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“I am an old man now. You both still have lives to live.”
“But you’ve always said that the power of any country lies in its youth,” she cries out. “How can you change your mind now? How—”
“I hear screams every night, Layla,” I say in a hard voice. “Screams of a Shiite man from the torture cell underground. Yet every morning, I hope I can hear his screams again because they are the only way I know he is alive.”
There is a brief silence. “I’m sorry.”
I sigh. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to shout at you. But you must promise me that you will stop this.”
She says nothing. I know she is disappointed, and I am angry—at her and myself.
“Layla,” I notice Shabuddin pointing a finger to his wrist, “I have to go now. Please take care of your mother.”
I hand back the phone to Shabuddin. Though I do not tell this to my children, each passing day adds another blur to my memory of them. I am terrified by how weak my mind has grown in just five months, but I know that I cannot tell them this. I cannot add my horror to theirs.
- The last week of Ramadan, 2004.
“Get up, harami!” a guard shouts. “Up. Up.”
Elastic snaps of a stick on human flesh. Shabuddin moans. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.”
“You tried to help those black kafirs escape,” screams the guard, his face red.
“I didn’t.” Shabuddin’s wail echoes in the silence. “I don’t know anything about it.”
I huddle against the wall with the others and watch. My knuckles are bloodless. The guards drag Shabuddin down to the hajuz. His cries, though somewhat muffled by the concrete floor, continue to seep into our cell for three hours before silence falls once again. It is then that I notice that the Eritreans—the co-owners of Shabuddin’s mobile phone—are missing.
I learned the story in bits and pieces from other prisoners.
“They got away in the laundry baskets, lucky bastards.”
“Naturally that poor miskeen Shabuddin was the first suspect.”
“You can bet they had help from one of the guards.”
Shabuddin returns to the cell two days later, paralyzed from the waist down.
We don’t know the details. Neither does Shabuddin. But the morning of his return, we see Hussam walk to General Otaibi’s office, and then walk out, carrying an envelope—“a demotion to a desk job at the same salary,” the other prisoners say.
- November 15 2004, Eid-al-fitr.
We begin our hunger strike today, with the sighting of the moon. For Ali. For Shabuddin. For others like them. Saleh’s musical voice floats down the corridor, a precursor to the vats of food that later roll past our cells, thickening the air with the aroma of meat, dates, and rice.
The guards rattle our cages, run their sticks across the bars, eat our food in front of us. When we do not give them the response they are looking for, General Otaibi makes an announcement on the loudspeaker about how our strike will accomplish nothing except death. He makes fun of the letters we wrote to the King. Three letters have been intercepted so far and their writers have been taken underground.
Perhaps the general is right. Perhaps the King will never get our letters. Or if he does get them, he will be too busy to read their contents.
But for now, I refuse to believe the general.
For now, I will believe in miracles.