Ibrahim El-Salahi Untitled from Prison Notebook 1976

  • MoMA, Floor 4, 420 The David Geffen Galleries

The prison guards came,

High-ranking officers and the low rank and file:

“Today you are to be transferred.”

Brusquely, they spluttered their instructions,

Allowing no questions or requests.

“To the Quarantine Section A you shall leave.

Take all your belongings under your armpit.”

I had neither a sleeping mat nor a bed cover,

Nothing other than what I was wearing then: a dirty shirt and a pair of pants.

I didn’t brush my teeth last night or this morning.

I didn’t even have a comb to tidy up my unkempt beard.

My hair was soiled with sand.

Good-bye dear ones, good-bye dears.

It was a night of warm intimacy and understanding

That we spent together.

Now it is over once and for all.

We left, each on a different route,

Through wall after wall in the maze of the prison iron gates.

I have seen the face! The face of detention,

Behind ancient apertures in ancient prison dungeons.

It was reported, impoverished rats in these cells bite human limbs and figures.

And we entered.

The iron gate locked behind our backs, with a menacing roar, like a mountain,

Its bolt as thick as an arm’s or leg’s length.

There were four and one detainees already there.

Peace be upon the dwellers of this place, peace be on earth.

God’s peace be upon you, dwellers of this detention hole.

God’s peace be upon you, dwellers of this detention hole.

Their meager belongings: nothing more than sleeping mats,

A defecation bucket, a small table with a single onion on top of it.

They told us it was a rare gem, with magical powers,

An antidote against poison and sorrows.

One of us told them to finish off their meal first.

Prison food was tasteless, colorless, lacking in salt and spices,

With no gravy, no meat, no bone, not even teeth.

One of us inquired, “Who are you?”

“We are members of the Liberation Party,” they said.

“The Truthful Path, we firmly adhere to Islam.”

The fifth of them retorted, “I’m an old hand, a tempered political activist.

Working-class activist, working clandestinely to help bring people together

To stand up for the right cause.”

“Beware!” says one of them behind his back.

“Don’t utter a single word to this fellow.

He is a snitch. He looks through the eyes of the regime.

Fear, doubt, mistrust are the canons of the regime.”

May blessed dew never fall upon the ignominious.

I have shaken off tyranny and despotism from my soul.

I have shaken off worry and pain,

Shaken off sorrows, laments, and trepidation.

May blessed dew never fall upon the ignominious.

May blessed dew never water plants of fear, humiliation, and ignominy.

Ibrahim El-Salahi: I had some cement-bag casings, and I chopped them into small pieces. And there was a pencil. One little pencil about four inches long, or what was left of it. We used it to write something or jot something down, to send a message somewhere. I remember I used to make little drawings and hide the pencil in the sand and also hide the small papers, because if they found them I would be in even more trouble than I was in already. That gave me an idea, which I used later in my work: the organic growth of a picture. I used to make very tiny drawings on these little pieces of paper that I buried in the sand after finishing them. I worked on a nucleus, something in the middle. Then I added one piece to the right, then one piece to the left, one piece above, one piece below, until the picture grew into another image.

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 1/8 × 6 3/4" (28.3 × 17.1 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
319.2017.18
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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