Ghassan Al-Jaba`i: Prison literature in Syria after 1980.
There is no national monopoly on censorship and unjust treatment of intellectuals who test government claims of freedom of expression. All governments have at some time been guilty of acting on their fear of the individual with moral authority -- some, however, more often than others. Many of those thus detained have written of their experiences, writings which have then become witnesses for the prosecution.
For the purposes of this essay, I shall restrict my comments to prison literature published in the Arab world during the past decade, when apparently entrenched regimes were beginning to face new challenges in a rapidly changing world: the Gulf War, the Middle East Peace Process in its post-Madrid phase, the emergence of an increasingly powerful cadre of Islamists. It is during the past ten to twenty years also that longtime rulers have been dying and the matter of succession was becoming uncertain but also urgent. Moroccan, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Syrian intellectuals who had spent time in their respective countries' prisons were beginning to write. Although it is not yet clear what shape the future will have, it is clear that this future will be different. The ills of postcoloniality have not gone away; rather, they have become threads in a wider weave that demands a new attention to individual and communal embeddedness in a global system.
In 1991, most Moroccan political prisoners were given amnesty. After the death of King Hasan II in July 1999, they began to write (see Slyomovics). The writer Abraham Serfaty, who spent eighteen years in prison, calls these past two years "l'aurore d'un Maroc de liberte" (Mdidech, 10). Optimism reigned and former prisoners felt less apprehensive about retribution for themselves and for those whom their writings might implicate: for example, the good guards who had made life inside the infamous Tazmamart prison bearable (Marzouki, 91-95). This recognition of the humanity of some of the guards is quite common (see, for example, the Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris's Jumhuriyat Farahat [Farahat's Republic; 1954] and the remarks about Ghassan al-Jaba`i's plays below).
Within the past two years alone, four books have come out, three of them by ex-prisoners. Two were by officers charged in 1971 with conspiracy to kill the king: Ahmed Marzouki's Tazmamart Cellule 10 (2000) and Muhammad al-Rayis's Tadhkarat dhahab wa iyab ila al-jahim (Testimony of Going to Hell and Back Again; 2000), which was first serialized in Al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki, tell in remarkably similar detail the story of their apprehension and terrible detention in Tazmamart. The other notorious detention center where torture was commonly practiced was Derb Moulay Cherif in Casablanca, and its story was penned by Jaouad Mdidech, who had spent fourteen years inside. It is not only the prisoners themselves but also the prizewinning novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun who has engaged in this revelation of the Moroccan government's brutality under the late king. Cette aveuglante absence de lumiere (2001) tells the Marzouki/al-Rayis story, but in more compelling prose. Some have taken issue with Ben Jelloun for jumping on the bandwagon and writing only when it was safe to do so. They argue that he should have written earlier, at a time when denunciation would have helped those inside, especially since his international reputation would have protected him. There is also the age-old issue of who has the right to write about experiences said to be so intense that only those who have been through them can really claim such an authority. Whether or not people like the fact that Ben Jelloun has written about prison life in Morocco when he did, what is remarkable is how much seems to be at stake in the production of prison literature.
Prison-consciousness is the best way to describe the awareness of the significance but also of the danger inherent in the literary project which may be cause or outcome of the prison experience. In authoritarian systems, writers and readers share in the realization of the power and danger of the written word. Prison is almost a condition for becoming a public intellectual. Since the 1960s, Egyptian writers have been imprisoned for their ideas and publications. Many have written about their experiences and what it was like to reenter the mainstream, as did Sonallah Ibrahim in Tilka al-ra'iha (The Smell of It; 1966). The specter of prison hangs like a cloud over the prisoner's head. In his memoirs, Al-nawafidh al-maftuha (Open Windows; 1993), the Egyptian physician and novelist Sherif Hetata narrates a life saturated with prison-consciousness. The circular narration allows him to construct a childhood in which he was always cognizant of the price for growing up responsibly in a bad system. Even during those moments that were the most apolitical, as when he attended his mother's deathbed, memories whirled Hetata back and forth through sixty-four years, thirteen of which were spent inside. Scattered references, sometimes no more than a line or a word even, make that prison experience internal to his whole life and not that extraordinary block out of time, out of life, that it usually seems to be. Those who have not been made to suffer for their writing are sometimes almost apologetic, as the Romanian Constantin Noica once remarked, "for intellectual life bad conditions are good and good conditions are bad" (Plesu, quoted in Wedeen, 148).
