(Page 2 of 5)
May 1, 2004, a day after Qamar’s call
I wake to the sound of hammering on wood, my mind still in the soft grey zone that bisects the dream world and the real one. The knocks—for I eventually do realize the sounds are knocks on my apartment door—are magnified to a decibel level that makes my ears throb in the early morning silence.
The corridor is dark—the bulb fused last week—and the tiles are cold after hours of central air conditioning. I cannot find my slippers, so I make my way across the tiles barefoot, once stepping on something smooth and oval: a black cockroach that scuttles away on being revealed by torchlight.
I align my left eye with the peephole. A man with heavy grey eyebrows and a white streak in his beard. He wears a red-white cotton shimagh over a white skullcap, without the black cord of the egal to hold it in place. The absence of the egal in Saudi Arabia is the mark of a cleric or a member of the Hay’a, the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. A friend of mine once said: “The Hay’a to Saudi Arabia is what the Modesty Patrol is to Israel and what the Basij is to Iran: they curb, they regulate, they terrorize.”
I undo the door’s heavy lock and steel security chain for the man waiting outside, the man underneath the Hay’a uniform: Qamar’s eldest brother, Mohsin Al-Qahtani.
We’ve had our differences over the years, Mohsin and I, our wavelengths defined by not only differences in education, but also in background: the perpetual gap between old blood and new, tribe and town, Najdi and Hijazi. We both were Wahhabi-born Muslims, brothers by religion and law. Yet our relationship, though never openly antagonistic, always retained the marks of an inherent distrust, much like long-healed yet never forgotten battle scars.
“Assalamualaikum,” I say formally.
“You shouldn’t have done it, you know,” Mohsin says, without preamble.
Figures emerge from the shadows behind Mohsin: a posse of four young Hay’a members who wear scowls and short thobs—the kind who spend time warning local gift shops against stocking Valentine’s Day cards, or use Magic Markers to censor women’s body parts in magazines.
“What is the meaning of this?” I try to keep my tone firm. My interview had criticized the conditions of the Riyadh prison, where Sheikh Khalid bin Ruwais and Sheikh Firas Al-Maktoum—members of the King’s advisory board—are being held for undefined “non-Islamic” activities. But it wasn’t as candid as some other articles I’d written in the past—and I had yet to receive a warning for those.
A muscle in Mohsin’s face twitches. “Arrest him,” he tells the young men.
The four pin me to the wall with their hands, as if I’m not an old man but an exotic flying insect that will elude them without notice. My protests emerge as wheezes, indecipherable to even my ears. Cuffs bind my wrists and ankles in a series of sharp metal clicks.
“Move,” says one of them, a boy. A hard, blunt object presses into my spine and forces me out of the apartment.
“You cannot arrest me like this, Mohsin,” I manage to say, hating the desperation that has crept into my voice.
A fist hits the side of my face like an iron hammer. My vision blurs temporarily from the pain; it feels as if I am seeing everything through a curtain of fog.
“Take him away.” Mohsin’s instructions sound disjointed to my ringing ears. My memories grow a little hazy after this. I remember being dragged down the staircase. I remember tripping, hitting the floor, being carried out into the cool night air to a vehicle—a black van, perhaps an SUV.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” Mohsin whispers. “You shouldn’t have left my sister.”
When I awake a few hours later, my world has turned upside-down. I hang suspended in the air—like a goat at a meat shop—my head a foot above the cracked marble tiles of an eight-by-eight interrogation chamber. My nightshirt lies by the door, a puddle of blue fabric that appears green in the glow of the bulb.
The sound of the early morning azan pours through a small window somewhere behind me and fills the silence. Blood follows gravity, and my eyes swell like grapes. I close my eyes and try to concentrate. From the volume of the muezzin’s voice, I deduce that I am in a building close to a mosque—a Hay’a office or perhaps a nearby police station.
My interrogator comes to see me a few minutes after the Fajr prayer. He wears ironed khaki trousers and black shoes made from soft Italian leather. An officer.
“My name is Major Attar,” he tells me in a quiet, serious voice. “You are at the Aziziyah police station, Dr. Al-Matari. You are accused of apostasy, depicting a false image about the Kingdom to the outside world, and corrupting the minds of the youth against the Saudi administration. Your charges are based on evidence found in your apartment by the officials of the Hay’a. Do you confess?”
“I do not.” My voice is embarrassingly thin. “Those charges.
They aren’t true.”
The officer sighs. “Muhammad,” he says.
A man emerges from behind me: a shadow from the wall. He has thick, coal-skinned arms and holds a stick wrapped in chains. He raises the stick like a baseball bat and strikes my ribcage. Once, twice. Again. I bite my tongue to cut off the screams. He steps back when a drop of blood stains the corner of my lips.
“Now that you’re acquainted with Muhammad, professor, let me make this very simple for you.” Major Attar squats till I see his face. Mid-thirties, silver glasses, military crop, and a thin brown mouth varnished with Vaseline. Up close, his eyes are watery and brown, with fine, red veins. He looks tired.
“This part of our interrogation process is quite simple, really,” he says. “Just a confirmation of statements you made to Sheikh Mohsin Al-Qahtani of the Hay’a. All you need to do is sign these papers. Even a thumbprint will do.”
I say nothing.