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Days at Al Wathba Prison

I crouch down to hug her but she smacks my arm and says, “Are you seriously that much taller than me?”

         Dina 1)All names have been changed to maintain anonymity. All drawings belong to an unnamed inmate and shared with her permission. All photos belong to the interviewee. was the shortest of her family, her petite frame no match for the blunt (some would say rude) voice she emitted.  I hadn’t seen her in a while, not since she moved to Oman for her teaching job at an elementary school. Every time I did though, she’d ask me if I remembered how we used to watch My Little Pony or The Sound of Music together, again and again. I’d always give her the same answer: Of course I did. I wondered whether she asked because she’d always see me as a little girl, or because she wanted to remember the person she used to be, before everything happened. I asked her over to my place because I wanted to know what exactly had happened. I only knew little snippets. Drugs, mainly.

 

       We sit on the grey couch and I hand her a steaming cup of tea. Her hands shake as she grabs it. They always shake now. Her hazel eyes, big and doll-like, have a little bit of crazy in them. Still, she retains some of the beauty she takes for granted. Her pale skin has thankfully not lost its luster, neither has her thick blonde hair. A wonder, really. I thought they would be the first to become frail and weak, the same way the rest of her had. A small gift, I guess.  

       “So, ready when you are,” I say.

       “This is the first time I actually tell the full story from A to Z. Don’t be surprised if I start laughing or crying or whatever,” she says, and takes a sip of her tea.

 

***

 

       She walked into the small prison cell, clutching her clothes in one hand and two stinky grey blankets in the other. Four metal bunk beds were pushed against opposing walls and none of them had mattresses, just the chain-link base. These bare beds were already claimed, so she settled down on the floor. She was naked underneath the green, oversized uniform -- a “costume” as she called it. The pants were so big that she had to tie a knot on the side to keep them from falling. She got to keep her ballet flats, though. They were inconspicuous enough. Otherwise, she would have ended up barefoot like the prostitutes who came in wearing stilettos.

        “Lucky I was wearing ballet flats,” she says, with a smile and a shake of the head.

         Despite the heat and humidity the United Arab Emirates was infamous for, and despite the hoards of women crammed into this pillbox, she was freezing. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, yearning for warmth, but only felt an electric current run through because of how rigid her little blond hairs stood on end. The withdrawal symptoms played a role too, of course. The cocktail of drugs, like Lexotanil, Solpadine, Codeine, and mostly, Tramadol, pushed through her bloodstream, asking for more. She had almost gotten away with replenishing her illegal stash.

        Now, eight women stared back at her: one tall, one short, one pudgy, one old, one with thick eyebrows, one in a wheelchair. All stared at her when she had diarrhea in the toilet in the corner, with a hose instead of tissue to clean herself with. Another withdrawal symptom.

       “I just didn’t give a shit anymore. I just wanted to sleep. I was so cold,” she says.

        This was Dina’s first day at Al Wathba, the oldest and largest prison in the UAE, just outside Abu Dhabi.  

 

***

 

        “I still can’t believe you went to jail,” I say. “But what I don’t understand, even more than that, is why you were doing drugs to begin with. How? Why? WHY?”

         She sighs and says, “I was depressed and alone, I had lost my job. I had nothing else in my life,” Dina says, running her hand through her hair. “I always thought if I used Tramal, I could escape reality.”

        “You have to tell me from the start.”

         “I will, but you still won’t understand. And there’s so much you don’t know about the past, Mariumti.”

 

        She was right. The reasons for addiction were never easy to explain or to fathom. In Lebanon, it happened just because it was that easy. Dina got her hands on Tramal, a powerful opiate-like sedative with codeine and morphine-like effects. She bought fake prescriptions or paid someone else to buy the drugs for her. This started five years ago, when she was twenty-eight years old.

       “I didn’t feel… I used to feel numb,” she says, “I always used to tell myself I have to stop, I have to stop, I have to reduce, when in fact I was taking more.” It was hard to imagine her injecting the syringes into her little body, on her behind, or thighs.

        There was no need for back alley meetings or drive-bys in empty streets for her to get her next fix of Tramal. She could just stroll into the pharmacy.

