In prison I try to make up for my inactivity, my helplessness, by reading. Maybe I can get information or wisdom that would be of use to those who visit me, or could help me the day I’m released.
I read — among other things — about autism. I lose myself in reading and find myself thinking about the troubles of the revolution. I imagine that autism is a good metaphor for our condition. I start writing texts that contrast a child losing — or not having — the ability to speak with a generation gradually losing its ability to chant. Or that compare his impaired communication with our inability to understand those queues of dancing voters.(1) Or that try to develop an image where an extreme sensitivity to sound makes it painful to hear the bullets fired regularly by the state — bullets inaudible to those who don’t share our disability. Our disability causes us to be troubled by the sight of the blood of those martyred to things other than duty — a sight which clearly does not offend the eyes of the delegates.(2)
The texts are poor, inaccurate and with no basis in science. You don’t get autism because of the shocks life delivers. It’s a condition that is known and documented. It’s mostly to do with learning difficulties and what we can do about them. The books talk about the importance of paying attention to the “secret curriculum.”
We might have difficulty learning the official school curriculum. We might find some subjects difficult, and autism might make it up for us by making others easy. But the heart of the problem is in the secret curriculum: the lessons and skills and bases and rules of human communication. Nobody hid this curriculum: humans assumed it was known and understood and so no-one wrote it down. Why do we ask each other “how are you” when we meet though we’ve no wish for a detailed answer? What pushes us to declare a love we don’t feel and hide the love we do? What’s the importance of showing various kinds and degrees of respect to colleagues and bosses? Why does the teacher want to hear a pin drop though she has no pin in her hand?
And that’s not to mention the complex rules for speech and clothing and behavior that depend on distributions of relationships and that change in response to time and place and social context. We live by a complex and complicated system that is always in flux. Most of us don’t need to actively learn all its details, but most people who live with autism stand helpless in front of it. Their isolation increases unless someone makes the effort to teach them the secret curriculum. It doesn’t matter if the details of this curriculum are useful or logical or not; if you don’t conform to them society will reject you. Which is easier? To persuade society that a response to “how are you” with a real report about one’s feelings does no harm and might even be useful, or that it’s OK not to ask how one is doing if it’s a quick meeting and doesn’t allow for a conversation about feelings — or to train the disabled minority to respond with “al-hamdulillah” (fine, thank you) whatever their real feelings.
The books warn: don’t train for conformity. Our duty is to teach the curriculum and to empower the “disabled” person to register and grasp what society expects and then decide of his own free will how he should behave. He might decide to conform or he might rebel. “What’s easiest” isn’t the only question. Pay attention to what’s richer and more beautiful and more compassionate and better.
I like the idea of the secret curriculum. Which one of us “normal” people has not been confused or suffocated by the assumed rules of behaving and communicating. Which one of us hasn’t been seized by the wish to scream or cry or curse or hug or kiss inappropriately? Practically half the secret curriculum is to do with how to hide the effects of the rare moments with which you explode — hide them or rebel and don’t conform.
They arrive and break my train of thought and my reading stops. We’ve expected them since the news of their torture was leaked into the papers and since we learned that the prison administration was expecting newcomers from Abu Zaabal prison. We tried to prepare to receive them, but how do you welcome a friend who went through the battle with you but went through his experience alone? Will he be comforted if you tell him that your old jail/his new jail is safe and that his ordeal is over? Will he be angry? Should I feel guilty or grateful? We must have learned this in the secret curriculum; the gradations in the acuteness of injustice and in the price people pay are nothing new. I’ve spent my life with these gradations so why am I confused by the heat of their anger? We adopt autism. We receive them with a detailed report about the facts: there is no torture here but you’re probably here to stay, the law means nothing and the constitution offers no hope and the courts are worth nothing. We shall stay until they’re done with their damned road map. They reply with similar autism with a detailed report about the torture in a steady mechanical delivery with no embarrassment, no concealment. The books tell me not to assume the absence of feeling; autism hampers expression and communication, it does not negate feeling.
Their silence signals a sweeping anger which we avoid by playing football. But the anger can’t be contained, its kicks are violent and harsh. We try to evade it in a complicit silence. With the first injury all our anger explodes. We kick back with more violence, more harshness. Everything is allowed in the game except touching the ball by hand. The game is played by Abu Zaabal rules. It ends with a difference in goals but a draw in the number of injuries.
The books say that aggressive behavior is an attempt to communicate, to express what’s hard to express. Were they expressing their anger against us because the torturer chose them and not us? Because the torturer asked them about us? Or are they angry with the torturer? Or with themselves? And what about us? Did we get angry because they made us feel guilty? Or because they told us the details of their experience? Because they seemed stronger than us? Or were we angry because we’d depended upon them to set us free? The rest of the week passes waiting for the football injuries to heal, and the anger recedes. A secret wisdom pushed us to play this match, perhaps the same wisdom that prompted humanity to invent rough group sports. It tells us that violence can be practiced in a context other than enmity and oppression, that pain can come without harming dignity, that our bodies can bear pain inflicted for trivial reasons, and our spirits can ignore injury and even make fun of it as long as there’s a level of safety. Perhaps the match is of no more import than the phrases “al-amdulillah” or “inshaallah,” but like other items on the secret curriculum it helps you to live and to share life with others.