To write under threatening circumstances is to claim a stake in the public good, and it is this claim that renders the writer important, dangerous. Writers are imprisoned not because their words are demonstrably threatening the public good; rather, they are imprisoned to teach others not to do as they have done. Sometimes a writer need not even write to be imprisoned, in order to serve as an example of the danger inherent in the mere thought of writing. The fact of having once written means that one might do so again. Such a person has achieved an identity that in itself can be said to endanger the public good. In al-Jaba`i's "General," prison-consciousness informs the Executioner's warning to the poet that he must hide his profession, lest the General get angry. He would then be compelled to "kick your head and say to you: Don't show me your face ever again or he will order your arrest. Go away!" (al-Jaba`i, 1995, 22).
In real life, outside fiction books, the Executioner's role is played by the Ministries of Information and Culture, which monitor public space and discipline and punish any who try to speak outside or against the logic of the regime -- in other words, the poets. As Samir al-Khalil wrote about Iraq in 1989, fear dominates these systems. The government's fear of its people is more than reciprocated, and in this vicious circle it grows and grows. Public discourse becomes bland or oblique so as to evade the censor and the interrogator. This oblique medium has come to be known as Aesopian language. I call its equivalent in Arabic "Muqaffian language," from the famous eighth-century animal fableist Ibn al-Muqaffa'. A brilliant example is the Iraqi writer Muhsin al-Musawi's Dun sa'ir al-nas: Infi'alat raqm 46 (Beyond Other People: The Reaction of Number 46), written in 1988 after a three-month detention but not published until 1999. The picaresque Jello listens to the testimony of the animals who have witnessed the brutalization of men in the system. The gazelle tells the lion and the horse of the hunters who descended upon her and the dozens of men wandering lost and "paralyzed with confusion" (al-Musawi, 24). The gazelle befriends a barefoot man whose eyes are filled with tears, and then the sky explodes with iron and shrapnel. The man is hit and his leg severed. The gazelle and the man embrace before the former is caught by a hunter. In systems managed by terror, there emerges a triangle of meaning made and unmade by the rapprochement between writer, surveilling institution, and reader. The code of resistance language remains in place as long as it makes a meaning that connects writer and reader, often with the help of one or more keys, but alienates the censor. When the latter breaks the code, a new language must be invented and new keys cut for resistance to survive.
Prison-consciousness demands a constant vigilance to the mood of the regime, even as individuals recognize that conditions prevailing in the past may change and thus become dangerous. However careful they may be, some writers find the rules changing so that what was allowed yesterday may not be tomorrow. In Kuwait between fall 1996 and spring 2000, the woman novelist and short story-writer Layla al-`Uthman appeared before her country's supreme court to defend two books she had published in 1979 and 1980. The Ministry of Information at the time had not only given its seal of approval to Al-rahil (The Departure) and Fi al-layl ta'ti al-`uyun (At Night the Eyes Come), but had also assured their distribution (al-`Uthman, 2000, 38 & 40). She was acquitted but knows now that any of her writings may be used against her at some time in the future. She has not chosen to remain silent, but rather is speaking out against this violation of the freedom of expression. Contrary to outsiders' assessments of intellectual life within repressive regimes, prison-consciousness does not necessarily lead to compliance or silence.
