After failing his middle school exams, Saleh al-Shaybi decided to join the army. He saw his fellow villagers and men from the neighbouring villages return with new clothes, pockets filled with cash, wrists weighed down by watches, smoking cigarettes from full packs and lighting them with gold lighters. He decided to follow in their footsteps, and wrote down “please take me” on his application.After basic training he was stationed at the Tajura barracks, and two years after that was able to buy a second-hand green Datsun 120, which he drove along Tripoli’s streets harassing girls and women. One day in 1972 he spotted a woman on Andalus Street in a white firashiya* that covered her entire body and black stilettos. He could see only the backs of her calves, one large kohl-lined eye with long lashes and a carefully-shaped eyebrow. He stuck his head out of the car and drove very slowly as he said: “This is not fair, hey, please.” She didn’t even look at him, let alone pay him any attention. He became more insistent, speeding off any time he saw anyone else on the street, then returning to flirt. He didn’t realize that he was driving past the home of the General who was a member of the Revolutionary Council, the Interior and local Justice Minster and Head of the Popular Resistance Militias. His fourth time back, he was stopped by four of the minister’s bodyguards. He assumed they were the woman’s relatives, and decided to stand up to them. He snatched a weapon from the passenger seat, and rushed towards them. By then, the woman had reached them. He saw her unveil, revealing her radiant, angry face, and shake her plump arms. He saw her velvet throat as she shook her head: “He’s been harassing me for over thirty minutes; he’s shameless!” He saw an earring drop from her right ear. They threw him to the floor, and just before they handcuffed his hands behind his back he picked up the earring up.
The minister came out when he heard the ruckus. He stood at the top of the villa’s steps, wearing a white Arabian outfit with a white cotton headdress, his feet in black leather slippers. He ordered the guards to send their prisoner to jail.
At the Black Horse prison, which had originally been named the Porta Benito by its colonial builders, a fastidious police officer collected all the contents of Private Saleh al-Shaybi’s pockets. He counted out the money, and wrote 8.36 pounds on a large yellow envelope, put the money into it, followed by Saleh’s ID card, military ID, driver’s licence, belt and shoelaces. Before he dropped the earring in, he held it between his fingers and examined it, querying Saleh with a slight tilt of his head and a slight raise of his eyebrows. Saleh explained: “It’s my mother’s. She was getting it fixed.” The officer pursed his lips and put the earring into the envelope, then licked its edge and sealed it. He wrote the prisoner’s name and the date and time front.
In the detention centre, Saleh joined people who had been arrested for different reasons. Four of them were being held because of traffic accidents that had resulted in people dying or still being in critical danger at the Central Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. A black man had been arrested for being publicly drunk and was going to be released the next day after being given forty lashes across his back in the public square. He kept repeating: “It’s OK, it’s OK . . . it’s not the first time.” Two neighbours had caused a feud between their families that their wives and all their sons and daughters had got involved in. After the other prisoners intervened they made up, and were expressing their remorse when Saleh arrived.
One of them said: “By God, we’ve been as close as brothers for twenty years, but it’s the devil’s work, may God keep him away.” The other continued: “This is what happens when you listen to women . . . you find yourself in jail.” The drunk said: “It’s not the Devil, it’s the scorpions that got between you . . . the scorpions.” A man with a cruel face had hit a man over the head with an iron bar. His blood was still boiling: “I swear I’ll kill him.” A Tunisian who had sneaked across the border was huddled in a corner. They asked Saleh why he had been arrested. He was too ashamed to tell them it was for harassing a woman, so he replied “a fight”, without elaborating.
The next day he was brought before the prison warden, a large man with a large belly, drooping jowls and a thin moustache. The warden asked him why he’d been arrested, and Saleh told him the whole story. He kept nothing secret. The warden told him: “A misdemeanor . . . you’ll be in for ten days, then released.”
