Sherif Hetata
Sherif Hetata
The Military Prison – a chapter from

The Military Prison


I woke up suddenly to the sound of footsteps moving cautiously over the verandah to the door of my room. I looked at my wristwatch. The hands started to shine gradually, green in the darkness, pointing to four o’clock. I realized what would happen in the next few moments, tossed the bed sheets to one side, quickly put on clothes and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting.

The door of the room squeaked open, revealing a ray of pale light and a phantom-like body. Suddenly the lights went on, blinding me so that I could not see anything, then slowly I started discern the figure of a man who had entered the room – tall, his face pale, holding something black and elongated in his hand which he pointed at me. He addressed me in a loud ringing voice, which sounded strange in the silence of the night.

“Doctor Sherif Hetata, I presume.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Please condescend to come with us. I notice that you are ready,” he said, waving his gun at me.

I stood up, remained silent for a moment, then said:

“I have a bag with my clothes and a few things in it which I may need.”

“Not necessary. We haven’t the time for that,” he said.

“It’s ready,” I said.

He answered in a loud and angry voice: “You are not to take anything with you. Let’s go now, Mister Sherif.”

I went out into the hall. There were a number of men standing around. They wore ordinary civilian clothes. We descended the stairs, leaving them in the hall. In the street were another three men, who immediately surrounded us. The man walked on one side. On the other side was another man, tall like him with whiskers. The night was clear and pure, and the trees shivered in the moonlight. I breathed in deeply, filling my lungs with air as though surfacing from the depths of a sea after drowning for a long moment. I heard a hoarse voice behind me say: “Come on now, move faster.”

 They are always like that, I thought, always shattering the beauty of the night.

I sat on the back seat of the car between two men. The man who had entered my room sat in front. I saw him slip his gun into a holster under his arm. He was clean-shaven, handsome with that handsomeness of police officers who rise rapidly in the ranks.

The car sped through deserted streets lit only by street lamps. I felt like an emigrant leaving the land he loved, not knowing if he would ever come back. Yet inside me there was a peace, a feeling of rest after difficult days. No need any more to be always on the run, no need any more for the strain of thinking all the time, for unceasing efforts. Now I was on board a ship with the helm in someone else’s hands.

The officer sitting in front drew a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, turned towards me and said: “Take a cigarette.”

Suddenly I decided not to smoke any more. The desire to resist was awakened. I had been taken unawares, but now I was pulling myself together again. I said:

“Thank you. I do not wish to smoke.”

“You are a smoker, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but at the moment I don’t feel like smoking.”

The car pulled up in front of an open gate, as though we were expected. The sentinel on either side stood to attention, then gave the salute. I watched the gates close behind us after the two cars had gone through; I felt when they closed that life was now behind me.

They made me get out in an enclosure where the ground was covered in sand. A pale light was creeping over the horizon. Around me I could see buildings that were low, not like prison buildings usually were. They walked me into a room in which sat a non-commissioned officer dressed in military uniform. He stood up, saluted, then sat down again, opened a drawer in his desk and withdrew a register and a pen from it. He wetted his fingers and started to flick over the pages of the register. I noticed that his hands were big, almost huge. He took my watch and my wallet, registered the money and the watch after asking me what my name was, then told me to give him my belt, my shoelaces and my eyeglasses, placed them on his desk together with my watch and the three pounds he extracted from one of the pockets in my wallet. After this was over a tall, dark-skinned soldier with jutting jaw bones led me out of the room back into the enclosure. Expanses of light, tinted red, had now started to steal over the horizon. We covered what seemed rather a long distance walking over expanses of sand. In the silence I could hear the crunch of our feet, which ceased when we reached a wall in which there was a door. We passed through the door and I found myself standing in a square expanse of ground also covered in sand. It was surrounded by doors on all four sides and in the middle stood a low construction, which looked as though it harbored the toilets.

The soldier took me to one of the doors, opened it and made me go in. I found myself in a prison cell in which there was an iron bed covered with a brown blanket, a table, a chair and a black rubber receptacle for urinating. The guard remained silent, said nothing before closing the door on me.

That is how I landed in the military prison on that morning of November 3, 1953. During nights the cell was buried in a dense darkness in which there was not the slightest ray of light. During the day there came in a faint grey light from a round hole in the ceiling. I could see a small piece of the sky through the black iron bars. Cold air dropped from above or came in from the crack under the door. I tried to find some shelter by curling myself beneath the thin, coarse blanket, trying to find warmth in my own shivering body. I kept straining my ears to catch the slightest of sounds in the hours of silence that went by. Now and again I could capture the whispering of feet moving on the ground, or a murmur approaching the door, but in the next instant it was gone, then, sometimes a cough, or the whistle of the wind in open space. Sand invaded the cell, blowing in from under the door as though it would gradually bury me underneath it, in this place where they had decided to get rid of me, once and forever.