This was certainly true of several Syrians who had spent time inside, some of them in the same place and at the same time, then started to publish fiction. The first, according to some, was Jamil Hatmal with Al-tifla dhat al-qab`a al-bayda' (The Girl with the White Hat), which came out in 1981. During a six-month stay in Syria between 1995 and 1996, I spent some time with Ghassan al-Jaba`i (b. 1956), whose work I discuss below, and Ibrahim Samu'il (b. 1951), who has to his credit two collections of prison stories, Ra'ihat al-khatw al-thaqil (The Smell of Heavy Steps; 1988) and Al-nahnahat (Ahemheming; 1990). (1) The cases of Khalil Brayez and Nizar Nayyuf have received greater coverage because they were championed by international human-rights agencies. Amnesty International lists Brayez as a former captain and intelligence officer in the Syrian army between 1958 and 1962. After the June War of 1967 he wrote two books, The Fall of the Golan and From the Golan Files, both of which were critical of the Syrian army's performance during the war. In the fall of 1970, Brayez was abducted in Lebanon, where he had taken refuge since 1964, and he was not released until twenty-eight years later, in 1998 (AI Index, 24 February 1995, 22). Nayyuf is still inside, still paying the price for his unavailable collection, A Pipe for Smoking Dreams.
Samu'il, a progressive nationalist as he has been described, did his four years between 1977 and 1981. For seven years he then worked as a social specialist in a juvenile correction facility. From his own experience, he knew that people were often wrongly jailed. He explained: "The line between committing and not committing a crime is often only a hair's breadth." He wrote most of his stories after being released from prison, trying always to "add to prison literature so as not to repeat."
The stories in Samu'il's Ra'ihat al-khatw al-thaqil, while not in any way repetitive, are familiar to readers of prison literature. The descriptions are explicit; the prison references are undisguised, often describing life in the cell and the wrenching transformations undergone by prisoners. Two narrators are anguished by their own sons' rejection of them. When the plot unfolds outside a cell, the dread of incarceration hangs heavy on the plot. Dedicated to the author's wife Marmush, many of the stories figure women waiting, or attending clandestine meetings, or being awakened in the middle of the night. Some stories evoke moments of community, as when a prisoner is brought a care package and then reluctantly, or happily, shares its contents. In a later collection, Samu'il describes moments of joy even, but also of farce. Writing from the vantage point of several years outside, Samu'il seems to have found the freedom to smile a little. Take, for example, the story of a prisoner who prepares for a visit, but not the usual kind. He knows that his family cannot enter the prison gate and that the closest he can approach them is by looking out of a window high above the cell toilet. Nevertheless, the prisoner dresses carefully, perfumes himself, and pulls himself up to the toilet window (Samu'il, 1990, 79-92). From there he looks across what Samu'il calls masafat al-shawq, "the gap of desire where dreams are broken."
How, Samu'il wondered, could he find a way to convince readers of the evil of what he had experienced? For him, direct political commentary was not the way to do so, but rather elaborating the human details: "I wrote about the prisoner, not the jailor." The poet and playwright Mamduh `Adwan wrote an introduction to Ra'ihat which he entitled "The Cause." In it he praises Samu'il for not falling into the "trap" of believing that political prisoners are witnesses to their era and "so they turn their writing into a witness for the prosecution" (Samu'il, 1988, 8). `Adwan criticizes the exiled Saudi writer `Abd al-Rahman Munif, whom he had once overheard talking with a prison "graduate." Munif was exhorting the man, who had "dived deep into an experience and suffered and paid the price," to calm down and write literature. `Adwan praises Samu'il for not listening to such advice and following his heart to produce literature so intense that everyone must relate to it. Such literature will naturally and therefore the more convincingly become a witness for the prosecution.
I could not find Ghassan al-Jaba`i at first, nor his book. Damascus bookstore keepers had not heard of him or of the short-story collection Asabi` al-mawz (Banana Fingers; 1994). Finally, I learned that the Ministry of Culture had published his book. Remarkable, but also perhaps an example of what I have elsewhere called "commissioned criticism" (Cooke, 2000). A government that publishes literature critical of its treatment of its people must be democratic and a champion of human rights. But this kind of writing could not appear anywhere. Books like Asabi` al-mawz are not available on the open market, but are generally sold in regional cultural centers or exported to Arab book fairs abroad. Cultural reception has been so carefully calibrated that each genre seems to have received sanction for a particular level of criticism. The least available genres, like books and films which are government-produced and -distributed, are the most critical and daring, whereas television and the newspapers with their wide audiences are much more circumspect. But the fact of being commissioned, a fate thrust upon many intellectuals, does not mean that the writer or artist has sold out. Those who want to stay in the country, and to continue to do what they feel they must, work within the system, while recognizing that whatever they do they risk being condemned for complicity.
