By Ahmed Tharwat
The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report has brought back painful memories. Now everyone knows that our government has “tortured some folks”, as President Obama has put it when he wanted to be homey and cute. As someone who was tortured himself in an Egyptian jail, such charm is wasted on me. And contrary to what CIA director confuses knowable and unknowable things , nothing is unknowable about Torture; the emotional and physical details remain vivid in my memory even after more than 40 years.
I was a freshman at Cairo High School. Anti-government protests were a daily routine on Egyptian streets. I was too young to grasp the serious political implication of such events. Like most students my age, I was just glad classes were cancelled that day.
Thousands of students poured into the streets from schools all over Cairo. But after shouting a few anti-government slogans, my friends and I moved away from the crowd to a side street in the affluent Garden City suburb. Without any warning we were rounded up by the Egyptian secret police (The Mukhabarat), who were zealously trying to fill their daily quota of random arrests.
We were lined up with common criminals in front of the police station. A tall, handsome police colonel standing at the front started shouting the worst kind of profanities at us, his harsh words quickly extended to our families and parents. Without thinking and in a fearful voice I protested the excessive profanity, Unfortunately, the colonel took issue with my soft protest; what happened after that has changed my life forever and shattered my faith in authority.
The angry police colonel stopped his verbal humiliation and without looking at me, he ordered one of his guards to take me away to “the room”. The guard knew exactly where to take me. Inside the prison, it was a small, dark, smelly, windowless, cold room, stripped naked of any human sign. The dark silence in the room seemed as if it has witnessed lots of broken souls.
Shortly, the colonel entered the room, where he calmly and without uttering a word or acknowledging my presence, closed the door, picked up a big riot stick and started hitting me savagely and indiscriminately. I stood helplessly, overwhelmed by the colonel’s outrage; the severity of the beating escalated until my skin started peeling off my body before my own eyes. I lost my feeling and any connection to my body. My confusing thoughts were trapped with no place to go.
I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I couldn’t muster any words, I couldn’t scream or resist. I couldn’t understand the colonel’s anger and outrage, but I knew he had a free hand to do to me whatever he pleased in that room. He didn’t ask my name, he never looked me in the eyes, he never explained my crime.
I was a nameless, faceless object, as I stood motionless and void of any rights or expression. I wasn’t the usual suspect — a communist, a jihadist or a government agitator. This wasn’t a national security issue, it was personal insecurity issue; it wasn’t an interrogation for valuable information. The Colonel, unaccustomed to the slightest challenge, needed to break my will. He wanted me to beg for mercy, he needed a complete conquest.
My silence was deafening, and as the colonel grew more infuriated, he started getting more creative in his abuse. His relentless physical torture made his early verbal profanity seem like a friendly conversation. There is nothing more humiliating than unjust physical abuse.
I couldn’t resist or retaliate, his savage hitting destroyed my ability to express my pain. At the time, I wished he would mix his severe beating with some verbal humiliation.
After what seemed like an eternity, the beating suddenly stopped and without saying a word, the colonel stormed out of the torture room. He couldn’t stay and face his unbroken victim. I found myself standing alone licking my wounds, only to realise for the first time that the guard who brought me to the room was still there; he was standing in the corner wiping his tears. His display of sadness brought a much-needed touch of humanity to the torture chamber.
I often wondered how my brief confrontation with this colonel could generate so much fury against a helpless young boy. He was not following any orders; he was the whole chain of command. I now realise we were both victims.
I was a victim of unjust violence and abuse. He was a victim of his sadistic obsession with violence and his intoxication with power. I was physically paralysed for weeks. He was morally paralysed for life.
There weren’t any digital cameras to tell what happened inside the torture room that day; all these years, my own memory has had to carry the entire load alone, that this is the real torture.
Ahmed Tharwat is the producer and host of the Arab American TV show Belahdan, freelance writer and public speaker