I sometimes refer to my college years in Saudi Arabia as “doing time.” But early in those years I did some time that almost did me in—and my mother, too.
I had spent high school in Bahrain as a boarder. My father pressured me to attend university near our house in Dhahran, where he worked as a contractor on the US military base.
I kept in touch with a few high school friends that first semester. Every Wednesday evening (our Saturday night), I would come home, shower, shave, put on dress clothes and walk over to the international call center. There I would make two calls, one to Diana and one to Karen. These conversations felt like conjugal visits although they were not of a sexual or romantic nature. They were the highlight of my week in a country where dating is illegal and alcohol is prohibited, at an all-men’s university with nothing to do on weekends but dial up these friends a mere 15-minute flight away. It was the 1980s, before the causeway was built between the two countries, allowing people to drive across the Gulf and indulge in all things forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
I decided to visit my high school friends during my first college break. So I got a visa and hopped on a plane to Bahrain. The next morning at my friend Wael’s house, I had a great breakfast of omelets, labna, olives and tea, not knowing at the time how precious the meal would be. I dressed in jeans and a T-shirt reading, “That’s right, we baaaad!” I grabbed my baby blue OP shorts and headed off to meet Diana for a tennis match.
Zigzagging to my destination, I came across a housing compound much like the gated communities that dot the island. This one looked new, with a red-and-white striped guard shack at the entrance. The shack was unmanned, though, and the gates were wide open. I could see clear across the property to my path to the tennis courts. I decided to take a shortcut.
As I exited the back gate, a military-uniformed guard came running through the compound to catch up with me. When I turned around, he shouted, “Waggif!”—and then, unsure of my native tongue, “Stop!” He caught his breath, pausing at the sight of the bundled OP shorts. He asked me a question in what I gathered to be Arabic and switched to a broken English. I remembered that Bahrain contracted Pakistanis to serve in its military, and made a mental note to joke with my friend Diana about how Bahrain gives guns to people who speak neither the language of the natives nor that of most of the expatriates. I gathered that I was trespassing somewhere I should not have. The guard was sweating up a storm in his dark wool uniform and cap. Trying to end his misery, I put on my best authoritative voice: “I am a student…. American embassy.… Play tennis.… Manama American school.” I waved my blue OP shorts like a bullfighter’s cloth. Then suddenly he said: “OK. Go.”
A few minutes later, a military jeep skidded in front of me, blocking my path to the school. As the dust settled, I moved my arm away from my face to see a Bahraini soldier in a gray uniform glaring at me. “Inside!” he repeated. I slid into the back seat and found the jeep full. I was sandwiched tightly between two soldiers, their woolen dress chafing my arms and the scent of sweat and excrement filling my nostrils. The driver sped away like an ambulance.
When he finally slowed down, I caught a glimpse of a high, whitewashed, fortified wall. The jeep moved through a metal gate with a concrete archway and passed a tower-like structure sitting on a concrete slab. It looked like a decapitated lighthouse, with no windows and no sign of a door.
I was escorted into a building so drab it looked abandoned. We walked up to an office with a male secretary wearing a thobe and headdress, a cheerful fellow with tanned skin and a bright white smile, one too fixed to be trusted. I got the impression he was expecting me. “What is your full name?” “Zein Mohammad El-Amine,” I answered, adding my father’s name. “Stand there,” he said, pointing me toward uniformed minders.
An Indian “tea boy” went into the office behind the smiling man. Inside I could see someone sitting behind a glossy dark mahogany desk dressed in a traditional headdress and white thobe. The thobe was draped with a dark brown wool abaya with gold thread trim. From his graying goatee and gaunt, shriveled cheeks, I guessed the man to be in his sixties. The desk seemed a bit too large for him. He signaled the guards to bring me in, each one holding an elbow as if I needed assistance. The official continued to sign papers. I noticed a name plaque—Al Khalifa, meaning he was a member of the ruling family. I was anxious to speak with someone who spoke a language I could understand. I was anxious to return to Diana and go out on the town, have a laugh about the whole thing over a pint of Double Diamond beer and a double scotch.
“What is your name?” he finally asked. “Zein El-Amine.”
“What is your full name?” “Zein Mohammad El-Amine.”
“What is your father’s full name?” “Mohammad Bakir El-Amine.”
