[A+] [A-]

Letters From Prison

In the Name of Allâh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

Eid letter from Tariq

In the Name of Allah, and I invoke peace and blessings on the Messenger of Allah.

With the approach of 'Id al-Adha, it is this time of year that we often evoke the memory of an incident that is central to the concept of this holiday, and that is the incident of Prophet Abraham nearly slaughtering his son, Ismael. I would like to focus on this event from a particular point of view.

When a person is thrust into trials and tests, he is often reassured by others and comforted by reminders of the rewards that await him in the Hereafter as the result of his patience and forbearing. However, while the rewards of Paradise and its delights are certainly superior and best, our expectations and hopes should also be focused on a reward and relief in this world as well. In other words, while we look forward to long-term recompense for our struggles, we also have immediate and short-term rewards awaiting us in this world—fruits of our patience and forbearing that we will see before our very eyes in the near future.

For example, in Surat Yunus, v. 103: {“Then, We save our messengers and those who believe! In this way, it is a must upon Me to save the believers.”}

Also, in Surat al-Hajj; v.15:
{Whoever thinks that Allah will not help him (i.e. Prophet Muhammad and his followers) in this world and the next, let him stretch out a rope to the ceiling and strangle himself.”}

In v.38 of the same chapter:
{Indeed, Allah defends those who believe…”}

Also in Surat an-Nur; v. 55:
{Allah has promised those of you who believe and do good deeds that He will give them authority on Earth as He did to those before them, and He will grant them the authority to practice their religion that He chose for them, and He will exchange their fear for safety…”}

And in Surat at-talaq; v. 2:
{“…and whoever has taqwa of Allah, He will make a way out for him.”}

When we look at the story of Abraham and his son, as well as many other examples that fill the Qur’an, we see this worldly reward and relief always coming as part of this combination:

-A test, whether that be in one’s health, wealth, children, or freedom
-The test met with the attitude of a true believer
-Relief soon after in this world

In Surat as-Saffat; v. 103, we see that Prophet Abraham took the only son he had, Ismael, and prepared to slaughter him in accordance with what he saw in a dream. What test is graver and more tortuous upon the soul than to be the one to put a knife to your own son’s neck? As anyone with children knows, the life of a child is more valuable in the life of its parent than the parent’s own life, without any doubt. So, to come away with the realization that you are being commanded to not only allow your son to die, but that you will be the one to kill him is so unimaginable that it makes Ismael’s response to his father all the more bewildering: {“…O father, do what you’re commanded. You’ll find me from the patient, if Allah wills.”} Here, we have the second part of the combination: the attitude of a true believer. Go ahead. If this is Allah’s command, kill me. Let me lose my health. Let me lose my wealth. Put me in prison. Deprive me of everything. You will find me to be of the patient, no problem, as it says in the next verse: {“Then, when they had both submitted…”} as he lay Ismael down on his forehead, ready to slice through his neck.

Suddenly, Allah called out to Abraham: {“You have fulfilled what was in the dream!”} That’s it. You passed the test. The most difficult and horrible thing any father could be asked to do, and you were ready without hesitation to do it, and you and your son faced this with the attitude of true believers. You passed. The next few verses go on to list just a few of the rewards Abraham got in this life as the result of this spending performance: good remembrance with later generations, glad tidings of his next son Isaac, a greeting of Peace from Allah, all in addition to the large ram that Allah replaced with on the altar for Abraham to slaughter. As Allah said in v. 110: {“This is how We reward the good-doers.”} The third part of the combination. And we obviously know of his status in the Hereafter in addition to all of this.

