THE ARABIAN NIGHT

ACT 1: THREE WISHES

I entered my cell at around 8:15 p.m. last night. Seconds later, the steel door behind me began to close itself. clinkclinkclinkclinkCLUNK! I hate that sound! I once glued grey strips of sponge across the entire edge of the door hoping that it would mute this awful sound, but…

clinkclinkclinkclinkCLUNK!

If failure had a child, then that’s exactly what it would sound like!

Weekend nights in prison are incredibly boring, especially when you don’t have a T.V. Mine is still with the old man. I gave it to him as a gift and promised not to ask him back for it, so I guess I can’t call it “my” T.V. anymore.

I looked outside my window and saw nothing but night and snow. I stood there thinking about how to spend the last few hours of this boring night. I couldn’t think of anything, so I turned towards my desk and began to write.

I have a huge metal bin on top of my desk, which allows me to write while standing. I learned this “standing at your desk” technique from former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. I don’t think he’ll be too happy to hear that I’m benefitting from his wisdom, but at this point in time, as far as he is concerned, this fact remains an unknown unknown, and so, it shouldn’t bother him. (If you are too young to remember him, or simply wasn’t paying attention at the time, just YouTube “Rumsfeld Unknown Unknowns”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiPe1OiKQuk

Anyhow, a few seconds later… PUFFFFF!

I could see in my peripheral vision a fat, blue genie hovering in the air in front of my door. I paid no attention to him, and continued writing; such surprise night visitations don’t startle Middle Easterners.

As expected, using a thick accent, he offered me the customary three wishes.

I rolled my eyes, and continued to scribble away. I was playing hard to get. I had to! Every Middle Eastern kid knows what happens when you show too much eagerness to a genie.

He repeated his offer.

Still looking down at my desk, and sounding deeply annoyed, I said: “Give me a minute! I need to think about it!”

Filled with bottled excitement, I thought about my wishes. I thought about freedom. I thought about being reunited with my beloved daughter. I thought about my wonderful sister who has been my rock for all these years. I thought about my mother, father, and brother.

I thought about having all the money in the world.

I thought about being eternally young.

But then…

But then, I thought about the journey I’ve been on; despite all the pain, all the fear, and all the tears… despite the loneliness… despite being turned into an outcast… despite all of this, I thought about all the wonderful treasures that my heart has gained. I thought about all the knowledge and wisdom that I picked up along the way. I thought about how my character has been shaped and molded by the passing of the years… and finally, I thought about all the other treasures that still await me, and how I would miss out on them, if I simply abandoned my journey.

I looked hard at the paper on my desk for a moment, and then reached for the light switch, and retired to my bed.

I’m not sure if the genie bothered to take a look at what I wrote, after I fell asleep. But if he did, then he would have read this:

“Ancient wisdom teaches that the arrival of a good thing before its time spoils it.”

ACT 2: THREE STRIKES

clinkclinkclinkclinkDUFF!… No clunk this time. When the door opens, its just DUFF. I like DUFF! It’s gentler and more promising. Unless, of course, a bunch of guys are waiting to stab you on the other side of it, then CLUNK is definitely preferable.

It was 7:30 p.m. at night; yard and gym activities were supposed to begin two hours ago. I was ready as usual with my white fishnet sack that contained everything I needed for my outing. I usually take my prayer mat, workout pads, and a ball cap.

As I left my cell, I noticed that all the other cell doors were closed. Was I the only person going out to yard tonight? “The Bachelorette must be on”, I thought. I left my living unit, and proceeded through the seemingly endless and shifting corridors that eventually lead to the yard and gym. At the end of one of the shorter corridors, I noticed Officer Robinson waiting for me. Judging from the two golden stripes on his shoulders, I figured that he was the one in charge tonight.

A significant number of prison guards, if not the outright majority, classify inmates as a sub-human species. Mr. Robinson belonged to the minority; he was one of those people whose presence resurrected your faith in the universality of human decency.

As I approached him, he greeted me and asked how I was doing. His inquiry was genuine. I told him that I was fine and asked him what he needed. As he began to speak, I noticed a mixed expression of embarrassment and discomfort on his face:

“Amara, in the next hour, the U.S. President will declare his WBYWWFY policy.”

“What’s WBYWWFY ?” I asked.

“It stands for: “We’ll Drone You Wherever We Find You”. Its a new global military campaign that will target anyone, anywhere, even if they happen to be on U.S. friendly soil like Canada.”

“So, what does that have to do with me?”

“Corrections Canada believes that due to the vague and broad language of this policy, there is a possibility that you may become a target of a drone strike while you are out in the yard. So, they want you to sign this waiver in order to absolve them of any responsibility.”