Ghassan al-Jaba`i had submitted his stories to the Syrian Writers Union, part of the Ministry of Culture, because the Union is the only venue for the publication of unknown authors: "Antun Maqdisi, a 100-year-old philosopher, was a member of the committee. The committee has enlightened people from the opposition, and so it tolerates people like us. After the meeting, he called me into his office. He was very excited and encouraging. They were going to publish the collection with only a very few changes. They accepted the dates at the end of each story, but not the place." Clearly, they worried about the identification of the prison with the place-name. So he could not write Tadmur or Sadnaia or Mezze. Two years later, the Ministry of Culture published three of his four plays: "General," "Sister," and "Bodyguard." They refused to include the fourth play, "The Ghoul," because they said that the depiction of the governor of the Tadmur prison was too obvious. He gave me the manuscript of "The Ghoul," which I read and found innocuous. The few jabs at a patriarchal figure seemed less daring than much of what he had written in the other plays. The ways of the censor are inscrutable and must remain so.
Ghassan al-Jaba`i was teaching at the Drama Institute, despite the fact that ex-convicts are generally not allowed to teach. He was delighted that I had read and liked his story collection Asabi` al-mawz, but he was also surprised that I had been interested in it. He was remarkably open and confiding, almost too much so. I remember wondering how could he be so direct in speech about what he had been so careful to hide in writing? After some minutes of preliminary pitter-patter, he opened his collection of plays and read me the epigraph to the last one, "Bodyguard": "Lighten your step, for I think the skin of the earth is composed of these bodies" (al-Jaba'i, 1995, 103).
I had noticed the verse when I first read the play, but, failing to understand what it was doing in the book, I had dismissed it as an opportunity to quote a favorite line from the eleventh-century poet Abu al-`Ala' al-Ma'arri (d. 1057). Now that he was insisting that I pay attention, I could ask what it meant.
"When you return to Mezze this afternoon, pay attention to the stretch of road between the University and the Customs."
"Why?" I whispered.
"Ten meters below the tarmac of the Autostrade [adim al-ard, `the skin of the earth'] is the prison where I [al-ajsad, `one of the bodies'] spent the last of my ten years inside."
He had been "out" for four years, but his handsome face was ravaged, the eyes dull and sad, the skin yellowed. On my way home, I did more than just notice. I got out of the communal taxi at the University stop, and then walked the mile that covered the underground prison. It is the only deserted part of the Autostrade. I felt conspicuous.
What was al-Jaba`i's crime? He did not know exactly, nor did he know who had betrayed him. One of his characters poses a question he himself might well have asked: "To whom shall I point the finger of blame? To the night? I'll accuse the night. The night that left its color on our stones" (1995, 169-70). The atmosphere is so thick with suspicion and fear that the only reasonable object of accusation is the night, under whose cover so much evil is committed. But it is also the individual himself, because "when you finger someone, you need to know also that your three other fingers are pointing at you" (173). The reasons for being inside are as Kafkaesquely unfathomable as the question "Who am I?" and as the answer: "I am a cause without a goal" (183). Yet it is not without import that the author was a member of the outlawed Arab Socialist Democratic Party, otherwise known as Shubatiyyin (a word derived from "February" and referring to the 23 February 1966 coup that brought to power Salah Jadid, the former Alawite president who died in captivity in 1993). Upon his return in 1981 from six years of study for an M.A. at the Kiev School of Drama, al-Jaba`i had entered the army, as part of compulsory national military service. Almost immediately he disappeared, and for eighteen months his wife feared him dead.