Let’s go back towards the beginning of the Qur’an for another example. In Surat al-Baqarah; v. 249, we see Prophet Samuel sending King Saul (Talut) to lead an army against Goliath. However, there is a test that takes place along the way to weed out the weaklings: {“Verily, Allah will test you with a river. So, whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever refrains from tasting from it is of me, unless it’s a scoop in his palm.”} This was going to show who was deserving of the reward in this world that is mentioned a few verses later. If they co uldn’t even pass the test of being thirsty while crossing a river, then it could not be said that they were displaying the attitude of a true believer They failed the test: {“…Yet, all but a few of them drank from it…”} We often think we’re something, that we’re so high in the sky when it comes to our practice of Islam. However, as soon as a forced hardship strikes—don’t drink from the river, or you didn’t get that job, or your marriage plans didn’t work out, or your child is stricken with a disease—your reality is shown. You give in. Your paper house collapses. You bend down and drink from the river. Your strength was imaginary. You have failed the test, like a glass of coke that fizzes to the point of nothingness.
This was the majority. However, there were a small group who stayed the course, kept their heads up and their hearts strong. They saw Goliath’s group. They panicked. Only natural. However, the real stars of the show shone brightly: {“But those who knew with certainty that they were going to meet Allah said: ‘How often it is that a small group overcomes a large group by Allah’s leave!’.”} Here we have it: a true believer’s attitude in the face of seemingly impossible odds and torturous conditions. Confidence. Certainty. Calmness. They march forward toward Goliath’s forces, as true believers, paying no mind to Goliath’s threats, his power, his authority, his attempted intimidation. All they can think about at this moment is that Goliath’s very ability to breathe, the ability of his heart to beat, the ability of his blood to even continue flowing through his veins, is all being controlled by one entity; the very entity they are now calling upon, saying nothing more than the following simple yet powerful and comprehensive words: {“Our Lord! Pour patient on us, make our feet firm, and give us victory over the disbelieving people.”} Once again, the test of facing a much more powerful opponent, the impossible odds, the almost certain defeat, all being met with beautiful confidence, faith, and trust in Allah. In accordance with the aforementioned formula, this beautiful attitude and performance was met with an immediate reward and relief in this world, before their very eyes: {“So, they defeated them with Allah’s permission, and David killed Goliath. And Allah gave him the kingdom, the wisdom, and taught him what He willed…”} Just like that.
I want you to notice that they did experience hardship along the way—most of the army of Saul failed the test—but this didn’t detract from the sweet victory they achieved against Goliath in the end.

Let’s now look at the v.146 of Surat Al ‘Imran: {“How many Prophets had religious scholars fight alongside them in large numbers! But , they never lost heart due to what befell them for the sake of Allah, and they didn’t lower or degrade themselves. And Allah loves the patient.”} Here, we have a description of people suffering some type of harm for the sake of Allah. We also have a description of how they faced that harm: by never displaying weakness. In other words, they stayed strong. They stayed confident. They never lost hope or patience or confidence, even though they had already been harmed! Let’s continue: {“And all they said was: “Our Lord! Forgive us our sins and transgressions, keep our feet firm, and give us victory over the disbelieving people.”} Once again, a beautiful performance and display of a true believer’s attitude: strength, confidence, and total and complete turning to Allah in the face of what harm they were experiencing at the hands of their opponents. In accordance with the aforementioned combination, the next verse tells us what they received in response to their attitude: {“So, Allah gave them the reward of this world and the best reward of the Hereafter…”}

In v.173 of the same chapter, we see an example following the Battle of Uhud, and the defeat experienced therein. The Prophet had gathered the wounded Muslims and led them out to Hamra’ al-Asad to (!) chase after the army that had just defeated them. Abu Sufyan responded by gathering as many fighters as he could to face this small wounded group that could barely walk. Onlookers, hypocrites, told the Prophet: {“Indeed, the people have gathered a huge army against you. So, fear them!”} Imagine the scene: a defeated group of injured facing an even larger army than the one that just defeated them! Fear is a natural reaction. In fact, one’s faith might be shaken in the face of such impossible odds. However, {“…It only increased them in faith, and they said: ‘Allah is enough for us, and He is the best Disposer of our affairs’.”} There it is again! The attitude. The strength. The confidence. The total reliance on Allah and lack of intimidation by Abu Sufyan and his resources. The amazing and unnatural INCREASE in faith! Another beautiful performance and display. The result? {“So, they returned with grace and bounty from Allah, and they were not touched by harm…”} Abu Sufyan was a no-show, despite the impression that was given of him and the army he was gathering. One minute, the Prophet and his injured, handicapped comrades are facing impossible odds, and the next minute: they were not even touched by a bit of harm. A reward and relief in this world, before their very eyes, simply on account of the attitude they presented in the face of this test of faith. Hopefully, a pattern is detectable here.

