Can one understand the experience of being a prisoner without ever being in a prison cell? This question might seem strange at first, but those who have met and talked with the family members of political prisoners in Syria will definitely know the answer. In a recent article, my friend and a colleague, Yassin al-Hajj Salih (in An Anahar Literary Supplement, June 27, 2004), accurately describes life inside prison, calling for bringing the prison experience into the light, in all its different aspects, until nothing remains unknown or overburdened with suppressed memory. In this essay, I will attempt to explore the other face of the Syrian political prison – the face viewed and lived from the outside by the family members of the prisoners, in order to shed light on the prisoner experience in all its manifestations.
The reader may wonder about the necessity of telling the story of political imprisonment in Syria lest memory fade. Is it a desire to learn from historical experiences? Is it related to our current situation – so that we may save those who are forgotten in the dungeons of Syria’s notorious prisons? Is this a warning for the future, so that the prison experiment may not happen again? Is it for condemnation, exposure, accountability? Are we trying to make peace with ourselves, or the other? To open new wounds, or to heal them?
Some would ask, what is the purpose of airing our “dirty linen” and disclosing the catastrophes of the past at a time when Syria is trying to end years of oppression. Some would ask whether our purpose is to eat grapes, i.e., put an end to political oppression and the abusive police powers, or simply to get even with the vineyard watch-guard. Shouldn’t we push for the release of the remaining prisoners of conscience and forget about what happened to previous prisoners and their families, as long as in the end everyone will be out of prison? Isn’t it our objective to get them out and “free”?
We will not dwell on this entire complex menu of questions, but we will say that oppression, silence, and stress are enough to kill a human being. There is virtue in speaking out as we are doing here, since this is the right process to liberate both victims and oppressors from fear and suppression and mute dishonor. We have seen over the past few years a series of testimonies by former prisoners of conscience in Syria, starting with Reda Haddad, Riyad al-Turk, Faraj Bairqadar, and more recently including Maher Arar and Marwan Habach. The Syrian authorities did not only ignore these testimonies, but rejected them and continued their policy of oppression and arrest. Today, they justify these actions on the grounds that they are acting with less violence and more care for human dignity.
The authorities point out that oppression does bring political stability. They proudly point to their release of prisoners belonging to the Islamist groups, demonstrating that these individuals have learned their lessons and are now silent. The authorities ignore the fact that these former prisoners were subjected to extreme conditions of oppression and long prison terms. We do not believe that differences should be resolved through these means; the individuals who are silent today as a result of oppression have not truly healed; this is a bad omen for the country. This suspended suppression of sentiments could explode at any moment in dangerous and unknown ways.
What follows is a narration of the experiences of prison from beyond its bars, a narration that relies on bits and pieces of individual experiences, most of which took place in Syria in the 1970s and 1980s. These testimonies, narrated by others, have been held in my personal memory, which thus bears total responsibility.
Those sent to jail for political reasons in Syria leave their loved ones suddenly, without prior notice, and go into a world of darkness. They no longer belong to humanity, but are forcefully thrown into the dungeon, where time does not matter. Their destiny, their future, and the date of release are all unknowns; they are subject to the whims of the authorities and their absurd decisions and intelligence reports. Moreover, those sent to jail leave a heavy void in the hearts and minds of their community, a void that no one can fill. Time cannot fill it either, as only its owner can reclaim it. It is a void as it is related to Space, and we call it absence as it is related to Time.
From the perspective of their families, the absence of political prisoners is unlike the absence of the dead or the traveler. It is forcible absence, and you know when it starts but do not know when it will end. It is a sordid absence, neither temporary nor permanent. It is a suspended absence, where time moves very slowly and heavily, as the family patiently awaits the return of the loved one. Therefore it is an absence marked by a sense of presence, the powerful presence of the imprisoned individual in the minds of those he leaves behind. It is a killing absence that has the taste of bitter despair, a despair that creeps like cancer into the lost hopes of family members, between the possible and the impossible. It is an absence that cannot be adapted to, accepted, or internalized by the family. It is an immediate absence, temporary, deceiving, and could last a generation.
