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"You are an infidel and will confess to slandering the name of the most holy and sacred Prophet, sacred be His name!"
As the voice screamed, a stick snapped across my back. The stick, long and thin, was made of plastic. It hadn't hurt much the first time it touched my skin. But that was over an hour and a hundred flails ago. Now every swat felt like I was being smacked by a baseball bat.
A bat spiked with 20-penny nails.
"You will confess!" shouted my tormentor. "You will fall on your knees before the one true God, blessed be His holy name."
"Screw yourself," I said between my gritted teeth.
"Confess! Or we will beat salvation into you!"
I was seeing a part of Saudi Arabia that the Tourist Board doesn't advertise. You can call it the belly of the beast; to my mind, it's a much lower part of the anatomy.
"Do you confess?"
Under intense international pressure a few years back, the Saudi government reformed its prison system. The new rules give certain guidelines for "corrective measures"—that is, beating the crap out of a prisoner. The "corrector" must hold a book under his arm while administering lashes. The idea was to keep the torturer from raising the cane too high over his head.
I can attest that the letter of the law was observed in this case. I even know the title of the book, which was an illustrated comic collection entitled Brave Men in Saudi History. The book, four pages long (two of them were blank), was duct-taped to his underarm.
Somewhere around whack number sixty-eight, I had begun fantasizing about what I would do to the bastard with the stick. My thoughts were very creative, and in no case would the stick have been recognizable as a stick when I was done.
By now, though, I was beyond any sort of fantasy. I was, as the football play-by-play analysts put it, grinding it out. I just hoped the end of the game wasn't going to be signaled by a gun.
The Apaches, among other Native American tribes, have an especially useful mechanism for dealing with intense pain. I adopted it now, focusing my concentration on a point just outside my body. As the beatings continued, my mind stepped away and observed the scene.
This got me through another thirty or forty lashes. Finally the pain overwhelmed my body and I blacked out. Oblivion was a welcome reprieve, but it didn't last long. I came to only a few minutes later, as I was being dragged along a dank and dark cement corridor.
I have no idea why the corridor was dank—the prison I was in was located at the edge of the Saudi desert, which has to be one of the driest places on earth. But dank it was. Moss, crud, and slime water blended into a horrendously smelling mélange between the inlaid stones of the floor. I tried not to breathe.
I'm far from a connoisseur, but I think I can say with some authority that Saudi jails are among the worst in the world. It doesn't even take that much to get into them. The surest way is by opposing the government or insulting the royal family, but you can get there with much lesser offenses if you know what you're doing. Drink a beer in your yard or drive a car with a woman who's not your wife—supposed outrages to Islam—and you will land there in a flash, even if you're a foreigner. Even random victims of crime who had the audacity to file police reports have found themselves guests of the state.
They were lying, you see. Because the Kingdom is PERFECT, and thus there is no crime, and anyone who says different is a slanderer who deserves to lose his tongue.
Being a traditionalist, I had chosen an oldie but a goldie to ensure my incarceration: I had insulted the Prophet and the Kingdom by proselytizing a vermin religion.
Said religion being Coptic Hinduism, which I had invented solely for the purpose of running afoul of the authorities.
Not that Coptic Hinduism preaches violence or anything remotely touching on the state or other religions. It borrows freely from all pantheons and pathways, seeking peaceful coexistence with all. We're not much on sacraments, and the heavy burden of conversion is best left to those of other beliefs. In fact, the most definite (and important) thing you can say about it, at least in the context of Saudi Arabia, is that it is not Islam, and therefore fit for repression.
The two guards dragging me to my cell were kindly fellows, and they tried cheering me up along the way by shouting various slogans in Arabic.
"You're a blessed fellow!"
"You're going to be very popular in jail!"
"Now you will have a real chance to pray."
My Arabic is mostly of use in brothels and street fights, so maybe my translation is a little soft. I will say that the others in my cell, all twelve of them, welcomed me with open arms and hard feet as I was hurled into the tiny space.
Walled by solid concrete on three sides, the room was roughly eight by six feet and smelled of sweat and human excrement. I curled myself into a corner at the back, hoping to be left alone.
Unfortunately, one of my fellow inmates had deputized himself as the Welcome Wagon. As he bent over me, a shiv appeared in his hand and he took a swipe at my face.
Coptic Hinduism has very strong precepts against having your face cut up and eyeballs gouged out. It has been heavily influenced by what many readers will recall as the Rogue Warrior's First Commandment:
Do unto others before they do unto you.
I decided that this was a good time to do some preaching. My opening text was a fist to the nether regions of my new congregant. This was followed by a fist to the throat.
