This is the story of a real woman. I met her in the Qanatir Prison a few years ago. I was doing research on the personalities of a group of women prisoners and detainees convicted or accused of various offences.
The prison doctor told me that this woman had been sentenced to death for killing a man. Yet she was not like the other female murderers held in the prison.
‘You will never meet anyone like her in or out of prison. She refuses all visitors, and won’t speak to anyone. She usually leaves her food untouched, and remains wide awake until dawn. Sometimes the prison warder observes her as she sits staring vacantly into space for hours. One day she asked for pen and paper, then spent hours hunched over them without moving. The warder could not tell whether she was writing a letter or something else. Perhaps she was not writing anything at all.’
I asked the prison doctor, ‘Will she see me?’
‘I shall try to persuade her to speak to you for a while,’ he said. ‘She might agree if I explain you are a psychiatrist, and not one of the Public Prosecutor’s assistants. She refuses to answer my questions. She even refused to sign an appeal to the President so that her sentence might be commuted to imprisonment for life.’
‘Who made out the appeal for her?’ I asked.
‘I did,’ he said. ‘To be quite honest, I do not really feel she is a murderer. If you look into her face, her eyes, you will never believe that so gentle a woman can commit murder.’
‘Who says murder does not require that a person be gentle?’
He stared at me in surprise for a brief moment, and then laughed nervously.
‘Have you ever killed anybody?’
‘Am I a gentle woman?’ I replied.
He turned his head to one side, pointed to a tiny window, and said, ‘That’s her cell. I’ll go and persuade her to come down and meet you.’
After a while he came back without her. Firdaus had refused to see me.
I was supposed to examine some other women prisoners that day, but instead I got into my car and drove away.
Back home I could not do anything. I had to revise the draft of my latest book, but I was incapable of concentrating. I could think of nothing but the woman called Firdaus who, in ten days’ time, would be led to the gallows.
Early next morning I found myself at the prison gates again. I asked the warder to let me see Firdaus, but she said: ‘It’s no use, Doctor. She will never agree to see you.’
‘They’re going to hang her in a few days’ time. What use are you, or anybody else to her? Leave her alone!’
There was a note of anger in her voice. She gave me a look charged with wrath, as though I was the one who would hang Firdaus in a few days’ time.
‘I have nothing to do with the authorities either here or any other place,’ I said.
‘That’s what they all say,’ she said angrily.
‘Why are you so worked up?’ I asked. ‘Do you think Firdaus is innocent, that she didn’t kill him?’
She replied with an added fury:
‘They? Who are they?’
She looked at me with suspicion and said, ‘Tell me rather, who are you? Did they send you to her?’
‘Whom do you mean by “they”?’ I asked again.
She looked around cautiously, almost with fear, and stepped back away from me.
‘They… You mean to say you don’t know them?’
‘No,’ I said.
She emitted a short, sarcastic laugh and walked off. I heard her muttering to herself:
‘How can she be the only one who does not know them?’
* * *
I returned to the prison several times, but all my attempts to see Firdaus were of no avail. I felt somehow that my research was now in jeopardy. As a matter of fact, my whole life seemed to be threatened with failure. My self-confidence began to be badly shaken, and I went through difficult moments. It looked to me as though this woman who had killed a human being, and was shortly to be killed herself, was a much better person than I. Compared to her, I was nothing but a small insect crawling upon the land amidst millions of other insects.
Whenever I remembered the expression in the eyes of the warder, or the prison doctor, as they spoke of her complete indifference to everything, her attitude of total rejection, and above all her refusal to see me, the feeling that I was helpless, and of no significance grew on me. A question kept turning round and round in my mind increasingly: What sort of woman was she? Since she had rejected me, did that mean she was a better person than me? But then, she had also refused to send an appeal to the President asking him to protect her from the gallows. Could that signify that she was better than the Head of State?
I was seized by a feeling very close to certainty, yet difficult to explain, that she was, in fact, better than all the men and women we normally hear about, or see, or know.
I tried to overcome my inability to sleep, but another thought started to occupy my mind and keep me awake. When she refused to see me did she know who I was, or had she rejected me without knowing?
The following morning, I found myself back once more in the prison. I had no intention of trying to meet Firdaus, for I had given up all hope. I was looking for the warder, or the prison doctor. The doctor had not yet arrived but I found the warder.
‘Did Firdaus tell you she knew me?’ I asked her.
‘No, she did not tell me anything,’ the warder replied. ‘But she does know you.’
‘How do you know that she knows me?’
‘I can sense her.’
I just stood there as though turned to stone. The warder left me to get on with her work. I tried to move, to go towards my car and leave, but in vain. A strange feeling of heaviness weighed down my heart, my body, drained my legs of their power. A feeling heavier than the weight of the whole earth, as though instead of standing above its surface, I was now lying somewhere beneath it. The sky also had undergone a change; its colour had turned to black, like that of the earth, and it was pressing down upon me with its added load.
