About My Mother, a book by Tahar Ben Jelloun
About My Mother, a book by Tahar Ben Jelloun

A look at the Arab writers who have highlighted the pain and poetry of prison

From Prisoner Cell Block H to Orange is the New Black, prison dramas fill the Anglo-Saxon screen. In the Arab world, you're more likely to see them on the news. In recent months, for example, detainees of the Syrian regime have staged an uprising in Hama prison and been assaulted in Suwayda prison.

No surprise then that contemporary Arab writing features prisons so prominently, sometimes as setting, more often as powerful metaphor.

About My Mother, the latest novel by esteemed Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun (who writes in French), is an affectionate but unromantic portrait of his parent trapped by incoherence. The old lady suffers dementia, mistaking times, places and people, but there is a freedom in her long monologues, the flow of memory and shifting scenes, torrents of speech which eventually infect the narration.

The novel is family memoir and social history as well as an experiment with form. Jelloun’s mother was married three times, and widowed first at 16. At the first wedding, the attendants presenting the bride chorus: “See the hostage. See the hostage.”

Fettered by tradition and domestic labour, now by illness and age, she responds with superstition, fatalism and resignation. Her own confinement is echoed by memories of national oppression, first by the French, then by homegrown authorities. She learns to mistrust the police even before her son Tahar’s student years are interrupted by 18 months in army disciplinary camp, punishment for his low-level political activism. “That’s what a police state is,” the adult writes, “arbitrary punishment, cruelty and barbarity.”

Yet the ultimate prison here is death, frailly resisted by language and dreams.

Jelloun has also written about prison as a lived experience. His 2001 "non-fiction novel" This Blinding Absence of Light is loosely based on the actual testimony of Aziz Binebine, refigured here as Salim. Salim "became ageless on the night of July 10th 1971". In this historical respect his story is somewhat representative of the many who disappeared from sight as the Arab security states consolidated themselves in the early 1970s.

Salim was a junior officer, a dazed participant (following orders) in the first attempted coup against King Hassan II. Formally sentenced to 10 years, he spent almost 18 in Tazmamart, a secret, underground prison. The law itself may be lenient or harsh, it makes no difference; once imprisoned you move beyond all notion of law or justice. This arbitrariness is itself the key point of the system.

Salim is entirely cut off from his past life. “I could only communicate in thought with the world above.” In the presence of scorpions and cockroaches, and the ravening absence not only of light but also hygiene, medical care, motion, time, sex and hope, men murder themselves, or die of diarrhoea, hunger or hatred. In Cell Block B, the darkened scene of all the action, 19 of 23 men die.

As a means of survival, the survivors speak to each other. One, working by intuition, serves as the timekeeper; another as the Quran reciter. Salim is the storyteller, remembering aloud Balzac and Camus, even the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire. His tales sustain the prisoners to such an extent that one dies when Salim is too ill to talk.

A westerner might read these books for the same reason they read thrillers, or accounts of mountaineering – because they depict the protagonist in extremity (and this is a fine reason to read). But in contemporary Arab literatures prison is an enormous theme, an entire category in its own right. These stories from the buried frontline of dictatorship bear significance for the whole of society.

In Dancing in Damascus, her soon-to-be published analysis of Syrian revolutionary art, cultural critic and Arabist Miriam Cooke argues for the proto-revolutionary nature of prison writing, its role as prefigurer if not catalyst of revolt. Certainly these texts formed a whispered counter-current when Syria was known as a "kingdom of silence". Cooke suggests their authors were truth tellers who re-established value after its defeat by the vast propaganda system. The possibility of honest speech ultimately made resistance possible.

Such a writer is the polar opposite to the tamed state intellectual, imaged in Jelloun’s novel by Salim’s father, a courtier, actually the king’s court jester, who tells jokes in return for favours. Who publicly disowns his prisoner son.

