Read The Prince of Bagram Prison Online
Authors: Alex Carr
Not an obliteration of self, she thought, watching them kneel and bend forward, touching their heads to the earth, but self in its purest and most potent form, unencumbered by the hallmarks of identity. One as an expression of all.
The bus slowed, then pulled to a stop just in front of the women's car. The driver popped the door and the other passengers stood, shuffling forward with their kilims. Yes, Kat thought, she had made her choice, just as Harry had made his, and Colin his.
She was still not certain what had happened between him and Kurtz that last night in the Special Forces camp, what, exactly, Colin had agreed to. She had reconciled herself with the fact that the details of the Iranian's death would always be a mystery to her. But this she did know: that whatever lies Colin had told he had told out of loyalty to Stuart, that his allegiance had been not to cause or country but to his friend. Any other explanation, Kat knew, would have required him to be someone he was not.
Kat lifted her head to see a young Moroccan woman standing over her. She was tall and unexpectedly beautiful, wearing snug designer jeans and an elegant jacket. Her face was bare, her hair loose beneath her casually pinned head scarf.
She motioned toward the front of the bus, which was empty by now. “You will not join us?” she asked, looking slightly puzzled.
Kat nodded her thanks and stood, shuffling forward down the narrow aisle. Outside, the passengers had gathered together on a dusty patch of earth. Several of the men were busy filling buckets of water from a large plastic barrel in the bus's hold. The two women were still praying, dipping like dancers through each
their black robes flapping like nationless flags in the wind.
Kat reached the doorway and stopped on the threshold, contemplating the long step down, the distance to be traveled into the cold and the wind and the darkness. An obligation, she told herself, thinking about her brother and that long, weightless, graceless fall.
the Arabic word for those things to which we are duty-bound. And for a brief moment she understood: that love itself is an obligation, one to which we must submit, and that in order to do so we must abandon the larger part of our self. Then she stepped, and felt the gravity of descent, the earth pulling her down.
“Sister!” one of the women called, motioning for Kat to join them. “Here, sister!”
She moved to them and then among them, pulling off her socks and gloves, unsheathing her hands and feet, baring herself as if for a lover. Their breath hung thick in the bitter morning air, an intimacy of odors: saffron and coriander, damp wool, and sweet perfume. And the smells of the female body: blood and sex, sour milk.
Kat bent over the bucket with the others and plunged her hands to the wrists in the icy water, readying her body for the act of worship, preparing herself, as we all must, to receive whatever grace might be given.
My sincerest thanks to all the usual suspects: Simon Lipskar, Dan Conaway, and the whole crew at Writer's House; Mark Tavani, Jane von Mehren, and all the immensely talented people at Random House who have had a hand in this book; Bill Massey and everyone at Orion. Thanks also to my family and friends, especially my husband, Keith, who has always encouraged me to trust myself, and my dear friend and fellow exile, Julie Tisone, without whom I might not have survived to write this book.
THE YEARS OF LEAD
Characters rarely spring fully grown from my imagination. In general, the people who inhabit my books have inhabited my real life in some form or other. Often they are products of my research, individuals whose identities I have borrowed and shaped to fit my needs. Sometimes they pass opportunely into my world, the template for a hero or a villain when I need one. Occasionally they are modeled on people I met years ago and have been unable to forget, passing acquaintances whose stories were so gripping that they refuse to be silenced. This was the case with the character of Manar Yassine, in
The Prince of Bagram Prison.
In the late 1980s, while bumming my way across Europe, I had the extreme good fortune to share a house in the French Pyrenees with a group of young Moroccan men. As an undocumented worker, my employment options were limited, and one of the first jobs I had was working the grape harvest, or
in a remote village near the Spanish border. It didn't pay much, but food, lodging, and a generous ration of cheap wine were provided. I was barely nineteen at the time, and living with the Moroccans was my first intimate brush with a non-Western culture. In many ways, the experience was surprisingly unremarkable. Most of the men had come to France on student visas and were studying at the regional university. The atmosphere in the house was not unlike that of a college dorm. During the day we worked; in the evenings they cooked and we ate and drank together. For the most part, the men treated me like a younger sister. They were open and friendly yet respectful, certainly more respectful than the European men I had encountered up to that point. But there was one man in particular, Bernoussi, who seemed, if not disapproving, at least wary of me, and to whom the others showed a solemn deference. Eventually, I would come to learn that he had been a political prisoner in his native country. A victim of the brutal regime of Morocco's King Hassan II, Bernoussi had been arrested at a student protest and detained for several years. Upon his release, he fled Morocco for France.
