The Human Bars of an Invisible Prison

Right after the police raided my house, on May 24, 1999, they seemed to vanish from the neighborhood. You didn’t see them in Street 7134, and they stopped hanging out in the local café. But this proved to be a short respite—the calm before the storm. In mid-June, just as I was sighing with relief and grumbling “good riddance,” they reappeared, refusing to allow themselves to be definitively forgotten.

This time the cops are more visible. They don’t just stake out my house anymore. Now they follow me to the office, to the park, to the market… They’re stationed at the entrance and exit to our street, and on every corner. Everyone in the neighborhood knew them immediately, just from the way they have of taking up the entire sidewalk and walking as though everything in their field of vision, whether animal or human, belonged to them.

Watching these cops swagger down the street like gangsters, I’m reminded of bad guys in an old Western movie. Their faces might almost have been mass-produced with the goal of passing unnoticed, except that their cruel, indifferent expressions have a unique ability to inspire fright.

The police are about as discreet as a dromedary strolling down Avenue Habib Bourguiba. They stare you down with appraising, hateful, contemptuous eyes. They harass your wife, they talk to your kids, they curse you in public, to your face. They follow your friends home and demand to see their papers. They even mess with the cars of people who come to visit you—they let the air out of the tires, steal luggage out of the trunk, block the street so they can’t drive away.

These are not ordinary surveillance tactics. Around here, the police are the human bars of an invisible prison. They violate your everyday life—put you in quarantine. It’s a very public form of punishment, designed to discourage people from having any contact with you, and it works. The Café d’El Capo used to be a meeting-place for Tunisian dissidents. Now it’s deserted. My residence has become—one understands by what means—a haunted house. People who still have the guts to visit me do so only because they feel it’s their duty to show solidarity. Even when the line hasn’t been cut, my phone never rings. And I’m never invited out. It’s not safe to associate with me.

You’re objectified by a thousand spying, inspecting, verifying eyes. You become the object on which they work in the service of some monstrous machinery. One feels powerless in front of them. They know they have might on their side.

Your life becomes a function of them. Losing them becomes an obsession. In the process, all life’s pleasures are ruined: simply going to the movies, the theater, or the beach, even visiting someone you love, are no longer possible.

Even if you aren’t afraid, how can you feel relaxed and serene when the cops stick to you like ticks? How can one weather the adversities of daily life without plunging into psychosis?

-Taoufik Ben Brik
Tunis, September 24, 1999 (translated by Richard Murphy)