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“I saw you talking to Ali today,” he says quietly, without preamble. “Stay away from him. He’s a troublemaker.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, carefully keeping my voice low. I do not want the guards to catch us talking.
“I mean exactly what I say,” Shabuddin says. “Ali has this strange idea of escaping from prison and he has been trying to recruit others to help him.”
“But why shouldn’t he think of escape?”
“If he behaved himself, he would be out sooner.”
Shabuddin explains that there is only one foolproof means of escape: learn the entire Qur’an and recite it to the prison director like a songbird.
He tells me that General Otaibi, the director of our detention center, uses a specific formula defined by the Interior Ministry:
Memorize ten azja of the Qur’an to reduce your sentence by a sixth.
Memorize fifteen azja to reduce your sentence by a quarter.
And memorize all thirty to reduce it by a half.
“You get other things, too, by behaving yourself,” Shabuddin says.
“What kinds of things?”
I find out after a few days, when Shabuddin gets a package from his wife. It is a battered old Qur’an—the only book the jailer has allowed through the screening process. Shabuddin carefully turns the pages, a blank expression on his face.
An hour later, I see him pooling money (the riyals his wife had smuggled into the Qur’an) with two Eritreans in our cell. During the evening roll call, Shabuddin passes the money in an envelope to the prison guard, Hussam. Next week, at roll call, Hussam slips a mobile phone in the pocket of Shabuddin’s trousers.
October 15 marks the beginning of Ramadan, a month many dread here, though they say nothing about it. We are now fed only twice a day, but the food remains the same: never enough. Tempers run high among the prisoners, especially the younger ones, and the guards are forced to break up fights that erupt in the courtyard over something as simple as a laugh or a stare.
To avoid them, I sit in the courtyard and pretend to read Shabuddin’s Qur’an, verse by verse, page by page, more feverish than a Ph.D. student completing his thesis. It has been two months since I finished reciting the entire Qur’an to General Otaibi and gained a promise of a sentence reduction. My hearing is scheduled in the week after Eid.
Sometimes I help Shabuddin collect the laundry—piles of it in long, cylindrical baskets—and wheel it to the industrial-size washing machines in the prison basement.
“It is good that you’re doing this,” Shabuddin says one day, after we’d gathered an especially heavy load. “I’ve also noticed that you’ve started praying at salah-times. While this is good, remember that you’ve been accused of apostasy. So you must also do other things—religious things—to show you’re sorry.
“Don’t bother the guards or Otaibi about wanting to see a lawyer, don’t go on hunger strikes, and don’t plot escapes like that fool Ali. If I find out anything like that about you, I will personally report you to the guards.”
Shabuddin’s warning is harsh, but perfectly reasonable. If a prisoner escapes from a cell, the guards punish his cellmates by breaking wooden sticks on their backs. Ali, however, was caught in the process of escaping and now rots alone in the hajuz, the underground punishment chamber, his every movement monitored by security cameras. “He was squealing like a girl by the time Otaibi was through with him,” Hussam told us a month earlier.
Shabuddin does not know that my sudden devotion springs from fear. For Ali. For myself. When Saleh, the old prison guard, calls for prayer through the loudspeaker, I too kneel with the others, and seek comfort from the God I stopped worshipping thirty years ago. It does not always work. But at times I go into a trance and I am once more the eight-year-old boy who believed. It is at times like these that I smell traces of an oudh-like fragrance in the stale prison air and hear echoes of ancient holy men’s voices in Saleh’s nasal tenor.
My afternoons, previously spent walking in courtyard with Ali, are now devoted to teaching other prisoners the Qur’an, surah by surah. Shabuddin says this is a good way of pleasing both God and the general. My students are four Malayali Christian laborers who had been hauled in by the Hay’a for organizing a cultural dance program at the Indian Consulate. After nearly a year in prison with no real help from their embassy, they decided to memorize the Qur’an and get their sentences reduced. I agreed to teach them in exchange for cigarettes—the universal prison currency after cash.
By the first week of November, I scrape together enough smokes to pay Shabuddin for a five-minute phone call to my daughter Layla. Before this, we had only been able to correspond by monthly letters—which are always monitored by the jailer.
“We have created a petition for your release,” Layla informs me over the phone, her voice carefully pitched to avoid being overheard by her mother. “Plenty of bloggers have linked the petition to their sites. The government will probably block public access to the blogs, but I’m not worried. A newspaper in Zurich has run a piece on you. Faisal is also in touch with some journalists from a human rights group in New York.”
“Are you mad?” My voice comes out louder than intended, drawing stares from my other cellmates.
I lower my voice. “You and Faisal must stop this. Now. The last thing I want is for your Uncle to haul you both to prison.”
“Daddy, we are doing this for you, don’t you see? Our government needs to understand that it cannot shut us up, that it needs to account to its citizens.”
“Do not be an emotional fool like your mother. Remember that you are no longer in London.”
“Living in Saudi Arabia never stopped you from speaking out against injustice.”