Go now to Surat Yusuf; v. 50. Prophet Joseph had spent years in prison after being falsely accused of trying to seduce the king’s wife. When the king finally called for Joseph to meet him, Joseph first demanded that his name be cleared: {“Return to your master and ask him “what happened to the women who cut their hand?’”} Imagine, this messenger is coming to bring Joseph out of prison, and Joseph is so calm and tranquil and confident after having passed the test with the King’s wife that he wasn’t in such a rush to leave prison until his name was absolutely cleared. As al-Bukhari reported in his ‘Sahih’, that the Prophet said: “I’m amazed at the patience of Joseph. If the caller had come to bring me out of that prison, I would’ve immediately responded and left.” Once again, a beautiful display in the face of the hardship of prison. What did he receive in return in this world, before his very eyes? The king said to Joseph upon meeting him: {“Indeed, you are today valued and trusted.”} and Prophet Joseph was then made the minister of finance over all of Egypt: {“This is how We gave full authority to Joseph in the land to establish himself there in when and where he pleased. We grant Our Mercy to whom We Will, and We don’t waste the reward of the good-doers.”}

Let’s revisit Abraham, this time in Surat al-Ambiya’; v.68. He had just finished smashing the idols worshipped by his community, and had made them very, very mad in doing so. They were so angry that they decided the only way to teach Abraham a lesson was to burn him alive: {“They said: ‘Burn him and come to the aid of your gods!’”} He was being burned alive for the sake of Allah, and rather than fretting, losing his mind, or even fearing the fire, his response was exactly what the Prophet Muhammad and his injured comrades replied thousands of years later at Hamra’ al-Asad: {“Allah is enough for me, and He is the best Disposer of affairs.”} What did he receive immediately before his very eyes in response to his attitude and faith in the face of such a grotesque treatment from his opponents? Allah said: {“O fire! Be cool and peaceful for Abraham!”} A result that the human mind cannot imagine: being thrown into a blazing fire, only to find the fire cool and peaceful. This is a real life reward Abraham obtained, simply on account of his attitude and confidence in Allah when tested: {“And they wanted to harm him, but We made them the losers.”} Yes. Allah goes on to list more rewards that Abraham received in this life resulting from this incident: he, along with Prophet Lot, were rescued from their oppressors and moved to the Holy Land, he was given Isaac and Jacob as righteous progeny, and they were not only righteous, but: {“We made them leaders, guiding by Our command.”} It might not seem like a big deal to us, but imagine for a second how good it would feel to have some of your descendents, including your sons and grandchildren, be Prophets of God! All of this was the fruit of Abraham’s faith and confidence in Allah that he so beautifully displayed when Allah put him to the test.

These examples may seem repetitive, but that is entirely the point. We have to take the Qur’an as a guidebook of how to deal with real life challenges, and these stories are being related to us by Allah for no other reason. While the scenarios faced by these Prophets are not those that we ourselves might face, the lesson, nonetheless, is the same.

The classic example of hardship and patience is that of Prophet Job (Ayyub). He was essentially tested in every aspect of his life possible: his health, wealth, family, standing in the community—he lost everything. Not one or two of these things—no, everything. Some narrations describe him as living in a garbage dump due to being expelled form his home and having none to tend to his many illnesses. In Surat al-Ambiya’; v.83, we see how he responded to this test: {“He cried out to his Lord: ‘Truly, distress has overtaken me, and You are the most Merciful.”} He kept his mind focused, despite the many catastrophes that had come to define his life, on the One who could remove it all in the blink of an eye. Really think about how patient he was—this is why culturally, we refer to somebody with much patience as having ‘the patience of Job.’ Yet, his attitude was such that his only reaction to all of this was to get even closer to Allah, and call upon him with humility. Du’a’ is not just an act of desperation; it is a way of life. It is an aspect of your character, of the personality and attitude of a true believer. It is your lifeline—what did he receive before his very eyes? {“So, We answered his call, and We removed the distress that was on him, and We restored his family to him and their like along with them as a Mercy from Ourselves and a reminder for all those who worship Us.”} And what a useful reminded it is…

Next up is Prophet Jonah (Yunus). In Surat Al-Ambiya’; v.87, we witness his reaction to being swallowed whole by a whale! {“…he cried through the darkness: ‘There is none worthy of worship except You! Glory be to You! I was of the wrong doers!’”} So, his first inclination was to humble himself before the only One he knew could and would save him from the organic prison in which he now found himself. He would remind himself of Who had placed him in this prison. He would remind himself of the Glory of the One who had placed him there. He would admit his shortcomings in serving Him and carrying out what he was tasked with. He would surrender himself to Allah, thus displaying the reaction of a true believer and confident worshipper. The result? {“So, we answered his call, and delivered him from the distress. This is how We save the believers.”} That one moment of sincere supplication to Allah—in reality, a reflection of his overall personality—was all it took to get him out of the stomach of a whale! Not only was this his reward, but he became one of the few Prophets whose communities ended up believing in Allah on a large scale.

