Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Donkey Heart Monkey Mind

My Novel, based on true events and as a narrator, begins on the day in 1986 when I was hung from my hands in a prison cell in my hometown of Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria. I was 18, and I had participated in yet another march protesting government suppression of Berber language and culture. The police had turned dogs and tear gas on us, and after the protest, many of us were rounded up and taken to prison. There we were held and brutalized over the course of many days, and I took what I thought would be the beating of my life.

The history of the Berber people, especially my tribe, the Kabyles, is central to the story. Because the Kabyles have been especially hard to conquer for the many peoples who have invaded North Africa over the millennia, we have been the particular objects of oppression for government after government. But the government that jailed and beat me and my friends was my own, the Algerian government. After they expelled the last of the French colonizers in 1962, they chose to crack down on anything but the strictest expressions of unified, Arabist nationalism in our country. And so the Kabyles became second-class citizens in a third world country, forbidden to learn to write their own language or express pride in their Berber roots.

The history of my own family illustrates the extreme circumstances of life in Algeria. My grandmother was deserted by her husband when he immigrated to France in 1952, and she had to raise four children as a single Muslim woman with no education and no job prospects. Her daughter, my mother, bore 6 living children from 13 pregnancies, surviving decades of marriage to a man who regularly beat her and her children with little cause and less mercy. That man, my father, had served in two wars for his French colonial masters before helping to drive them out of Algeria altogether in the War for Algerian Independence. He, like all Algerians, taught young to put his own needs before those of anyone else in order to survive. In his children, he valued total obedience to himself and the ability to make money off of anyone else, especially if he himself shared in the spoils.

For most of my young life, I tried to take my example from the donkey, the long-suffering, tireless pack animal that has helped build Berber civilization. I worked my family’s land from age 6, growing produce to sell for myself and make pocket money. I earned small commissions by doing favors for family members, particularly anything that required standing in the never-ending lines that appeared wherever foodstuffs could be bought or paperwork had to be processed. And I did my best in school, finally earning the grades necessary to enter the local university, which I thought would improve my job prospects beyond those of the people I had grown up with.

But my pride in my Berber heritage betrayed me. When I was arrested at the age of 18 for attending what seems to have been one protest too many, I was whipped, beaten, and hung by my hands for days. When I was finally released, the guards had done their work. Not only was I ready to leave politics forever, I was ready to abandon my education, abandon any hopes of a career that would probably never materialize, and leave Algeria forever.

Chapter two begins as I learn to work the system of favors and family connections to get my first passport. With my mind full of wild ideas of opportunity and the equivalent of $200 in my pocket, I set off for Europe. I traveled through Spain, France, and many other countries like a kid in a candy store. But my money eventually ran out, of course, and I was eventually arrested for stealing food. It was then through a mixture of pure nerve and some kind of unbelievable luck that I first came close to what would usually only be a fantasy for an Algerian emigrant – sneaking into the United States. In an airport in Rome, on the verge of being deported back to Algeria, I actually managed to sneak my way onto an airplane to New York with someone else’s paper ticket stub. I made it as far as actually setting foot on American soil before I was apprehended and sent back home.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the effects of this first taste of freedom on a desperate young man. Back in Algeria, I learned to take my father’s example and scammed my way into enough money to make it to Europe once more. I tried my hand at being a street vendor in Spain, until I had all my wares stolen and found myself stranded with almost no money at all. 19 years old, an illegal immigrant with no job in Spain and no prospects to return to Algeria, I finally turned to stealing. I worked my way through the youth hostels of Europe, picking a pocket here, lifting a camera there, and having a generally unscrupulous good time. It was only when I had finally had enough close calls with the police and had enough cash in my pocket that felt like I had finally won a little something from the world and could return to Algeria of my own free will.

However, I only stayed home long enough to pay back those I had double-crossed before I left and make a little more money by working the land for one more season. Chapter 5 describes the next place my wanderlust took me: across North Africa. I set off hitchhiking, walking, and jumping borders through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and even into Israel. There, I encountered the suspicion and sometimes cruelty with which the people in each of these countries treated their neighbors. I was mistaken for a drug smuggler and an Egyptian spy, attacked by sexually predatory Libyan policemen, and at least briefly detained in three countries. I posed as a Jew to sneak into Israel and as a devout Muslim to escape notice in the prison cells of Egypt. Finally, and inevitably, I was shipped all the way back home.

Chapter 6 describes my misfortune that the political conflict between the Berber people, the general population, and the Algerian government had reached new levels while I had been gone. When I returned, I fully intended to stay out of politics, and I re-enrolled at the university. But my past as a political activist had not been forgotten, and I was finally dragged from class one day by two gendarmes. I had been rounded up with other current and former Berber agitators, and the government was not ready to limit itself to simply beating and releasing us this time.

