Turn the Walls Back to Dust




In this powerful reflection mixing autobiographical considerations and philosophical questions about what prisons materialize in terms of space and time, Meryem-Bahia Arfaoui offers us (again) a text that makes us feel and think. Writing from her perspective as a prisoner’s child in Tunisia and as a prisoner’s sister in France, she describes the many, patient practices on both sides of the walls that slowly turn them back to dust.

Arfaoui Funambulist 4
“Truth and Justice for Rachid,” 19 years old, killed in a solitary cell of Seysses Prison on January 14, 2024. “From Seysses to Ofer, prison is a colonial weapon.” / Photo by Comité Vérité et Justice 31 (2024).

Tunisia, 2006. My father just died. I am 16 years old. I’m in the room where the continuities of his body, returned to the earth, wait to be articulated into the world of the living; in the shadows of a landscape suffocated by the dictatorship which marked his death and prompted my earlier exile to France. Books, reports from the Tunisian League for Human Rights, of which he was General Secretary, from Amnesty International, from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, and minutes of meetings. I pull back the layers of posthumous explanations for his repeated absences; for his definitive absence. One book catches my eye. Because it’s written in French and I can no longer read Arabic. Because I’m angry, and the words “torture in prison” written boldly on the cover respond directly to the haunting pain I am feeling. The chilling testimonies of activists follow one after another. Precise descriptions of the acts of pain inflicted on them in prison: beatings, burns, electrocutions, suspensions, sleep deprivation, and bodily contortions for indefinite amounts of time. How these acts affect their senses, their flesh, their minds. How, over time, their perception of space-time and of themselves disfigured. List of contributors, “Adel Arfaoui.” Every word becomes an image, every image has my father’s face. Page after page, each life-affirming effort described and repeated becomes my definition of “resistance.” Then it hits me: prison is part of my family, part of its construction, organization, and transmission. Did my father ever pick me up from school without prison? Did my brother, some fifteen years later, ever eat in his cell without us?