Sherif Hetata “The Military Prison” Excerpts from the Memoir

Translated by Bassam K. Frangieh and Julie S. Ahn

Sherif Hetata (13 September 1923 – 22 May 2017

I woke up suddenly at the sound of footsteps approaching next to the window and behind the door of my room. I glanced at my watch on my wrist. The hands of the clock slowly lightened up in a green glow to indicate that it was four o’clock in the morning. Realizing what would happen in the coming moments, I quickly put on my clothes in the darkness, throwing the bed sheets onto the floor. I sat on the edge of my bed, waiting.

The door of the room opened with a soft creak. A weak, faint light crept into the room, and I could see a figure standing in the doorway. Suddenly the light switched on, overpowering me so that I could not see anything. I saw a tall man with a pale face enter the room, pointing a black object at me. He said with a high-pitched voice ringing strangely in the silence, “I believe you are Dr. Sherif Hetata?”
I replied, “Yes.”
He said waving the gun he was carrying, “Come with us. You seem to be ready?”
I stood up without answering him. Then I said, “I have a bag with my clothes and some things I might need.”
He said, “No need for it. We don’t have time.”
“But it is ready.”
He raised his voice angrily, “You are not going to take anything with you! Move it, Mr. Sherif!”

I went with him into the hall where a number of men wearing regular clothing were standing. We went down the stairs while the men remained in the hall. In the street, three or four more men surrounded me.

The man walked next to me, and another tall man like him with a mustache walked on my other side. The sky was clear, and the trees gently rustled under the light of the moon. I filled my lungs with a deep breath as if I had ascended from the bottom of the sea after a long moment of drowning. I heard a husky voice behind me say, “Move it, quickly.” I said to myself that their voices always disrupt the tranquility of the beautiful night.

I sat in the back seat of the car between two men. In the front seat sat the man who first came to me. I saw him place his gun in a holster under his arm. He was shaven and handsome, and he seemed like a policeman who wanted to quickly climb the ladder of promotion.
The car sped down the empty street that was lit by street lights. I felt like an exile who leaves his dear homeland but does not know when he will return. Despite this, I had a feeling of comfort from this suffering. There is no longer any need for me to continually move, think, or make any effort. From now on, I’m being carried on a boat whose oars are controlled by someone other than me.

I looked at the officer sitting next to the driver. He took out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and held it out to me saying, “Take a cigarette.”
Suddenly, at that moment, I decided to stop smoking. The spirit of resistance awoke inside of me as if I was collecting myself anew. I said, “Thank you. I don’t want to smoke.”
“Aren’t you a smoker?”
I felt him examining me with his eyes.
“Yes, but I do not want to smoke now.”

The car arrived in front of a big gate that was open as if it was waiting for our arrival. The soldier guards stood up from both sides and saluted. I saw the gate closing behind us after two cars passed through it. For a moment, I felt that my life was behind me.

They led me into a yard covered with sand. In the horizon there was a faint light, and around me there were low buildings, unlike the buildings of the prison. They forced me to sit in a small room where there was an officer wearing a military uniform. He stood up, saluted, and then sat back down. He opened the drawer of the desk and took out a pen and a notebook. He licked his finger and started flipping through the pages of the notebook. His hands were unusually large. He took my watch and my wallet away from me and wrote down the amount of money in the wallet after he asked my name. He asked me to take off my belt, my shoelaces, and my glasses. He took them from me and put them on the desk next to the watch, wallet, and the three Egyptian pounds which were taken out from my wallet.

The tall, tan, thick-jawed sergeant led me out of the room back to the yard. In the horizon I saw a glowing, rosy light. We walked for some time on the sand. I heard our heavy steps in the silence. We arrived at a wall with a door, and we entered through it. I found myself inside a sandy square area surrounded by doors on all four sides. In the middle there was a low structure resembling the stalls of bathrooms.

The sergeant opened a door and pushed me through it, and I found myself in a cell. The cell had a metal bed with a brown sheet, a table, a chair, and a plastic bucket. He closed the door behind me without saying anything. I heard the metal bolt squeeze into the metal ring, and I heard the sound of keys clanking inside the lock, steps fading, and then silence.

Thus, I entered the military prison on the dawn of the third of November, 1953. At night the cell continues to drown in pitch darkness, without a glimpse of light penetrating it. During the day, grey rays of light appear from an open hole in the ceiling. I see a piece of the sky through the iron bars across the hole. The cold air falls from above and slips through from under the door. I protect myself with the thin, coarse blanket. I curl up under it like a hedgehog, searching for warmth in my shivering body. My ears try to pick up any sound in the silence, straining throughout the hours. From time to time I hear the sounds of footsteps and muttering approaching the door, only to quickly fade away. Sometimes I hear coughing or the wind whistling in the emptiness. Sand blows into the cell from under the door as if the sand would gradually bury me in this place they had left me in, as if they had decided to finish me completely.