The convict was impressed. He had never before encountered the spiritual depth of Coptic Hinduism.
Still, he was firm in his own primitive convictions, and pressed forward in his attempt to make a blood sacrifice to his gods. While I wanted nothing to do with such primitive religious practices, my retreat was cut off by the thick and immovable wall behind me.
He cut a halo across my forehead. I decided to return the favor by encouraging him to kneel and reflect on the holy light of the universe. Given that he was clearly devout, all he needed was a little push.
I sent him sprawling against the nearby wall. The others were looking on anxiously, perhaps hoping for their chance at conversion as well. So I leapt up, grabbed the little knife that had fallen from my convert's hand, and baptized him in the name of the Rogue, the Warrior, and the decidedly Unfriendly Ghost.
Duly impressed, the others backed away.
Exhausted by my spiritual experience, I dragged myself to the corner of the cell.
* * *
You may very well be wondering what I was doing in Saudi Arabia in the first place.
The truth was I was here to find another American, Garrett Taylor. Garrett was the son of a friend of mine; he'd gotten into a bit of trouble in the Kingdom Oil Built a few days before. I'd heard that he was currently a guest at this esteemed Saudi institution. I had therefore posed rather ostentatiously as a preacher in hopes of meeting him.
Be careful what you wish for.
* * *
Not long after the blood stopped flowing from the neck of my new convert, a series of loud shouts announced the approach of the guards. We were ordered to clear the cell. I got up, hiding my shiv in the waistband of my pants. My knees were creaking and my spine felt as if it had been removed from my body and rearranged in a random pattern. Being last made me a target for the guards, who proceeded to give me a series of gentle love taps as a reward.
I thought they were coming to investigate the ruckus, but they made no move to do so beyond kicking over the limp body of my follower. I kept my head low and eyes peeled as I stumbled down the hall. When we came to the end of the corridor, we took a turn right and made our way up a set of concrete steps. Two guards behind me very kindly assisted my progress with a few kicks; otherwise I was left alone.
We were led to the courtyard behind the building. Stumbling, I took my place at the end of a line of prisoners who were kneeling in the direction of Mecca. I'm not very big on praying, especially to Allah; a guard watching the line helped me into position with a punch between my shoulder blades; I put my head down and caught my breath as a loudspeaker began barking the call to prayers.
A few phrases into the proceeding, I recovered enough to raise my head slightly and look around for Garrett. There were maybe a hundred inmates in our little corner of paradise; none looked even remotely like the man I'd come to rescue.
Prayers over, the inmates were allowed to walk for a few minutes before being led to dinner. I mingled silently. The courtyard was about twenty by fifty feet—spacious for a Saudi jail—and bounded by a high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. There was another fence a short distance away, with another courtyard on the other side of that.
I circled around, mumbling to myself in a combination of random street Arabic and the occasional French and English. Anyone who heard me would think I was deranged—all in all, not a bad assumption, actually.
He didn't seem to be in our courtyard. I sidled next to the fence and slid down to my haunches.
"Garrett?" I asked, raising my voice loud enough to be heard in the neighboring yard. None of the men close to the fence looked anything like him.
Some of my cellmates had gathered nearby and started talking loudly. I couldn't make out what they were saying, but the glances they threw me convinced me I better pay some attention to them. I was just about to when someone pressed against the fence behind me.
"You? What are you doing here?" said a voice in perfectly enunciated English.
I turned and looked through the fence. A young man who looked remarkably like my old shipmate was staring through the chain links. His face was battered—eyes bloodshot, cheeks checkered with cuts, his left temple the color of an eggplant at harvesttime.
"Garrett Taylor?" I whispered, though I was sure I had found my man.
"Marcinko?" He shifted a bit, trying to get a better view. "Demo Dick? Here? Why?"
"I came to get you out."
He sounded a little more skeptical than I would have liked. Admittedly, his location in the other building presented a problem, but that was only temporary.
"You could sound a little more enthusiastic," I said.
"Well, we'll see how enthusiastic you are after you get the crap knocked out of you."
"That's already happened," I told him.
"I meant from them," he said, pointing.
I turned back around. Three of my cellmates were stalking across the small courtyard in my direction. They didn't look like they were in the mood for prayers.
* * *
But before I get pummeled, let's go back to the beginning of this twisted tale. Like Paul on the Road to Damascus, my route to enlightenment in the Saudi prison was anything but direct.
It started in Germany, a few days before, when I went to a bank to make a withdrawal …
Copyright © 2013 by Richard Marcinko and Jim DeFelice