The State Security Building: The First Arrest of the Seagull
It was maybe three or four o'clock, or maybe sometime in between. Why am I trying to establish an exact time? Curses on the clock that forces me to define my movements, my sleep, my mealtimes… The time was __________. I think it's better that way, isn't it? I jumped up, rubbing my eyes, at the sound of violent banging on the door of the house, and looked down at the courtyard from the window of my room. My father, clearly bewildered, was opening the door. A gang of men wearing green uniforms burst in, led by others wearing traditional dress, their faces covered by white ghutras. I thought God had sent Hell's lackeys. I didn't have time to think before they entered my bedroom. Without uttering a word, which would have made them of this earth, they started to search everything. Yes, everything. I know where your minds have gone.
The next thing I knew, I was in a cold room containing two desks. Sitting on one of them was a policeman who was originally from Balochistan, which I worked out from his tortured pronunciation. It was now ten o'clock, and I wasn't sure what was happening. My blood had flowed down into the ground floor of my body, and my consciousness had taken sick leave, just like we would when skipping work, afraid of our wages being cut. (Here’s a funny one: just think about this word, “ma'aash,” income. It can be separated to match its real meaning: “ma 'aash,” he didn't live.)
I spit on you all. I also refuse to apologize. I know that I am not a proletarian revolutionary, nor a leader with an all-embracing system. From now on I’m refusing your tiresome bullshit. I won't leave behind one kind of slavery only to be subject to the slavery of how you see things.
I know that you will despise me, as you have all those who have told you the truth, when they abandoned their faith and their ignorance. Maybe you will shoot me for my conviction that I am liberating myself. Maybe I am provoking you to do just that. Maybe you will crucify me, and then one of you will try to publish my teachings. I have started to dread this truth that you cannot bear. Now I know you without your party identities or your long beards, or even the insignia clinging to your shoulders. I have no desire to die for your salvation, if it means you will simply enter another kind of slavery.
But I stand before the strength of your stupidity, before the readymade attributes you have for me, before your naked fear for the welfare of your concepts, beliefs, and faith. I don't threaten the security of your systems of thought, and the idols that you worship are no concern of mine. I am gladly trying to free myself from the many little men that reside in me, and to understand my sphere of existence, and I’m doing so as loudly as I can. So I will perhaps make things easier for you: I am not conspiring against anyone, and I am not asking you for power. I have just one problem, a problem that has nothing to do with you. My problem is that I am neither a believer nor stupid.
I became aware that my great speech had not moved anyone. They were heading for their desks; Khan remained, looking at me, a confused expression on his face. Then he looked at the person occupying the desk next to me. However, this man was busy arranging rows of letters in boxes as empty as his head. He was thinking deeply. I later learned that my friend Khan didn't know Arabic. It seemed that my impressive speech had fallen on uncomprehending ears.
After they brought me back from the hospital, where they had checked whether I was physically and psychologically fit for interrogation, they kept me standing until ten at night. From time to time my mind visited the ground floor of my body, or I would shake my leg to move the blood that had taken refuge on one side. I paid the price, though, because in addition to their generous hands greeting the back of my head, their utterances could have put Al Zamakhshari’s eloquence to the test.
They removed my blindfold, and I found a dark-skinned man in his forties sitting in front of me. Some other men were standing next to him. He said, “Do you know where you are?” I said that I didn't. He said, “You are up on high.” I think he was correct, as we were on the third or fourth floor of the building, but what did it have to do with the State Security? He took a pen and on a small piece of paper wrote the word “God.” He held it up to show me, and asked, “What's this?” I nodded my head to show that I had understood the word. He put the paper in a drawer, and then asked, “Where is God now?” As I was baffled and didn’t have an answer he continued, “God is in the drawer, and I am here now.” Then he asked, “Do you know who I am?” I couldn't answer that either; I didn't know whether he was God himself, or someone else in that role. From the drawer he took out a revolver, and placed it on top of the desk. He went on, “Outside, people are caught up in the events. I could kill you and throw your corpse in the garbage, and believe me, no one would ask about you. So confess!”
