The Colonel’s words weighed on Hisham’s mind. He became confused and hesitant again. This Colonel… He either was sincere and didn’t want to hurt Hisham, or was an expert in psychology. Hisham didn’t know. Could it be possible that all the prisoners were wrong about the Colonel’s intentions? Or was Hisham the naïve one? The Colonel fell silent as ‘Awadh brought tea and coffee. The Colonel lit another cigarette and took an audible slurp from the hot tea, followed by a sigh of pleasure. Smiling at Hisham, he said:
– So, what do you say, son? You are going to speak, right?
– I have nothing to say, sir.
The Colonel laughed heartily and said:
– As you like. “You brought this upon yourself.” “You deserve everything that happens to you.”
He looked at Jiljil and laughed.
– Did you see, Jiljil, how I referred to ‘Abdelwahhab and Asmahan in the same sentence?
Jiljil laughed with a snort. The Colonel looked at the other prisoner and said:
– So, what do you think, Brother Hussain? Or should I say, “Comrade Salman”?
For the first time, the other prisoner raised his head and looked at the Colonel. Hisham started—it was Hussain Msaides.
– Tell me, Hussain: Do you know this person?
Hussain looked briefly at Hisham, then looked back at the ground and said:
– Yes, sir.
He swallowed and said:
– I haven’t met him before being in jail, but I know him. He is Hisham Ibrahim al-‘Abir, Comrade Abu Huraira, a member of the Party. He was recruited by Mansur ‘Abdelghani. In the beginning, Rashid ‘Abdeljabbar was responsible for him, then Farid al-Madrasi. The members of his cell were Marzug al-Matrani, Zaki Bager ‘Abdennabi, Muwafeg al-Mijari, and ‘Adnan al-‘Ali, the last of whom he recruited to the organization. He distributed leaflets in high school, and he wrote a Marxist analysis of the Libyan Revolution. That’s all that I know about him, sir.
Hisham’s mouth widened as Hussain spoke. Oh, Lord, he thought, surely I am not so important that Hussain would recall all these details about me. What a memory he has—and yet what a coward. He must have been scared, but it wasn’t possible that he remembered all this. No doubt he recalled such details about every person he’d been asked about. What a memory! Hisham remembered his first meeting with Comrade Fahd at Comrade Khaled’s. They had had a debate in which Fahad had praised the resilience and tenacity of the movement’s leadership. And now, here was one of them: Hussain Msaides. He was enormous, a block of concrete. A man in every sense of the word—but a coward. Hisham didn’t know if he should pity, scorn, or hate him. All these emotions played out within him at once. ‘Arif was right: this man was a coward. No matter what height his torture had reached, he should not have revealed all these details. How had he remembered all this? And how could his brain store everything so neatly? He had a gift. But it was misused. Hisham thanked God he was arrested before he became the movement’s treasurer, or else it would have been so much worse. Then he would be treated as a leader. Thank God he was still an ordinary member at that time, or the consequences would have been even more bitter.
A construction site in Riyadh’s central business district. © Pascal Menoret, 2003.
After Hussain finished exposing Hisham’s story, he looked at him quickly, then returned his gaze to the ground. The Colonel asked:
– Haven’t you seen him here, Hussain?
And without any hesitation, Hussain answered:
– Yes, yes, sir. I saw him when we were in line for the restroom one morning.
– And what did he say to you?
– He asked why I mentioned his name during the interrogation.
– And what did you tell him?
– Nothing… nothing.
The Colonel spoke in a threatening tone. Hussain said, uneasily:
– I told him it had to be done.
– Good job, Hussain.
The Colonel returned to his tea and lit his thousandth cigarette. Hisham was grateful that the Colonel didn’t ask Hussain about ‘Adnan. Jiljil said to Hisham:
– So, what do you say, Hisham? Or should I call you “Comrade Abu Huraira”?
Then, as an afterthought:
– By the way, why did you choose Abu Huraira as your war name?