Ten days passed, then another ten, then two months. Prisoners went, and others came. Spring ended, then summer did. The warden wrote several letters on his behalf to the Ministry, but received no reply. He called the minister’s office many times. The last time, the minister’s secretary asked him: “Are you carrying him on your back, or what?” The warden realized that since he was neither free nor a prisoner Saleh’s psychological state had deteriorated. Prisoners came and went while he waited. He pitied Saleh, and offered him the choice of leaving the detention centre and joining the long-term prisoners. Saleh immediately consented. In the prison yard, he met someone from the village next to his, a classmate from elementary school who had disappeared shortly after joining the Islamic Liberation Party. After listening to his story, he offered Saleh the chance to live with him in the Party’s cell. The group’s emir, or chief, didn’t object, despite considering Saleh to be a small-time snitch who would inform on them to the government. After Saleh had left, the emir scratched his beard and told those around him that it was better “that they know what we’re up to, since it’s more dangerous if they don’t”.
The cell was neat and clean, and the ILP members were simple and elegant. They wore sparkling white outfits and placed white shawls over their heads. Their beards were short and carefully trimmed. They were constantly cleansing themselves, and their bodies and clothes gave off the scent of musk. They spoke softly and politely. Saleh was entranced by his new environment and compared his new cell with his old one, which had reeked from the acidic stench of soldiers’ bodies. When the emir learnt the details of his story, he told him: “You’re going to get your middle school diploma this year, with us”. And from then on, Saleh took lessons with the party members. During Ramadan, he performed all the duties his cellmates did, and on laylat al-qadr , once they had finished reciting the Qur’an in the qiyam prayer, and had finished all the prayers and rituals, Saleh sat before the emir surrounded by the others and was initiated as a new member of the banned Islamic Liberation Party.
* * * *
Right before Eid, his family managed to locate him, and on the third day of eid, one of his relatives drove his parents in from the village, dropping them off in front of the minister’s house. The minister met them in the yard, and when they explained the issue to him, he slapped his palm to his forehead as he recalled the young man whose arrest he had ordered several months before. He promised them that he would release their son, and they left praying for his health and longevity.
After Eid, the Minister demanded Saleh al-Shaybi’s file, and when he found out that he had joined the Islamic Liberation Party, he threw the file on to his desk and said: “Make sure he doesn’t get out.”
Saleh got his middle school diploma. In the meantime, the warden had discovered the reason Saleh had not been released, and called him into his office and explained it. Saleh went back to his cell. He collected his belongings and moved into the Amazighis’ cell. He knew several of them since his village neighboured some Amazighi villages, and this was how he found himself in a bunk between al-Sifao and ‘Uraybi. Al-Sifao was short and stocky, with a large head. A quarter of his face was occupied by a thick moustache and his big eyes were shadowed by thick eyebrows. Hair grew all over his body. Even his watch disappeared into his wrist, and he had to blow on it whenever he wanted to know the time. ‘Uraybi was the complete opposite, skinny and hairless despite being the same age as Al-Sifao.
Saleh got his secondary school diploma with the Amazigh and learnt the Tamazight language. They taught him patiently and told him he was an Arabized Amazighi who was returning to his origins. He enjoyed joking around with al-Sifao and ‘Uraybi. He would say that they were living proof that there was no justice in the world. He made jokes about al-Sifao, saying that when al-Sifao was born, they thought he was a hedgehog, and that when al-Sifao sneezed, a cloud of hair would come out, and that when he farted, he’d release a bazooka. Everyone would laugh, including al-Sifao, who would say in Tamazight: “God forgive you, uncle Saleh.”
There was no chance of his getting a university degree, but after meeting the Communists, who were good at foreign languages and taught them to one another, Saleh asked them to teach him English. They immediately accepted, and that’s how he entered into their world, and eventually moved into their cell. The warden, who was fond of him, would laugh heartily when he saw him with the Communists, and tell him: “So, Saleh, you’re becoming a heathen after having converted?”
