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Words Behind Bars
By MOHAMMAD ALI ATASSI
Syrian Poet Faraj Bairqadar Speaks after 14 Years of Detention
‘The freedom within us is larger than the jails we are in’
It is hard to keep calm in the face of the events that Faraj Bairqadar describes in this interview. Born in 1951 in the city of Homs, he is only the second Syrian political prisoner to speak publicly about his experience, though it is an experience shared by numerous other prisoners. He was detained in 1987 on charges of conducting political activities and being a member of the League of Communist Action. He spent 14 subsequent years of his life in jail. Bairqadar had published three books prior to his arrest, and his friends published a fourth for him while he was in prison.
Poetry is democratic and egalitarian to both writer and reader; it never seized my feelings but on the contrary, it provided me an ample space to exercise my freedom. Poetry allowed me to control my prison, rather than be controlled by it. I think what protected me is that I didn’t write about big struggles or issues while in jail. I tended to write about my memories and subtle human concerns that stem from the emotions of the prisoner. Writing about the struggle, revolution, and other similar issues became subordinate to the personal – my longing for my daughter, for my mother, for the village I grew up in, and for my friends. These are issues imprisonment evokes. They are far from being direct, but they never lose their certainty. There are two words, though, that I never feared to use: captivity and freedom. They hold within them a tension that persists for the poet as well as for the reader. I wrote not only about my pains, but also about the pain of the people around me in prison. The tragedy of incarceration isn’t limited to prison walls, but also touches the life outside the prison. You see families destroyed, divorces, poverty, and misery.
What allowed you to resist your imprisonment? Was it your ideological convictions or was there also a human or personal force?
I think I owe that to a variety of concepts. Love is one of them. Love is one of the ingredients of resistance. Poetry. Despair also, but not in a suicidal or capitulatory sense. There is also an ethical dimension. I was raised to be unbreakable, and I had no choice but to resist. Suppose that I was not a Communist, and they arrested me and wanted to break me. I feel that I am a man who cannot be defeated. At times I would wonder, “What if I gave in?” A lot of others collaborated so that they could rest. But for me it is clear: I do not surrender. I’m not presenting this as something to be proud of, but rather as a matter of principle. Luckily, I got out of jail without compromising.
Can you tell us about the stages of your arrest and the places you were held captive?
“Dream of Freedom” by Yasser Ganem, 2003
(Indian ink and water-color, 15cm/32cm)
I was arrested in Damascus in 1987, and held in the “Palestine Branch” for interrogation. They kept me in solitary confinement for four months, during which they tortured me all the time. We were then moved to another branch pending our sentences, and by that time new arrests had been made, and they confiscated documents which revealed that we were hiding information from them. Later we were returned to the Palestine Branch, where we were kept under investigation for an additional seven months. They interrogated us every two days. After that, in February 1988, 16 prisoners, including myself, were moved to the Tadmur Prison, where we spent four years. Finally they moved us to the Saydnaya jail, where I spent the remainder of my time.
Did you reach a state of physical and psychological weakness during interrogation? And can you tell us which method of torture was the most painful for you?
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was not in a state of weakness. What mattered was to bear the pain until I lost consciousness. What comforted me was that I didn’t tell them anything, because it is impossible to extract information from an unconscious man. But they carefully studied what the limit was, the edge between life and death, and they’d stop just slightly before they reached that point.
For me, what they call the “German chair,” and what I call the “Nazi chair,” was the most painful, especially its later consequences, like severe back pain and a temporary loss of movement in the arms that lasted for months. I was once subjected to it for two whole hours. (The “German chair” is made of metal. The prisoner is tied to it and then the chair is folded backwards, so that it pressures the back of the prisoner, arched to its maximum.) When the prisoner is put on that chair and his back is pinched, the world – life and death – becomes half an exhalation and half an inhalation. Any full breath can kill him, and he has to calibrate his breathing on the edge of pain between two half-breaths. His life is placed on that line.
