Prison Sentences and Culture Wars

In an essay that first appeared on Raseef22, Morocco-based writer and educator Nahrain Al-Mousawi explores the development — and future — of Arabic prison literature:

By Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Arabic literature is one of the few literary traditions that can boast having a distinct and thriving genre of prison writing. Policing of writing, cultural organizations, and printing presses has led many writers to flee to Europe or other Arab countries with fewer strictures. But, while the long history of censorship and repression in the Middle East and North Africa has stifled dissident literature, it has also given way to a large corpus of prison literature. Innumerable writers have spent time in infamous prisons like Syria’s Tadmor, dubbed the “kingdom of death and madness” by poet Faraj Bairaqdar, and Tazmamart, a military prison in Morocco that actually held several writers, professors, and intellectuals during the notorious Years of Lead before it was bulldozed in 2005.Novelist Elias Khoury wrote that prison literature shifted from the margins to the center because prison is not marginal but rather “the dominant sociopolitical experience” in the Arab world, wherein entire states operate as prisons. Writers have used prison experiences to reflect on mass repression under authoritarianism as it pervades not only the state’s media and public space, but all aspects of everyday life. This list of recommended prison literature from the Arab world is not comprehensive, but its authors are distinguished by the culture war that was waged against them. Because some prison narratives were widely read and reflected a common and shared experience in the Arab world, they became part of how a nation imagines itself and how the authors were perceived to view themselves as part of that nation. Some books were banned, and some writers were subject to criticism that often dealt with their representation of prison as familiar figures. That they garnered much scrutiny and criticism and even inspired extreme reaction reaction – sometimes approaching tabloid dimensions – comes as no surprise.

Memoirs from the Women’s Prison – Nawal El Saadawi

Along with other intellectuals, Saadawi was imprisoned in Egypt without charge or trial under the direct order of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Deprived of pen and paper during her detention at Qanatir Women’s Prison, she wrote her journal with a borrowed eyebrow pencil on toilet paper that she hid under a tile in the bathroom. Writing was her escape from the noise and squalor of prison. Like many other prison memoirs, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison is intent on revealing how confinement unites inmates defying social and cultural boundaries in ways that life on the outside cannot. Her memoir is highly praised and oft cited, but it also amassed criticism in terms of how Saadawi presents her persona. For example, writer Ahdaf Soueif has called attention to other well-known female inmates with Saadawi, whose role she downplays to highlight her own courageous outspokenness. She is often read by critics as misrepresenting herself as a lone feminist campaigner – even in a women’s prison. Literary critics have considered her narrative voice egotistical and argue that her intense sense of injustice always appears in self-interest rather than on behalf of other prisoners. Because Saadawi’s body of writing has tremendously influenced discourse on womens oppression and feminism in Egypt, it has also relentlessly put her and her husband on the national stage, as in recent years when a lawyer brought her to court on charges of apostasy and sought to divorce her from her husband.

That Smell and Notes from Prison – Sonallah Ibrahim

Acclaimed Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim discovered he wanted to be a writer in prison while serving his sentence for communist organizing under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule. In his prison notes, he wrote that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” He copied his notes at Oasis detention center onto cigarette rolling paper and brought it back to Cairo where he began writing That Smell. Semi-autobiographical, That Smell narrates the daily, often mundane struggles of a prisoner recently released as he looks for work, deals with alienation, reacquaints himself with his family and friends, masturbates, struggles with his impotence, and tries to write. It was banned on the basis of sexual content shortly after Ibrahim published it himself in 1966. Some claim it was the depiction of Egyptian prison and the society it mirrored that brought on the ban – as well as extreme, scathing reactions from critics. In the New York Review of Books, Egyptian writer El Rashidi recounts the criticismpublished by Ibrahim’s own mentor after he gave him a copy of the confiscated book in 1966: “I am not condemning its morality, but its lack of sensibility, its lowness, its vulgarity… The reader should have been spared such filth.” Another article published last year recounts the Ministry of Information interrogations to which Ibrahim was subjected when the book was released:  “a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. ‘Is the hero impotent?’ he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.” Ibrahim caused more of a stir after he condemned Mubarak’s Egypt and refused a prestigious book prize (along with the prize money) in a national ceremony honoring him. He left a room full of Mubarak bureaucrats and cronies in shock when he announced, “We no longer have any theater, cinema, scientific research, or education. Instead, we have festivals and the lies of television … Corruption and robbery are everywhere, but whoever speaks out is interrogated, beaten, and tortured.”

Honor – Sonallah Ibrahim

In Ibrahim’s 1997 novel, a young man named Sharaf (Honor) accidentally kills the Englishman trying to rape him. The rape and defense (of honor/sharaf) is sometimes read as a national allegory for Egypt and its colonial and postcolonial exploitation. Sharaf lands in jail, whose corrupt structure of bribes and cronyism mirrors the outside world. And the novel ends with him in jail, having shaved his body in preparation for a voluntary sexual encounter with a fellow inmate. Even though Ibrahim’s fame protected him this time from severe government retaliation, he was embroiled in another scandal after publication of the novel in serialized form. He was accused of plagiarism and the accusation took on “tabloid dimensions” in Egypt and abroad, critic Samia Mehrez recounts. When finally approached, Ibrahim simply said, “I discovered that I have no friends,” regarding reactions against him in the literary world, many of which showed pleasure at the downfall of an independent writer in a field dominated by regime apparatchiks.