He not only learnt English, but French and Italian as well. He conversed daily in all these languages, and spoke Tamazight with the Amazighi communists. He was dazzled by their rich world of poets, novelists, critics, writers and playwrights. They had long discussions through the night, analyzing internal politics, as well as Arab and international affairs in fascinating ways that forced him to use parts of his brain that had previously been unemployed. For the first time, he learnt how to think. They also used to pay close attention to new texts, then analyze them in rational ways that he’d never done or seen before, then they would burst into song and dance. They knew all the songs of the Lebanese singer Fairuz, and “Adam’s speech” was an oral contract that they chanted as they soared, stamping their feet to the ground.
He was drawn to Saadoon, who had been a Trotskyist activist during his civil engineering studies in Italy and who had ties to Trotskyists in Latin America and to George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Saadoon had come to present his congratulations on the Libyan “revolution” and had been arrested. In prison, he had succumbed to depression which had developed into schizophrenia. He had sporadic episodes every couple of months, when he dressed in a red robe with black embroidery and spoke without stopping, foam dribbling from each side of his mouth as he wiped his small, domed forehead. He recalled details of books he had read years before in Italian or Spanish or Arabic. He remembered conversations and long discussions he had had with George Habash, and with university students who had gone on to become members of the Bader-Meinhof gang or the Red Brigade.
At the start of the eighties, they were transferred to the Buslim prison. In the new prison, which had been built by the “revolution”, the professional police guards who had respected political prisoners disappeared, replaced by military policemen who were mostly from tribes allied with that of the “Leader of the Revolution”. They held a personal grudge against all the prisoners, particularly the communists, whom they considered “heathens”. They slapped them and beat them with sticks and plastic tubes, cursing at them day and night. They were especially harsh with a poet from the old town of Tripoli because he didn’t belong to any tribe. They wondered how a person could not belong to a tribe, and would say to him: “Even dogs have tribes, you dog.” The prisoners’ radios and televisions disappeared, as did the newspapers, magazines and books, all of them becoming banned objects; this was the worst thing that happened to the inmates of the communist cell. And the worst thing to happen to all the prisoners was that visits were forbidden. Saleh al-Shaybi never saw his parents again, and only read their obituaries many months after they had died.
The new prison’s windows were high and narrow, and the summer was heavy and cruel. The cells became hellish, which led the prisoners to take shifts near the high windows in an attempt to catch any breeze that made its way to their cell. One hot night, Saleh commented: “Italy’s fascists who built the Black Horse prison were more merciful than the September revolutionaries.” At that point, Saadoon laughed heartily, saying: “The boy’s become cultured.” In fact, that is exactly what had happened to Saleh, who, after a period of wandering in the communist wilderness, had begun to find his own way. This was mostly due to his adviser in the next bunk, who had been arrested as a philosophy student at the Faculty of Humanities of Benghazi University; For over twelve years, his flair for drama, which had emerged early on, had led him to prisons. He would tell Saleh that his cellmates weren’t real communists, that most had merely become communists because it was fashionable, and that some had turned communist after their arrest in protest; but, since the regime was looking for enemies in a land with few intellectuals, out of convenience they were also classified as communists. Saleh got used to waking his friend up every night in order to rouse him from his interminable nightmares. He was skinny, and slept in the foetal position, which meant that his circulation got blocked and he would try unsuccessfully to move his wooden limbs, and flail about. At this point, Saleh would wake up and adjust his hands. He would then get up, mutter incomprehensible thanks to Saleh and go back to sleep. Saleh did this so many times that he began to consider writing a short play himself. He didn’t tell anyone, and secretly began to write his play in that place with no secrets. He based the plot on a popular legend that represented a nightmare as an invisible being who invades his victim’s body – which is why nightmares were called “body snatches” locally – but if the victim manages to move their hands at the right speed, they can steal the legendary creature’s cloak of invisibility and become invisible when wearing it. The play’s protagonist was a prisoner who captured the invisibility cloak and escaped from prison, coming back laden with all sorts of goods and news of the outside world, which his fellow prisoners had not had for a long time. One night, after listening to a recital of poems and new stories, Saleh got up – to everyone’s amazement – and began to perform his play from memory. At the beginning, he encountered a degree of mockery and some stinging comments, but that quickly faded and everyone started paying close attention. When he uttered the last word, the applause rang out and people ran up to embrace him and praise his short play that resonated with their experience and captured their longing to escape from prison, albeit under the protection of an invisibility cloak. That night, Saleh went to bed happy that he had become one of the nation’s avant-garde elite, so content that he didn’t even wake up to help his neighbour out of his nightmare, leaving him to flail about trying to loosen up his wooden limbs, finally managing it, but not capturing the invisibility cloak.