When the cell becomes dark, I feel sharp bites on my skin, similar to the pokes of a needle heated in the fire. I examine the cell and all of its contents for days, searching for the source of this torture, until I discover the small holes in the wall where the bed bugs hide during the day in order to attack my body at night. I used crumbs of bread, which they brought to me three times a day, to close the holes. After that, the biting became less frequent, and I was able to sleep a few broken hours, moving from daydreams to nightmares.

I began to move around in the cell in order to exercise my muscles and joints, which were stiff from the cold and lack of movement. When I hear voices, I get close to the dark green door to see if I can pick up some words, but each time the voices quickly fade away or keep a certain distance from the door. I search for a way to pass the time. I study the walls, the ceiling, the ground, and the furniture. I create illusionary plans to escape, but they soon clash with the tightening barriers of the siege of reality. I try to absorb the things in front of me to replace these illusionary plans. I study each detail with interest, however small – each line, each dot, each hole, and each shadow on the wall, the door, the bed, and the furniture.

I discovered traces left by those who preceded me in this place. There were lines that recorded the number of days and names written in black and brown fingerprints on the top of the door. One of the markings read: “God help those who enter this place.” I remain still, staring at the sentence as if it didn’t mean a thing to me or as if it was written to someone other than me. My senses became numb. The fear of the unknown that overcame me when they first dragged me far away from life and into this cell disappeared. The first sensations of being lost disappeared, and these feelings were replaced by a sense of contemplation and curiosity to know what might happen to me. I didn’t mind waiting. A strange mood of indifference dawned upon me – or maybe impudence – to protect me from my worries and confusion, as if it was an instinctive reaction to resist the harsh psychological conditions, which was purposely imposed on me by the intelligence agency.

One day while I was walking back and forth in the cell, a paranoia that someone was closely following me overcame me. I looked at the door, only to see the cover of the peephole raised and a small, dark eye peering at me like the eye of an animal lurking for its prey. When my eyes met the eye, the cover was immediately lowered. I realized that they were regularly watching me and my movements. Every detail linked to me, whether I was asleep or awake, was under thorough examination. They studied my psychological condition, my behaviors, my features, and my appearance to determine whether they could penetrate my soul and break my spirit.
This surveillance later inspired me to write my first novel after I left the prison, which I named, “The Eye with the Metal Eyelid,” referring to the peephole that existed in the door of the cell.
It was a short, quick moment. During it, I felt as if time had stopped. It was like a silent duel against an enemy who hides so I can’t see him. Yet, when the metal eyelid lowered, it seemed to me that I had achieved victory because it was the rival who disappeared and not me. He was unable to confront my looks and didn’t open the door to reveal himself.


The door opens three times a day so that the tan sergeant with his angry face and his prominent, large jaw appears. Every time he brings three men with him. The three men wear shirts too small for them, revealing their bare stomachs and pants that barely cover their knees as if they were made for a boy with a small body. Their clothes added misery to the obvious misery written on their features. Their darting eyes were filled with fear of punishment that might fall upon them for the most trivial reasons in order to insult them or to satisfy the mood of the prison warden. They were soldiers sentenced with jail time for their violations of the prison system and the harsh military law. One of them carries an aluminum pitcher and a number of metal cups. He pours a dark liquid they call “tea” into my cup. The second man places a plate of frozen yellow paste that is actually lentil, a loaf of moldy bread, and a little bit of coarse salt on the table that is made of a thin metal sheet. The third carries the black plastic bucket outside the room and replaces it with another bucket, which emits a stinking smell that gives me nausea.

The whole process does not last more than a minute. They close the door after that without a word. When they come to deliver yellow paste, I know that this is lunch and that we have passed midday. If they come with cheese, I know that it is breakfast and that we are in the morning. If they come with a dish of thin white bread with liquid containing bits of green herbs and a piece of meat, I know that it is dinner and that the day has almost passed for the night to come. I force myself to eat the food, and then I lie on the bed, for the day has ended for me. Nothing remained for me except for the attempt to sleep until the morning came.

I fell asleep without effort, but suddenly I felt as if I was descending quickly into a coal mine. I opened my eyes. I noticed the door was open. I heard steps approaching, and then the light was turned on in the cell. I got up from my sleep, and I stood up in the middle of the room. Some time passed before I recognized the presence of three men who stood in front of the open door and were looking at me in silence. Two of them were officers and the third was the sergeant. One of the soldiers took off his hat despite the cold, and he tucked it under his armpit. I saw his bald head shining under the light. He wore glasses gilded in gold. The second officer was a tall young man with broad shoulders. His bluish-greenish eyes examined me from under his cap with a look full of anger as if there was an old revenge between us. The first officer was standing one step in front of the second, so I thought he must be older in age and in rank. Perhaps he was the commander of the prison. I stood before them for a long time before I heard the voice of the commander asking me, “Do you want anything, doctor?”