Throughout his time inside, he wrote plays and stories. At Sadnaia, the prisoners constituted the Committee for Cultural Activity. Every Friday, they met in the common area beyond the cells to read literature, listen to political lectures, or watch a play by someone like al-Jaba`i. These sessions could last as long as six hours. They did not tell the jailors what they were doing, but were sure that they knew: "Some even cooperated with us." I was given the program notes for Al-lajna, a play that al-Jaba`i adapted from Sonallah Ibrahim for the Sadnaia stage. In beautifully penned (but poorly reproduced) script, someone had written: "Al-lajna leads us to discover a world hidden behind various deceptive forms.... Have we succeeded? Failed? The judgment we leave to you.... We wanted to succeed." The Shakespearean language, calling upon the reader to think but this and all is mended, added to the description of the hero as someone "who tries to fly with waxen wings," recalling the language of his stories and above all his plays.
"General" (written in 1988 in Sadnaia) is a surreal adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Caesar first appears carried aloft by four slaves. A ragged man throws himself in the path of the procession and warns Caesar to beware his shadow and to hold on to his clothes. Drama turns to farce when the soothsayer admits that he had learned this oracular saying from a newspaper in which he is then wrapped (al-Jaba`i, 1995, 9). Heedless of the warning, Caesar gradually replaces his imperial garments with a general's uniform, which turns the people into scarecrows or automatons wearing a variety of modern Arab headdresses and dramatic masks and shouting their obedience: "At his order we decorate the streets / we decorate the air / we carry images / we carry men / we extinguish the moon / we starve / we travail / we strip naked / we die a thousand times / long live Rome / Caesar's Rome / Rome's Caesar" (27). Not only does the emperor survive inside his uniform, but he lives inside his statue. When a drunkard addresses to the statue the first chapter of the Qur'an, he accepts and blesses the invocation with an Amen. The double blasphemy is intense: 1) Muslims should not drink, and to recite the most sacred of the Qur'anic chapters while inebriated is a greater sin still; 2) Caesar/General/the statue considers himself to be the one addressed -- i.e., Allah (30). Caesar is killed and Brutus is brought before the prosecution. Here he denies having killed Caesar. He had killed a tyrant, and had done so in self-defense (37). Nor could Caesar have been his father, because his father had been a corporal who fell in the 1967 war. Therefore, perhaps the play should be read backwards so that the General becomes the protagonist who carries within him imperial and sacred delusions.
Many of the men with whom al-Jaba`i had been imprisoned were Palestinians whose crime was their identity. In "Sister," a forty-page monologue, a Palestinian man driven crazy by torture wails: "They beat me with whips ips ips ips. They plucked out my moustache, they crushed my teeth, they beat my head with their shoes and with the butts of their rifles and with the table and with the walls. Before dawn, brothers, they sealed my window with reinforced concrete.... The guards are afraid. Why?" (77). He makes clay pots which produce dreams and characters with which he can then speak. Why had he been condemned? "Because I sneezed. Because I said I shall not forget. I said to them: Gentlemen, these are tanks. Shut up! And I said to them: Gentlemen, this is blood. Shut up! I went back to my place. I was not silent" (97). It is only at the end that he tells us how his refugee camp had been surrounded and bombarded and how they had died and risen again countless times. They were then taken and imprisoned underground.
At the end, the voice of the guard is heard calling the prisoner "old man," and so we know that he has been inside for a long, long time. He asks if the prisoner has heard the news: "They're going to give you a country. Ha, ha, ha. He stops laughing when he discovers that the prisoner is not there" (98-100). Immured as he was in the cell, he had nowhere to go. Or so it seemed, for what he had done was to dive into one of his clay pots; he had immersed himself in his dreams and had thus escaped. Dreams are the final resort and weapon of those who have been stripped of all else. When talking of his own case, al-Jaba`i explained that many "were imprisoned for our niya to turn our unrealized desires into forbidden dreams. Yes, it is dangerous to dream here." That phrase explained the off-repeated use of the word dream that I had noticed in the titles of books and films. Dreams are dangerous in themselves, but also because they make the return to reality unbearable.
