The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer

the shell Review of Al-Qawqa’a (The Shell), by Mustafa Khalifa

Spoiler alert: this report contains a detailed outline of the plot. The is one of three Syrian books being considered for translation by the And Other Stories Arabic reading group and this is my case for why it should indeed be translated!

Update, summer 2015: my extracts of this book were published in The Massachusetts Review vol 55, issue 4, and my tireless efforts to pitch this book to an English-language publisher were not in vain! The translation rights have been bought by a US publisher, but sadly due to financial and time constraints I was unable to take on the commission to translate it. Here’s looking forward to what I hope will be a strong translation of an important historical book which sets the context for the dreadful war in Syria.

This compelling memoir takes the form of the diary of a Syrian prisoner of conscience, locked up for 14 years without trial in one of the Middle East’s most notorious jails. There are conflicting reports about whether it is indeed fiction or autobiography, but as far as I understand it is a semi-fictionalised account based on the Khalifa’s real life experience of being imprisoned for unsubstantiated political offences from 1982 to 1994 under the previous president, Hafez al-Assad. The narrator, Musa, composes the diary in his head while in prison and only writes it down upon his release, embellishing it with only the occasional retrospective comment.

Musa returns to Damascus for the first time after several years studying film in Paris and is arrested at the airport. He is accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a charge he denies – after all, he’s Christian and an atheist, an admission for which he is severely beaten, ironically, by his interrogators. Making the same mistake in the first prison where he is held, where up to 80 men are crammed into an unimaginably small cell, he is shunned by fellow inmates, mainly MB hardliners, as an apostate and presumed government spy, a curse which will remain with him throughout his many years in jail. (See first extract, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.)

He’s transferred to the infamous Tadmur high security prison in the desert, where he languishes for over a decade without charge. Trials, or military tribunals, are held in an office on site but the verdict seems always to be guilty and the sentence is death by hanging. Not that an inmate needs to be tried to face arbitrary death at the hands of the bloodthirsty wardens. No one is ever acquitted or seems to leave the prison alive. Arriving at the prison, he and the other new inmates are severely beaten and humiliated, including being made to drink from the cesspit. Musa nearly dies from injuries inflicted in this initiation ‘reception’ ceremony and indeed the body count is high. (See the 2nd extract, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.)

Musa spends years on end in a huge dormitory, where 300 men are crammed into beds just 25 cm apart. The only movement is to the latrines at the end of the room and into the yard outside every few days for a ‘breather’ – a humiliating parade which regularly involves torture and beatings. On New Year’s Eve, for example, they are made to stand naked in the freezing cold until many perish.

Treated as a pariah, Musa endures literally years without speaking or being spoken to, without making eye contact with any of the men around him. Instead, he becomes a detached observer and listener, documenting the other men’s lives and relationships, hearing news from other prison cells communicated by Morse code tapped out on the walls, and learning to memorise the Quran and Hadith from hearing the words recited so often by his fellow inmates. Without pen or paper, he hones the skill of committing his diary to memory and records minute details of their surreal life, inspired by the other inmates who actively keep a mental record of the unspeakable goings on within the prison, to honour the memory of those who are killed there.

His ‘voyeurism’ reaches another level when he discovers a hole one day in the wall looking on to the courtyard outside. Taking cue from a mentally disturbed prisoner who sits for hours on end huddled beneath his blanket, Musa starts to do the same, secretly watching the suffering inflicted on prisoners in the yard and the regular executions.

The text does, of course, contain horrendous and shocking violence, but mercifully such episodes do not overload the narrative and are all the more powerful for their infrequency. (Or perhaps it just seemed that way to me, as I fully expected the book to be page after page of hideous torture.) The narrator establishes a background of fear and pain, but stoically focuses on other details of life between those walls: the bitter cold, the unbearable heat and dust in the summer sandstorms, starvation, outbreaks of highly infectious diseases, visits paid for with bribes at astonishingly high prices (kilos of gold), disputes and vendetta killings…

The style of narration is simple and concise, but not without emotional reflection, and perhaps the most compelling aspect of the narrative is the psychological depth to the characters – something that is achieved in a film-like way through minimal description. We are drawn ever deeper into Musa’s complex psychology as well as that of the inmates and the jailors, as Musa reflects on the relationships around him and the shifting tensions. He himself, very gradually, develops relationships and starts to emerge from his shell. Inevitably, he comes to identify with the institutionalised prisoner community, a mental state of being from which he will probably never be able to extricate himself, a trauma from which a survivor of such an ordeal can perhaps never fully recover.

Things do gradually improve for Musa after several years when he offers his watch to be fashioned into a scalpel for an operation, performed in secret, on an inmate left to die of appendicitis by the prison authorities. (See the 3rd extract, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.) Still, no one speaks to him, but he is at least treated with a little more warmth. The real turning point comes when a new intake of prisoners includes a group of Islamic extremists and Musa’s life is again at risk: moderates among the prisoners intervene to protect him. Vicious fights break out, but in a dramatic showdown, Musa finally breaks his decade-long silence and speaks out publicly in defence of his personal choice to have or not to have a faith. His bravery and honesty open up new friendships as a small group of liberal doctors begin to speak to him and when he shares the secret of the spyhole he gains more trust, especially that of the representative among the inmates, the ‘barracks chief’, Abu Hussein.

If you would like to read more of my synopsis of the book and read how it ends, please download my full report here.

For all its stark, documentary-style narration, this is a deeply moving psychological story of a noble attempt at personal resistance, and yet an eventual crushing defeat at the hands of a brutal impersonal power. It is a forceful indictment of the Assad regime in Syria, but stands equally strongly as a universal rallying cry for justice and freedom from political persecution and arbitrary military rule. Incidentally, Tadmur Prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011.

The book is something of a symbol of the Syrian opposition in the current bloody civil war and is the focus of many Facebook groups and online discussions aimed at exposing acts of violence and brutality committed by the state. With its political impact and its universal literary beauty, it is not an exaggeration to call it the work of a modern-day Solzhenitsyn. With the recent publication of extensive photographic evidence of horrendous killings in Syrian prisons, this book provides an essential perspective on the tragedy the Syrian people are living through.

The author, Mustafa Khalifa, lives in exile from Syria. Besides writing The Shell, he is an eloquent and insightful political commentator on the situation in his native country. (See his 2012 editorial ‘What if Bashar Assad Wins?’) The book has been translated into French as La Coquille and I believe it would find an avid readership if translated into English. The publisher of the original Arabic is Dar al-Adab, Beirut.