Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
I have always wondered what it would be like to stare evil eye to eye as equals. To sit across a table from and break bread with it. This lifelong desire was satisfied some days ago, and the whole experience has left me rather shaken. In an attempt to impose some sense of order on what was, undoubtedly, the most chaotic and confusing experience of my life, I’m going to try and write it all down here. Maybe it will make more sense on paper.
A few years ago, as a struggling, new reporter, I had the opportunity, or, perhaps, misfortune, to be sent to cover the war in Syria. It was at its height, and our involvement there was going over in a… less than stellar manner at home. Which horse should one back under those circumstances?
While there, I spent a lot of time among the locals who frequently kept me up to date on the gossip and urban legends swirling around the area. One name in particular was brought up time and time again: “Tabib Al’alam,” which meant “Pain Doctor.” I asked everyone if they had seen this Pain Doctor, and was pointed in the direction of an elderly woman and her granddaughter.
“She’s the only one who’s come back alive,” they told me. So, I sat down with her and asked the obvious question,
“Is it true?”
The translator took a moment to confirm her answer before relaying it. His eyebrows furrowed.
“Well?” I asked, the anticipation building to an uncomfortable degree within my chest.
“She says that she has seen things that have caused her to doubt her sanity. She says that Tabib Al’alam is real, and his laboratory is… a nightmare.”
“Okay,” I pushed forward.
“No, no, not a nightmare,” the translator interrupted. “I’m sorry. The translation is confusing. What she said was more like ‘The place dreams go to die.’”
This caught my attention. “Ask her what she means by that.”
The old woman shook her head and clutched her granddaughter closer to her side.
“She says that he steals something from them. The ones who die… the ones who die first are a source of envy. Bodies like prisons…” my interviewee broke down into tears. I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but in truth I was shaken. I didn’t know what to do. The translator said something in a comforting tone. The woman calmed down a bit.
“Is she okay?” I asked, lamely.
“She’ll be fine.”
I took out my iphone: “Does she mind if I record this conversation?”
The woman shook her head.
“Okay. Could you please tell me, in as much detail as possible about the man known as ‘Tabib Al’alam?’”
Slowly, and in fits, the old woman’s story came tumbling from her lips. The pace and intensity of her rapid-fire Arabic made me glad of having an electronic recording device. I had learned to transcribe languages I did not understand, but never at this pace.
The woman’s name was Amani. She had been a merchant at a small shop in Raqqa before the war, and fled her home town after it became the focus of some of the most intense fighting of the conflict. She and her family had lived on the road for weeks, stopping only for food and gas, and then only rarely. But, the human body and mind are not built for constant transit. We require a degree of permanency, no matter how small, as much as we require oxygen. So they settled in a small village in the countryside. This little corner of Syria had not yet been touched by war. Soon, however, a rebel army rode into their midst and declared the village under their occupation. No one had heard of them before.
Life under the rebels was not especially difficult. The everyday rhythm of routine wasn’t disrupted in any real sense, at first. But, then, the whispers started. There were rumors of a mysterious man named Tabib Al’alam. As it always does, idle gossip filled the gaps left vacant by hard fact and so it was difficult to say with any certainty the degree to which these rumors were true.
Some claimed that he was a humanitarian worker sent in from the UN, and his unpleasant moniker had been corrupted through repetitive tellings. He wasn’t the “Pain Doctor,”
rather he was the “Painless Doctor,” so called because of his gentle manner.
But, darker stories surrounded this figure. Tales of torture and medical malpractice were told in hushed whispers. These were stories of limb amputation, electrical shocks and haunting screams. Amani waived these away. How was she supposed to be able to sort the truth from the lies? There was simply no way to do it.
A month of two into the occupation, people began disappearing. When their family members complained, the rebel army denied, stonewalled and outright rejected their pleas.
There was not a frank answer to be found among the impenetrable mist of deception. Had she stayed elsewhere, Amani may well have passed through this bloodsoaked page of the Middle East’s history without personal consequence or notice. She laughed a bitter laugh that needed no translation. Human misery knows no language barrier.
One night, a group of rebel soldiers broke down her door and corralled the family (her, her daughter, son in law and granddaughter) into a small area in the front of the house. Under cover of darkness and the threat of death or worse the family was forced to their knees without protest.
It was at this point in the story that I could not help but recall a fragment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago from my Russian history class: “The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: ‘You are under arrest. ‘ If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm? But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life’s experience, can gasp out only: ‘Me? What for?’”
My primal frustration at this family’s inability to fight back, while not entirely unjustified, was nonetheless wrong and I felt guilty for having thought of it.