In Iraq, prison writing straddles the regime change, from "Saddam City", Mahmoud Saeed's fierce portrayal of Baathist prisons, to Hassan Blasim's character (in the occupation-era story The Reality and the Record) who pleads so effectively on ransom videos he ends up being sold, perpetually, from one militia to another. A thousand tyrants have replaced one, Iraqis often say. The prisons are endlessly replicated.

Prisons inevitably mean torture, perpetrated not to glean information but to display unadulterated power. Its enactment follows the same logic behind an ISIL atrocity video, or an Elizabethan hanging, drawing and quartering.

Intelligent regimes don't advertise it abroad, though the domestic audience should know and be suitably frightened. But inside the interrogation chamber the immediate audience is the torturers themselves. For them it becomes a matter of habit. Bara Sarraj, author of From Tadmor to Harvard, an account of incarceration in Syria's notorious Tadmor prison, describes a newly arrived guard at first trembling in the torture room, but dealing blows with visible pleasure after a couple of weeks.

In The Treachery of Language and Silence, poet Faraj Bairaqdar calls Tadmor "the kingdom of death and madness". Leftist intellectual Yassin Al Haj Saleh was another long-term inmate. Rejecting easy categorisation, he calls his memoir, With Salvation, O Youth: Sixteen Years in Syrian Prisons, "a matter of concern" rather than "prison literature".

The most celebrated account of the Tadmor experience is Moustafa Khalifa's The Shell. Khalifa is a Christian accused of Muslim Brotherhood membership, but in actual fact he's an atheist, which means he's doubly cast out, shunned by the Islamist prisoners too. The prison is an absurd realm where logic is as alien as justice. Freed detainees talk of meeting children inside, hostages held to pressure an activist relative to surrender, or simply by mistake.

A realm of unreason. Activist AbdulRahman Jalloud (who was interviewed for Burning Country, the book that I co-authored) told us he would deliberately break prison rules (staying longer than a minute in the toilet, for instance) in order to increase his torture, because he preferred physical pain to the mental torments of solitary confinement. AbdulRahman gave us another paradox: "Prison was the only place in the country where you didn't see Assad's picture."

And for Jelloun’s Salim, “death turned into a superb ray of sunshine” because funerals in the yard were the only opportunity to breathe the open air.

Salim endures by mental gymnastics, keeping to “the immutable instant” and shutting out the past. His meditations tend towards the spiritual: “Since being condemned to the slow death of bodily decay, I had called unceasingly upon God. The nearness of death, the destruction of all dignity, the perverse oppression lurking around me had pushed me onto the path of this transparent solitude.”

To resign himself to his lot, he must raise a mental barrier to accompany the physical, a screen that cannot be penetrated, not by “dreams, or plans, or the perfume of a rose”. The necessary austerity of this attitude recalls the enthusiasm which too easily turns into violent, traumatised religiosity. After all, Sayyid Qutb’s seminal jihadist texts – so influential today in our prison-bred region – were the offspring of an Egyptian cell.

In 2011, prisons helped spark the Arab Spring and served the gathering counter-revolutions too. The first protests in Libya commemorated Qaddafi’s 1996 slaughter of inmates at Abu Salim prison. Challenged in Egypt, the Mubarak regime’s first response was to release criminals into the streets.

In Syria, once the revolution erupted, the prisons burst their walls and took over everything outside. Mass incarceration overcrowded the dungeons, so hospitals, schools and sports stadiums were converted for use.

At least 200,000 currently languish in the Assadist gulag. But even this repression didn’t staunch the rebellion. When stubborn whispers of resistance give way to the language of bullets, entire cities were made to resemble torture chambers, sealed shut and filled with screams, human entrails, flying fragments of bone. At least 900,000 are currently trapped in such besieged communities.

After four years of siege leading to starvation, the Damascus suburbs of Darayya and Moadamiyeh have finally fallen, the surviving residents deported. How much longer? This is the age of prison breakouts. The people will no longer be buried quietly.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.


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