Today we speak of a real wall. A wall that has separated loved ones from one another. We imagine what life is like behind this heavily guarded barrier that forbids communication between those on the inside and those on the outside.
The absence of these loved ones causes constant sadness; a sadness that does not dissipate. An inevitable separation that forces its acceptance on whomever is forced to live with it. We try not to turn a blind eye — not to shy away from engaging with the plight of those who have been sentenced to be separated from us. Our writings here are born out of helplessness. What happens behind bars remains a blind spot to our consciousness: whether because we are simply forced not to see it, or because we prefer not to imagine what life is like there.
On this Eid, our issue is a tribute to the loved ones left outside, robbed of the small relief that visits used to bring, now that they’ve been suspended with the advent of the pandemic. Instead of our usual sections, we look at the experience of writing a letter, to be read in confinement; we share the confusion of receiving a call, listening to a loved one’s voice as they speak from jail; we make a gift for a friend behind bars on which she can watch time go slowly by.
This is a guide to try and breach the barrier, as we long for the day that it finally comes down.
Visits are restricted, and our people inside have no access to the Internet. It might be safe to say that almost no one receives or sends written letters in our day and time except those behind bars.
In the letter we want to say that the world misses the person behind bars, that they are not forgotten, that things will be okay soon. It is generally better to stay focused on the present — because hope is a dangerous thing — but it doesn’t hurt to inspire the promise of a better day.
However, it is best to consider — or, better yet, surrender to — the fact that the letter will be carefully read by the authorities to make sure it isn’t dangerous in any way. That’s why it’s preferable that the writing be clear and not opaque. Remember that this letter is not an experimental text but simply a means of communication between two loved ones who have been forcibly separated from one another. Eventually, the writer of the letter wants it to be read by the person it was intended for.
After you’re done writing the letter make sure to re-read it or even rewrite it completely, since for sure some things will slip in the heat of the moment. In our emotional state while writing for someone we love and are kept from seeing we could unintentionally reveal some private things, about us or them — and the reality is that privacy and safety are totally off the table for both the writer and recipient of the letter. It’s cruel, but just the reassurance that we are there and thinking of them could help. One doesn’t want to end up blaming themselves for why the letter never made it, so caution is key.
This is the truth we struggle with outside: to avoid censorship, we censor ourselves. We reach out even when we know nothing will do except seeing that person and touching them once more. But we try and power through, for that promise of a better day.
You can read letters from political prisoners on the blog Letters from the Stars of Darkness, which documents letters that have made it outside the walls of confinement.
The last X knows of Y is that Y is in prison. But they’ve spoken recently, X tells us. Some prisoners manage to sneak a small phone and a SIM card to secretly communicate with the outside world.
X doesn’t know the code of communication. Does it happen in only one direction? From inside confinement to the outside world? Probably, yes. Is the secret phone used in case of extreme need or emergencies only, X wonders. But they have no answer to that. However, these were not the questions that occupied their mind at the time of receiving the call: rather, the pressing question was how to discover the language for dialogue between these two people who are living a totally different reality.
X spoke of their perplexity. Should they talk to Y assuming Y knows nothing of what’s happening on the outside? But they hesitate, thinking that that would be a bit condescending. What should they talk about? Do they gossip, do they joke, do they keep it light? Or are these conversations a precious opportunity that wouldn’t be smart to waste? And in that case, how do they use them wisely?
Should X have bullet points prepared for when they receive that next call? Or should they be more spontaneous and simply try to entertain Y with little anecdotes, give them an intimate update on what’s happening on the outside? Or, should X in fact speak as little as possible, and instead listen to what Y has to say about what they’re going through?
X remains confused, perpetually waiting for a phone call from an unknown number. Perhaps they would pick up and hear the voice of a loved one, coming from that cold and lonely place they’ll never see.
What is the proper way to give gifts to someone in prison? Before we answer this question we should probably pose another one: what is prison?
Prison is time. It’s time carved out of life. For prisoners, time runs differently. It crawls.
Therefore the gift must be related to time. A tool to help calculate it, made especially for those who battle to make sense of time, where every day is the same.
A group of girlfriends come together in one of their houses to work on the calendar. They split the months between them in the living room where they sit on the floor surrounded by rice paper, old and new magazines, different pens and markers and scissors (which prisoners can’t get their hands on inside, for they are considered a weapon). Here, they are armed with their beverages — herbal, alcoholic or loaded with caffeine — and many packs of cigarettes.
It is hot and humid. Their sweat makes them think of the stifling heat in their friend’s prison cell.
The group spends the day in joyful labor, and the creation of the calendar continues. Emotion runs high and low toward finding a tangible and intangible meaning of a friend being behind bars. Memories form as the gift takes shape but guilt overshadows the gathering when there is fun and laughter.
That’s how the loss of a friend to prison brought together those women, those angry, irritated, scared, happy, anxious women. Those women know if they were not together the gift that defies the heaviness of time would never have been made. Then they imagine their friend’s happiness when she receives this gift, wishing they could actually see her reaction if the gift does reach her.
“The rhythm of time is so different after release. Going back to the regular rhythm of time is very confusing. The concept of time in prison is heavy. I used to write the mundane details of the day so I could feel it pass. What did I do that was enjoyable or productive? I am now much slower than before prison, and comfortable with this new pace. I don’t try to push myself back into the fast pace that I once knew. There is a lot of time in there, and in that closed room we had to stretch out everything that happened just to pass the hours.”
The above lines were written by Yara Sallam after her release from prison in 2015, in recollection of her experience with time in confinement.
Our thoughts are with those who have been confined — separated from us behind the wall. The ones we love, the ones we don’t know. The ones who won’t be able to read these lines. We continue to wait and hope for release.