* * * *
A modernist poet with a flair for drama decided to put on Saleh’s play. He picked his actors from among the cellmates (one had to play a woman) and expended much energy training his troupe and scavenging for props and sets. Those inmates with technical expertise volunteered any help they could in transforming the contents of their poor, narrow world; this enabled them to solve the problem of lighting, and from their bed frames build a stage. On a winter’s night, as it rained outside, they performed the play and Saleh emerged from it a confirmed playwright.
Before that, the editor of Nawafir had already decided to publish the play in his paper, a hand-written document printed on paper peeled from the silver lining of cigarette packs. Everyone would keep their empty packs of cigarettes in a special place so that the chubby bespectacled editor could separate with meticulous patience the thin films of white paper from the silver wrappings. Then he would stick the paper onto cardboard that he collected from the boxes thrown out by the kitchen and set a team of journalists, writers and artists to work. One was a talented caricaturist, another a skilful calligrapher, and the single issue of Nawafir would come out on a number of cardboard sheets and get passed along from one cellmate to the other. When everyone had read it, the issue was hidden under a mattress and whoever wanted to look something up in an old issue would have to search under the mattresses, beginning with the first one to the left of the door, in order to find the issue they were looking for.
Although the courts had issued a collective death sentence against all the communist inmates, this was later reduced to a life sentence, and they were also divided into several groups depending on what they had been tried for. The group that had been there the longest was formed of six individuals: three brothers and their three nephews. When most of them were still in secondary school and the youngest still only in middle school, they had decided to form a Marxist party. It was probably the country’s first and last communist party. They would meet in a wood shack with a corrugated tin roof in the middle of a small family farm, which had previously been home to two cows who had been sold long before Marx and Lenin emerged from the books the boys borrowed from the local library and exchanged in secret. They ended up founding a political bureau, of which they were all members. Their only success was stealing a stencil machine on which they printed their first manifesto criticising the monarchy and accusing it of being reactionary. The police had no trouble finding them, the stolen machine and the remaining hand-outs in their small town forty-five kilometres from Tripoli. They were released the day of their arrest after swearing never to repeat their actions, but the case remained open in police records. A few years after the military revolution came to power, the authorities decided to arrest them. Upon their arrests, the year after Saleh’s, they had splintered into as many Marxist factions as there were individuals. One of them couldn’t find a faction of his own after the others beat him to the more well-known ones, so he decided to follow Enver Hoxha, the Albanian leader. When they got to prison, they retained their ideological differences but helped each other with everything else.
In 1976, the students were brought in, including the playwright who was troubled by nightmares. They had been protesting at the universities in Tripoli and Benghazi against the regime’s attempts to dissolve their elected union and demanding that the constitution the military junta had suspended be reinstated. Violent clashes had broken out between them and the riot police. They were arrested after demonstrations on campus by soldiers disguised as students and by tribespeople the regime had hastily bussed in from the desert. The clashes ended with the student leaders being hanged on a gallows erected outside Tripoli University’s School of Engineering and another one facing the Arab Socialist Union building in Benghazi, which the students had set on fire during their demonstrations. The others were arrested and considered to be members of a communist organization aiming to overturn the regime.
In 1978, the intellectuals and writers who published their work in the Usbu’ Thaqafi journal arrived. It was easy to label them as communists because they used the interpretative model of social realism, which had influenced them more than the others. Members of the revolutionary committee movement ambushed them while they were commemorating the twelfth anniversary of a pioneering modernist poet’s death. In court, the judge asked the revolutionary committee officer who had arrested them – and who, incidentally, was a cousin of the “Leader of the Revolution” who would go on to assume many high-level posts: “Did you find any weapons or documents that would prove that they belong to an organization aiming to overthrow the regime?” The bearded revolutionary responded: “Had we found any of these things, they wouldn’t have stayed alive long enough to appear before you.” With that, the judge sentenced them to death, then reduced the sentence to life.
