Ibrahim El-Salahi Untitled from Prison Notebook 1976

  • MoMA, Floor 4, 420 The David Geffen Galleries

Today, no prisoners shall be allowed to go back to bed after the morning count.

All sleeping mats must be put away.

Those on death row will clean, sweep, and tidy up the place.

All personal belongings shall be stuffed into a hidden corner.

They will sweep, clean, sweep clean, and throw sand in the eyes.

Today is the day for the inspection round.

The first Saturday of the first week of every month.

They rushed in, hollering and scolding everyone.

Then he leisurely walked into the place with a big smile.

“No problem at all. Everything is all right, your Excellency!”

How come? I was fuming with rage!

What about the human in us, what about rights and the constitution?

What about law enforcement and humans, humanity?

Everybody was looking apprehensive.

I was told to put my demands and objections in writing.

One of us stood up and demanded a provision of onions!

The Excellency’s face radiated with exhilaration.

The demand was answered.

Three little onions were brought into the prison the next morning.

I was infuriated.

What about our rights?

All prison mates were speechlessly gazing at me.

“No problem. Everything is all right, your Excellency.”

And another first Saturday of the first week of the month arrived.

The death row inmates came in once more, throwing sand in the eyes.

Throwing sand on anthills, scrubbing and cleaning.

They hurriedly came in.

The day is inspection day.

He came in, at his leisure, with unabashed smiles in all directions.

“No problem. Everything is all right, your Excellency. No problem.”

A different inmate stood up to the occasion this time, with new demands.

Demanding enforcement of constitutional rights, law enforcement and order.

All were gazing apprehensively, speechless.

“You have to write down what you ask for.”

Then I was told that it was my turn to put forward our demands.

“Your Excellency, the onions, we want onions.”

I heard myself repeating that from a distant nearness.

Once more, the face of the Excellency radiated with exhilaration.

I have learned my lesson twice.

The next morning four onions were brought in,

Four beautiful moonlike onions, like paradise apples.

I hid away one of these onions.

I planted, watered, and took care of that onion.

It grew up a lush green plant.

I kept fending off birds and feet from my little garden.

The prison yard turned flourishing green.

My garden, the garden, the garden of walls, was in full bloom.

It was there and then the favorite subject for our chatter.

A symbol for all of us, for growth, life, and hope.

Ibrahim El-Salahi: This one has a long story. I mentioned earlier that the prison director used to come once a month to check on us. He would ask us if anything was wrong. “No problem at all. Everything is all right, your Excellency!” After he checked on us and we answered him and assured him that everything was all right, nothing was wrong at all, he would ask, “Do you need anything?” One of us, someone I knew very well indeed, was a political activist. He said, “Your Excellency, can we have some onions?” The food was inedible; in the morning we had broad beans that were very old, without salt or oil, nothing. For the first few days I didn’t eat at all. I just left it for other prisoners who were too hungry to refuse.

Putting onions near your nose made it easier for you to swallow the food. Just imagine. These were political prisoners from the so-called elite of the country. When the director and all the other people from the prison and security left, I went to my friend and said to him, “You call yourself a political activist and all you ask for is onions? What about freedom? What about the constitution? What about the rights of human beings and so on?” He didn’t say anything. Then he said, “Next month it is your turn to ask for the onions.” I said, “What?” He said, “Next time it will be your turn, because we all depend on these onions.”

The next morning the prison guard who was responsible for our cells brought three onions. And everyone was very happy. A month passed and the time came when I was supposed to ask for the onions. He came and asked, “Nothing wrong?” “Everything is all right, your Excellency.” He looked here and there and then asked, “Do you need anything?” I could not make myself ask for the onions. I thought it was too low, the sort of thing that would take away everything in you that you thought was human. He kept looking at me because he knew that it was my turn to ask for the onions. I couldn’t hear my voice when I said, “Your Excellency, the onions, we want onions.” I barely managed to get it out. The prison director was very happy to see that this Undersecretary of Something had been brought down to ask for onions, so everything must be working fine.

The next morning, the prison guard brought four onions as a kind of honoring of the Undersecretary’s request. One of the onions had two segments, so I gave three and a half onions to the person in charge of the mess, of the food provisions for the cells for the whole month, and I kept one segment of the onion. At that time I was responsible for the water, for the drinking jar, which was a big terra-cotta jar that I had to fill with water. What dripped from it made a bit of a muddy pool underneath. I planted the onion in the sandy ground and kept taking care of it, telling people not to step on it, please! I just wanted to see something green, because the earth was covered with sand, and the walls were sandstone, and you couldn’t see anything except the blank sky above with the kites flying. When it started growing, I used to sit for hours watching this onion getting green and sprouting. The prisoners used to come one by one and sit beside me to watch this onion! They called it Salahi’s Garden.

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
319.2017.15
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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