The visitor to a given prisoner’s home will encounter deep sadness in the tears of women, the gloominess of men, and the fear in children. The visit will remind you of funeral homes, but the dead leave us forever and then normal life resumes, with the departed’s legacy finding its place in the collective memory. In contrast, the absence of the prisoner is tantamount to a suspended state of mourning, with personal effects uncollected, the inheritance frozen, the memory hesitant and paralyzed, unable to perform the role it would have if the cycle of life has stopped but continually moving from presence to absence.
The Angel of Death visits momentarily, reaps the soul of a person, and leaves a dead corpse. This corpse finds its way to the graveyard after specific rites. However, the Angel of Prisons arrives under the wing of darkness, making a lot of noise with weapons and equipment, getting every member of the family out of bed, terrorizing them, and snatches away its victim, both body and soul, leaving behind only absence and some photos hanging on the wall awaiting an uncertain return.
The prisoner’s family does its best to become accustomed to their new bread, “waiting.” At times they dip it in the bitterness of despair, and at others the salt of hope. The mother or wife attempts in vain to stop the wheel of time as she awaits the return of the prisoner. She keeps his belongings in the wardrobe, leaving the room unarranged, the books resting on the shelves of time. The wife applies makeup each morning, trying to preserve her femininity, which is about to fade under the pressure of waiting. Children grow up and become adolescents; their new clothes purchased for special occasions don’t fit any more. They keep repeating, “God willing, our father will be with us at the next feast.”
One year goes by, two years, a decade, two decades. Conditions of the household change, belongings and furniture get turned over, the family even moves to another place. The wife becomes old and lonely, or maybe seeks a divorce. Children get married and have wedding ceremonies, or go without them. The parents of the prisoner pass away without a funeral.
Many Syrian political prisoners who were released in the 1990s after an imprisonment of 20 years had not been permitted any visits, news, or letters from loved ones. They returned to their neighborhood and home to find out that their home was no longer there; sometimes the entire neighborhood had given way to modern development. Some found out, long after the fact, that their parents were no longer among the living, or that their wives had married someone else after losing hope that their husbands were still alive. Many prisoners started their jail term young and energetic and left a remnant of a person. When some found their homes the key would not work in the door. When the released prisoner eventually found his family, he discovered that they had been waiting for him for 20 years: they did not live their lives – no marriage, no divorce, no celebration. Yet, they could not easily recognize his face.
The Time of Photographs
Pictures capture the essence of time in a frozen frame; the images they produce before and after the jail terms are proof of the horrors of long years of prison. At the same time, pictures can be a lifesaver for family members in the absence of the real person. Family members hug the pictures as if they are hugging their own children, forgetting that a photo freezes time in a way that is both deceptive and different. Pictures are treacherous in their nature, because they expose the world of prisons in a way that produces tense and emotional moments for the family, bringing tears to their eyes. Time hits suddenly and mercilessly, as the family thinks of the absent person in the photograph reappearing; but after 20 years he is completely unlike the image in the picture. After all, did Nelson Mandela look like his youthful picture when he was released after 26 years in prison?
Many Syrian political prisoners returned home and received well-wishers in their living rooms, with their grand portraits hanging on the wall and revealing their youthful faces before the years and toll of imprisonment. The picture may have an old decaying frame, a dusty glass, and fading colors, and from within that old frame, the picture can tell more than the individual about what happened and what was lost during a 20-year imprisonment.
On the other hand, pictures can visit prisoners in their dungeons to keep them in touch with the outside world – pictures of a newborn in the family, or new furniture or a new home. These pictures provide a good medium of communication between the prisoner and his previous life. However, the family has no means of knowing what the loved ones look like in imprisonment; they have no photo of their husband or son in his cell. Even if a family visits its imprisoned loved one, the visit will take place in a confined environment; they would have no access to his day-to-day conditions, how he lives, what he eats, what time he is allowed to get out of his cell to breathe fresh air, what the toilet looks like in a prison. They do not see this void of knowledge as a blessing, but wish to know the world on the other side, to have a picture of their loved one no matter how ugly and painful.