– I am Hisham al-‘Abir, and I know nothing about this Abu Huraira, unless you’re talking about the companion of the Prophet .
Jiljil laughed, baring his tobacco-blackened teeth and pointing his finger at Hisham.
– Aren’t you clever, Hisham? Anyway, isn’t this guy, Comrade Salman, one of your leaders? Why don’t you be reasonable like him and confess?
– Shall I confess something I don’t know?
– Really. You’re telling me that Brother Hussain is lying?
– I don’t know. Why are you asking me? Ask him.
– ‘Awadh, Private Shitbag!
‘Awadh appeared at the door. Jiljil pointed at Hussain:
– Take back this piece of shit, and bring us Mansur ‘Abdelghani, Farid al-Madrasi, Zaki ‘Abdennabi, and Muwafeg al-Mijari.
Oh, God, Hisham thought, everyone has been arrested; no one is left but Rashid ‘Abdeljabbar, Marzug al-Matrani, and ‘Adnan al-‘Ali. Damn you, Hussain. Did you have to have this superhuman memory? Rashid must have escaped to Syria, as he’d planned. As for ‘Adnan and Marzug, Hisham didn’t know anything about them, and he hoped they too wouldn’t be arrested later. The anxiety of waiting was killing him. The Colonel and Jiljil smoked and chatted about a trip the Colonel had taken with his friends to a beach house in Obhor the Friday before. He was telling Jiljil about the beauty of the sea at this time of the year, especially with pleasant company, and they both laughed. Minutes later, ‘Awadh appeared at the door again and said:
– The men you wanted are here, sir.
A gas station in the hinterland of Mecca © Pascal Menoret, 2003.
Jiljil ordered him to let in Mansur ‘Abdelghani first. Mansur entered, dragging his heavy shackles. He was puzzled when he saw Hisham, but he gathered himself quickly and stood in front of the Colonel’s desk. Mansur hadn’t changed much: the same steady look, the same resolve, and the same self-confidence. He’d lost some weight since Hisham last saw him, which made him look taller than he actually was. Jiljil invited him to sit in the chair facing him, saying:
– Have a seat, please, Comrade Ja‘far.
Mansur sat holding his head up and looking directly at the Colonel with an eerie steadiness. The Colonel bit his lower lip irritably and sucked the cigarette with appetite. Mansur and Hisham avoided making eye contact, although they looked at each other with inner eyes that the Colonel and Jiljil couldn’t see. Jiljil lit a cigarette from his pack of Rothmans, then said to Mansur:
– Mansur, sir. I hope we didn’t keep you up too late?
Mansur’s answer was a tough look at Jiljil, who was obviously agitated. Jiljil said, pointing at Hisham:
– Do you know this prisoner, Mansur?
Mansur answered with determination, and in a clear, unwavering voice:
– No. No, sir, I haven’t seen him before.
The Colonel laughed in exasperation and looked at Jiljil:
– Have you ever seen such insolence, Jiljil? They are lying without blinking an eye.
He looked at Mansur and said sharply:
– Listen, Comrade Piece of Shit, Hisham confessed his connection to you. And, as you know, Hussain Msaides and ‘Abdelgader Slehef talked about you too. We only want to know why you never mentioned Hisham. Have your feet been missing the beating of our bamboo stick?
Mansur gave a meaningful look to Hisham, and they both acknowledged that it was over. Hussain hadn’t left any space for them to maneuver. Mansur said:
– The truth is, we only went to high school together. We had no other relationship; I only ever saw him in class.
– Fuck! Seriously? Who do you think you’re fooling? Nothing else between you two?
He made a circle with his left hand, flashed the middle finger of his right hand, and started inserting it into the hole, laughing with obvious joy. The Colonel smiled.
– Shame on you, Jiljil. I already told you: Hisham is the son of a good family. For shame.
