In the Arab world, you can be detained for writing a trenchant political article. The courage to criticize a regime might end up with your being dragged off too harsh and abusive interrogations. So, is speaking truth to power courageous or foolish? That was the question that haunted me when I read this chapter about the kidnap of journalist Yusuf Ghirbal because of a political piece he had written. He is interrogated, and his big toe chopped off as a punishment.
In Kamal Riahi’s novel, The Beretta Always Wins, Yusuf Ghirbal is kidnapped and interrogated because of a political article in which he accuses state agencies of involvement in the assassination of political activist Chokri Belaïd. Two key themes confront us: repression of free speech and the assassination of political opposition – and all following the Jasmine Revolution!
What does the scene mean?
Journalist Yusuf Ghirbal wakes up one morning and a group of men bursts into his apartment. They grab him, put a black bag over his head, and take him off to an unknown destination. In this scene, Riahi takes great care to capture the details of the kidnap: the number of stairs, smells, precise details about the vehicle that takes the snatched journalist away. Ghirbal learns he is in the company of security operatives full of malice and cruelty, who accuse him of being in league with foreign parties and plotting against the security of the state so as to spread chaos in the country. Proof of his guilt is the article he published in which he accuses state security agencies of involvement in the assassination of opposition political figures.
The interrogation turns into the trial of a journalist for his ideas and for the questions he posed in his article. We must notice, however, that the root of the problem lies in the timing of publication. The journalist escapes liquidation, but he loses a toe, as a warning. He loses part of his body because of his question about the beretta used to murder Chokri Belaïd.
The dictator may fall, but the ghosts of the security state still exist, lodged in the unconscious of citizens and even monitoring their dreams. When the fear of the security state reaches people’s innermost recesses, we are confronted with the brutal face of police states that can infiltrate the nightmares of citizens to terrify them into obedience.
Translated by: Raphael Cohen
The smell was stuck in my nose and wouldn’t go. Whenever I drew air into my lungs, the smell took over, and all the torture I went through that night came rushing back. Before emailing the article for publication, I hadn’t given it a thought. I was excited about the information I had received about the beretta.
This might be the time to confess that I knew the dopehead before working for the Washingtonian; I knew him from my time as a journalist as a political analyst. His knowledge of the western press allowed me to write political pieces that opened up international horizons for me that never fully worked out and that caused what’s happened to me and took me to another place, to where I am today.
I wrote the article and sent it off to dopehead to publish abroad, then went to bed. I got up in the morning intending to have a shower, and hadn’t turned on my computer to see if the article had been published or not. The water stayed cold and I stepped out of the shower naked to adjust the thermostat on the balcony. There was no one at home. My wife was often away from home at the time because we were always quarrelling. She said that sitting down with a kangaroo would be easier than sitting with me; I was unbearable, she said, and it was time to carry out what she had long planned.
I never expected the door to go flying off its hinges and find tall men in black jackets and white shirts in front of me. Two of them grabbed me. A third put a cloth bag over my head, and I couldn’t see. They wrapped me up in what I later discovered was the throw from the living-room sofa. They dragged me and I complied without resistance. I had seen them before being plunged into darkness, and I knew it was foolish to even think of resisting those tall, powerfully built men. Once you’ve seen them, you don’t care that your head’s stuffed in a black bag.
I concentrated on the footsteps on the stairs as we went down. I would usually trip on one of the twenty-five steps that this time I had to navigate blindfolded. I listened to the number of feet on the stairs, and it sounded like more than eight. At the end of that sprint, I felt the breeze carrying the stench of sewerage with it. The vehicle they flung me inside must have been parked close to the manhole of the sewers, and the smell hit me. So I thought.
The vehicle didn’t seem to have seats. They shoved me into its empty box and I didn’t bump into anything. I felt that the driver was far away – I could tell from the noise of the engine. I guessed it was a police van, and discounted the idea that my kidnappers were a criminal gang or terrorist group. Then I thought that gangs in films also used large vans like the police, and it would only be possible to tell the difference by sight. The vehicle sped along, without any siren to suggest it was an official vehicle, like an ambulance, police car, or fire engine. They hadn’t bound my wrists, just pushed me along with my arms twisted behind my back. That made me think it was most likely a kidnap, not an arrest.
After an hour, perhaps ninety minutes, I reckon, the vehicle stopped and they pulled me out. Then I felt myself being dragged towards a building. Again, I tried to concentrate on the number of stairs. I’d learned that trick from all my previous arrests and detentions. When you’re blindfolded, you have to rely on other senses. There were twenty steps. This time, though, things were strange. It was the first time I’d been shoved into a silent vehicle. After a short walk, they took me into a large room. I couldn’t tell whether the lights were on or not. The sack over my head was made of lightproof cotton. They sat me down on an uncomfortable chair and tied me up. The wooden structure of the chair shifted beneath me and with me, and I expected it to collapse at any moment.
Someone came over. He had a distinctive smell of dark tobacco. When he brought his face close I caught the smell of cheap wine. Then I heard someone else read out some sentences from the article I had sent off the day before: “The weapon used in the crime was collected in evidence, but it has disappeared. This casts considerable suspicion over the investigative team. Who stole the beretta? There is a mystery here. A black box at the heart of this case. Who is protecting the murderers? Is there really a parallel security service carrying out assassinations of leaders who pose a threat to its operatives?”
The man with the bad breath came close. “Why did you write that bullshit, Mr. Yusuf Ghirbal? Who’s funding you? Who’s paying you? Who are you working for? Do you know what you’re charged with?”
Until that last question, I wasn’t interested in answers, but then I exploded, “Who are you? I don’t get what you’re doing.”
“You’re charged with espionage. Espionage with foreign powers, damaging Tunisia’s reputation abroad, and spreading false news about the country’s security at a highly sensitive time.”
“All those charges because of an article?”
“We’ve been watching you since your first wet dream. We know what you’re up to, and you know we have a file on you.”
“That means you’re the police. Why have you blindfolded me this time?” I said as I tried to move my head in irritation inside the bag.
“Who put you up to it? Why right now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I heard the calm, distant voice say, “Stella! Do it!”
Mr Bad Breath was close and the smell was overpowering when he cut it off. A flash like fire raced through me from my feet to my brain. I no longer remember anything. I just found myself in my bed, my right big toe wrapped in a bandage with a red liquid around it.
“This time your toe. Next time…” they whispered in my ear. “We exist to dispose of people like you. Next time, we’ll cut out every moving part of you. We’ve been planted here to cut out corrupt people like you.” One of them pushed me onto the floor. Then they forced me to repeat the words, “We do not have berettas in Tunisia. We do not have berettas.” In my dreams I saw myself screaming, “We do not have berettas… we do not…”
I fled to the neighboring coffee shop to escape my nightmares. Interior Minister Hédi Majdoub was on TV, on the Nessma channel. Calmly addressing parliament, he said, “The beretta pistol used in the assassination of the martyr Chokri Belaïd is not used in Tunisia and is not to be found among any security unit of whatever kind.”
My gaze dropped to where my cut off toe should have been. All my other toes were crying out, “We do not have berettas in Tunisia.”
If I hadn’t mentioned that fucking pistol, they wouldn’t have done this to me. My foot looked horrible. If only I could meet you, Dopehead, and empty the beretta’s magazine into you.
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