He looked up at me for the first time since I walked into the office. “What were you doing at that house?” “I was taking a shortcut to the tennis courts.”
I was about to explain further when I noticed that his attention had turned to the graphic on my T-shirt. He narrowed his eyes and moved his lips slowly: “Daaat isss… rrrright. Weee baaaad!” On the shirt was a cartoon of two intoxicated cats laying about trash cans in an alleyway, one holding a bottle marked with a double X, the other with a limp cigarette or a joint drooping from his upheld paw. The word “bad” was indeed spelled with a half dozen vowels. The man did not seem pleased with this declaration. Still squinting with distrust, he looked up at my face. I hastened to say that I was visiting from Saudi Arabia and started to reach for the military base ID in my front pocket. As I stepped forward, Mr. Khalifa pushed himself away from the desk and the two guards jerked me back by the elbows. “Stay where you are,” snapped the one on my left. The official turned the card over in his hand, in a way that told me that he either did not understand its significance or did not care. He set the card down on the desk and mumbled something to the guards I did not understand. The guards led me out again by the elbows and the smiling receptionist traded places with us, closing the door behind him. We stood in silence for long minutes and then the man emerged, still with the smile. I thought they had come to their senses. But what the grinning man said next sent my heart into free-fall: “Empty your pockets.”
I hesitated. Having watched way too many American cop shows, my first response was to request a phone call. I actually said, “I am entitled to a phone call.” Smiley beamed: “Oh yes, you will get your call. You can call whoever you like.” My joints were turning to jello from elbows to knees. I did not have much on me—a few Bahraini dinars for lunch, my trusted military base ID, which I felt was my only ticket out of there, compacted remains of a Kleenex. He checked the pockets of the shorts and pushed them back toward me. “You can keep these.” The guards were at my elbows again, leading me to another part of the building. We went down to a basement with unpainted, roughly finished concrete walls and dim fluorescent lighting, and then into a room smudged with soot. There was a man sitting with a cigarette and a pile of papers and an ink blotter. Without inquiry he asked me to come around. I stood shoulder to shoulder with him and he grabbed my hand to fingerprint me. He asked me to hold up a placard with a number and some scratches in Arabic on it. I did not read the scribble until they took the picture. “Suspected terrorist,” it read. At that moment, I stopped taking those mental notes for my storytelling session with Diana.
I was marched past the truncated “lighthouse” to a long, rectangular one-story building. There was a small room at the entrance with a motel-style reception counter. The man who had fingerprinted me had come along and had a little whispering session with the man behind the counter. The guards stood by as the “receptionist” took me through the door, into an unfinished concrete hallway lined with metal doors, each with a square barred opening. There were 14 cells in all, seven on each side. He opened the second door on the right and immediately closed it behind me.
The cell was arms’ span in width and exactly twice the length. There were two bunk beds but there were two other men. One, in his teens, looked like an Arab and the other like a South Asian. The Arab teenager was leaning on the wall in the far corner, hands behind his back. He examined me, trying to judge whether he should speak to me, and in what language. I looked Middle Eastern but my T-shirt threw him off. The corners of his mouth twitched with indecision, interrupted with flashes of a smile. The other cellmate was on the top bed, propped up on his elbows, smiling at me, his broad muscular shoulders cradling a pockmarked, shaven head.
When the teenager moved out of the corner, I became a bit guarded—despite his pleasant demeanor—because his hands were still behind his back. He was scanning me, from T-shirt to face. Noticing my caution, he shifted his hands to one side to show me that he was cuffed. Then he greeted me with a marhaba, guessing right. I answered him and said hello to the man on the bed in English. He did not answer but sustained his smile. The teenager did his best to approximate the Lebanese colloquial, asking my name and my father’s. Here we go again.
“Shi‘i, right?” “Yes. How did you know?”
“From your father’s name.” “Really? Not from the family name? Our family is a well-known Shi‘i family from south Lebanon.”
“There are El-Amines all over. I am Ali.” He turned and offered his cuffed hands for me to shake. “Have a seat,” Ali said as if I had come over for tea. “Welcome.”
