Dr. Ayman Al Otoom, a contemporary Jordanian novelist and poet with pro-Islamist leanings, was arrested and put in prison for political anti-government allegations. In his vivid memoir, “My Two Cellmates”[1] – styled as somewhat a fictional story of a prisoner with the same name – Al Otoom vividly describes his persecution. He also incorporates thought-provoking notions of freedom, injustice, and a sense of home, as he is transferred to three different prisons in Jordan.

In “My Two Cellmates” Ayman Al Otoom implicitly merges the Quranic anecdote of St. Joseph (Yousif – pbuh) and his brothers, with the modern-day situation of Ayman Al Otoom (the protagonist whose name and story mirrors the writer’s own memoirs), in an effort to highlight the troubling issue of being jailed unjustly. Al Otoom, perhaps inspired by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and his “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time), recalls the harsh realities of prison life, which are underscored by their psychological effects.

The 350-page novel which is highly celebrated throughout the Arab world has also received some backlash, bringing to mind not only the crooked scheming done to the scriptural Yousif (pbuh) in the past, but also highlighting similar injustices served to Ayman Al Otoom (the central character) in present-day Jordan.

My Two Cellmates

Author Ayman Otoom

The Quranic verses related to Yousif describe how he, out of envy, was pushed down the dark shaft of a well and left to die by his brothers, though he was rescued by a caravan passing by. Yousif would go on to become a prominent figure, thanks to the wise and subtle plans of God.

This parallel in Al Otoom’s book frames the understanding that injustice has been a common factor in all civilizations throughout time. Though what may be distinct is that while in the well, Yousif was the only person who was about to lose his life and his identity—and hence his belief in God was seriously tried.

In Arab prisons, on the other hand, there are countless people who are indicted and arrested daily and whose lives get obliterated, dismantled, and lost. This is alluded to by Al Otoom, the hero in the novel, when he said: “I am but a simple poet who attempts to swallow the time machine to retrieve the past.” In his longing for his past life before imprisonment, these words convey the extreme victimization found in the present.

This realization and reflection color Al Otoom’s work with a pessimistic tone. At one point, in a moment of hopelessness, he says: “It’s enough – I tried.” No doubt, the author, who was raised by a Jordanian father influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, adheres to the overuse of the Islamic terminology throughout his novel. In fact, it is this Islamic influence that brought him closer to the attention of the security officials, who apparently waited for any stumble to throw him in prison.

The publication of this politically charged and controversial novel was a pretext to incarcerate Ayman Otoom.

Indeed, the publication of this politically charged and controversial novel was a pretext – preceded by a rejectionist poem he once recited in 1996 – to incarcerate him. It is worth noting that the novel thematically covers the story of Ayman Al Otoom (the writer and the character) as he is transferred from one prison house to another: from the intelligence services’ custody house, to Al Juweida prison, and Al Swaqa prison.

Another important aspect of the book is that Al Otoom, who represents a new undercurrent in the Jordanian novel writing, chooses to use the first person singular pronoun in writing his prison diaries. Perhaps this is partly why any critique may classify his work as that of prison literature. However, Al Otoom was rather restricted by the use of the Quranic and Islamic allusions as an outlet for the hardship of confinement.

The narration assumes a linear route that left little to the imagination for the reader. This contrasts, for instance, with what Taha Hussein did in his well-known “Al Ayam” (The Days), when he changed the narrator’s pronoun from the first to the third person singular to attain a detached effect and to generate more objectivity on the part of the reader. Still, this comparison between the two novelists may stand unfair since all literary elements, in addition to the circumstances and milieu, are always uniquely different.

Nevertheless, the main idea of “My Two Cellmates” does convey a personal account and specific details of the novelist’s life, who places the protagonist in Ajloon, Jordan. In other words, he wants to express his authentic experiences, which are rather dramatic from the outset of the novel. Ajloon, a small Jordanian town, is glorified by Al Otoom often, as many Arab novelists do in depicting the locations of their stories; a recollection of place has long been a common theme for many Arab novelists, such as Najeeb Mahfoudh, Abdul Rahman Muneef, Abdul Rahman Majeed Al Rubeiey, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, among others.

Ajloon, a small Jordanian town, is glorified by Al Otoom often, as many Arab novelists do in depicting the locations of their stories.

So it is for Al Otoom that Ajloon provokes the memory of being detained, and this recounting dramatically ascends and descends according to the degree of psychological pressure put upon the protagonist while in prison. It seems that Ajloon triggers strong and instinctive feelings of adherence for the main character. Indeed, his whole experience revolves around two things: attachment to his agonizing homeland, which he faithfully feels he belongs to; and the huge humiliation and persecution he receives from it. By maintaining this allegiance and self-sacrifice, he expects to assume a heroic role, similar to that found in the Greek or classical tragedies.

My Two Cellmates

In “My Two Cellmates,” Jordanian author Ayman Al Otoom recalls the harsh realities of prison life, which are underscored by their psychological effects.