When night fell I could feel a burning on my skin like needles heated on a flame before they pricked me. I searched every inch of the cell for days trying to discover the source of this nightly torture until I discovered fine cracks in the walls where bugs used to hide in the day, before they descended on my body during the night. I made a dough out of the bread, which was given to me three times a day together with the food, and closed the cracks with it, after which I was able to snatch short hours of sleep though I remained in a state more like daydreaming, closer to dreaming than to actual sleep.

I began to walk in the cell, to move the muscles and joints of my body, grown rigid from the freezing cold, from lying for hours on the bed. Whenever I heard voices I would move up close to the door in an attempt to catch a few words, but every time the voices used to retreat quickly, or remain at a distance from it. I kept thinking of ways which could help me to pass the long hours, spent time examining the walls, the ground, the meager furniture in the cell, working out imaginary plans of escape, but each time they ended up at some barrier, always there to ensure that I would not find a way out. I replaced these illusory plans of escape by concentrating on what existed in the cell. I studied every detail carefully, no matter how small, every minute hole, or crack, or crevice in the walls, the door, the bed, or in the two pieces of furniture, every line, shadow or dot on them.

I discovered relics left behind by others who had been imprisoned in this cell, marks they had made to count the days, black or brown finger prints, names written above the door. One of them had grafted a sentence on it, which said: “May God help whoever enters this place.” I gazed at it for a while but felt no reaction, as though the words were meaningless for me, as though it had been written for someone else. My feelings seemed to have become numbed, they had lost the fear of the unknown, which assailed me at the beginning when they left me in this cell alone, isolated from other human beings. This feeling of being alone had disappeared to be replaced by a questioning, by the desire to know what would happen to me next, but now I had patience and could wait for the answer, for what I would be discovering. I was seized by a strange indifference, a feeling of not caring, which somehow protected me from anxiety, from fear, a kind of instinctive reaction, which helped me to face the psychological strain of this inhuman situation inflicted on me by the military intelligence services.

 One day while I was walking up and down the cell I had the sudden instinctive feeling that someone was following my movements closely. I looked at the door, realized that the metal covering usually kept closed over the spy glass had been lifted, that a small black eye like that of an animal had peered through it as though stalking a victim. When my eyes met it the metal lid closed immediately. Now I knew that I was being watched carefully, that my every movement, my moments of stillness, my sleep or the times when I was awake were being submitted to a regular, sustained, detailed observation, that they were studying the state of my psychology, my behavior, my clothing, the way in which I looked at what surrounded me, that they were trying to discover the breach through which they could penetrate to bring me down.

During the split second in which our eyes met I felt that time came to a stop. It was like a silent struggle with an enemy I could not see. When the metal lid of the spy glass dropped I had a sense of victory over my opponent, for it was he who had beaten a retreat, he who been unable to meet my eyes, or to open the door and show himself, not I.

This continuous following of my every movement, of everything I did in the cell, was what inspired me after many years when I was finally released from prison to write my first novel entitled El Ein Zat El Gifu El Madania (The Eye with an Iron Lid).


The door of my cell used to be opened three times in the day. At the open door would appear the angry-looking, dark-skinned guard with the heavy jutting jaw. He was accompanied by a soldier and three men wearing short blouses exposing their naked bellies, and trousers that descended a short way below the knee, outfits which seemed to have been originally meant for thin, callow youths. This humiliating dress added an additional note of misery to the already miserable faces, to their eyes shooting here and there full of the fear that at any moment a punishment would drop down on their heads, for the most trivial of reasons, or just to humiliate them, to cater to the mood of the officers in charge of the prison. They were soldiers who had been condemned to varying periods of incarceration or imprisonment for having infringed one of the regulations included in the harsh and extremely severe provisions of the military law.

One of them would be carrying a huge kettle made of aluminium, and a number of metal cups. Into my cup he would pour a pale yellow liquid, which they called tea. Another would place a tin plate with a yellow mould of lentils on it, a loaf of bread gone rotten, and a small amount of coarse salt, on the metal table in my cell, while the third would enter to remove the black rubber receptacle used for urinating, and replace it by another with a smell even more nauseating than the previous one. This whole process did not take more than a minute after which the door would be closed without the exchange of a single word or gesture between us. Whenever the tin plate with its pale yellow mould of lentils arrived I would know that this was lunch and that half the day had gone by. If they brought cottage cheese then that was breakfast; this meant that night was over and it was now morning. However, when we were given a plate with something like green weeds and a piece of bone or gristle on it then that was supper, the day was almost over and night would soon fall. I used to force myself to eat this last meal since day was now over, and there was nothing else for me to do except induce sleep to come to me until morning.

That night sleep came easily but while still in its throes I suddenly felt as though I was rising up rapidly in the shaft of a coal mine. I opened my eyes to find the door of my cell ajar. I heard footsteps approach, then the light came on. I got out of bed and stood in the middle of the cell. A few moments went by before I could discern that there were three men standing slightly behind the open door examining me in silence. Two of them were officers, the third was the guard. One of the officers took off his cap and tucked it under his arm despite the cold. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles, and his bald head was shining under the light. The other officer was young, tall with broad shoulders and eyes that seemed either blue or green. He kept examining me from where he stood, one step backwards behind the other officer who looked older and was probably of a higher rank, possibly Commandant of the prison. There was a look of hatred in his eyes. I stood there for some time facing them until I heard the Commandant say:

“Do you need anything, Doctor?”