With them was a secret policeman who had been assigned to keep an eye on them. In court, he had sworn that those on trial were not an organization at all, rather they were intellectuals whose only possessions were pens. This earned him a sentence as well but he didn’t really seem to mind. Saleh befriended him quickly and firmly, drawn to his jovial and rambunctious personality. He picked Maoism from all the available Marxist currents and aimed his barbed comments at the other trends. One day, in one of his joking moods, he proposed that Saleh marry his widowed mother, and took her picture from his wallet. She was a lady in her mid-forties, rather beautiful, and was smiling in the picture. Her teeth were white, and the smile showed off her deep dimples, her eyes revealing that her son had inherited her sense of humour with the milk he had nursed from her jolly bosom. From that day on, Saleh treated his friend like his adopted son.
In prison, Saleh discovered other talents that had been hidden, unknown, and began to develop them, taking advantage of his strong ties with the other groups of prisoners. At first, he faced a problem that took a lot of patience to resolve – the mutual enmity between the Islamists and the communists – but in the end, he managed to convince the Islamists of the necessity of co-operating with all the other inmates in order to demand that their conditions be improved. In time, he became the prison’s best negotiator, his mediation pleasing all the different factions. He was a soldier to the imprisoned soldiers, a former member of the Islamic Liberation Party, a close friend of the Amazighis, speaking their language fluently, and was associated with the communists since he’d decided to live among them. The prison administration went to him whenever there was a disagreement between them and any of the groups of prisoners, so that the situation wouldn’t get out of control. The only thing that Saleh didn’t know was that the reports which reached the heads of the security services classified him as the most dangerous prisoner, since he was the only one capable of bringing together all those disparate factions towards one goal. And that is why he was excluded from the amnesty decision of March 1988.
* * * *
Initially, he’d been included in the amnesty decision, and had collected his meagre belongings in a tattered suitcase that had been left by a prisoner who had died in the communists’ cell and whose loss had caused pain and sorrow not remedied by the passing years. The prisoners met with the head of the Intelligence Bureau, who just happened to be the son-in-law of the “Leader of the Revolution”, and who told them that the “Leader” had decided to release them and that he would personally come to “free” them. They discussed all the possible scenarios of the “Leader’s” arrival to liberate them, but their imaginations paled in comparison to the reality that surprised them a few days later when he arrived at the helm of a yellow bulldozer. Flanked by bodyguards and members of the revolutionary councils, the “Leader” immediately rushed towards the prison’s main gate and reduced it to rubble. The inmates had gathered behind the gate with their luggage and cardboard boxes – some had only been able to find jute sacks or black plastic garbage bags to put their possessions and clothes in. When the dust cleared, they saw the Leader, megaphone in hand, shouting: “Why did you force me to imprison you? I am the breaker of bonds . . . I am the destroyer of prisons . . . I am the liberator!” Meanwhile, loudspeakers set up all around the place started broadcasting a song by a Sudanese singer whose lyrics crooned “It has come to pass and there are no more prisons or prisoners still standing”, while television stations transmitted the event live. The warden of the old prison, who had been in retirement for many years and was at home watching television, saw Saleh holding onto the old suitcase; he clapped his hands together, then ran to the bathroom to shed hot, silent tears down his drooping cheeks. The prisoners were ordered to walk over the bulldozer’s rubble and shake the “Leader of the Revolution’s” hand while their families waited for them outside. Every so often, the shrill voices of women ululating in celebration could be heard. At that point, the head of Intelligence came up to Saleh and ordered him to return to his cell.