The next verse of the same chapter gives us yet another example, Prophet Zechariah, who was so old that he and his wife had lost hope in being able to have children. The test. This was his test, his deprivation. Now, what was his response and attitude? {“He cried: ‘O my Lord! Don’t leave me childless, though You are the best of inheritors.”} Once again, this du’a’ is much more than just a prayer. It is a reflection and indication of what this person’s heart was like. It was an indication of how he saw the world, and how he thought controlled it. {“So, We answered his calla nd bestowed on him John (Yahya), and allowed his wife to bear children for him.”} Why? What was the qualifying factor that led to such a wonderful and miraculous turn of events after a hopeless situation was looking them in the eye? The rest of the verse answers this for us, and it is quite simple: {“…Indeed, they used to hasten in good deeds, and they used to call on Us with hope and fear, and used to humble themselves before Us.”} That was it.

A few chapters down, in Surat ash-Shu’ara; v.53, we are with Prophet Moses on the night of his escape from the clutches of Pharaoh, with the Children of Israel in tow: {“Then, Pharaoh sent callers to the cities, saying: ‘Indeed, they are only a small gang, and they have indeed enraged us. But we are a powerfully assembled force who has had much time to prepare.”} So, here is Moses having stolen the slaves of none other than Pharaoh, now about to become his target of hunt, for which Pharaoh has gathered all the men and resource she can muster: {“So, they pursued them at sunrise. When the two groups saw each other, the companions of Moses said: ‘Indeed, we are definitely going to be overtaken.’”} Once again, the natural response of fear in the face of impossible odds. On one side, you have the Red Sea, and no boat to carry you across it with all who are with you. On the other side, to compound the problem, Pharaoh is now looking straight at you, obviously pleased that you have nowhere to run. And yes, you have nowhere to run. This is the tyrant who only the day before was threatening to crucify anyone who even believed in your message, and he was now coming straight at you as you were trapped. The next verse shows us the attitude of complete faith and pure reliance on Allah that emanated from Moses—the lack of fear in the face of impossible odds, in the face of a gut-wrenching scenario: {“He said: ‘Rather my Lord is with me, and He will guide me!”} Keep in mind that Moses had no idea what was to come! He had no indications as to how he and the Israelites were going to make it out of this trap! NO CLUE! All he knew was what he had just said: he had his Lord with him, and his Lord would take care of him. And he was absolutely right: {“Then We revealed to Moses: ‘Strike the sea with your stick!’ And it split, with each part becoming like a huge mountain.”} Just close your eyes and imagine yourself there, one of those anxiously awaiting a way out of this trap! Suddenly, the sea splits in half, and you walk across it!? Yes. This was all the fruit of Prophet Moses’ faith and the response to his good expectation of Allah as illustrated in his own concise words: My Lord is with me, and He will guide me. {“And We saved Moses and those with him, then We drowned the others.”} End of story, with a real life reward and victory that appeared before their very eyes. And Pharaoh, the man who claimed to be Allah, was gone…

And the other examples in the Qur’an are many, and history repeats itself.

So, it is essential to expect reward and relief for firm faith in the midst of trails and tests in the short-term as well as the long-term (Paradise), and to remember that Allah is an actual Living, Hearing, Responding entity who reacts to what we say and do.
And Allah Knows best.

Eid Mubarak to everybody, thank you for reading this

1st Letter From Tariq Mehanna

26th of Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1430 / 14th of November, 2009

In the Name of Allah, I praise Allah and invoke peace and blessings on the Messenger of Allah.

as-Salamu 'alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh;

First of all, I would like to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your immense support. Each and every person who is praying for my family and I, who has written a letter, and who attended a hearing or raised general awareness of what is going is known to Allah, and I ask that they each be rewarded with the good of this life and the next, and that Allah relieves each of you of trials and calamities just as you have helped to relieve my own.

Literally ,there were times when I would be laying in my cell and would begin to feel some distress coming about, and out of nowhere and without doing anything, it would suddenly be washed away, and I would be overcome by a feeling of relaxation and happiness that I cannot describe. I am 100% certain that this is the direct result of the du'a' of some of you. What a wonderful gift...

I cannot speak in detail about the charges and accusations against me, but suffice to say that nobody who truly knows me would for a second believe the utter lies and sensationalist garbage that has been peddled around in the media since my arrest. I am not the first person the government has played this game with, and I certainly won't be the last. regardless, that's OK because {"Indeed, Allah defends those who believe..."} [Surat al-Hajj; v. 38]. And the Prophets themselves were targets of slander and lies by their opponents. So, who am I to be spared?