I sat on the lower bunk, its sponge mattress barely covered with a gray sheet. Ali sat a comfortable distance away, resting his back against the wall. He asked me why I was arrested and I answered that I was not sure. I told him my story and he told me his. He had been picked up in front of his neighborhood mosque for distributing “political” fliers after Friday prayers. He reflected on my story and said: “Something is happening out there.” He mentioned that there had been an influx of new prisoners in the past two days. The government was nervous about something. I told him I didn’t expect to be there long, though I did not reveal my father’s association with the US military. He smiled and said that he had also thought he would be out in a day or two.
“And how long have you been here?” I asked. Six months, he said. My face flushed, and I felt sweat bead around my temples and the tip of my nose. “Like this?” I pointed to his handcuffs. “Yes, like this.” He noticed the sudden change in my disposition and hurried to add that some people leave much sooner. He knew someone who left yesterday and had been there for less than a month. That did not help.
“The fact that they didn’t take you to the tower first means that they are not sure about you.”
“Yes, that little building outside in the clearing. That’s where they initiate the prisoners. They obviously did not interrogate you there.”
“But they did interrogate me in the office,” I replied. “No, they did not interrogate you,” he searched my face, as if making sure he had not missed anything, and said it again. I sat on the ground, away from the grimy bed, and kneaded my OP shorts with sweaty palms.
Time slowed down; the sun took forever to set. A red haze hung in the cell for the longest hour. Then in a moment it diminished, leaving us in the dreariness of a bare light bulb and bare concrete. Despair set in.
There was a long silence interrupted by prisoners mumbling their evening prayers. I heard the main door open. Ali had just finished his prayers, which he performed on the floor, hands behind his back. He told me that they were about to serve dinner and that I would not be able to eat it. But not to worry, he assured me, he would scrounge up something for me this first night. I felt a bit insulted, thinking of the worm-infested olives that were the centerpiece of every meal at my old school. Ali smiled kindly, saying nothing.
There was a loud knock on the metal door, as if we could open it, and then the door swung in with a metal whine. A cauldron was wheeled into view. A man in a dark green jumpsuit, looking more like a mechanic than a cook, accompanied another in a white thobe and headdress. Ali gave them his back. The man with the thobe unlocked his handcuffs and handed each of us a wooden bowl. Ali and the South Asian stood in the doorway, holding out bowls like Dickensian characters, and I followed suit. The foam-ringed cauldron was topped with a greasy orange film. The server began to stir the swill underneath until it turned a light brown. He ladled the blend into our bowls. We were handed two pieces of pita bread hard as Frisbees; then the door slammed shut. Ali slid down against the wall and sat on the ground. He set his bowl down, rubbed his wrists, and proceeded to swirl the alleged soup around, slurping it up before it separated again, taking bites from the hard bread in between. I remained standing, looking down at my bowl, watching the grease separate and float on the surface. The liquid was lukewarm and gave off the scent of something inorganic, something petroleum-based. Ali advised me to drink it, knowing well that I was not going to. He tilted his bowl to down the last bits, a sight that turned my stomach. He took the bowl out of my hands and gave it to our cellmate, who dipped the petrified bread into the broth and gulped down the mush.
The guard opened our cell again to put the cuffs on Ali. Ali waited a few minutes, then put his ear to the bars and listened until he heard the hallway door close. He asked me to stand with my back against the door. He approached me until we were nose to nose and asked me to cup my hands so that he could step up to the vent above the door. Ali was light and I lifted him easily to the vent. He managed to balance himself, despite the handcuffs, and set his chin down on the bottom of the opening to keep steady.
“Brothers!” he yelled into the void. “Brothers, we have a new prisoner. His name is Zein Mohammad Bakir El-Amine, a Shi‘i!”
What came back was a discord of shouts that turned into a harmonized chant. I could not tell if it was a show of solidarity or indignation. As the noise died down, Ali spoke into the makeshift intercom: “Samir, can you send something for our brother to eat?”
