A man wearing a doctor’s jacket entered behind us, looking tired and unhappy. He seemed surprised to see my battered face and eye, which had now swollen to twice its original size. But if he was concerned about my well-being, he certainly didn’t show it. I had seen veterinarians who were kinder to their animals than this doctor was as he examined me.
A guard wearing a police uniform came in. He turned me around, put the handcuffs back on, and pulled a dark green hood over my head. I had found the source of the stench. The hood smelled like it had never been washed. It reeked of the unbrushed teeth and foul breath of a hundred prisoners. I retched and tried to hold my breath. But every time I gasped, I sucked the filthy cloth into my mouth. I panicked and felt like I would suffocate if I couldn’t get away from the bag.
The guard searched me, taking everything, including my belt and bootlaces. He grabbed me by the hood and dragged me through the corridors. A right turn. A left. Another left. Right. Right again. I didn’t know where I was or where he was taking me.
Eventually we stopped, and I heard him fumble for a key. He opened a door that sounded thick and heavy. “Steps,” he said. And I felt my way down several treads. Through the hood I could see some sort of flashing light, the kind you see on top of a police car.
The guard pulled off the hood, and I realized I was standing in front of a set of curtains. To my right I saw a basket of hoods. We waited a few minutes until a voice from the other side of the curtain gave us permission to enter. The guard locked manacles onto my ankles and stuffed my head into another bag. Then he grabbed the front of it and pulled me through the curtains.
Cold air poured out of the vents, and music blasted from somewhere in the distance. I must have been walking along a very narrow corridor because I kept bumping into the walls on either side. I felt dizzy and exhausted. Finally, we stopped again. The soldier opened a door and shoved me inside. Then he removed the hood and left, locking the heavy door behind him.
I looked around me, once again surveying my surroundings. The cell was about six feet square—just enough room for a small mattress and two blankets. Whoever had occupied the cell before me had rolled one of them into a pillow. I sat down on the mattress; it felt sticky and the blankets smelled like the hood. I covered my nose with the collar of my shirt, but my clothes reeked of vomit. One weak lightbulb hung from the ceiling, but I couldn’t find the switch to turn it on or off. A small opening in the door was the only window in the room. The air was clammy, the floor wet, the concrete covered with mold. Bugs swarmed everywhere. Everything was foul and rotting and ugly.
I just sat there for a long time, not knowing what to do. I had to go to the bathroom and stood to use the rusty toilet in the corner. I pushed the flush handle and immediately wished I hadn’t. The waste didn’t flush down the hole; instead, it leaked out onto the floor, soaking into the mattress.
I sat down in the only dry corner of the room and tried to think. What a place to have to spend the night! My eye throbbed and burned. I was finding it hard to breathe without choking on the smell of the room. The heat in my cell was unbearable, and my sweat-soaked clothes clung to my frame.
I had had nothing to eat or drink since some goat’s milk at my mother’s house. And that was now souring all over my shirt and pants. There was a pipe protruding from the wall, and I turned the handle, hoping to get some water from it. The liquid came out thick and brown.
What time was it? Were they going to leave me here all night?
My head pounded. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The only thing I could do was pray to Allah.
Protect me, I asked. Keep me safe and bring me back to my family quickly.
Through the thick steel door, I could hear loud music playing in the distance—the same tape, over and over and over. I used the mind-numbing repetitions to help me gauge time.
Again and again, Leonard Cohen sang:
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
In the distance, doors opened and closed—a lot of them. Slowly, the sounds drew nearer. Then someone opened the door to my cell, shoved a blue tray inside, and slammed the door shut. I looked at the tray as it sat in the sewage that had oozed out after I used the toilet. Its contents included one boiled egg, a single piece of bread, about a spoonful of sour-smelling yogurt, and three olives. A plastic container of water sat to one side, but when I lifted it to my lips, it didn’t smell right at all. I drank a little but used the rest to wash my hands. I ate everything on the tray, but I was still hungry. Was this breakfast? What time was it? I guessed afternoon.