Jiljil stopped but kept laughing. Mansur’s veins pulsed on his face. Hisham felt like he was swimming in a pond of feces. How vicious they are, Hisham thought. Humiliating Mansur because they are done with him. In Hisham’s case, the investigation was still open, and that’s why the Colonel was faking some sort of respect. It was an obvious game, but it raised their ire, because it assumed they were stupid. Assuming stupidity is the worst humiliation, even to those who are actually stupid. The Colonel looked at Mansur with transparent hatred and, his face twisted into an ugly snarl, cursed:
– Listen, Mansur, you piece of shit. Don’t waste our time. What is the real connection between you and Hisham al-‘Abir? The cables are ready, and you know how they taste.
Mansur hesitated, looked at Hisham and then at the Colonel, and said:
– I’m the one who brought him to the organization and handed him over to Rashid ‘Abdeljabbar. I don’t know anything about him after that.
– And why didn’t you say so earlier?
– My brain is not a book, sir. No one remembers everything, especially in a place like this.
– How come Hussain remembers everything?
– People have different talents, sir.
– Bullshit. Then why did you deny knowing him, even though you went to school together?
– Time passed, and his looks changed, sir. He didn’t have a mustache when I knew him.
The Colonel laughed.
– How clever you are, Mansur—you have answers for everything. Just thank God that Hussain Msaides remembered everything, because you know we have methods to extract what is inside.
He called ‘Awadh, ordering him to take Mansur back and let Farid in. Mansur dragged his feet on the way out. Before he reached the door, he briefly looked at Hisham, and the pale shadow of a smile flickered across his mouth, as if to say: “There is nothing else I can do.” Hisham returned a quick smile. Jiljil noticed it and resumed his lewd gesture, laughing hysterically. Farid entered, his hands and feet shackled, and sat on the vacated chair. He had lost a lot of weight, his cheekbones protruded, and his face was sallow.
Without preface, Jiljil asked him:
– Do you know this person, Comrade Fahd?
– Yes. Hisham al-‘Abir. Comrade Abu Huraira.
– What else do you know?
– Nothing. He was a member of the cell I was responsible for.
– What were his duties?
– Nothing. Nothing, sir. He only attended. He left the Party two months before my arrest.
– But Hussain Msaides says that he distributed leaflets, books, and political reports.
– Maybe he got things mixed up. Nothing of that happened.
– Farid. The cables are ready.
– That’s all I know. I have nothing else to say.
– Why didn’t you mention him during the interrogation?
– Only God never forgets, sir. To forget is a human affliction.
– How come Hussain doesn’t forget?
Farid gave half a smile and said:
– Talents are like fortunes, sir; equality is just a dream.
– Alright, alright. ‘Awadh!
‘Awadh came in. Jiljil asked him to take Farid back and to bring Muwafeg. Jiljil looked at the Colonel and said:
– Truly sons of bitches, sir. Each one covering up for the other.
Muwafeg could barely walk from the weight of his chains, every cell in his body protesting. Jiljil announced sarcastically:
– All hail Comrade Hasan al-Sabbah.
The courtyard of a house in Upper Nejd © Pascal Menoret, 2003.
Muwafeg hadn’t changed much. He still had protruding ears and bulging eyes, but now his cheekbones had also sharpened noticeably, for he had lost a lot of weight. He sat on the chair, shaking visibly. Jiljil took out a long bamboo stick from his side, and he started beating Muwafeg haphazardly:
– Do you know this idiot, you asshole?
He pointed at Hisham with the tip of the bamboo stick. Muwafeg screamed:
– Yes, yes, sir. Comrade Abu Huraira. He was a member of the cell I was in before I joined another one.
– Who were the other members, Muwafeg?
– Comrade Hdejan, Comrade Abu Dhar. Comrade Fahd was responsible for us.
– I mean Marzug al-Matrani, Zaki ‘Abdennabi, and Farid al-Madrasi.
– And what were his duties?
– He distributed leaflets in the school and wrote an analysis of the Libyan Revolution. That’s all I know. That’s all I know!