The tone of his voice sounded somewhat sophisticated so I felt encouraged by this and said:

“Yes, I need clothes, towels, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and the eyeglasses you took from me.”

He answered: “I will examine the question of clothing,” then was silent, so I asked:

 “What about my eyeglasses?”

“We will not give them back to you now,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

 This time he hesitated for a moment before answering:

“You might use them to do harm to yourself.”

I did not understand what he was driving at, made ready to ask him, but without giving me the chance to react, he quickly said:

“Close the door, Eweiss.”

Before I had time to think I found myself standing behind the closed door that faced me with its dark unyielding silence.

I sat down on the edge of the bed lost, incapable of reacting, as though a moment ago I had suddenly awakened from a dream. The three men had emerged unexpectedly from the darkness just to disappear into it again, leaving behind one sentence only, a sentence which kept echoing in the silence with an unchanging insistence. You might use your eyeglasses to do harm to yourself. How? Suddenly, I understood what he meant, that I might use the glass of my spectacles to cut an artery in my neck or in the wrist. But what would make me do that? What would make me try to commit suicide? I was seized with a feeling of fear, with an overwhelming sensation of cold more freezing than it had ever been, pulled the blanket over me and curled under it.

A week went by, perhaps more, perhaps less. I was lying on the bed. A faint ray of light escaped into the cell from under the door as happened sometimes when they put on lights that usually remained off. The door of the cell was opened to reveal the figure of the guard Eweiss. I saw his dark features puckered in the usual angry scowl. He grunted a few words, which I could barely understand:

“They want you in the administration. Put on your clothes,” he said.

I slipped out of my pyjamas and put on clean clothes sent to me from home in a batiste cotton bag, walked out into a night barely illuminated by the yellow lamps fixed over some of the doors. Our footsteps on the sand echoed in the open space with hollow sounds as they hit against the walls. An atmosphere of stillness, of a dark loneliness, reigned with nothing around us but walls, doors, yellow expanses and shadows. We reached a place that looked like a garden. I could discern dying trees, flowers dangling down from their stalks, and plants that looked like long arms covered in prickles. We cut through it in the middle, walking on a path which ended at a low building with a roof and windows painted brown, climbed two steps to a verandah that went right round the building, entered the building through an open door, and walked down a long corridor on a dark red waxed floor. The guard opened a door on the right at the end of the corridor, made me go into the room, then closed the door with a key which screeched desperately as it turned in the lock.

My eyes glanced around the room, registering the grey cement of the floor and the walls. They felt rough under the touch of my hands, conveyed an impression of thickness under the light which was falling on them from a neon lamp in the ceiling. The room contained only two chairs, which faced one another, separated by a distance of about one metre. I sat down on one of the chairs, waiting. A second chair implied that it had been put there for someone, that I could do nothing but wait. Something in the air seemed to indicate the approach of dawn. Time seemed to stand still somewhere between sleeping and being awake, between what was life and a kind of death, except for the neon lamp which kept fluttering like an animal just slaughtered, as though alerting me to something which was imminent. 

Half an hour or more went by as I waited. My mind kept wandering from an examination marquee, where I sat in the heat of summer concentrating on writing my answers to the questions, with sweat dropping on the paper placed before me, to the German circus housed in a huge tent raised in the exhibition grounds, with a lion jumping through the flaming hoop, and the clown with his jeering face turned towards me. Fast moving, unconnected images kept going through my mind like shattered dreams, leading it away from thinking of the unknown to come, from asking the question, “Will torture begin here between these thick solid walls of cement through which no sound can go through?”

 I heard the door open, came to. The tall man entered, bending his head to avoid it from hitting against the top of the door. I saw the shine of his black hair under the light. He was wearing a dark blue suit, a necktie and what looked like a silk shirt as though going out for the night, or invited to a wedding celebration. The neon light shed a faint blue over the white skin of his face, close-shaven with a protruding nose. I could detect the distinctive odour of the Eau de Cologne I had smelt coming from him on the night of my arrest. He gazed for a moment at my legs crossed one over the other with a look of irritation, sat down in front of me with his legs spread over the floor, extracted a cigarette, knocked it on the box several times before lighting it, breathed out a stream of smoke, all the while slightly bent over examining his long legs, then sat up, looked in my face and said:

“How are you, Sherif?”

 I was not pleased at the familiarity with which he addressed me as though he was speaking to a friend, to an old acquaintance, or to someone under his orders. For a moment I thought of expressing my displeasure then decided not to.

 “I’m all right,” I said.

He smiled. His smile looked ugly in the clean-shaven face brimming with a deep self-satisfaction.

“I want to have a frank talk with you, so avoid putting barriers between us,” he said. “I know your family well and some of its members are friends of mine. We play at the Gezira Club in the same basketball team and you can consider me like a brother who feels bad about your situation. I know you are someone highly intelligent, exceptional, that you have very good chances of making a successful career in your profession. What have you gained out of all the things you did during the past years? You are going to waste your life without fulfilling any of the aims you have in your mind. You will never succeed in warring against the state, and you can do things much more rewarding if you come to your senses, and start caring for yourself instead of chasing after illusions out of which you’ll get nothing.”

