How to pass time

Time that passes has inevitably been at some point or another for each one of us a basic puzzle to address. Boredom, can be thought of the backdrop of life anxiety in the face of death. Now let’s try to think of what happens to a person that spends 5 years of his life in prison. But not any type of prison, the type that resembles those supervised by Israelis. The Khiam prison was one of those, before the liberation of South of Lebanon territories in 2000. Two days ago, I had a long conversation with one former prisoner. The marks of these five years are on his face. A prison with no bed but the cement, where when there is food, it is Israeli products that have expired two years before. A prison where there is no light, where, if you pass out because they’ve been hanging you to an electric post, standing on your toes throughout a winter night, they wake you up with electric shocks. A prison where during interrogation (interrogating about nothing they really want to know) they stand on your face with all their weight and their ringer boots and make sure they break you nose. A prison where you could be locked in a little cube of concrete where you can only fit in if you’re in a foetus position, for several days.

A prison where there is nothing to do. Nothing to do. So much so that you start rubbing olive pits on the wall and make rosaries and count the pearls endlessly. Or when you get cardboards as mattresses after two years because you pressured the ‘authorities’ in place to soften the impact of the cement, you discover that you can make needles out of the staples by rubbing them on the wall for a month or so so that they get sharp. Then by banging one side of the prison door on the needle for another month, you flatten its extremity and then can create a little hole for the string to pass. You can then pull the strings out of your shirt and with the needle saw all kinds of things. For example, do a backgammon with the cardboard, saw the triangles using different colors, then use chunks of soap that you wrap with cheese metallic-colored wrap (think of Picon for those familiar with Lebanese products) to distinguish players. You can become very good at this, according to this person, blending tastefully colors and shapes to create beautiful backgammon cardboard tables. Unfortunately nothing is left to testify of these aesthetics because as soon as the Israeli found out that prisoners found activities, they confiscated one after the other every invention these guys were coming up with. First the olive pits were counted and taken right after each meal. Cardboards were taken out, and prisoners were back to sleep on the cement.

Has anyone read The Player of Chess by Stefan Zweig? I read it a long time ago, you can find it in French, I don’t know if it was translated to English, or to Arabic. It’s the story of this guy who gets locked in a prison room that’s as big as the ones in Khiam and then has nothing to do for quite some time until he succeed, during an interrogation, to steal a book from the desk of the officer in charge. When he’s back in his cell he finds out that he stole a chess manual. He does not know how to play chess. and… Actually I’m not going to tell you the story, you should read it. This is one of my favorite books by far. When I was 15 or so I read it like three times. Zweig was an Austrian Jew. He committed suicide along with his wife in 1942 while he was in Brazil, fleeing from Nazi Germany.

6 Replies to “How to pass time”

  1. We have testiments of these artistic creations:
    a rosary bead made of olive pits, and a “necklace” from a scrap from the cardboard. my cousin was a prisonner in ansar.
    my dad keeps the rosary bead in a special place like it is a string of diamonds.
    Interesting you wrote a post about this. To me as a 7 or so year old girl at the time, those beads those necklaces were the most fascinating thing.. a hope, a will to live, and an unspoken bond.
    I like your blog, your approach of reporting through really trying to understand the people behind the events, what goes in their mind what drives them and how events affect them. I have to say there is a lot to be told about the psyche of people in lebanon in general, but south lebanon in particular especially through the little stories that now are kind of local history or legends and that actually frame the way people deal with current events to a great extent.
    sorry for the long comment, you just touched a childhood memory and I wanted to say nice blog.

  2. Thanks everyone.. it encourages me to write more.

    and yes H, stories form the basis of this feeling of belonging. Through the experience of occupation, or any type of violent life-disruptive experience, narratives are re-created and reinforce this feeling especially in terms of the relation with a given territory (and how it was defined by political forces in place).

  3. Zweig was the center of any conversation in psychoanalysis and psychiatry with my husband’s European colleagues, he is less read in north America. I never read him. But I read Primo Lévi on his concentration camps experience. Most of his books, le système périodique, si c’est un homme, les submergés et les rescapés, la trêve…Lévi was a great humanist and I liked his scientific outlook at this challenging experience.
    I think every individual faces such an extreme experience differently but there are common things, and the most salient of them is that an agression on the Self like torture, imprisoement, or else, can be sustainable, even though unbearable, as long as there is still a little particle of humanity left in the transaction between the agressor and the agressed.

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