While I was still trying to figure out how long I had been there, the door to my cell opened. Someone—or something—was standing there. Was it human? He was short, seemed to be about seventy-five years old, and looked like a hunchbacked ape. He shouted at me in a Russian accent, cursed me, cursed God, and spat in my face. I could not imagine anything uglier.
Apparently, this thing was a guard because he shoved another stinking hood at me and told me to put it over my head. Then he grabbed the front of it and jerked me roughly through the corridors. He opened the door to an office, shoved me inside, and forced me down onto a low plastic chair; it felt like a little child’s chair from an elementary school classroom. The chair was secured to the floor.
He handcuffed me, one arm between the chair legs and the other on the outside. Then he shackled my legs. The little seat was slanted, forcing me to lean forward. Unlike my cell, this room was freezing cold. I figured that the air-conditioning must be set around zero.
I sat there for hours, shaking uncontrollably in the cold, bent at an agonizing angle, and unable to shift into a more comfortable position. I tried to breathe through the foul bag without ever taking a full breath. I was hungry, exhausted, and my eye was still swollen with blood.
The door opened, and somebody pulled off my hood. I was surprised to see that it was a civilian, not a soldier or guard. He sat on the edge of the desk. My head was about the level of his knees.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“I am Mosab Hassan Yousef.”
“Do you know where you are?”
He shook his head and said, “Some call it Dark Night. Others call it the Slaughterhouse. You are in big trouble, Mosab.”
I tried not to show any emotion at all, keeping my eyes focused on a stain on the wall behind this guy’s head.
“How is your father doing in the PA prison?” he asked. “Is it more fun for him than an Israeli prison?”
I shifted slightly in my seat, still refusing to answer.
“Do you realize that you are now in the same place your father was taken after his first arrest?”
So that’s where I was: the Maskobiyeh Detention Center in West Jerusalem. My father had told me about this place. It used to be a Russian Orthodox church, perched on top of six millennia of history. The government of Israel had converted it to a high-security facility that included police headquarters, offices, and an interrogation center for the Shin Bet.
Deep underground was the ancient warren that served as a prison. Black and stained and dark, like the rat-infested medieval dungeons you see in the movies, Maskobiyeh had a nasty reputation.
Now I was suffering the same punishment my father had endured. These were the same men who had beaten him and tortured him all those years ago. They had spent a lot of time working on him, and they knew him well. They also never broke him. He stayed strong and became only stronger.
“Tell me why you are here.”
“I have no idea.” Of course, I assumed I was here because I had bought those stupid guns that didn’t even work. My back felt like it was on fire. My interrogator lifted my chin.
“You want to be tough like your father? You have no idea what is waiting for you outside this room. Tell me what you know about Hamas! What secrets do you know? Tell me about the Islamic student movement! I want to know everything!”
Did he really think I was that dangerous? I couldn’t believe that. But then, the more I thought about it, I realized that he probably did. From his point of view, the fact that I was the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef and was buying automatic weapons was more than enough cause for suspicion.
These men had imprisoned and tortured my father and were about to torture me. Did they really believe this would make me accept their right to exist? My point of view was very different. My people were struggling for our freedom, our land.
When I did not answer his questions, the man slammed the desk with his fist. Again, he lifted my chin.
“I’m going home to spend the night with my family. You have fun here.”
I sat in the small chair for hours, still leaning forward awkwardly. Finally, a guard came in, unlocked my handcuffs and shackles, threw another hood over my head, and pulled me back through the corridors. Leonard Cohen’s voice grew louder and louder.
We stopped, and the guard barked at me to sit down. The music was deafening now. Once again, I was chained hand and foot to a low chair that was vibrating to the merciless beat of “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!”
