The hour drew nigh, and the moon was rent asunder.
—54:1, Surah Al-Qamar (Chapter of the Moon), The Holy Qur’an.

The sure Truth!
What is the sure Truth?
And what would make thee realize what the sure Truth is?
—69:1-3, Surah Al-Haqqah (Chapter of the Sure Truth), The Holy Qur’an.

Qamar’s face has what they call noor, a radiance that reminds me of the moon. She is as fair as I am dark, as conservative as I am liberal. My opposite, my perfect other half. Whenever I think of Qamar, I recall the image I had of her on our wedding day—a pale, delicate oval of a face barely shielded by the fine black net of her veil. A shy, well-raised Najdi girl. A marble sculpture swathed in black.

We married in 1964, the year King Saud officially abdicated his throne to his brother Faisal, due to what the newspapers called “a prolonged illness.” The real reason, as my father said, ran more along the lines of “a prolonged national embarrassment.” My father was the kind of man who, to my mother’s consternation, never minced words, voicing things better left unsaid. My mother, who believed that I’d inherited this trait from him, thought that marriage to Qamar would calm me down.

But Qamar, though lovely, could not curb the restlessness of my mind. She did not understand my fascination with Voltaire, whom she called a long-haired faranji, and evaded any attempts I made at teaching her English: “Not today; I’m a little tired.” “I have a headache.” “I am not as intelligent as you, habibi.”

A year after our wedding, I received a scholarship from King Faisal’s education fund to leave Riyadh and pursue further studies in Pune, India. Qamar refused to come along; the idea of leaving Saudi Arabia and her family had always frightened her. We separated several times like this over the years: I earned doctoral degrees in Jeddah and Geneva—one in Islamic studies and another in political science— and Qamar, I suppose, accumulated merit points from God and society for being a devout homemaker.

“I cannot live with you anymore,” I told Qamar on the eve of our fortieth anniversary. She did not cry the way I expected her to, but quite simply went numb.

“You cannot divorce me,” she said, after a pause.

“No, I cannot,” I agreed.

Divorce was not an option. Not for a woman like Qamar, whose very life depended on the approval of her family, friends, and acquaintances. Yet she does not know that when I married her, I had hoped we would last. For richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, as the Christians say.

I moved out of our villa on Palestine Street and found an apartment in Aziziyah, in a building next to the girls’ section of Qala Academy. I did not hear from Qamar until two months after our separation, when she left a message on my answering machine.

“I read your interview with that human rights magazine, Abu Faisal,” she said. Father of Faisal, Mother of Faisal— this is how we referred to each other in public; now this is what we call each other in private as well.

“My brother says you shouldn’t have done it. That you’ve made many people angry this time.” A hush of breath and then nothing.

I pressed ‘delete.’

Over the years, I have received many letters, phone calls and e-mails from a variety of people, both Saudi and non-Saudi. Some lauded me, some criticized me, some vowed to kill me. I learned to take the threats in stride—especially after they proved to be empty. Qamar, of course, had always taken them seriously. She would call me on the way to work, when I reached the campus, during lunch breaks, tea breaks, and when my car left the university, homeward— multiple checks to ensure I was still alive.

I did not think of my wife after our separation, or at least I tried not to. For the most part, I had been successful— until that morning, about a week ago.

I think of my wife now as I follow a guard across the sand-block courtyard of the detention centre in Aziziyah, as
the moon glows at us through the wire mesh ceiling.

My friends say that I have always been outspoken. My column in the Al-Arabiya newspaper and my lectures at King Abdulaziz University have always drawn the wrath of certain readers and parents. In public, I have been called “too western,” “too unorthodox,” and “too critical of Saudi Arabia.” In private, I am “the American lapdog,” “an apostate,” and “a traitor.”

My wife, my relatives, and my friends have constantly lamented my inability to adopt the classic schizophrenic perspective common to people who live in the kingdom. In a British documentary called Death of a Princess, an anonymous Arab explained this perspective as the ability to live “in two worlds at once.”

Yet I feel that Najda Khan, a woman who once taught at Qala Academy, explained it better. “It’s not really schizophrenia,” she told me, “but a sort of hypocrisy we’ve adopted over the years. For instance, many of us in South Asia or the Middle East have no qualms about watching a kissing scene in an English movie. But if any of our movies include such scenes, we march out on the streets in protest; we burn effigies of the actors; we call the movie a degradation of our culture.

“We rebuke foreign filmmakers and news channels for broadcasting our problems to the world: the problems we as a society have learned to overlook. ‘Don’t shantytowns exist in New York?’ we ask. ‘Aren’t children sold into prostitution in Europe? Who are you to point fingers at us?’

“But when our countrymen reveal the same things, we either ignore them or accuse them of treason. We make them so miserable that eventually they, too, lose faith and cease all effort.”

And so, the things that must be said remain unsaid.

    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.

“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.

“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?”

“You’ll see.”

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.”

“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.”

“Bye, Daddy.”

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.

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