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      On Remand  
 
 

by Ali Tal

 

Believe me, I understand all that you've said. The horrible life of an asylum seeker is something I am reminded of many times each day. I also know that our dark faces stand out like sore thumbs amongst these people to whom colour and race are the paramount civilising traits. Bulging with their emptiness, flaunting their imported names in grand cathedrals with lofty belfries, there they pray, seeking the blessings of a foreign God. Yet they're hostile to all colour penetration, professing a faraway disdain for those not of their kin, never thinking that mankind are related in the bond of humanity. To them we're underdeveloped, third world scum, fleeing some horror that since long had not been seen upon their land.

Free of guilt and moral constraints, my neighbours, tenants stacked up in condominiums, architectures of neglect and paranoia scatter on my appearance. Dead to their dreaming, many in chemical limbo, they perceive refugees as their principle antagonists. In hatred, their kids are the most vociferous. They taunt us with words, broken glass and car hoots. This, of course, illustrates the collapse of the social with the paranoid, the ego with rumour. They are here conjoined to such a degree that it seems to make us reputable beings who live on the rumours we imagine are circulating about us.

I apprehend the dilemma we're in; all of us do. Are we not just immigrants who could never emerge from the spent interiors of themselves? Although we survive in purgatory, squashed between exhumation and narcolepsy, we feel that we're being watched by invisible stalkers, which makes a few of us have the need to conceive themselves as being important enough to be stalked. Yet some of us, a few, are brave enough to look into the cragged maws and smell the disdainful scent of those bottomless pits of skyscrapers.

We, the sons of the red deserts, where vile and black deeds spread to the far corners, are forced to take flight with only dear life to these green lands. Hell-bent beyond all comprehension to save their interests above all else, in this vicinity sapient thinkers, exploitative entrepreneurs and their democratically elected manipulative leaders are all blind to our human rights; exciting enmity and hatred amidst our lugubrious tyrants. They're regularly summoned to the White House to altercate their pitiful disputes and have their beards plucked. Yet, the most extraordinary thing is that the great northern nations are holding us on bent knees. Seduced and time-lost by the apparent philanthropy of these cold climes as seen from afar, it seems that we can never hope for full release.

**

My frail body was made impotent by electric shocks. Now I'm a wasting old man with no wife or child to keep me company. The nights I sleep in a locked room not wrapped in anyone's arms. Torture and beatings cost me the use of my left hand. The nails on my toes and fingers were yanked. They may appear to be the most severe of my visible injuries, yet the mental blackouts and fits of epilepsy are worse nightmares. Woe betide me! In my loneliness, I'm never blithe or gay. My friend, within me there is something lost, forever lost. I'm a wretched forlorn being, thrown upon these far off icy, shores like a rock or a stone. The vital things have gone out of my heart.

Oh sweet reverie how I long for starlit night skies. Through the vast mist of the cold climes, there comes this song of atavistic land, of bitter yearning without a space. Sometimes through remembering, that empty and unbearably ubiquitous hurt grimly begins to groan within me, aching to return. Like the underdogs that we've become we pine to roam the red desert dunes once again. Oh Allah! How I yearn to see that which once we were, to pass again through those warm evenings of a time that is no more. It dwells lonely and anguished in memories' halls of recall. So many years have passed, I don't know whether any of it has survived.

Even now, after the passage of so many years of which I've lost count in this, my host country, when the October evenings wax the afternoons with huge shadows and they're already too cold for us, I still go down those long, feral and morose landscapes of pavements which the autumn mist has veiled. Verily, if the face of the moon is full and shining clearly in the winter sky, or crisp with frost are the gritted pavements the provoking sounds will drive me out. Even though my frame is fragile and my eyesight is getting defective, the whole of my long day I feel a strange eerie calm as I leap right into the arterial vortex of the city, muttering to myself as I go. Hunger and hard foot slog have roughened my form and sapped any bloom that might have been left by imprisonment on my face.