That is what I recall, or what I think happened. After that I cannot remember things clearly, except that they put on a magnificent banquet for me for six days, nonstop. The only time off from the feast was when they gave me food, or made me walk, afraid that my legs would swell. On the first day I remained silent for less than an hour; after that I succumbed to an attack of hysteria, and became unable to control my loud screams. I would swear at myself, then at them, and in turn they would try to silence me by hitting me. Then they found a better way; one of them put my socks in my mouth, and they blindfolded me. I remember that the man interrogating me was called Adel; his name, meaning “just” or “fair,” did not fit him at all. I learned his name from a conversation between two policemen; one of them, called Abdul Nabi, was in his mid-forties, and the second, Sufyan, of Pakistani origin, was in his twenties. He was a handsome young man, with long hair that reached his shoulders. This Sufyan was terrified of Abdul Nabi. Abdul Nabi had tried on more than one occasion to establish an intimate and warm relationship with Sufyan, but Sufyan had refused, and indicated that he would inform Colonel Adel.
The Seagull’s Plea Before the Sea
On the sixth day they took me in to see a policeman in civilian clothes, of Jordanian origin. He had all the expletives in the world tripping off his tongue, and was known as “the Curser.” He used to pronounce his rs in a dreadful way. He gave me a statement in his handwriting, saying: “Sign here, or I will take you back to the nice party.”
I was taken after that to the “confessions judge”; he was called that because his task was to confirm that the detainee agreed to the statement. After I had been sitting before him for a quarter of an hour while he read my statement, he asked me one question: “Is this your signature?” He pointed to my name at the bottom of the statement.
I said, “Yes.”
I am no legendary hero, and I have not left the human realm. I hail from among the common people. I belong to myself; I don't have an honorific title before my name. I don't feel the pain of needing to liberate the world from its predicament, nor do I have the inclination to ascertain the magnitude of the hole in the sky, even if the angels of hell will descend from it onto our heads, as some say. As far as I am concerned, such empty talk has led to carnage, whether in the name of conquest or the elevation of one race over another, or of possessing a truth denied to all others.
Yes, I am proud to be a mongrel; I don't belong to a pure social class, or even a pure race, or to a tribe that can civilize me with its nobility while it imposes its authority on others by force. As far as I am concerned, I am a son of the first nucleus, which could be considered clay. From this comes my status as a human, not from the tent of a tribe, nor the school of a religious authority, and not from belonging to a noble race. If you like, I am from a species of luminous jellyfish, and perhaps it requires more than 1,400 years to become conscious of the light inside. This jellyfish belongs to the water, and there is a world of difference between the water and the desert.
Showing no emotion, he gestured to the man standing behind me. This man took me back to the building of Lord Adel, whose angels led me from “on high” down to a jail of four cells below the so-called national intelligence building. I was shoved into an unbearably cold cell at the end of the corridor. Dampness and the smell of decay emanated from the blankets on the pus- and bloodstained bed. Scrawled dates reposed peacefully on the gray wall with other scribblings indicating the people who had passed this way. I heard voices muttering in the neighboring cells; one of them was asking about the new inmate who had just come in. Indeed, who was the new person brought to the cell? Was it me? And who am I, actually? I lay down on the bed, which sagged beyond my expectation; I felt my back touch the ground. The next thing I was aware of was being awoken by the sound of the guard pushing in a plate of food and a metal cup of tea. I took note of the things around me. The room had no windows, typical of those in the intelligence building. I didn’t know what time of day it was, but the type of food told me. It was morning, which I realized from the beans covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt, and the barrel of tea, called a balti, a Hindi word meaning bucket, normally used as a vessel when bathing. It seemed that I had slept for more than twenty-four hours. I heard the same voices next door, and they were still muttering questions about the new resident. Yes, I was the new resident; I was the gentleman who had descended from “on high” to these magnificent cells, the cells without windows, which had drawn their veils over themselves. I was the one descended from jellyfish, as Wilhelm Reich would say. What do you want from me now? Let me continue my precarious siesta, let me take a break from these questions… But the question was repeated insistently; it was the same question said in many different voices and ways. I answered that I was Ali Al Jallawi. A voice leaped from one of the cells: “Jallawi! How are you?” I knew the voice; it was that of Sami Al Sharis. Sami! What was Sami doing here? I had last seen him in intermediate school.
Cages for Seagulls That Might Be Born
In the neighboring cells were some guys from my area. I knew only two of them; the first was Sami Al Sharis (“Sami the Vicious”), and the second was Hamza. Of the rest, Taher, Hussain, and Abdul Razzaq stood out. Abdul Razzaq asked me, “What will they do with us now?” I didn’t have an answer, but I told him, “Nothing.” From his voice, I felt he just wanted to hear something. I was experienced in comparison with them because of my first arrest when I was seventeen, so they thought I was the only one able to answer them. I asked about the charges against them, and they had no idea what they were. (What irony and diligence in this conspiratorial game against me.) However, like me, they had signed the statements of the man with the mispronounced r. He had said to one of them, “Wite your name, you son of a pwostitute! Or I'll make an example of you…”
During the night I heard a knock on the door of the neighboring cell, and Sami Al Sharis calling the guard. I understood from the conversation that he had had a wet dream, so needed to wash himself clean of this new crime and its evidence. But he knocked again in the morning before breakfast, to ask if he could go to wash another time. It seemed that a consequence of the torture was that he ejaculated continually. I was afraid another charge would be made against him, for who knew what might happen? After breakfast he was told to prepare himself because the administration had sent for him (and by “administration” they meant Colonel Adel). Sami asked me to lend him my trousers, because his were wet and had been hung out in the bathroom. I requested permission to go to the bathroom, and put on his trousers there. When Sami came back we were all asked to hurry and get ready; we were being transferred to some other cells. I had hung Sami's trousers in my cell because they were still wet, but there was no choice, so I put them on again and felt the dampness. Because of their size it was as if I was entering a large tent. After that they took us to the hallowed Adliya detention cells, or maybe I should call it “Adamiya” (nonexistence), a place that destroys your ability to dream.
A long corridor, on either side tiny boxes, the numbers on them faded. The boxes were simply numbers, and the inmates within them were simply numbers. For the guards, days, months, and even years were simply numbers.
The din subsided as we entered the corridor. Heads appeared at the small openings in the centers of the cell doors, and without really concentrating you could spot the unkempt beards, and faces pale from extended lack of exposure to the sun. We were lined up next to the wall, and then asked by one of the policemen to remove our clothes. I was overwhelmed with confusion and fear—were they going to rape us?! But the policeman informed us that it was one of the security rules in “Adamiya,” may God be pleased with it, and we would have to get used to it, as we were sure to return again and again. However, as he was undertaking the sacred duty of searching, the policeman did not miss the opportunity to assess our members and the thickness of the grass surrounding them … His eyes were glittering with sadistic pleasure. Then he asked us to put our hands behind our necks, and we had to stand and sit to prove that our blessed backsides were free of escape tools. I was put in a cell labeled with the number four, a cell with two bunk beds. (For every bed there is always an equal and opposite inmate.) The cells were two by two and a half meters, with a bathroom, one meter square, attached at the back. It seemed they had built it austerely, because they had forgotten to add a door. We used to enjoy the personal “communications” from inside, and of course the details that accompanied them, part of the democratic dialogue between prisoners from various parts of the world, and different races, colors, and sects.
The walls were, as in all prisons, dark gray, covered with writing, some carved into the wall. The wall was a blackboard for the inmates of the cells, and a repository for their memories there. The strange thing was that you could find dates at the bottom of all the inscriptions. Among them, near the door, was the sentence, “The bird does not rise far from the ground.” I didn't understand what this sentence meant; it seemed that the wise man—or the donkey—that carved it had a special view of things. Nevertheless, this sentence later opened many doors in my mind, making “Abu Maqhur”—the name signed under it—a holy man to me.
From Allah ba'da al-'ashira. Copyright 2011 by Ali Al Jallawi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Ayesha Saldanha. All rights reserved.