He fell silent for a long moment, stared at me as though trying to read the effect of his words on my face.

“What do you expect me to do?” I said.

“All I want is for you to be reasonable, to think independently, to use your own mind, not be led by anyone, by people below your level, your intellect. Man, don’t you have a personality of your own? In front of you is the chance of going back to your profession, to your life, to get out of this place. If you don’t take it you will remain in prison and no one can tell for how long. You may even have to face what is even worse, so now, what do you prefer to choose?”

“To get out of prison, of course,” I said.

He gave me a smile of satisfaction, moved up closer with his chair, and said:

“Good, now we’ve started to understand one another. Getting out of here is not as difficult as you may think. It won’t require much of you, can even be an easy matter; in fact it depends only on you, and if you trust me, and are prepared to do what we decide together, I am ready to help you.”

I looked at him. His eyes had started to bulge a little as though the effort he was making had started to be tiring.

“What do you expect me to do?” I said.

“First of all, you must be honest with me, not hide anything.”

“What do you want me to tell you?” I asked.”

“Man,” he said, “just talk to me about what you were doing. Why hide it? You believe in what you’re doing, don’t you?”

“I really can’t understand what you’re driving at,” I said.

He moved back with a gesture of annoyance. A sharp note crept into his voice.

“I thought you were more intelligent, had more courage in you. It seems that my trying to be understanding will lead to nothing. Don’t you realize that we can have you buried here without anyone ever knowing?”

“That’s something you won’t be able to do,” I said.

 “Where do you get this confidence from? You’re living in an illusion. The state is not playing games any more. It’s time you began to realize that. The old times are over, and now things are very different. The state is ready to crush you, to crush people like you, to crush anyone who stands in its way.”

  I remained silent. I could hear what he was saying but his words had no effect on me. They seemed to come from a distance. I was no longer hearing them. Everything remained strange, unreal, nothing but a dream. I could hear the words but could no longer think about what they meant, as though even before he came into the room I had decided on something and since then the matter was settled for me.

He noticed that I remained silent and this seemed to encourage him. He moved up closer again and his tone was once more friendly.

“You are still young and your life lies ahead of you. Have you not already suffered enough? All I am asking you to do is to not to fear being open with me. No one will ever know what will be said between the two of us, not even your comrades, if that is what you are afraid of. Besides, why give any importance to them? They are not like you, they don’t have the chances you have, nor do they enjoy the same standing as yours, so why waste your life trying to do something together with them?”

“I’m not hiding anything from you. There’s nothing for me to tell,” I said.

He jumped to his feet, moved up even closer to me, his face scowling in anger. Now there was hatred in his voice. “Mister Sherif,” he said. “Listen to me carefully. We know everything about the lot of you, and your silence will not serve you. There is not the minutest of details about you that I don’t know, even that you have an abscess which is still unhealed.”

I looked at him, taken by surprise. What was he talking about? He gave a mirthless laughter.

“You have an abscess in your anus for which you were being treated, don’t you?” he said, staring me full in the face, then standing up, he turned away and knocked at the door with both hands. It was opened immediately and the guard Eweiss appeared outside, holding a bunch of keys in one hand as he gave a salute with the other. The man waved his hand at me in a contemptuous gesture of dismissal, and turning away, said: “Eweiss, take him back now. Tomorrow he’ll be more reasonable.”

The sun was rising in the sky above the prison buildings as we walked back. I felt a dizziness, a buzzing in the head. How did the man know that I had a fistula in the anus that was still being treated. No one apart from myself knew anything about that. I could hear his words like a nail being knocked into my head. The cold wind kept whipping my body, adding to the feeling of being alone, lost in this deserted place of exile, but after a while I came to, and by the time we had reached the cell I had retrieved my sense of balance

When we got there a soldier stood waiting near the door. In his arms he carried something long, which dangled down between them, and for a moment looked to me like a snake. My mind was busy thinking so I did not pay much attention to it. Eweiss entered the cell with me, asked me to stand in the middle, and put my hands behind my back with my feet apart. The soldier went round behind me and I heard him drop something on the floor which gave a clinking sound, then I felt the cold of iron on my wrists as he tied them together so that I could no longer use my hands. The soldier left my back and stood in front of me, circled my waist with a leather belt and fastened it tight, pulling on it with both hands. From the belt there dropped two iron chains each of which ended in something semi-circular with a big nail fixed to it. The soldier dropped to his knees, slipped the semicircular parts around my ankles, took a hammer out of his pocket and tightened them by giving two quick blows to the nails with the hammer, then he left the cell, leaving Eweiss to put out the light and close the door.