I don’t know why, but I’ve always found signing documents irresistible. I’m like a crackhead when it comes to the dotted line. If I see it, I must sign it. So, sign I did, and ‘kept it moving’ as we say in prison. Mr. Robinson stood there silently; he seemed to be still struggling with all of this.

As I walked away, I heard him ask “Aren’t you afraid?”

I turned towards him and said: “I am, but there is an Arabic poem that goes:

Die by the tip of a sword 
Or the tip of a slipper
The causes for death are many
But death itself is one"

I was tempted to change the end of the first line to “The tip of a Hellfire missile”, but he would’ve probably called me out on my B.S.

I ‘kept it moving’ until I finally reached the central control area, and walked through the metal detector. It’s purpose was to prevent inmates from bringing shanks to and from the yard. Finally, the last corridor! I could see the light at the end of the tunnel!

“AA-MERAA!” The guard manning the metal detector called out from behind his counter.

My attention shifted from the thought of possibly getting drone struck, to the guard who appeared to be holding a large glazed doughnut in his left hand. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was just a plastic replica that was attached to the end of his key chain. I don’t mind doughnuts.

“Three strikes!” he said with a bulldog expression on his face. “You can’t go to yard tonight. Try again tomorrow.” There was satisfaction in his voice.

I have a triple-black-belt in conflict avoidance and a white-belt in self-esteem, so I politely turned towards him and asked, “What did I do wrong?”

“Well, Aa-mera, according to the new regulations, Maaa-zlim inmates are no longer allowed to take their prayer mats to the yard.”

“Why?”

“They’re a flight risk?”

“But this is not the flying type.” I politely protested.

“Can the naked eye distinguish between which is which Aa-mera?”

He got me there!

“Can’t argue with you on that one, sir.”

“Secondly, all inmates are now prohibited from keeping beards that are longer than .765433 cm. Long beards could be used to hide weapons and other contraband.”

“And what’s the third infraction?”

“The Administration has decided that you specifically are no longer allowed to wear shoes to the yard. This shouldn’t be a big hassle for you, since I see you camel jockeys wearing slippers in the desert all the time.”

“Your information about our footwear is very accurate, but why am I specifically not allowed to wear shoes?”

He reached under his counter and pulled out a gigantic 3-ring black binder that was labeled “Unknown Unknowns”. When he opened it wide on his counter, I noticed that it contained nothing! Yet, to my astonishment, he began to sift through it as if it was full of documents! He shifted back and forth, and at some point even licked the tips of his finger to separate between two invisible pages that were apparently stuck together.

“Aha!” he exclaimed when he finally found what he was looking for, and began to read:

“It says here: “There is unknown unknown evidence that indicates that Mr. Aa-mera has previously formulated an escape plan, and could potentially execute it when he feels the time is right.

PAUSE ||

My mind scrambled through my memories like a fighter jet seeking a target. How did they find out?! And which plan exactly are they talking about?

For one, there was that first night in prison when I fantasized about turning into an ant-sized version of myself, and then crawling beneath the door. This was a completely original idea! I honestly had no clue at the time that Ant-Man even existed.

Oh! I think I know… when I was at Canada’s Super Max, years ago, a great idea came to me as I was walking in the yard with another inmate. I suggested to him that if he ran around the yard for 30 minutes every day while flapping his arms like a bird, then eventually, after a very long time, he might grow feathers and fly his way to freedom. He pointed out that the snipers in the towers might shoot him down. I told him it was worth a shot!

Darn it. They must have overheard us. Or maybe, instead of transforming into an elegant bird, he simply took the path of least resistance, and devolved into a tail dragging rat!

Can’t trust anyone these days!

PLAY >

Jokes aside, humor has always been my way of coping with hardship. The harder my life gets, the funnier I get. I remember going back to the holding cells after receiving a life-sentence, and launching into a series of jokes about how I would deal with it. The truth is that I was hurting then, just as I was hurting now.

“Alright sir, I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.”

I felt dejected, and lowered my head in defeat as I left the central control area, and walked through the corridor that led back to my living unit.

Suddenly… PUFFFFF!

The opportunistic, blue genie appeared in front of me.

“I offer you three wishes!” he said with clear satisfaction in his voice, now that he thought I was desperate.

I looked at him with my sad eyes for a moment, and then simply walked past him.

After a few steps, I heard him repeat his offer again.

I stopped without turning and said:

“My only wish is that we can all one day see ourselves in each other.”

