A Letter that Won't Make it into Prison

Dear Alaa, 

How are you?

I miss you terribly and feel horrible about not having written for so long. But I haven’t been able to write much at all in general. I’m angry at words for how little they tell. I’m also angry at words because they worked so well for me before, and now I feel every word I draw upon carries a bit of the naivety that I have always harbored. So I am angry at them for not being able to grow up, to expand with the cynicism that has filled me.

I’m already risking this letter not getting through. The prison guards/censors don’t like it when I over analyze. As if in not making sense there must be a coded message. I figured maybe if I sit and write a normal letter, I can extract a page that may just go through. This “one-page” letter thing is not working for me at all. Every time I do it (well the two times I have) I feel like there’s an internal censor or ticking clock that is counting down as I race across the pages to get the ideas out before the time is up. Of course that doesn’t make much sense, because I make it to the end of the page before the idea is developed. One of the two letters began and ended just right. But it was about a class I taught on the Cuban revolution and the students’ reactions to it. Now, why did I think that was apolitical? Of course that one never made it to you.

I think I will tell you about our trip to South Africa. The trip is full of details that would make great in-depth conversations or one of our long email exchanges that feel like they ought to be published. But those will never get through. I visited the South African History Archive, which is this really interesting project that documents aspects of apartheid history through pictures, posters and lots of oral history. They do workshops in communities training people on performing oral history interviews, to encourage students to turn over rocks and tickle stories out of people around them. I got a number of kits from there that I think will go perfectly with the work I am doing. I also got you a few publications – for when the books are allowed in, of course. Or maybe those should wait, lest they jeopardize allowing any books in for their political nature. Or maybe the ones with posters and pictures will get through. Or maybe I could do what I did with The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, and mutilate the cover and replace it with the cover of a colorful novel. You thought I was exaggerating then, didn’t you? Imagine that.

Anyway, the point about the visit to the archives is that they are situated where the women’s jail once was. I was very excited about that at first. So the jail was built during the Anglo-Boer war and developed for political prisoners from the early 1900s. At first I thought it would be super inspirational, and put things in perspective; that one could think that at some point in time, these horrible spaces will be turned inside out, their realities aired to the world. It is like the innards of how the state operates and its true intentions will spread everywhere, and people will somehow sober to the reality that no protection could come from an institution so sinister. They will sober to the reality that no betterment of any society will ever emanate from these dark cells where people are stored to while away their years, alone with their thoughts and ideas. Where does that come from anyway? The feeling that you may have the right or authority to rob people of their ability to “live”? To “live” in their spaces, with their families and in the places and institutions they create for their thoughts and ideas to ripple throughout the world. OK, granted, not everyone lives for causes and thoughts and ideas, but where does the notion that we can vest a power in a body of uniformed individuals to hold others captive and do as they please with them in dark cells where no one else can see them come from? Much less a body in which we vest authority and no accountability?

All of that aside, where in the world does the idea that trapping someone in a small room and robbing them of their right to love and work and produce and be could make them better people come from? I grapple with this much more since you have been put away, but so much more since I have had Taya. I think of it on a minuscule scale. Surely there must be controversy in a parent’s mind when they think of putting their children alone in a room with nothing to do for a while to think about what they’ve done. But to put people away for years…

There is no point on dwelling on ideas that will never make it through to you.

The point is that I thought visiting the women’s jail – now a place full of innovative projects that help vindicate the oppressed and conceptualize and actualize some form of justice – would somehow vindicate me. I thought that I too would feel that this sort of thing is possible here in 30 or 40 years time, that it would be safe to even think this because things can continue to transpire after one has ceased to exist and worry about it.

But the fact is it depressed me to no end. I felt suffocated in the place, and I could not take the tour around. Yahia walked into one of the open cells and walked out mortified saying it still smelt like sweat. The place was such a site of horror to me that all that seeped into me was the horror and no vindication or justice or perspective at all.

Perhaps the reality is still too present. I take much solace in history nowadays.

Taya has transformed into quite an individual. She is constantly making up stories, about us, about the world and about herself. She tells stories about monsters when she wakes up at night or in the morning. In most cases it is how cute the monsters were or that she hugged or tickled them or that they became friends. I don’t know if this is because someone tried to convince her monsters aren’t scary, or some book she read, or some divine internal drive that she can make all evil into good. I choose to believe the latter. I hope she will grow with some kind of hope inside her. I have so little to give.

