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Plucking Out the Heart of Power: Al-Qawqa`a

[The cover of Mustafa Khalifa's Al-Qawqa`a. Image from unknown archive] [The cover of Mustafa Khalifa's Al-Qawqa`a. Image from unknown archive]

“I looked at the people. I examined their faces – that apathy…I wondered, how many of them know what happened and is happening in the desert prison? I wondered, how many of them care? Is this “the people” the politicians talk about so much?...Is it possible that this great people don’t know what’s happening in their own country? If they don’t, it’s a catastrophe. If they know but do nothing to change it, that’s an even bigger catastrophe…”

When Mustafa Khalifa is transferred from Tadmur prison to a state security branch in Damascus after over a decade of imprisonment, he watches the people hurrying about their daily business on the street. Do they know what is happening in Syria?

It’s an unlikely question to begin this reading of Al-Qawqa`a (The Shell) (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2008) which belongs to the growing literary family of prison narratives in Arabic. Khalifa’s memoirs of his years (1982-1994) in Tadmur and numerous state security jails are mandatory reading for any study of prisons and torture in Syria. But here I want to begin with the somewhat anachronistic ring this question has today. Now that the Syrian people have taken to the streets, the crisis of apathy - or what looked like apathy - is over. But even as a host of urgent new questions are arising in Syria, Khalifa’s doubts echo a political moment that has not yet ended. It was one in which state oppression was publicly, but silently, understood. There has been much talk about silence in Syria, the very real culture of fear, but Khalifa’s bitter questions get at a neglected consequence of this silence for society more broadly. The trouble with the silence of the people walking by is that you just can’t tell: are they afraid…or ignorant? Do they oppose violent regime tactics, or do they support them in their hearts? If they know what’s happening…won’t they act?? These questions remain crucial because they get at the possibility of trust in a shared ethics, a foundation of a society. Today, this silence is being forced into extinction as the regime’s increasingly brutal response to the uprising polarizes the country. Some have stepped into the open to initiate the complex process of building a political culture that would encompass difference and disagreement in Syria. But their work is under threat - literally, from violent regime repression and, less overtly but no less insidiously, from the persistence of Assad-era modes of political engagement (even, at times, in opposition circles). This reading of Al-Qawqa`a springs from a desire to think about the legacy of recent politics (and its restrictions) in Syria in continuity with the work of the contemporary uprising. In it, I try to explore what Khalifa’s text shows of the individual and his relationships with his fellow citizens in the ‘absolute’ space of Syrian power – the colossal Tadmur prison, which reopened only months ago.[1]

The memoir begins as Khalifa returns to Syria after years in France and is arrested at the airport. He learns that he is accused of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. He tells his captors that he is a Christian and an atheist to boot – it must all be a mistake. His effort to exonerate himself, which he repeats in Tadmur, backfires. With Kafkaesque logic, his interrogators inform him that he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood - why else would he be in prison? They decide his crime is more serious than that of his Muslim peers and that he “deserves to die twice.” He does, in fact, come close to death from skin loss under torture. This scene introduces a somewhat underinformed expatriate to the logic of the Syrian state’s explosive conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 – an “us against them” narrative that legitimated the existence of Tadmur and all its crimes.

So what exactly is the logic of power at work in Tadmur? The early sections of the memoir are caught up with Khalifa’s initiation into the prison, where the ‘welcoming committee’ of guards put on a show of bludgeoning prisoners to death. The point? To make everyone drink from the prison’s sewer water, after which they are also beaten. These scenes epitomize the thematics of prison power: violence, humiliation. While the former is frighteningly haphazard, the latter is almost scientific in its precision, designed to reach the smallest details of the prisoner’s self and body. The result is a permanent state of fear.

A striking feature of the memoir is the enforcement of the appearance of total submission: prisoners may not raise their heads, open their eyes, scratch an itch, sit up at night, or pray. This discipline is part of a state logic that relied on appearances, language, and gestures to diagnose whether a citizen is loyal or an enemy (note: these are the only possible categories). Each prisoner in Tadmur was classified as an enemy – whether for telling a joke about the president, performing the Haj, or taking up arms against the state. Once in place, the diagnosis is incontestable.