First of all, it is clear that the prison system here is inept. they call this place a 'correctional facility', but I see very little correction of anyone going on around me. Most of the prisoners I've had the chance to speak to are repeat offenders, meaning they were previously jailed here, released, committed more crimes (often the same one), and were brought back. Some have been brought back so many times that they consider this home, and they consider release to be a temporary visit to some strange place. I can't deny that some are beyond hope, but the point is that people are pulled off the streets and brought in here, and nobody makes a single serious effort to get them to change their ways or give them hope of an alternative lifestyle. For example, I was in the prison van yesterday on my way back from court and struck up a conversation with a guy next to me who was losing it. So, I calmed him down, and told him to stay positive, and use his time here to clean his heart and mind, get stronger, and learn more about himself and his purpose in life, and that way he could gain more from prison than he ever would outside. he just looked at me and said: "That's the first time anyone has said something like that to me since I got here," and my words were quite simply and easy...

There are roughly 1,700 prisoners here. The only rehabilitation programs here take 50 prisoners every four months--combined! So, the remaining 1,650 are being "corrected" by people who for the most part are just here to finish an 8-hour shift and go home without a headache, and couldn't care less about the futures and interests of those they are responsible for. It's a real shame, because the way I see it, a lot of good can be done by just passing each prisoner's cell and sitting down for a short chat to let him know that he can make better choices in life, he should keep his head up, etc. Such simple, brief exchanges can go a long way in changing someone's life, if only this was the purpose of such a facility. Society in general would become much better if this approach were taken by prison staff. If you've ever seen the movie 'American History X', the turn of events there is a good example of how this can come about.

Another concept that has been reinforced in my mind is tha tno matter how bad things may be going for a given person, there is always someone worse off. There is always that one person you meet who gives you a reality check that reminds you that even though you are in prison going through hardship, etc., there are still things that you can take for granted. Case in point: a fellow prisoner I learned of who was just moved into the isolation unit a few cells down from me, who I had a chance to speak to when he was being moved. He told me his story, and I asked him how often he called his family, to which he replied that his mother literally told him to never contact her again until he was out. He was nearly in tears--a grown man--while questioning how a mother can turn away from her son in such a manner at his greatest time of need. After, I spoke to him, I tried to put myself in his shoes, and I came to realize that despite whatever I'm going through, I never once had to worry about my family forsaking me or abandoning me. In our culture, it's generally unfathomable. However, it is these reality checks that clarify that what might be guaranteed for some isn't guaranteed for all, and we should thus realize at all times that no matter how bad you may have it, you have things that grown men will cry for. So, thanks and praise to Allah for giving us what we have.

Another example that just popped into my mind is something I read in the newspaper today. It was about a woman who had been attacked by a chimpanzee weighing 200 lbs coming on TV and showing what the chimp had done to her face: her eyes were so severely attacked that she is now blind. A flap of skin now sits where her nose used to be. Her cheeks are a series of tears, gashes, and scars. She is unrecognizable, and can only eat through a straw. I just read that, shook my head, and realized that something as basic as having an intact face, having a nose, being able to see--these were luxuries I have that this woman is now deprived of.

Another benefit of being here is that you come to realize that the Muslim's relationship with Allah is one of give and take, and good and desirable things don't come easy. If you want something valuable, you have to be able to come up with money for it. We sometimes will wish for something, make du'a' that it comes to be, have high hopes, but our level of faith, worship, and attachment to Allah isn't changed at all, because we don't tend to these while making the du'a' for what we want. As a result, we don't achieve the desired outcome. In the Hadith Qudsi, Allah says: "Whoever shows hostility to a Wali of Mine, I will declare war on him." So, we often pay attention to the entire sentence except for the 'Wali' part, as well as what comes next. A person reaches this level of closeness to Allah by performing so many nawafil (extra) deeds--praying more, fasting more, giving more charity--that Allah becomes his hearing, seeing, etc. Instead of just praying his normal twelve extra rak'at, he prays twenty. Instead of praying a third of the night, he boosts it up to half the night. He makes his sujud longer. He reads two azja' a day instead of his regular one juz! he fasts four days a week instead of two. He makes his way through a series of adhkar that is twice as long as what he would normally do--basically, he puts in more of his time and energy to worship Allah, and shows Him that he truly wants to become close to Him, truly wants His wilayah, truly loves Him, truly sees himself as a slave who is broken, humbled, weak, and is simply manifesting the reason he exists. Such a person wants to dig deeper into the treasures of faith, worship, and attachment to Allah. He knows that attachment to Allah is of levels, and he doesn't rest and is not satisfied with himself until he reaches the highest level that he can of this attachment. Only then can we complete the hadith and say: "if he asks Me, I will give him what he wants, and if he asks for My Protection, I will Protect him."

