Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More mind games, and the language of resistance

It was almost two days after our kidnapping in international waters and being brought by force to Israeli jail that we finally got a chance to call home. After giving us a number different stories, the guards announced on the afternoon of Sunday November 6 that we would have three minutes each, on the phone in the office of the prison “manager”. We were to form a fair list, alternating men from the different countries, according to when each though he would find someone at home to answer.

We quickly formed up, with Mike from Australia, Hassan from U.K. and some of the Irish going first, due to the time-zone differences. Ehab and I agreed he would call Canada first, and ask his wife to call London to make sure my spouse was up (it was fairly early in the morning in Montréal and London, Ontario) and ready for my call.

When it was my turn I was ushered into the prison director’s office and sat down at a phone which was connected to some kind of electronic recording device. The prison manager watched while another guard dialled the number I gave them: it had to be a family member.

Bonjour mon amour, ça va? Tu me manques beaucoup.

I only managed to get a few more sentences out in French before they cut off the call. They said I must not speak a language other than English. Then they called for another guard, who came in and explained in French that I must not give any information other than about my own physical well-being and the prison conditions. No politics. As they dialled again, she asked me nervously:

Vous parlez toujours en français avec votre épouse?
Parfois en français. Parfois aussi en italien….

A small satisfaction to see the brief look of panic as my second call connected, but I decided against switching into Italian as well—who knows how long that might’ve delayed the rest of my call?

Bonjour mon amour. Il y a maintenant ici une flique qui parle français, tu comprends la situation?
Tu ne peux pas parler librement.
Exactement. On nous traite très très bien ici, comme des rois.

The French-speaking guard rolled her eyes at my obvious exaggeration. I had barely two minutes left of what was supposed to be a three-minute call, but I managed to communicate the essential points in between fluffy pleasantries. I also passed on a message for Mike’s parents, which he had forgotten during his call. Our superb home teams were of course in constant communication with each other.

Back at Section 5, the remaining Irish were trying to figure out which of them would be able to make his call in Irish and get answered by someone back home who would be able to take the call in Irish. Would the prison guards call in the rumoured Mossad security agents supposedly trained in the Irish language? In the end, most of them settled for simply speaking Irish English: when they spoke rapidly, we had enough trouble understanding them, the guards probably followed even less. By the time the last of them connected, he was able to give a full political report without any interference on the call. It seemed to us that the collective push-back to assert our right to communicate how we chose and about what we chose ended up creating more space for the later callers.

In Givon prison, the lingua franca among the men in Section 5 quickly drifted towards Irish English: there were twelve men from the Saoirse and only four of us (two Canadians, one Australian and one from the U.K.) from the Tahrir. Thus the game played board some fashioned out of the paper lids of foil food containers was “draughts” (pronounced drafts), not checkers, and the guards became “screws”. That is, they were called “screws” when not simply referred to as “dose fookers” –our Irish friends swore almost as easily as they breathed, at least when the guards weren’t listening.

Sunday night the overhead lights were “accidentally” left on in some of the cells –ours was one of them. With no way to escape the glaring light, Billy and I tried to call for the guards to shut them off – the switches were out of our reach –but of course they ignored us. In the morning, two guards came as usual for the morning rounds and asked how we were. I said we had not slept because of the lights.

Why did you not ask the duty guards to turn them off?

My visceral response was coloured by the stress of the moment as well as by the vernacular language we had become accustomed to using:

We tried calling, but we did not want to keep shouting and wake up all the other men just because you fuckers don’t do your job.

Which got a fast response from the guard:
You must not curse at guards or use foul language.

This English-speaking guard came and found me later in the courtyard, with the ranking officer in charge of the section, who did not speak English. He interpreted as the head guard said that if I cursed or used foul language at a guard again I would be sent to solitary confinement. 

I stared in disbelief (Foul language, seriously?? Had they been listening to these Irish guys curse? I thought but did not say).

As the guards walked away, my cell-mate Billy muttered under his breath, just audibly for him and me:

Fooking bastards.

Upon reflection and after chatting with the others, it became clear that I had been set up: manipulated to provoke a reaction that could be used to justify harsher treatment. The guards’ response was clearly planned to try to try to destabilize us, and might have succeeded were it not for the good sense and good humour of my prison mates, who snapped me out of it.

The same guard was at pains to “make nice” later that day, saying that he would miss us when we left and he had to go back to the “murderers and rapists” in the next section (pretty hard to take anything he said now seriously though…). 

So if we are not a security threat, then can we have the phone-cards that our consular representatives have brought for us? (there were payphones in the courtyard which we could’ve used if we’d been able to get phone-cards, one of the “rights” for migrants facing deportation which was prominently displayed on signs in several languages on the prison walls).
No, if someone makes a phone call from prison they might give instructions to a terrorist cell.
But you know we are pacifists not terrorists. What instructions are we going to give –for people to sit down in front of a door? Most people can figure that stuff out for themselves.
You know I cannot discuss politics.

End of discussion. We got no more phone-calls out, despite the prominent “migrants’ rights” signage in the prison.

We only had time to learn one phrase in the Irish language from our prison comrades, one which is applicable to our current struggle:

Tiocfaidh ár lá (pronounced CHOO kee ar lah): our day will come.


  1. I'm so glad you've resumed the story! I love the bits about the Irish comrades. I have a lifelong fascination with Irish history and Irish resistance. Dose fookers do know a grand curse, can't say fairer then that.

    (If this posts twice, please delete. Blogger is strange when I'm at work.)

    1. I love the stories of the Irish too! I have found the messages of solidarity for Khader Adnan from the prisoners of cell block H really powerful!

  2. One of the guys in Givon prison had been in H Block too.
    Ehab wrote this poem about the connection:
    As Ehab says, we learned a lot from our Irish friends.