Muwafeg started sobbing intermittently. But Jiljil hit him again with the stick:
– Why didn’t you mention Hisham’s name during your interrogation?
Through his sobbing, Muwafeg answered:
– Because I don’t know his real name, only that he was called Abu Huraira. I only mentioned those whose real names I knew.
Jiljil subsided, placed the stick aside, and called:
– ‘Awadh, take this pig and bring the last one.
Muwafeg jumped up and hurried outside as Zaki entered and took his place. Jiljil smiled mockingly and said:
– Comrade Abu Dhar, champion of the weak and needy!
He continued, laughing and spraying saliva from his mouth:
– Praise be to God. All the Prophet’s companions are here tonight. What a great honor. Abu Dhar, Abu Huraira, Ja‘far, and their leader Salman.
He continued his hysterical laughter, while the Colonel busied himself with biting his lower lip. After Jiljil quieted down, he looked at Zaki and, repressing a laugh, said:
– Zaki, do you know Abu Huraira?
– Yes, sir. He was a dignified companion of the Prophet and a great narrator of his hadith.
– Son of a bitch! Shiite and you say that Abu Huraira is a dignified companion!
He laughed again and said, wiping his small eyes:
– That’s a good one. I mean the Abu Huraira who’s sitting next to you, you sisterfucker.
Zaki gave Hisham a meaningful look and said:
– Yes. Yes, sir. Hisham Ibrahim al-‘Abir. We were both in Comrade Fahd’s cell.
– And who were the other comrades?
– No one. Me and him only.
– You motherfucker, sisterfucker, auntfucker! Who then are Muwafeg, Marzug, and ‘Adnan?
– God knows, sir. I said what I know.
– Anyways, it doesn’t matter what you say now. We know everything. ‘Awadh!
Zaki exited as Jiljil said:
– A dignified companion, huh? You sons of whores.
He entered into a new fit of laughter. The clock above the Colonel’s desk pointed to three-fifteen in the morning. The wind roaring outside added a sense of dread to the scene. The Colonel looked at Hisham; boredom trickled into his features. He blew cigarette smoke into Hisham’s face and smashed the butt roughly in the ashtray:
– So, what do you think, Hisham? Do you want to sleep or keep partying till morning?
Despite the fact that every bit of his body was saturated with an oily terror, baptized in the water of panic, Hisham said, eerily calm:
– I have nothing to say, sir.
– Not even after all these witnesses? How did they know you, then?
– God knows, sir. God is all-knowing.
– God is all-knowing? Alright, you’ll forget God Himself shortly.
The Colonel looked at Jiljil, who stood up quickly and headed outside. After a few moments, ‘Awadh entered as the Colonel said:
– Make this animal forget his Creator.
‘Awadh pulled Hisham by his arm. They both headed to the other room, where Jiljil was standing, gently stroking his hand with a thin bamboo stick, his eyes shining strangely. The odd thing was, even though he knew what to expect there, Hisham’s terror had diminished to a great extent since he entered the room. The terror hadn’t disappeared totally, but it wasn’t as intense as it had been when he’d been summoned at the beginning of the night. He knew he was going to confess in the end, but he didn’t want to mention other names. He didn’t know anyone other than those he’d seen tonight, except for ‘Adnan and Rashid. But he was still afraid of mentioning the last meeting with Farid and the people he didn’t know, and the story about the money. If he talked about that meeting, Farid would be interrogated, and he might tell those people’s names—and he, Hisham, would be responsible for that. Maybe these people were already here in the Karadib prison, but he didn’t know, and he didn’t want to know. The important thing was not to confess too quickly, or else they would ask him for more.
