Dreams under arrest

Dreams under arrest

Dreams under arrest

Unlike the typical politicised prison literature, this book is a refreshing change from the blinkered views of writers who have usurped the right to comment on Iraqi events, writes M K Chandra bose

The infamous prison Abu Ghraib is the symbol of repression that Iraq had undergone for decades, under domestic despotism and foreign occupation. The abuse and torture of detainees in occupied Iraq became an instrument to humiliate and force an ancient civilisation into submission. One torturer replaced another but the brutalisation continued compounding the misery of a once proud people. Now divided on sectarian lines and racked by daily violence, Iraqis are struggling to retain their national identity.

In the 1970s, a group of youngsters, fired by idealism, dreamt of a better Iraq sans oppression. They organised resistance against Saddam Hussein’s regime only to be captured, imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib. Many were executed. Haifa Zangana is among the few who survived to tell their tales. Dreaming of Baghdad is her story, narrated with passion and verve, reflecting the haunting images of her days in detention and the psychological ruin that ensued. When she was arrested, Zangana was a student of Baghdad University, actively involved in Iraqi Communist Party’s clandestine activities. She was in charge of maintaining communication between various offices of her faction within the party that aimed to overthrow the Baathists and advocated Kurdish self-determination.

First, Zangana was sent to Qasr-al Nihaya prison, where she was subjected to brutal interrogations for days. She was beaten and deprived of sleep and food as her tormentors tried to extract names of other revolutionaries. Later, she was transferred to Abu Ghraib and then, to a prison for prostitutes. Torturers often confronted her with comrades who had turned into a “disfigured mass of flesh” after beatings. She talks of her “being reduced to an animal, sleeping with urine and faeces,” hair matted with blood and dust and inmates screaming in horror and pain, akin to animals’ howls. The sound of torturers’ foot falls in the corridors and the sound of keys turning in locks and oppressive heat in the cell made her an insomniac. “Do you think a few whores and bastards can jeopardise our government?’’ an interrogator asked, Zangana recalls. She had to sign a confession under duress stating that she joined the communist party to meet more men for sexual pleasures. It is ironic that the tormentors themselves were later
executed.

She was released and forced into exile due to her family’s dogged efforts. Torture and humiliation had left a deep scar on her psyche. “Thirty years later, I still often wake up at 2 am, the time they used to lead me out of my cell for interrogation,’’ she says. Even in the safety of London, Zangana couldn’t come to terms with her past, forced separation from her loved ones and struggled to escape memories of torture in tiny cells, with curtains stained with blood and urine. Decades later, she is assailed by the guilt of being alive when so many of her friends died in prison. The first version of the memoir appeared in 1990. The present volume is a translation of the Arabic version in 1995. Writing had a cathartic effect on Zangana. It helped her to overcome pain, shattered dreams, nightmares and an obsession with the past. It helped her return to the present.

Intensely personal, this powerful memoir is unlike the typical politicised prison literature, a refreshing change from the blinkered views of embedded writers who have usurped the right to comment on Iraqi events. It is as much about memories and dreams as reality. It is the defiant voice of a revolutionary activist paying homage to memories of her dead comrades.

As a pioneering work by an Iraqi woman, Zangana presents a complex picture of her homeland, with a culture of strong family ties. She writes about the unending struggle within and about the future with a tinge of anxiety, guilt, shame and failure. She contrasts the happy memories of her carefree childhood, frolicking with a loving father, with horrendous experience in jail. She establishes a strange bond with other female prisoners who had landed in jail under tragic circumstances. Theirs are the stories of abuse and torment by men.

This unique narrative may appear confusing as she flips from the first person to third person, reflecting a split personality. With scant regard for chronology, the 14 chapters in this book conjure up a series of interlinked stories, letters, memories and surreal dreams. She writes of her family and friends, life in Iraq as an activist and her current home in London. What makes it a compelling memoir is the universality Zangana manages to imbue her ordeal with. The simplicity and the lyrical style make her story touch the reader.
She is not verbose and with a few strokes, she manages to create poignant, striking
images of fear, suffering and longing. Dreaming of Baghdad is an inspiring
volume that sheds light on a society under siege.

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