Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Destroy the prison’

Dictatorial violence, cynical trade in religion, cultural inertia and self-censorship are walls that must be broken if freedom is to be won, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

“My freedom is to expand my cage.” This terse and profound line was conceived by the poetic genius of Mahmoud Darwish. It is often uttered by Arab writers as they are about to set pen to paper, or air their ideas on radio and television.

It expresses their belief, or illusion, that the act of writing (or speech) brings them closer to the aspired-to liberty and salvation, towards which many have paid intolerable quantities of sweat, blood, tears and frustrated dreams.

When the revolutions erupted, they cheered, punched their fists into the air and shouted, “Our moment of freedom has finally come, even if we had grown old and grey while waiting!”

Unfortunately, that moment evaporated under the weight of terrorism, militarisation, anarchy, death, mass displacement of persons, unscrupulousness and greed, crumbling states, the tenuousness of social structures and long delays in the revolution of ideas and religious reform.

Darwish pithily summed up the condition of the Arab writer before and after the age of revolutions and uprisings. Barely does a dream give him flight before painful reality drags him back down, confining his aspirations to the wish to expand his cage, or the desire to improve the brutal conditions inside the vast prison he inhabits. This, moreover, applies to the optimists. Others succumb to despair, recoil into their shattered souls and draw the cell walls more tightly around themselves.

However, there still remain those who cling stubbornly to the hope of winning freedom no matter how long and how much suffering it takes. They seek freedom of thought, expression, creativity and action in full, with no compromise. It is too valuable to barter away for anything, whether for security or for bread.

The exhortation “Go gradually and be patient until you mature and then obtain your freedom” is thrown into the face of everyone who wants real liberty here and now. It gives precedence to the logic of the pessimists. This logic tells us that we have no choice but to hoist our cages onto our backs and carry them wherever we go as it is impossible to get free from them or even reduce their weight.

The most we can hope for is to get used to and sustain their heaviness as we struggle down the long road or, perhaps, to appease the cage in order to keep it from weighing down so hard that we are no longer able to walk. Then, eventually, we will reach the “last stop” on that gruelling road, close our eyes and surrender to the blessing of the final, eternal freedom and salvation in the hereafter.

The problem with that course of compromise, in the world of the here and now, is that the cage has many walls. We cannot just knock down one or make a hole big enough in another to wriggle out, bodies and souls, and find ourselves free. We have to find a way to eliminate the cage in its entirety. But then we have to bear the consequences of the great risk we are taking: either liberty or death, or the willingness to die for the sake of freedom.

The tremulous among us tell us that before deciding what we are going to do we should read Aboud Al-Shalji’s Encyclopaedia of Torture. In his eight-volume work, the Iraqi researcher describes in detail the methods used by tyrannical sultans in Arab history to torture prisoners and rebels.

To these we could probably add eight more volumes based on the results of our research, experience or conjectures regarding torture among contemporary Arabs. No sooner than they were freed of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, they fell into the clutches of Al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries, the Islamic State (IS) group and its affiliates, and the Houthis and their followers. At the same time, many of the old historical dictators remain in place, with their grip firmly on the means of brutality, as the circumstances of the people shift around them.

It might be just as useful, therefore, to add to our reading list the novels of Abdel Rahman Munif and Sonallah Ibrahim. We could then round these out with two lighter works: “The Black Policeman,” a short story by Yusef Idris, and The Crypt No 2, a novel by the Iraqi writer Youssef Al-Sayigh.

On the other hand, we could give ourselves into fear with Ahmed Saadawi as we search for Frankenstein in Baghdad or in Damascus. Not that the other Arab capitals are much different, except for the fact that the level of fear is slightly less, or that it has been temporarily deferred or that some people are forcing themselves to avoid it by pressing for something else, another value, perhaps, that might be more beneficial and precious.

The tremulous also advise those who accuse some researchers of stooping to bias, deliberate selectivity and distortion of the facts, and those who believe that all novels are pure figments of the imagination, to read what members of the opposition wrote of their personal experiences in the prisons of Al-Hassan II and of Hafez Al-Assad and his son, who is currently bringing Syria down on the heads of its people in order to remain in his seat of power, which has only one leg left.

To these volumes can be added the memoirs of torture written by communists locked up in the prisons of Saddam Hussein and, before him, the prisons of Abdel-Nasser, or by Islamist extremists caught in the prisons of Gaddafi. The autobiographical tour of Arab freedom fighters would take us from wherever and whenever the prison cages proliferated, from the Gulf to the Atlantic.

The optimists, who have the grit and determination to challenge all that in one go, take aim at the first wall of our cells: the wall of the tyrannical regime that was built with force, coercion and corruption.

Then, with that heavy weight eased from our backs, we should be able to forge forward with greater strides toward freedom, especially if we remain determined to take down the second wall, if not in one go than at least brick by brick until we reach full daylight.