        “I always had a fake prescription. I had everything planned,” she says.

         Threatening and addictive narcotics were sold as over-the-counter medicines, leading many people to use pharmacies as a source to feed their addiction. The leniency in buying harsh OTC drugs made pharmacies in Lebanon the ideal place to replenish your preferred poison.

         Anyone could be Dina – around 10,000 to 15,000 persons, in Lebanon, actually are.

 

        Even after moving to Abu Dhabi in 2016, she continued to feed her addiction. It was illegal to sell Tramal in the UAE, so Dina resorted to getting people she knew back in Lebanon to send them for her. Her injections emptied out and the withdrawal symptoms had started: aggressiveness, nausea, headaches, body pain, anxiety, sweating, insomnia, and this would last for days. Her addiction took its toll on her job as a teacher and she struggled to keep going. She needed more Tramal.

 

       “I didn’t even know the guy,” she says. “I asked my friend to find a random person at the airport going to Abu Dhabi and to give them the bag with the boxes and the prescription form.” Her crooked plan worked until it did not. The man got through immigration, “You know, with the cameras and the checkpoints and everything,” but was stopped at customs. He was detained by airport security and told them everything. Dina was left in the dark, wondering where he was and why he was not picking up her calls. Her recklessness amazed me.

 

       “Two days, three days, four days, five days… I get a call at work.” The drug division of the police requested she come to the station for some questions. They sat her down for four hours and in her fear, she lied and said the drugs were for her mother who suffered from cancer. But the prescription form was in her own name, not her mother’s.

        “I could’ve gotten out of it in the first day if I hadn’t lied, but God just wanted me to be punished,” she says.

        “I can’t believe you said your mum had cancer.”

        “Seriously? Everything I just told you and that’s what you stick on?” She chuckles before saying, “Let me continue.”

         The public prosecutor, “this really ugly, short, bald guy with a huge mole on his forehead, who pretended to be very nice but was an asshole,” sentenced her to prison until her case was tried at court. The urine test they took further proved her guilt. A guard came over and shackled her wrists and ankles as she tried to resist, thrashing and jerking out of their arms, tears running down her face and yelling “I will not go to prison,” until they dragged her into a van and drove towards Al Wathba.

 

       “I know it was wrong and there had to come a day where it had to stop but I wish it wasn’t that way,” she says, looking down at her hands, “I wish it wasn’t that way.”

      Sometimes I forgot how sensitive she actually could be – her aggressiveness would waver and reveal a confused, unhappy girl.

 

***

 

It was like Alcatraz, except in the desert. The two buildings, Outer Jail and Central Jail, divided the inmates up according to nationality. Dina was in the latter, in Room 1 where the Egyptians, Moroccans, Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians resided. Fifteen other rooms, housed eighteen to twenty women each from countless countries. Usually overcrowded, many slept on the floor during their entire sentencing. There was no real administerial reason, just blatant racism.

“Hey, where are you going?” asked an Egyptian woman, once Dina walked into her assigned room. She thought Dina was English and in the wrong room.

“I speak Arabic,” she answered and the woman made way for the newcomer. Dina claimed her spot on the ground and spread out her blankets. She felt so dirty, the dirtiest she had ever been.  

 

The first thing she wanted to do was call her mother. She found a guard, Shaza, who instructed her on how to proceed. She had to claim the handbag she had when arrested, and the money inside it, for it to be transferred into her prison account before being able to use the telephone.

 

“I had to write a letter to get approval and all that shit. I thought, damn what a hassle,” she says.

 

She did as she was told, and a few hours later she was able to phone her mother.

Phone calls were initially allowed from Thursday to Saturday, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. They were later reduced to three times a week, with weekends being off-limits. Inmates could only call their home country. It was also possible to phone any direct family living in the UAE, but only after they drove to Al Wathba to add their name onto the list of allowed phone calls, in person.

 

Lucky for Dina, her mother still lived in Beirut.

To2brini, ya 3omri, ya habibti, I can’t believe this,” her mother said. Her voice ripped Dina’s heart apart and she could only sob into the phone in response. Returning to her room, she laid on the ground.

 

“I couldn’t even pray to God to help me. That’s how lost I was,” she says.