My muscles were cramped from the cold, uncomfortable position. I tasted the stench of the hood. This time, however, I was clearly not alone. Even over Leonard Cohen, I could hear other people crying out in great pain.
“Is someone there?” I yelled through the greasy cloth.
“Who are you?” a voice close by yelled over the music.
“I am Mosab.”
“How long have you been here?”
He said nothing for a couple of minutes.
“I have been sitting on this chair for three weeks,” he said finally. “They let me sleep for four hours every week.”
I was stunned. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. Another man told me he had been arrested about the same time I was. I guessed there were about twenty of us in the room.
Our talking was suddenly interrupted when someone struck me in the back of the head—hard. Pain shot through my skull, forcing me to blink back tears inside the hood.
“No talking!” a guard shouted.
Every minute felt like an hour, but I could no longer remember what an hour was anyway. My world had stopped. Outside, I knew that people were getting up, going to their jobs, and returning home to their families. My classmates were studying for their final exams. My mother was cooking and cleaning and hugging and kissing my little brothers and sisters.
But in that room, everyone sat. No one moved.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin! First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin! First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!
Some of the men around me wailed, but I was determined not to cry. I was sure my father had never cried. He was strong. He didn’t give in.
“Shoter! Shoter! [Guard! Guard!]” one of the men yelled. Nobody answered him because the music was so loud. Finally, after a while, the shoter came.
“What do you want?”
“I want to go to the toilet. I have to go to the toilet!”
“No toilet now. It is not the time for the toilet.” And he left.
“Shoter! Shoter!” the man screamed.
Half an hour later, the shoter returned. The man was getting out of control. Cursing him, the shoter opened his chains and dragged him away. A few minutes later, he brought him back, chained him again to the small chair, and left.
“Shoter! Shoter!” screamed another.
I was exhausted and sick to my stomach. My neck ached. I never realized how heavy my head was. I tried to lean against the wall next to me, but just as I was about to drift off to sleep, a guard came and hit me in the head to wake me up. His only job, it seemed, was to keep us awake and quiet. I felt as if I had been buried alive and was being tortured by the angels Munkar and Nakir after giving the wrong answers.
It must have been morning when I heard a guard moving around. One by one, he opened handcuffs and shackles and led people away. After a few minutes, he brought them back, chained them up to the little chairs again, and went on to the next one. Finally, he came to me.
After he unlocked my chains, he grabbed my hood and pulled me through the corridors. He opened a cell door and told me to go in. When he removed the hood, I saw that it was the same hunchbacked, apelike guard with my breakfast. He shoved the blue tray with egg, bread, yogurt, and olives toward me with his foot. Nearly an inch of stinking water covered the floor and splashed into the tray. I would rather have starved than eaten it.
“You have two minutes to eat and use the toilet,” he told me.
All I wanted to do was to stretch, lie down, and sleep, just for two minutes. But I just stood there as the seconds slipped away.
“Come on! Come here!”
Before I could grab a bite, the guard pulled the bag over my head again, led me back through the halls, and chained me to the little chair.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!
All day long, doors opened and closed, as prisoners were pulled by their foul hoods from one interrogator to another. Uncuffed, cuffed, questioned, beaten. Sometimes an interrogator would shake a prisoner hard. It usually took only ten shakes before he passed out. Uncuffed, cuffed, questioned. Doors opened and doors closed.
Every morning we were taken for our two-minute blue breakfast tray, and then hours later, for our two-minute orange dinner tray. Hour after hour. Day after day. Blue breakfast tray. Orange dinner tray. I quickly learned to long for mealtimes—not because I wanted to eat, but just for the chance to stand erect.
At night after we were all fed, the opening and closing of doors stopped. The interrogators went home. The business day was over. And the endless night began. People cried and moaned and screamed. They no longer sounded like human beings. Some didn’t even know what they were saying. Muslims recited verses from the Qur’an, begging Allah for strength. I prayed, too, but I didn’t get any strength. I thought about stupid Ibrahim and the stupid guns and the stupid calls to my father’s cell phone.