The family was subjected to a long wait, during which the Sword of Damocles hung suspended over their collective neck. The potential suffering to which they were about to be subjected seemed nothing in comparison to the mystery that surrounded it.
Why were they being singled out? What had they done? Were they going to be killed? Horror stories, told in whispers when the soldiers were out of earshot sprang, unbidden, to Amani’s mind. There was talk of sadistic lieutenants who often kidnapped, raped and murdered young women from enemy towns and cities. A particularly gruesome rumor about one of these incidents suggested that a soldier had once raped a girl in front of her parents and then forced her to choose one to die.
After a tearful minute of unimaginable contemplation she had picked her father. Smiling, the soldier had shot them both, and then raped her again.
Images of this sort: blood, misery and tears occupied dark corners of her consciousness as the minutes ticked by. Finally, nearly a full 30 minutes after the door had been breached, a sharply dressed man with spectacles and a prominent scar across his nose and left cheek walked into the room.
He had the posture and self possession of an educated man who was used to obedience. There was nothing forthrightly hostile in his manner, and neither was there an explicit threat in his actions, yet his presence in the room was accompanied by a distinct coldness. He gave the impression of a gracious host welcoming the family as guests in their own home.
“So,” he began, speaking Arabic with a slight but noticeable Turkish accent. “You are probably wondering what our business is here.”
The statement was designed to leave no room for response. They were, obviously, wondering that very thing.
“My name is Sayyid, though I’m known better, perhaps, as Tabib Al’alam.” He noted the shock of horror that flitted across the family’s features at the mention of the name.
“There’s no need to be concerned,” he chuckled. “It’s just a nickname. Nothing more. Gossip is such an ugly thing, isn’t it?”
No one dared respond. Amani’s granddaughter began to cry at that point. She just couldn’t handle the situation. Sayyid smiled and reached a hand out to her. The girl’s mother tried to stand between him and her daughter, but the man behind her kept her pinned firmly on her knees.
Sayyid ran a hand along the girl’s head and spoke in soothing tones, “Shh. It’s alright. It’ll all be over soon.”
He stood. “On that note, you have a decision to make. I need two volunteers otherwise I’m taking the lot of you. Sort it out amongst yourselves. Decisions of that sort pain me so.”
The family huddled together in silent conference. Amani volunteered, insisting firmly that she was old and was not afraid of death… or whatever may come. Over the family’s strong objections, she was the first choice. The family’s patriarch insisted as well with similar ferocity that he go with them. When Sayyid came back to them Amani stood to come with him, but before her son in law could join her, his wife threw herself in his path and began walking out of the house.
“Khawlah, no!” he screamed after her as the door slammed shut and the two were driven off into the dark veil of the night, swallowed up by the malevolence which had so deeply gripped their nation and plunged it into the fog of war.
It was several hours before the two women arrived at Sayyid’s intended destination: an abandoned, grey looking factory. It was an appropriate locale, as they would shortly discover.
A small group of guards waved the car through after verifying Sayyid’s identity. Amani recalled a chill sent down her spine by the first glimpse of that place within which she was about to be incarcerated. When I pressed her to explain why, she thought for a long time.
“Because I felt like I’d been there before. I felt like I was returning to a stable point in my life about which the whole world was turning, and into which I was about to fall… perhaps forever.”
It could be that my translator made her sound more elegant than she in fact was because this particular observation was fairly astounding and left me with a deep impression which I have pondered over for a long time since that day.
Once inside, and having passed through a second checkpoint, Sayyid led Amani and Khawlah into adjoining cells. These had been fashioned crudely out of old storage closets. The rooms were unlit and very little light made its way under the cracks of the doors into the room. The two, unfortunate women were left to think on their unknowable and potentially torturous fate until the following day.
Often, in the distance, vague screams could be made out. Soft as they were these expressions of agony struck a dissonant chord in Amani’s mind. They weren’t natural, she told me. Something about them was just out of the normal range of human vocalization, as if they were artificial… or, more frighteningly, bestial.
Amani and Khawlah spoke to each other in frightened whispers, terrified of a guard hearing their conversation. At first, they made plans to escape. Quickly, though, the two of them gave up on such things. There was no point in making plans which they had no hope of implementing.
Snatches of conversations and soft footfalls occasionally made their way into Amani’s cell. The most repeated phrase which they managed to pick up was: “Min fadlik la!” which means “Please, don’t!” Sayyid, or whomever these pleas were directed at, never seemed to heed these requests for clemency because what followed that phrase was, inevitably, screaming.
