Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s Taming the Syrian Prison’s Beast

By Abduh Wazen

With Salvation O’Youth: 16 Years in Syrian Prison in Arabic)
By Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Saqi Books,  Beirut, 2012

At the outset of his recent book “With Salvation O’Youth: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons” (Saqi Books),  Yassin al-Haj Saleh pre-empts the reader’s query regarding the genre with which this work is to be identified.  For those who would classify it as “Prison literature,” the author explains that he does not believe any of his writings fall under the scope of this particular genre.

Saleh claims not only that his book cannot be accurately categorized as “prison literature,” he also rejects the labels of other intellectual disciplines and artistic genres such as sociology, autobiography, or the type of political research that aims to expose to the fullest extent the regime’s atrocities.

Rather, he suggests a somewhat more unconventional and thought-provoking label for his work: “a matter of concern.” The title is in keeping with the author’s belief that, in order for the prison to evolve into a subject of cultural discourse and public scrutiny, the writers and artists who speak about it must protect their work from the strictures of categories and labels, whose inherent preconceived notions all too often distract the reader from the actual content of a given work.

However, the reader of the book may be forgiven if he or she does not agree with the author’s judgment, especially considering that some chapters bear the hallmarks of “prison literature,” such as the crudeness of language and style, and the absence of rhetorical pretension...It is here that we may locate the peculiarity of these chapters in which the author takes upon himself the task of a narrator who is fully aware that he is neither novelist nor storyteller.  It is from the resultant ambiguity that Saleh’s text derives its originality– its ability to simultaneously embrace and reject literary tradition.

As for Saleh’s “matter of concern,” the source of the book’s multi-dimensionality, it means that the book is concerned with all investigations of the prison as it is actually lived and experienced by the individual, be they literary, sociological, autobiographical, or documentary/historical-political. It is important that these fields do not conflict with or antagonize each other, as this is consistent with one of the book’s principal aims: to make of its multi-topic focus an incentive for harmony and order. Perhaps these numerous themes give the book a “comprehensive” type, because the author approaches the world of the prison through the interface of the literary author, just as the sociologist and political scientist approach the prison through the interfaces established by their respective disciplines.  Saleh did not neglect the analysis of the prison from an architectural perspective, comparing it to a building that includes among its component rooms places for prisoners and places for jailers. Saleh was not a stranger to the literature of Arab and Syrian prisons literature for he acknowledged Sanallah Ibrahim’s novel “The Committee” which influenced his powerful statement “eat yourself,” and also Mustafa Khalifa’s  “Al Qawqa” (The Shell), a story considered one of the finest examples of what is properly called prison literature- Syrian, Arab or worldwide. Saleh demonstrates an extensive familiarity with world prison literature which is reflected in his work.

“Forgetting is forbidden”

Like many imprisoned writers, Saleh sought initially to write from behind bars, but he later became disillusioned with his early efforts. Starting in 1988, eight years into his incarceration, he began writing about intellectual and political issues, but would eventually return to the subject of prison and life behind bars, although he insistently rejected the characterization of his writings as literature. But Saleh could not avoid the literature he wrote after he became free following 16 years and 14 days in prison.  Since the process of “remembering” became difficult after those years, he adopted the attitude that “forgetting is forbidden.” Motivated by this belief, Saleh wrote his texts to stop “running away” and to relieve himself from the “burden of telling.” Saleh’s writings in the post-prison period are an act “against betrayal,” against himself, and his friends who died in prison or after their release, and also against the betrayal of the mothers and fathers who died while waiting for them.

When Saleh was detained on July 12, 1980, he was in his 20’s, a third year Medical student at Aleppo University, and a member of the Communist party. In this “new” world, Saleh rediscovers his childhood, or, as he puts it, lives a “second childhood” whose outcome would be his transformation into an intellectual and political writer, rather than, say, a doctor.  In  prison, the doors to the outside world were shut and the doors to another world, the world of the political prisoner, were opened. Saleh immediately realized that “prison is a beast with which a person can’t live unless it was tamed and put under control.” And his life in prison was nothing if not a continuous attempt to subdue this “beast,” to fill spare “time,” and to get as much use out of it as possible. Like many prisoners, it was necessary for him to forget that he was a prisoner.