There was a faint response from a cell on the other end of the hall. Ali jumped down and asked me to watch the barred window in the cell door. I stood there for about ten minutes and then I heard names being called out, Muhammad, Abdallah, Yusuf and and so on, each time from a different cell, by a different person. Six names were called in all, each sounding closer and closer. Then I heard, “Zein, Zein El-Amine,” from the adjacent cell, and a string swung across my vision, a small shiny object attached to it. “Grab it!” Ali repeated as I jumped back, startled. I managed to hook the item with my index finger and reel it in. It was a wedge of cheese, in the familiar aluminum foil wrapping with the iconic picture of the laughing cow indented at the center from the string. I was about to step back when I heard the names being called again and saw another piece of string swing across the opening, this time with a piece of bread attached. Then again, the names called, ending with mine and followed by the appearance of another string, this one carrying a small egg. I was overwhelmed—seven hungry men had passed the food, one to another, all the way to me. I sat on the bed, gathered all the goodies in my palms, smothered the piece of soft pita bread with the cheese and wolfed it down. Then I grasped the egg. It looked too small to be a chicken egg but no matter. The South Asian man, probably a Pakistani, was peering at me from the top bunk. I was about to crack the egg against the bedpost but Ali yelled at me to stop. The egg was raw, he said, for nourishment and not for taste. I had to puncture the top and suck out the yolk. I said I would gag. So he told me to set it aside for later.
After dinner Ali and I sat across from each other talking. He was leaning back on the bed, trying to get as comfortable as possible with bound hands. I was leaning against the wall, feeling sluggish and nauseated. Someone was singing across the way. A couple of hours passed, and then I heard the hallway door open. I was sure they had found out who I was and were coming to get me. Our cell door opened and my heart leaped in anticipation. A man with a white thobe and headdress followed by a uniformed soldier walked between Ali and me and started shouting at the other prisoner. “Why are you looking out of the window?” He pointed at the window to the outside, located above his bed. The Pakistani cringed against the wall on the upper bunk, as if anticipating a beating. The official told him that next time they would take him to the tower: “Al-burj! Al-burj!” I saw tear-rimmed fear in the prisoner’s eyes. He must not have understood it was a warning. He must have thought they were taking him to the tower then.
The official charged out and the Pakistani fell back in tears. Ali tried to explain to him with hand gestures that he was not going to the tower. The Pakistani nodded. Ali patted him on the shoulder with his forehead, the closest thing to a comforting touch he could offer, then listened at the door again. We heard a metal door shut, then another. Ali sat in front of me. He turned his back to me and asked me to hold the cuffs down on the ground. I did. He moved his ass above the cuffs and wriggled his way out. He was still handcuffed but at least his hands were now in front of him.
I asked what had just happened. “They thought he was looking out of the window and they were about to beat him up. But I think they realized that they got the wrong cell.”
“So what if he looks out of the window?”
“There must have been a dignitary visiting. There is definitely something going on. High officials do not visit during the night. Somebody is nervous.”
Ali took advantage of his semi-liberated hands to perform the night prayer. I was at a moment in my life where I was becoming jaded about religion, for my fellow Lebanese had been killing each other in its name. But seeing a chained man pray allowed no room for cynicism. I watched him as he inadvertently muzzled himself every time he brought up his hands to his temples. Prayer had never seemed more meditative, more purposeful.
“Are you getting sleepy?” he asked. I answered no. I was holding out hope that I would be released before dawn. Surely my father would soon get a call in Dhahran and he would call the American general, and the general in turn would call the American ambassador in Manama, and then some apologetic Bahraini official would arrive to reprimand the people who put me here. I imagined sleeping until noon, another nice breakfast and a tennis match in the baby blue shorts. Later Diana and I would go to the Anchor Inn, and she would order her pint of Double Diamond and I would order a double scotch with Coke, and we would get sloshed by the pool and laugh about this whole episode. I was still delusional at this point.
“You should sleep,” said Ali. “They’ll wake us up at dawn for tea and bread. You should eat in the morning. It is the only thing you’re going to be able to eat because it is just tea and bread.” I told him that I was going to stay up but did not betray my optimism.
“You should sleep on the bed and I will sleep on the ground here.”
“What? No, no, that is not possible.”
“I don’t sleep much. I have to get my hands back behind my back now. I am just as uncomfortable on the floor as I am on the bed.” He set his fists on the floor. “Here, help me get back in position. I can’t be caught like this.”
I held down the cuffs and he moved himself back into his original position. He moved to the corner and rested his head against the wall. “Don’t worry. This is normal for me. Believe me, it makes no difference.”
I was very hesitant about lying down on the bed. There was no pillowcase or top sheet, and I worried about bugs. Most important, it would be surrender to the knowledge that no one was coming for me that night. I slowly examined the bed in the snatches of moonlight, looking for telltale scurrying. I brushed off the pillow and laid my OP shorts on top of it. The Asian man was already in deep sleep and Ali was watching me intermittently between moments of rest. My ankles began to itch, as did my head. I spent the night popping up in bed and swatting at the invisible.