 

***

 

“Come on, just try a puff,” said Linda, her tanned skin glistening underneath the Marmaris lights. Dina and her best friend were vacationing in Turkey, the summer after graduating from the Lebanese American University.

Dina took the joint in between her fingers and inhaled the sticky smoke. A coughing fit followed. Her eyes watered as she squinted at Linda and said, “That’s fucking disgusting, I don’t get why people love it so much.” Linda laughed at her friend’s seemingly naïve disposition.

Dina often remembered that night while lying in her cell wondering how she had ended up there.

 

***

 

“The other inmates would ask me what an educated girl from a good family was doing here. I didn’t know what do say,” she says. “It makes me laugh when I think of that night with Linda.”

“Did you ever try getting help? Didn’t your sister try taking you to rehab more than once?” I ask.

“She did, but I never went,” she says, her voice cracking, “I wish I did.”

 

The Ministry of Public Health is meant to provide free outpatient care to drug addicts at community health care or rehabilitation centers. But these rehabilitation centers have not been established, and patients are left to refer themselves to private clinics or rely on non-governmental organizations, the most known being Skoun. One more technicality ensued though; the patient had to be clean before being admitted into the rehab center to obtain further treatment and prevention therapy. The reason behind this skewed process was that opioid replacement therapy, through medicines such as Buprenorphine or Methadone, were too costly for the private NGOs, and only available through two main public hospitals, the Rafic Hariri Government Hospital and the Dahr el Bachek Hospital. Many addicts were left feeling hopeless and ignored in this Catch-22 situation.

 

***

 

The inmates were awoken every day at five a.m., during the fajr prayer call, for breakfast. Every inmate is let out, one by one from cells, to pick up her food and tea. The meal usually consisted of bread and jam, and a banana if lucky. Milky tea was also served but only if you had a plastic bottle at hand. Mugs, cups, or anything of the like were not allowed, as they could be converted into weapons.  

Monday to Thursday were fish and rice day, except Wednesdays, which were chicken, rice and yogurt; Sundays were meat, rice, with lettuce and tomato. Inmates only ate to appease their hunger and got used to the tasteless, cold food. Dinner was served at 5 pm, which left plenty of time for the women to get hungry again before sleeping. So they would save their breakfast as late night snacks.

 

“I kept everything next to me on the floor: my boiled eggs, my favorite honey and butter sandwiches, my bottle, my soap,” she says, “Everything that I was given, I’d line up by my blankets.”

 

The commissary, or what they would overenthusiastically call The Supermarket, was an empty room, save for a window in the wall, where they would request the available items from the guard and pay for them with the money they had in their account. It had snacks like cup noodles and chocolate; soda and biscuits; sanitary pads, shampoos, pajamas, 3abayas, and tights.

“Of course it wasn’t Marks & Spencer or whatever, but it was wow for us,” she says.

They even had waxing sugar, which an inmate named Fatoum skillfully used. She would wax and thread all the women on her block and they would buy her something from The Supermarket as payment.

“She waxed my legs for me once, and I screamed like hell,” Dina says, “but she would wax or even thread a lot of women’s vaginas before they left, you know?”

 

They did not have bags to load their purchases into, so they would tie up the corners of the used prayer clothes they had and use them as sacks. Their creativity and free time was engaged during workshops: arts and crafts, where they made purses out of Nescafe wrappers; sewing classes, that Arabs were banned from after a Syrian woman stabbed a Chinese woman’s hand with a needle; a well stocked but outdated library from which Dina would read three to four books a week; religious classes, mostly just reading the Qur’an in silence; zumba classes, where a projector would highlight the workout for those who wished to participate; or just whatever was on TV.

 

“There was an ad on MBC2 of Lebanon and I would cry every time it came on,” says Dina.

 

***

“I got used to life there. Nothing was happening with my trial and I didn’t care whether I stayed or left anymore,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I had friends, a position, responsibilities. It became kind of easy.”

 

The illusion of a functioning life behind four walls was shattered when Dina’s older siblings, Salma and Shadi, came to see her. While other inmates had weekly visits from their loved ones, this was Dina’s only visit during her entire imprisonment because they lived abroad.

