Book review: Condemning the silence on Syrian jails

Sayed Mahmoud, Thursday 3 Nov 2011

Faraj Beirekdar tells the story of his 14 years in Syrian jails, describing in human language his shocking experiences


Kheyanat all-Logha wal Samt: Taghrebaty fi Sugun al Mukhabarat al Sureya (Betrayal of Language and Silence: My Alienation in the Jails of the Syrian Intelligence) by Faraj Beirekdar, Beirut: Dar Al-Jadeed, 2011.

Though the first edition of the book of Syrian poet Faraj Beirekdar first appeared in Beirut years ago, this edition, now coming during the Syrian revolution, added a whole new feeling of bitterness. Thousands of detainees must be living this experience of Beirekdar who spent 14 years in prison in Syria following a political campaign he participated in. One wonders about the new detainees who may never find someone to defend them while rivers of blood run through the streets; they could very likely relive the experience expressed in this book, being the first of its kind in Syrian literature. Arabic literature is not unfamiliar with the prison experience, as expressed by the author of this book, but few text include such sensitivity, bearing witness to the meaning of resistance while pointing a finger to the brutality of the executioner.

In the introduction to this second edition, Beirekdar explains that he's still hopeful about writing a book about freedom after completing his book on jail. He says the creativity of freedom — as seen in many of Arab nations in the last months — comes despite heavy sacrifices.

The introduction to the book recalls the fact that prison detainees don't usually have pens, paper or cigarettes in the first years, which makes it important that they train the memory, in order to write about their experience. The author recalls nascent humanity, that had only oral legacies to retain its history.

As soon as paper was made available, there was a mass effort to write everything down, in a game the author calls "the act of group creativity that is created by a personal experience."

It's likely that only due to writing was the poet able to stand the years of prison and to register the moments of floating above this lost history, as he says admitting, "if I were a politician I could possibly be defeated, but poetry saved me and gave my life in prison a different meaning and value from what was wished."

In the book, there's the experience of executioners trying to erase personality, turning people into numbers instead of names, erasing all personal identities in a way to break the spirit. The book is filled with forms of torture, reaching in many cases Nazi-like proportions. But on the other hand, the book is also filled with resistance, tracking the prisoners' attempts to face the authorities with repetitive strikes and other forms of escalation.

Beirekdar admits that he writes in various consciences, using direct narration mostly, taking the place of the victim that is unable to do anything but scream and yell, leading to an experience full of bitterness to the extent of vanity, for the brain also has its tricks, in order to face prison.

The author wakes up to the "hell sleeping in an island of men". The little barred window in the cell through which the moon appears is to the prisoner more important than all the TV screens in the world, as though the moon is bending to these windows, passing them one by one, carrying all the messages the prisoners wish to send.

Probably the sweetest section of the book is the one entitled "Father to the extent of crying", where he speaks of the conditions under which both he and his wife were jailed, leaving their only child who was banned her for years from giving Beirekdar the title "Dad." He wished that she had been detained with him so he can be consoled by her presence.

Beirekdar doesn't lack a sense of sarcasm; for example, in the story where one prisoner was detained because he had a muddled dream about the possible funeral of an important figure, an assassination or a military coup, and he was detained because the dream had "militia intentions." The author delves into human values, facing masculine values, mostly authoritarian, while describing the impact of the missing female from prison life — "extreme preying masculinity, while freedom becomes the extreme feminine mercy."

The author doesn't only uphold human sense, but also offers the reader the text of the defense he wrote during his trials in front of the State Security Court in Syria in 1993. It is still valid today as a condemnation of all tyrants.

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