I finally snatched a half hour of sleep before there was a clanking at the door. Someone was banging a tin cup and yelling. As long as I had lived on the Arabian Peninsula, I still could not understand the Gulf dialect when it was spoken at a quick pace. Ali told me to wake up. “Be ready or they will pass you by.”
Ali stood in front of the door. When they flung it open, he turned his back to them and a man in a sort of gray jumpsuit, pant legs rolled up as if he had just done his ablutions, pulled a steaming pot into view while a Bahraini man in civilian clothes moved in, jangling his keys, and unlocked the handcuffs. It was Smiley from the processing office. As Smiley moved out, the man in the jumpsuit moved in with enamel-covered tin cups, chipped and rusted on the rims. The Asian eagerly extended his arm. The three of us stood side by side, cups held out, as the man scooped the hot liquid from the big pot. Then another man, who had been clanking on the metal doors of the cells, came in with a stack of flat bread. The bread was again Frisbee-like in rigidity but my cellmates grabbed it and were munching on it even before they settled in their little corners. From the smell coming off the light brown brew I guessed it was tea and it must have had some milk in it. I later learned it was the best meal of the day. When we finished eating, Ali rushed to do the dawn prayer, again taking advantage of his free hands.
I asked Ali about the daily schedule. There was none—no exercise, no walks in the yard.
I asked about the bathroom. “They let us out in the morning. It should be soon, so be ready because you have five minutes to do your business. Then there is another time in the afternoon. And then there is this.” He pointed to a pot that I had somehow missed in the corner next to the door. Ali said, “Don’t look in it. I will empty it at the bathroom break.” The Asian man laughed.
“Does he understand Arabic?” I asked.
“A little. He’s Pakistani. He was in the country with a counterfeit passport. Or he was making counterfeit passports—I don’t know. He is not a political prisoner, and they did not take him through the tower.”
“What is the tower?
Ali regarded me warily, weighing what he should say. Then he averted his eyes and explained: “The tower is where they take you if you are arrested for political reasons. It is a narrow, round structure with a sand pit for a floor. They seat you in a chair, blindfold you and tie your hands behind your back, and then they start with the questions and the beatings. There are usually two of them, and they take turns punching you in the face. They do this for hours, and then they leave you bleeding and tied to the chair for days, without food, without water, without allowing you to go to the bathroom. You bleed, piss and shit yourself for days. Then they take you to the showers and bring you to your cell.”
There came a knock for the bathroom break. There was shouting, a clanking of doors and a slapping of flip-flops. When they opened our door, the Pakistani man ran past me. Ali, released from his handcuffs, also took off. So I raced after them. I heard a smattering of greetings as other prisoners passed me. One patted me on the shoulder and was reproached by the guard. I walked into a stall and took a piss, and rushed to the sink to wash my hands, only to realize that the powder I had spilled on my hands was laundry detergent. I stood there confused, as Ali tugged at my elbow. We ran out as the guards herded others in to take our place. Back in the cell I sought out my OP shorts to wipe my hands.
Day 2: My daydreams of being set free were already spent. I started to remember things that had happened while I was in high school, signs that this happy island was troubled but that we were too engrossed in our navels or too stoned to notice. The morning rattle woke me from a dream about a neighborhood covered in long black banners and doppelgangers of Ali, in black shirts and pants, walking around passing out leaflets.
As I drank my tea and crunched my dry bread, I traced the dream back to an incident one sunny day when we were en route to school. We were on a bus proceeding along the tree-lined boulevard. The palms were swaying in the wind. The bus was abuzz, as it was on this day every week, about the previous night’s “Muppet Show” episode. The traffic was unusually heavy. As was my habit, I was sitting next to Mahdi, the driver, a Bahraini Shi‘i barely 18. He cursed the traffic under his breath. He peeled onto a parallel single-lane road and then made a sharp turn taking us into a residential neighborhood. As he went deeper into the neighborhood, we noticed run-down buildings and open sewers. Then we entered another neighborhood packed with mid-rises, their balconies draped with long black banners that skirted the sidewalks and flapped in the breeze. We drove through this procession in total silence, the banners snapping at us. Then, just like that, we were back on the boulevard again, in the full sunlight and the jovial chatter of the daily commute.