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Al Otoom has a poetic talent that impresses even his jailers. As he explains in the novel, he used his verse to become a prominent anti-government voice, a sufficient alibi used as an excuse to detain him. Here, his inner voice echoes the conforming voice of God-fearing Yousif in the Quran, who was mistreated by his people, mainly his brothers. Poetry, which is used as a tool to criminalize Al Otoom, stems from the perception of the writer as an indigenous, homegrown rejectionist.

Al Otoom could not escape the meticulous and elaborate poetic prose that distinguishes the novel and makes it a long prosaic poem. Al Otoom uses poetry to promote a sense of ambiguity, gradually shrinking as he opens the door to the readers to view the realistic happenings through a vivid documentation, for example, in describing the prison and the different cells he is put in, in imagining the complex and changing psychology of the jailer, in depicting the interrogation sessions he was led to, and more.

The writer reflects on all the tragic experiences his main character is subjected to through his active memory, expressing the minutest details of his arrest. At the very outset of the novel, Al Otoom refuses to accept the fact that a little poem could lead to his detention. At this crucial point, he realizes that the present gets diluted into the past (i.e. the story of Yousif) through a wide stream of consciousness (the bridge with the past). It also reveals an unusual ability to restore life in the pivotal incident of the arrest that becomes the turning-point in the story.

My Two Cellmates

The entrance of the Suwaqa correctional facility in Jordan.

Being a political prisoner is a fact that is implicitly outlined by the novelist who attempts to generate a link between the Quranic state of Yousif (pbuh) and the allegation that led Ayman Al Otoom to be arrested and put in jail. While in prison, Al Otoom was given a copy of the Holy Quran, which the jailer thinks may placate his psychological agonies and feelings of injustice.

The faint voice of another cellmate who also seems to have read many interpretations of the Holy Quran solidifies the congruence between the past, which is always on his mind, and the present, as he lives it. This parallel becomes a nagging thought in his mind, to enhance the meager realities of the moment, by adding a glorified touch of the past. This is shown when Al Otoom recalls some verses from the Holy Quran, specifically those of Yousif. Furthermore, they are connected to the title of the novel, which mainly centers around Al Otoom’s trial and the companionship found in prison.

In all world literature, and particularly in the politically charged literature of the Arab world, the controversial issue of the political prisoner occupies a good deal of non-ending debate yet without much effect in changing the unfair procedures of the state’s methods. The resentment depicted in modern Arab novels – of which Ayman Al Atoom’s is only one – reflects a huge amount of political awareness. In “The East Side of the Mediterranean”[2] by Abdul Rahman Muneef, for instance, a similar theme to that of Al Otoom’s was precisely and comprehensively presented, in the hope of reconciling this excruciating predicament.

In “My Two Cellmates” Al Otoom uses a resourceful poetic and detailed vocabulary to describe almost everything his eyes see and his ears harken. The rich abundance of his portrayals somehow overshadow the Quranic counterpart of injustice that Yousif was subjected to. In his prelude, Al Otoom, the writer, establishes this railway track-like parallelism of the two anecdotes although the similarity between them only goes so far.

Throughout its 16 chapters, the novel relies on pairing: two stances, two views, two stories, and two characters in each anecdote. This is reflected in the prisoner and the jailer, Yousif and his brothers, or even Yousif and his two prison companions. Yet destiny is but one in both. The writer uses titles for his 16 chapters derived from the Holy Quran. The choice of such titles represents a gradual change in the chronological actions which ascend to reach the denouement when Al Otoom is set free.

The novelist draws a roadmap to the main character who seems to be allegorically “baptized” in prison.

The novelist draws a roadmap to the main character who seems to be allegorically “baptized” in prison. Al Otoom’s heightened feeling reaches the point of sublimity when every physical stay in detention becomes an ethereal imaginary thought. Here the writer undermines the material dialectic to give way to the spiritual realm: prison is nothing but “a dream, one of the most naïve dreams.”

Ultimately, the physical incarceration does not prevent his freedom of mind. This conviction inevitably leads to a higher and more sublime thought: that the homeland deserves such a sacrifice. In this respect, the writer consciously draws a picture of two sides of the insufferable world around him: that of the dungeon where human dignity is crushed, and that of the outside world, where freedom is awaiting. In the end, in the 16th chapter, Al Otoom abandons the documentary style and resorts to using direct oratory speech, which readers may not warmly receive.

In a typical reception of the modern Jordanian novel, “My Two Cellmates” has fallen between absolute acceptance and justifiable criticism. Yet the novel is a clear depiction of the individual recording Dr. Ayman Al Otoom experienced. Whether his implication of pro-Islamist ideology informs his work is left to the assessment of his readers, who can only rely on their own interpretation of the book.

[1] This author’s translation of the Arabic title (ياصاحبي السجن)

[2] This author’s translation of the Arabic title of Abdul Rahman Muneef’s novel (شرق المتوسط)