Sometimes she makes up stories that have nothing to do with any of this. For instance we were having lunch somewhere, and she picked up her plate and left our table and joined another table where there was a father out with his two daughters. Her social skills far exceed ours, so every time something like this happens, Yahia and I argue for hours as to who will “extract” her, and when. This time when Yahia went, he discovered she had told them her name was Alia and that she was five years old.

She does this walking off and joining people of her own species a lot. Another time we were in District Six Museum in Cape Town, a memory project for an evicted neighborhood, and she found that part of the museum was dedicated to an early learning center for underprivileged kids. They were having lunch when she found them, and she pulled up a chair and sat among one group of kids and asked to be fed. When I went to “extract her,” the woman running the lunch found it surprising that I would both leave a child hungry enough to wander around looking for food and deny her the opportunity to eat once she found it. The extraction was delayed for a few hours. Finally, a passage that may evade the censors.

I think at some point in our lives I would have found all these restrictions imposed on us – the fact that I cannot write you more than a page, that it must be apolitical, that it must be written on long lined pages – a mere “challenge.” I think I would have regarded finding ways to write you in some coded form, or sticking to stories about Taya, or teaching myself to write on lined pages without getting claustrophobic, as forms of “resistance.” I actually laugh out loud every time I think about that.

Sometimes I even try to think about it this way. I ask myself if this were all part of a film, or a book 20 years down the line, what could it look like? I think of that film The Lives of Others and I imagine myself writing you a letter, but that the contents of the letter would actually be addressed to the prison guards or censors. The letter would never make it to you (as so many have not), but that perhaps it would have moved something in them or at the very least I would feel less violated with the idea of bits and pieces of my lives lying around their drawers, offices or worse, living rooms. I imagine people who watch or read other people to be lonely. I also imagine them to be paranoid somehow, and secretive. Perhaps they wish they were written a letter.

I’ve been down this lane lots of times and it is always a matter of time before I started feeling nauseous. It is as if some small part of me has maintained some level of romanticism, while the rest has become cynical and highly intolerant of myself. Nausea being the thing that comes between me and the actualization of most of these ideas, but also between me and writing.

I have a crease in my brow now, like two permanent creases that come together when my eyebrows squeeze together. They make me look so much older. They also upset me. The way I never imagined wrinkles would become an issue of concern, but also because of what they represent. My fifth grade English teacher was American of Vietnamese origin. She found it important to mention to us on her first days with us that her face was full of wrinkles, but that most of them were laugh lines at the corners of her lips, and around her eyes. They were all a map of how her face moved, how her mouth spreads and her eyes squint when she laughed – and how often she did it. She told us that she was happy that her face was permanently marked by a life so well lived. So how could the permanent mark I have – after spending most of my life in an almost plastered smile – be a frown so deep? It erased everything that came before it. I frown when I am lost in thought, I frown when I contemplate a question, I frown when I am concentrating and sometimes I manage to frown while smiling – into the sun for instance.

It’s so ironic that the only passages that will evade the censors are the most personal. I hate that thought too.

One last thing I’d wanted to talk to you about that will never make it to you. It is about a book I bought that I will eventually give you. It’s about a man called Ahmed Kathrada who was part of the group arrested with Nelson Mandela in 1964 – he was 34 at the time he received his life sentence, and like the rest of them spent the better part of three decades in jail. The book is basically a collection of quotes he gathered from books that he read. At first I thought it would make a nice “light” present. But as I engaged with it, there was something I could relate to deeply. Maybe there were no words to describe that experience in those cells for years and years and years. Sure, he talks a lot about the censors and what and how they censored, and how the prisoners felt about them. He talks about the experience of receiving no news from family for long stretches of time, and how tormenting that was. About their hunger for an idea of what was happening in the outside world and how they tried to steal newspapers from the prison garbage dump, for instance. But the book is based on several exercise books he harbored with thousands of quotations from the books and articles he could get his hands on in the prison library or the garbage dump.

This does several things. I know, for instance, when I am this angry at words, how attached I get to passages that really say one thing I would like to say but never found the right combination of words for. Like the passage from Hammour Ziada’s Shawq al-Darwish that I sent you:

One day, which has yet to come, the survivors among us will come together to ask themselves how they managed to survive all that faith. They will wonder how they did not perish under the rubble of certainty that collapsed upon them.”

The passage was on an incident in Sudan in the 19th century but it transgressed all contexts and situations and I cried and cried after reading it.

I hope that the few paragraphs I will choose out of this letter make it to you, and I hope that all I have censored hits you as a force of light, or maybe one of lightness, I hope that it pushes you to trudge onwards. I hope you know that what little possibility remains for us, I know you are paying the price for. I hope you know I am grateful for it.