Our flight into inferiority in these alien landscapes to champion freedom within the context of ambivalence and personal angst makes our revolutionary proclivity looks ridiculous. Disparate and forlorn upon this empty space, we meet in solidarity and attendant hard work. In empathy we greet each other to exchange views on various experiences, honing our consciousness. We live on hope, yet none of us is stupid enough to admit that. Hope buried in scepticism leaves my emotions drained. Nonetheless, take heart my friend, the Spirit of Freedom is abroad, prickling like the daystar. Man's idiosyncratic arm shall forever bear the torch of liberty in the darkness of oppression. It will never be put out. In truth being an innate light that shines from within there will always be many who'll undertake to kindle it again.

We all know that our fight seems futile from such faraway states. Our burden is greater than we can bear. We have many enemies from within and from without frustrating our struggle. The strongest in blocking our message from reaching the fatherland are those pharisaic elements within our own society. In defence of their warped faith and to gain advantage with our quarrelsome oppressors, the sanctimonious maintains that mythology, symbolism and devotion are the essence of faith. Very strict in every step, they walk under the hem of Iblis, influential amongst our tethered, ill-informed crowds. It is an established fact, these men of deceit sanctified the control of the Arab homeland by the most lethal nations of the north.

**

With rapid steps and cheeks wet with religiosity, the iniquitous fools and mockers go beneath the shade among congregations amassed in mosques amidst scattered shoes. Drawing in their breath, from thousands of mihrabs and mimbars, the yellow bellied black snakes burst with fury, realigning minds disastrously awry. To replace the reverend love of merciful Allah that is eternally and tightly held in the gentle hearts, the Imams bellow images of the horned Angel's Domain. Foaming at the mouth, spraying spital, they rant, 'In garments of fire you'll be marched in chains to burn in Ibis's blasts of Hell fires with shades of black smoke. Alive, you'll dwell therein, where there is no time. He will roast your skin and renew. His punishments shall cover you from above and below. To satiate your ravenous appetites, you'll pick in between the thorny bushes of Zaqqum. Its fruits are spiked heads of devils, crawling up the thorny bare twigs. Hell's only tree grows bottom of the Pit in Satan's stagnate bogs of black water. In pain the fist-sized heads scream pitifully, begging for mercy to spare their lives. The fruits smell disgusting and taste bitter and vile, yet you can't stop devouring them. With your teeth you'll gnash at the heads, devils' brain and blood streaming down chin and neck from either corner of the mouth. No sooner a sinner had a bite, he would froth on his broken lips for more.'

Perfecting its emptiness, theologians made our land barren of ambitions and of dreams, making it an easy prey to every aspiring foe, wasting our wealth for civilisation to travel to the rich lands, making roads to travel on in shinny cars. Although religion is the Semites' heritage, myth is now their daily fodder, nourishing the blood of those who go without food. In heated debates, they spend hours guessing at the size of Angels and their wingspans. Have we not been here before! Upon all our lands, inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit is dead. Yet when with the tyrannical scions of Arabism whom they serve well, the hypocrits laugh and mock us, then they throw up in disgust, confiding, "Your excellence, feed them their bread with tears. Make them drink their tears amongst themselves." Such self-righteous men make my rage swell to the verge of villainy, on the verge of attack.

Although they never fail to impress, candour and humility are very much the demeaning traits of our people. In chastisement and bonds, they're yoked with the rope of slavery to evil. Their faces meek and their movements dignified, the fathers lead their children to drink their fill of the black froth gushing from oil wells. And in their stink the small heads rock and lift as their hair, like tumbleweeds tangled with skinny twigs, is blown in Simoom's tempest race. In fear, our oppressed masses reticently fight and squabble to gnaw the scraps off bones, carefully and neatly organised on their plastic dinner plates; in piety they never waste God's bread.