The tone was polite, so I took it as a good sign. “Yes, I need clothes, towels, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. I also need the glasses they took from me.”
He said, “We will discuss clothing,” and he fell silent.
So I asked, “What about my glasses?”
“We will not return it to you now.”
He hesitated for a moment before answering. Then he said, “Because perhaps you will use it to harm yourself.”
I did not understand what he meant. Just as I was about to ask, he added quickly, “Shut the door, Owais.”
I sat at the edge of the bed. I felt dazed as if I had woken up from a dream. The three men had left suddenly in the middle of the night, but their words return, leaving a sentence replaying in my head, “Perhaps you will use the glasses to harm yourself.” How? Suddenly I realized. He meant I can cut a vein in the neck or the wrist using the glass from my glasses. But what would make me commit such an act, to attempt suicide?

I feel fear creep into me. I curl up under the blanket. The cold this night felt more intense than all the previous times since I had first arrived. Two weeks passed, or more, or less. I lay on my bed. A ray of light penetrated from under the door some nights as if they were lighting up lanterns. The door opened and the sergeant, “Owais,” appeared. I noticed his dark features, with his overwhelming anger dominating his face. He uttered words that I almost could not pick up, “You are requested by the administration. Put on your clothes.”

I got up. I take off my garment, and I put on clean clothes which were sent to me from the house inside a bundle. I go out in the night lit up by yellow lanterns hanging above several doors. Our steps on the sand echo in the emptiness, clashing against the walls to create hollow sounds. The atmosphere is desolate and silent. There is nothing except for doors, walls, yellow areas, and shadows.

We arrive at a place that looked like a garden. There were dying trees, flowers that were wilting and breaking, and plants that were like long arms covered with thorns. We walk on a path, and I find myself in front of a building with a low ceiling and brown windows. We climb up some stairs into a balcony that surrounded the building, and we enter through the open door. We walk into a long hallway, its ground covered with dark red linoleum. The sergeant opened a door at the end of the hallway to the right. He pushed me into the room and left, locking the door with a key, which screeched in the silence like a sound crying for help.

I look around the room which I was put in. The ceilings, walls, and ground were made of cement, grey in color and rough in touch. The walls seem to be thick. The room is lit by a florescent lamp fixed to the ceiling. There is nothing in the room except two chairs made of wood, placed facing each other. The distance between them was no more than one meter.

I sit on one of the two chairs. The existence of the second chair indicated that it was prepared for another person, and I just had to wait for him. Something in the atmosphere told me that the time was a little before dawn. Time stopped as if it was hanging between sleeping and awakening, or between life and death. The fluorescent light swayed back and forth like a slaughtered man warning me of what is yet to come.

Half an hour passed or longer, and I was still waiting. My mind traveled to things far away. I was in a tent of examinations, and I’m focused on writing the answers. The weather is hot and beads of sweat fall on the papers. I see the ink running, so I dry it with blotting paper. I entered another tent where there was a German circus, built in a land of exhibits. I see a lion jumping through a big hoop lit by fire, and then I see a grinning clown as if he was mocking me. These images quickly flash through my mind like dreams in order to occupy my mind rather than allow it to ponder on the unknown or the upcoming interrogation. I wonder if the torture will begin between these thick cement walls which no sound can penetrate.

I hear the sound of the door opening, so I turn around. A tall man enters, lowering his head in order not to hit the doorframe. I see his black hair shining in the light. He is wearing a navy-colored jacket and a shirt made of silk as if he is going to an evening party or a wedding. The reflection of the light added a faded blueness to his pale complexion. He is shaven and has a prominent nose. I smelt the same distinct cologne scent which I smelt in the car the night I was arrested.

He looked at my crossed legs. He sat, stretching his long legs over the ground. He took out a cigarette and tapped it on the table before he lit it. He blew out a thread of smoke while he was contemplating his feet. Then he fixed his position in his chair and looked at me and said, “How are you, Sherif?”

I was bothered that he used my name without my title as if he knew me well or that I was a person ranked below him. It occurred to me for a moment to comment on something, but I preferred silence. I said, “Not bad.”
He smiled with a sense of satisfaction. His smile seemed unbefitting on his shaven face. He said, “I want to frankly talk with you, so don’t put barriers between us. I know your family, and I am friends with some of them through the Aljazeera basketball club team. Consider me as your brother who feels distress for your situation.”

I did not comment, and he went on to say, “I advise you for your own benefit. I know that you are a distinguished and intelligent man, and that there are many opportunities before you in your career. What did you gain from all you have done in your previous years? You will waste your life without achieving any of the goals you have. You will not be able to fight the state. It is better for you to wake up and pay attention to yourself instead of running behind meaningless illusions.”
He fell silent for a long time, and he looked at my face as if he was examining the effects of his words. I said, “What do you want from me?”
“I want nothing from you except for you to be reasonable, to use your own mind and not to follow other people beneath you in status and in intellect. Don’t you have an independent character, my friend? Before you is the opportunity to return to your life, to return to your career, to get out of here. If you do not take advantage of this opportunity, you will remain a prisoner until no one knows what time it is. And perhaps you will be exposed to something worse than prison. So what will you choose?”
“Of course I choose to leave.”