Sadly, Bernoussi's experience was not an unusual one. The reign of Hassan II, which lasted from 1961 until his death in 1999, is commonly referred to by many Moroccans as the Years of Lead, for the violent state repression of various dissident groups that characterized it. Though Hassan was a staunch ally of the West, like many of his counterparts in the region he maintained power through intimidation, using a vicious network of security and interior ministers and secret police to silence his critics. So fierce were his tactics that, in a chilling demonstration of his ruthlessness, he regularly ordered his own sons beaten in front of his court. Prominent dissenters and political activists, including many pro-democracy activists, were routinely “disappeared.” Hundreds of antigovernment protesters were killed and thousands imprisoned and tortured for their participation in demonstrations or labor strikes. Independence movements in the Rif Mountains and the Western Sahara were brutally crushed. Secret detention facilities, like the notorious Tazmamart, in which prisoners were held for years in coffinlike underground cells, were constructed clandestinely in the desert, out of view of international human-rights groups. Like Bernoussi—and the character Manar Yassine—many of those detained or killed during this time were students.
To call Bernoussi's presence in my life fleeting would be to vastly overstate our relationship. I can say with confidence that he probably has no recollection of me. Yet the impression he made was great enough that, two decades on, I felt the need to tell a version of his story through Manar. Curiously, what has stayed with me all these years, what I have gone back to again and again, is not Bernoussi himself but myself as seen through his eyes.
In the years since, especially in the wake of September 11, and the deepening rift between the Western and Arab worlds, I have found myself contemplating Bernoussi's wariness of me and the reasons for it. There were times when I took his reticence for hostility, a reaction to an American foreign policy that supported leaders like King Hassan II. But I have traveled enough now to know that, as much as we may think otherwise, people from other countries are remarkably able and willing to separate the actions of a government from its citizens, and that the vast majority of the world does not hold the American people responsible for the decisions of our leaders. If anything, I believe it was my innocence of which Bernoussi was afraid—that unique combination of naïveté and privilege with which I navigated the world, living as a lark the life that hundreds of thousands of Turkish and African immigrants to Europe live out of necessity.
Looking back, I cringe at my behavior, at the extent to which I took for granted the hospitality of my Moroccan housemates, who certainly could not afford to be as generous as they were. That I lived with them without once considering the deep-seated cultural differences between us, or the implications of my physical presence in their midst, is shameful to me now. They were not particularly pious men, but they were Muslims, and the fact that they accommodated me as they did was, in hindsight, remarkable. How terrifying my ignorance must have been to Bernoussi, my incredulous curiosity about what he had been through, the host of outrage and good intentions on my sleeve. Bernoussi was, above all, someone who understood the consequences of his actions, who had suffered deeply for his convictions and knew intimately what it meant to be powerless. I, on the other hand, understood nothing yet was, by virtue of birth and the passport in my pocket, entitled to everything.
At the time I lived with Bernoussi and the others, the situation in Morocco had already begun to change. Hassan II was growing old and his power waning. But it would be another sixteen years—seven years after Hassan's death—before the monarchy officially recognized the human-rights abuses that had occurred during the Years of Lead. In November of 2003, Hassan's son, King Mohammed VI, in keeping with his many attempts to present a face of modernity and reform, established the Equity and Reconciliation Panel, a seventeen-member independent body that was headed by a former political prisoner, to investigate sixteen thousand cases of human-rights abuses that had occurred under Hassan II's rule. Two years later, on January 6, 2006, in the wake of calls for an official apology following the IER's finding, Mohammed publicly acknowledged for the first time nearly ten thousand instances of murder, disappearance, torture, and rape. “I announce the comforting news,” he said, “with the hope that the merciful angels will carry it to the soul of my venerated father and the hearts of all the victims, the persons who had been wronged and their families, that we have sympathy and solicitude for them.” Though far from an apology and far from complete—the king's critics claim that the number of victims was much higher than the ten thousand acknowledged, and that his policies, which call for blanket amnesty for those who committed atrocities, are ineffectual—Mohammed's statement and his initial decision to set up the panel were the first of their kind in the Arab world.
Despite his outward efforts to reform the monarchy, Mo-hammed's reign has so far been less than perfect. Critics rightly denounce the king's lavish lifestyle in the face of the rampant unemployment and overwhelming poverty that grip most of the country. The constitutional monarchy he instituted is viewed as largely a symbolic step toward democracy. Abuses still occur, especially in regard to the ongoing conflict in the Western Sahara region. But there can be no doubt that his reign represents a step forward for human rights in the region. One consequence of the comparative openness of Mo-hammed's rule has been the publication of a number of accounts of those imprisoned during the Years of Lead, including Malika Oufkir's
Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail;
Tazmamart Cell 10;
and Tahar Ben Jelloun's stunning work of fiction,
This Blinding Absence of Light,
which chronicles the ten-year imprisonment of a Moroccan army officer in Tazmamart. These books, which are all available in English, offer intimate glimpses into the lives of political prisoners under King Hassan II, and I highly recommend them for anyone who wants to learn more about the human consequences of this unfortunate era in Moroccan history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Carr is the author of
An Accidental American
. She lives with her family in Portland, Maine.
ALSO BY ALEX CARR
An Accidental American