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Jun 25, 2011

Out of Sight, Out of Mind? When The City Becomes One Big Prison..

Wake up… sniff in a fusion of humidity, pollution and coffee vapor, step out the house and grapple with traffic on your way to your job, class, subhiyyeh, or ultra-chic  gym.

Its an average day but somewhere in the distance a human being is screaming out in agony. Starved over night, his skin is developing a strange mutation of a rash, barely got any sleep as his bed is a cell shared with nine other inmates, half of them criminals, and the other half in limbo, waiting for a trial that is late for months and years.

As you park your car and stroll down the road to your office, he is being dragged into the interrogation room. As you check your emails and skim through today's headlines, he is being pushed over on a desk, a hose wavering behind him admonishingly. You think of what you will order for lunch, he is hoping the hose will bruise his inner thigh this time…perhaps the doctor will see it… perhaps it will be reported…maybe he will be saved from the brutality the third time round. Chicken or salad? Salad..must keep those thighs in shape for the beach this weekend.

The everyday familiarity of such things as coffee and traffic are never associated with something as remote as an inmate being tortured by a police officer. We go about our days, unconcerned with what goes on behind prison doors. Our lack of concern is not because we simply don't care..but its because we're untouched by it…and as long as our immediate lives are not impacted by this crime…let the criminals get what the system gives them.  

The murderers..the rapists..the drug addicts…the homosexuals…the terrorists and the illegal foreign workers … unwanted urban waste… to be disposed of. We pile our garbage on the outskirts of our city…out of sight… the mountain gets bigger…the stench thicker…and it collapses…our waste comes back to bite us, temporary solutions only bring temporary comfort. (Pardon my ugly comparison between people and garbage..but you get the point) . Roumieh, Lebanon's central prison erupted in April this year, and has been in flames since then. Inmates rebelled against the abhorrent prison conditions and chaos overtook the system. What goes on in Roumieh never meant anything to us…till the terror started to spill out beyond its walls.

We may sweep streets clean, pay municipality taxes, respect parking regulations, plant flowers on balconies and honor security forces for keeping our streets safe… but behind our bridges, beneath our pavements and in those invisible corners…spaces of terror coexist with our city in a problematic way. With an estimated 700 cases detected over the past 2 years… torture is a standard procedure in our prisons and detention centers…and these spaces are as much a part of our city as anything else.

As I've mentioned in previous posts about the city.. all things, people, and places are woven together through invisible strings that hold powerful social and cultural meanings. As remote as we may think it is, torture prevails around the corner and although we may be untouched by it physically…its resonance travels through the social web cast over our city.  

Societies are made up of families…immediate and extended…torturers and torture victims have children…and their children could be your child's classmate. The torture victim released from prison with the psychological after-effects will impact his/her family…who will in turn impact society.

It could be any of us… you could be trying out marijuana for the first time thinking it is common and perhaps just a misdemeanor…the next thing you know you could be in Hobeich at the mercy of a fist or even a hose…aiming at your inner thighs as you're crouched over an interrogation desk. If you don't believe me, consult the numbers…60.24% of a surveyed sample of 400 Lebanese citizens believe that police abuse their authority in police stations. If you live anywhere near the American University of Beirut, you have surely heard the anonymous screams erupting from the underground of Hobeich detention center, sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. Ever wonder why Hobeich was remodelled recently? 

For the above reasons, local human rights NGO, ALEF, has chosen for its 2011 anti-torture campaign an interesting association between the "common" and the "remote".The campaign juxtaposes the  "usual", the "common", and the "ordinary", with the unspeakable and unimaginable crimes of torture.

Launched on June 23, the campaign adopted the slogan "azebak mesh reha" and circulated it on billboards nation-wide. The objective is not to preach, convince, or spark overnight change….the idea is to infuse into this common Lebanese phrase a permanent connotation. Is torture really a pleasure?

Azebak Raha is a common Lebanese saying that means "it is a pleasure to be tortured by you". When someone does a favor for you in Lebanon one way of saying thank you is to say "azabnek"..or "we tortured you", and in line with the typical Lebanese courtesy, the appropriate response would be "Azebak Raha". 

It may be harmless to joke around about torturing your boss or your pain in the ass colleague;  easy to say "all gays should be tortured to death"…or "those terrorists are just getting what they deserve"… but a thought is the first step towards action, and if you were to actually witness  physical mutilation or psychological torment, I don't think you would be laughing.  

In the subtext of everyday communication, you can discover the prevalent social and moral values of a society. Language creates culture, and so this campaign has played on language in a way that gets us to actually think through things we usually take for granted.

1 comment:

  1. Zizek says something quite in line with your post and in light of your parallel with garbage, it is very fitting: he says that toilets symbolize the mentality of modern living. In some real way, when you flush the toilet, what was in it disappears ... it's out of your life in a very meaningful way. This sort of disappearing is essential to living peacefully – even digestion takes place unconsciously – the question though (and you put it well) is what is going through the system beneath its sheen? Is it healthy? Is it just? I really enjoyed reading this