Prison diary: The 64th Day

We're pleased to publish this guest post by Dr. Abdulkader Alguneid, a physician and activist from Ta'iz. Dr. Abdulkader was kidnapped from his home by Houthi fighters in August 2015; he was released after 300 days of illegal imprisonment and torture in May 2016.

It was mid-day, and I was in a tight, dim cell with two companions.

The clanging sound of the iron door being unlocked came suddenly and loudly, startling and unnerving us. These doors never opened, day after day and month after month, except for the most unusual, or for taking an inmate out for interrogation or something unpleasant.

We were three: Gamal al-Ma'amary (who was tortured until paralyzed), Moataz al-Sari (A Syrian jailed to blackmail his employer), and me.

The jail commander entered, scowled at me, and ordered me to take my worn-out mattress and blanket and get out.

He had been the commander of this jail since days before the Houthi-Saleh coup.

Beside him, a Houthi agent was watching. With the passage of days, one starts to know who is Houthi and who is not. It is an open secret that they hate each others’ guts. They try to hide it, but sometimes it just surfaces and they explode and show it.

At the end of the corridor, the jail commander told me, “Get into this cell and wash. You'll be released today.”

Apparently, I was so overjoyed that I could not restrain myself. I jumped to hug my jailer, then shook the hand of my kidnapper, the Houthi agent, effusively.

The cell where I was to wash myself was an interior room, much dimmer and colder than my cell, and I was dressed with the light, blue jail costume without any underwear.

I tested the water tap, in what was supposed to be a bath. A space of less than one square meter, curtained by cement block to the middle of the thigh and with a latrine hole in the middle.

I decided that the outside world could bare with me without a bath, more than I could bare the water’s coldness.

I put on the only belonging that I had: a pair of boxer shorts, which I had carefully looked after for a special day.

It was so quiet and dark. From my well-earned experience, I had learned not to allow myself to feel happy. Sadness and frustration double when what one expects does not materialize. Instead, I started to do what I'm good at: contemplation.

Is being jailed alone better than being jailed with others, I wondered. I think that we humans have a "biological sphere," as nations have territory and borders, that we do not like others to intrude into. As we grow older, especially those of us who are in the habit of contemplation, we like to be left alone from time to time. Even away from our loved ones.

Also, being battered all the time by other inmates' habits of intentionally-produced nose, palate, throat, larynx, and chest noises, can be nerve-racking. Add to that the sighs, wailing, and banging of heads on the wall, and it becomes hell inside a cell.

So I was kind of pleased with this novelty of isolation.

I had to remind myself that it was only an hour of being alone and I was drugged with the happy news of my release. So I should wait a little before giving my verdict.

Moments after the ‘Asr call to prayer, the door of the little cell clanged open and another Houthi agent handcuffed me and covered my eyes with a black band. I was taken into a bare room with a compressed plastic sponge mattress on one side, where I was unblindfolded.

In a side room there were two unusually-dressed soldiers with boots, caps, pistols, Kalshinkofs. Unusual scene, as all the jail keepers of The National Security Jail in San’a are so untidy and everyone is dressed as he fancies. All areas of Yemen have different dresses.

One of the two soldiers in uniform walked slowly into the room, gazing at me as if hypnotized. I realized, immediately, that my appearance must have been eye-catching. I had not looked at my face in a mirror since I was kidnapped by Houthi followers from my home in Ta’iz, and I’d been dragged from one place to another until I got here. I had lost so much weight, my facial bones were prominent and my abdomen sunken; I had the same wrinkles seen in photographs of starved humans. I might have looked like the famous prisoner le Comte de Monte-Cristo.

Still amazed, he whispered: “How long have you been here for?”

“Sixty-four days,” I replied.

Every prisoner has his own way to calculate every day in the prison. In the beginning, I even gave names to days, after the landmark of that day: Kidnapping Day, Shelling Day, Sharafi Day, Dirt Day, Cleaning Day, Shit Day, Qaeda Day, Jew Day, and so on. Later, I gave up naming days. I just calculated them, in my mind.

Soon, two other men entered the room. One of them ordered the guard to unlock my handcuffs and to bring the clothes that were on me when I was jailed. A white t-shirt and blue jeans. I was told to change in front of them.

The one who gave orders seemed to be the more important and I guessed he was a “sayyid.*” He pointed at me to sit on the bare side of the room, as both of them sat on the mattress. Their mouths were full of qat and he carried a nylon bag that contained more of the shrub.

The more important and blue-blooded man rolled his eyes, waved his arms, and changed his position on the mattress all the time. The only thing he did not change was the way he kept his mouth open, in what he wanted me to believe was a smile. It was not.

He took some qat branches from his nylon bag and extended them to me, with that “smile.”

“No, thanks,” I declined.

“Yes, you should.” With more hand movements and the same “smile”: “Certainly, you should.”

“No, thanks.”

More hand gesturing with the qat and the same “smile”: “Yes, you should.”

“No, thanks. I get nauseated if I chew qat while hungry," I added this time.

“Yes, you should.”

Well, I told myself, it is not proper in Yemen to turn down an offer of meat and honey on the table or qat in a maqeel gathering. So I took the qat leaves and put them in front of me.

He signaled to me that I should start chewing.

I put a leaf into my mouth.

He stretched out his body, put both his hands behind his neck, rolled his eyes, produced a much broader “smile,” and asked: “O you people of Ta’iz: won't you understand, listen and obey the Sayyid?”

I shivered as I listened to his words. As if I was expected to understand who this Sayyid (master) was, without adding his name. And as if his being called the Sayyid meant that me, my people, my city and country, should submit to his people, followers, and homeland.

I drew a pale smile with tight lips, shook my head right and left and answered back with a calm voice:


The "smile" fell from his noble face, replaced by a frown, and he shouted back: “Give back my qat!”

I was stung. My brain was in lightning speed to choose the best reaction.

He thought he was humiliating me by taking back his qat. Etiquette, though, says the opposite. Returning a present is the insult, while asking someone to hand back a gift is shameful.

But as with everything they do--all of them--they carry on and say shameful things and project that it is other people who are the bad ones.

With a scornful grimace from my face and scornful move from my hand, I threw back the qat leaves in his direction.

His not-very-noble sayyid figure bent down to collect the twigs and put them back into his nylon bag again.

Suddenly, he shouted: “Back to where you were! Change into your jail clothes and go back to your cell.”

Coldly and quietly, I stood up and changed.

The less important and less noble tribesman who accompanied the sayyid raised his voice for the first time, with a nasal Sa’dah accent: “You'll see. I'll visit you in your own home, in Ta’iz, a year from now. And you will be a good host.”

I did not even bother to look at him, as if he talked to emptiness. His implication was clear: They will conquer my city, Ta’iz, and would enter every home, fully decorated and with the full trimmings.

The more important and more noble man--with no more fake smiles--ordered me to blindfold my eyes by myself.

It's amazing how cavalier I was with these people. I asked him: “What is this business of blindfolding for? I already know your face and its only value is in case people take their own back from you if they get released."

“Nothing worries me. I've interrogated and put so many people into jail, from all over Yemen. From Sa’dah, Hudaydah, San’a and everywhere."

Again and again, they say and commit acts of shame and do not realize it is shameful.

I went back to my solitary, cold, dim cell.

Time, started to pass.

Or had it really passed!

Being jailed alone can be nerve-racking. If one is not internally equipped, he will fall into torturing worlds.

About 10:00pm, I heard Gamal's screams coming from the end of the corridor together with the clanging of doors from far away. A while later, a guard with a torch light came and moved me to my original cell.

Gamal al-Ma'amary, the paralyzed inmate, needed to respond to the call of nature and Mr. al-Sari could not carry him alone. They were so overjoyed when they saw my face again.

That was what happened on the 64th Day. And I had to endure five-fold more of that period afterward.

-June 15, 2017


*The term “sayyid,” literally “sir” or “master,” is commonly used in Yemen to refer to Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet, particularly within the Zaydi sect. The al-Houthi clan, which leads the Houthi movement, is a sayyid family, and the movement has placed members of other sayyid families in most positions of power in the areas it controls.