At the end of Friday prayer, in terror and darkness they are marched by the conspirators against shame to the square of the central mosque. There they're made to linkup in circles around the beheading blocks set on a plank and scaffold platform swathed in red crepe. Passing through and into darkness, the worshipers stand whooping and chattering to observe the arrival of the damned who dared to cross the line, bringing dishonour upon the name of the clan. The town's men passively witness the killings then disperse, subdued, homeward to their loved ones.

**

Is it not a testament of love that I could still raise my burning longing high and map the march of youth with age? I was too young to seek martial fame, a mere youth still mindful of boyish games when first I found books and began to feel their power. It led me on to feel with passion and think of man. Yet it is with fonder memory of that youth, who is my inner self, I speak. Enlisted by a noble cell with a liberating mission, a time bomb waiting to go off, it fast taught me that character development, motivation and personality supersede the individual's function and his status symbol. Whilst all around me the young men were gradually perfecting their emptiness, my mind grew keen, intense and frugal. I watched more closely than ordinary men summoned up to the mountains. I climbed with vigorous steps which impressed so many incidents upon my mind; the tragic sense of history, the fidelity towards one's ancestors and man's eternal hope to reach the stars.

At the age of nineteen I felt ready to duel with that which warded me from being a man. To please my heart, for one second I laid it bare. Believe me I had no wish to challenge Mot into a death duel. But to have done nothing would have destroyed me. I had the conviction that I carried an important message. It was like an indigestion that went from nausea to spasm, until I was made ready to foam in the mouth with constant rage against that which surrounded me on all sides, preventing me from ever speaking my mind. On a suddenty and uncontrollably my despair erupted into insult and into threats. The jolt, when it came, was exactingly tragic.

In the dead of night I stole myself to place posters on lampposts at various spots in the city to cry my rage out.

According to the judge, due to the seriousness of the crime of which 'I was guilty', the court was not empowered to give me bail. I was unceremoniously carted off to face dread horror of the Mukhabarate prison until the judge arrived at his verdict. I knew what it meant. He was waiting to be told by the emirs what judgement he should reach.

Yet the punishment for my crime was clear. Anybody in the fear-smitten countries of the Arabs could tell. Subjects daring to question the divinely guided tyrants deserved to wear the red uniform. But my clansmen were powerful. They interceded on my behalf, but to my face they bade me 'go away'. With my stigmatised father amongst them, the irate sheikh of the clan simply enumerated and explained the importance of tribal ties and loyalty. There was not a word of love. They gave me no money and drove me out of the tribal place and shut the door. I still envision the bruises and cuts visible under the stubble on father's saddened face. He, my brothers and friends were beaten then questioned by the demons of the Mukhabarate.

Pitiable and my eyes downcast, all self-assurance was erased from my forehead. I wept and sighed, "Oh Allah, who will now forbid my entrance to the halls of grief!" In silence I was dragged away by the hell-hounds of the Kingdom. Fixing my stare in horror into the darkness of my dungeon walled by barriers of high indifference, I sat in the corner of my cell, taciturn. No one could see my hurt body curled up on a grubby mattress in the muffled dolour of the interrogation cells. For months I wallowed in the stink, tormenting the life that I had cut out for myself. Torture was a daily thing, hanging from the ceiling or with electrodes applied to my body on a wet floor. Naked I was thrown in ice-cold baths; I never felt so cold. Not even Shamash, mounting high upon the empyrean pale fury of noon, could bring warmth to me. The water bubbling in my stomach, there forlorn I sat with my hand on my heart obsessed by all to which I, in one single act, had turned my back. Suddenly I found myself transported to an isolation cell in the remand prison.

**

The men's remand prison was like a dead building constructed of boulder size stones. The once Ottoman jail, was now overlooked on the west side by tall, modern block of flats. For seven years I was interned in that place of darkness and torment as if in Hell, longer than any other inmate had ever served. Anger, filth, villainous smells and the city's smog all belonged around me. My cell of incarceration and pillorying was within the mean skeletal Ottoman-style dungeon in the middle of town. Past the bleak, bolted isolation cells of the damned, totally devoured by baneful gloom, you felt your way up the well of a set of stone stairs, stooping all the while. In a dim slash of light escaping from above, you'd climb up out of that submerged obscurity to emerge into a large, bony dormitory.

