Creative Writing: A Caged Man

I wrote this short story a couple of years ago, after reading a post in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times that I found to be particularly moving. While I will never be able to imagine the degree of pain and emotion that is inevitably associated with being a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, trying to do so was a deeply humbling experience. Any feedback on this post will be greatly appreciated! Enjoy. 

Yasser Ahmed Hamdan’s strong jaw softened as he smiled to himself. He was handsome only in the way that most young men were – strong, determined. His dark brown eyes and demeanor told everyone that he was an honest man, and he was. He did not possess any ambitions that would make him otherwise; he kept to himself, working hard to support his family.

He turned to look at his wife. She was humming quietly as she poured her bowl of eggs into a pan of flatbread pieces. In public, she was always covered in a long, shapeless tunic and veil. But at home, when it was just the two of them, she let her long black hair cascade over her shoulders like waves underneath a roaring waterfall. She looked back at him, catching him staring at her, clearly deep in thought. She giggled and returned to making her fatoot. She knew what he was thinking about: in seven short months, their lives would be changed forever.

Yasser continued to study his wife. He didn’t know what he had done to be this fortunate. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, but they had quickly fallen in love with each other. She was irresistible to him. He loved the way her cheeks flushed with color when she was embarrassed. The way her eyes twinkled whenever she looked at him. The way her entire being lit up whenever she laughed. He loved her soft curves, accentuated by the faded t-shirt she was wearing now. She was his wife. He had always longed for his own family, and he had finally found it.

Yasser was not a complicated man. He was not the type to dream of great power and vast riches, as some unfortunate men do. He had grown up in a poverty-stricken family, and even now he was only able to earn $45 a month working in a factory. This was indicated by his torn and discolored turban, and was the primary reason why a majority of his meals consisted of fatoot. But Yasser had taught himself to enjoy the dish day after day, meal after meal. Just as he had taught himself that happiness could not be found in material possessions. Instead, he contented himself with simpler things. He felt blessed when he knew that his parents were in good health. He was delighted when his sister had given birth to a beautiful daughter. He was ecstatic when he and his wife had gotten married, and over the past three months, his happiness had only multiplied.

He looked at his wife’s belly. She was finally beginning to show, the small bump pulling at the fabric of her t-shirt. She was carrying his child, a beautiful baby that he would protect just as he protected his wife now. He would walk across Yemen barefooted to give them what they needed. He would teach his child to read the Qu’ran, to love and to serve God, and to abide by Islamic law. Most importantly, he would teach his child to find happiness in unmaterialistic things, so that his child could learn to be content with life, just as he had.

The seven months passed quickly and Yasser soon found himself in a hospital room, waiting for his wife to give birth.

“Push,” the doctor instructed his wife. She screamed in pain as she did, squeezing Yasser’s hands tightly.

“You’re almost there, three more!” The doctor continued to put his hands out where he knew the baby’s head would soon appear. His wife screamed again and again, each time gripping Yasser’s hands more tightly. And even as he felt that every bone in his hand was about to break, he imagined seeing his baby for the first time. He thought about the rosy cheeks, the wisps of hair, and the small, chubby hands that would eventually grip his finger.

His wife screamed once more, pushing with all of her strength. The doctor leaned in, smiling. He then slowly started to stand up. Yasser felt the adrenaline rush to his heart – it must have been beating a thousand times a minute. He was finally about to meet his beautiful –

“Wake up, filthy pig!” The soldier kicked Yasser in the stomach. “Don’t make me ask twice!”

For a fraction of a second, Yasser was confused. He didn’t know where he was, or why he was in chains. He looked around his dim room, and reality hit harder than the soldier’s kick. He was in jail, where he had been imprisoned for the past 31 years.

He thought about his wife and his unborn child – they had never existed. He had left Yemen when he was a young man, hoping for better job prospects. He should have learned to be satisfied with his $45 a month, but he wanted to provide for his family, to be able to take care of the woman he would eventually marry and provide for the child they would eventually have. Unfortunately, after he left, war broke out and he was wrongly captured as a war criminal.

