A free man (short story dedicated to Abdullah Elshamy)

cc by-nc-nd Bruno Monginoux www.photo-paysage.com & www.landscape-photo.net

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This story is fictional and I hope it’ll remain so.

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A frail prisoner is lying against the wall of his cell, like a fragile wisp of straw standing in equilibrium. He has not eaten since the last time they managed to force-feed him; that is, what seems  to be an eternity ago. He has been on a hunger strike since several months. A felony had led him to prison. That was during the last eon. Instead of lying, he told the truth, and the sound of truth is unpleasant to the government’s ears. Since then, no prosecution, no trial, no charges, no justice and no real food in the stomach.

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They open the door of the cell and handcuff and blindfold the prisoner of conscience.

– “Where are you taking me?”

– “You’ll know when you’ll be there.”

The man is carried to a car. The engine starts. He falls asleep at the back of the vehicle.

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He is woken up by those carrying him out of the car. They enter a building in an undisclosed location. When they remove the blindfold, the prisoner is sitting in a dark room. A door lies open a few meters in front of him. His gaze crosses the corridor that stretches behind the door, up to a staircase in the bottom. The steps of it are sparkling with daylight. The sun must be shining outside. That beautiful, magnificent sun.

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– “You have been on hunger strike for several months now. We have done everything possible to prevent you from pursuing it. Threats, force-feeding, torture, and so on. But you have resisted, and you should be happy to have done so. Your strike has bore its fruit.”

The prisoner waits to hear what they will say next. He does not yet realise what is happening.

– “You are free now. You’re not in jail anymore. You’ll never set foot in that prison again.”

– “Really?”

– “Step through the door and walk up the stairs. Your freedom awaits outside.”

– “I’m too weak to walk. I’ll never make it up the stairs.”

– “Sure you can.”

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One of them takes him by the arm and helps him to stand up. Much to his surprise, he can stand on his feet. He can even walk, forwards, towards the sunlit steps. As he steps into the corridor, they close the door behind him. This is a strange way to release prisoners indeed. His eyes are fixed on the golden twinkling stairs. He cannot walk up them on his two feet, so he climbs them with the help of his hands. It is very difficult. These stairs probably aren’t very long, but they feel so for him. Up there, there is an old door. Light is beaming from above and under it. With a bit of apprehension, and longing to see the sky, he pushes the handle. What he sees beyond takes his breath away.

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He falls to his knees on the grass, not knowing if he could rise again. He stares in ecstasy at the sky, bewildered by the colour of it. He had never realised before the magnificence of a clear blue sky. A few clouds are being pushed by a gentle breeze. They look like distant cities floating in the air. The sun – this incredible sun – and the moon are shining side by side. He stays kneeling for a moment, looking skywards.

Birds are singing in the trees, and he realises it never occurred to him how melodious a bird’s song could be. The air feels extremely fresh and pure compared to the one he used to breathe in those damp underground cells. Beneath the scent of freedom, he can smell the perfume of plants and flowers. Eventually he lowers his gaze. A mind-blowing setting, trees with dense foliage and bark convoluted like smoke, wild plants flowering all around, large blades of grass. It strikes him that he never realised how green vegetation seemed to be carved out of emerald. He had never admired the beauty of grass. He remembers how he used to view all those wild plants as ugly weed, while in fact they are splendid. Beyond the trees, a dozen meters away, he sees a brooklet running among pebbles.

Then he notices something wonderful in the tree before him. Reinvigorated by the extraordinary beauty he perceives in this place, he stands up and blissfully rushes to the tree. Its branches are carrying dozens of ripe oranges. Immediately, everything else ceases to exist: the sky, the daylight, the birds, the grass, the plants and the stream. Without any further thought, he picks one of the fruits, peels its skin away and eats it. He hasn’t eaten any real food since months. It was as if this orange was the most delicious thing he had ever eaten in his whole life. Then he picks another, then another.

Before the time he spent in prison, he would have thought such oranges to be too small, too damaged or too dirty compared to what one could find at the supermarket. In the same fashion, if he had visited this place before, he would probably have seen it as dull. Now, he would only see the beauty of things. Maybe the difference between something normal and something remarkable, between a usual place and utter paradise, lies in the mind of who sees it. Prison has taught him that freedom is remarkable, and that so are the sky, the sun, the lullabies of the birds, the blades of grass, the weed, the brooklet and the oranges. That was probably why they had set him free to such a surprising place. Then, for a nanosecond, he regrets having spent his life blind to those wonders. It does not last. He tells himself that he is going to live every remaining second of his life to its fullest. As he looks again at this paradise on Earth, as he listens to the pleasant sound of wind rocking the foliage and of water running down the stream, smelling the scent of freedom and with the taste of an orange in his mouth, he feels that those euphoric feelings are just too much for his frail mind to bear and for his feeble body to endure. He swallows the fruit, lies on the grass and closes his eyes.

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After a short nap, he eats another few oranges and removes his shoes. He jumps into the stream, barefoot, water up to his ankles. Sparing no thought for the bilharziosis he could catch by bathing in freshwater, he washes his arms and face. Now he is thinking about his family. He dearly wants to come back home, to hug his children and to kiss his wife. Where is he? In which direction is the city? He had been taken here by a car, where is the road?

He puts his shoes back on and walks down the stream. His hunger strike has been successful. He had won a victory over the regime and won a battle for freedom of speech. He walks as a free man with a full stomach. He had not given up his dignity, and nothing had broken his will.

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Soon, he sees a man wandering by the brook. He walks towards him, greets him and asks him where he is. The wanderer looks very surprised. The astonished and confused former prisoner realises his interlocutor has suddenly grown wings, like an angel. The winged man tells him:

– “You still don’t realise what happened? You didn’t listen to what they told you? Your hunger strike has bore its fruit: you starved to death! This place is called heaven. They would never have let you out of that prison alive…”

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This short story is dedicated to Abdullah Elshamy, a reporter for Al Jazeera Arabic who is being detained since August 2013 by the Egyptian government. He has been on hunger strike for 4 months. His latest blood analyses show that his organs are failing and that he could die within a few days. Several hours after the announcement, he was taken to an “undisclosed location”, which today was revealed to be solitary confinement in Tora prison’s maximum-security Scorpion unit. He could have been taken to heaven.

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(photo taken in Plitvice national park, Croatia, by B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net (cc by-nc-nd))

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