East of the Mediterranean – Abdul Rahman Munif

Before taking on a literary career, Munif himself was an activist when he was expelled from Iraq in 1955 after protesting the signing of the Baghdad Pact. It has been reported that he himself had spent some time in jail in Iraq. The writer of Iraqi-Saudi origin was also stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1963 when he criticized the regime. His novel Cities of Salt tracing the establishment of a kingdom like Saudi Arabia from a Bedouin to an oil-reliant culture draws on his experience in the oil industry. In Munif’s 1975 novel, a political activist is sentenced to jail for eleven years in an unnamed Arab country and suffers the trauma of torture and relentless fear when released. Writer Louay Hussein, who had written a memoir based on his own prison experience in Syria, decried what he considered Munif’s romanticization of political imprisonment as a national sacrifice. Even though Munif and his novels have been banned in Saudi, his books circulate secretly.  Critic Sabry Hafez has noted how Cities of Salt drew an incredibly crude comment from novelist John Updike, who said, “it is unfortunate that Abdelrahman Munif appears to be insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer,” and one denigrating Americans “with the maledictory rhetoric of the Ayatollah Khomeini to boot.” Apparently, Updike’s orientalism was unchecked as he also announced, “The jacket flap tells us Cities of Salt has been banned in Saudi Arabia. The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.”

Cell Block Five – Fadhil Al-Azzawi

In Cell Block Five, Al-Azzawi draws on the two years he was a political prisoner after the 1963 coup in Iraq, when thousands of intellectuals and political activists were thrown into Al-Hilla prison. He writes about how some torturers sang and told jokes while he and other inmates were being tortured. Iraqi censors banned the book from publication, and it was published first in Syria in 1972. Al-Azzawi recounts how he managed to smuggle poems out through family members and other visitors in prison. He claims that he published many of his poems this way, without any announcement that he was still in prison. In 1979 Cell Block Five was made into a Syrian film, The Fifth Castle. He decided to move to Germany, after he was once again investigated and detained in Iraq for simply reading another one of his poems, “I am the Cry Which the Throat Will Free,” at a cultural gathering.

The Blinding Absence of Light – Tahar Ben Jelloun

Unlike the other writers on this list, Ben Jelloun was never imprisoned and so his novel is solely a fictional account of a Tazmamart survivor, who spent twenty years in a tiny, cramped, underground, dark cell. The military prison camp was infamous not only for holding military members under deplorable conditions, but also several intellectuals, journalists, and novelists. When it was published, Ben Jelloun was accused of exploiting someone else’s story—first, by stealing the story of Tazmamart survivor Aziz Binebine’s testimony, and second, by entering the scene, from a safe distance in his comfortable exile in France, woefully late, as the novel was published long after the prison had been closed and the death of Hassan II. In fact, Moroccan writer Belkassem Belkouchi wroteRapt de Voix (Voice Abduction,) a novel totally inspired by this literary theft. The book has set off an ongoing discussion about the appropriation of prison testimonies.

Full attention to books belonging to the prison-lit genre in the Arab world would require an encyclopedia. This list is by no means exhaustive; it focuses only on English works or texts in translation, and does not cover un-translated Arabic works or books in French, Spanish, or German. Recommended works from Iraq include Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam, Mahmoud Saeed’s Saddam City, and Haifa Zangana’s Dreaming of Baghdad. Morocco’s Years of Lead have produced an ample body of prison literature mostly written in French, like Ahmad Marzouki’s Tazmamarte: Cellule No 10, Malika Oufkir’s Stolen Lives Twenty Years in a Desert Jail, and Abd al-Karim Ghallab’s Saba Abwab. From Egypt, recommended works include Zainab Al-Ghazali’s Days from My Life, Shareef Hattata’s Open Windows, Salwa Bakr’s The Golden Chariot, Naguib Mahfouz’s al-Karnak, Latifa al-Zayyat’s Hamlat Tafteesh: Awraq Shakhsiyyah (An Inspection Campaign: Personal Papers,) and Farida Naqash’s Two Years and a Rose. Syrian literature is slowly being translated in English, but for the time being most prison literature is in Arabic, including Mustafa Khalil’s The Shell and Nabil Suleyman’s Al-Sujn(The Prison.) From Saudi Arabia, the political prison story is rendered in Turki al-Hamad’s Al-Karadeeb. Regrettably, today we look to the turmoil and refocused repression brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings to pave the way for a new era of prison literature.

Nahrain al-Mousawi is a writer and educator based in Morocco. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature in the United States, and has been published in Aslan Media, Al-Akhbar, Globe & Mail, and several academic journals. Nahrain under @nahrainam

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