With the visit of the delegation the anger returns. They could have deactivated the jailer and the torturer if they had threatened the authorities that they would resign with the first bullet, if they had held up the constitution when the Protest Law was first applied, if they had stopped producing TV programs and newspaper pages with the first lie, if they had withdrawn their mandate with the first testimony of torture … But they insisted on dealing with the killing and torture and detention of their party members, of their children’s comrades and their colleagues’ students and the children of their relatives as slips and mistakes. They exchanged resolute positions and pressure and standing up for what’s right for “advising” and sometimes for begging.
To understand why they warn of the return of the Mubarak state even though their state has surpassed it in criminality you have to learn the secret curriculum. To understand why they warn against the return of torture despite your certainty that they know that torture has not stopped for one day, you have to understand the secret curriculum. To understand why they talk about violating a constitution they wrote knowing that the state would not be bound by its articles you need to refer to the secret curriculum.
“Yes” was not to the newly-written constitution, but to the hidden constitution that we have long been ruled by and that the state needed to endow with a new legitimacy.
In the hidden constitution there are complex rules that govern torture. They’re mainly based on the identity of the victim: torture is a crime if it’s committed against particular groups whom it’s generally agreed that repressing and curbing them will be restricted to smear campaigns and administrative detention in relatively good conditions and for relatively short periods of time.
The groups whose torture is prohibited are generally defined by social class, race, possession of a second nationality, party alliance, level of education, age, and other details that can be used to categorize people. Exceptional circumstances may widen the circle of people who may be tortured — on condition that the abuse happens at the moment of arrest and before the first session with the prosecution. Torture that continues beyond that is unacceptable.
The hidden constitution follows its own inexplicable logic. No-one, for example, demands the use of torture as a deterrent for police personnel who’ve committed crimes, or to obtain confessions from suspect businessmen, while the torture of terrorists and criminals with a record of violence is almost a popular demand.
Someone born in Sinai may be tortured whatever his political or class allegiance. The abuse of Beltagy’s son is prohibited if his name is “Ammar” and permitted if his name is “Anas,” killing the man’s children is not advisable but is not a crime if the state does it during the break-up of a sit-in.
This is why those who wrote the constitution, party leaders, members of National Councils and star commentators talk about the “mistakes” of the state only when the torture reaches Khaled (al-Sayed) and Nagy (Kamal). They’re not speaking of the systematic and constant violation of the written constitution, but what they see as an unintentional error in applying the hidden constitution. They speak as though the torturer did not recognize his victims, or thought they were (Muslim) Brotherhood. They are certain that the mistake will be redressed and insist on the right of the state to torture people in the torturable categories.
They could have prevented what happened or at least stopped it spreading if they had insisted on upholding the principles that they had themselves declared. But after months of supporting murder and torture and detention and repression and slander their power to affect things has evaporated. Now, when they’ve discovered that repression is closer to them than they thought, there is nothing they can do except put together miserable delegations to visit prisons and set up farcical conferences to denounce “unintended mistakes.”
What they don’t understand is that the state has not made a mistake; the hidden constitution — like any constitution — defines rights and duties. The state tried hard to remain within boundaries and to only torture those whom the concord of June 30 allowed it to, but the revolutionaries refused to adhere to the secret constitution, they challenged it and so stripped themselves of its protection.
The state produced the Protest Law to use against the Brotherhood, but we insisted on trying it out first with our own bodies. They killed the impoverished Islamist students at Al-Azhar University, so the students of Cairo University insisted on putting themselves in the path of their bullets. They lit a war on terror that necessarily brought terror to the heart of the capital, and we broke all the rules when we insisted that the blowing up of the security headquarters would not delete from our memories the torture and violations we saw inside it.
The state did not make a mistake, it was we who made deliberate mistakes and insisted on them. Perhaps we were upping the stakes, perhaps we wanted to clarify the hidden rules of oppression and expose its justifiers. Perhaps we were wise and prescient, because if you don’t hold authority to a written constitution then you cannot hold it to any constitution; sooner or late you’ll join those whose torture is permitted. Perhaps it is a conscience which refuses to abandon those whose fate makes them torturable, or a kind of autism that blinds us to the hidden constitution; a disability that makes us unable to learn it by instinct, an autism that makes us take words literally and so believe, for example, that the revolution really continues and that the people really demand the fall of the regime.
Which is easier? To train the minority unable to conform to the hidden constitution to ignore injustice as long as it falls on others, to avoid challenging authority and to assume its good intentions, or to persuade society of the absurdity of trying to live with an authority that allows itself murder and torture and detentions as long as it adheres to hidden rules?
The books warn us: don’t train for conformity. Our duty is to learn the curriculum to empower the “disabled” person to register and grasp what society expects and then decide of his own free will how he should behave. He might decide to conform or he might rebel.
“What’s easiest” isn’t the only question. Pay attention to what’s richer, what’s more beautiful, more just, more compassionate. What’s better.
(1) The media made great play of the fact that in the queues to vote in the recent constitutional referendum women were spontaneously breaking into dance for the cameras.
(2) The delegates — and the delegation mentioned later — were from the National Council for Human Rights. A government body which has proved spectacularly toothless in upholding human rights and even unwilling to attempt to protect the human rights of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This article was originally published in Arabic in the privately owned newspaper Al-Wady. English translation by Ahdaf Soueif.