[Translated from the Arabic by Sebastian Anstis]
In the beginning was the Word (forbidden)
After we had first tasted the terror of their welcome, they stood us in line against the wall. One of them said severely, pointing to the nearest corner:
“Those who who’ve got books or magazines or newspapers or anything with writing on it, stack it here.”
I wrote many stories during my prison years.
The first three months in the regular Interior Ministry prison were referred to as "the interrogation." After this, friends and family could come for long, unsupervised visits.
In this way books, magazines, notebooks and pens could be smuggled in.
And in this way, our writing could be smuggled out.
During this period, which only lasted a year and three months, I wrote five stories. I smuggled them out with family visits, and they were published eight years later, in Libya and abroad, in my collection "Locally Produced."
In the following nine years I wrote other stories.
Nothing came of them.
This was because we were transferred to a military prison where visits were rare (about four times a year), brief, and subject to intense scrutiny. In the final four years visits were completely banned.
Printed materials were initially prohibited. After repeated petitions – both oral and written – they were permitted with severe restrictions. Radios too were initially prohibited and later permitted. Though they were supposed to be restricted to the near-obsolete AM frequencies, a number of FM and short wave radios made their way into the prison through which one could eavesdrop on wireless communication and even telephone conversations.
And though notebooks and pens were prohibited, we were not punished if the guards found them in our possession. The guards would not enquire about the provenance of the material they confiscated and we would not ask about its fate.
Therefore, some of the more clever inmates – myself not among them – contrived to acquire the tools of our trade via certain guards.
Despite primitive circumstances not unlike those prior to the invention of paper, I wrote nine stories of which I personally believe that at least three were of great artistic merit.
Even though I had gone to great lengths to write them, once they had circulated among my friends, I would shred or burn them.
This was mercy akin to shooting a horse for which there is no hope. However, I was motivated not by compassion for the stories but rather a fear for myself lest my work be discovered during a search of our cell.
This was like killing one’s own children to prevent your enemies from capturing them and extracting information to use against you.
Nonetheless, on one occasion I ran the risk of being cruel to myself.
I asked the artist Abdelaziz Al-Ghorabli, who was being released, to bring a notebook to the writer’s association.
I hid it somewhere in the cell.
In the next search (not that searches were common), this was the first place the soldiers looked.
They confiscated the notebook (naturally).
No punishments were scheduled for me.
I don`t know what became of it.
A Scientific Man
There was a torturer, who, when there was no torturing to be done, helped distribute food and take the sick to the prison doctor.
Some of his victims spoke of him with deference and esteem!
This was because, they said, he practiced torture in a scrupulously scientific manner. If he could not at first demoralise his victim, he would redouble his efforts with a quiet sincerity and thoroughness, until his material was supple, ripe for the next phase.
The Tea Theory of Relativity
For us, tea was a matter of utmost importance; it was the only pleasure we had. It was so important that one of us, arguing with a prison guard, stated that a prisoner would be willing to exchange a cup of tea for an equivalent amount of his own blood.
Of course, this was gross exaggeration.
Of course, this was a clear indication of how important tea was in our existence.
It may be more accurate to say, as has one of our poets, that the evening tea prevents depression. Yet in prison, tea was so mediocre that it may have had the opposite effect, even though it came in generous quantities (nor should it be understood from “evening tea” that there was a morning tea or a noon tea).
Whatever the case may be we would scheme to obtain the greatest quantity of it possible.
It was served with dinner.
At first, each one of us would extend his plastic cup, and the warden would pour a helping of hot tea according to his calculations and generosity. Later, they gave us larger containers for sharing.
It dawned on us that the collective portions were much less than all our individual portions put together. So we divided ourselves such that some cells would receive individual cups while others would receive collective shares. Then we would gather all the tea and distribute it amongst ourselves.
Eventually, an observant inmate noticed that the portion for two people was hardly more than that for one.
This observation triggered deep reflection, from which sprang a moderately complex, and very wise idea.
Our plan depended on psychological suggestibility. It assumed that if a person requested a single cup of tea, and the next person requested tea for two, the difference between the two amounts would be minute. Therefore, the warden must be made to sense the magnitude of the difference from one portion to the next. For example, one person might ask for an individual portion, and the next, enough for four. In theory, this should lead to a second portion large enough for five or six people.
We debated the theory exhaustively. After countering all objections, I received collective approval.
We agreed among the different cells to request portions of tea in the following magnitude and order: 1-4-1-1-5 (or something to that effect).
After consolidating portions that evening, our yield was less than the average of the previous days.
With that we buried the tea theory of relativity though I do not believe it was allowed a fair scientific evaluation given the number of trials.
