Sisyphus in the Arab Prison

Night was no longer night, since there were no more days, no more stars, no more moon, no more sky. We were the night. We had become nocturnal: our bodies, breathing, heartbeats, the fumbling of our hands moving effortlessly from one wall to another in a space shrunk to the dimensions of a tomb for the living, although whenever I say that word, I should use “surviving” instead, yet I really was a living being, enduring life in extreme deprivation, an ordeal that could end only in death but that seemed strangely like life.“

(The Blinding Absence of Light)

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel „The Blinding Absence of Light“ is an attempt to describe the agonizing experience of former Moroccon prisoner Azīz Binbīn… an attempt that can only fail, because how can one describe 18 years without ever leaving a 4 ½ square meter cell, without ever standing up straight, without a glimpse of light, without medical care, and without a single word to and from the outside world? How can one imagine to sleep standing in order not to freeze to death, to live in a tiny room with a hole for a toilet not eating anything but beans for six thousand six hundred and sixty-three days, to pull out one’s own decaying molar with a piece of wood, and, finally, to not only survive such a horrific ordeal, but to stay human all the while?

When reading some of the numerous accounts by and about prisoners in secret desert prisons of Morocco, underground torture facilities in Syria, or other unfathomably cruel prisons throughout the Middle East, my mind often reached the limits of what it could – and wanted – to imagine.

Ben Jelloun wrote down the story of Binbīn, one of three inmates (out of 28) who left Tazmamārt’s cell-block B alive in 1991 after 18 years on the verge of death and insanity. The author is often criticized for favoring his own literary voice over his subject’s detailed testimonial. However, I want to talk about some aspects of the book that Binbīn has also mentioned himself in recent interviews.

He was arrested together with numerous other military officers after being tricked into participating in a failed coup against King Hassan II. in 1971. His story, however, is just one example of countless activists, journalists, and even ordinary people who never participated in any political struggle, who fell victim to arbitrary torture and arrest by totalitarian security states in the past and present.

There is the case of Ḥasan bin Muḥammad aṭ-Ṭaḥān, who was arrested in Syria under Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad for merely having Jordanian nationality and working for the Saudi Arabian Airlines in Damascus. He seemed suspicious, was arrested, tortured, and thrown into prison, where he spent the next 20 years of his life, during 11 of which he never got to see his wife and children.

Photojournalist Shawkan who has been in prison since August 2013

Photojournalist Shawkan who has been in prison since August 2013

And we don’t even have to look that far into the past. Photojournalist Shawkan was imprisoned in Egypt on August 14th, 2013 without formal charges, simply for reporting on the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa Square. His detention has been renewed every 45 days since and despite international attention he has no tangible hope of being released any time soon. In a letter he sent from Tora Prison recently he claims that

„Tora prison is like a cemetery. It is a place where dreams come to die. (…) My feelings of frustration, disappointment and hopelessness often overwhelm me. I try to dream but my reality has become four cursed, ugly walls. My dreams feel wasted, choked by this reality.“

(Letter by Shawkan from Tora Prison)

Hearing the stories of these pointless, unjust and sometimes horrifying imprisonments makes us cringe, but what’s worse is realizing that the ones we hear about, the ones that come back and tell their stories, the ones that the world public is watching and thereby sometimes protecting, are just the tip of an eternally frozen, endlessly isolated iceberg, floating in the silence of a forgotten ocean, the depths of which no one ever sees.

I guess, what I found most disturbing when reading about these cases, was the amount of time spent in utter absurdity. When everything I ever experienced and learned, all the phases I have gone through, all the details of my past that I don’t even remember, are all pieced together to a life of 23 years… how can another human being have spent 18 years in a black, empty cube of nothingness?

J’ai pris une resolution. Je me suis dit: Je suis ici. J’y suis peut-être pour longtemps. Donc, la première des choses c’est de faire abstraction de mon passé. Donc, je n’ai plus ni amis ni famille ni passé derrière moi.“

„I took a decision. I said to myself: I am here. And maybe for a long time. So the first thing I need to do is to abstract my past. I did not have friends or family or a past anymore.“

(Interview with Binbīn)

Azīz Binbīn, survivor of 18 years in Tazmamart

Azīz Binbīn, survivor of 18 years in Tazmamart

Binbīn was determined to alienate all his memories, as if they were not his own, but the memories of a stranger. After years of meditation and manipulation of his own mind he could therefore look at them as something that had nothing to do with him, he could look at them without dying of sorrow. In the book written about Binbīn the protagonist claims that only he who clung to the frozen moment in an interminable present without hoping for the future or longing for the past, only he could preserve his sanity and survive.

Our bodies were rotting limb by limb. The only thing I possessed was my mind, my reason. I abandoned my arms and legs to our tormentors, hoping they would not manage to claim my spirit, my freedom, my breath of fresh air, my gleam of light in the darkness.

(The Blinding Absence of Light)

This reminded me of Albert Camus’ interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus and of Existentialist philosophy in general. It is not surprising that Binbīn mentions Camus’ „The Stranger“ as one of the stories that he relates to his fellow inmates during the endless days of their confinement. Neither is it a coincidence that many Existentialist authors used the prison setting in their writing to illustrate their philosophical ideas. Basically, Existentialism states that human existence precedes its essence, meaning that man is thrown into this world without any meaning, without any God or higher power, without any sense or set of values. He is, therefore, „condemned to be free“, as Jean-Paul Sartre says, as he and only he alone is responsible of reflecting his being and giving meaning to it.

As most of us know, Sisyphus in the Greek mythology was punished for his scorn of the Gods, his love of life and escape from death by being forced to push a rock up a mountain for all eternity. Every time he arrived at the top of the mountain, the rock would roll back down to the bottom and he would have to start all over again. What seems like the most painfully futile existence that we can imagine, is interpreted by Camus in a different way. He looks at Sisyphus in that short period where he walks back to the bottom of the mountain to restart his pointless task: „„I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness.“ According to Camus, Sisyphus finds a meaning in his seemingly meaningless existence by embracing the limited world that belongs to him. Only when he thinks back to his former life he becomes melancholic and succumbs to the weight of the rock. However, as long as he remains in charge of his being, no matter the circumstances,

„[h]is rock is his thing. (…) [H]e knows himself to be the master of his days. (…) Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.“

(The Myth of Sisyphus)

This, of course, is not to say that we must imagine a prisoner buried alive and wasting away in an underground torture prison happy. The parallels between an obviously very theorized philosophical idea and the painfully real prison experience can help us to try and understand how people have managed or are still struggling to survive the seemingly eternal spiral of despair associated with captivity while remaining free in their spirit. But as much as I want to believe in some kind of mental hideaway that is easily accessible to anyone in dire straits, Sisyphus remains an ideal. Binbīn remains one of just three from his block who survived, one of 28 from the original 58 prisoners altogether. Countless prisoners around the world remain in a state of forgotten misery or are released, but never manage to leave their mental dungeon.

Reading memoirs such as the ones mentioned above (there are so many more!) must remind us that a government cannot be deemed successful for its economical achievements or treatment of its free citizens, as long as it incarcerates journalists and activists, does not allow investigation into torture and prison conditions, and holds its own people captive for speaking their mind without allowing them a fair trial as well as contact to the media and their families. It is convenient to forget about those who are locked away from our view because they do not deserve freedom according to the values of a totalitarian government. But a world where freedom is distributed at the mercy of self-righteous governments, is just a more spacious type of prison, the bars of which we cannot see.

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