Reaching this level isn't easy. It takes sincerity, persistence, resolve, conviction, true certainty that Allah will give you what you want if you reach the finish line, and it requires consistency. We can't be like the people Allah describes in verse 12 and verses 22--23 in Surat Yunus, who reach this level of humility and need before Allah, get the relief we want, and then go back to the way we were before we needed relief from Him.

The point is that the deeper you go in these levels of servitude to Allah, the more evident and swift your need will be met. The level of certainty Prophet Musa had standing before the Red Sea splitting, the level of humility and need Yunus felt when he was released form the whale's grasp, the lengthy du'a' the Prophet Muhammad made before the Battle of Badr--all of these are examples of a deep level of attachment to Allah that went beyond what would exist on a daily basis while we're living in comfort, ease, and security, and this is part of the reason the response to their distress was quite literally miraculous. We can achieve the same to some extent if we reach deep enough into those treasures. And we can do that now, whether or not we are in dire need of something from Allah at the moment. And we are all in need of Him...

These are just a few of the thoughts that have occupied my mind lately. I would like to close this letter by mentioning an incident with Babar Ahmad that I have heard shortly before I was arrested. In it, he says that a fellow prisoner was about to be released. So, Babar said: 'I want to apologize to you before you leave." The man asked: "For what?" Babar replied: "When I was free, I saw your story on TV. However, it meant nothing to me, because I never thought it could happen to me. So, I did nothing for you. Now that I am in prison and it has happened to me, there are people who heard about my story and will think nothing of it, thinking it will never happen to them. Once it happens to them, others will think nothing of it and do nothing, etc..." So, if you feel that you can just sit back and read about all these cases and do nothing to repel this injustice and that it can never happen to you, think again.

Was-Salamu'alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh.

Your brother,

Tariq Mehanna

2nd Letter From Tariq Mehanna

Bismillah, was-Salama ‘alayki wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh;

I will try to answer your questions as well as I can.

I was arrested at my house in the morning, on October 21st. I had just finished making wudu’ for Fajr prayer and was going into my room to pray sunnah when the doorbell rang, followed by a series of loud knocks. My father, who had just gotten dressed for work, was startled at first, but knew who it was. He opened the door, and my house was suddenly filled with about a dozen FBI agents coming up to my room. They were extremely disrespectful to my father as they addressed him. As my mother emerged from the bedroom, I motioned for them to join me in Fajr prayer despite the presence of the FBI agents. So, we stood there and prayed in my room with the agents looking on (maybe they learned a thing or two). I then hugged my parents before I was handcuffed and led down the stairs and out into a waiting police cruiser. I was told that after I was gone, my cat ran down to the door and sat there waiting for me to come back. Loyal animals, ma sha’Allah (awww….).

I was then taken to the local police station and booked, had a mugshot and fingerprints taken, and called home for a few minutes. It was still barely 7:00AM. It was easier to calm my mother down this time because we had been through all of this before around the same time last year.

I was then driven from the local police station to the federal court in the city. The FBI agent who sat next to me in the back was taking a particular interest in how I learned Arabic, as he was in the process of trying to do the same. One should learn to not fall for the “friendly FBI agent” trick—they want only to pull as many statements out of you that they can later put to some legal document to be used against you. The driver wasn’t an FBI agent, but was rather a state trooper. See, the cowboys who go around making these cases and arrests are not solely FBI. They are part of what is called the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which is a compendium of FBI, customs, state and local police, and other law enforcement agencies that combine their efforts in a focused group whose sole task is to fight Islam, (Oh sorry, I meant ‘terrorism’). They are all over the country.

Once I got to court, I was booked, mugshot, and fingerprinted again, then I was placed in a holding cell for a few hours until my afternoon hearing, where my charge was read out to me vaguely, and I was remanded to the custody of the US Marshalls. Now, the funny thing is that until now, I had no idea what exactly I was being accused of. It was only on my way from court to prison that night that I first heard on the radio the nonsense about malls and whatnot. No comment, really…no comment.

Once I arrived at the prison, I was booked yet a third time, strip-searched (they do that a lot here), and then given my complimentary orange jumpsuit, signaling my entry into the isolation unit. When I was in here last year, I was in population, which is relatively laid back. There were TVs, you could socialize, had plenty of time out of your cell, and so forth. Isolation is where the put you if you are uncontrollable in population, or you’re accused of something big. In isolation, you are on 23-hour lockdown, which means you can only be outside of your cell for one hour each day. You are alone in your cell for those 23-hours, you don’t have the privileges available to other prisoners, such as haircuts, taking classes, access to the library cart, etc. The cells here have one way intercoms, meaning the guard can radio in, but you can’t call out if you need something, while population cells have two-way intercoms. You aren’t visited by a chaplain, and so on. Basically, isolation is a place where you just exist, out of sight, out of mind.