Day 3: I was learning more about Bahrain than I had in the three years I spent in the country previously. A rebellion had been brewing and it was being snuffed out before it spilled out of the restive suburbs into the squares of the capital. More answers about mysterious happenings that had punctuated my carefree days and disco nights: A close friend and I eating lunch when we heard chants from an unseen approaching crowd. A policeman knocking with a stick on the storefronts. Merchants rolling down their metal doors with a loud rattle. Muffled shouts rising, falling, then dissolving into scattered wails. Half an hour later, the merchants opening back up. We walked out of the café to a scene of scattered flip-flops and the sting of smoke that hadn’t settled. It was as if a crowd had been sucked up into a hovercraft that jetted off in silence, leaving nothing but their shoes. The incident had not troubled me until now, as I sat on my OP shorts, hair like a Brillo pad, stubble on my chin.
Day 4: More silence, less talk. More listening to other prisoners. It seemed like every prisoner on the block was a Bahraini Shi‘i except the guy at the far end. Ali had told me he was Syrian. That man oozed resilience. He sang every morning and every evening. The morning songs were light-hearted, full of false hope, a sugar high that left you sick in its wake, and made the silence all the more dreadful. The evening songs were mournful, the saddest of Umm Kulthoum and Farid al-Atrash, songs that stuck in the throat.
We had just finished our lunch. The guards came to collect our utensils and started barking orders that I did not understand. Our Pakistani cellmate ran past me motioning to his bristled head, making a lathering motion. Would we be allowed a shower? I saw that he had grabbed a cloth and so I snapped up my OP shorts and ran after him. In the corridor, a guard shouted at the prisoners, pushing them toward the bathroom. I saw men enter the shower stalls, fully clothed, and disrobe inside. I did the same and turned on the knob in the wall, dousing myself in cold water. In the soap dish, I found a cut plastic container filled with powder. In my daze I did not stop to consider that it might be the same laundry detergent I had mistakenly used before. I dumped some powder on my head and around my shoulders. The guards were already rushing our shift out, slapping the mildewed shower curtains. I dried myself as efficiently as I could with my shorts and got dressed. I found myself running through the corridor while trying to button up my pants and put my shirt on, remnants of the powder in my hair and on my body. The minute I got into the cell I began to itch all over.
Ali told me about his family. His father worked a menial job and was always away. His tales of his mother reminded me of my aunts back in south Lebanon. I imagined her scarfed in black, doting on him, kissing him when he came home, when he sat down to eat, when he passed some final exam. I imagined her voice like my aunt’s, full of sad tenderness. But Ali talked about his family in the past tense, never in the present, and certainly not in the future. It was a survival mechanism, I understood later. You could not hope. It was a surefire route to greater despair. You had to be immersed in the moment. Span the hours of the early morning, long for the tea and bread as if something to be savored. Then pass the hours between tea and lunch. Watch the light. Venture out in your mind, but not too far, maybe across the street from the fort. Walk back and forth in the cell. Set a goal, a number of “laps.” Go beyond it to create a stimulus in a stagnant environment. Exhaust yourself before lunch so that you can nap. Look forward to respite from the oppressive heat. Then dinner, then a couple of stories as if hanging out with friends. All the while, do not let the idea of escape or reunions come to you. Keep hope at bay.
On the fourth or the fifth day the guards showed up at an unusual time. There were two of them and they came to our cell first. For a second I dared to hope again, but then I saw them release Ali’s cuffs, and I saw that there were other guards opening other cells. I realized it was something else, perhaps another bathroom break. I grabbed my OP shorts, which had become my towel, handkerchief, pillowcase and floormat. Ali had his usual look of resignation. We were herded out to a courtyard. There was a structure in the center that gave the impression of being a fountain. Orders were given that I could not hear but I saw that the prisoners had started to converge around the fountain. It was drab unfinished concrete and there was a stub of a tiled column in the center with two faucets. Men started washing up and filling their cups with water. I walked slowly because I felt something that I had not felt for days—sunshine. I subconsciously closed my eyes and opened them to see other prisoners looking at me. It was the first time that I had a chance to really see my fellow inmates. They all looked Bahraini to me except one tall man with a pale complexion and light brown hair, who I took to be the Syrian singer who had sent me the food. They all looked so confident, so purposeful. I expected a zombified horde but what I saw was resilience. I wished for that strength.