I heard the screech of the lock and found myself standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by darkness, with my wrists tied behind my back and something heavy pulling down from my waist and heavy around my legs. With every movement I could hear the clink of chains. Now I was hardly able to move, could only sleep on my side, one leg over the other, and if I wanted to get out of bed I had to shift slowly to the edge, drop both my legs, press my feet downward on the floor and support the weight of my body on them and on an elbow before I could stand upright. If my bladder became full and I needed to urinate I had to stand near the rubber receptacle, with a shoulder against the wall, bend slightly downwards, shake my waist and the trunk of my body as though doing some kind of a strange dance to make the opening in my pants gape more widely, and permit my male organ to protrude from it and urinate. When I had to eat they untied my wrists and when the meal was over chained them together again.

I no longer felt time passing. It moved slow and heavy, seemed almost stationary. Nevertheless it was moving. I registered this movement by following the light and the shadows as they shifted over the walls and on the ground, or by depending on the regular arrival of the three daily meals, but the days no longer had numbers or names. I suffered pain in my fingers, and around the wrists from the pressure of the chains. The loaded, tied-up feeling of my body movement filled me with anger, with a growing hatred for the people who had put me in this prison and treated me as though I was some animal, or even less than an animal, for no reason other than because I had voiced ideas which did not suit them. I said to myself: “Do they think that this is the way they can get at me? I will never pronounce a single word of what they want to hear from me.” So when they started to come in and beat me up I was ready to face whatever violence or cruelty they might use. However, the punishment they gave me was never like the tortures I had heard or read about. They limited themselves to blows on my face, on my neck, to clenched fists hitting my belly, to kicks with their heavy soldier boots on my body. Sometimes they beat me with thick, heavy sticks on my back and on my buttocks as I lay on the ground. This violence lasted for a week or so. Eweiss took an active part in it, and with him some of the soldiers, but the officers kept away, just gave orders and followed what was happening, always from a distance, hiding somewhere behind, but never coming out in the open. Then the violence ended, but the solitary confinement was not lifted. In addition, I was not allowed to have a walk outside the cell, or to receive books or visits.

The most difficult thing for me to cope with in prison was the system called solitary confinement. The people who are responsible for running prisons, who are accustomed to practise torture, to impose different measures of oppression on prisoners, know that very well. They use solitary confinement to break the morale of political prisoners, their ability to resist. The human being is a social entity who lives in a state of continuous mental, psychological, emotional and physical exchange with others, is surrounded by nature, by changing scenes, by sounds, voices and colors, who listens to music and reads books, exercises himself, talks to people, lives in movement, lives his life. If deprived of all these things, if forced to live surrounded by silence, in a kind of vacuum with nothing to do or relate to, in a state akin to a living death, he may lose the mental, emotional and physical balance necessary for him to remain a whole human being. With the passage of time, especially if subjected to an absolute isolation where there is nothing to stimulate his senses, he can become a person with no spine, without consistency, without a will. His personality, his integrity is effaced and then it becomes possible to influence him, to make him do whatever is wanted of him. Solitary confinement is used in this way to extract confessions from prisoners, to turn them into spies, to make them work for the police, or use them to further political ends.

The hours, the days followed one another at a snail’s pace. I lay on the bed or walked in the cell for hours closed in by the dark green door and walls, their white color covered in dust, turned into an ugly grey with scattered markings of fingers, of bugs, and patches of dried blood. I soon knew what every crack, every hole, every slight blister in the wall looked like. This incessant scrutiny of what surrounded me helped the hours to pass. My person was almost disappearing into the grey of the cell, becoming a part of it, losing the stamina which was mine, for there was nothing to capture my attention, nothing to maintain the pulsing of life.

After the day was over came night, dense and black like a thick blanket, enveloping me in a total darkness through which not the faintest ray of light came to me. The smell of urine and shit would invade me more pervasively during the night than during the day. It came from the rubber receptacle crouching in the corner of the cell, and wafted in from under the door from neighboring cells. It was not a smell emanating from my own body, one that I could easily live with. It was the smell of others, of men thrown into the cells generation after generation, who, month after month, and year after year, had not stopped urinating, shitting into the receptacles crouched in the cells, which ran along the four sides of the square expanse of land, until their smell had become an integral part of the place. It was a smell that filled me with disgust, with nausea, with an impotent feeling of rebellion, with a sense of humiliation in the face of which I was able to do nothing. Here I was, imprisoned in this filthy cage not even fit for an animal, my body put in iron chains, my movements made even more limited in this narrow already limiting space.

I felt as though my body had been transformed into a huge nose stuck to the rubber receptacle so that I would breathe in the horrible smell until the break of day. Added to this were those small insects, with their insatiable hunger for blood, emerging as soon as it was dark from every crack or hole in the walls or in the door, from every cranny in the table or chair, from every fold in the mattress with its entrails stuffed with straw and bits of cotton and on which I lay down to snatch some sleep. Those hundreds of bugs, pricking into me incessantly, merciless bloodsuckers crawling over my body, from below, from above, on the sides of my body, on my back, my neck, my belly, digging hundreds of sharp needles into my skin, transformed it into a fiery hell. They never ceased, as though each line, each marching column of bugs paved the way for others.

