jail essays

Posted: October 30, 2006 in Uncategorized

How do I begin to tell a story that many may not want to believe is true.. Let’s start at the beginning..

“When you arrive at most jails, there is a custom of treating the fresh meat to an istiqbal [ a reception ], this of course necessitates that you strip down either to your shorts or butt-naked, depending mainly on the weather. You are eye-balled over for any tattoos or scars. If you are found to sport either then you are automatically entitled to ‘special treatment’- this of course is in no way indicative of any ill or wrong-doing on your behalf, it is simply a selection process by which a bunch of inmates are chosen to demonstrate to their colleagues how broad the spectrum of ‘special treatments’ is. And more importantly, how you don’t want to be caught at the wrong end of it”.

If you happen to have an eagle tattooed across your back, then you really do not want to be in an Egyptian prison. This display of body art, will result in a very warm welcome where you are continuously beaten from behind, in what is considered a favorite pastime, called ‘getting the eagle to fly’. So it’s hardly surprising that the second favorite tattoo, if you already have an eagle is the notorious ‘edrab ya khawal’ [ strike you fagg*t ].

“Treatments range from being slapped around, insulted and lines shaven haphazardly into your scalp, to give it that ever appealing patchy look, to the more serious shuma [ fairly large stick ] or the falaka, not to be confused with faluka though both are in a way breath-taking, getting the falaka entails that your feet are fastened and a thick stick, cable or a car engine conveyor belt is used to beat the soles of your feet, the spectrum starts to get gloomy as soon as you reach hangalla where you are cuffed down in a humanly distorted form and suspended while being beaten, watching your belongings getting torched”.

You will most probably be asked to join a line of people in some garden or lined up against some wall and politely be asked to throw up and defecate- just a sign of goodwill on your behalf demonstrating that you are not smuggling drugs into prison, [ considered a sign of disrespect and necessitating further special treatment ]. Of course you can always be taken to the hospital and x-rayed to preserve your dignity, but hey that would just take the fun out of it, and besides those x-ray films don’t come cheap! Then after all of your belongings are thoroughly searched for everything from drugs, to pills to SIM cards, and most of it is confiscated, you join the line with your fellow inductees to meet the older tenants of this heavenly institution. They are grumpy, desperate and see you as the new pests that are going to shave a few precious centimeters off their already slim living quarters.

First of all, most prisoners like to call their new found homes maqbaret el ahiyaa [graveyard of the living], due to the simple yet powerful image left by the sleeping bodies, with their limbs intertwined- naturally the image of a large mass grave springs to mind.

It used to be that every prisoner was entitled to shebr wi qabda [a handspan and fist] of living space. This roughly corresponds to just over 30 centimeters, more than enough space to contain all your belongings in life as well as your own body- now you‘re lucky to get even that. So basically you have to start learning to sleep in a manner that will have your 30 centimeters contain all your various body parts- quite a feat if your front-to-back diameter exceeds 30 centimeters. Beware that any body part found outside your designated 30 centimeters may very well be lost- so be very careful what you let slip out, and believe me no one is gonna sympathize with claims of deep sleep or the fact that you were dreaming.

A good thing to possess in such a predicament, is a reputation of being a good sleeper, someone who sleeps like a shuma [once again thick straight stick] is more popular than someone who has a manafella [Z-shaped] sleeping pattern.

So one of the first crash-courses that you have to master, is basically how to get to sleep without stepping on anybody’s toes- people kill each other over a few extra millimeters. Imagine nails laid side by side, head to point to head to point and so forth, now you have a quite vivid image of what a cell of ideal sleepers would look like. On the other hand, imagine opening a tin of sardines and taking a peek- this is closer to the reality you may have to face.

Your existence in such an unorthodox place, requires an unorthodox frame of mind and strategies on your part. An extra effort is needed to maintain basic sustenance in addition to a dignified existence. As fresh meat, you may very well be required to demonstrate your strength, no-shit attitude and most importantly; wisdom in cleverly maneuvering lethal situations to a more benign outcome that is acceptable to all parties involved. Thus being subject to a broad spectrum of human interactions, spanning from complete oppression/annihilation to unconditioned submission, you quickly learn that the only pseudo-safe zone is somewhere down the middle of that spectrum. In a sense it is dancing on the knife’s-edge of the statement ‘I be no better and no less than any one of you’. Ultimately a deviation towards either extreme will result in a free-fall, deeming you ‘everybody’s bitch’.

The more you are able to handle your affairs without unnecessarily resorting to violence, the more you dictate due respect. Yet moments arise when violence is not in question, but how and when are the questions you face. Snitching, bodily harm and molestation, getting conned, falsely accusing someone of any of the previous- all of these necessitate damm [ drawing blood ]. And at moments like these one has to have the courage and focus to carry through, not to mention the vigilance to have your back constantly covered. The favorite option for most is to carve the offending party’s face [I know it may sound gory, but it does miracles to prove a point that you are not someone to be taken lightly]. A number of locally-fashioned weapons are used; nasla [metal spoon with handle sharpened by sliding on wet concrete], meghraz [ more of a pointed weapon used to induce puncture-type wounds], garrar [two or more razors fastened side by die on a lengthy stick to cause double incisions]. Getting caught by prison authorities with any of the aforementioned items will win you no less than a 6 month tour of the ‘scenic’ department of prisons penalty wards across the country.

Conclusion: keep it mellow, be kind to people, try to be modest- the more you are perceived as a blessing to the body of prisoners, the more you become an untouchable, to prisoners or the prison authority.

This excerpt of ‘jail essays’ is part of a current larger work in progress…

first published in ego magazine vol. 7, cairo

pixel this zine no. 006, launched at pantheon urban soul festival, nicosia


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