A New Wave of Prison Writings After the Arab Uprisings?
Brahim El Guabli 14 May 2012

Forced disappearance and torture of political dissidents became an industry under the Arab dictatorships. Each of them administered its political prisons (mostly in remote desertic areas) and produced its own brand of punishment. This would not have happened without the luring incentives provided to torturers: 1) impunity, torturers were put above the law and they feared no legal proceedings to be engaged against them. In this state of affairs, anyone can imagine the overzealousness of empowered police officers and their subordinates in torturing their victims. 2) Social and professional promotion depended on how subservient the torturers were, and thus, they had every incentive to outdo each other in cruelly harming their victims. 3) Impunity and egoistic aspirations coupled with poverty and the inability to rebel against one’s hierarchy, resulted in a systematic violation of human rights, and degradation of human dignity.

Dictatorship also denied the “disappeared” their right to a peaceful death. A rather ubiquitous practice of dictatorial regimes all over the world. Graves of victims of human rights can turn into shrines and dictatorship cannot reconcile itself with the calamitous consequences of such an idea. Hence, we can talk about the haunting power of the dead which continues to shake the foundations of dictatorship even long after the dissidents left the world of the living. The deliberate insistence on erasing their physical memory is, therefore, part of the process leading up to eliminating the possibility of political activists becoming symbols. The latter’s danger stems usually from its crucial rallying role and a dictatorship, by its nature, cannot cohabit with other symbols that are likely to compete with it on its own vital sphere. However, not all the “disappeared” passed away under torture and inhuman prison conditions, some of them survived and insisted on surviving to tell the story, and continue the fight through narration. Survivors understood the invaluable importance of their testimonies in keeping the memory of their companions alive and in debunking the state institutionalized torture in their countries.

If this was the case in our recent past, it must be said that imprisonment, and its literary by-product, prison writings, are not a new motif of Arabic narrative discourse. Examples abound of poets who poetically narrated their prison ordeals both in the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras. Poets, especially, were jailed for various “crimes” including, but not limited to, tribal feuds, political disobedience, satire of powerful people and love poetry (ghazal) as well as for disrespect of the percepts of Islam. In his extensive study of prison writings—mostly poetry—in the above-mentioned periods, Dr. Wadih Al-Samad, found similarities between the types, styles and stages of torture depicted in the poetic works. He also found similarities in the detainees’ struggle to convey their torments, weaknesses, steadfastness, apprehensions as well as their dreams during incarceration (Wadih Al-Samad, p.268). It is worth mentioning that poets were not just literary figures but voices of their tribes and defenders of their glory, and as a consequence their individual humiliation, through incarceration, was tantamount to a collective humiliation of their tribes and clans.

If the colonial period witnessed the publication of literary works in which the prison was prevalent, the post-independence had its share of abuses. National independence from colonization did not only bring hopes, it also brought its share of internal conflicts. The colonial period unified citizens against a common enemy (the colonizer) but post-independence was fraught with intestine fights pitted, by former comrades in arms, against each other over power. During the early years of independence, the former friends’ paths diverged, and their interests conflicted and those who wielded power used it against their enemies. Internal discord and appearance of internal opposition were seminal to the formation of modern Arabic prison literature both because of the “nationalization” of imprisonment and the maturity—stylistically and artistically—of the works written during this period.

One of the pioneers of prison writing in the post-independence era is Sonallah Ibrahim whose novel The Smell of It (Tilka Al-rra’ia) “conveys a sense of alienation that at times is almost overpowering: the narrator who has been released from prison on parole, leads a humdrum existence, restlessly moving from place to place in Cairo, recording the minutiae of his daily life” (Starkey, p.141) A few years later, Abderrahman Munif wrote his epic novel, East of the Mediterranean (Sharq al-Mutawassi) which depicts the life of Rajab, an Arab imprisoned leftist political activist, both outside and inside his desertic jail and in his European exile, where he sought treatment, after surrendering and failing to stay steadfast in front myriads of torture techniques. In this novel, the political imprisonment is discovered in its wider implications for the family, male-female relationships as well as its political consequences on activists themselves who can be broken down to three categories: those who continue the fight, those who sell out and those are caught in limbo. My own understanding is that most Arab people before the uprisings belonged to the latter category. The list is long but it is worth mentioning that Abdellatif Laabi, the Moroccan writer/poet and political activist, published Le Chemin des Ordalies (The Path of Ordeals) in 1982. Khalid Khalifeh’s “Madih Al Karahiyya” (In Praise of Hatred) and Nabil Suleiman’s Samar Allayali spearheaded this literary genre in Syria, one of the Arab countries where the baath party perpetrated atrocious crimes against political dissidents. However, Hassiba Abderrahman’s The Cocoon, the author’s prison journal published as a novel, is considered by many critics as the milestone prison book of the late 1990s in the country.