One thing only was what I waited for, patiently, even eagerly, the fleeting visit of the guard and the three prisoners who came three times a day carrying my meals. They would enter the cell and leave in the glimpse of an eye, their looks glued to the ground, their faces rigid, expressionless; for the orders were strict, did not allow the exchange of a single word with me, a single gesture, or even glance. Yet I waited for them. They were my only relationship with the outside world, the only proof that it still existed, that I was a part of it for, despite all the sadness pouring out from their features, all the misery showing in their faces, or declaring itself on their bodies, to which were attached shrunken limbs protruding from prison rags, they were the only human presence in the depressing atmosphere of this cage. I searched in vain for a meeting of looks, a chance shine in the eyes escaping in my direction, the promise of a smile on the lips; still, there was something in the care of their movements, in the way they placed the plates on the table, in the cautious pouring of tea into my metal cup, in the delicate sway with which they removed the rubber receptacle and replaced it with another which made me feel that somewhere deep down in these selves there lurked a friendliness, a solidarity towards me which they kept hidden, that they felt we were all victims of a common situation, a common oppression. They would leave the cell with a slight backward movement of the head, as though hesitating to leave, or wanting to say something, to make some gesture, but knowing that they could not do that, sad to leave me just like that, all alone.

I started to find difficulty in sleeping, spent the night tossing and turning on my bed. During the day I did not stop moving in an attempt to exhaust myself so that I could get some sleep, but to no avail. My body, deprived of its normal activity, given more hours of stillness than it needed, and my mind tense, restless, overcharged with electricity, refused sleep. I remained alert, wide awake, my mind crowded incessantly with images going round and round in vicious circles. The passage of time was no longer something I could measure. Days were like waves coming one after the other to land on an unknown shore no different today than yesterday, or than they would be tomorrow. Everything in the room remained stable, unchanged, the cell four paces long and two and a half paces wide, counted by my feet with every clink of the chains, the ground with an imperceptible slant downwards as it approached the door, still a dark green with a spy glass two thirds of the way up, a metal ring around it, and a metal lid dropping over it, an eye fixed there to watch the man as he lay on the bed, or got up from time to time to make hundreds of paces up and down the cell going from wall to wall, an eye with a cold look waiting patiently for the moment when its victim, unable to keep going, will drop.

The ceiling is low and to me it seems that day by day it drops lower, presses over my head with an increasing heaviness, yet every day I manage to discover something new in this cell, something I can concentrate on for a while, study its details, scratch the surface of the wall around it, put the white powder on my tongue that tastes of salt, or watch a column of ants as they creep out of an opening in the ceiling, wind their way down the wall until they reach the black tarred ground, circle round a leg of the table, then climb up to the crumbs of bread left on the top, for in order to make the hours and the days go by, not to feel their exhausting slowness, I needed to occupy myself with something all the time.

Day, weeks, months followed one another in the narrow space surrounded by walls. I felt steeped, saturated, in the humid rot of human secretions, spent sleepless nights waiting for the moment when some light, too weak to chase away the shadows, would show from the hole in the ceiling, walked alone, drank alone, my voice echoing alone in the voiceless space. If I slept, loneliness was my only companion and when dark gave way to morning my hand would reach out groping for the warmth of another body only to close on empty air, my eyes searching for a human presence, but met only by the sight of a metal table, a stool, a receptacle for excretion, and four walls.

I yearned to hear voices, to talk to someone, to hear song and laughter in this screaming silence. During the hours, the days, the months, eyes watched me as though I was a wounded animal which had fallen into a trap, waiting for it to die. Armies of bugs continued to bury their needle-like trunks into my flesh, lice hidden in the folds of my pants and my shirt bit into me. I used to probe them out, and crush them between two fingernails with a merciless fury. My breathing became heavy with the smell accumulated from the urine and excreta of successive prison generations. I was living under the pressure of threats, the weight of iron chains, the suffocation of the closed door, of walls, of imagined whispers in the dark, the anxiety of future moments, the promise of a possible freedom, of green fields, the yearning for a woman’s breast on which I could rest my head. I thirsted for the things which make a human being human, which turn mere existence into life, yearned for the echo of words in my ear, but here was only a silence, where everything was inorganic, not living, where fingers crept to my neck, seeking for the artery which, if pressed, would kill; here, death was the real face of this place, the thing called death which I had never realized existed for me before, which had never been more than a passing thought unrelated to me. Now I could see it in ropes dangling from a ceiling, slipped around my neck, see it in a floor which suddenly split to reveal the deep hollow into which my body would drop, a space where all I had ever come to know would end, an infinite darkness into which I would fall, and from which there was no return.

Sweat poured out of my body and a deep shiver kept going through me. I laid my head on the metal table and abandoned myself to despair, to the thought that I would never be released from prison, that all I had to do was prepare myself for the end. We were going to be tried in front of the revolutionary court. It had been mentioned at some time or other and lurked at the back of our minds. This military prison, this silence, the daily watching, the secrecy, the pressures under which we lived, all this was in preparation for the sentence which would be passed on us, yet when it all started I had not understood that they needed us as examples, needed victims to threaten whoever dared to raise his voice.

