In Memory of Ghassan al-Jibai, His ‘Nails’

The writer and dramatist Ghassan al-Jibai (1952-2022), acclaimed author of works that included The General’s Coffee and Banana Fingers, died earlier this month.

After studying theater in Ukraine, al-Jibai returned to Syria, where he was imprisoned for a decade. Once released, he taught theater in Damascus, yet was banned off and on from teaching at the university, including after expressing support for protesters in 2011. His writing often returned to the subject of Syria’s notorious prisons. He appears in Hala Mohammad’s 2006 documentary Journey into Memory.

Here, Ghada Alatrash shares a short piece, مسامير, in celebration of the author’s life and work.

Nails

By Ghassan al-Jibai 

Translated by Ghada Alatrash

It was necessary that I die because I had lost my humanity.  They managed to humiliate me and break my will to live in only one day.

I filled the place with my hysterical screaming; I begged them for mercy.  Confessing to the crime of demonstrating and chanting for freedom was no longer enough for them. I confessed to crimes I had never committed in my life and to other crimes I planned to commit along with my father, mother, and younger siblings.  They continued to ask for more.  I could not bear it any longer.  My wounds festered and began to ooze, to the point that the jailor had to wear a mask and cover his nose before opening my prison cell. The skin on my feet swelled and tore as blood and pus broke it open.  I was no longer able to stand, walk on all fours, or even crawl on my stomach as before.  They crushed my knees. They hung me on the ladder. They broke my back with the German chair. The jailor had to drag me to the torture rooms like a bag full of bones.

I wished I could find a way to stop my heart from beating, puncture my lungs, or ring my neck with my own hands so that I could die painlessly. But those stupid organs continued to function without paying any heed to our desire; they did not feel our pain, shame, or humiliation.  It did not matter whether you were happy or depressed, a hero or a coward.  It made no difference whether you were flayed or burnt in the face and ears with electricity or oxy-fuel welding flames.  Their only task was to keep you alive, even if your flesh was rotting.  Death does not come to you, nor are you able to go to it as you wished, for life was sacred and protected by a supreme will; and not even its beholder had the right to trespass on it.

“I swear I am going to make you beg for death and not find it, you worthless thing,” said the investigator, and he did just that. I didn’t believe he could, but the brutality led me to the deepest ends of frustration and despondency, and to question my own humanity.  Who would have ever thought that the smilingly wilful person, who was full of optimism, love, and life, would come to a day when he asked for death and couldn’t find it.  I had no access to poison, a rope, or any sharp objects.  They confiscated any tool that would make death feasible.  Had I owned pins, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with only pricking out my eyes in the manner of King Oedipus.  They confiscated my tie, eyeglasses, belt, watch, and my wedding ring, and they placed me in a bare and cramped prison cell where it wasn’t even possible to smash my head against its walls. 

The investigator said another thing that I would never forget, “I swear I am going to make sure that not even the blue flies can find you, you dog.”

These statements were not only dedicated to me.  The investigator said it to all victims.  I accepted the challenge, although I didn’t understand the point he was making about the blue flies.  It didn’t occur to me that there were flies of such a color.  I had seen butterflies in all colors:  white, yellow, purple, red.  But I had not heard of the blue fly.  I later came to find that this was a fly that specialized in cemeteries and dead corpses.

I needed to turn into a corpse as soon as possible, and to let it be that the blue flies do as they please unto me.  I felt my neck.  I was not able to strangle myself with my own hands or cut my veins with my teeth, for this would require a brutality that I did not possess.  And the people here were not Israelis for you to fight them with a hunger strike.  They were your partners in a homeland, Syrians like you, but they were evil, with no morality or conscience. They were worse than the fiercest of beasts and their imagination was greater than that of the devil.  When you refused to eat a dry piece of bread they threw at you, your torture was multiplied.  They could force you to swallow a fly, a cockroach, or a mouse.  It was not permissible for you to die only once or when you wished.  I tried to many a time but failed.

Late one night, I heard a rustle that sounded like whispers.  I was alone, without a friend or a companion, amidst dark and sticky walls.  The excruciating pain was preventing me from sleeping.  I wished I could fall into eternal slumber before I would be subjected to torture again.  I first thought that it might have been the jailor lending a close ear to make sure that my moaning had not ceased.  But its tone was apprehensive and dithering.  Hesitant, I felt a sudden urge and crawled toward the door.  The sound was coming from behind the walls.  Despite the darkness, I was able to locate it.  I began to feel the wall with my fingers, not knowing what I was looking for.  To my big surprise, I felt a thin nail emerging from a hole in the wall, poking my palm.  It was coming through, slowly, as if asking of me, “pull me out.”  I took a step back.  I did not dare pull it out.  I reached to feel its place again.  The nail suddenly disappeared and hot air came out of the hole.  Someone from behind the wall was blowing air for me.  Unexpectedly, I began to hear voices and hisses.  I could not make out what was being said.  I only understood one thing—that, contrary to what I had assumed, I was not alone nor completely isolated from this world.  The hole was not new.  It was obvious that it was as old as the prison.  It also became obvious that the place was filled with spirits.  I felt the nail come to surface again, smoothly penetrating the hole until it fell to the ground.  I was not sure who had sent it to me.  It was not as long as one would have imagined it in order to pass through the thick wall.  Perhaps there was a needle or a metal cord that was pushing it through to me.  It was a real nail, solid, pointed, and warm, but it was not adequate for suicide.  I felt a new drive come to life in my body and soul.  It was also on that day that I came to the realization that, no matter how thick and solid the wall, it was bound to have a hole or puncture.  I also understood that it was now my turn to perforate the facing wall.  And I began.

*

Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds a PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.

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