It was a feeling I had known only once before, many years ago. I had fallen in love with a man who did not love me. I felt rejected, not only by him, not only by one person amongst the millions that peopled the vast world, but by every living being or thing on earth, by the vast world itself.
I straightened my shoulders, stood as upright as I could, and took a deep breath. The weight on my head lifted a little. I began to look around me and to feel amazed at finding myself in the prison at this early hour. The warder was bent double, scrubbing the tiled floor of the corridor. I was overcome by an unusual contempt towards her. She was no more than a woman cleaning the prison floor. She could not read or write and knew nothing about psychology, so how was it that I had so easily believed her feelings could be true?
Firdaus did not actually say she knew me. The warder merely sensed it. Why should that indicate that Firdaus really knew me? If she had rejected me without knowing who I was there was no reason for me to feel hurt. Her refusal to see me was not directed against me personally, but against the world and everybody in it.
I started to walk towards my car with the intention of leaving. Subjective feelings such as those that had taken hold of me were not worthy of a researcher in science. I almost smiled at myself as I opened the door of the car. The touch of its surface helped to restore my identity, my self-esteem as a doctor. Whatever the circumstances, a doctor was surely to be preferred to a woman condemned to death for murder. My normal attitude towards myself (an attitude which rarely deserts me) gradually returned. I turned the ignition key and pressed my foot down on the accelerator, firmly stamping out the sudden feeling (which occasionally haunts me in moments of failure) of merely being an insignificant insect, crawling on the earth amidst myriads of other similar insects. I heard a voice behind me, rising over the sound of the engine.
It was the warder. She ran up to me panting heavily. Her gasping voice reminded me of the voices I often heard in my dreams. Her mouth had grown bigger, and so had her lips, which kept opening and closing with a mechanical movement, like a swing door.
I heard her say, ‘Firdaus, Doctor! Firdaus wants to see you!’
Her breast was heaving up and down, her breathing had become a series of rapid gasps, and her eyes and face reflected a violent emotion. If the President of the Republic in person had asked to see me, she could not have been swept by such an overpowering emotion.
My breathing in turn quickened, as though by infection, or to be more precise, I felt out of breath, for my heart was beating more strongly than it had ever done before. I do not know how I climbed out of the car, nor how I followed so closely behind the warder that I sometimes overtook her, or moved ahead. I walked with a rapid, effortless pace, as though my legs were no longer carrying a body. I was full of a wonderful feeling, proud, elated, happy. The sky was blue with a blueness I could capture in my eyes. I held the whole world in my hands; it was mine. It was a feeling I had known only once before, many years ago. I was on my way to meet the first man I loved for the first time.
I stopped for a moment in front of Firdaus’ cell to catch my breath and adjust the collar of my dress. But I was trying to regain my composure, to return to my normal state, to the realization that I was a researcher in science, a psychiatrist, or something of the kind. I heard the key grind in the lock, brutal, screeching. The sound restored me to myself. My hand tightened its grasp on the leather bag, and a voice within me said, ‘Who is this woman called Firdaus? She is only…’
But the words within me stopped short. Suddenly we were face to face. I stood rooted to the ground, silent, motionless. I did not hear the beat of my heart, nor the key as it turned in the lock, closing the heavy door behind me. It was as though I died the moment her eyes looked into mine. They were eyes that killed, like a knife, probing, cutting deep down inside, their look steady, unwavering. Not the slightest movement of a lid. Not the smallest twitch of a muscle in the face.
I was brought back suddenly by a voice. The voice was hers, steady, cutting deep down inside, cold as a knife. Not the slightest wavering in its tone. Not the smallest shiver of a note. I heard her say:
‘Close the window.’
I moved up to the window blindly and closed it, then cast a bemused look around. There was nothing in the cell. Not a bed, or a chair, or anything on which I could sit down. I heard her say:
‘Sit down on the ground.’
My body bent down and sat on the ground. It was January and the ground was bare, but I felt no cold. Like walking in one’s sleep. The ground under me was cold. The same touch, the same consistency, the same naked cold. Yet the cold did not touch me, did not reach me. It was the cold of the sea in a dream. I swam through its waters. I was naked and knew not how to swim. But I neither felt its cold, nor drowned in its waters. Her voice too was like the voices one hears in a dream. It was close to me, yet seemed to come from afar, spoke from a distance and seemed to arise from nearby. For we do not know from where these voices arise: from above or below, to our left or our right. We might even think they come from the depths of the earth, drop from the rooftops, or fall from the heavens. Or they might even flow from all directions, like air moving in space reaches the ears.
But this was no dream. This was not air flowing into my ears. The woman sitting on the ground in front of me was a real woman, and the voice filling my ears with its sound, echoing in a cell where the window and door were tightly shut, could only be her voice, the voice of Firdaus.