Many internal and extern factors made prison writings in Morocco more prolific and diverse. When the late King Hassan II passed away in July 1999, a freedom atmosphere reigned over the country, and victims of what came to be known as the lead years dared to speak openly about their tribulations in Tazmamart and Derb Moulay Cherif among many other disappearance places. The printed media played a major role in normalizing the Moroccan readers with prison writing and unearthing human rights abuses that happened during the lead years. In the year 2000, Al-Ittihad Al-Ichtiraki, the newspaper of the Popular Socialist Forces Party, serialized the memoirs of Mohamed Raiss, one of the army officers detained illegally in Tazmamart for almost two decades in the aftermath of foiled coups d’états. He shared his memoirs with a Moroccan public avid of knowing about this inglorious past. While these serialized memoirs sent Al-Ittihad Al-Ichtiraki’s sales soaring during this transitional period due to the popularity of Raiss’s narrative, Moroccan people were awestruck to discover these unreal(but real) and fictitious (but not really) accounts of brutality that a fringe of their co-citizens were capable of meting out to others.

The openness that characterized the first years of the new Moroccan Monarch and his willingness to turn the page of the “disappeared” and “the missing/unaccounted for”, encouraged more political captives of his father’s era to produce memoirs, novels, cartoons and diverse literary works to depict their “passage” in political captivity. A Woman Named Rachid by Fatnah El Bouih, Memory of Ashes by Khadija Merouazi and Cellule 10 by Ahmed Merzoqui, to name but a few, caught the Moroccan readers’ attention for their depiction of the essence of prison life (both in the narrow and wider senses of prison) and for changing the Moroccan political discourse by breaking the taboo of speaking about politics publically. The inhumanness depicted in these literary works did not only unbridle the tongues, the minds and pens of those who witnessed this dark period but it also created an incubator of unprecedented free speech in the country that gave rise to diverse literary and journalistic experiences that strove to defend the newly acquired spaces of freedom. Tazmamart for instance, entered the Moroccan spoken language as a synonym of disappearance, the black years, the lead years and never this again are all phrases that refer to the same abhorrent reality of widespread political detention during a dictatorial period. The threat “I will send you to Tazmamart” was a sign of both unlimited and unchecked powers enjoyed by the civil servants. However, the same name that used to symbolize unlimited power shifted to become the state’s locus of shame. The rush to destroy it is nothing but a proof that Tazmamart ceased being a locus of power and instead it became a locus of shame. Flattening its walls was a symbolic burial of a shameful period in a country in transition. Yet, literature keeps the memory alive, and takes this experience from its local level to wider universal realms.

Creative writing is the air that people breathe whenever a shift happens in their individual and collective history. It did not take Sonallah Ibrahim, Abdulrahman Munif, Abdellatif Laabi and Hassiba Abderrahman a revolution to write about their carceral experience. However, writing about it openly as it happened in Morocco, was a sign of political change. In Egypt and Syria, it was more a sign of determination to breach the taboos surrounding political detention. Moreover, historical experience shows that wherever people were abducted, jailed and forcefully disappeared, literature was produced by the survivors to honor and save the memory of their companions in victimhood, and fight for more democratic and socially responsible political and economic regimes.

The prison writings are the crucible of Arab people’s frustrations, hopes, broken promises and unflinching will to not turn a blind eye to crimes of dictatorship. The wave has already started in post-revolution Tunisia with the publication of a dozen prison literary works that would have been banned under Ben Ali’s regime. The revolution has enlarged the potential of freedom of speech, and it is our hope that more and more victims of this period (and why not torturers too?) will share their insider’s knowledge of these loci of shame.