Some children grow up watching the picture of their fathers or elder brothers hanging on the wall. A little girl lost her father to prison when she was a few months old. Two years later, her mother told her that the picture hanging on the wall is a picture of “Daddy.” But when she accompanied her mother to visit him in prison, she could not relate the man standing before her to the picture on the wall.
The visit is a temporary period of time taking place in a compartmentalized space, confined by the prison walls. Both the family and the prisoner come from totally different worlds to meet in this common ground that is watched and shaped by a guard. The visit might be a maximum of one hour, but sometimes it might only be a few minutes. The time between visits could be as short as two weeks, but more often it is six months or even a year. Some visits require lengthy procedures of approval and sanction, and complex interventions; visits in these circumstances take place once every few years. For the Islamists, visits by loved ones are forbidden.
In the 1980s, a family visit to prisoners in Syria was a great privilege, but it was also a passing joy accompanied by an indescribable loss of dignity. It was a privilege because not everyone was entitled to make such a visit. It is a passing joy since time is short, problems are plentiful, and intimacy is lost under the watchful eyes of guards. The family loses dignity as its members, women and children included, are exposed to insulting body searches from head to toe. The authorities may even verbally abuse them. Some families do not make the effort to visit loved ones so that they will not be exposed to such abusive behavior.
Intimacy is lost in many ways. A double-wired wall separates the visitors from the prisoner, so there is no bodily contact. The presence of the guard imposes an artificial sense of communication between the prisoner and his family. The guard writes reports on the conversations, which can implicate the prisoner or his family if any comments are not to the liking of the authorities. Many family members discuss details of their private lives that should not be shared with anyone, yet such details end up in written reports.
Families prepare homemade meals and purchase things permitted by the authorities in preparation for the day of the visit. Wives and mothers spend nights cooking favorite dishes and knitting sweaters, and then travel hundreds of kilometers to reach Damascus and visit their imprisoned husband or son. Poor families suffer economically as they sacrifice a good portion of their tiny income to secure the essential needs of their imprisoned loved one.
Although the visit is only a small hour of their life, for the prisoner it is the only window beyond the dull prison cell. When family members leave the prison they instinctively try to forget about this miserable experience. The few hours following the visit are very difficult. However, daily life and chores help fill the hours and people quickly abandon the nightmare of the visit. The prisoner goes back to his cell, but he savors the details of the visit and remembers every little detail. This memory stays clear and fresh in his mind for many months.
In one story, a family was allowed to visit its loved one for the first time in many years. The older daughter could not make it because she had just gotten married and had moved abroad with her husband. When the imprisoned father saw his family across the wire, he immediately asked why the older daughter was missing. His wife told the prisoner the good news and provided details about the daughter’s husband. Three years later, when the family was allowed another visit, the older daughter showed up pregnant. The father was emotionally moved and had teary eyes when he saw his pregnant daughter. He started to ask about her husband, but the mother quickly explained that the daughter had divorced that man, returned to Syria, and married another man by whom she became pregnant.
Familiarity of the Prison
You cannot have different definitions of a prison cell, no matter its specific condition; in the end it has a single purpose: to capture the essence of a person’s freedom against his will. Political prisoners suffer greatly compared to common criminals. Not only is their treatment more severe, but their sense of injustice is overwhelming since they lost their freedom merely because of the opinions they expressed. How can you convince a 10-year-old that his or her father is not a criminal when the child sees him behind bars? What can they tell their friends at school to explain that their father is not a crook? For many years, families were warned by the authorities not to say in public that their loved one was a political prisoner, so they had no good response. If they told the truth, they could be accused of conspiring against the state and spreading illegal rumors, which is punishable by law.