After the communists, the Amazighis and some of the former soldiers had left, the prison’s divisions changed. Saleh was transferred from the communists’ cell to that of detainees whose cases resembled his, i.e., those who had been jailed without ever facing trial. New cell groupings were formed, such as of those who had finished serving their time. One was named the “acquitted” cell, which included all prisoners acquitted by the courts, and another one was just for soldiers. The old cells kept their old names, except for one new one, which was named the “Zanadiqa” cell and which included all the prisoners who were members of the new jihadist currents that had started to multiply over the 1980s.
In his new cell, Saleh met new prisoners, one of whom was in his fifties. He had collided with a mule near the city of Surt – the hometown of the “Leader of the Revolution” – and had, with difficulty, reached Tripoli in his damaged car. In Abu Hureida Square, a car bumped into him from behind. Angry, he got out and told the driver: “I’ve scarcely finished with the mule of Surt, and now I get you.” He was arrested on the spot, accused of deliberately insulting the “Leader of the Revolution” by describing him as the “mule of Surt”. A young 24-year-old man arrived. He had drunk a glass of home-made liquor with a friend in Thahra district, and had tottered drunkenly at midnight to his home near Tripoli’s international fair. When he reached the Grand Hotel, he’d had an irresistible urge to urinate – his bladder was about to burst. He reached an empty area, but didn’t notice the spotlights. He stopped and began pissing. Immediately, two cars came at him, and he discovered that he had been peeing in Green Square.
In time, new faces, most of them youthful, filled up the prison. Some had been arrested at mosques as they performed the dawn prayer; others had been arrested at the checkpoints scattered across the country’s roads, just for being bearded. The young jihadis started arriving, more conservative than any Saleh had ever seen. They had decided that both the state and society were heretical and blasphemous, and idolized their imams, who had fled to Afghanistan. Despite all his expertise and skill, Saleh could not connect with them, so he withdrew into himself, and petitioned the prison authorities to have him transferred into a solitary cell. He was shocked when they unhesitatingly accepted, not knowing that they were trying to limit his ability to establish bonds with the other prisoners. From then on, Saleh could only be spotted during exercise time in the prison yard, walking back and forth as the black in his hair daily receded before the white.
Throughout the years of his imprisonment, he had not forgotten the lady who was the direct cause of his blind fate. At first, he could only imagine her as angry, like she had been the day he was arrested, but over the years her anger slowly began to dissipate, until finally she started to smile shyly, eventually giving Saleh a wide, frank grin. And that’s how he fell in love with her. The problem was that he didn’t know his beloved’s name, and after some long, complicated thought processes that included a mental run-through of all the women’s names common in Libya, he narrowed it down to ten, one of which undoubtedly had to be hers. One night, he saw her in a dream, and she told him her name was Zainab.
The nineties bore down heavily upon him, and he felt he was losing his mind, but he held on, buoyed by the thought of Corporal Ahmad al-Zubeir, who was over sixty years old and had been in jail since 1970. He had become the longest-held prisoner, beating Nelson Mandela by six years. When he met Saleh in the prison yard, he would tell him stories about his youth in Iraq and Syria, and about his grandfather, Ahmad al-Sharif, who had led the Libyan resistance against the Italian occupation from 1911 to 1917, before abdicating the leadership in favour of his cousin, Idriss al-Sinoosi, who later became Libya’s first – and only – king.
The news of his impending release reached him just as he was contemplating the quickest way to kill himself, a month following the biggest massacre in the history of the country’s prisons. He had been in his cell when he heard bullets endlessly ricocheting only a few metres away from his locked door. On that night in 1996, several hundred prisoners, who had rioted in protest against their terrible living conditions, were slaughtered. They had managed to capture a group of guards and had taken their weapons, but in a matter of hours the security forces had cordoned off the prison and the snipers had taken up position on top of the walls surrounding the prison. The riot police had also arrived, reinforced by members of the Central Support forces. The head of the Intelligence Bureau negotiated personally with the riot leader. The rioters’ conditions were that their sick comrades be taken immediately to hospital, and the Intelligence Chief agreed right away, asking them to let the invalids (whose health had deteriorated due to neglect) through. They got on the bus that was waiting for them, but they did not go to hospital. They were dropped off at a deserted place on the very edge of the prison and shot; their fellow inmates, who had released the guards and given up their weapons, soon met the same fate. Afterwards, the corpses were loaded onto refrigerated trucks belonging to the National Fisheries and the National Livestock companies and buried in an unknown location.
* * * *
His money had disappeared from the large yellow envelope, which now only contained his civilian and military IDs, his driver’s licence and the earring, whose paint had peeled to reveal the cheap metal underneath. He left the prison on foot, in a city that had expanded exponentially during his years of imprisonment, penniless and with nowhere to go. He walked to the city centre, asking passers-by along the way whether he was going in the right direction. He finally got to Martyrs’ Square, and sat near the museum, facing what was left of the sea, which was now several dozen metres from its previous location, segueing way to a wide, two-lane highway that passed between the museum and the new port. There, he recalled that a friend of his worked at the State Bank that overlooked that same square, so he walked into the building and enquired after him. In a few moments, his friend rushed out and hugged him so hard he was lifted off the floor.
After a few days in Tripoli spent with friends, he decided to return to his village and visit his family. He only managed two nights’ stay. He felt more lonely with them than he had during all his years in prison. After his parents’ deaths, his brothers had shared the inheritance among themselves without keeping anything for him. In truth, they had never anticipated his release, and for them it was as if he had risen from the dead after twenty-four years. On the third day, he asked to be taken to the cemetery where he read the Fatiha over his parents’ graves, then headed back to Tripoli, resolving never again to return to his village.
In Tripoli, with the help of his communist, military and Amazigh friends, he found work as a translator for a foreign company. He lived in a small room in the company compound, and worked nights for a legal translation office in the city center. And one day, as he sat in a small, densely packed bus, he spotted her sitting, wrapped in the same white firashiya. Her face was exposed, and despite the little lines and wrinkles that spread across it, she still retained something of the former beauty that had sent him to prison, without regrets, for almost a quarter century. At first, he thought his heart would burst out of his chest and he felt certain the other passengers could feel what he was thinking. He began to take sideways glances at her, but then managed to get his feelings under control. She seemed worried and he somehow sensed that she was lonely. She got out of the bus at the Zawiyat al-Dahani neighbourhood, and he followed her until she stopped in front of a bungalow with a green door. She opened the door and went inside.
A week later, his friends’ wives had amassed some facts about her. She was twice-widowed, and had not had any children. Her last husband had left her the house she lived in, and a dressmaker’s shop. And her name was Zainab.
A couple of months later, they managed to arrange a meeting between the pair. It had cost his friends’ wives several trips to her shop under the pretext of getting dresses made, gaining her trust before the dresses were completed. It had not been easy at first, but, in the words of one of his friends’ wives, a mysterious destiny had connected the two for a long time. And so, one evening he met her at his friend’s house. She had grown accustomed to men asking for her hand in marriage, and managed them the way she managed all her business, by tallying up profits and losses. But this time, everything was different. From his pocket, he extracted an earring whose covering had peeled as as he was transferred from one jail to the other, and gave it to her. She did not recognize it. So he told her that it had fallen from her right ear on a spring day in 1972, and with difficulty she was finally able to remember the young man who would not stop harassing her despite being pinned down by four burly guards. When she found out the price he had paid for his stupidity, she slapped her hand to her chest and burst into tears. When he told her that she had told him her name in a dream, she unhesitatingly agreed to marry him.
They lived together in her little house, content with not having children. One day, he managed to convince her to adopt a little girl whom he brought from the orphanage and who filled their home with joy. He began to translate foreign literature and publish it in Gulf magazines, then have it re-published as books; this brought in a good income in hard cash that he spent on trips abroad, trying to recover what he had lost. Once in a while, he would write a play that would be well reviewed in the local press. But the one thing that he could not stop doing, and which he did instinctively, was to spit on the member of the revolutionary leadership council, the former interior minister, whenever he saw his face on television or in the pages of a newspaper. Published online at www.kikah.com
* A firashiya is a special type of spotless white abaya traditional to Libya