Day six. It was mid-morning and unusually hot. Ali was more voluble than usual. Our Pakistani cellmate—for the first time—was trying to figure out what we were talking about. Ali’s hands were in front of his body; I had helped him do his miraculous maneuver earlier when the guards cleared out. He was no longer talking to me as a cellmate but as a friend, one who would be there with him for a long time. I was too much in the moment to be depressed about that prospect. We heard a rattle at the main door and I scrambled to help Ali slip his cuffs behind his back. The guards were moving so fast that Ali had barely got into position on when the door opened.
“Zein El-Amine,” said a man in civilian clothes flanked by two men in military garb. I couldn’t speak so I raised my hand. “Gather your things,” he said. My things? I picked up my OP shorts and turned to Ali to get a hint of what was happening. I saw a slight, skewed smile and one eye brimming with tears. He quickly approached and I moved to hug him, his chest bumping mine. “You’re going home,” he said. And then louder as I moved away: “Send my regards to your mother.”
When the outside door opened, the sun hit me with the force of an explosion. I winced, put up a hand up to my forehead and kept trotting. Everything was in pieces: One second I was in the cell, the next I was in the sunshine, and then I was in a car speeding down a highway, flanked by two guards. I am not sure how fast they were driving but it felt like hyperspace.
Back home that same day, amidst family and visiting friends, I heard one woman tell another: “Thank God. They almost killed her.” My father confirmed it. “Yes, they almost did kill your mother with all the bad news. They told us there was an attempted coup on the day you arrived in Bahrain and that there were Saudi Arabian Shi‘a involved. Those men happened to be on the same plane as you. They said you were involved in the coup and that they were starting to ‘disappear’ those involved.” Rumor had it that they were taking prisoners to the desert, executing them and claiming no knowledge of their existence. “That news knocked your mom flat. She has been bedridden for days.”
I am tempted to say that I did not sleep that night; that I kept on waking up swatting imaginary cockroaches and scratching non-existent fleas; that I had dreams of the tower, of being bound and blindfolded, my head a bloody pulp. But no, I went to the small bedroom of my childhood, I laid in one of the two twin beds and fell into deep sleep, a sleep free of fear, free of trauma, with dreams of ordinary things. I would like to pretend that I woke up snatching at air, not knowing where I was, thinking I was back in the cell, looking around to see Ali on the floor, his back against the wall so as not to strain his shoulders. But no, I woke up knowing exactly where I was.
I can’t remember where my mom was that morning, though. I assume she stayed in bed another day. She is missing from my recollection of that first day back—completely. Maybe she is missing because I erased her. Maybe she is missing because she fell ill months later and died within a year of that day, from lung cancer, at the age of 53. Maybe that day was what connected her death with my imprisonment. Maybe I want to sever that connection. Maybe I do not want that child with his OP shorts, ignorant of the consequences of his actions and sleepwalking through his youth, to take any responsibility for the disintegration that ended the life of the person he loved the most and who loved him the most. Maybe the anger that simmers under my surface today, that constant roil, started on the day when I tied the deeds of that murderous government with my personal tragedy. They whittled away at her until she was gone. Maybe that day is the day I lost any measure of healthy fear.
I got some more clarifications from US officers who knew my father: The housing complex that I cut across belonged to the Bahraini minister of interior. The timing of my accidental trespass was very bad, a day after an alleged coup attempt against the ruling family. The accused in the attempt were Shi‘a. Some of the people from Saudi Arabia accused of helping them had indeed traveled to Bahrain on my flight. The day before my arrival, the Bahraini government claimed that they had discovered a warehouse full of new Bahraini military uniforms, accurate to the T with the exception to the buttons, which were marked “Made in Iran.” But even if I had picked up a paper or listened to the news upon my arrival, I would not have known, for there was a total media blackout. The military and secret police were arresting any Shi‘i man who was not where he was supposed to be. A young man trespassing on the property of the minister of interior was easily thought to be a “suspected terrorist.”
I would like to conclude that I was still fuming after my debriefing, but no. I walked out into that December Arabian sun, and felt my blood ululate in its nourishment. I went to the base exchange, its shelves fully stocked and bathed in artificial light. I picked out some soap. As the other customers eyed my scruffy appearance, I enjoyed their discomfort.