Category: News

Title: Literature Born of Captivity

CCAS Professor Mohammad AlAhmad discusses how Arab prison literature goes beyond documenting the prison experience to serve as an instrument of resistance and to hold readers accountable for their silence.

Written by Mohammad AlAhmad

Translated by Dana Al Dairani

Arwork of arms reaching out of a jail cell and knitting a sun or light
“Freedom” by Mohammad Sabaaneh (See End of article for more information on the artist)

Literature written by prisoners can be found dating back to 16th-century England and even to ancient Greece, but over the past few decades, the cannon of literature by prisoners in the Arab world specifically has been growing. This category of writing, known as “prison literature,” includes not only texts written by prisoners during their time in jail or after their release, but also the work of writers who were never imprisoned themselves but write about the prison experiences of others, whether fictional or based on interviews. These works are important because they chronicle periods of authoritarian rule in which repression and torture have been used to maintain power, and can also serve as instruments of resistance and expressions of hope for a better future.

Although prison literature includes works from different genres—poetry, novels, plays, short stories, biographies, and memoirs—the content, purpose of writing, and themes of the stories vary more so according to the historical, social, political and cultural contexts of the prison systems from which they emerge. For example, prisons in the Arab world, where regimes are authoritarian and military-controlled are different from Western prisons under democratic governments. In his book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Michel Foucault discusses the historical development of Western prisons and their evolution from delivering brutal, physical punishment to a “softer” kind of torture—the confiscation of personal freedoms. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, the more brutal elements of psychological torture and physical punishment still exist alongside the near-complete confiscation of personal freedoms.

In the Arab world, there are two kinds of prisons: state prisons and prisons run by security apparatus. The former are governed by state authorities, must abide by set regulations for admitting prisoners, and are subject to supervision by international human-rights authorities. The latter, in contrast, are linked to the security apparatus of the regime in power and exist to arrest, torture, and kill regime opponents. These prisons fall under the mandate of state security courts and military tribunals, cloaking them with a false appearance of legitimacy. They are often built in remote areas like deserts; examples of these include Nuqrit al-Salman prison in Iraq, Tadmur prison in Syria, the Wahhat prison in Egypt, and Tizmamart prison in Morocco. Since the majority of detainees in security prisons in the Arab world are intellectuals who have been active in opposing the ruling regime, many literary books, such as novels, memoirs, biographies, diaries, and poetry, have emerged about their experiences of detention and torture. Some of these authors were writers before their imprisonment, while others developed literary talents during their imprisonment.

In the contemporary Arab context, works of prison literature are of multidimensional value. First, they are important historical and political documents that record and expose the practices of authoritarian regimes and call for resistance, change, and respect for human rights. Second, many of these works have great literary value. However, they range in artistic quality, from basic to mature, and often emerge from a desire to document or create an emotional response in readers. Yet despite their variance in artistic quality, similar themes run across the majority of these works, the most important of which are torture, resistance to power, the fight against madness, and personal struggles around memory and obliviousness. Third, prison literature offers a lens through which scholars of social and human sciences, such as political sociology, anthropology, or psychology can better understand aspects of the contemporary Arab world. It is particularly useful for psychologists studying the effects of psychological and physical torture in cultures that don’t typically acknowledge or discuss what happens behind prison walls—especially sexual violations—preferring to expose these abuses through literature.

Dozens of literary works have emerged over the past two decades with a particular focus on the experiences of those detained in the Syrian desert prison Palmyra between the late 1970s and the end of the 1990s under Hafez al-Assad’s oppressive regime. These writings document the detention, torture and murder of the regime’s political opponents. Perhaps the most famous and widely-read work about Palmyra is The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa, a former Syrian political prisoner who was detained from 1979 to 1994, first in Palmyra and then in Sednaya prison, because of his membership in the anti-regime Communist Action League. His novel’s popularity is due not so much to its artistic value—it favors a direct reporting style over modern narrative techniques such as pluralism of meaning and points of view and the poetics of time—but rather, due to its content and timing. The Shell was published in 2008, only three years before the beginning of the Syrian revolution, which led to increased interest in literature opposing the al-Assad regime, both within the country and beyond. The Shell was translated into English in 2016, which greatly expanded its readership.

The novel depicts the story of a young, Christian Syrian man who is arrested upon returning home from France, where he had completed his education in cinematic production. The protagonist is detained and tortured in Tadmur prison for 12 years before being transferred to a prison in Damascus, where he spends an additional year—all because of a joke he told one evening that ridiculed Hafiz al-Assad. The joke was heard by an informant who reported the protagonist to the security authorities in Damascus. In Tadmur prison, the aspiring cinematic director is kept in a cell designated for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, where he suffers from isolation and alienation for many years because of the secular and atheistic views to which he admitted during interrogation.

Khalifa maintained in more than one interview that The Shell tells the story of a friend, not his own. However, he did make use of what he called a “synthesis” of character, combining experiences from his own imprisonment with stories from other prisoners. In comparing Khalifa’s novel with other literature and testimonies about Palmyra prison, it appears to be objective and close to factually accurate, preserving historical events that unfolded in Palmyra during that time period while changing only people’s names.

Khalifa charges his narrative with images and emotions to induce sympathy toward his characters and to foster an awareness in the reader to what happened, and is still happening, in the prisons of the al-Assad regime. For this reason, Khalifa, like many authors of prison literature, deliberately describes the details of the physical and psychological torture practiced by prison authorities against regime opponents. He also attempts to dive into the inner worlds of the prisoners and reveal their more individual human suffering. In The Shell, he does this by showing the isolation that the protagonist experiences, first in prison because of his religious beliefs, and again after his release when he is unable to integrate back into the larger community that has become submissive to the repressive regime.

In his writing, Khalifa tries to undermine the discourse presenting al-Assad as a national hero and the builder of modern Syria who worked to spread popular democracy. In his writing, Khalifa tackles issues related to changing social values, the abduction of one’s will, confiscation of freedoms, abolition of political action, control of wealth and people’s livelihoods, and the spread of moral and governmental corruption, as well as the importance of the media and education. The author seems to be desperate for the Syrian people to act and to influence the political and social realities of the country.

Prison literature in the Arab world carries a mission. It not only exposes the true nature of authoritarian regimes, but also seeks to shame them both locally and internationally and to dismantle their false rhetoric about democracy, human rights, freedom and modernization. Above all, these literary works speak to readers in direct and explicit ways that can sometimes be painful, making them aware of the horrors taking place in these prisons and holding them accountable for their silence.


Dr. Mohammad AlAhmad is Assistant Teaching Professor at CCAS. Among other classes, he teaches the popular Arabic-content course “Prison Literature.”

Mohammad Sabaaneh is a Palestinian cartoonist living in Ramallah in the West Bank. Many of his works depict the experiences of Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel. He is the principal political cartoonist for Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the Palestinian Authority’s daily newspaper, and has recently published a collection of his illustrations in his first book White & Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine (Just World Books, 2018).

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.