Book Review: A Memoir-Novel of Tadmur Military Prison
Mustafa Khalifa. Al-Qawqa’a [The Shell]. Beirut: Dar al-Adab (http://adabmag.com/books), 2008.
By Shareah Taleghani
In 2001, following the release of several hundred political prisoners, the Syrian government ordered the closure of its most notorious detention center—Tadmur Military Prison. Located in the desert near the ancient site of Palmyra and originally built by the French Mandate authorities, Tadmur has been described as a “kingdom of death and madness” by Syrian poet Faraj Bayraqdar and the “absolute prison” by dissident Yassin al-Haj Salih. The abject conditions of torture, daily degradation, and arbitrary execution which prisoners experienced there were the subject of intense scrutiny by both international and local human rights organizations throughout the 1980s and up until its doors were finally closed almost eight years ago. The site of a massacre of suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, Tadmur, according to a 2001 report by Amnesty International, was and is “synonymous with suffering”.
In the recent proliferation of contemporary Syrian prison literature, most narrative accounts of prisoners’ experiences of surviving the conditions of Tadmur have been circulated in the form of testimonials and memoirs. Aside from a website dedicated to testimonies of former Tadmur prisoners, Muhammad Salim Hammad’s prison memoir Tadmur: Shahid wa-Mashhud [Witness and Witnessed] recounts in linear and chronological fashion his experience of detention and torture at the prison as a suspected member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Faraj Bayraqdar’s own poetic prison memoir Khiyanat al-Lugha wa al-Samt [The Betrayals of Language and Silence] (2005) dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls “Tadmuriat”—brief, disjointed fragments of descriptions of terrifying events and moments he witnessed while detained at the infamous prison—moments that appear to escape the possibility of representation because they are “beyond surrealism”.
Mustafa Khalifa’s recently published work al-Qawqa’a [The Shell] (2008) is one of the first novels dedicated to the story of a detainee’s imprisonment in Tadmur. Detained himself from 1982 to 1994, the author presents the story of a seemingly apolitical protagonist who returns to his homeland after studying film in Paris and is arbitrarily detained. Musa is arrested upon arriving at the airport, brutally tortured at an interrogation center of the military security service, mistakenly placed with detainees who are members of or suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then sent to the “desert prison”. He will not learn what precise crime he had been accused of until close to the time of his release. Like many prisoners, Musa discovers and masters the skill of oral composition and memorization. He has no paper and no pen. But … read on here