She walked into the room where five cubicles and a layer of Plexiglas separated the prisoners from the public. Shadi and Salma’s shoulders were pressed up against each other, in the one cubicle they both squeezed into. Salma held the phone in her hand but could not lift her arm up to place it on her ear once Dina did on the other side. Salma cursed at her brother and they awkwardly shuffled before Shadi settled in behind her. He bent his long frame to be able to hear through the phone with Salma.

The whole thing was almost comical – if Dina was not in jail, if they were not separated by bars, if there was not a guard watching their every move. They laughed anyway, high and clipped, brief but sweet. Until Dina started crying and banging on the plastic. Salma left the room. Shadi stayed, holding the phone to his ear but not saying a word.

 

“I just wanted to leave with them,” she says, in between sobs, “They were right there. I wanted my life back.” She takes in a shaky breath, “I wanted to leave so bad.”

 

***

“Did you feel important and useful in prison?” I ask, “More than when you were outside?  

 

“I did, but it also felt like it didn’t matter. I was still in prison,” Dina says, “You don’t forget what you’re in there for.”

 

Yet, Dina befriended one of the guards, Khadija, who trusted her as an equal and not as an inmate. “Some guards were bitches, but she wasn’t,” Dina said. Khadjia put her in charge of administrative matters: transporting legal documents to and from the two prison buildings, guiding new inmates, and mainly, writing letters in Arabic for inmates who needed permission to achieve certain tasks (finding out how much money they had, adding more, calling abroad, etc.). She would write up to 20 letters a day.

Her reach extended towards her fellow inmates, as well. They turned towards her for advice, writing up requests, French lessons, when they needed something from The Supermarket, or just simple friendship.

 

“I was like a mother figure to them, even though I was so young,” she said, laughing. “One inmate used to call me the Prison Pope.”

 

Dina’s influence was especially evident when she organized a party for Eid, after Ramadan. It had never been done before but she pulled it off. The party was in fact a fashion and talent show, where she selected twenty inmates and contestants to display their national attire. Many women had their original outfits from when they had been arrested, or hand-me-downs from past prisoners. Four judges and a “point counter” were also designated.

“Everyone was so excited, they were running in and out of all cells, gathering different clothes and colors,” she says, her eyes opening wide. “The things they came up with were amazing.”

 

They wrapped their head scarves as tops or skirts, tore off and tied together pieces from different materials, used bed sheets as dresses, Tang powder juice as eyeshadow, melted coffee as lipstick and blush, pens as eyeliner, metallic cheese wrappers as earrings and necklaces, torn up magazines as confetti, and cut up milk tins as the winner’s crown. Each woman strutted down past the railway, as the rest cheered and the guards watched. The joy was infectious. Some inmates danced, others put up a comedy skit, others sang. The winner, a woman from the Philippines, sang Justin Bieber’s song “Home to Mama,” with the lights turned off and everyone sang along with her while waving their arms in the air.

 

Life is all good when you're around
Girl nobody from the past is
Beating you right now

 

“Some were crying,” she says, “I was crying.”

 

Dina placed a ripped bed sheet/makeshift sash on the winner and named her “Miss Alwathba 2016.”

***

 

A prison that let inmates organize fashion shows does not seem all that bad. But when they locked the women up during random check-ins from human right lawyers, everyone was reminded of where they were.

 

“The warden used to threaten us. We couldn’t leave our rooms and if any one of us complained to the lawyers, she would threaten to put us in solitary for weeks.”

 

Though the UAE boasts their enforcement and promotion of human rights culture, a certain report on the conditions of Emirati prisons states that the authorities are often violating all the principles and rules related to detention, such as rehabilitation. A law from the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”  The inmates of Al Wathba were not.

 

***

 

“What’s your case? What’s your case? What’s your case? That’s all they ever used to talk about,” she says.

 

One of Dina’s roommates, on the wheelchair, was a twenty-year-old Palestinian girl studying in Canada. She got into an accident while vacationing in Abu Dhabi and broke her hip, leg, and ankle. She also happened to have some marijuana in her purse. She was cuffed to her hospital bed until discharged and brought straight to the prison. According to Dina, Salma only thought and spoke about sex, her past relationships, what she had gotten into, and how she could not wait until she could have sex again. She used to have phone sex with her boyfriend and draw erotic pictures of the guards.  