The sounds were closer now, and there was no mistaking the cries. They were distinctly inhuman. They were halfway between the creak of a rusty door and the screech of a teakettle. In order to make a sound like that, of that volume, human vocal chords would have to be tearing themselves to pieces: shattering themselves futilely in an effort to make their suffering known to an indifferent world.
The image of people, alone, forgotten and hopeless literally screaming their throats out in a dark hole at the edge of human civilization has never truly left me. I dream of them, sometimes, always as Amani described them. From a cell down the hall, not able to see what tortures were being perpetrated on their bodies, but hearing their cries and making intense efforts to record them in a secret corner of my soul.
Because, truly, there was no one else to do so. Because, in the end, I was all that stood between them and the oblivion of forgotten suffering.
They came for Khawlah the next day. Amani heard her yell and fight, kick and spit at them. To no avail. The two, big men simply hoisted her between them and carried her bodily down the hall. Amani pounded on the door, calling after her daughter. She wept and screamed and pounded until her hands were bloody and two red handprints were left on the inside of the door. They ignored her.
It was hours before Khawlah returned to her cell, and when she did nothing but whimpering was audible from her. Amani pleaded with her to answer, but she was either unable or unwilling to do so.
Silence was her only companion aside from those whimpers for the better part of a day. Finally, the time came for Amani to be brought into whatever horrors were awaiting her. Only one man came to escort her, and she was in no shape to resist.
Amani walked down the long, dark corridor with the echoes of human anguish bouncing gently along the walls. Each step she took forward was like one step further from life, one step further from goodness and one step closer to hell. Inexorably, like the march of time, Amani made her way down the corridor and made peace with her God.
Sayyid was waiting for her at the end of the hallway, sitting in a small room with flickering, fluorescent lighting. He smiled at her, ever the gentleman:
“Won’t you sit down?” he pointed to a vaguely medical table upon which he seemed to suggest he would examine her. She did so.
Sayyid took out a flashlight and looked in her eyes, behind her teeth, in her ears, and up her nose. He checked her heart rate and pulse and made careful notes. The smile fell from his face and a disappointed sneer replaced it.
“I see…” he mumbled to himself.
“What?” Amani couldn’t help but ask. What could this mean? Was she to be killed? Tortured?
“You are not what we’re looking for. You’re not… robust enough for testing.”
“Testing?” she asked, hoping to get some sense, any sense, of the nature of the hell into which she had been thrust.
Sayyid’s characteristic smile returned. He straightened his spectacles and stood. “Would you like to see one?” he asked.
Amani did not respond.
“No? Not even your daughter’s?” Amani looked up, murder in her eye.
“What have you done to her?”
Sayyid broke into a positively joyful grin, “Nothing compared to what I have planned.”
He stood and took her by the arm, leading her back to the cell into which Khawlah had been tossed. A nearby guard furnished him with the requisite key and the creak of metal grating against metal filled the air.
“Have a look,” he pointed to her, stepping out of the way.
I have trouble writing this next part. I’ve even tried to convince myself that Amani made it up, that it was the distortion of a tortured and traumatized mind. But, she was calm when she told the story. As calm as anyone can be when speaking of such things. She spoke with anger, but not insanity. She spoke with total solemnity but not pathological depression.
I recall hearing a story once of an Israeli judge who, upon hearing the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, was intensely skeptical. The man claimed to have been flogged with over 70 lashes as punishment for some minor offense (as we now know the SS was wont to do), but this was shortly after the end of WWII and the truth of the Nazis’ crimes had not yet come out.
The judge turned to his colleagues, and said, in Hebrew, that he felt sorry for the man who was obviously deluded. He had gone insane and didn’t know what he was talking about. The man said to him something along the lines of “I am not delusional, and I speak fluent Hebrew.”
Maybe, after all this time, we aren’t so different from the generation which refused to believe the survivors of atrocities. Maybe I’m guilty of the same because I could not bring myself to fully believe what Amani has told me.
She said that she saw Khawlah in her cell, huddling in the corner, with the skin on both forearms peeled back and held with metal tongs. Her hands were shackled together, to prevent them from undoing the clamps.
The skin had been removed in a surgical manner, in precise measurements, and even had Arabic markings around them indicating the exact time and dimensions of the incisions. And, presumably to prevent her from screaming in pain, Khawlah’s lips were sewn shut.
Amani, as any human being with a soul would have done, became sick and vomited on the ground. She retched and retched until not a drop of stomach acid was left within her. Sayyid was speaking calmly as this occurred,
“We’re trying to determine the exact conditions under which a person develops infection, gangrene and irreversible corruption. It has enormous practical benefits for soldiers, and civilians too, I suppose. We can know how to treat wounds with much better precision. This sort of experiment has been, understandably, frowned upon, but we need not be bound by morality here. She’s a Kurd, and, as I’m sure we all know, they are not human beings.”