A satisfactory smile appeared on his lips. He leaned closer to me, “Well, we are finally beginning to understand each other. Getting out of here is not as difficult as you might think. On the contrary, it does not require much. It is an easy matter. It is in your own hands. Nobody can achieve it except for you. I’m ready to help you if you trust me and if you do exactly what we agree on.”
I looked into his bulging eyes as if his efforts were making him tired. I asked him, “What is required of me?”
“First, you must be frank with me and not hide anything from me.”
“What is the thing you want me to talk about?”
“About what you have done, my friend. Why do you hide it? Aren’t you convinced by it?”
“I don’t understand what you mean exactly.”
He drew back from me with annoyance. There was a sharp change in his tone, “I thought you were more intelligent and courageous. It seems that gentleness doesn’t work with you. Don’t you know that we can bury you here without anyone knowing?”
“I do not think this is possible.”
“Where did this confidence come from? You are dreaming. This is no longer a game. You must realize this by now. A time has passed, and now a new time has come. The state is capable of destroying you and people like you and everyone who is in the way of the state.”
I remained silent. I hear the words, but they have no effect on me. I feel as if the world is far away, or perhaps I do not hear the words at all. Everything seems strange and unreal like a dream. I hear his words without thinking of the meaning as if I had already decided and made up my mind before he came.

He found me silent, so the silence encouraged him. He came close to me once again, and he returned to his style of friendliness. “You are still a young man, and your whole life stretches before you. Isn’t your past suffering sufficient? I do not ask much of you except that you say things without fear. Nobody shall ever know about our conversation. Not even your colleagues, if you are afraid that any of them will find out. Then why do you care about them? They are not like you. They do not have the opportunities that are available to you, and they do not have your status, so why do you waste your life with them?”

“I have nothing to say to you, and I do not hide anything from you as you think.”
He stood and came close to me. His features convulsed and his voice became angry. “Mr. Sherif, pay attention. We know everything about you, and there is no benefit from staying silent. We know the smallest details about you. Do you want me to give an example of what we know? Aren’t you inflicted with a sore that is unhealed?”

I looked at him. I was astonished. I did not understand what he meant. He laughed a ridiculous laugh and said, “Don’t you have a sore in the anus that is still unhealed?”
He stared deeply into my face, and then he turned and knocked on the door with both of his hands. The door opened. Owais entered, saluting him with one hand and holding the keys in his other. The man pointed at me with a flick of his hand disrespectfully as if he was kicking me out. “Go ahead and take him with you. Tomorrow he will be more reasonable than he is now.”

On the return to my cell, the sun was ascending in the horizon behind the buildings of the prison. I felt dizzy, and my head was buzzing. How did the man know that I had a sore in the anus and I had been receiving treatment for it? No one except for me knew this fact. I hear his words in my ears. It was penetrating my head like nails. The breath of the cold winds hit my body, making me feel lost in exile, desolate and empty of people. But it also wakes me up, so when we returned to the cell, I had regained part of the balance that I had lost.

I found a soldier waiting for us at the door of the cell, carrying long things in his hands that looks like snakes. My mind was occupied so I didn’t pay attention. Owais entered the cell. He put me in the middle of the room. Then he asked me to put my hands behind my back and to separate my feet from each other. The soldier walked behind me. I heard him drop something on the floor with a clanging sound. I felt the coldness of iron over my wrists. My two hands were shackled so that I could not separate one from the other. The soldier walked in front of me and stood before me again. He wrapped a belt made of leather around my waist, and he firmly buckled it with his hands. Two separate chains hung from the belt. Each one ended with a curved hook with a protruding nail. He kneeled down and fixed each of these hooks to my ankles. He hammered the nails into the cuffs with a hammer from his pocket. The soldier left, and Owais turned off the light and closed the door. I heard him shut the bolt, and I found myself standing in the darkness. My hands are chained behind my back, and the belt was pulling on my waist and my legs. With every movement the chains clanked. My movements were restricted. There is no way to lie down except to lay on one side of the body, where I can put one leg over the other leg. If I want to stand, I move my body close to the edge of the bed, put my two feet on the ground, then put my weight on them and use my forearm to erect my body. If my bladder filled up and I wanted to urinate, I have to stand close to the plastic bucket and lean one of my shoulders against the wall and then bend my two knees in a strange dancing movement to unzip my pants in order for my penis to come out and urinate. When they bring food, they undo the chains on my wrists. When I am done eating, they chain them again.

