An innocent Syrian student is sent to a brutal prison.
From 1982 to 1994, author Khalifa spent 12 years in Tadmur, a prison located in the desert northeast of Damascus, one of the worst in the Middle East. He barely survived. Originally published in Arabic in 2006, this autobiographical novel written in diary form is about that harrowing experience. It’s excruciatingly painful to read. The narration is told in a purposefully flat, restrained prose style superbly rendered by translator Starkey. After graduating from college in Paris, Musa returns home to Syria. At the airport, he is taken away by two security guards. No reason is given, but we later learn it had to do with another student’s remarks about something critical Musa had once said about the Syrian regime. For this he will spend years in a hell on Earth. The torture begins right away. Guards, believing him to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood when he’s actually a Christian, stuff him into a car tire, exposing his bare feet and legs, and ruthlessly whip him until the skin comes off and exposes bone. “Overcome with despair and fear of an unknown fate,” he’s taken to Tadmur to join thousands of other prisoners. He’s stuffed into a 25 square meter “dormitory” with 86 others, where they spend most of their time on the floor, pressed against each others’ bodies. They are continually beaten by the guards, humiliated, and degraded; some are simply taken out to the yard and brutally executed. To maintain his sanity, “like a tortoise,” Musa retreats into his shell, where he will write his diary over and over in his mind, memorizing everything. One young man had “memorized more than thirty thousand names”—name, home, date admitted, and fate—so none would be forgotten.
A staggeringly powerful story of inhumanity and one man’s unrelenting will to survive.