In a well-lit room, a Muhaqqiq sat on an elevated platform, with a writing pad before him. In my first encounter with him, the blindfold was slightly raised by the Haras -enabling me to see the interrogator and survey the room. There were several other tables around, and a portrait of Saddam neatly placed on a plank. And there was a sofa set arranged on one side. I was given a chair, which I thought must have come there by mistake from a kindergarten. It was small, very low and apparently fragile.
Initial questions dealt with my identity, my family history and my immediate relatives. In between these were simple enquiries, he asked:
"Do you pray"?
"Yes". I said. The question seemed strange and totally irrelevant. But then I thought that perhaps they wanted to establish if I was truly a Muslim; a quality, which I guessed, might earn me some favour. As days passed by, I understood the implications.
Detainees charged with criminal offences or accused of immoral practices stood a better chance of early release. Pimps, drug peddlers, smugglers, playboys and gays were released within two to three weeks, because they helped the process of de-Islamization. Sameer, an Egyptian young man, looked quiet and well behaved in the cell, but his story was astounding. He travelled with strangers in the buses, and on the way would politely offer tea from his thermos. The traveller soon went into a deep slumber, and Sameer helped himself with all the contents of the stranger's wallet. The drugs and sedatives thus used in the blend made tea all the more palatable-for both, Sameer and his victim. Here, I reckoned, was a boy who would be severely punished and detained for many years. But he was released from the cell within a month and was seen in Baghdad by some of my friends who were brought back from freedom again, this time accused of being deserters.
The Ba'thist regime does not tolerate religious leanings. Just as we sat one evening to eat the upper crust of the half-baked bread called Sammoon with tasteless curry, which had more water in it than any of its usual ingredients, young Muhsin entered. Most of the inmates seemed to know the newcomer. He had been here six months ago, and had stayed for four months. He was then sent to Abu Ghuraib jail. They greeted him and welcomed him to the meal. He was a resident of Samarra. I found him reticent but cordial. He prayed regularly and sat for Dhikr, Taqeebat and other voluntary acts of worship for quite long. As our acquaintance became intimate, I once asked him about his case. He was reluctant to disclose anything in presence of the others. Early one morning, we chanced to be alone near the Hammam for Wudhu, and he explained his plight in detail. "I was arrested because I was a regular goer to the mosques and the Shrines of Askariyyain, and accused of being associated with Da’wah. They kept me here for four months, and did not call me for Tahqeeq even once. Then I was suddenly transferred to Abu Ghuraib, where I stayed for six months. I became acquainted with the cruel Haras of Abu Ghuraib, and being a senior inmate, was usually spared their whips and slaps. Then I wrote a note to the Head of Mukhaberat complaining that I was not being interviewed and I wondered how long would I remain incarcerated without knowing the charges preferred against me. I was transferred again to this place. They have called me downstairs once, but could not trace my file. And when they found it after a long search, there was nothing against me except that my inclinations towards the Ba'thist policy were unknown. So I must be religious, fanatic, orthodox, reactionary and follower of Hizbud Da'wah." Muhsin stayed for ten months and many more weeks, totally neglected. Iraq’s present Ba’thist regime consigns religious youths to the dungeons of oblivion.
Religious performances in the cell were looked down upon by the Haras and other officers who made unannounced, short visits. To be seen with a rosary - a sabha was the most intolerable offence. Rosaries made from the strings of motley Bataniyya, plaited and knotted with great care and dexterity, were perhaps the only attractive items in this dreary cell. We said our Tasbeeh with these rosaries hidden under the blankets covering our knees. A Haras, Raed, saw one of us with this beautiful brown rosary in his hand, and was red with anger. The massive door opened, and a search began. Some twenty-five rosaries were found on the inmates, and they were all pushed out to the corridor for punishment. The cracking wire whips and the wails of "Sayyidi-Sayyidi-Afw-Afw" could be faintly heard from outside. Quran was not allowed into the cell. Daily prayers were ridiculed, though tolerated. Muhammad Ali of Samawa once stood up for Tahajjud in the small hours of the night. In the packed cell, he managed to find a place near the door. During the final Witr, he had just raised his palms for Qunoot, when most unexpectedly Abu Mahmood appeared at the infamous window. "Shunu Salat Hazeh" what sort of prayer is this? There was nobody there to answer, for Muhammad Ali was steadfast in his supplications, and those half awake like myself pretended to be in deep sleep. Abu Mahmood stood riveted to the ground till Tahajjud was over and with a contemptuous grin said: "You would not be here if God ever heard!"
My interrogation continued on the same note.
"Do you speak Arabic or Persian?"
"Do you read Quran?"
"How can you read Quran if you did not know Arabic?"
"This is common in the non-Arab Muslim world. We are taught to recognize the Alphabets, and trained in recitation without understanding the language", I explained.
"Why did you visit Iraq?"
"For Ziyarat of Arba’een."
"And who sent you here?"
"Nobody. I came of my own accord, and at my own expense.
"You are lying. You must know that we are kind and considerate to those who are truthful. And when you start telling the lies, we treat you like animals-worse than that. Do you understand?"
"Yes, but I am telling no lies."
The interrogator left his seat and came closer to where I sat. This menacing approach sent a chilling sensation down my spine, but nothing happened. He asked:
"Are you Ayatollah?"
I was taken aback. Was I? This seemed to be quite far-fetched, and I could not guess why they thought I was Ayatollah. I had no beard-it had been perforce shaved in the cell. And then I remembered. In my briefcase, they had found an Amaliyya of Ayatollah El-Khui, and some of his letters and receipts for Khums.
"No, I am not Ayatollah", I said.
"What are your relations with El-Khui?"
"He is my Mujtahid. I follow his rulings in Islamic jurisprudence and regulations".
"And with Khomeini?"
"No relations with Khomeini".
"Do you believe he is a crazy Mulla, responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent Muslims?"
I hesitated. This was a tragic pause. The Muhaqqiq hit me on my jaws with his fist and I was on the floor as the chair tilted.” You are Khomeini's spy-and with that label I was sent back to the cell.