 

A sixty-year-old Egyptian woman was arrested for being a con artist. The product she would sell was meant to tighten a woman’s vagina. She sold it to countless unsuspecting (married) women until an undercover police officer caught her.

 

An Emirati woman the inmates used to call Al Khataba, would help couples elope for a ridiculous fee by taking them over to Oman. She was eventually arrested for transporting drugs during her trips.

 

Another Emirati girl, nineteen-years-old, was arrested for being drunk. It was her second time at Al Wathba. She would “shit” in her tray of food and send it back to the guard whenever she spent time in solitary confinement – which was often.

 

One of her temporary roommates, an older Saudi woman, had frequent psychotic episodes: screaming, jerking, and clawing at the walls of her cell. She once grabbed Dina’s leg in the middle of the night and woke her up screaming. Others thought she was possessed, but Dina found her funny (and creepy).

 

An obscene number of women were jailed for killing their maids, by choking them, burning them, or even butchering them. One of the prisoners tried taking her own life by jumping off the prison railing, but “she didn’t even die, she was too fat,” Dina says, “she landed on the table, then the floor.”

 

Shereen used the tin lid of a Nivea cream container, broke it, and sliced her wrists with it. She desperately wanted to get access to the psychiatrist so she could get her hands on some pills, and this was the only way the guards took her seriously enough to grant her request. She started snorting the pills given to her soon after. Any she had left over, she’d hide in a small bag and “stick it inside her pussy” when the guards would conduct searches.

 

An Indonesia woman, named Ati, became Dina’s maid.

 

***

 

“Wait, what?” I say, “What do you mean maid?”

“Yeah, a maid,” Dina says, “She used to make my bed, bring me breakfast, wash my costume.”

“How does that even work? How do you have maids in prison?”

“Oh yeah, a lot of women did. They were other inmates, mostly Indonesian women who needed money, so we’d transfer it into their account or buy things from The Supermarket for them.”

“Wow.”

“Ati cried when I left. I really loved her,” Dina says.

 

***

 

During her first week at Al Wathba, as per tradition, one of Dina’s roommates took her to the second floor where a Russian lady stayed. Above the railing, she could see all the women on the bottom floor. Green, veiled figures hovered from table to table, in the common area underneath, some chatting, others just sitting silently. Dina entered the new room and was instructed to sit in front of a frail, wiry woman with hair so blonde it was almost white. She was the prison’s fortuneteller, and every new inmate came to her to find out her fate. She sat cross-legged on the floor and shuffled the prison’s homemade cards; cutouts from Ariel and Persil detergent boxes, using nail clippers. She asked Dina to lift up half of the deck, then placed the selected cards face forward.

“She told me I’d get out soon, but she was full of shit. Obviously, I didn’t.”

 

***

 

Dina was released almost a year after her incarceration. The Sheikh of the UAE chose to pardon around 300 inmates as a gesture during the country’s National Day. She was free to go.

 

“Do you miss it?” I ask.

“There isn’t a day I don’t think about my time there,” she says, “but I had nightmares after I got out.”

“Did you use Tramal again? Are you using it now?”

“No, of course not,” she answers quickly. After a moment, she says, “But I did after I got out. The most I’ve ever taken. But I stopped now. I moved to Oman to start a new life, I won’t risk it anymore. Khalas.”

 

***

 

Dina teaches five-year-olds in Muscat, today. Sometimes, they’d play with their toy cars – some of them police cars, and say to her, “Miss Dina, we’re going to take you to prison,” laughing.

 

“Little do they know, I’ve already lived it,” she says, with a sad smile.

Contributor
Mariam Shour

Mariam Shour is a 22-year-old writer based in Beirut, Lebanon. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with a BA in Media and Communications and a minor in Creative Writing. Mariam is currently asking herself, “What’s next?” and her parents might (jokingly) say, “zawej,” but she definitely has other plans first.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1. All names have been changed to maintain anonymity. All drawings belong to an unnamed inmate and shared with her permission. All photos belong to the interviewee.
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