself when they drove me out here. What now? What might come next, and what the hell just happened at my house? Why had they brought me here, and where were they taking me now?
investigator: Your mother was not at home as you suspected. She is with your grandparents. Your sister and her friend were inside with the French teacher. After the women went in, we entered the house and took all the digital and media devices we could find. Once we check that everything is clean, we will return these. We did not find any weapons, but we will verify that later.
Me: What’s going to happen to me now, sir?
Investigator: Nothing! You will be taken back to your ward until we call your number again!
Then, silence. No one spoke and I felt like I went deaf for a while. I stopped listening to anything going on. Well, at least there’s no execution for me today, if I understood correctly.
There is nothing more to tell, no one spoke to me until we arrived back at the Palestine Branch prison. Disappointment and despair possessed my whole being. I could feel it filling the pores of my soul with emptiness. I don’t know how to explain what I felt when they took me out of the car and led me back to the prison door, or how I felt when I heard the door close behind me as I walked down the stairs to the ward. I walked down a corridor and was ordered to wait for someone with keys to open the door to enter my familiar cramped, warm place.
I stood facing the wall and replayed in my mind everything that had just happened. I could not understand why they had brought me with them. What was the point of taking me there and leaving me in the car? It was like opening the window to promise me freedom and then locking me back in the grave. Of course, no one promised me anything—but all the hopes I had once I saw the sky and the colorful life outside! I really thought that I was finally going to be set free. But here I was, listening to the sound of the door being unlocked and opened to enter Ward No. 12! What a pitiful life.
Once I re-entered, I walked carefully to my seat and laid down with my back against the wall, tucked my head between my legs to hide my face, and began to weep. Khaled, my mate who always sat near me, came up and started checking my body for torture wounds. After finding nothing, he tried to calm me down by hiding my face in his shirt. It took a few minutes for me to regain my composure, then people started asking me what had happened and why I had been called out. I told them everything. The other prisoners were all stunned by this new method of torture. But then again, the guards and soldiers were always surprising us with their brutality and by showing us man at his worst.
Things will always remain the same. There is no real change in this world. Just as the sea is a journey, mood, turmoil, or destiny—it has no real difference, always a massive amount of water.
As for the meaning we give to our experiences in this world, this happens when we perceive things with self awareness. The meaning of our actions and feelings, our senses and impressions of what and how we live, our ability to store memories and also the awareness to forget them—things are always the same whether we exist or not. The beach is simultaneously millions of small, unique pebbles and a reservoir of sadness.