How did you return to poetry during your imprisonment after a hiatus that lasted for years?
Two weeks after my imprisonment began, poetry came by itself, as a defense mechanism. I thought of ways to write without a pen and a paper; so I said to myself I’ll try to pass the time by composing small paragraphs that I could remember – for instance, a song for my mother or the like. That method was very comforting, especially since the times I spent in my cell away from investigations were long and boring. Once they had to carry me back to my cell on a blanket, and on the way I had this vision of Malek bin Arrayb when it was his time to die. I felt the similarities between him and me. I didn’t fear death, I was only sad, so I composed this verse: “I wasn’t alive/ and I wasn’t dead so I made way for him/ oh how the tightness of this place shames me.” I spent a week in my cell, physically and psychologically exhausted to a point that wouldn’t permit me to finish the poem. After that I was able to walk a bit so I was moved to the infirmary because of fractures in my chest. There the torture stopped and there were a few quiet days, so I continued the poem.
How did you write it – did you memorize it or write it on paper? And how long did it last in your memory?
I wrote in my mind, of course, because my memory began to function again – even if memory doesn’t allow for long poems to be written. In Tadmur there weren’t any pens or paper, but I trained my memory even more and I counted on a few comrades to preserve certain passages. But I was still worried and tried to memorize everything myself. The first time I wrote “Vision” was in Tadmur, when they gave me a pen to write down the names of medicines we used, so I took my chance and wrote it on cigarette papers, but then I quickly destroyed it because we were thoroughly searched. Later we had more experience and less fear, so we invented an ink from tea and onion leaves, and we used a wood splinter we found in the yard as a pen. But writing remained at the margin. I would write sections because I was afraid I would forget, but the first time I started writing with paper and regular pens was in 1992 when we were moved to the Saydnaya prison. I can say that “Vision” remained stored in my memory for five years, until the end of my term in Tadmur. The poems I wrote in that period are few compared with those I wrote in Saydnaya prison. I often avoided making changes in the poems in order not to cause mental confusion and thus weaken my memory.
Did you hate your torturers? Haven’t you ever wondered about their humanity?
During times of torture I used to sympathize with some of the torturers; it was obvious to me that they were doing a job forced on them. As soon as the superior officer would leave the room, they would whisper something in my ear, or go easy on the beating. I used to distinguish the torturers by their voices or by the degree of intensity with which they used the torture device. There are some torturers who perform more than what is asked of them, and I would hate these during moments of torture. But when I returned to my solitude and had the chance to reflect and contemplate, I felt sorry for them because they had become sick; their humanity had been destroyed. When it comes down to it, they are part of my people and they are destroying my people. They destroy the prisoner, they destroy the executioner, and even the citizen outside the prison is destroyed, too. Today after my release, I do not hate any torturers who were simple soldiers. But I despise some of the officers, and I’m not willing to ever deal with them.
How did you relate to your body during the torture period?
At times I felt that the entity that was most sympathetic with me, the most intimate, the entity that most defended me was my body. Luckily, my body didn’t let me down. Sometimes I would treat it with tenderness and apologize to it, and in a way I felt responsible for its sufferings. My love for my body was great, especially in the early torture periods. It was my best friend, and even if it would sometimes complain, the complaints were not to weaken me, but to draw my attention, like Antar’s horse.
What about your relation to your cell?
Contrary to the images we have of cells – of alienation, pressure, and darkness, I sometimes felt safe in my solitary cell. The danger was in the investigation room. When I’d go down to solitary, I’d feel like I was returning to my mother’s womb; I would feel safe when its door was shut. At times I felt it was tender and loving, but when my body didn’t ache, I would grow weary of its tightness – my head bowed because the ceiling was low, and my feet couldn’t stretch because the walls were too close.
What are the painful moments that you remember most from the times of investigation?