All of al-Jaba`i's writing is surreal; but whereas the plays are grim farces, his ten stories, each written inside, are abstract, difficult, and unremittingly sinister. They read visually, like dark, unframed Goya paintings. Experimental fiction, he has said, "is important, especially when it is surreal and hallucinatory. When you've been through what we have, what matters is the unconscious. In such writings the unconscious becomes the hero." Despite the prohibition on writing while inside, Ghassan told me, he had managed to get hold of the necessary paper and writing implements so that he might "write to survive. When they want to eliminate you, you have to assert your existence. You write to survive! But I don't write politically, directly. I write critical realism. This is a form of politics because I am addressing the human condition."
Shauqi Baghdadi produced the introduction to Asabi` al-mawz, but, apparently afraid of the consequences of what he was doing, spoke there of a stranger he had only just met. He thought al-Jaba`i wrote splendidly, even if some of the selections were too long and might have been compressed or divided into more than one story. The only allusion to the prison experiences which occasioned the book was a notation of the fact that al-Jaba`i "had been forced to distance himself from the world for ten whole years. No sooner had he returned than his name began to be spread around as the writer of stories and plays whose vitality had not been dampened by his long break from humanity." There follows a statement that can be read as patronizing or admiring: "He might not have been vouchsafed the deep and intense conversations about human existence with companions restricted like him inside had he remained in ordinary life" (8-9). Ah, the literary benefits of prison!
Through oblique narration and macabre imagery, these stories evoke Ghassan's time in isolation and then, after the 1982 government operation against the Islamists in the northern town of Hama, in cells so overcrowded that the men had to sleep on their sides to be able to fit. Once a week, they were offered the option of going outside to walk around the perimeter of the sahat al-tanaffus, the exercise space or, literally, breathing square (200), so that the sun might burn off the bugs that had nested in their hair and clothes. This sahat al-tanaffus appears in "Under the Sun, On the Sand" as a place of horror fenced in by fear. The prisoners enter the square, "an army of black skeletons crawling over the earth of the naked, cement square, an intertwined, interwoven army like the string of pigeons hanged from the hunter's waist, a school of sardines that goes out daily to dry on the sand, under the burning desert sun." Outside they see dark stains of oil on the walls (87). That was how the shadows of the hanging cadavers appeared to the prisoners, Ghassan explained. Here was one of the keys that opened the story; the other was the word hanged (mashnuq), which he had underlined in the book he had dedicated to me. Mashnuq was the only clue he had given as to what the oil stains might be. There might be one stain/shadow, or two or three, and then they would disappear. In the intensity of light and heat there is no sound. Silence turns human beings into echoes, "deep croaks of a drop of water in the bottom of a well ... oww ... owww ..." (88). Each pigeon/sardine chained to his two neighbors knew that tomorrow his might be the stain/shadow on the wall.
The stories in Asabi` al-mawz do not point beyond themselves to liberation. They are written out of a sense of despair where silence and death are the only realities: "The special silence which envelops the place and which only the inhabitants of Shabki [an underground town in southern Syria] know" (208). The silence in the prison is heavy and broken only by sounds of pain: "`Can we forget the sound?' I said: `Sound [sawt] or whip [sawt]?'" (88). Another key Ghassan gave me was that the sound of the whip at night was accompanied by the sound of the Islamists' screams: "Allah akbar!"
In a place where "humans take refuge from humans in fire" (88), prisoners find reprieve only in silent communication with birds. Far from being symbols of freedom, these birds, with their burnt black wings of wax and bone are as enchained as are the men who see and dream them. A huge mutilated prisoner called "the ghoul" seeks solace from the meanness of his cellmates in a baby bird. He tosses it higher and higher in his desire to make it fly. One day, he throws it so hard that it hits the ceiling, cracks its little skull, and dies. The next day, the narrator finds the grief-stricken man hanging from the bathroom ceiling, "his head and shoulders covered with innumerable birds" (86). The birds provide a shroud for the ghoul.
Death is a daily companion which materializes in the sahat al-tanaffus. The narrator describes the oil stains melding with that of his own shadow, his double. In the last vignette, the narrator disappears, and the author then narrates his end. The transformation of the prisoner into the bird pecking at his cell bars into the bird's mother into the mother of the prisoner suggests that the bird that fell into the square at the beginning of the story was in fact the protagonist and that the whole sequence has been told by his ghost, his double, the oil stain glistening blackly in the burning sun.