I am no longer aware of the time. Time passes slowly, lethargically, but it continues to pass. I observe its passing by the light, the shadows that move on the ground and the walls, or with the three meals a day. The days lose their numbers and their names. I feel pain in my hands and my fingers because of the pressure of the chains. My shackled movements limited me and created rage, and my hatred increased towards those who put me in this place. They treated me like an animal or less than an animal for no reason except that I expressed an opinion different from theirs. I said to myself, do they think that they will get me like this? No, I shall never utter the words they want.

Therefore, when they began to beat me, I was prepared to face more of their ruthlessness and violence. Their beating did not reach the level of the kind of tortures that I had read or heard about. They only slapped my face and my back and beat me with their fists or kicked me with their thick boots. Sometimes they beat my body with rods over the back or my rear-end while I am lying on the floor. These aggressions were repeated for a period of one week or more, and the sergeant and a number of soldiers participated in it, but the officers stayed away from the beatings. They gave the orders from behind, and they followed what happens to us without making an appearance. Then the beatings stopped. Yet, the solitary confinement remained the same, without books, without a break to walk around, and without an opportunity to talk to anyone.
The most difficult thing in the prison is the system which they call solitary confinement. The creators of this system of injustice, cruelty, and torture in the prisons know this very well. They use it to destroy the morale of the political prisoner and smash his ability to resist. The human being is a being that lives through continuous exchange and intellectual nourishments, both psychological and physical, that comes from his surroundings, nature, scenery, the sounds, colors, music, books, movies, sports, conversations from people, and movements from life. Thus, if he is deprived from all of that and lives in silence in complete emptiness in a situation similar to death, then he loses the physical, emotional, and mental balances which allow him to live soundly as a human being. With the passing of time, he becomes a worn-out being without a will or without a character to distinguish him, making it easy to influence him and push him in any direction. Solitary confinement is exactly used for this purpose – to obtain information or create spies or other related police informants.

The days and hours slowly pass like a turtle that barely moves from its place. I lay on the bed or walk in the cell for hours. The door is dark green and the walls are white, dirtied by dust, adding an ugly color mixed with the traces of fingerprints, bed bugs, and spots of old blood. I memorized every crack in the wall, every hole, every curve by looking at them over and over to help me pass the time. The light is a grey color, and I almost lose myself in it or become a part of it. I completely lose myself, so that nothing can piece me together or create a pulse of life in me.

After the daytime, the night comes to wrap me in its darkness. The night surrounds me like a thick cover so that no ray of light can penetrate it. The stench of urine and feces creeps towards me from the bucket, intensifying particularly during the night. The stench ascends from the plastic bucket sitting in the corner of the room as well as from the other cells. It is not my own smell, otherwise I would be able to bear it, but it is the smell of other men remaining over the years. It is the smell of their excretion in the buckets placed in the cells and around the facilities, month after month, and year after year, till the point that these smells become a part of the place that I live in. It is a smell inside of me inducing disgust and vomiting and a feeling of humiliation and impotent rebellion, besieged in this dirty box that is not suitable even for animals. I am chained, which restricts my movements, even in this small space. It is as if my entire body has transformed into a large nose. These nostrils are connected to the urine bucket, inhaling over the hours until the morning. In addition to the smell, there are these small creatures that suck blood. They attack from the ceiling and from every crack or hole in the walls or the door or the bed or the table or the chair, or the hay and cotton layers of what is supposed to be my bed. They are armies of bed bugs, stinging without mercy, crawling over my body from top to bottom, from the front to the back, in order to inject hundreds of sharp needles in my skin so that my body transforms into a piece of burning hell. They do not stop as if each squad of bugs prepares the way for another squad to come after it.

There is only one thing I wait for impatiently. It is the quick visit of the sergeant with the prisoners who accompany him three times a day carrying meals. They come and go very quickly; their eyes are fixed on the ground and their features are frozen. The orders are strict, and they do not allow the exchange of one word or one sign, or even allow one look at me. Despite that, I still wait for them. They are my only connection to the outside world and the only proof that it is still existing and that I am a part of it. They are the only human existence in this dark cage, despite all the obvious depression on their faces and despite the apparent misery on their features and their bodies. I try to catch their eyes and look for a spark or a faded smile to move the lips, but this is all in vain. Yet, there is something in the gentleness of their movements and in the way they place the plates on the table, in the carefulness in which they pour the tea in the metal cups, in the movement of their bodies when they carry away the buckets to put a new one in its place. This all shows me that deep within, there are feelings of friendliness and solidarity that they choose to hide, a shared sense that we are of one fate and one injustice that unites us all. They leave and come in silence, but when they leave, they glance back as if they want to say something or want to give me a sign of something. But they cannot. It is as if they feel that it is difficult to leave me alone.

