Yassin al-Haj Saleh: Remembering Long Nights Locked Up

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The book cover of "Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian prisons" by Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

By: Mohammad al-Hajj

Published Friday, July 13, 2012

Yassin al-Haj Saleh was on his way to becoming a physician. But the detention and incarceration of the Syrian writer in 1980, when he was a 20 year old medical student at the University of Aleppo, turned everything upside down.

Haj Saleh was an active member of the Syrian Communist Party – The politburo. This cost him 16 years of his life, which he spent between the al-Musallamiya prison in Aleppo, then the Adra prison in Damascus, before ending up in the infamous prison in Tadmur [Palmyra].

The Syrian writer recollects this bitter experience in his book Bilkhalas Ya Shabab (Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian prisons). But in reality, and throughout the book, he focuses not so much on his own experience, but more on deconstructing the triangular relationship between the prison, the prisoner and the imprisoner through socio-analytical and historical studies.

Even when he writes about his prison experience, he does not invoke the tone or lexicon of pain and sorrow, which would otherwise give his cause to the somber flavor that the readers are accustomed to with prison literature. Instead, readers will be surprised by the author of Myths of the Others, when they find that he debunks in his book many of the myths surrounding the world of prisons, shedding the mantle of “the hero” in the process.

The Wise Man of the Syrian Revolution – as he has come to be called - goes further, and says that he feels “nostalgia” for the prison where he spent most of his youth. For prison cultivated him - he had once been a young man “with a scattered mind; with no emotional or sexual life; and with a skewed constitution on many levels.” Also, Haj Saleh says that as a youth, he had no control whatsoever over his life, and was prone to self-destruction. Because of all this and more, “prison was a solution.”

Yet because this statement may prove a thorny, sensitive and “double-edged” one, the Syrian writer goes on to clarify the background to this nostalgia, offering two explanations for it. First, he highlights the “sacrificial” nature of the prisoner’s experience, and second, he presents a broader and more general explanation by saying, “We feel nostalgia for prison… because there, we were liberated from the burden of freedom.”

The suggestion that incarceration is a sacrificial experience means that those who were lucky to survive years of torture, humiliation and deprivation, without having been broken physically and psychologically may feel nostalgic about their experiences in prison. They may feel longing for the place that witnessed their rejuvenation or rebirth.

Haj Saleh says, that if he had instead been broken, like many others who faced tougher conditions in prison, or more severe problems – be they personal, financial or emotional - “then I would have perhaps felt a chill each time I remembered prison.”

So the 20 year old became the sacrificial lamb that gave way to the man that left prison 16 years later. “One of us had to die, so that the other might live,” he says.

But how did a young man, with no profound life experiences (at the time) manage to triumph over his incarceration? There are many factors that helped him achieve this, but the most important one is what Haj Saleh calls Istihbas [embracing prison], a recurrent and staple theme in his book.

The simplest definition of this concept, according to the Syrian writer, is that it is a situation where “the prisoner decides to settle in prison, making it his home and his resting place.” Time will then cease to be the prisoner’s adversary, according to Haj Saleh. Thus, with Istihbas, he managed to preserve his life and his future in spite of prison; except in Palmyra, that is.

In this terrifying desert prison, nothing can give solace to the inmates, or be a source of hope and reassurance that they will one day leave it in one piece. In Palmyra, a person may well wish for death. Morality itself may collapse there, sometimes from fighting with the other prisoners over the last scrap of food left in a dish.

In the prison at Palmyra, the benchmark against which the cruelty and destructiveness of Syrian prisons is usually measured, time stops moving for the prisoners who enter it. There, they are introduced to another world, where questions about the color of their mothers’ private parts are expected and normal, as well as catching slippers with their mouths, and the daily inhumane torture.

Haj Saleh was transferred to Palmyra to serve the last year of his sentence there, after he refused to bargain with the regime and write reports about his dissident colleagues for the intelligence services. In fact, these two options are the penultimate condition set by the Syrian jailers before the release of their political prisoners.

Palmyra, then, is the final “disciplinary” stage for communists like Yassin al-Haj Saleh. The prison is the official place for incarcerating political prisoners (from the Muslim Brotherhood) and the Baathists aligned with the Iraqi branch. Yet the author of Syria from the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box does not delve much into these prisoners’ worlds, citing their isolation and ideology which pushes them to stick together, away from the other prisoners.

The torture communists are subjected to in Syrian prisons cannot be compared to the untold suffering forced upon the prisoners of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the pro-Iraqi Baathists after them.

So as a communist prisoner, Yassin Haj Saleh was able to read frequently, until his last hours in his “ordinary” prison, before he was transferred to Palmyra. The former prisoner also managed to “tame” the prison there, spending some time entertaining himself and exercising, and even watching television when this was allowed back in 1986. This, however, does not mean at all that the Syrian writer was a “VIP prisoner,” as his interlocutor asks him in one of the essays in his book.

From a standpoint where the cerebral aspect overshadows the narrative one, Haj Saleh tackles issues faced by Syrian prisoners, such as the meaning of love, women, access to books and the disconnect from time and life outside prison - as well as the lack of privacy.

He also discusses at length “the Others,” who include the jailers, and the fellow prisoners. According to Haj Saleh, the former included some who “worshiped” the regime, embodied by the person of Hafez al-Assad, while others sympathized with the writer and his fellow inmates.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh did not forget to write about the impact of imprisonment on the lives of prisoners, after they were released. He thus recounts stories about some of his fellow prisoners, who went on to encounter severe difficulties and social crises, with their partners, wives and children for example. Having spent many long years behind bars, they lost a great deal of their social and moral standing, or let’s just say their humanity in general.

It is no exaggeration to say that Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian prisons is one important book engendered by the experience of political imprisonment in the Arab world. It serves as both a reference and a guide to the torture cellars in Syria and the inmates they host. The book was not inscribed in blood, but rather with a sense of introspection, rationality and modesty – and a profound understanding of political and humanitarian subjects.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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