When Israeli artist Rafram Chaddad visited Libya to document its once-thriving Jewish community, he was accused of espionage and put in jail. Now free, he tells of his five months in captivity.
With the exception of one relatively benign and short interrogation by authorities in the port city of Derna, Chaddad’s rigid 10-day schedule in Libya was uneventful. He was able to survey the vast and picturesque desert landscapes across the country and catalog the relics of what had been one of the most culturally affluent Jewish communities in North Africa. During his wide-ranging travels there, he experienced what he now understands to have been a false sense of security. “I eventually came to realize that every second person I met in Libya was working for the secret police,” he says. “At my trial, I even encountered a security agent who had acted as my taxi driver a few days earlier.”
Thrown into his prison cell by the two agents who had picked him up from the hotel, Chaddad had plenty of time to reassess the various people he’d met. The cell in the prison where Chaddad spent his first weeks of captivity was about 6 by 6 and constructed out of barren concrete. With nothing but a chewed-up mattress with broken springs poking through it, a broken toilet, and no company but the family of cockroaches in the corner, Chaddad remained confused but optimistic. A small barred window facing an illuminated hallway allowed him to retain a sense of time.
The initial interrogations, he recalls, were relatively bland, mechanical, almost boring. A young and cologne-scented investigator named Imad questioned him repeatedly about his comings and goings in Libya. Sitting in a room with nothing but two chairs and a desk, Imad would write down every word Chaddad said. “The first alarming question he asked me was regarding the last time I visited Israel,” Chaddad remembers. Saying that he was currently living in London, Hadad did not veer too far from the truth; he explained he was a Jewish-Tunisian photographer chronicling the remains of the local Jewish community. “I didn’t want to push it, so I admitted that I visited family in Israel a few times,” he says. Rather than dismay him, the questions about Israel apparently only heightened Chaddad’s sense of optimism. “From this I understood that they were clueless,” he says. (After all, he had been living in Israel most of his life.) “I started to believe that I would come out of this in a few days.”
One remarkable thing about Chaddad’s surprisingly precise recollection of the events is its culinary foundations. Rather than remember the course of events through a sequential narrative of days, he remembers it through the various meals he ate. The first Sunday there was “a nice tuna sandwich, with some delicate harissa,” a Tunisian chili. Similarly, he can describe the flavor of the stuffing in the meat, the sweetness of the oranges, and the spicing on the macaroni he was fed in prison. In Libya, he didn’t always eat—in fact, he went days at a time without food—but this appreciation of even the most quotidian of things is a testament to the vitality that also helped him survive the ordeal.
During Chaddad’s first days in prison, not only was he not accused of any specific crime, but even more distressingly, he was not even told where he was or who was detaining him. “All this time, I could only keep thinking about my mom, and how she must be worrying about me,” he recalls. After all, no one had any knowledge of his whereabouts, and for all anyone knew he could be dead. Despite pleading unsuccessfully with his captors to inform his relatives in Tunisia of his arrest, word of his detainment would eventually reach his family by way of another prisoner who was interned with him. Chaddad remembers that in one of the adjacent cells, there was a prisoner with a distinct English accent, who was constantly bellowing in pain. Having prompted a conversation with him by singing some choice Beatles hits, Chaddad came to learn that the young man, who went by the name of Mathew, was a British citizen who had come to Libya, fallen in love with a Muslim girl, and was now awaiting deportation. On the eve of Mathew’s departure, Chaddad had the sense to drill his sister’s email address into Mathew’s memory by repeatedly singing it in a catchy tune. Despite Chaddad’s initial suspicions about Mathew’s identity—“I was sure he was planted there by the Libyans,” he says—the British man ended up delivering. The night he returned to England, Mathew sent Hadad’s sister an email that eloquently depicted Chaddad’s grave situation. It read: “Your brother is in deep shit.”
Although Chaddad’s family eventually got word of his fate and could set in motion the momentous diplomatic pressures that would eventually bring about his release, his immediate fate was about to take a turn for the worse. What Mathew had neglected to tell Hadad for fear of unnerving him was that the Libyan security services had their own diabolical ways of extracting information from their prisoners—as Hadad was about to find out. Having checked a fake email account Chaddad had specifically created for the trip and given them, his investigators demanded the password to his real email account. “That’s when I understood it was time to spill it,” he says. “One week exactly after my arrest, I tell Imad, ‘Listen, I have something for you that will knock you off your feet: I am Israeli.’ ”
The retribution was swift and painful: “An older investigator, Ali, comes in and tells me, ‘I am now going to beat you, because you lied to us,’ ” Chaddad says. “I thought he was kidding. But then they tied my hands behind my back with handcuffs, grabbed my legs and lifted them up, and started beating the soles of my feet with a wooden stick. This went on for about 20 minutes, during which I was constantly asking myself, ‘What the hell is going on?’ and convincing myself that this is not really happening to me.” A day after the beating, Chaddad recalls, Ali put his hands on his shoulder and comforted him, “‘Don’t worry, it’s part of my job. The pain will pass in a few days.’”
From this stage onward, Chaddad told his interrogators every last excruciating and paltry detail about his life: where he was from, what he did, where he grew up, where he traveled to, who his friends were, and with whom he had slept. This lasted through the following week, which happened to be Passover. Repeatedly interrogated about the same things by alternating investigators—he had nicknames for some of them—Chaddad was now questioned about his alleged Mossad rank and underwent cruel psychological mind games. Meanwhile, his captors kept reassuring him that his release was imminent.
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