I become incapable of sleeping. I spend the entire night tossing and turning. During the day I move inside the cell until exhaustion overtakes me. But my body did not need this much rest and needed more movement. My mind was tense and filled with shocks similar to electrical charges, awake with hundreds of images crowding around and my mind going in empty circles. Time has no meaning, and the days pass wave after wave. These waves crash over unknown coasts, no different from today and yesterday, or from today and tomorrow.

Everything in the room is fixed. The room is four steps in length and two and a half in width. I count the steps as I hear the noise of my chains. The ground slants towards the dark green door, with a peephole lined by metal, as the one eye waits to quietly open the metal eyelid to watch the prisoner lying on his bed or standing to walk around the room hundreds of times inside the walls. It is a cold eye, waiting patiently for the victim to fall. The low ceiling seems as if it is descending gradually day after day to squeeze my head with its increasing weight. Every time I discover something new, I contemplate it; I study all its details. I taste the salt with the tip of my tongue when I scratch the skin with my nails. I follow the curving line of ants making their way from the open hole in the ceiling, down the walls to the asphalt ground, circling around the legs of the table, and then climbing up the legs of the table searching for the crumbs of the bread. I search for something all the time to keep me busy, to make time pass without feeling it pass.

Days, weeks, and months passed within the walls. I was saturated with humidity and filled with decay and stench of man. I spend the night awake by myself, and I see the light of dawn crawling from the open hole in the ceiling. I eat alone and drink alone and walk alone, and my voice vibrates in the cell alone without other voices. If I sleep, loneliness chases me. If the morning comes, I stretch my hands searching for a warm body next to me, but I find emptiness. I look around me. Perhaps I will find another human. But I only find the small table made of metal, and the drum-shaped stool for sitting, the bucket, and the walls.

I yearned for the sounds of talking, laughing, and singing, to hear the sounds of human voices in my ears instead of screaming. Throughout the days, weeks, and months, I was surrounded by eyes watching me without me seeing them, as if I were a wounded animal that had fallen into a trap and was waiting for the end. The armies of bed bugs crawled into me, piercing their sharp fangs into my flesh. Lice stung me under the layers of my undergarments, and I pulled them out of my shirt and squished them with my two fingers as if I were squishing my enemies. The stench of urine and feces and other rotten things accumulated from generations of inmates oppressed my breathing. I was besieged by the threats, the metal chains, bars, closed doors, sounds whispering in the darkness, anxieties of the coming moments, promises to exit out to the green freedom, and the yearning to lay my head on the breasts of a women and relax. I yearned for things that make humans human and make life out of this existence. I yearned to hear words in my ears, but I could not find anything except for silence. Long fingers wrap around my neck as if death is searching for the veins of my life. Death is the real face of this life. I didn’t see him before; I didn’t ever feel it. I didn’t know it even as a passing thought, but I see it now – ropes hanging down from the ceiling reaching out for my neck. Beneath my feet the ground cracks open. I see a deep hole in which I fall in, a hole in which all things end. I fall into endless darkness in which I do not come back from.

Sweat pours out of my body, and I shiver with internal fever. I put my head on the table. I surrendered to a fatal desperation. I cannot leave this place. Death is waiting for me. A revolutionary court they said to us. All this silence and secrecy, and all these pressures and military prisoners are a preparation for the sentence. I did not understand in the beginning that they were in need of examples of victims to terrify others who dare to talk.

Suddenly I stood up. My body shivered uncontrollably in despair. I spun around in the room kicking everything with the help of the chains wrapped around my feet. I was no longer conscious. A strong desire to destroy everything overcame me. I smashed the chair and the table. I poured the urine out of the bucket and stomped in it. I tore the blankets and the covers. Then I collapsed on the bed, weeping.


Owais opened the door in the morning. He glanced around, noticing the smashed chair and table. The table had lost its legs and was lying on its side in the corner. He saw the covers of the bed thrown on the ground, wet with urine. Then he withdrew, closing the door behind him.
I remained sitting on the bed, shaking from the cold and the fear of punishment that will fall upon me. Two hours passed or perhaps more. The door opened, and a soldier appeared along with two prisoners. They removed all the contents of the room except for the bed, and the soldier closed the door without saying anything. The cell was completely bare. They will leave me just like that for me to die. I returned to sit on the edge of the bed. A strong, uncontrollable shiver overtook me.

I paced around with short steps with the chains around my wrists. I heard the sound of the door open so I turned. The soldier returned with the two prisoners, carrying a chair, a table, a cover, blankets, and a bucket. All these things seemed new as if they were brought from the storage. They put everything in its place, and I watched in astonishment. Then they left, closing the door behind them. I sat on the chair and touched the table, its dark green color glistening. The bucket is new too, and it doesn’t smell. Is this a message that they are sending me? Are they telling me that everything I do is useless? Are they telling me, “If you hit your head against the wall, you will only end up hurting yourself”?