I jumped to my feet. A mad despair took hold of me. I went round the room kicking against everything with the chains they had tied around my legs. I no longer knew what I was doing. A furious desire to destroy possessed me. I smashed the table and the stool to pieces. Poured the contents of the rubber receptacle on the floor, jumped on it, stamped on it, tore at the blanket and the mattress, then collapsed on the iron bed and wept.


Morning came and Eweiss opened the door. His eyes travelled around the room, registering the broken table no longer upright, leaning on one side in the corner, the stool smashed to pieces, the shreds torn from the blanket and the mattress scattered over the floor, wet with urine; he retreated and closed the door behind him.

I sat on the bed trembling with cold, with fear of the punishment they would give me. Maybe a couple of hours or more elapsed before the door was opened to reveal a soldier accompanied by two prisoners. They emptied the cell of everything except the iron bed, then the soldier closed the door without saying anything. The cell was now completely bare, so I said to myself: “They are going leave me like this until I die.” I went back to where I had been sitting on the edge of the bed, seized with a trembling that refused to stop. After some time I stood up and started to pace the cell as rapidly as the chains allowed me to do, until the door was opened again and the soldier appeared once more, accompanied by the two prisoners carrying a stool, a table, a mattress, blankets and a receptacle for urinating. Everything looked brand new as though taken directly from the storeroom. They put everything in its place while I followed them with a feeling of astonishment, then left, closing the door behind them. I sat on the stool, passed my hands over the top of the table, feeling the touch of new dark green paint. The receptacle for urinating was also new, devoid of the usual smell. Was there a hidden message being sent to me this way? Were they telling me that whatever I might do was useless, that my fate was totally in their hands, saying to me “You can hit your head against the wall, you will hurt only yourself”?

I went back to lying on the bed. I felt extremely feeble, the slightest movement exhausted me. I could hardly move my arms, felt them strangely heavy as though pinned down under a rock, while I lay on the bed, my body unable to move, my mind too tired to think. A desire to close my eyes, to lose all awareness of what exists around me. I am calm but it’s the calm of a total inability to do anything, which frightens me, as though I am slipping into a state of total paralysis, dying slowly, which frightens me. Waves of anxiety started to rise up inside me, drops of sweat poured from my forehead, descended in streams over my face, circled down my neck to my chest and belly, exuding from every pore in my body. My breathing became rapid as though air was no longer entering my nose, my pulse became weak, I hardly felt it at my wrist.

I was scared as I realized that I was falling into a nervous depression. I could tell that it was still a preliminary attack but I knew that it could become something more serious if I did not find a way to pull myself together; but how was I going to do that, how could I overcome this killing silence, the hours of idleness in which there was nothing to do but think about what was going to happen to me, about what my fate could be, about the frightening things I might have to face. I realized that my body had to become active, not remain idle, not stop functioning, it had to make use of what it was capable of, sweat with the effort, feel fatigue. I had to be active throughout the whole day until darkness fell and I could sleep, freed of any tension. My mind, too, had to become occupied, be busy thinking about different things, active like my body, not go round and round in a vicious, destructive circle, be able to open up ways through which it could discharge the energy bottled up inside and regain the balance it was in danger of losing.

 The only way to do this was for me to develop a program of activity which would keep my body and my mind active, transform what had become a destructive force within me into constructive energy. But how could I do that with these iron chains weighing down my body. I must do exercises, which the presence of these chains will not obstruct. I can do bending movements, at the waist, lean with my head sideways, forwards and backwards, lie flat on my belly and raise the trunk and lower limbs of my body, a difficult exercise but the weight of the chains will do good to my spine and to the muscles of my back, lie on one side, press my legs together and lift them up, difficult too, but also beneficial. These chains will improve the effectiveness of my movements because the muscles will be lifting an extra weight. In the morning after I have done these exercises I will re-read by memory books which I have read before, but no, maybe night time will be better, because then it’s easier to concentrate and one’s imagination is freer. I can imagine myself going to the movies or to see a play, follow films I have seen in Cairo or in Paris, listen to music I have listened to before.

During the day I can prepare what I intend to say before the court when we go on trial, how to defend myself, my ideas. During the day I can also dance and sing but not alone. I will dance with a girl or a woman I found attractive, enjoy the melody and the movements of my body.

I got out of bed, stood up and began to dance to the clink of the iron chains.


Many years have gone by since I did that dance. After I had done it, I realized that prison cannot break a human being unless it succeeds also in imprisoning his imagination. After those moments, the days went by more quickly, and life in the prison became full. I prepared my defence, wrote it in my mind. The muscles in my back and legs, in my body, became stronger and I slept like a child, a deep sleep which nothing disturbed. I ate my food with appetite, in my mind went back to things I had read, or seen or heard, and discovered sometimes what I had not discovered before. The program I executed kept me busy all the day, and for part of the night, until sleep invaded, enveloped me.