After Khalifa is released from Tadmur into the custody of numerous security branches, this logic of appearances is taken to its extreme. His interrogator scoffs that he can’t be Muslim Brotherhood because he’s Christian. But, he must belong to an opposition organization. The apolitical Khalifa is asked to write his life story over and over again. Each version is returned – the words failing to conform to the diagnosis. The resurgence of torture at this late stage (including “ghosting” – crucifixion) is the desperate work of uncovering the mysterious organization that haunts the interrogators. Here, al-Qawqa`a recalls Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which brilliantly details the torturer’s futile quest to dig below the surface of the skin and reveal the ‘truth’ of sought out guilt. In successive branches of the intelligence services, the torture becomes more frantic as each branch tries to outdo its peers in ‘efficiency’ and loyalty to their leader. They, too, have their appearances to maintain.

Up to this point, al-Qawqa`a resembles many other prison novels. However, this memoir stands out for tracing what happens after this logic of power and its correlate, fear, take root. While the state bellows its Manichean narrative – the background to all these events - Khalifa describes the diverse individuals in his cell, approximately 300 Muslim men accused of conspiring against the state with Islamic organizations. Some are determined killers; others are pacifist sheikhs. The majority seem to be people whose relationship to their faith is severely tested and transformed through their prison experience. One has the impression of so many individuals speaking in languages that a blustering state is incapable of understanding. It can accept only one of two messages: loyalty to the president or treachery. The complexity of society withdraws to take place out of official sight, out of official hearing. And yet Khalifa has no place in this community for a decade – why?

Khalifa is at first accepted, but when rumors spread that he is an infidel (an atheist) and – perhaps worse - a spy for the state, he is shunned. No one speaks to him. No one looks him in the eye. A group of the extremist prisoners (al-mutashaddidin) threaten his life, but he is saved by the intervention of a moderate sheikh. From that moment, Khalifa begins to construct the key image of the memoir: his shell.

“Soon, a shell with two walls began to take shape around me. One wall was formed by their hatred for me. I was swimming in a sea of hatred, animosity and loathing, and I tried hard not to drown in that sea. The other wall was built from my fear of them!

I opened a window in the hard wall of my shell and began to spy on the cell from inside. It was the only thing I was capable of.”

A qawqa`a is the shell into which a snail, for example, withdraws to protect itself. The imagery of withdrawal is prominent in encounters with the prison guards: the body’s shrinking self-protection from their whips, the prisoner’s shriveled penis that the guards mock when he is forced to strip naked. But, as the quotation indicates, another, more permanent shell of hatred and fear is built mutually between Khalifa and his fellow prisoners. All that is left to him is watching in silence. And what begins as an active decision will become habit. After two years, Khalifa notes that he no longer yearns for someone to talk to; he begins to withdraw into his shell of his own volition.

Why does he withdraw? The most obvious layer here is driven by the religious interpretation, voiced by some of the prisoners, in which a Muslim has a duty to kill – or at least shun - an atheist. However, their opponents in the cell argue that only God can know what is in a man’s heart. In other words, the issue is up for heated debate. Fear of the state also plays an important role; some believe that Khalifa will spy on them and report to the prison guards. In a world where fear is king, the smallest hint of doubt is sufficient to set this rumor ablaze. In a particularly sad moment, one of the fida’i prisoners voluntarily takes 500 lashes in Khalifa’s place. He is touched, surprised - but then he learns that it is because ‘the cell’ wants to block his contact with the prison authorities. Despite this apparent consensus, though, individual prisoners whisper to him that they know he’s not a spy. While this provides some comfort to Khalifa, the damage is done for years to come. In the cell, his loyalty is by no means decided, but out of fear the group will act as though it were.

In other words, what is emphatically not debatable is the decision of the community to ostracize him. The community has spoken –not on complex questions of belief or loyalty, which they continue to debate – but on its ability to assert a collective ruling with no clear source. Fearing a similar fate, most will obey. And, with time, the need for each prisoner to appear obedient to this unwritten law – regardless of his real feelings about Khalifa - obliterates the original reasons for his ostracism. He, in the face of this homogenous surface, cannot identify who is his friend, who is his enemy. Living in silence, he cannot be absolved of suspicion. Distrust sets in.

The significant point here is that, in an atmosphere of total fear, the disruption that Khalifa presented to the cell’s stability – whether a real or imagined threat, as the men acknowledge – could not absorbed into this community. This is not some inherent characteristic of the prisoners in Tadmur; it is a response to the structures of power in place. Here, I am treating Tadmur not as a microcosm but as the absolute endpoint of a spectrum of power asserted by the state. Al-Qawqa`a, in its extremity, highlights the devastating consequences of spreading fear in a society: hindering trust between individuals and raising the stakes of differences to dealbreakers.