He was no longer the young man he saw in his dreams. His cheeks had hollowed out, his skin hanging to the peaks and valleys of his skull. His hair had turned white and his arms and legs had recently started to resemble dry, dusty twigs. His shoulders slumped forward, as if he was too feeble and defeated to straighten them. His clothes had always looked washed-out, even in Yemen, but they were, at the very least, clean. They now clung to his body, drenched in liquefied food and his own excrement.

The moments it took for reality to weigh down on Yasser were too long for the soldier. Without warning, he dragged Yasser to another room, where he strapped his arms and legs to a board. The soldier grabbed a towel and threw it on Yasser’s face. He already knew what was coming, but he could never help his reaction – the simulation was too real.

The soldier took a jug of water and, in intervals, poured it onto the towel covering Yasser’s face. In the beginning, they had questioned him in order to gain intelligence, but even as it became clear that he did not know anything about the war, they continued to torment him. It was as if some enjoyment could be found in another man’s suffering.

As he felt the towel become damp, he held his breath. When he finally had to inhale, the towel had soaked up enough water to make him feel as if he was drowning. He tried to breath in more air, but as he did so, the towel clamped even more tightly around his nostrils and mouth. Even though the rest of his body was dry, he thought he was being suffocated by a wave of water. He could feel the particles entering his lungs, and he had to breath in order to cough. Of course, as he did so, the towel clamped still more tightly. He didn’t even know it was there anymore. He was trapped underwater, unable to breath, unable to move.

He struggled against his bindings, trying to free himself so that he could swim to the surface. Even as the ropes cut into his wrists and ankles, he continued to writhe. He thrashed his head against the board and willed his arm to reach up. He heard a snap, but he ignored it. All he could think about was the water that was threatening to drown him.

The soldier must have gotten bored, because he decided to lift the towel off of Yasser’s head and unbind him. As Yasser hastily inhaled large gulps of air, he felt an intense pain rush to his left wrist. He had sprained it, or worse. He yelled out in agony, hoping that someone, somewhere would come to save him. But no one ever did.

“Stop screaming!” The soldier’s fist came flying towards his stomach. When it hit, Yasser fell backwards. His hands clutched his stomach; he wanted to vomit, but his stomach was empty. He had not eaten for days. The soldier dragged him back to his cell and threw him onto the ground. Yasser fell on his left hand, collapsing into a pile of bones. This time he knew his wrist was broken, and as the pain intensified, he slowly closed his eyes and passed out.

When he came to, he was once again chained to the wall, his entire arm throbbing with pain. He raised it to examine his wrist, but as he did so, he looked at his gnarled hand closely for the first time in a long while. It was aged with a maze of wrinkles, maps to vast and bottomless canyons. Wasn’t he a young man just yesterday? Was he not arguing with his mother about marital matters moments ago? His heart ached for her embrace.

But then he had to remind himself that his parents were already dead by now. There was no one to care about him, to love him, or even to remember his existence. He was like an ancient ghost walking along the icy shore of a deserted beach – everyone’s footprints fade with time, but his had never left a mark. He could feel the burning cold of the waves splashing against his feet and legs over and over again, but he left nothing behind to show that he was ever there. As humiliating and painful each day was, this jail was his life. The four walls of his cell were the only horizons he would ever see again. The soldier who dehumanized him was also the only individual in the world to know who Yasser Ahmed Hamdan was.

And so, Yasser wrapped himself in his dreams. He closed his eyes and lay still as he waited to be brought back to that life. He was going to see his wife, to meet his child. He was going to call his parents to tell them the good news. He was going to be the young man that he was 31 years ago -healthy, happy, free. As he lay in the darkness and thought about these things, Yasser did something he never thought he would do again: he smiled.