Still below ground, in this dungeon room, lit by a single bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling, you'd always see men loitering in deep pools of shadow, blue columns of cigarette smoke rising above their heads. Rats, flying cockroaches and swarms of mosquitoes nibble and sting. Due to my agitated state of mind I was unable to get used to the bites on my legs from the small creatures which crawled through the uncomfortable bed clothes at night. Although awfully sad and eerie, the disembodied sounds of the men's footsteps, surly grunts and the hushed vocalisations of their whines cursing the woeful miseries of their fates, were somehow comforting to the inmates of the musty, barren taciturnity of the cells below. Never seeing the daylight, in the bowels of the dungeon, often I was left behind bars for months of solitary confinement, drowning in the silent despair of the doomed men in red uniforms.

Repeated arson and vandalism over two centuries by the cooped up inmates battered the large dormitory, lined up in rows with sodden and lumpy dirty old mattresses. Threadbare and cheap, black blankets were untidily flung on top. A few men stretched prone upon the beds, their eyes tracing the deformities of the ceiling. In a few places the walls had been slashed with yellow paint as if someone had urgently tried to cover the ugliness. Within the deep cracks betwixt the huge granite stones, generations of prisoners hid books and left messages.

Along three walls of the dungeon there were tiny arched doors of small cave-like burrows swallowed by pitch darkness. Each cavity was about a meter and half in height and no deeper or wider. Some of those rabbit holes were sought after by the more belligerent prisoners as prime residences. Several were set aside to be used as toilets. Lined up with overflowing buckets of urine, there were circular holes in the floor, clogged up with faeces. The noisome smells permeated the whole atmosphere. In the flickering golden glow of a candle lit inside an alcove concealed by column there were two men laying close together in embrace; pictures hung all around them.

The dormitory was gutted; iron bars dangled low from its concrete ceiling which caved in. To give it much needed support, six erect iron columns thrust out around the room, with pipes and wires clinging on. Dangerous potholes seared the concrete floor; wires protruded from under the garbage. The mangled remains of rats, mice and all sorts of live and dead insects littered this place of despair.

To leave or enter this lockup at daytime, you'd stoop under the oxidised bars of a metal gate. The sharpened ends of its flat spikes were like the blades of guillotines lowered midway. I heard prisoners say, "Long term penitentiaries are much worse, hidden from sight, away in the desert." But I couldn't imagine any place on earth being more degrading than that home of humiliation.

Climbing up a dank flight of stone stairs within a shaft of solid wall, you'd finally arrive at the ground level, entering a narrow, but quite long room. It was cut in half by a barred separating cage wall that split the prisoners from their visitors. Reflecting on the windows of the tall blocks of flats on the west side, slashes of sunlight shined in sequins through the prison's front door, located on the callers side. The grid gate on the shadowy side was raised half way. It opened into a paved courtyard behind high walls. Once there was a well in the centre. The place was completely safe, enclosed on all sides by the walls and parapets of the more recently built two-story police station and courthouse. The upper floor had portholes. The barred kitchen window where we queued for our meals opened straight onto the yard.

To escape the white flames of noon, a large number of anguished prisoners fused together in the waiting side of the room; flies buzzing overhead. Squatting on the concrete floor to cool, the men looked scared as if it were their first time many puffing hard at their cigarettes. The rest sat with mouths wide open. Those appeared as though they were about to cry. The sound of words was an intrusion upon their thoughts. All stared rigid with apprehensive eyes at the heavy, wide open wooden front gate. Woe's me! How timid we've become! Mere metres from freedom, none ever tried to flee. Outdoors, there was a small garden with tall, leafy palm and acacia trees; bushes of oleanders were in flower. Two policemen, each with a loaded gun at his side, lazily stood on either end of the prison gate. Other guards, in loose fitting grey uniforms gathered, drinking tea in a shabby little mod brick shack at the garden entrance.