The longest months of my life are recounted in Chapters 7. I was drugged and sent to a remote desert prison somewhere near the Algerian border with Morocco. There my detainment began with a series of typical interrogations, being transferred in and out of my cell over many days to be beaten, kicked, and humiliated. But the level of cruelty escalated fairly quickly. Finally one day I was held down as my hair was lit on fire and quite simply burned off my scalp. Several weeks later, as the raw skin on my head was just beginning to form raw scabs that let me at least lie down on the bare wooden bed in my cell, I was pulled into the interrogation chamber for one of the last and worst times I remember. This time, I was actually subjected to the infamous Chinese Water Torture, water being dripped onto my forehead for so many hours that I eventually lost consciousness and all sense of time.

I remember vividly the moment that I came to myself again, in my same concrete cell but with an unfamiliar guard outside. It was not hours or even days after the water torture, but months. My hair was starting to grow back through my tender scalp, and I knew I must have existed for all this time in some kind of semi-conscious state. My body bore marks of abuse I held no memory of. Only a few days after I awoke, one of the guards entered my cell and made me understand what had been happening over the many months I had lost. I had been repeatedly sodomized by this man, and while I was only fully conscious to experience it once, each and every instance of it was stored somewhere in my ransacked brain, to resurface in nightmares for the rest of my life.

Chapter 8 tells of how my destiny finally seemed to turn a few weeks later. Incredibly, I found one night that I had been sitting behind an unlocked door since the last time the guard had entered my cell. Perhaps he had been shocked by the fact that I seemed “present” enough to actually object to what he did to me, and it seemed he had simply, unbelievably, forgotten to lock the door behind him. In the last hours before dawn, under a silent desert moon, I slipped between two sleeping guards like a ghost and crawled my way across the prison compound to freedom.

Of course, my freedom was relative. I stripped off my prison uniform to make myself less recognizable, and I was then naked in the desert, emaciated and weakened from my captivity. But desperation drove me across the sands and into the Atlas Mountains. For five days I put one foot in front of the other, over the rocks of the hills and the hot sands of the foothills, and finally across the border with Morocco. I was truly saved when I met a camel caravan of nomadic merchants who fed me, clothed me, and lent me a horse to ride to the nearest town.

I probably owe the almost twenty years I have lived since that day to a series of strangers like those merchants. I tell about these people in Chapters 8: a Moroccan family that housed me and bought me a bus ride to the Spanish border. In chapter 9 I write about the Catholic nun who chose to believe my story of being a French citizen who had lost all my papers; the drivers who transported a young hitchhiker from Malaga to Copenhagen; and most importantly, a Canadian tourist who became my friend and almost literally gave me my passport to freedom. That young man, Brian, trusted me enough to give me all the personal and passport information that I needed to use his identity to get on a plane to the United States. I made it past customs in Chicago and entered the United States for the second time in my life, this time to stay. I tell this in chapter 10.

The final chapter of my book, Chapter 11, reflects on my experiences over the three short years of my narrative, 1986-1989. I explain how I integrated myself into my new country and became an American citizen even as I struggled to overcome the constant, violent nightmares my imprisonment left me with. This chapter also highlights just how lucky I was to manage to leave my country when I did. The political and civil unrest that I had in a sense been a victim of erupted into a decade-long civil war that would see thousands dead at the hands of government forces, Islamic radicals, and terrorists. It was not until years after the worst of this was over that I found the courage to return to my country for a brief visit. Once I had managed to visit several times without being detained, I found I needed to visit, as nearly as I could, the site of my capture and torture. And so at the end of this chapter I retrace much of the journey through western Algeria that I once made naked, desperate, and starving, healing the scars in my heart and reconnecting with some of those who helped me survive.

My journey from being a young, eager political activist, ready to face down police dogs, to being a ravaged political refugee running for his life, was a chronologically short one. But I grew up many times over during the last twenty years, and even though I might wish to forget parts of my experiences, I have never been able to. So I write my story to honor the Berber people who, like my family, remain in Algeria, scraping out a meager living through deceit or diligence. I also write to honor the Berber activists, the innocent people who suffered or died in the even more violent political conflicts that took place after I departed my country. And finally, I write to thank those who helped me live long enough to get to a place from which I might tell my tale. I also choose to write exactly eleven chapters to honor the eleven men who truly saved my life and to whom I owe a great deal of appreciation. I also write to honor Ali, the very first man from the caravan who approached me with the Djallaba to cover myself and who loaned me his horse, a highly valuable animal for them, to reach the Moroccan family without even knowing me. May he rest in peace.