"On the Snow" employs a similar artifice: namely, the protagonist's narration of his own death. Here the narrator begins with what the reader will realize only at the end is a description of the frozen body of the narrator's alter ego. He is surprised by death while writing his name in ink in the snow. The black of the ink is set off against the white of the snow, and Mursal then becomes the only white in the surrounding black. As he writes the words that will mark the finale of his life, the narrator presents the spectacle of the body that he will acquire with the unfolding of the story. In the moment before he shoots himself in the head, the narrator reads the journal Mursal wrote in 1967 just before he died. Is it the story that he has just written? Like Mursal, who died in the act of writing, the narrator is writing "on papers that are about to be extinguished." Next to these papers is the gun whose barrel is staring him in the eye, and which will kill him in the act of writing. Two explosions and the mirror shatters. He sees a woman with "an alarming amount of cotton and white gauze. I could not see her behind it all ... she was bandaging the mirror" (214). His vision blurs into the whiteness of the bandages, which he once again distances from himself. He has narrated his own death, but it becomes that of the mirror, of his image, his shadow.
During the past decade, prison literature, or adab al-sujun, has become a recognized genre in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Morocco. I suspect that this is the case because, to quote Tom Wicker's foreword to H. Bruce Franklin's anthology of twentieth-century American prison literature, "What happens inside the walls inevitably reflects the society outside" (Franklin, xii). Prison literature goes beyond a particular experience in a particular place. One Syrian writer told me that the "presence of prison literature on the stage of literature shows that it is relevant to the average reader and that it is not exceptional. It is not about an experience elsewhere that must be lived to be understood. Even for those of us who have not been in prison, what it describes is familiar." In other words, the power of these plays and stories lies in their symbolic function to provide a prism onto life outside, reflecting the virtual captivity of daily life, where, as one of al-Jaba'i's characters says, "The room is mine but the walls are theirs" (1994, 181); and another exclaims, "A curse on all prisons whether closed or open!" (1995, 80). Ibrahim Samu'il compares captivity in and outside of prison under martial law. The ex-convict is like "a man wandering in a desert with a helicopter hovering overhead. You live life and death at the same instant. Your dreams are living but everything else is stopped. Hope lives and dies at the same instant. Like being immersed in freezing water and then in boiling water. This is why literature is so important, because it allows us to draw that line [barzakh] that divides what can be revealed from what must remain hidden. Writing is like getting oil out of the ground and then purifying it. Prison experience is tatooed on my soul and flows in the blood of all that I write."
In fin-de-siecle Syria, a number of writers risked much to tell the stories of their years inside. They did not wait for it to be safe to do so. They dared to write, knowing they might not be heard except within the very environment that suppresses or co-opts them. How do we, how should we, read their writings? We must read men like Ghassan al-Jaba'i as his cellmates did: with attention, respect, and understanding, so that his resistance will not be transformed into an accouterment of democracy. We need this literature as a witness for the prosecution and a powerful reminder of the resilience of the soul. After all, when the ringmaster goes crazy, lions, tigers, elephants, and leopards do not turn into sheep. They only seem to.
(1) Ghassan al-Jaba'i in turn gave me Wajdi Mustafa's Bayna daffatayn (1992) despite the fact that it was inscribed, "To my dear friend Ghassan al-Jaba'i with affection and love in a time during which the values of humanity and friendship no longer existed." He had also known `Imad 'Abd al-Latif Naddaf, and he recommended Naddaf's surreal Ghan's Rose (1993) as well as Jamil Said's Junun al-shumus (Sun Madness, 1992).
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MIRIAM COOKE is Professor of Arabic and Chair of Asian & African Languages and Literatures at Duke University. Among her book publications are The Anatomy of an Egyptian Intellectual: Yahya Haqqi (1984), War's Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (1988), Women and the War Story (1997), the novel Hayati: My Life (2000), and Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature (2001). She has reviewed contemporary Arabic belles lettres for WLT since 1983.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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