Amani leapt at him, and even managed to land a glancing blow before the uniformed men at the door grabbed her arms and held her back.
“Normally, you’d be tortured for that sort of thing,” the Pain Doctor informed her, rubbing his jaw. “But, as I said, we really have no use for you. But don’t think that means we can’t still have some fun with you if we so choose. Count yourself lucky that you’re of no use to us.” He said this last part in a completely reasonable tone, as if it was Amani who was the crazy one. As if it was she who was violating the norms of civilized behavior.
They dragged her out of the building, and drove to the middle of a field in the countryside. She was blindfolded and had no idea where she had ended up. The soldiers stripped her clothes from her, and, after removing the blindfold, pulled her out of the car.
“Your penance for that little act of disobedience,” the madman informed her, “is going to be this little game. I’ll give you a five minute head start, which I’ll signify by a shot from my pistol,” he showed her the weapon in question. “If you manage to make it out of the line of sight of my riflemen over here,” he pointed to the soldiers standing next to him, “you win, and I’ll let you leave.”
Amani felt like she had been dropped in the middle of a nightmare. The whole world was spinning. “Game?” What sort of madman was this Sayyid?
“Ready?” he asked, firing the gun before she had time to reply.
Amani ran faster than she thought an old woman was capable of running. Her legs carried her with such speed that the whole field through which she was running became a total blur. Her goal was a hill off in the distance. How could she make that distance in five minutes?
But, the human body under conditions of mortal danger is capable of feats that are unimaginable to the calm man. The seconds were flying past, and Amani was running out of breath. The hill was a stone’s throw away when Sayyid called out with a megaphone “THIRTY SECONDS LEFT!”
A stitch was forming in Amani’s side, but adrenaline muted most of the pain. She pushed forward, ignoring the burning in her lungs and was on the hill and halfway up when Sayyid called out “10! 9! 8!”
She put on a massive burst of speed and made it to the top just as “0!” was called. A few bullets whizzed by her ears, one coming uncomfortable close and clipping the top of her ear. She threw herself down the other side of the hill and collapsed into a heap.
After about a minute, it became clear that the soldiers were not chasing her. The danger was passed. She took a moment to catch her breath, and when the adrenaline wore off, and the pain returned, so did her rage and dejection.
She had escaped the clutches of madness, but her daughter was still firmly lodged in its jaws.
Amani told me this story over the course of several hours, taking frequent breaks. But, by the end of it, I was the one requesting breaks in order to calm myself. I mean, my god, a story like that, when one sees the victim before their very eyes and feels their suffering. It’s enough to drive a man over the edge.
I pushed through. This story had to be told. After a few minutes of tense silence following the conclusion of the story I stood, shook her hand and left. An unspoken agreement between us ensured that we both understood that pleasantries and farewells were not necessary. We had shared something too profound for those.
I returned to London a week after that interview, and, truthfully, did not get much other useful material. I didn’t sleep much and my mind wandered. I forgot to write down important details, I nearly got in a car crash. That experience was not something to be shaken off, and I found myself thinking about it day in and day out: at times until I wept tears of honest hopelessness.
Perhaps one day I could bring her story to light and make the world understand the horrors it had turned a blind eye to for so long.
I did write that story and it generated an international scandal. Manhunts were launched to find the madman known as “Tabib Al’alam”. For years, he evaded capture, and my journalistic scruples came under serious question. There were no records of a genocidal “Sayyid” terrorizing the Syrian countryside.
That man did his homework. He knew how to hide such things. But, just when the effort was losing steam, a breakthrough occurred in the bowels of the US intelligence community. I don’t know how they did it, though it had something to do with the counterintelligence work being done on the Deep Web, but Sayyid was caught and flown to a CIA blacksite and then to Guantanamo.
When the news came out, I was hailed as the man who brought down a war criminal with my pen. But, I didn’t feel like celebrating. Khawlah was never found, despite intensive efforts to track her down. She simply vanished.
Nightmares plagued me every night, despite my fame, despite my success. Images of blood, torture and disease swirled around my mind and were stamped behind my eyes. Sometimes, the smell of a roasted chicken or hamburger remind me of the stench of Khawlah’s arm, as Amani had described it. Is vicarious PTSD a real thing? I don’t really know. I don’t believe in therapy so I’ve never been diagnosed.
I made repeated requests to the US government to interview Sayyid, which were all denied. Finally, a few days ago, I was granted a visit. One hour, supervised, and after that I would stop pestering the CIA permanently.
I readily assented.