I returned to lie on the bed. I felt extremely weak. Every small movement was exhausting. I was almost incapable of moving my arms, which had a strange heaviness to them as if I were lifting a mountain. I remain motionless on the bed. I feel fatigue crawling into my mind. I want to close my eyes and to be absent from everything around me. I am calm now, but it is a terrifying calmness. It is the calmness of the horrible powerlessness, as if I am in the moment of death. I sink into paralysis. Anxiety rises in increasing waves, and drops of sweat drip down my face and seeps out of my body. I feel the drops rolling down my neck and down my chest and my stomach. My breathing quickens as if the air wasn’t entering my nose. My pulse weakens, and I can barely feel it at my wrist.

Fear overtook me. I realized that I was afflicted by the beginning stages of a nervous breakdown, and that it might lead me to something more dangerous if I did not strengthen myself to overcome it. But how could I overcome it? How could I resist the emptiness and fatal silence that makes me think all the time of what will happen to me? I fixate on my fate and the disasters that are waiting for me. My body must move in order to function properly. My body must sweat, get tired, and use its abilities to move with activity until the night when I sleep to get rid of every tension. My mind should be occupied like my body should be occupied with a variety of things that shouldn’t cycle into an empty, deadly circle. I must open a way for these built-up emotions to escape my mind and body in order to regain the balance that I was about to lose.

The way is to find for myself a method to occupy my mind and change the negative energy into positive energy. But how can I while I am restricted by metal chains? I make some physical movements up to which the chains allow. I could bend my torso and move my head to the right and to the left, forward and backward. I could sleep on my stomach. Lifting my legs and torso is a difficult movement, but it is useful for the back and for the muscles and the spine. I could lie on one side and lift my two tied legs in the air, and this is a very useful movement too. The metal chains that restrict me will increase the effectiveness of the drills because they add additional weight to my exercises. After I finish my exercises in the morning, I will remember in my mind the books I have read. The night is the best time. The imagination is wilder, and the mind is focused. In my imagination I can go to the movies or the theater. I could watch all the movies and plays that I saw in Cairo and Paris, and I could listen to the music that I used to listen to.
During the day I will prepare my defense. I must participate in defending myself and my thoughts. During the day time, I can also dance and sing. I won’t be alone. I will dance with a young woman I like, and I will enjoy the melody of the music and the movement of her body.
I woke up from my bed and began to dance to the jingling of the chains which were bouncing around my body.


A long year passed since that dance. After it passed, I realized that the prison does not succeed in destroying the man unless his imagination is imprisoned along with him. Then the days quickened. My life became full. I’m done writing the defense in my thoughts. The muscles in my back, legs, and stomach strengthened. I began to sleep like a baby, a deep sleep that nothing could interrupt. I eat my food with an appetite, and I rethink of everything I saw, read, and heard in order to discover things that I had not yet discovered. My daily routine began to occupy me all day and all night until sleep overtook me and wrapped me up.

One morning in the month of March, I was surprised when the door opened while I lay on the blanket spread across the floor, stretched on the blanket and raising my legs in one of my exercises. I saw the face of the officer over me, examining me with a look mixed with annoyance and astonishment. I stopped and sat in a squatting position, looking up at him. He said in an angry tone, “You’re an athletic man, Doctor. We will relieve you from the fetters of these chains so that you can practice your exercises lightly.”

One of the guards entered. He undid the chains at my wrists, then he kneeled and broke the metal rings tied around each of my feet with a strike of a small hammer he carried. I lifted the leather belt tied around my waist so the metal chains fell heavily on the ground. I felt like a flying bird.
The officer said, “Put on your clothes”
I asked “Where?”
He said, “You have no right to ask about anything.”

We left the small building to a larger one. We arrived at a large garden covered in green spaces with flowers scattered across, some yellow and some red. The garden is surrounded by a high wall stretched around it in a square shape. On the wall there are barbed wires, spot lights, and guard towers. Near the walls there were seats of hay spaced 20 meters from each other, with the seats positioned facing the wall and their backs towards the garden. Most of the seats were empty, but I saw some of the people who were sitting. The soldier who was accompanying me approached them and made me sit next to them. I sat on my seat, and I contemplated the changes that had suddenly occurred in my situation.

The soldier was standing far away watching us while he was leaning on a long stick. I glanced around without moving my head. To my right there was Ahmad Al-Rafa’ee. I gave him a nod, and he smiled back at me. The sun was radiating and was sneaking towards me with a pleasant warmth, so I left my body under its rays to absorb its warmth. I close my eyes, the warmth of the sun falling on my face. I feel it penetrating through my clothes, into my chest, into my stomach and falling down my legs to reach my feet. I take off my shoes and socks and expose my toes to the sun, and I lift my head so that the sun can hit the bottom of my chin.