The Light Smuggler
To the departed poet, Jilani Treibshan, who endured vagrancy, deprivation, mental collapse, radicalism, emigration, imprisonment, the sanatorium. Even in the depths of poverty and helplessness no one could deprive him of tobacco and matches.
The heavy iron door rattled and opened at an unusual hour. We gathered, as was our custom, to investigate.
Silence fell and we strained our ears to analyze the footsteps. Which guards, how many, and were we to expect newcomers? For some of us could distinguish between the footsteps of the guards and those of a newcomer: the newcomerwith civilian shoes or sandals or slippers and dragging, resigned steps. The soldier with confident steps: strong, resolute and hurried when on assignment or slow and lethargic when pacing his rounds.
Two curious and lively prisoners raced to reconnoitre from the aperture that looked over the hallway. One turned and whispered: “A new arrival!”
Near the cell door (as later described), a soldier stopped the poet and searched him. He patted the poet’s frame and probed his pockets. Nothing forthcoming (everything was forbidden), the poet entered the cell.
We greeted him warmly, though we were surprised to see him, and set aside a spot for him to sit. We plied him with questions about conditions outside and about our friends. He was tired and confused. Harried by our questions (and to avoid answering), he raised his pant leg and extracted a case of cigarettes and matches from his socks.
To Khaled al-Tarjoman, coordinator of communications between sections three and four.
Poems and stories, essays on philosophy, politics, reality and fortunetelling, and letters of love and friendship and greeting... all written on paper clippings, wrapped around a leftover ball of bread.
Thrown into the air, the ball rises over the barb-wired wall, crosses the gap dividing the sections, clears the next wall, and lands in the opposite square.
The guards on the roofs are kept under surveillance, and untrustworthy prisoners kept in the dark.
One person undertakes to collect and dispatch mail and to distribute it upon its return.
On the appointed day and time this person throws reconnaissance stones across the dividers. If the stones return, the coast is clear.
At daybreak, they put us in a semi-trailer truck divided into small compartments. Orders had come to move us from our first prison to another 1000 kilometers away.
Each compartment was approximately two meters tall and less than a meter in breadth. A ledge to sit on ran its length. In the middle of the door were nine round holes, no wider than a finger, through which the guards gave us cigarettes.
En route, they let us out twice – once for breakfast and once for dinner.
The officer in charge told us: “I had orders to not let you out at all.”
The third leg of the journey, after lunch, took ten hours.
Gradually standing made me tired and sitting became uncomfortable. I tried to rest my weight on on the ledge; I tried to rest it underneath. Each time I grew more tired. I started to feel a sharp pain in my back.
It would be absurd to ask the guards to let me stretch my legs in the passageway, or nap in their leisure compartment.
I decided to brace myself and wait until I could bear it no longer, then shout like someone drowning or surrounded by fire.
Again and again, I told myself: “Five more minutes.”
The moment my last deferral expired and I was ready to sacrifice my dignity, the truck stopped at our destination
Visits in the military prison were only permitted on specific occasions, including Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and sometimes, the Prophet`s birthday. Deep down, we wished that every day could be so special.
Therefore, we had a lot of time to prepare.
Those of us who owned civilian clothing would clean and organize it, then slide it between the bed panel and mattress so that it would look ironed. Even those who owned only a prison military uniform would do what they could to brighten its appearance.
Some had experience in cutting hair, and would do so for their friends.
And of course, on the morning of the visit, everyone would shave and go about their toilette.
Everyone would carefully prepare a list of items they wanted their family to bring on the occasion of the next visit. This list would be written in short and clear sentences to make sure that their desires were accurately conveyed before the visit time elapsed.
I didn`t have any civilian clothing and I had no talent for improving my uniform. To prepare, I would instead pace the short corridor. Though a friend would occasionally accompany me, my mind was mostly absorbed by a tic I had recently acquired: my fingers interlocked on my stomach, I would spin my thumbs around each other until my name was called. One joker noticed this gesture and would imitate me for the amusement of the others.
I would silently follow the soldier, trying hard to suppress the welling emotions, and drawing on all my strength to affect good spirits.
Dozens of relatives would be waiting for me: babies, the young and the old, men and women. Naturally I would need to greet each and every one, and inquire about people`s health, and family, and about those who couldn’t come...
By the time I had greeted everyone, the visit time would be over.
Fire and sun-baked earth
After we were transferred to the military prison, we stopped dreaming about being freed and returning to our normal lives (which most of us had not been delighted with in the first place).
Instead we began to hope that they would have pity on us and return us to the regular prison.
[Translated from the Arabic by Sebastian Anstis. Excerpted from Omar Abulqasim Al-Kikli, Signiyyat (Prison Sketches) (Dar al-Farjani, 2012)]