The family plays an essential role in protecting the reputation of the prisoner outside the jail, just as he tries to preserve his dignity behind bars. They are also crucial in giving hope that freedom is not far off. This role may be taken for granted, but those who know Syria in the 1980s and 1990s know how difficult it was to keep up one’s face in society. Families spent much time knocking on the doors of those in power to get information on their disappeared loved ones. Some ended up paying large sums of money to gain such information, or for permission for a visit. Worse still is the case of families who lost several sons and never saw them again.
When things go bad, they do go bad all the way. Some families became very poor but were unable to sell their property because it was registered in the name of the imprisoned son or father, or the ownership was shared, with a share registered in the name of the one in prison.
Ghosts of Prison
Prisoners spend hours knitting together their worry beads made of date pits, or painting on a peach pit, or making a necklace or a bracelet out of colored glass pieces, creating small but pretty artifacts to give as presents to their families. These things leave the prison and enter the outside world, but everywhere they go they remain items from prison and retain the feel and touch of the prison. They are like Aladdin’s magic lamp, caressed by family members in memory of their imprisoned son.
The guard is a heavy man in a khaki suit, with a stiff face and big flat hands. This may sound like a comic image, but it is closer to reality than to fiction. Visitors will see a lot of those guards at the iron gate, or they may accompany you and sit in on the visit, watching and listening to every whisper. Visit after visit, year after year, you get accustomed to the sight of these guards and you may think they are a fixture in the prison. However, during a festival one day you walk out and visit a crowded souk in Damascus. There, at the far end of the street, you will see a big man holding the hand of a child. He is not wearing the military uniform, but he is the same tough prison guard. Your feelings are mixed and you give a strange shiver. You wonder how to interpret the scene, and you blame yourself for mixing the ugliness of the guard’s face with the innocence of the child. You ask God how it can be that this guard is also a human being and not some evil spirit.
Once in the women’s prison, a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy was brought in. She delivered the baby in jail and raised him between four walls. A year or two later, as the mother was bringing out the garbage with the child in her arms, a donkey brayed. It was the first time that the child had seen a donkey, and when they returned to the cell, the child spent hours repeating the sounds made by the donkey and mimicking its behavior. Another woman tells the story of her prison experience in quiet murmurs: details about torture sessions, her bloody and violated body lying on the floor, buckets of cold water thrown on her, followed by electric shocks that reverberated like thunder because of the water. Insults, beatings, yelling, her soul swinging between life and death. She reached a point where it did not matter anymore whether the beating and the electric charge were occurring or not. Her pain surpassed human capacity to endure. One day in the torture chamber, the telephone rang. One of the torturers answered. He turns to the master punisher and says, “Sir, they want you at home.” The master punisher takes the handset and his voice transforms into one of loving whispers: “How are you son? I won’t be late. What do you want me to bring home, my darling son?”
The bloodied woman on the floor wakes up to the gentle whispers of the master punisher, and she thinks to herself, “Oh my God, he is human like us!”
In his testimony about prison and torture, Reda Haddad, a Syrian journalist, wrote on his deathbed some words that summarize the agony he and others have experienced in Syria’s prisons, as well as the hope that still flickers in the hearts of the victims. He said, “I am discovering 40 days after my release from jail that I have leukemia and blood discoloration. I left prison, but it did not leave me. Its traces went into my blood, but my spirit is still yearning towards freedom, dignity, and justice.”
Haddad died six months after his release, but his words continue to punish us and challenge our silence, and his spirit is still floating over Syria, a Syria that is yearning for liberty, dignity, and justice through the voices of prisoners and those outside the walls who wait for the return of loved ones. To all of you: be an echo of Haddad’s words, and bear witness – words are freedom.
Translated from the Arabic by Kamal Dib
The Arabic version of this essay appeared in An Nahar Cultural Supplement (July 11, 2004). This English translation, with permission of the author, is published exclusively in Al Jadid.