The second wall was constructed by those who trade in religion. These are persons bent on exploiting human spiritual needs and people’s deep faith in the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and towards this end they built a thick wall to separate the people from the Holy texts and their Divine purpose.

The bricks in that wall are made of man-made interpretations whose fabricators claim represent the “true religion” whereas they are nothing more than pure conjecture that is open to argument and could be proven right or wrong.

But the traders in religion have conferred a sanctity on these interpretations that makes them absolute and immutable. With these instruments they seek to transform the faith that was revealed to mankind to increase human happiness by increasing spiritual fulfilment, philanthropy and human decency and high-mindedness into a source of hardship, misery, murder and destruction.

By turning religion into a barren commerce or a wretched ideology they generate a psychopathic condition or a general framework for justifying murder, theft, degradation and abuse by denigrating those who differ with them in political opinion and by reserving much worse for those who differ in creed or faith.

In order to destroy that wall we need to differentiate between what is “divine” and what is “human” or “man-made.” Towards this end we need to engage reason as an adjunct to the process of the revelation, rather than as an antithesis or an obstacle to it.

Using this we should strive to reach directly into the “basic” or “founding” text, as Adonis called it in his controversial book, The Fixed and the Mutable, and thereby attain profound faith through freedom of belief. Once we are capable of doing this, we will need to turn to the third wall, which is no less formidable than the first two.

The third wall consists of age-old, outworn customs and traditions that are as inimical to freedom as they are to the values of equality. Prime among these are those customs that make us judge a person by his family background rather than by his own merits, or to regard a person in some official position, even if he is a thief, hypocrite and coward, as having higher status and deserving greater respect than a scientific genius or outstanding creative artist, or even a simple citizen known for his praiseworthy honesty, integrity, benevolence and magnanimity.

There is not sufficient space here to discuss the numerous pernicious customs that need to be laid to rest. This is not to suggest that there are not also many praiseworthy customs that we should strive to preserve. I am not one who believes that the past should be jettisoned in its entirety.

Yet there are customs that pose a great hindrance to our prospects of reaching a sufficient scope of freedom to ease the weight of the cages from our bent backs. For the most part, these customs revolve around the three taboos — religion, politics and sex — and their age-old perpetuation in our hearts and minds has created heavy chains that bind our pens. Only a handful of writers escape these chains.

These are the ones who refuse to allow their freedom to be restrained by anything but the dictates of their conscience, the benevolent counsel of their free will and the strictures of their professional dedication to help to advance society and better the conditions of human life.

To buttress this wall, political authorities try to turn the minds of the people against free-minded writers and opposition thinkers and mobilise the general public in fascist or McCarthyist campaigns against those they brand as “heretics”, “traitors” or merely those who need to be gagged in times of perpetual warfare of some sort or another, when “no voice shall be heard above the call of the battle.”

Under such conditions, those who differ feel isolated. Tendentious lies and rumours might be circulated that threaten both his public and private lives and that mercilessly tarnish his reputation. Victims of such attacks might surrender and either fall silent or change tact and bleat in chorus with rest of the flock.

But they might summon the courage to say, “Do not be adverse to the road of truth, however few tread it,” and hope that time is in their favour and will ultimately prove their words or actions right.

After breaching the third wall of our cell we will have to confront the one that is the thickest and highest. This is made up of the chains inside ourselves that make us act as self-censors, which cause us to stutter when it comes time to state the facts loud and clear.

These are the fetters that make us shrink back when the day comes to press for greater freedom and that lead us to shrug our shoulders in the face of the inverse screening processes of our institutions that reward mediocrity and sift out the skilled and talented who can think for themselves and who are dedicated to promoting the public welfare and fighting corruption and the control of a mindless bureaucratic machine.

This inner wall has a great tendency to loom large when we weaken before earthly temptations and succumb to a process whereby people are reduced to commodities and commodities are accorded the greatest value, leading us to forget that God created all things to serve us, rather than creating mankind to serve things.

The chains of that inner wall have their origins in the pressures emanating from the political, social and economic environment in which writers live and work. The repression of some writers through imprisonment, defamation and harassment, the workings of certain customs that are inimical to freedom and support subjugation, the difficult economic circumstances that writers face, combine to exert a powerful grip on the minds and souls of the writer.

Only those with the extraordinary ability to remain indifferent to the gold or sword of the ruler, the biases and prejudices of the crowd, and the strains of financial hardship can escape the clutches.

Regardless of how high and thick the walls of the cell are, they have to be brought down, however long it takes, however meagre the resources and however arduous the road. When those four walls do fall, we will have expanded the cages sufficiently to be able to stretch out our necks and see the walls of the larger prison.

At that point, we will be able to raise the threshold of our demands and shout, “Our freedom is to destroy the prison and to force the warden to beg forgiveness.”


The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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