Lest I give the impression that al-Qawqa`a despairs of an inclusive Syrian society, I should note that Khalifa does not remain ostracized. He emerges from his shell to defend himself when a prisoner demands his execution. Significantly, he does so by asserting his right to keep the true nature of his beliefs to himself, and many (though not all) of his cellmates accept him on this basis. Indeed, spying – which relies on nothing if not the notion that appearances will lead us to the heart of the mystery - turns out to be a somewhat useless pastime in a memoir where everyone is spying on everyone else. The guards police the prisoners; the prisoners police the invisible group line; and Khalifa watches. But after his silence is broken and he establishes a friendship with another prisoner, he is shocked to learn that he watched his ‘soulmate’ for a decade without recognizing him. In his years of analyzing and categorizing his cellmates, he saw very little of them. In al-Qawqa`a, it is simple daily contact, shared tastes and beliefs – not party affiliations - that will build enduring relationships. As an editorial to this resolutely apolitical memoir, I am tempted to add – those relationships may be the foundations of new political formations.

The text attests to the depth of the relationships built through shared social life in one of its most powerful scenes. It is so brief – a single sentence – that it almost passes the reader by. Upon his release, Khalifa learns that his parents died during his imprisonment. He goes to their graves. The stones stand between him and Mecca; he opens his hands and spontaneously recites the Muslim funeral prayer. Now, no matter how beautiful, this scene resists any effort to render it a Pollyanna-ish celebration of religious co-existence. Because in Tadmur, this prayer marked the repeated and violent taking of human life. It was ingrained in him along with the scars of torture. And yet, this prayer finally marks his integration into a true community. This paradox has to be allowed to stand with neither whitewashing nor despair.

When he is released after more than thirteen years, Khalifa once again studies the faces of the people in the streets. He notices something new in Damascus:

“The dust! The dust covered everything in the city: the roads, the streets, the walls. Everything was covered in a thin layer of soft yellow dust…The people washed and dried their faces, but the dust remained. It seemed to be stuck to their faces or to be a part of them!...I was too afraid to ask anyone about the dust.”

It is a rare moment when Khalifa drifts away from his rather journalistic prose into metaphor. This yellow dust that coats the faces of the people distorts their smiles and ages them. He dwells on this image before noting his fear – he will never ask anyone to explain it. I want to connect this image to an earlier section in the memoir, when a dust storm coats the faces and bodies of the prisoners in Tadmur. Miraculously, the winds carry a newspaper page into the cell, and it sticks to the ceiling. Over 300 pairs of eyes stare at it through the dust, willing it to fall; they haven’t had news of the outside world in years. When it does fall, it turns out to be a sports page. But the prisoners devour it anyway and appoint a “minister” to regulate who reads this precious page, their connection to the society they’ve been deprived of.

The dust that covers the faces of passersby in Damascus is a similarly bittersweet image, already a relic of a time before March 15th 2011. We might read it as a kind of response to the question I posed, via Khalifa, at the beginning of this article. Yes, many Syrian people did know what was happening in their country, and the same winds that blew through Tadmur touched them and their lives in the most quotidian and inescapable ways. The painful doubts that Khalifa, still in his shell even after his release, expresses about his fellow citizens – Do they know? Will they care enough to act? – are being assuaged at this very moment by the Syrian people who are risking everything to demand their dignity and the dignity of their fellow citizens. The barrier of silence that kept him from posing his questions to the people in the streets is broken, as those streets pulse with so many voices that demand new modes of dialogue and understanding. No matter what paths the Syrian uprising takes in the coming months and years, the legacy of the power structures that dominated the country for decades must and will be reckoned with. At stake in this work will be the building of a new Syrian politics, a new Syrian society – one that only the Syrian people can choose.

* Hamlet 3:2; “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.”

[1] Tadmur prison is said to hold up to 10,000 prisoners and was reopened in June 2011. Yassin Haj Saleh dubbed Tadmur the “absolute prison”; cited in Shareah Taleghani’s review of the memoir in Syrian Studies Association Newsletter 14.2 (2009) Spring Issue.


1 comment for "Plucking Out the Heart of Power: Al-Qawqa`a"


I am looking at this article from outside the outside some 5000 miles away from the revolution that is happening in Syria. I am sensitive but removed from the life of people in the streets and those who were and are in the prisons. I pray that a time of freedom from repression is being born in the streets and will connect the two populations together in Syria and tie them to the larger evolution that is washing across the Middle East, North Africa and our entire globe.

larry snider wrote on November 17, 2011 at 06:44 AM

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