I thought about my father. My heart ached when I realized all that he must have endured while imprisoned. But I knew my father’s personality well. Even while being tortured and humiliated, he would have accepted his fate quietly and willingly. He probably even made friends with the guards assigned to carry out the beatings. He would have taken a genuine interest in them as people, asking about their families, their backgrounds, their hobbies.
My father was such an example of humility, love, and devotion; even though he was only five foot seven, he stood head and shoulders above anyone else I had ever known. I very much wanted to be like him, but I knew I still had a long way to go.
One afternoon, my routine was unexpectedly interrupted. A guard came into the cell and unchained me from my chair. I knew it was much too early for dinner, but I didn’t ask questions. I was just happy to go anywhere, to hell even, if it meant getting off that chair. I was taken to a small office where I was chained again, but this time to a regular chair. An officer of the Shin Bet entered the room and looked me up and down. Though the pain wasn’t as sharp as it once had been, I knew my face still bore the marks from the soldiers’ rifle butts.
“How are you?” the officer asked. “What happened to your eye?”
“They beat me.”
“The soldiers who brought me here.”
“That’s not allowed. It’s against the law. I’ll look into it and find out why this happened.”
He seemed very confident and spoke kindly and respectfully to me. I wondered if it was a game to get me to talk.
“You have exams soon. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you know. You are not stupid, and we are not stupid. I am Loai, Shin Bet captain of your area. I know all about your family and your neighborhood. And I know everything about you.”
And he really did. Apparently, he was responsible for every person in my neighborhood. He knew who worked where, who was in school, what they studied, whose wife just had a baby, and no doubt what the baby weighed. Everything.
“You have a choice. I came all the way here today to sit down with you and talk. I know that the other interrogators have not been so nice.”
I looked closely into his face, trying to read between the lines. Fair skinned and blond, he spoke with a sense of calm I had not heard before. His expression was kind, even a little concerned for me. I wondered if this was part of the Israeli strategy: throwing off the prisoner by beating him one minute, then treating him kindly the next.
“What do you want to know?” I asked.
“Listen, you know why we brought you here. You’ve got to bring everything out, whatever you have.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, I want to make this easy for you.”
On a whiteboard behind the desk he wrote three words: Hamas , weapons , and organization .
“Go ahead and tell me about Hamas. What do you know about Hamas? What is your involvement in Hamas?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know anything about the weapons they have, where they come from, how they get them?”
“Do you know anything about the Islamic youth movement?”
“Okay. It’s up to you. I don’t know what to tell you, but you are really choosing the wrong path…. Can I bring you any food?”
“No. I don’t want anything.”
Loai left the room and returned minutes later with a steaming plate of chicken and rice and some soup. It smelled wonderful, causing my stomach to grumble involuntarily. No doubt the food had been prepared for the interrogators.
“Please, Mosab, eat. Don’t try to be a tough guy. Just eat and relax a little bit. You know, I have known your father for a long time. Your father is a nice guy. He is not a fanatic, and we don’t know why you got yourself into trouble. We don’t want to torture you, but you need to understand that you are against Israel. Israel is a small country, and we have to protect ourselves. We cannot allow anybody to hurt Israeli citizens. We suffered enough our whole lives, and we will not be easy on those who want to hurt our people.”
“I never hurt any Israeli. You hurt us. You arrested my father.”
“Yes. He is a good man, but he is also against Israel. He inspires people to fight against Israel. That’s why we have to put him in prison.”
I could tell that Loai really believed I was dangerous. I knew from talking to others who had been inside Israeli prisons that Palestinians weren’t always treated as harshly as I had been. Nor were they all interrogated at such lengths.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Hassan Salameh had been arrested about the same time I was.
