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“A judge may go easy on you with a confession,” Major Attar says. “As it is, your radical views on Islam and those foolish articles, which repeatedly ask for the release of two very dangerous political prisoners, do not sit well with our administration. Rebellion in the young may be overlooked, professor. But you—you are much too old for such antics.”
The blood in my mouth tastes like metal. I want to spit—right into the Major’s face. Instead I force myself to swallow.
“You have five minutes,” Attar says.
The door to the interrogation room clangs shut.
Muhammad, the beater, pulls up a chair and sits in front of me. He has a wide, square face and impeccably white teeth. “Ya Abu, you should listen to him. Major Attar is reasonable. He never uses cigarettes or pliers like the other interrogators. The old interrogator Major Mansoor had a special table with a stick poking out of the middle. He used to make prisoners sit on it.”
My stomach churns.
“Attar does not allow women to be interrogated here either,” Muhammad says, “which is a good thing because some of the young recruits tend to get carried away, if you know what I mean. Falaqa is the maximum you will get with Attar. And even then, he does not do it unless you are totally uncooperative.”
Muhammad pulls off a shoe and taps the soft arch of his foot with a finger. “We beat you here. Ten times. A hundred times. Depends on how quickly you respond.”
“I will not sign those papers,” I force myself to say. My brain presses the inside of my skull like a wet, heavy sponge.
“As you wish, Abu.” The stick that he will later use to administer the falaqa gleams in the dull yellow light.
I sign the confession after Muhammad breaks the second toe of my right foot. He congratulates me for lasting eight hours—good for a man of my age, he says. Unlike Muhammad, Attar does not smile. He rubs his arms the way my daughter Layla does to quell a shiver caused by something other than the air conditioner. He stares at me and waits. It is as if he wants me to reaffirm that really I was the one at fault. That he had no choice but to damage my feet.
Pain, they say, can numb all feeling. But I feel many things in that one moment as I watch Attar: anger, fear, revulsion, pity. Had I been a strong man, I might have repaid him in the same coin: a tit for a tat, his foot for mine. Had I been stronger, I might have forgiven him.
There are sixty of us in Ward 18, our crimes ranging from murder and drug peddling to apostasy and illegal immigration. The law, Sharia and international, says we are innocent until proven guilty. In practice, of course, the opposite is true.
We wake at dawn, not for prayer, but for roll call. The guards count us, and depending on their mood, rap latecomers on the knees with sticks or blue rubber pipes. Breakfast usually consists of bitter tea and a half-moon of pita bread. There are three toilets in the entire prison, used throughout the day. By the end of the first week I learn that the only time I can use one without a fight is during mealtimes, when most of the others devour their food.
By the time I return from the bathroom, my plate will be empty, but then this is expected. At Mohsin’s request to Major Attar (and perhaps Qamar’s request to Mohsin), I have a place in Ward 18—the ward that houses exemplary (i.e. less dangerous) prisoners—but the food, though devoid of insects or hair, is still not enough. The guards don’t provide prisoners with uniforms or blankets; we wear the clothes we were arrested in till a friend or a relative brings us a new set, and sleep on concrete till the blankets we also receive are screened by the ward supervisors. We, like those in other wards, are sixteen men packed into a cell for ten.
According to an old prisoner in a neighboring cell, there is only one real difference between the inmates of Ward 18 and those of the other wards: “We do not complain against the administration—never openly. We obey the guards—or at least we pretend to. And this is why we have a better chance of facing a trial than anyone else in prison.”
During the first week, the prison doctor, a curly-haired Egyptian, gives me a painkiller for my feet and binds my broken toe to the next unbroken one. When he asks me what happened, I say I tripped and fell. He nods, not because he believes me, but because it is the right answer.
The guards release us from our cells during the afternoons, once every week from three to four in the afternoon, for a walk in the courtyard with the netted ceiling. The heat makes us drift slowly from one end to another, like flies in a jar. This is the one time we can interact with the other prisoners—at least the ones from the medium security wards. It is here, during the third week, that I meet Ali, the Shiite from Ward 10.
Whenever I see Ali, I think of a water reed: long, brown, and limber. Big sturdy feet, and a thin perpetually swaying body, perhaps a reflection of his own restless mind.
He tells me that even if I get a trial, it may not be of much help.
“Still, you’re a Sunni, so you may have it easier,” Ali says, as we take a walk around the courtyard. “I’m here because I bumped into a police van. It was an accident, but the policeman thought I did it on purpose. So he put me in jail and I was forced to sign a confession. Bloody interrogator was a Shia-hater.
“During the trial, the judge asked me to tell the truth. Even after I showed him these.” He holds up his hands; there are no nails. “The interrogator pulled them out with a pair of pliers. But naturally the judge wouldn’t believe me. He sentenced me to seven years.”
“Is there a way to appeal?” I ask Ali.
Ali’s lips crack when he smiles. “Appeal to whom? The prison guard, Hussam, who beats prisoners for smoking the cigarettes he supplies? The ward supervisor who uses our files to prop up his windows when the AC conks off? Or another Wahhabi judge?”
That night, as I lie down on the blanket that my daughter Layla has sent me, someone taps my shoulder.
It is Shabuddin, a small Indian man with a pot belly and a big nose. I don’t know him apart from the fact that he has been charged for assaulting a municipal employee and that he helps do the prison laundry. His skin is smooth, like wax, and his voice oddly musical.