Ibrahim El-Salahi Untitled from Prison Notebook 1976

  • MoMA, Floor 4, 420 The David Geffen Galleries

Hulking, with the throat of an ox

And the body of a giant.

His complexion had the impact of pitch-dark nights on the hearts of little children.

With a perpetually frowning forehead,

Rebuking and scolding prisoners.

Blowing his whistle, while others circle around us to take the daily morning count.

Heavily breathing in utter weariness, he hollers,

“Forever and a day, lazily you lie down doing nothing,

With no consideration for anybody,”

Sparks of fury emitted from bloodshot eyes.

One morning he came, a paper in his hand, and howled,

“Get up, let us go to the hospital.”

He was holding the list of names upside down.

He dragged me aside to ask about the next name on the list,

To conceal his illiteracy.

He used to curse and threaten every prisoner.

Woe to those waiting on death row if he was enraged.

Until one of those days he asked me for a favor.

He wanted a little of the camphor oil I had then.

The mask of heartlessness had finally fallen.

He went on cursing, insulting, and threatening prisoners in other sections,

Sparing us the ordeal of his curses.

Instead, he started sending his greetings.

They knew about this drastic transformation and posted him to a different position.

Maybe he is now rotting, a prisoner himself, somewhere.

“Sit in rows of fives.”

“How could that be? There are only three of us.”

“I know there are only three of you,

But still you have to sit in fives, fives each.”

The three of them squatted on the ground.

He went on to count, “One, two, three,” then retorted,

“That is how to sit in fives,

This is how you should line up every morning,”

Blowing his whistle to draw the attention of another group of prisoners.

He went on counting and counting,

Blowing his whistle, then count and count and count.

Oh Hamdan, you are a prison, a prisoner, and a prison guard.

Ye, a prison, a prisoner, a prison guard.

A prison, a prisoner ye, Hamdan.

Ye, a prison, a prisoner. Oh Sudan.

Hamdan, a prisoner in Sudan.

Ibrahim El-Salahi: This is about one of the prison guards who was responsible for our cells. His name was Hamdan. I think he came from western Sudan. He was very strong, like a bull. He came many times at dawn, at five in the morning, to wake the prisoners and make them sit in groups of five. And he would count. I didn’t know that he couldn’t read or write until the day he came with a piece of paper and he was holding it upside down. This is about him, about the prison, and about Sudan. Because what was happening to him, what was happening to us—we were all in a big prison.

Publication excerpt from Ibrahim El-Salahi. Prison Notebook, 1976. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018.
Medium
Ink on paper from a notebook with thirty-eight ink on paper drawings
Dimensions
11 1/4 × 6 5/8" (28.6 × 16.8 cm)
Credit
Acquired through the generosity of Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Catie and Donald Marron, Alice and Tom Tisch (in honor of Christophe Cherix), Marnie Pillsbury and Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund
Object number
319.2017.14
Copyright
© 2021 Ibrahim El-Salahi / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London
Associated work
Prison Notebook
Department
Drawings and Prints
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