The genie instantly disappeared, never to be seen again…

ACT 3: THREE POINTER

I was in the prison gym the other night, shooting hoops. I can’t play anymore, I can only shoot – back problems at 33… or is it 34? Honestly, at this moment I’m not sure. Believe it or not, I spent most of my 31st year thinking that I was 32 years old until my actual 32nd year arrived and I realized my mistake. I felt frustrated when I discovered this because it meant that I had to mentally think of myself as a 32 year-old for two years in a row!

I could easily do the math and figure out my current age, but for some reason, I’m allowing the uncertainty to stick around like a half-welcomed squatter. (Definitely a topic for therapy!)

Anyhow, back to the basketball court… I’m a decent three-point shooter. A few years ago, I was one of the best in the building; I won the three-point competition twice, and even used to walk around the gym with an invisible championship belt, until I (invisibly) put it on the line, and lost it to a man called T. I desperately tried to win it back from him before he was released, but just couldn’t beat him. I wonder what he did with it? After he left I pretended to still have the belt, but it wasn’t the same. You can only lie to yourself for so long, even if no one calls you up on it.

But I’m digressing again… FOCUS… As I was shooting around, I saw the Warden walking in my direction. She never comes to the gym, so her visit was definitely unusual. I can’t lie, I was now trying extra hard to impress her, which led me to miss every shot.

“AMARA!” she yelled.

I tried to act cool despite my horrible performance, and walked over to the sideline where she was standing.

“Yes, Mrs. Colins, what would you like??”

“How are you?” she asked, without a trace of empathy.

“Just another day, Ma’am. What about you? You never come to the gym, what’s up?”

“Well, I have an offer for you.”

“Okay”

“If you manage to score the next three-pointer you take, we’ll commute your life sentence, and you’ll be a free man.”

“That’s funny” I said with my trade-mark 5% laugh.

“I’m serious. Here is the paperwork. Just sign over here if you agree.” She pointed at the dotted line.

“What if I miss?” I asked.

“If you miss, then you’ll have to enter the Environmentally Friendly Energy Initiative that we just started here at Millhaven Institution.”

“What’s that about?”

“Its a fantastic new method of producing environmentally friendly energy to power up the building, by harvesting it from the bodies of permanently unconscious inmates.”

“You mean like The Matrix?”

“Exactly.”

“Where do I sign?”

“Right here.”

I already told you about me and dotted lines, so don’t bother trying to figure out what I was thinking as I nonchalantly signed the document.

I grabbed the ball, headed to the top of the three-point line, and faced the net. Hit or miss, I was on the brink of freedom, or an unconsciously conscious existence in a dream world.

I did not stand there for an eternity, reflecting on my past, or my future, as one usually does in Hollywood movies. I simply looked at the net, measured the distance, jumped crookedly as I always do, and released the ball, sending it up into a perfect arc that took it’s time as it swam through empty space…

… until it finally landed perfectly on the Warden’s head. Oooooops!

I didn’t have time to think about how I so completely missed the net, because I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my upper left arm. I instinctively grabbed my arm, and immediately noticed a syringe-looking dart sticking out of it. Forgive me for not knowing what this thing was called; I was born in the Middle Ease, and over there, they just shoot us. But maybe… Maybe, if they developed their own Environmentally Friendly Energy Initiative, then things might change. Who knows?

I quickly began to fade, and my vision became blurry. The last thing that I saw was a guard standing in a window balcony, holding what looked like a rifle that was pointed in my direction.

Complete darkness
Suddenly, my eyes opened
My heart was racing, and I was gasping for breath
I looked around frantically, trying to register my surroundings
I was lying on a bed
I looked towards my feet, and saw a familiar steel door
This was my cell
Thank God!
It was only a dream

EPILOGUE

“They slept on two stories of the building, and on two-tiered bunks, and they dreamed; old men of their families, young men of women. They dreamed of lost possessions, a train, a church, their judges… Their dreams were all different, but whatever they dreamed, the sleepers were miserably aware that they were prisoners. If in their dreams they roamed over green grass or through city streets, it could mean only that they had tricked their jailers and escaped or had been released in error and were now wanted men. That total, blissful forgetfulness of their shackles imagined by Longfellow in “The Prisoner’s Dream” was denied them. The shock of wrongful arrest, followed by a ten- or twenty-year sentence, the baying of the guard dogs, the sound of escort troops priming their rifles, the nerve-racking jangle of reveille in the camps, seep through all the strata of ordinary experience, through all their secondary and even primary instincts, into a prisoner’s very bones so that, sleeping, he remembers that he is in jail before he becomes aware of smoke or the smell of burning and gets up to find the place on fire.”

From Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle”

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