9. I’ve always wondered what a foreign prison would be like

This post is the ninth in a series which starts HERE.

(August 1998)

 Several miles south of Sousse, the prison is on raised ground in the middle of nowhere. It looks like a desert fortress.

I drive there in sweltering 40C heat, seven months pregnant, with Samir’s older brother who heard he’d been arrested and turned up late the previous evening at my apartment. He seems like a nice guy, but he doesn’t speak a word of French or English so communication is a drawn-out process with many awkward silences. I don’t know how to say your fucking brother is a moron in Arabic. Actually, that’s not true. I have spent almost two years working on the beach with foul-mouthed lads. My Arabic swearing is impeccable.

We arrive just after noon, to discover visiting has stopped until 2pm. We sit in a roofed waiting area outside the gates with various locals, mainly women in traditional red tachleilas taking baskets of food to their sons. They have so much food with them I wonder if the prison feeds the inmates. One of the women – small, plump and grubby-looking – sidles up to me on the stone bench. She points at my bump.

‘Ge-ane?’ she asks. I understand. She’s asking me if I’m hungry.
‘Lai, mush ge-ane, shoukran.’ No, I’m not hungry, thanks.

She frowns and waggles her finger in my face, then points again at my bump. I groan inwardly. I know what’s coming. It’s the generosity thing, coupled with the desire to feed pregnant women (even the obstetrician I went to in Sousse warned me that the Tunisians would try to feed me up as many believe you need to be fat to have a healthy baby).

The woman heaves her worn basket onto the bench and lifts out a metal pot and a spoon, which she thrusts towards me. ‘Tackluk!’ she commands. Eat! I protest again that I’m not hungry, but she lifts the lid, dips the spoon into cold couscous, then pushes it towards my mouth. Around the waiting area, other women nod their approval and watch avidly.

I’m so hot my hair is plastered to my head, my T-shirt is damp with sweat, my bump feels heavy and my red face throbs. I have a dehydration headache because I haven’t drunk enough water, knowing there would be no toilets I could bear to use – in addition to the stress that I am waiting to visit my husband of only a few weeks in prison. And now I have a crazy vision of being pinned to the ground and force-fed couscous by the mothers of foreign criminals. It is all too much and tears trickle down my cheek (what a waste of hydration).

Samir’s brother steps forward and speaks sharply to the woman. She puts her couscous away with a sour look in my direction, and I can sense the animosity in the shelter. We all sit in silence in the oppressive midday heat as the minutes tick by. Sweat trickles down the side of my face; even breathing feels like a gigantic effort.

At 2pm the visitors troop to the metal gateway to show their papers. At first the guard won’t let me in because I am wearing dungaree maternity shorts (they come down to my knees) but after a prolonged and unpleasant discussion, during which he looks me up and down several times, he relents.

The long visiting area is gloomy and dungeon-like, but mercifully cool. It is divided into three sections by two barred walls. The visitors line up on one side, armed guards stand in the middle, and the prisoners shuffle into the third section. A bell rings, which prompts a cacophony of noise as the convicts and their families shout at one another across the chasm. Samir, his usually slicked down curly hair now a wild bush around his head, looks pale as we stare at one another. Even his brother seems lost for words, and we have barely got beyond a yelled, How are you? Fine, thanks. And you? (very polite, I am British after all), when the bell rings again and the prisoners are ushered back out. That’s it!

He has a ten day sentence, handed down in court two days after he was arrested, at trial that lasted a full ten minutes – justice is the only thing that happens swiftly in Tunisia – and I decide I won’t put myself through the torture of visiting him again. I have a watersports base to manage on my own – in addition to worrying about not giving birth too early.

If you are wondering what his crime was, it was ‘handling stolen goods’. The portable petrol tank for our motor boat had been leaking flammable liquid all over the hull of the boat, and we had a boat pilot who towed parasails up and down the coast with a cigarette dangling from his lips. We needed a new tank and were struggling to find one for sale in Sousse. Spotting this business opportunity, Mohammed, one of the idiot lads who worked for us, stole a tank from another base, and Samir stupidly bought it from him (Mohammed is in jail with Samir, but got a bit longer).

[As an aside, I thought I’d mention how common short jail sentences for young men were. This was actually the second time Samir had been locked up since I’d known him. This first time he was sent to what he called ‘geo’, a ‘3-day no-trial prison special.’ Dictator Ben Ali’s Tunisia was something of a police-state; coppers everywhere with phenomenal powers to arrest young men for simply looking as though they might commit a crime, especially in tourist areas. Samir was picked up one night while tying up our motor boat at the marina in Port El Kantaoui. Because he was so young, they presumed he must be up to no good, and he probably spoke to them the wrong way – straight to jail for three days. They don’t inform anyone; families have to figure out for themselves where their young man has disappeared to. It took me almost 48 hours that time to find out where he was].

Anyway, more on the justice system another day, it’s about time I told you about the watersports base.

petrol tank

Next: It’s fun being a beach bum

If you enjoy these blog posts, you might want to consider my debut novel, Daughter, Disappeared, a hard-hitting ‘women in jeopardy’ thriller, set in Tunisia. Please read the reviews on Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2eCnZRf. Or to purchase on Amazon.com, for those in USA/Canada: http://amzn.to/2ozbGe8.Bespoke book cover art example from coverness.com

There’s also my facebook page: Fiona MacBain – Writer – thank you!

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