Salameh had carried out numerous attacks in revenge for master bomb maker Yahya Ayyash’s assassination. And when the Shin Bet heard me talking to Ibrahim on my dad’s cell phone about getting weapons, they assumed I wasn’t working alone. In fact, they were sure I had been recruited by Al-Qassam.
Finally, Loai said, “This is the last time I will make this offer, then I will be gone. I have a lot to do. You and I can resolve this situation right now. We can work something out. You do not have to go through more interrogation. You’re just a kid, and you need help.”
Yes, I had wanted to be dangerous, and I had dangerous ideas. But clearly, I wasn’t very good at being a radical. I was tired of the little plastic chair and smelly hoods. The Israeli intelligence was giving me more credit than I deserved. So I told him the whole story, leaving out the part about my wanting the weapons so I could kill Israelis. I told him I had bought the weapons to help my friend, Ibrahim, protect his family.
“So there are weapons now, I see.”
“Yes, there are weapons.”
“And where are those weapons?”
I wished they had been at my house because I would gladly have surrendered them to the Israelis. But now I had to involve my cousin.
“Okay, here’s the thing. Somebody that has nothing to do with this has the weapons.”
“Who is he?”
“My cousin Yousef has them. He is married to an American, and they have a new baby.” I hoped they would take his family into account and just go get the weapons, but things are never that easy.
Two days later, I heard scuffling on the other side of the wall in my cell. I leaned down and toward the rusted-out pipe that connected my cell with the one next to it.
“Hello,” I called. “Is anybody there?”
What?! I couldn’t believe my ears. It was my cousin!
“Yousef? Is that you?”
I was so excited to hear his voice. My heart started beating wildly. It was Yousef! But then he started cursing me.
“Why did you do this? I have a family….”
I started to cry. I had wanted so much for a human being to talk to while I was in prison. Now a member of my own family sat just on the other side of the wall, and he was yelling at me. And then it hit me: the Israelis were listening; they had put Yousef right next to me so they could listen to our conversation and find out whether I was telling the truth. That was fine by me. I had told Yousef I wanted the guns to protect my family, so I wasn’t worried.
Once the Shin Bet realized that my story was true, they moved me to another cell. Alone once again, I thought about how I had screwed up my cousin’s life, how I had hurt my family, and how I had thrown away twelve years of school—and all because I trusted a jerk like Ibrahim!
I stayed in that cell for weeks with no human contact. The guards slid food under the door but never said a word to me. I even began to miss Leonard Cohen. I had nothing to read, and my only sense of passing time was the daily rotation of colored food trays. Nothing to do but think and pray.
Finally one day I was again taken to an office, and again, Loai was waiting to talk to me.
“If you decide to cooperate with us, Mosab, I will do my best to see that you don’t have to spend more time in prison.”
A moment of hope. Maybe I could make him think I was going to cooperate and then he would let me out of here.
We talked a little about general things. Then he said, “What if I offer you a job with us? Israeli leaders are sitting down with Palestinian leaders. They have fought for a long time, and at the end of the day they are shaking hands and having dinner together.”
“Islam forbids me to work with you.”
“At some point, Mosab, even your father will come and sit down and talk to us and we will talk to him. Let’s work together and bring peace to people.”
“Is this how we bring peace? We bring peace by ending the occupation.”
“No, we bring peace through people with courage who want to make change.”
“I don’t think so. It’s not worth it.”
“Are you afraid of being killed as a collaborator?”
“It’s not that. After all our suffering, I could never just sit down and talk with you as a friend, much less work with you. I am not allowed to do this. It is against everything I believe.”
I still hated everything around me. The occupation. The PA. I had become a radical just because I wanted to destroy something. But it was that impulse that had gotten me into this whole mess. Here I was sitting in an Israeli prison, and now this man was asking me to work for them. If I said yes, I knew I would have to pay a terrible price—both in this life and in the next.
“Okay, I need to think about it,” I heard myself saying.