Hungry, the men spent the noon hours patiently waiting for a glimpse of relatives plodding up the pathway. Soon after the midday prayer, the town's philanthropists would bring lunches, from which as a permanent punishment, I was banned. I was only allowed to eat the prison vomit gruel.

The exterior of the old Ottoman building was rough; the desert winds had eroded it on all sides. Under the shadow of the thick walls of the windowless northern side hoboes slept under newspapers amid the rubble of crushed glass, metal pipes, tangled wires, crushed cans and plastic bags. Tattered bearded men banded about night-fires, illuminating the pocked wall. Some sat smoking, staring out towards the blankness of the night. Heaps of rubbish would stir nearby. Awakened momentarily, dirt-caked tramps shifted their positions on the floor.

**

My seven year stay in the remand prison, where there was nothing cool nor a thirst quenching drink wasted my youth. As if a drowning man clinging to a straw, I hung onto the reassuring words of my mother and sisters. On the few occasions they were brought to visit me, they told me that the Sheikh of my tribe was working ceaselessly on my behalf. Heading delegations of worthies, he knocked at the doors of the kingdom's influential men, asking for their help before the emirs of the ruling clan. The remand prison was mostly inhabited by small time petty criminals and frail tempered foreign labourers. There were always a few who were caught not keeping the daily prayers by the morality police. The saddest were the bewildered Beduin men. Starved and possessing little comprehension of money, they'd stray into town to steal bread. They stayed only for a few days before their verdicts came through. They were normally set free. The rest were distributed to other prisons. Occasionally a lucky man was sent home, whilst I was left behind. The really serious law breakers of ignoble birth were confined in secure prisons.

Daily, at seven o'clock each morning we were filed out of the cells and dormitory into the courtyard to queue outside the kitchen window for breakfast. We spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly within the closeted space of the prison. Most of us remained in the courtyard. Even though its walls were high and covered with barbed wire, two guards manned the watchtower. In turn, every few minutes one of them would brave the blazing sunshine to peek on the inmates whilst the residents of the modern block of flats overlooking the yard stood on their balconies to watch.

To get rid of the musty smell of the dormitory that lingered in their clothes, the prisoners used to line themselves up along the eastern wall, facing the sun. Never being good at shoving and pushing, I'd rarely find a place. Instead I'd take off my sweaty smelling black and white striped jacket and shake off the bugs and flees, and whatever other insects that stuck to my hair. Then I'd wait until the sun got to me. I would sit down and gaze up at the blue patch of sky that roofed the high stones walls and dream of release.

Being the longest serving prisoner, each morning I searched for the familiar ones. But I would find that a few of them had gone. Everyday new faces would appear in the yard. Strong, instant friendships quickly developed amongst the remand prisoners like flames in dry hay. We sat in rings, exchanging secrets and telling stories of our lives as if it were the last chance for any of us to talk. We were ships that passed in a storm. The next day men were sent away and a new batch came in.

**

Almost every Tuesday a group of miserable prisoners in red uniforms arrived. Their number always fluctuated between two and four, never more never less. The skeletal men appeared like signs of danger amongst the black and white striped uniforms. These prisoners who wore red were to be hanged or beheaded after the Friday prayers in the public square of the central mosque. The brutal spectacle would be announced by loud speakers to the people of the town.

The first thing I used to do every Tuesday morning after we were let out, was to look out for the prisoners in red. If any were brought in during the dark hours of the night they'd already be gathering the rubbish in the yard. They looked incongruous, their clothes careless, yet self-conscious. I felt more than just seeing their intense eyes and they looked scared. Though mostly young men, they were haggard and frail and could barely walk. Their clothes hanged baggy and loose on their thin and deformed bodies. Always divided into groups, there were sweepers and rubbish collectors. Shaking with fatigue, the sweeper bowed on the broom stick, gathering dust and rubbish in small heaps.

