Review of: Elimelekh, Geula. Arabic Prison Literature: Resistance, Torture, Alienation, and Freedom. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014. 197 pages. ISBN: 9783447100397

Arabic Prison Literature: Resistance, Torture, Alienation, and Freedom is a monograph focusing on the literature that has resulted from the experiences of political prisoners in Arabic countries. This investigation takes a close critical look at four novels that fit this very specific genre of writing. The author uses these novels to show the ways in which prison literature combines a documentary accounting of details with an artistic narrative of events. The author, Dr. Geula Elimelekh, is a faculty member of the Department of Arabic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

The purpose of this book is stated quite plainly in the introduction: “The aim of this book is not only to relate to Arab prison writing as documentary . . . but primarily as artistic literature, whose authors adopted Western literary standards, namely the techniques characteristic of the realistic psychological and existentialist novel. This corpus deals with . . . human existence” (Elimelekh 1). In other words, Elimelekh has taken the broader genre of prison literature and drawn a tiny circle around these four novels to show the ways in which the Arab prison novel sheds light onto the physical and psychological costs of the conditions of imprisonment and surveillance. The novels are used to “probe the central motifs and ideas characteristic of this literature, including liberty, free choice, personal responsibility, death, existential fear, persecution, and alienation and isolation in modern society” (7).

The first chapter focuses on the political climate in Arab countries and the responsibility of literature to keep politics under scrutiny. Dictatorial governments have a tendency to view free speech and the publication of intellectually independent works as a threat to the status quo. Prison literature becomes a sort of answer to the oppressors; a way for authors to spread their word from behind prison walls and to let people know what goes on inside prisons. One of the primary novels studied in this book, That Smell by Sun Állāh Íbrāhīm, is considered to be “a model of the link between literature and politics” (21).  Elimelekh uses it frequently throughout the book to illustrate her points.

The next chapter briefly discusses the prisoner’s failure to escape the feeling of constant surveillance that is born in prison and remains after being freed. The point of this chapter is to show the ways in which a novel’s “persecuted hero” is an extension of the author, and how the experience of incarceration never fully leaves a person.

The chapter on torture serves to show that authors incorporate descriptions of torture in their work to try to communicate the loss of dignity that accompanies such act. It is also apropos to question the role of those who administer the torture versus those who order it and to ask who is ultimately responsible. Elimelekh uses this uncomfortable topic to ask larger questions: Who is more affected by the torture, the victim of it or those who could have prevented it? Is it an effective tool to gain information and to teach a lesson to others who might be tempted to take a similar path as the prisoner/victim? And are the authors effectively informing a larger audience about the prevalence of these human rights violations?

The fourth and fifth chapters talk about freedom, fear, suffering, and solidarity. Elimelekh touches on some fascinating ideas in these chapters about the fear of finding one’s place in society after prolonged incarceration, learning to live with a different kind of fear than that experienced inside prison, shared suffering among inmates, and the idea of “prisonization,” which could also be called an adherence to the “convict code,” a sort of unspoken set of rules prisoners live by. Elimelekh defines “prisonization” as, “the process whereby inmates come to adopt the norms of informal society in prison as a collective solution to the unique problems that arise as a result of being in a prison” (110). One of the things missing from the actual prison experience that is inserted in the novels is this idea of forming relationships which are an essential part of normal human social structures. The novels illustrate a complex social system where the inmates pull together in solidarity and are able to survive the experience with less of an emotional toll than if they were to be completely isolated.

In the sixth chapter, perhaps one of the strongest in the book, the author uses That Smell to illustrate the ways in which prison literature shows a world where inside the prison is not so different from the free world. The unnamed narrator has just been released from prison and finds that he has nowhere to go and no one to turn to except his sister. He is still under surveillance since the local police insists that he remains inside his apartment after dark. He sees the same type of corruption that was prevalent in prison and experiences similar feelings of alienation and loneliness. The same inability to form meaningful relationships follows him into freedom and he is never able to escape the persecution for which he already served his time.

One of the weaknesses of the book becomes evident in the seventh chapter when Elimelekh begins to circle back on the ideas she has already presented. While she does add a sprinkling of new information and novel insights from the literature, she mostly reiterates the previously-mentioned motifs of death, loneliness, depression, absurdity, and existentialism. She does add an important part that had been lacking in her talk about solidarity and its after-effects: that there is a kind of stagnation present in the lives of prisoners because their every moment is taken up with thoughts of survival. This is an element that follows the unnamed narrator of That Smell out of the prison and onto the streets, and it is noteworthy that Elimelekh chose to include it.

Elimelekh’s work is both focused and fascinating for anyone interested in prison literature, in the psychological effects of incarceration, or in the larger historical context of captivity narratives. Her work is relevant for anyone interested in literature within this genre or the broader study of literature in general. Her critical lens is relevant for literature and prison studies. Elimelekh ends the book by writing that “[p]rison literature…contributes a small but powerful note of encouragement in the struggle between light and darkness, good and evil,” and I couldn’t agree more (186).

Heather M Humphrey
SUNY—Binghamton University

Elimelekh, Geula. Arabic Prison Literature: Resistance, Torture, Alienation, and Freedom. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014.