"Prisoner" and "Captive:" Defining Positionality and Conceptualizing Carceral Regimes in the Arab World
By Ayah Kutmah
February 1, 2023
Artwork: Courtesy of Ibrahim El-Salahi (Prison Notebook)
I entered a small bookshop in Ramallah with a friend on his recommendation that I could find some of the books I was looking for. On my list was “ القوقعة,” The Shell, the seminal prison novel by Syrian writer and former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifa. The bookseller, stunned and animated by the request spoken in a Syrian accent, rushed to find the book, launching into a soliloquy of his own reading of it, the nightmares he suffered, and the cathartic drawings he drew. “I didn’t know,” he said, “that there, too, were asra in Syria.” I paused at the word asra, “أسرى.” It was never a term I heard associated with the Syrian context. My friend nodded along.
The Arabic language is very precise. The vocabulary used to define the English catch-all of “prisoner” is broken down to differentiate detainee, “معتقل/ة,” prisoner, “سجين/ة,” both often with the additive “political,” “سياسي/ة,” and captive “ أسير/ة.” Captivity, أسر, refers to the capture of prisoners of war and is an explicit term for prisoners taken by a foreign power or in a colonial context. By definition and linguistic conventions, Palestinian prisoners taken by the Israeli military occupation are referred to as captives, asra, “أسرى,” whereas Arab prisoners imprisoned by their own regimes are deemed political prisoners and detainees.
English translations of Palestinian asra are inept at making this distinction, as Esmail Nashif discusses in his book, Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community. In choosing the English equivalent of “political captivity,” Nashif distinguishes a phenomenon characterized by ongoing colonial confrontation, while seeking as an ethnographer to “represent the community I work with as closely as possible to its perception of itself.”
It is a distinction between coloniality and authoritarianism I was sensitive to and especially made aware of in occupied Palestine. That following evening and for weeks after, I thought of the bookseller’s use of the term asra, and my friend’s nod in acknowledgement. Was it to reflect parallels made, perhaps inadvertently, by reference to one’s own positionality and frame of reference? How do the two phenomena relate, where do they coalesce and/or drastically diverge? Can they be put in conversation?
Such questions are inherently controversial for the potential danger they hold in flattening widely varying differences between a colonial context and an authoritarian one. That is to say that, falsely assuming both systems were created equal, it would merely become a competition of which prison system was “worse,” a crude olympics of pain, with no appreciable discussion of differing aims, structures, roles, or outcomes. It is an abuse exploited by many to compare “humane” colonial systems with “savage” dictatorial ones. Systems of different designs, playing distinct roles in their respective regimes, produce varied outcomes that do not lend themselves to easy comparisons.
Nor does it mean that coloniality is absent from the carceral regimes characterizing the rest of the Middle East and Arab world. No period of liberation in any such country led the new ruling regime to dissolve, or dramatically reshape, pre-existing colonial security apparatuses and prison structures. As Laleh Khalili and Jillian Schwedler point to in their book, Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion, colonial legacies played a key role in shaping current realities of policing, prisons, control, and surveillance in the Middle East. The practices and structures of colonial authorities and their local cronies were inherited and replicated by “post-colonial” dictatorships and carceral states.
In a region held captive by carceral regimes, imprisonment, torture, and political assassination loom large over the Arab world. The Arabic literary tradition is unique in designating an entire genre to the “prison novel.” Prison literature itself is intertwined with experimental shifts in Arabic literature and language. As a framing point, Arabic prison literature is able to coalesce the wide-ranging narratives of prisoners from the Arab world in a horizontal shift that does not aim to compare systems, but unite human experiences under a broader carceral reality. Even then, the parameters and capacity of the genre to capture and transcend particularities have been subject to critique. Yet as Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour notes, “the body of writings by political prisoners in the Arab world is…a larger canvas whose every detail has been paid for in sweat and blood, a Guernica of a sort produced not by an individual genius but by a collective who went through hell and came out.”
