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from the July 2014 issue

The Bamboo Stalk

One evening I called a taxi to go to the gas depot near the central market to change an empty cylinder. One of the streets in Jabriya was severely congested. Jabriya is always crowded, but congestion like this, with cars hardly able to move, could only happen if there was an accident or a checkpoint. As I expected, at the end of the street there were police cars with lights flashing blue and red. The police were standing by the side of the road checking driving licenses and registration papers. The taxi driver opened his window and handed his papers to the policeman. The policeman examined them and, before handing them back to the driver, asked me for my identity card. I stuck my hand in my trouser pocket, but my wallet wasn't there. I panicked. I pointed back down the street and said, “It's in the flat.” He didn't understand me. “Iqama, iqama” he demanded in Arabic, meaning he wanted proof that I was legally resident in Kuwait. Because I'm Kuwaiti and don't need a residence permit, I said “No iqama” in English. Apparently he didn't understand. He told me to get out of the taxi. I tried to explain to him but he was shouting at me so rudely that I couldn't say anything. I took out my cell phone to call my aunt Hind. I don't know why her in particular, but she didn't answer my call anyway. I sent a text message to Khoula, saying, “The police are holding me.” The policeman pushed me from behind and suddenly I found myself in a van parked on the curb, packed with migrants who didn't have identity papers or valid visas. There were Arabs, Indians, Filipinos, and Bangladeshis, and me—a Kuwaiti who didn't look like other Kuwaitis.

The van set off. Some people looked frightened and others indifferent. “The worst that can happen is we'll be deported,” someone said. I told the policemen who was standing by the van door that I was Kuwaiti. I don't think he heard what I said. He pointed to the seats at the back and spat out some words I didn't understand. Terrified, I went back to my seat. A stunningly beautiful young Filipina who was sitting close by turned to me and said, “The weekend starts today so we'll have to stay in the cells at the police station till after the weekend, when the officer comes.” I opened my eyes wide. “But I'm Kuwaiti. I don't need a visa,” I said. She smiled. “You'll have to prove that, after you've spent some time in detention,” she said. An older Filipina woman was crying and the young Filipina turned to her.

“I've been working in Kuwait without a valid residence permit for months after running away from my employer's house. I have a family that will die if I'm deported,” said the older woman.

“If it's that serious . . . ,” said the younger woman. She paused a moment. “Then you'll have to make some concessions.”

The woman gasped in shock at what the girl was implying, then laid into her with the foulest insults, such as filthy whore and so on.

The young woman turned to me and said, “But it doesn't look as if you have anything to offer.” She gave a vulgar laugh. “I have an old mother and three younger brothers. I've sacrificed everything for their sake,” she added.

The woman had experience. This wasn't her first time. She said she didn't usually stay in jail long. If the policeman in charge on the morning shift was not corrupt, his colleague on the late shift probably wouldn't. If the first day went by without someone trying to seduce her in exchange for setting her free, then that certainly wouldn't continue through the second day. “I've often paid for my residence permit by illegal means, either in an empty room at the police station or in their car or in an apartment where things like that take place,” she said. “Do you know how many policemen’s numbers I have on my phone?” she concluded defiantly.

Our mobile phones were confiscated. Before anyone questioned us, we were moved from the van straight to a foul holding cell. I thought to myself it would have been much better if I'd run into a fake policeman like the one who had scammed ten dinars from my wallet a year earlier. That way losing the ten dinars would have been the end of it, rather than meeting a real policeman and ending up detained in the police station.

I spent two nights behind bars in the cell at the police station, at least by my watch. But it felt like many nights more. It was a small room, as dirty as the ten inmates inside it. The smell of the place and of the people was unbearable. The dry January cold numbed my fingers and toes and went right to the bone. The inmates looked calm. Except for me, they all knew what was in store for them. I didn't know how long I would be held there. We could hear women's voices from nearby and I later found out that the cell for women was at the end of the corridor. The older Filipina woman had been crying since we were in the van but now it was louder. She kept complaining, sometimes in English and sometimes in Arabic, in the hope that someone would understand her and give her a chance to get out. “They'll die of hunger if I'm deported. I beg you, I beg you,” she said. My fellow prisoners fell asleep one after another. The woman's wailing grew even louder. From behind the bars I saw a policeman with a black stick hurrying toward the women's cell. I cowered where I sat, imagining what might be in store for the woman. “Allahu akbar, allahu akbar,” I murmured, “don't let him do her any harm.” The policeman shouted something unintelligible. My heart raced. The woman shouted back. I pulled my knees up against my chest and mumbled, “Please don't provoke him.” They shouted louder. “Please don't hurt her,” I said to myself. A loud crack interrupted their conversation. The prisoners woke up around me. The policeman was hitting the bars of the cell with his stick. Then the place fell silent. The policeman went back where he came from and my pulse subsided. The men went back to sleep, but I couldn't even close my eyelids. I gave a long sigh. “Allahu akbar, God is the mightiest, thank you,” I said. 

At least once every ten minutes someone would wake up, call for the warder, and ask to go to the bathroom. I don't know how the others managed to sleep, what with the cold, the loud snoring, and the wailing of the Filipina woman in the cell nearby.

I had my knees pressed up against my chest and my back against the wall. The later it got, the more desperate I felt about my prospects of getting out of the place. When I’d sent the text message to Khoula, I never imagined I would have to stay long in detention, but nothing I had hoped for had happened. Had Khoula abandoned me?

Late at night, when everyone else was asleep, I heard the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor. Steady footsteps. I looked up at the metal bars and saw a policeman walking past our cell without looking to either side and then continuing down the corridor. The sound of his footsteps stopped. I heard the jangling of keys and hushed whispers. Someone opened the metal door. The Filipina woman had apparently been sleeping but now she woke up. She resumed her crying and pleading. Someone closed the door. The sound of footsteps returned, coming closer. I was still looking through the bars. The men around me were still snoring, oblivious to the woman's crying. The policeman walked past in the other direction, his body erect, his face fixed firmly forward. This time the pretty Filipina girl walked confidently behind him. She looked toward the cell I was in. We made eye contact for a moment as she passed. She raised her eyebrows and gave me a smile that reminded me of what she had said in the van. They disappeared. I stayed awake till morning thinking about the girl. Somewhere she was making illicit payment for her residence permit before being released.

I wondered whether my aunt Hind, who was interested in human rights, knew what was happening here. Should I tell her what I had heard and seen? And most importantly, would she be able to do anything if I told her what was going on in the cells?

On the first day after the weekend my name was called. I stood to attention in front of the policeman, with the iron bars between us. He asked me for the keys to my flat. I gave them to him and he went off without saying a word. About an hour later I was taken to the room of the officer in charge before I could be released. I found Ghassan waiting for me there: he had brought my papers to the police station and he spoke to the officer, who was polite with us. He gave me my cell phone back and apologized. “Don't forget your wallet next time,” he advised me.

From The Bamboo Stalk. Forthcoming from x. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2014 by Jonathan Wright. All rights reserved.

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