I went back to my cell and thought about Loai’s offer. I had heard stories about people who agreed to work for the Israelis but were double agents. They killed their handlers, stashed weapons, and used every opportunity to hurt the Israelis at an even deeper level. If I told him yes, I figured Loai would most likely release me. He would probably even give me the opportunity to have real weapons this time, and with those weapons I was going to kill him.
The fires of hatred burned inside me. I wanted revenge on the soldier who had beaten me so badly. I wanted revenge on Israel. I didn’t care about the cost, even if it cost me my life.
But working for the Shin Bet would be a lot riskier than buying weapons. I probably should just forget it, just finish my time in prison, go home and study, be close to my mother, and take care of my brothers and sisters.
The following day, the guard took me back to the office one last time, and a few minutes later Loai came in.
“How are you today? You seem to be feeling much better. Would you like something to drink?”
We sat there drinking coffee like two old friends.
“What if I get killed?” I asked, though I really didn’t care about getting killed. I only wanted to make him think I did so he would believe that I was for real.
“Let me tell you something, Mosab,” said Loai. “I’ve been working for the Shin Bet for eighteen years, and during all that time, I know of only one person who was discovered. All those people you have seen getting killed had no relationship with us. People became suspicious of them because they had no families and they did suspicious things, so people killed them. Nobody will know about you. We will cover you so you aren’t found out. We will protect you and take care of you.”
I stared at him a long time.
“All right,” I said. “I will do it. Will you release me now?”
“That’s great,” Loai said with a big smile. “Unfortunately, we cannot release you right now. Since you and your cousin were arrested right after Salameh was nabbed, the story was on the front page of Al-Quds [the main Palestinian newspaper]. Everybody thinks you were arrested because you were involved with a bomb maker. If we release you so soon, people will be suspicious, and you might be exposed as a collaborator. The best way to protect you is to send you to prison—not for long, don’t worry. We’ll see if there’s a prisoner exchange or release agreement we can use to get you out. Once you are there, I’m sure that Hamas will take care of you, especially since you are the son of Hassan Yousef. We’ll see you after your release.”
They took me back to my cell, where I stayed for another couple of weeks. I couldn’t wait to get out of Maskobiyeh. Finally one morning, the guard told me it was time to go. He handcuffed me, but this time my hands were in front of me. No stinking hood. And for the first time in forty-five days, I saw the sun and felt the outside air. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs and relishing the breeze on my face. I climbed into the back of a Ford van and actually sat down on the seat. It was a hot summer day, and the metal bench I was cuffed to was blistering, but I didn’t care. I felt free!
Two hours later, we arrived at the prison in Megiddo, but then we had to sit in the van for another hour, waiting for permission to enter. Once we finally got inside, a prison doctor examined me and announced that I was fine. I took a shower with real soap and was provided with clean clothes and other toiletries. At lunchtime, I ate hot food for the first time in weeks.
I was asked what organization I was affiliated with.
“Hamas,” I answered.
In Israeli prisons, every organization was allowed to police its own people. The hope was that this would either cut down on some of the social problems or create more conflict among the factions. If prisoners focused their anger on one another, they’d have less energy to fight against the Israelis.
Upon entering a new prison, all prisoners were required to declare an affiliation. We had to choose something: Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), or whatever the case might be. We couldn’t simply say we were nothing. Prisoners who really were nothing would be given a few days to choose an organization. At Megiddo, Hamas was in total control inside the prison. Hamas was the largest and strongest organization there. Hamas made the rules, and everybody else played their game.
When I entered, the other prisoners welcomed me warmly, patting me on the back and congratulating me for joining the ranks. In the evening, we sat around and shared our stories. After a while, though, I started to feel a little uncomfortable. One of the guys seemed to be kind of a leader for the inmates, and he was asking a lot of questions—too many. Even though he was the emir—the Hamas leader within the prison—I just didn’t trust him. I had heard many stories about “birds,” another word for prison spies.