I might not be able to remember all the details, but hearing a woman screaming from torture creates a kind of feeling that no one can imagine. Seeing two people exhausted from the torture, their feet swollen and unable to walk, but the one who is only slightly better off than the other attempts to carry his friend though he can barely move himself; also memorable was seeing someone volunteer to take punishment meant for someone else, in order to protect a friend that he knows cannot take it anymore.
Were there moments when you cried?
I had a very traditional upbringing – meaning that men do not cry. I stayed that way a long time, but when the investigation was over and my conscience was clear, I wasn’t afraid anymore that my tears would be considered a sign of weakness. Those who dealt with me as a poet were able to understand this peculiarity, and made it possible for me to let go. A lot of scenes touched me and made me cry, though they were not necessarily related to me. Five brothers were put in jail. A prisoner was allowed a visit after 18 years of incarceration, and when he met his brother and father he didn’t recognize them. Another prisoner got his first visit after 10 years, and when he saw his parents crying from behind the bars, he started talking to his crying mother, “Yammah leish a’mm tibki yammah?” (Mom, why are you crying, Mom?), but the woman cried even harder, and after that she told him “I am your sister, your mother is dead.” In the face of this, I cannot but cry.
Did you cry from the torture?
No, in front of the executioner I couldn’t cry, no matter how strong my pain was. If I was in the “wheel,” or the German chair, it was possible to control myself for a while. With electricity, the shouting is involuntary and starts from the first shock, and then the pain stops as soon as the current is off. But with the other methods the pain would persist afterwards, as well as the scars. With electricity I used to ask myself later, how did these sounds come out of me? They are more like howling; animalistic sounds.
Did you cry when you saw your family?
When I saw my parents I couldn’t cry. I wanted to show them that I was in control. I only cried in front of my baby brother who was incarcerated in Saydnaya for the same charge as I. As soon as I arrived there from Tadmur I asked to see him. I thought that seeing him was like seeing my whole family, as if I re-communicated with the outside world from which I was cut off. They agreed that I could see him in another room for five minutes. He came and I went to see him. We hugged for a long time. I asked myself, “Should I let go of my emotions?” Then I heard my friends behind me crying so I collapsed. The second time I cried before him [my brother] was when I received the news of the death of my friend, Jamil Hatmel. I couldn’t control myself. I came out of the visiting room unafraid to be heard crying.
Can you describe your feelings when you were released? And how was the meeting with your family and your daughter?
I went out with heartache, because my dream was for all of us to leave the prison without looking back – but that didn’t happen. We left the prison and some of our comrades are still there. This is why, when I got out, I didn’t go to see my parents; I went and visited the families of those who were left in jail. At first we went to Damascus, and I didn’t recognize any of its streets, tunnels, bridges – features that were completely new to me. I spent a day in Damascus, then I went to Homs where my parents were waiting to see me. When I got off the bus I was greeted by my daughter’s face, and I was very weak and felt maybe I wouldn’t make it to hold her. But I did, and I leaned on her and hugged her for a long time and I cried. After that I didn’t see anyone; hugging and kissing and I was among my own.
Did you find your country again?
No, I haven’t found it yet. I went into jail and for me Syria was a mass grave. Is it still like that today? I don’t know! I have hopes, but I can’t be sure.
You introduced your collection of poetry with these words: “The freedom within us is larger than the prisons that we’re in.” Where is our freedom now and where are our prisons?
The freedom within me is still stronger, and stronger now with the freedom given to me by others. I owe them all a great deal. Even if some features of repression still persist, I have great confidence that they will not last, and I can see some positive movement in that direction, but it is not quite enough. Martial law, for instance, is still implemented, and they can simply put us back in jail.
This is a group translation in collaboration with the author. TheArabic version of this interview appeared in the Lebanese-based An Nahar Cultural Supplement (January 22, 2001). The English version appears exclusively in Al Jadid by a permission of the author.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 49 (Fall 2004) Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid