By John

John was detained for five and a half years in Dubai. Prison restrictions in the United Arab Emirates mean we are not able to provide full support to communicate with John directly, but he did sometimes receive our overseas newsletter, which provided valuable perspective. John wrote the following piece for Change the Story, a book published in 2021 by the Emirates International Festival of Literature, written by prisoners in Dubai jails, and it is a powerful account of his time in prison.

We can ask but we will never get an answer. We can make a point but no-one has to listen. When they change part of our routine, we are never told why. Even if I manage to lodge a formal request, no-one will tell me if it has succeeded, or failed, or more depressingly if someone is “looking into it”. 

The numbing confinement of prison life fails to punish – it is simply something to be lived through.

But the years of mindless routine eat away your inner resilience if you choose not to care about anything bigger than the next meal.

I admire the guys with 15 or 20 year sentences who maintain their poise. Of course, some fail: one guy talks to the walls, another counts the floor tiles for hours a day, and another hasn’t spoken for six months as he sits motionless on his mattress. But most reach out to greet you every day, chat, smile, offer a coffee or a biscuit, and make the world go round.

But this is only in our inside-world. They have not seen their families, run their homes, or managed their jobs for years and years. So the real question is: when they re-emerge, how will they cope? How will I cope?

In a world where everything is ordained and no reasons are given to us, we slowly lose the ability to manage our lives. As we sit confined in our anbar, the locked corridor where 40 men share ten cells, it becomes normal to talk for hours, discussing nothing:

“They changed the breakfast today. It’s Tuesday and we should have got beans but we got daal.”

“Really? How odd. That is strange.”

“No. No. It happened! - Of course, we also get beans on Saturdays but they are white beans, not ful-beans.”

“True. I don’t like the Tuesday beans, but the sauce on the Saturday beans is OK - I save it in an empty milk carton to go on the rice at lunch.”

“Yeh. It is not bad. But of course, the Wednesday breakfasts are best – the dab of sour cream with a sachet of jam.”

“No. I like Fridays best – the single boiled egg is a real treat.”

“True. But do you know that someone stole an egg last week? Greedy.”

“And he doesn’t need to steal. Guys who don’t eat theirs sell them.”

“I know. But he has no money so he has to steal. Why not?”

Eggs. Jam. Coffee. Blankets. All these are good topics for hours of debate. But they all reduce our capacity for thought to the bare minimum.

And this reduction of the self to such a ludicrous minimum has a way of seeping into me, becoming part of me, even if I know that it is happening.

I was recently waiting to get onto the list for the new facility to Skype my family. Each anbar goes once a week, and only two can go from each anbar on any one day and there are 40 in the anbar, so I had to wait a long time for my turn.

When I finally knew that I would get my shot next week, I called to Britain to alert them, since the prison routine is to use Skype only in the morning, so the four-hour difference means that the family need to be awake at 5.00am to open the link.

I was excited, and so were they. They were all lined up, but on the morning no-one came. No visit-police came to the anbar hatchway to shout out the lucky the names. 8.00am passed. Then 8.15. By 8.30 still no-one. 9.00 no-one. I used the anbar phone to call the prison switch board = no answer.

The anbar’s prisoner-foreman called the building control point. No answer. I was shivering with tension. I could not think or even read. I was stuck waiting. I froze. Finally at 10.00am I gave up and stopped waiting.

No-one had explained anything but I had decided in myself to switch off and cease to care. I relaxed back into the familiar routine of the anbar. Three days later I happened to see someone, who had spoken to someone, who had spoken to a policeman who had said that Skype would be OK the next week.

But what happened? We don’t know.

What will happen? We don’t know.

Our task is to keep quiet, eat and sleep. This wall of silence that surrounds us and limits our lives so brutally also covers our fate here.

We do not know what new charges might be brought against us when our current sentence ends. There may be private cases, civil cases, more cases, or complaints that become cases, and we have no way of finding out what is lurking out there. The Prosecution will not tell us. The CID will not tell us. Lawyers can’t find out. The silence is frightening.

I do not expect to walk out when my sentence ends. I expect weeks of further enquiries in the multiple databases of the criminal justice systems. Then I may leave or I may find that I have another case, or I may not. But what is sure is that no-one today will tell me what might, or might not, happen.

So I sit tight. I keep to my routine. I survive. No-one listens, so I have stopped asking. I live day by day. We all do.

But I have to hope that I will leave here someday, and that I will rediscover my complete self. I hope that I have enough strength left inside me to re-engage and celebrate the noise of true life.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

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