As for the means of forgetting, they are varied and numerous as the total number of prisoners and all their differences: reading, bead work, drilling of copper in wood, making rosaries with the seeds of dates and olives, and making a chess board using cartoon paper and dice from dough ….as for him, books were his only means of confronting the agonizing passage of time. Saleh realized that prison was an ideal environment in which to read encyclopedic books that require much patience:  Hegel, Freud, Abd-Allah al-Arawi, Samir Amin, Edward Said (Orientalisim), George Corm, Hussein Mureweh  (Materialistic Trends in Arab Philosophy) and many others. Books were allowed into prison in 1982, and in many instances, they were brought in secretly. Saleh said that reading used to make time “a good companion,” it didn’t kill like an enemy, but it used “to prolong life, and to give us a life outside of our own.” Reading created for prisoners like Saleh “a record of existence, a new perception and an additional memory.”

But reading was not always easy in prison. Saleh admits that he had a great deal of difficulty focusing at times, and he would often spend six or more hours for a scant understanding of 40 pages. It took several months for his concentration to improve, and his understanding and comprehension became better as a result. He returned to books that he previously read to re-discover them, aware of the benefits of a second reading.

In the early drafts of his book, Saleh describes the details of “life” in prison, or rather in the various prisons in which he was detained, which include : Aleppo prison, Adra prison and Tadmur prison, the latter being the most notorious for its horrific cruelty.  In all these places of detention, the author was thrown with people whose crimes varied, the majority being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The life of a prisoner, who retains his individuality while writing, reflects upon it and takes a long look at the details of his experience, its hidden aspects, its pain, and the emotional landscape of prisoners and jailers alike, with their temperaments and various moods. It is a life of torture, degradation and humiliation, a life of disturbed silence, a life of oppression, and, finally, a life of hope, which is a must.

As for the worst thing that the individual faces in prison, this is what Saleh calls “the consumption of privacy,” in which the prisoner finds himself “exposed” in front of his friends: where one’s defects are quickly on display: lying, greed, cowardice, stinginess and depression…..the individual becomes exposed to the others’ 24 hours a day. “No secrets in prison,” Saleh wrote and then wonders, “Does what the prison expose about us is our reality or our real selves?”  But soon he differentiates between the “internal” and “external” privacy. The “external” privacy fades away quickly: “we change our clothes in front of one another, snore close to one another’s ears, and get sad and upset….they see us and we see them in conditions and situations that we would not like to be seen in.” As for the “internal” privacy, it is the stuff which makes of fragility and human weakness a “human power.” It is the “personal sphere” that resides within, and becomes the source of freedom, morality and personal autonomy.


Despite his suffering, Saleh talks about what he calls “the longing” for prison. After the painful and inhumane experience he had to endure with a great deal of effort and patience, the (former) prisoner found himself longing for his old confines after his release. But he explains that this longing is a “masked” celebration of his release from captivity: “as if I am saying that I encountered the beast and here I am with the strength and courage to confront it again.” This longing is an achievement that distinguishes him from other prison-authors, and also goes beyond the “the celebration of survival,” as he puts it. This highlights a more complex and transformative or “sacrificial” characteristic of the prison experience, an experience that occurs when the prisoner begins to take comfort in the absence of the “burden” of freedom.

This longing doesn’t focus on the prison as a place but on the experience within it. And perhaps the prisoner who overcomes the “sacrificial ritual” acquires a very precious thing, which Saleh describes as “the new beginning,” “the rebirth” or “the other birth.”  Saleh admits that the prison provided him with three things in his new life: a caustic break from his past and its failures, avoidance of the confusions that had always hurt him, and a new positive field to test his powers. He concludes: “the outcome was that the person who went to prison in 1980 was taken as a sacrifice to that person who was released from it after 16 years. One died for the other to live.”

It is truly hard to shortcut Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s book. This is more than one book, not just because of what it incorporates from different academic fields, the new perspectives it offers, or  the angles from which the prison analyzed, but rather because it makes out of the prison a cultural topic that stands out on its own. This is a foundational book in the field of prison literature, as a statement that aspires to establish the marginalized culture of the prison at the heart of mainstream culture. This is a comprehensive book about the literature, politics, knowledge, and sociology of the prison…..it is a book that documents dates, gives the portraits of political detainees, records the horrific Tadmur Prison, and vividly renders the Syrian prisons and the abolished lives within their walls, prisoners and wardens alike.

Saleh dedicates his book to his father and mother, to the mother “who couldn’t stand her son jailed, and also two other sons.  She died without her sons being able to bid her farewell... This mother is the mother of many young men and women who could not say goodbye to their mothers before their passing, or when they died, who were not even allowed to mourn them after their death.

The Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Hayat,  23 June 23, 2012

Translated from the Arabic by Basma Botros


This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64

 © Copyright 2012  AL JADID MAGAZINE

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