My Road From Damascus documents years spent in Syria's prisons — read an excerpt now
My Road from Damascus is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
WARNING: This excerpt contains strong language.
Jamal Saeed sought refuge in Canada in 2016 after being imprisoned three times for a total of 12 years in his native Syria. Imprisoned for his political writing and his opposition to the regimes of the al-Assads, Saeed spent years in Syria's most notorious military prisons. My Road from Damascus, translated by Catherine Cobham, tells the story of his life as he chronicles the sociopolitical landscape in Syria since the 1950s and his hope for the future.
The Kingston, Ont.-based Saeed spent 12 years as a prisoner of conscience in Syria before being invited to Canada in 2016. He continues to raise awareness about Syria's ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis through his work as an activist, editor, visual artist and author.
My Road from Damascus is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $75,000 prize is awarded annually to the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced on Nov. 21, 2023.
You can read an excerpt of My Road from Damascus below.
As the steel door swung open, seven soldiers, all shouting orders and obscenities, rushed into our cold, dark prison cell.
"Faces to the wall, you sons of bitches," they screamed at the three of us. "Hands behind your backs, animals."
"Lower your shit-filled heads and shut your eyes, bastards!"
I knew from the 12 years I'd spent in half a dozen Syrian prisons that the presence of many soldiers meant that one, or perhaps all of us, were about to be taken to meet an important army officer. They bound our hands, covered our eyes, and roughly stuffed cotton wool in our ears to make sure we couldn't hear what was being said unless they wanted us to. Suddenly, I was being dragged along the floor, pulled tripping up a flight of stairs, then jerked to a stop. The cotton wool was yanked from my ears, and I heard what I assumed was an officer's voice.
They bound our hands, covered our eyes, and roughly stuffed cotton wool in our ears to make sure we couldn't hear what was being said unless they wanted us to.
"What did you do after you got out of prison, Jamal?" he asked quietly. "The first time..."
"Was there a second time?" came the voice, detached from its body. "They detained me a month ago."
"Do you call that being detained? You didn't even spend a week with us, not even enough time to warm the floor under your ass. The important thing is, Jamal, what did you do after you left us?"
"I helped my family on the farm and then came to Damascus at the beginning of winter to carry on with my university studies."
"I'll make it easier for you, you piece of shit," he said, his tone changing. "What was the printing you did?"
"Some designs for silk-screen printing in the Faihaa printing works. I still design for them and get paid by the piece."
"What kind of designs do you do?" "Butterflies... birds, flowers, fruit."
"You're lying, you son of a whore!"
"Your mother is no better than mine," I answered boldly. "There's no need for street language."
At this point he went wild and began to shout like a maniac. "Take this insolent bastard away. Execute him. We 've got seventeen million people in Syria. We don't need this dog."
I raised my head and said clearly, "I am not a dog."
I didn't have anything to confess. I was genuinely busy with my studies and earning enough to survive.
He repeated his order, his voice almost hoarse from the strain. "Take him away. Execute him at once. We don't need these sons of whores." I thought of saying something but made do with a scornful smile. "You shit!" he shouted. "Are you laughing at me? I swear to Allah, I'll make dog food of you! Take him away!"
This wasn't the first time I'd received abuse from an officer or been accused of treason because I'd helped print or distribute political leaflets. But, on this occasion, I wasn't protecting anyone by suffering torture and abuse. I didn't have anything to confess. I was genuinely busy with my studies and earning enough to survive. I wasn't lying.
A soldier took hold of my arm and dragged me down more stairs to what I imagined was the interrogation room, the place where my life was to end. He left me standing alone, expecting the inevitable. And then I heard the door lock, and it became very silent.
Suddenly, my memory released a host of images and smells — things from the past that felt so real I forgot I was about to die.
Suddenly, my memory released a host of images and smells — things from the past that felt so real I forgot I was about to die. Maybe this illogical response to what should have been a terrifying situation was a manifestation of the awful despair that had set in the moment I was once again arrested.
I pictured the line that the rubber tube had made on my forehead. I'd seen this mark on the heads of many after they returned to their cell after interrogation, if they did return. As I waited alone in a locked room for my death sentence to be carried out, scenes from the past continued to follow one after another with amazing clarity. I could almost touch the white lace collar and sleeves of Barbara's red dress. At five years old, I was fascinated by the elegance of Barbara, the youngest daughter of the asphalt quarry manager. I scratched my back with my bound hands. It's as if the barbed wire I'd crawled under to meet Barbara more than a quarter of a century earlier is again scratching my back. My mother used to smile when she saw us together, Barbara and me, and point out I was three months older than her to the day. I see my mother's expression when I was released for the first time after my prolonged absence of about eleven years. I revel in the flood of joy that made her walk around the house in a daze, turning back to hug me again the instant she left, saying a few more words, her brief utterances dominating all other sounds, clear and warm: "My heart was lying at the crossroads, waiting for your footsteps, and now you've returned my heart has returned to my chest," and "The hard waiting is over," and "Thank Allah we're no longer behind bars," speaking as if she had just come out of prison too. She pulls me to her, and I smell her scent and feel the heat of the tears falling on my face. Later I see the gleam of delight in her eyes as she welcomes the neighbors who have flocked to congratulate us on my release. They crowd around to see whether I am still like other people, if I can talk and see and hear, and if I still have five fingers on each hand after my long spell of incarceration. I can tell from the looks in their eyes and the questions they asked me that they are keen to investigate the impact of prison on my mind and body. Some are not afraid to blame me and call me stupid, believing I've damaged both myself and my family. I can see the effect of the passing years on them. Gray hair, wrinkles, baldness, and fat bellies prevented me from recognizing a few of the old ones, and recognizing the young ones, whom I've not seen since they were children, is even more difficult.
I see my mother's expression when I was released for the first time after my prolonged absence of about eleven years.
Waiting to be executed, I remember as clearly as if I could see them, many of the other people I'd known in different Syrian towns: children, men, and women, old and young; relatives, friends, and those who'd shared in the painful experiences of prison; interrogators out of control in the interrogation branch in Latakia; doomsday in cellblock seven in the military's special investigation branch in Damascus; prisoners of conscience, murderers, thieves, drug dealers, cats, rats, and police in al-Qala'a prison; bodies exhausted by fear, faces distorted by terror, souls brutalized by humiliation in Tadmur prison. The faces of women I'd loved and cried over when they left, and those of the ones who loved me and who cried when I left. Informers for the intelligence services who visited me diligently after my release on the pretext of asking after my health. A great gathering of people, birds, beasts, with their features crystal clear; springs, rivers, different places by the sea, rough tracks, paved roads, and even familiar rocky outcrops. I am completely absorbed by this throng of images, smells, and the sounds my memory yields, sharper and more delicate than I would have believed possible, and in that moment I really forget where I am. I don't think about how my brazen answers to the officer had just slammed the door on my future.
I am devouring life avidly as if it only existed in the past when the door of the interrogation room opens and footsteps approach.
I am devouring life avidly as if it only existed in the past when the door of the interrogation room opens and footsteps approach. I brace myself for the end, but nothing. If only I could move my hand, I would pull the blind- fold away from my eyes. Has the soldier who entered the room changed his mind and left again? Or is he standing close to me this very second? I picture the room full of instruments of torture: an old tire, electric cables, clubs, a German chair, water, and a packet of pins on the metal table where the interrogator usually sat. Big strong torturers no more than twenty-five years old will show up at any moment.
Excerpted in part from My Road from Damascus: A Memoir by Jamal Saeed. Copyright © by Jamal Saeed, 2022. Published by ECW Press Ltd. www.ecwpress.com