The Warmth and Light
Mahmoud Saeed relates a devastating reality of prison, torture, and utter inhumanity in Saddam City, but still emphasizes the beauty of life, relationships between people, and the simple beauty of the natural world. These illuminating statements strewn throughout the book are a breath of fresh air each time, reminding us that not all is bad, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, for the main character and also for the world. Telling his story this way makes it more real and fathomable for the reader.
While Saeed tells us the brutal story of his time in prison, we do not know why he is there, or how long he will be there. Saeed foreshadows his release at various moments, giving us a break from the viciousness and glimpsing the hopeful end to his terrible journey. He often shows us his fears alongside his hopes, as when he says, “Fear for my safety ran parallel with anxiety for my family, but I slept with the feeling that my release was nigh. Our treatment there gave me the impression of being exposed to a breeze that brings rain clouds” (54). In another example of this duality, he expresses the positive attitudes of some prisoners, and that “the eyes of most gleamed with hope.” He explains, “Actually, I was envious of their optimism. That glimmer of hope did not leave their eyes, even as they were on their way to the gallows” (70). Amidst all of the gloom, he demonstrates how he and others got through it, which was with hope and positivism, knowing their pain would somehow end.
At one point, it seems Mustafa might be released, and the other prisoners ask favors of him, envious of his possible freedom. Excited about this possibility, he says, “I presently forgot all the chores I was entrusted with, and could only think of going back to my wife and Ammar and Abeer. I would take a long vacation, stay home and get thoroughly bored” (59). Here, we hear his thoughts as if is he is a free man, wanting badly to think of normal things which are out of his reach as a prisoner. During one interrogation, Mustafa says, “He’d said ‘please’, so I had been proven innocent. Of course, he was frowning when he said it, but the security people are not in the entertainment business. They always frown. He said ‘please’, and the heater was actually a gas heater. This was treatment fit for a king.” (59). An ironic, and welcome comic relief for Mustafa and the reader.
Saeed reminds us of our shared humanity and the things to be learned from every situation. During one encounter with a guard, he says, “Something in the way in which he asked questions implied that he considered me a human being. I found that I admired him as a champion of humanity, despite his uniform” (81). This is maybe the first time he says anything nice about a guard, and goes on to say that “I was seeing living proof that someone in his position could retain his humanity, that one had to avoid generalizations” (81). Even in his starved and tortured state, he points out what is good. There are actually many things good in the jails, such as the solidarity between the prisoners, all hoping for the best for each other. He equates the jails to a “Turkish bath” because people come and are on the same level, they “shed their covers and let their hair down upon entering” (68). We hear a number of comforting conversations between prisoners, because “The awareness of the difficulties of the trek melted formalities on the spot and generated warm friendships” (68). These more personal moments seem to make the story more understandable, as they display a variety of real thoughts and emotions.
Saeed graciously adds in thoughts that put the reader’s moral judgment at rest for a bit, allowing us to savor the beauty that does exist. He says eloquently, “There was a time when our Bedouin ancestors allowed their thoughts to play out on their weathered faces and limpid eyes. There was a time when eyes revealed what was in the heart” (60). Mustafa also relishes the loveliness of the natural world when he has the opportunity. On one occasion, he describes, “The weather was clear and sunny and cold. Tall trees leaned to and fro in their enviably carefree way” (64). We learn that Mustafa, and also Saeed are absolutely men of principles. Mustafa does not give in, he is courageous and admirable through all of the atrocities he witnesses and experiences. He states, “There is a noble tradition to the effect that the true believer shall not be bitten twice exploring the same crack.” He continues humbly, “But to my thinking, and this may be due to my flawed nature, it is better to be bitten fifty times exploring the same crack than lose faith in the humanity of a single human being.” (68).