Omar Kikli’s “Prison Sketches”

The following is an excerpt from Libyan writer Omar al-Kikli’s Prison Sketches (2012), translated from the Arabic by Sebastian Anstis. Read more at Jadaliyya.

The Tea Theory of Relativity

For us, tea was a matter of utmost importance; it was the only pleasure we had. It was so important that one of us, arguing with a prison guard, stated that a prisoner would be willing to exchange a cup of tea for an equivalent amount of his own blood.

Of course, this was gross exaggeration.

Of course, this was a clear indication of how important tea was in our existence.

It may be more accurate to say, as has one of our poets, that the evening tea prevents depression. Yet in prison, tea was so mediocre that it may have had the opposite effect, even though it came in generous quantities (nor should it be understood from “evening tea” that there was a morning tea or a noon tea).

Whatever the case may be we would scheme to obtain the greatest quantity of it possible.

It was served with dinner.

At first, each one of us would extend his plastic cup, and the warden would pour a helping of hot tea according to his calculations and generosity. Later, they gave us larger containers for sharing.

It dawned on us that the collective portions were much less than all our individual portions put together. So we divided ourselves such that some cells would receive individual cups while others would receive collective shares. Then we would gather all the tea and distribute it amongst ourselves.

Eventually, an observant inmate noticed that the portion for two people was hardly more than that for one.

This observation triggered deep reflection, from which sprang a moderately complex, and very wise idea.

Our plan depended on psychological suggestibility. It assumed that if a person requested a single cup of tea, and the next person requested tea for two, the difference between the two amounts would be minute. Therefore, the warden must be made to sense the magnitude of the difference from one portion to the next. For example, one person might ask for an individual portion, and the next, enough for four. In theory, this should lead to a second portion large enough for five or six people.

We debated the theory exhaustively. After countering all objections, I received collective approval.

We agreed among the different cells to request portions of tea in the following magnitude and order: 1-4-1-1-5 (or something to that effect).

After consolidating portions that evening, our yield was less than the average of the previous days.

With that we buried the tea theory of relativity though I do not believe it was allowed a fair scientific evaluation given the number of trials.

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