Each cell is basically the size of a small bathroom. In fact imagine your bathroom with a metal toilet, the sink shrunk down and connected to the toilet as a single unit, a metal desk sticking out of the wall, a metal door, a small metal bed sticking out of the opposite wall, and the walls all painted a pale cream color. That is what the cell looks like. There is a narrow window in here, although it doesn’t let in sunlight due to the fact that it faces a gray wall. I do most of everything inside the cell: pray, read, sleep, etc. It is indeed a lovely little abode.

My daily activities here are quite limited. I alternate between praying (this is a great place to get used to more sunnah prayers), adkhar, reading the newspaper, reading a novel someone might slip under my door, writing in my journal, responding to letters, sitting back and thinking, and enjoying my hour of rec-time. You can also travel with your mind (smile).

As I said before, rec time is for exactly an hour a day. Your entertainment options include walking around the perimeter of the tiny unit, calling home, taking a shower, or using the rec-deck. The rec-deck is the closest thing we have in isolation to being able to go outside. It’s essentially a room-sized cage, with one side of cage facing the prison yard, allowing you to see trees, grass, smell fresh air, etc. Through the metal wiring. (hey, it could be worse). Two down-sides to rec-time are that your hour is at different, randomly selected time slots each day, so its hard to coordinate a phone call if someone’s at work, asleep, etc. Also, they don’t tell you ahead of time what time you will be out that day. SO, if you want to do some exercises in your cell in hopes of being able to shower right after, that doesn’t happen down here. They just radio into your cell and say “Rec-time, rec-time,” take it or leave it. The good part of rec (besides the obvious) is that they give you a 15-min warning when your time is almost up, so if you’ve been on the phone and want to shower before having to go back into your cell, that helps you to time yourself.

So, rec-time is the #1 highlight of the day here, mainly because it breaks the routine of being locked in the same cell 23 hours of the day. The second highlight of the day is mealtime. Mealtimes are useful for me in a way they aren’t for anyone else. See, in isolation, there is no way to know what time it is. They forbid watches or clocks of any kind here. However, I do know that officially, breakfast is served around 5:30AM, lunch around noontime, and dinner around 4:30PM. That way, I can know when to pray Fajr, Dhuhr, and Maghrib. I just estimate when ‘Asr and ‘Isha’ come in.

Meals are slid in through a slot in our doors. The food isn’t what you’d eat at home or out with friends, but its food and I’m grateful for it. Breakfast is usually some cereal or oatmeal, along with a small apple and milk. Lunch is usually steamed vegetables, two slices of white toast, a slice of “meat” and some potatoes or macaroni. Dinner is the same, except for what we call Fish Fridays, where we actually get something recognizable: a real fish sandwich similar to something you’d get at McDonald’s or something (see, they like to spoil us every so often). Judging by the portions we get for each meal, it seems the nutritionists at this fine institution are trying to strictly stick to the minimum 2,200 calorie daily requirement.

When I complete my daily dining experience, I pull out my ‘Maximum Security Toothpaste” (I’m not joking—that’s what it really says on the tube), and brush to my heart’s content with the eerie 2-inch long object that they tell me is supposed to be a toothbrush, although it really doesn’t reach many of my teeth without major effort.

Each wing of the each unit has what’s referred to as a runner. A runner is an inmate who’s already been sentenced, and volunteers to do the cleaning duties for the whole wing in return from more rec-time. The runner on my wing is cool, a Bosnian Croat. The nice thing about having a runner is that since they have to sweep the whole wing, they stop by every cell. That means I can chat with him every day, and we often get into some good conversations about Yugoslav politics and history. He is also instrumental in providing me with a daily copy of the newspaper. Of course my conversations with him take place from behind my cell door, but its one of the rare forms of interaction with others that are possible down here. So, al-hamdulillah.