I saw them leading a man wearing his pajamas to a seat near me. In the beginning I did not recognize him since the bones appeared in his face in a terrifying way. His face was colored a sickening paleness, which was mixed at his jaw with the blueness of the hair of his chin. His features had lost their life, and his face looked like a mask. I waved to him with a hidden movement of my hand, but it seemed that he was not paying any attention to me. I repeated my gesture to him, but he remained staring in front of him, not paying any attention to others and not knowing what was going on around him. On his face there were signs of sadness and brokenness. The way he sat showed signs of a man who had all his vitality sucked out of him, so that nothing remained of him except for an empty skeleton.

I continued to stare at Emad’s face. I tried again to attract his attention so that I could read any reaction from him that assured me, but it was all in vain. He continued to stare far away like a man who had lost his soul in the depth of a mighty mountain and is searching for his soul without success, like a sailor who had traveled in a voyage searching for a treasure in a far away unknown continent and returned from it, having lost his memory of everything.

Since that morning, the treatment inside the jail substantially changed. The officers of the prison and the intelligence began to lighten the restrictions on us and began to visit us more often. This change was an attempt to convince us to cease opposing the army and rather to support it. News reached us about a split in the army and the conflicts among the Free Officers and their relations to the Revolutionary Council. Some of the officers at the prison talked to us almost frankly about the issue of democracy in the movement of the army, so we felt that there were important developments. The idea that we will be taken to a revolutionary court began to fade away for a reason we do not know. Perhaps this would save us from facing a harsh fate that was prepared secretly by the higher circles. A harsh fate could mean hard labor for a number of us, and perhaps execution for one or two of us.

I met Emad during this period. He told me that he has to go frequently to the military hospital where he receives treatment through electrical shocks. He told me that he started to hear sounds in his ears and that the birds in the garden are talking to him. He asked me about the treatment by electrical shocks and its effects on him, and whether this could lead him to reveal some confessions. I assured him on this point. I told him I do not prepare such treatment, but perhaps in these prison circumstances there is no other treatment. I told him that his situation is temporary, resulting from the psychological pressures he was exposed to.

After they took off my metal chains, I began practicing my daily routines that I had made for myself with greater ease, and with the newly implemented daily walks, my health improved quickly.
Almost two weeks passed, and in the beginning of April we were deported to Egypt Prison except for a number of the accused who were released. Among them I remember: Hanafi Al-Sharif, a lawyer from the Wafd Party; the journalist Saad Kamel; Mr. Ahmad Rafa`ee and Doctor Fuad Munir, Kamal Abd Al-Haleem; as well as Yusuf Hilmi, who is a lawyer and member of the National Party and the Security General of the Council of the Egyptian Peace Supporters. I knew that they all signed a statement in which they supported the cause of Gamal Abd Al Nasser, but this statement was not shown to me or to any of the others accused in the case, and I only knew of this after many years had passed.

From al-Nawafidh al-Maftouha (The Open Windows: A memoir by Sherif Hetata), pp. 397-415. The Memoir was published by Dar Merit, Cairo, 2006. ISBN: 997-351-251-7, 680 pages.

Sherif Hetata (13 September 1923 – 22 May 2017) ) was born in London on 13 September 1923 to an Egyptian father, Fathallah Hetata Pasha, and an English Jewish mother. His father was a Western-educated, feudal landowner, and his family was upper middle class. After World War Two, Sherif Hetata joined the Egyptian communist movement Iskra, which led to his imprisonment in 1948. After being released in 1952, he was imprisoned again for his political beliefs and was not released until 1964, during Nasser’s presidency. He began his career as a novelist in 1967, and his novels include The Eye with an Iron Lid (1982) and The Net (1987), both with English editions translated by himself. He was married to the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi and translated a number of her works into English, including Woman At Point Zero (1990). A review of his memoir, al-Nawafith al-Maftouha (The Open Windows), was published in Banipal magazine issue 49 (2014)

Hetata was married to the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi until 2010; the couple met in 1964. The couple has one son, Atef, who is a film director in Egypt. From 2006 until his death Hetata was married to Egyptian writer and film critic Amal Elgamal


About the Translators

Bassam Frangieh is a Professor of Arabic at Claremont McKenna College and a scholar of contemporary Arabic literature and culture. Dr. Frangieh’s publications include An Introduction to Modern Arab Culture; Anthology of Arabic Literature, Culture, and Thought from Pre-Islamic Times to the Present; and Arabic for Life. He has translated books, novels, collections of poetry, and articles for widespread publication. His translated books include Love, Death, and Exile, a volume of poetry from the works of the renowned Iraqi poet Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati; and Sun on a Cloudy Day, a novel by the prominent Syrian writer Hanna Mina.
Julie Ahn is a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to joining the State Department, Julie lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and worked as a teacher. In addition to teaching, she volunteered at IDP camps in Irbil through World Vision International. Ms. Ahn earned a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and a BA in International Relations and Middle East Studies from Claremont McKenna College. She studied Arabic under Professor Frangieh, and took courses on Arab culture and thought, and Arabic media.