The current politics of visibility and solidarity vis-a-vis the West—whether tacitly or openly expressed—have had the effect of siloing revolutionary causes, including the cause of political prisoners, into distinct camps with their respective audiences. An individualized neoliberal olympics of pain anchors the human rights field and drives the competition for global solidarity: who suffers most, in what horrific ways, and under what type of regime?The answers determine the categorization, or dismissal, of causes that are given solidarity. This phenomenon has had profound effects on the MENA region and the Arab world, for whom the West has always been the determining force of their fates. Political dogma and the vicious olympics of pain is replicated in the region to subjugate one struggle under another, while losing sight of the darker carceral reality that unites them all. More importantly, it loses sight of collective liberation.
Yet increasingly, individuals and movements have emerged to reject the antagonism of siloed causes and exceptionality and to reify horizontal solidarities that were once essential to the Arab world. The shift to the prisoner as a framing point is not only meant to emphasize humanistic sympathies, but solidarity too, illuminating parallels and distinctions that move beyond false and base comparisons. The MENA Prison Forum, a project of UMAM D&R, serves as one innovation aimed at coalescing the experiences and subjects of prisoners in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bahrain, Sudan, Turkey, and even Guantanamo Bay.
Activists, most often former or current political prisoners and their families in the diaspora, have drawn on their own experiences in conjunction with prisoners elsewhere to underscore a joint carceral reality, a unified prisoners’ cause, and the necessity of collective liberation. Nowhere has this been more clear in recent times than the global movement to free Alaa Abdelfattah, Egyptian writer, revolutionary, and political prisoner. The grassroots campaign, spearheaded by his family, his mother and sisters, climaxed with the UN climate summit COP 27 held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022, miles away from where Alaa languished on his seventh month of hunger strike.
The global campaign succeeded in capturing Western attention, but the resonance and solidarity that emerged in the MENA region and the diaspora signaled a rare and power ful moment of collective revolutionary fervor. Alaa, who himself had drawn the lines of solidarity between Palestine, movements in the Arab world, and the Global South, represented the systematic and crushing carceral reality that continues to hold the region captive. As Alaa struggles to be free, so do the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners held across the region, lending their solidarity as he once did them, and reminding all those watching that their cause is one.
In occupied Nazareth, Baladna, a Palestinian youth cooperative, recently hosted a solidarity event for Alaa titled, “من فلسطين الى مصر: الحرية لجميع الاسرى والاسيرات.” The translation, somewhat inadequate, can be read as, “From Palestine to Egypt: Freedom for All Captives.”[i] Again, the paralleled use of the term “captives” is used in a nod to the distinct labels of “captives,” asra, and “detainees,” mu’taqaleen. Is the title then a reference to positionality or a nod to solidarity? Among the speakers listed is Yasser Khanjar, a Syrian poet and former political prisoner from the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan. The choice of speakers is another pointed nod to the plight of Palestinian and Syrian Golani captives held under Israeli occupation, and that of Syrian, Egyptian, and Arab political prisoners elsewhere in the region.
There remains a nascent and needed discussion that seeks to put the subjects of prison and prisoners in MENA region and in the Arab world in conversation with each other in a horizontal shift—much in the way (in)advertently, though by no means perfectly, done by Arabic prison literature—that does not fall to lazy pitfalls and political dogma. Nor should it fall for the Western gaze. It is a vivid internal conversation to be had, with all the necessary distinctions and sensitivities, for and by the region held captive.
Author’s note: This piece takes as its entrypoint Arabic-language prison literature, which was both a function of the landscape situating my research at Birzeit University, in occupied Palestine, and because it groups one vast collection of prison writings from detainees writing from the Arab world. Of course, Arab or Arabic-language prison literature is not exhaustive to prison literature from elsewhere in the MENA region (i.e. Turkey/Iran), or, equally as important, non-Arab writings (i.e. Kurdish/Amazigh) from within and outside of the Arab world.
Ayah Kutmah is a former Visiting Research Fellow at the Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University. She previously worked with Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. Ayah received her BA from the University of Michigan, and was a 2020-21 U.S. Fulbright recipient to the occupied West Bank.
[i]A more literal translation would note the bifurcated terms “asra” (male captives) and “aseerat” (female captives), which seeks to further emphasize the plight of female political prisoners.