No recording devices were allowed in the cell, so I was forced to rely on the oldest journalistic tools: the notepad and pen. That was fine with me. Whatever it took to see Sayyid and look him eye to eye. What sort of malice would I see in the black expanse of his eyes? What evil would I find wrapped in every movement of his arms, every twitch of his mouth?
There was only one way to find out.
On the day that I was to meet him, I went through the standard screening procedure for entering Guantanamo, passing through the gates and putting my things through an xray machine. All was well.
I was led by two uniformed men to Sayyid’s cell, which was unlocked for me. They stood outside the room, “Just in case you need something,” they informed me. I thanked them, though the manacled man at the table didn’t seem particularly threatening to me.
I sat across from him, for the first time, and found myself rather disappointed actually. He was a swarthy man of middling height and unassuming features. Could this truly be the man who perpetrated such inhuman and disturbing atrocities?
“Sayyid, is it?” I asked, by way of beginning the conversation. The clock was ticking, and small talk couldn’t last long, but this was important.
“Sayyid, yes,” he said, in accented but fluent English.
“And, your surname is?” I asked.
“Not really at issue here, I would imagine,” he told me politely, but firmly.
“Do you really not want to tell me even that?” I asked.
“You may call me Sayyid,” he responded.
I nodded. “Can you tell me about your wartime activities in Syria?”
He smiled. “‘Wartime activities.’ We have no need of euphemisms here Mr. Daniels. We both know what you really want to ask. ‘Did I participate in torture and human experimentation against Kurds in Syria?’ The answer is yes.”
I was taken aback somewhat. “You know my…”
“Of course I know who you are. You’ve been all over the international news for months now.”
Right. Of course he knew me. Stupid question.
“How do you feel about what you’ve done, Sayyid? How can you live with yourself after having done those things? I could barely stand to listen to them, I can’t even imagine… You… You’re a monster. A fucking monster!” I shouted at him. The guards looked in, but, seeing that I was in no danger, did not intervene.
Sayyid was calm. “How can I do what I did, you ask? Well, the first thing you should understand is the history of the Kurds, and the vile scum that they are…” he began. I cut him off.
“Please, save the genocidal bullshit for the ICC, Sayyid. I don’t care what you think about the Kurds. I want to know how you, seemingly an intelligent man, could mutilate people like that? How does that not sicken you to your core?”
He smiled, and I got the same chill that Amani had described to me all those months ago. He really knew how to get under your skin.
“It’s an art, truly. Suffering for suffering’s sake. But, not just suffering. See…” he trailed off and stared into space searching for the words. “It’s archetypal. I’m sculpting a masterpiece with my hands, battering clay into meaningful form. I’m laying brushstrokes on a canvas. I’m putting words in their order, balancing and refining them to make beauty. It’s what you do all the time, I imagine, in your profession.”
“But, I’m not mutilating people!” I screamed at him.
He waved his hand. “No, no. Not mutilating. I was revealing the potential underneath the surface. ‘Wisdom comes through suffering.’ I’m a novelist with the scalpel. I’m telling a story. And every story needs a good villain.”
“What happened to Khawlah?” I asked him.
“Oh who cares about her? She’s hardly the point.” he waved his hand again. “I don’t even remember now. She was just another face in the crowd.”
He grinned at me, and for some reason, that’s what sent me over the edge, and precipitated me putting my plan into place.
I pulled out the knife which I had arranged for the guard to have waiting for me. This particular one was more than happy to help me find my peace. With wide eyes, and an animalistic scream, I drove the blade through his chest, and then through his torso twelve more times. The blood poured from him in streams, coating the floor with its red, sticky stain.
They tell me that I stabbed him 36 more times, but, truly, I don’t even remember. There was a terrible ringing in my ears and a mad tension clenching my jaw, but I wasn’t even in control any more. It was someone else bringing the blade down over and over again. Not me. Not the mild mannered reporter who’d never even been in a childhood fistfight.
A high pitched whine sounded throughout the building, and lights began flashing. A hoard of soldiers burst through the door, weapons drawn, screaming at me to put down the knife.
Coming back to my senses, I did so, flinging the weapon across the room. I raised my hands in surrender, and allowed them to put the handcuffs on my hands and pick me up.
I began to laugh as they did so, and screamed at the corpse I had just made, “How’s it feel Sayyid? How’s it feel to be ‘just another face in the crowd?’ Just another dead man! Huh? HOW’S IT FEEL?!”
The guards picked me up, and hauled me off as my hysterical laughter bounced off the walls. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter what happened to me. Justice, such a rare and precious commodity in our world of cruelty and torment, had finally come to Tabib Al’alam
CREDIT : Jacob Derin
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