Sometimes, some guards will stop while doing their rounds and have a couple of words with me, trying to have their own assessment of the Big Bad Terrorist, after what they’ve come across in the media. It was interesting to see their reactions when they discovered that I had no accent, that I was educated, polite, that I ate food, slept at night, and did all of the things that normal humans do. One of them, an ex-Marine, is pretty cool with me now and admits that after his few conversations with me, he’s finding it harder and harder to buy what he’s read in the news, and jokingly remarked that he’s now playing the part of my defense lawyer to the other guards in the unit. It is very easy to cause a stereotype, but it is also very easy to break one. Even in this unit, there are varying levels to how many restrictions are placed on a segregation inmate. For a while, I was on the highest level of restriction, which included full restraints. Full restraints means that whenever I was out of my cell, even for rec-time, I had my hands and feet shackled, then tied together—while I was on the phone, walking to the shower, walking around the unit—everything. Obviously, the impression the prison administration had from the media was the cause, as well as whatever they were told by the FBI. After awhile, I had a meeting with the captain of the unit, and the same thing occurred: once he had a personal encounter and conversation, observed my behavior, and got a more accurate assessment of who I was and why I was really here, they decided to take me off the full restraints, wal-hamdulillah.

There are obvious inconveniences associated with being in a place like this, but I’ll just mention two. The first is the total lack of a pleasant scent. Obviously, we have no cologne, musk, or anything like that. You are in a place that is meant to be dull, unpleasant, unstimulating, bland. The color of the walls, the color of your food, your clothes, accessories—everything is devoid of attraction. The smell in the air is always the same. Nothing to refresh you or enliven your senses. May Allah reward some of the brothers who wrote to me and were kind enough to rub some musk on the pages of their letters so that I could indulge from time to time.

The second annoyance is that I am surrounded by vulgarity and obscenity. Hearing other inmates yell out to each other from cell to cell, the majority of their conversations revolve around filthy topics, and it seems that the majority of their vocabularies consist of curses. It is to the point that the inmates here who are allowed to have rec-time together and play chess will refer to the Queen as “the b*@ch.” That gets to you after a while, especially when you’re used to being around pure, well-mannered brothers on a daily basis.

There was one inmate who I must credit with doing something to counter this. We will call him Nelson. Nelson had a very soft voice, and he thus saw it fit to constantly permeate the air with his renditions of his favorite Whitney Houston and Celine Dion classics. He would basically sing the unit to sleep every night, and wake us up in the morning with his singing. Most of the other guys in the unit were having none of that and would constantly scream at him to shut up. The more they would scream, the louder he would sing, which made them scream louder, and so on. Finally, they wrote a complaint to the unit captain, who came in and said: “Nelson, you have to stop singing.” Nelson said nothing. As soon as the captain was out the door, Nelson launched into another song. Eventually, the guards came in and transferred him to another unit. Poor Nelson. He was just trying to deal with the stress of isolation in the way he knew best…

Anyway, I thought I’d close with a poem I wrote recently, called:

“A Race Against Fate”

In a race against fate, they struggle to contain
The light of truth from making gain after gain
Sitting in this cell, I can never complain
While countless other victims are sharing my pain

Victims of a regime that stands confused
Of what will befall it after all it has abused
Despite its claimed virtues over those it has accused
It nullifies its claim with the tactics it has used

They tortured one brother into a painful mess
Until his torture forced him to falsely confess
Life in Supermax for what he said under duress
Seems to be acceptable in the present-day U.S.

And our sister, our pearl, a cover-up gone wrong
Imprisoned by her captors for six years too long
Shot twice in the stomach and still remaining strong
Sleeps in a prison cell where pearls don’t belong

And the scientist, the doctor, the scholar with a plight
They claimed they got him because he urged others to fight
The truth is that he never spoke out of fright
And his persecutors wanted to extinguish his light

The examples are many, but this is just a taste
Of those whose suffering should not go to waste
To helping the oppressed, let us run in haste
It is towards this goal that true men have raced

And remove from yourself the shackles of fear
And make their agenda abundantly clear
With honor, let us defend what we hold dear
Our beliefs, and our brethren—we must start from here

Until when will our sons be dragged from their beds
To be handcuffed and kidnapped by invading Feds
Before our mothers can even cover their heads
It’s the new McCarthyism, and we are the Reds

If you speak out against this, you’re a ‘terrorist’
The black label reserved for those who resist
It doesn’t really matter how much you insist
That you’re no monster, they will always persist

In the deception they have managed to master so well
That only the fair-minded are able to tell
That this plan that could’ve only been hatched in Hell
Is for all who speak up to be thrown in a cell

They think they are ‘free,’ but they are truly constrained
The thirst for oppression leaves their humanity restrained
In the end, they will see that all they have gained
Is the attention of He who defense those they have chained…

… was-salamu ‘alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh

Your brother,
Tariq Mehanna

print this page bookmark this page
preloaded image preloaded image preloaded image preloaded image preloaded image