The collectors dragged black polythene bags behind them and plodded around the courtyard. With the palms of their hands they picked up the rubbish piles; scraps of leftover food, cigarette butts, squashed rats and whatever filth they found. With hopeless, forlorn looks fixed permanently in their long thin faces, they toiled at a snail's pace from either end of the yard. Sad and taciturn, they maladroitly bent down, picked up dirt and put it in the sack. They never spoke to one another except in stolen, resigned glances. Sometimes there was weeping in their glazed eyes.

In sympathy or perhaps more out of fear of facing a similar fate the remand prisoners kept out of their way. Worse still, anyone caught speaking to the damned men, the guards might accuse him of knowing of the men, of being a saboteur and subversive. He'd get a beating on the spot. He might even be passed on to the interrogators to make him confess. Even in secret we avoided them in order not to hear their nightmares. We just kept out of their way, walking with heavy hearts, rarely nodding to the prisoners in red uniforms. Although their names were whispered by everyone in the dormitory, yet none could bring himself to call the men. They remained just sad faces without identities.

Some guards watched them with pity, but those fiercely loyal to the regime scrutinised them with spite. They never hesitated to hit or kick any of them if they thought they were slacking. Knowing that my crime was similar to theirs, in the early years of my incarceration in the remand prison I watched them with the same great fear and apprehension that one day I, too, might wear a red uniform. Bit by bit I began to appreciate that the sheikh of my clan had had my death sentence abrogated. I started to believe that I was being kept in the remand prison as a favour to my clan. That was a sort of comfort to me which gradually led me to think that my release was only a matter of time.

I used to sit alone and watch the damned men with a heavy heart, wondering what haunted thoughts were swirling in their heads. I saw the weeping pain that sprang startled in their eyes. they'd glance around and tremble in fear as if they could hear the footsteps of their tortures. I listened to the sounds of the ugly sorrow that from the depths of those miserable souls arose.

Soon after the remand prisoners were let out into the yard, the damned men were sent to clean below. At midday, when the searing heat of noon baked the hard stones and the black tarmac felt like glowing cinders, they were brought up again. Whilst everybody sought the shade, the prisoners in red uniforms sat alone and separately from one other in the sun to warm their weak bodies. Their sacks and brushes beside them, they leaned their backs to the hot walls and closed their eyes. I do not think they felt pain any more as though their senses had been drained. But you could guess what torture or beatings they had endured from the way they walked. When eating their dinner, their eyes came alive, looking around in mad stares. But soon the stares would change to surprised looks and a permanent glumness would descend upon their forlorn faces.

For a while they seemed to sink into a coma of despair and their chins fell onto their chests. Suddenly they would wake up and dash around the yard sweeping and dragging their sacks behind them as if to forget who they were. They seemed to be careful that their sacks were equally full. If one had more in his, he would slow down to let the other catch up. I often wondered why that was so. Mid afternoon, the prisoners in black and white striped uniforms would be sent back to the dormitory and cells. But, as if specially privileged, the ones in red remained out, wandering singly in the empty yard. They always found something to pick up. A leaf or a piece of paper blown in by the wind, a dead mouse thrown out of the upper portholes of the police station. At sunset the guards ordered them to stop. The prisoners in red dragged their sacks to the gate and tied up the tops. They were bodily searched then escorted back to their lonely, dark cells.

Thursday mornings, their last day alive, whilst the other prisoners queued outside the kitchen, where there was the smell of freshly baked bread, the prisoners in red leaned against the wall and stared vacantly at the blue sky arched above the high stone walls. By Friday morning they would be taken to the clinic to be narcotised and made ready to be killed. We always knew when they were executed. A sudden, dreaded eerinees would grip the town. A morbid, silent fear filled the dormitory with all sorts of speculations that afternoon. Out of respect the prisoners would not speak except in gestures and whispered voices. As if the guardian Angel had gone and the Daemon reassumed His throne, none dared to speak his thoughts. Thus we sat and saw the rest of that day pass.

PORTSMOUTH JANUARY 2001

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