One day in the month of March, some time in the morning, to my surprise the door opened suddenly. I had spread the blanket on the floor, lay with my back on it, my legs lifted in the air doing one of my exercises. Raising my head, I glimpsed the eyes of one of the officers as he stared down at me with a look of displeasure and surprise. I stopped the exercise and sat up, looking at him. He said, in a voice full of a suppressed anger:

“You seem to be quite an athlete, Doctor. We will relieve you of the chains so that you can practise your exercises more easily.” Then one of the guards came in, took off the chains which were tying my hands together behind my back, dropped to his knees and removed the chains around my ankles by giving each of them a couple of blows with the hammer he carried. I slipped off the belt fastened around my waist and the chains dropped on the floor with a loud bang. Suddenly, I felt like a bird spreading its wings.

“Put on your clothes,” the officer said.

“Where to now?” I asked.

“You are not allowed to ask questions,” he said.

We went through a door leading from the square expanse surrounded by prison cells to a bigger area and then to a large garden, covered in grass with beds of flowers, some yellow, some red in color. The garden was enclosed by a wall at the top of which there was barbed wire, searchlights and sentinel turrets. Close to the walls running around the garden had been placed a row of cane chairs, separated from one another by a distance of approximately twenty meters. They were arranged so that the person who sat on one would have his face to the wall and his back to the garden.

When I arrived to where they had led me, most of the chairs were empty. I saw that a few had people sitting on them and the soldier lead me to where they were and made me sit on one. I sat wondering about this sudden change. The officer stood at a distance watching us, leaning on a long stick. I started to look around cautiously, but avoided moving my head. On my right I noticed Ahmed El Rifa’i. I nodded, smiled and he smiled back at me. The sun was shining, its rays penetrating my body with delicious warmth. I abandoned myself to it, let its rays go through me, turned my face towards it and closed my eyes. I felt its rays go through my clothes to my chest, drop down to my belly, reach as far as my feet. I took off my socks and shoes, wiggled my toes to let the rays reach in between, lifted my head, and bared my neck.

I saw someone being led to a chair next to me. At the beginning I did not recognize him. The bones in his face jutted out, making it look terrible, the skin had a sick pallor which merged at the jaws with the blue of his unshaven beard. His features, mask-like, had lost all vitality. I leaned towards him and smiled, gave him a wave of my hand, hiding it behind the loose jacket I wore, but he seemed not to notice, so I made the gesture again. He continued to stare into space, oblivious of anyone else, of was going on around him. On his face was a deep sadness, as though something inside him had been broken forever, and in the way he sat there was the exhaustion of someone drained of all vitality, leaving nothing behind nothing but an empty, useless structure.

I continued to gaze at Emad’s face, at his body. I tried once again to draw his attention in the hope of eliciting any reaction from him which could help to reassure me, but in vain. He continued to stare vacantly into space, like someone who had lost his soul somewhere in the cave of a mountain and was still searching for it, like a sailor who had gone on a distant journey looking for some treasure and who, when he returned, had lost all memory of everything.

Starting from that morning the way we were treated changed completely. The officers in the intelligence services and those in charge of the prison started to reduce the restrictions placed on us. This was accompanied by attempts to make us give up our opposition to the movement launched by the army, to support it. News of divisions in the movement of the Free Officers, of differences of opinion concerning democratic freedoms and the attitude towards the Revolutionary Council filtered through to us. Some of the prison officers had quite frank discussions with us concerning the question of democracy in the movement so we felt that there were important developments taking place, the exact nature of which we did not know, that attempts to try us before the Revolutionary Tribunal were beating a retreat for reasons we were ignorant of, and that these developments had saved us from the cruel fate which had been planned in secrecy in the upper circles of power, a fate which would have meant sentences of hard labour for the rest of our lives, and perhaps one or two sentences of capital punishment.

During this period I was able to meet Emad. He told me he was being sent to the military hospital for electric shock treatment, that he was hearing voices, that birds spoke to him in the garden. He asked me questions about electric shock treatment, its effects and whether it could lead him to make confessions. I allayed his fears concerning the matter of confession, told him that I was not in favour of electric shock treatment but that maybe for the moment, due to his circumstances, there might not be any alternatives. I reassured him that his condition was temporary and was due to the pressures to which he had been exposed.

After they removed the iron chains it became easy for me to follow the daily program I had made and, together with daily walks in the open air, my condition improved rapidly. Two weeks went by and at the beginning of April we were all shifted to Cairo prison except for some of the detainees, amongst whom I remember Hanafi El Sherif, the lawyer and member of the Wafdist Party, the journalist Saad Kamel, Ahmed El Rifai, Doctor Fouad Munir, Kamal Abdel Halim (whose secret party name was Emad), and the lawyer, member of the Nationalist Party and General Secretary of the Egyptian Peace Council, Youssef Helmi. They had signed a statement supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser, which was never shown to me or to the other detainees, who later were tried, and I never heard anything about it until years later.  



Selected and translated from the author’s memoir al-Nawafith al-Maftouha (The Open Windows), published in Cairo by Merit, 2006


Published in Banipal 50 - Prison Writing

Back to top

Back  to Selections from Banipal 50 – Prison Writing

Click to go back to Banipal 50 online contents page