Syrian Studies Association Newsletter 14.2 (2009) Spring Issue Book Review: A Memoir-Novel of Tadmur Military Prison
Mustafa Khalifa. Al-Qawqa’a [The Shell]. Beirut: Dar al-Adab (http://adabmag.com/books) ,
[This review is based on the Arabic original. The book is also available in French:
Moustafa Khalifé. La Coquille: Prisonnier politique en Syrie. Traduction Stéphanie
Dujols. Arles: Actes Sud, 2007.]
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
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
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
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 throughout
his detention, in his mind, he composes his diaries, memorizes them word by word and
sentence by sentence, and retains each entry in his memory until he is eventually able to
record them on paper after his release. Except for the very beginning, the novel is
composed of these dated entries—some just a day or two apart and some separated by
several months. Each entry contains parenthetical observations—editorial comments or
additions that the narrator makes to his own memorized composition, seemingly at a later
point in time.
Musa is never sentenced by a court, and he is never placed on trial, but he will spend
twelve years in the desert prison. He is however, sentenced to silence by his fellow
detainees, when he is overheard telling his torturers that first, he is a Christian and then
declaring himself an atheist and therefore in no way affiliated with the Muslim
Ostracized completely by the rest of the inmates in his mahja’ (dormitory
or communal cell), he describes himself as withdrawing into his shell. The subtitle of the
novel is “diary of a secret observer” (yawmiat mutalassis).
Musa is constantly “peering”
or “creeping out of” his shell; he listens attentively, meticulously observes, and diligently
records all of the horrors he witnesses in the prison. From the beginning of his enforced
sojourn in detention, his life is threatened not only by the brutality of daily forms of
torture and degradation, but by the Islamist extremists in his cell who believe that he
should be executed as an unbeliever.
Rescued and then protected by the moderate
pacifist Shaykh Darwish and a physician who treated the wounds afflicted by his torture,
Dr. Zahi, he nonetheless remains isolated for ten years. No one will speak to him
because he is impure—this silencing imposed not just by his jailors but by his fellow
inmates mimics the muting of thousands of political prisoners who passed through
Tadmur and other sites in Syria’s infamous carceral archipelago who have never been
able to tell their stories.
Nonetheless, Musa speaks through his diary, and in doing so, he introduces his reader to a
gruesome lexicon of torture and detention. He tells of the “reception” the prisoners
receive upon their arrival to the prison: each is forced to drink the putrid filthy water
from a sewage drain. Those who resist are beaten to death. Those who drink are treated
to more torture or “hospitality” as the guards call it.
Day after day, the torture continues.
Daily activities can bring arbitrary death. He describes the “breather” or break where
prisoners are routinely whipped, lashed, and beaten. He recounts how prisoners were not
allowed to raise their eyes towards their jailors. He recollects the warden coming into the
cell and randomly executing fourteen of his cellmates because of a threat he received in
the outside world.
He witnesses the weekly execution and trials of inmates in the
courtyard through a tiny hole he discovers in the wall of his communal cell. He also
methodically describes daily aspects of prison life—surviving the baths, illicit prayers,
the confining, airless dimensions of the mahja’, the brutal shaving of prisoners heads and
faces, the secret forms of communication between prison cells, the innovative modes
prisoners use to treat the sick and wounded when deprived of medical care, and the
myriad forms of resistance that detainees develop despite the ever looming threat of
Musa will remain in complete isolation from his cellmates for ten years. After nearly a
decade, he is once again confronted by an extremist calling for Musa’s trial, judgment,
and execution by the other prisoners; finally, he breaks his silence and vocally confronts
his would-be executioner.
From that moment, he becomes intimate friends with Nasim—
an inmate who was detained as a hostage due to his brother’s affiliation with the Muslim
Like others, Nasim will eventually suffer a breakdown; his dissent into
madness occurs when three brothers are executed after their father was promised that the
youngest would be spared. Abruptly, in twelfth year of detention, Musa is transferred
from the prison back to the military interrogation center.
He learns that his influential
uncle has been attempting to obtain his release. But before he is actually freed, he will be
interrogated in three different branches of the security services because he refuses to
confess to belonging to any political organization, to write a thank you letter to the Syrian
president for his release, or to renounce involvement in politics.
After his release, Musa returns to his family home that he inherited from his father and
lives with his niece and her family. Despite family pressure to marry and to work, he
does neither. He isolates himself from the world around him. Eventually, he learns that
Nasim as well as others he was imprisoned with have been released. Nasim, however,
has never recovered from his breakdown, and takes his own life in front of Musa after a
brief reunion of former cellmates.
At the end of the novel, there is no sense of
celebratory liberation for Musa. Instead, noting that he has never truly been released
from prison, he describes himself as having lost the ability to communicate, as perceiving
an insurmountable abyss between himself and all others, and as carrying a grave within
himself. Rather than creep out of his “shell” to watch and record what is happening
around him, he remarks: “I do not want to look outside. I close its holes in order to turn
my gaze entirely to the inside, to me, to my self”.
Narrated in stark, simple language, the basic plot of The Shell, along with the framing
device of a prison journal, will be familiar to readers of prison literature. Khalifa’s direct,
documentary style lacks elements of formal experimentation seen in other recent works
of Syrian prison literature such as the fragmented, stream of consciousness narration in
Hasiba ‘Abdalrahman’s prison novel Al-Sharnaqa [The Cocoon] (1999) or Malik
Daghastani’s Duwar al-Hurriya [The Vertigo of Freedom] (2002).
absence of experiment with form in the text does not detract from impact of the narrative
on the reader. The history of Tadmur Military Prison, the stories of the human lives
detained and lost inside its walls, are still in the process of being written, and Mustafa
Khalifa’s The Shell marks a significant contribution to the beginning of that process.
Shareah Taleghani is a PhD candidate in modern Arabic literature in the Dept. of Middle
Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. She is completing her dissertation
on the relationships between contemporary Syrian and Arabic prison literature, human
rights discourse, and literary experimentalism.