‘Awadh pushed Hisham’s chest, and he fell backward on the cold floor. Then ‘Awadh grabbed Hisham’s feet and raised them up, while Jiljil tied them to the wooden beam. The weight of his shackles and the grip of the wooden beam caused some pain, but he was busy trying to raise his izar, which had fallen down, revealing his thighs. Jiljil raised the stick high and stared hungrily at Hisham’s thighs. He then hit him with all of his force. Hisham felt as if an electrical shock discharged into his feet and shot through his head. He’d felt something similar when he was five years old. His mother was busy preparing lunch for his father. He was playing on the rooftop and saw these holes that had always tempted him with their depth and darkness. He inserted into one of them a metal rod he was playing with and immediately felt a painful shudder throughout his body. The rod fell away, but the pain and torpor lingered. He started screaming. His mother arrived shortly and treated him to a harsh scolding and some slaps for his misbehavior. When his father came home and his mother told him about his son’s recklessness, she herself was rewarded with a scolding and his father’s anger. His mother’s comeuppance pleased Hisham, but it was a pleasure mixed with a pain he still couldn’t get rid of, no matter how hard he tried. A long, thin needle now penetrated his feet and went through his head. How could something as delicate and beautiful and smooth as a bamboo stick contain all this pain and hatred? Have mercy, O bamboo stick—you know not what you do.
The stick descended again, and the venomous needle pierced him over and over. Hisham couldn’t help letting his screams free. Maybe screaming would distract him from the pain. Maybe it would appeal to the stick’s mercy, now that the hearts of his torturers had died. With every thrust of the stick, joy, enthusiasm, and arousal were more apparent on Jiljil’s face, as if he was engaged in a sexual act whose climax he was not in a hurry to reach. Hisham tried to move his feet, but ‘Awadh was firm in his grip on the beam. Hisham’s movement only made the shackle ring like a bell on Good Friday. The stick kept rising and falling, the pain increased, and the shackle continued to scream. Nothing indicated that Jiljil was nearing orgasm. Ejaculate, Jiljil, ejaculate! Everything around him was screaming. And then, suddenly, the pain started to diminish, despite the continued assault of the stick. His feet transformed into something foreign to him. He could see them, he knew they were his, but he didn’t feel any connection to them. He stopped screaming, and the movement of his feet subsided. Things around him became ghosts, spirits, and formless shadows. He felt as if he was falling down a bottomless well—or as if Jonah’s whale had swallowed him without hope of divine rescue. Colors surrounded the stick as it moved tirelessly up and down, and Jiljil and ‘Awadh faded into a shapeless mass. Light dimmed gradually, and the cursed yellow stick wouldn’t stop moving, as if it had become the movement itself. Pain disappeared completely, darkness prevailed, and Hisham felt the desire to fall deeply asleep. His eyes gradually closed. In the distance, in the heart of darkness, he saw his mother reaching out to him, his father at her side, his cheek in his palm. Behind them stood an old man who looked like his uncle. His long hair was uncovered; he had a white beard, a warm aura, and was robed in bright silver. He smiled, a thick staff in his right hand and a scroll in his left. To his sides stood Nora and Sara. Sara held a newborn baby who looked like the Nazarene in the lap of the carpenter’s wife, like a picture of Bethlehem Hisham had once seen. Everyone was faceless, yet he knew who they were. He felt guilt within him and longed for forgiveness. At that moment, all feelings stopped. He felt like a Sufi lost in the mystery of existence, without illumination. Darkness and silence prevailed.
Titles of well-known songs by Muhammad ‘Abdelwahhab (Egyptian singer, 1902-1991) and Asmahan (Syrian singer, 1917-1944).
Abu Huraira (599–676) was a companion of the Prophet and narrator of prophetic sayings (hadith).
A beach north of Jeddah.
Abu Dhar (d. 652), Abu Huraira (603-681), Ja‘far Ibn Abi Talib (590-629) and Salman al-Farsi (d. around 655) were some of Prophet Muhammad’s companions.
Shiites do not recognize Abu Huraira’s authority as a narrator of the hadith.
Nora is the girl Hisham fell in love with in the trilogy’s first volume, Adama. Sara is the neighbor he had an affair with in the second volume, Shumaisi.