Making people realise what dictatorship is really like


Sri Lankans talk a lot about ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ these days. I wonder how much this talk relates to the abstract in discourse. If the media gives some prominence to the brutal happenings in countries like Syria today where a revolt is on against an entrenched dictatorship maybe these concepts will move out from the universe of the abstract to the concrete. People will realize the true values of living under democratic rule only if they know what really a dictatorship would take away from their individual daily lives. The difference of a democratic way of life and a life under a dictator must be made palpable to people in order to make the latter treasure democracy and the rule of law.

I have read a most interesting novel called "In the Country of Men" by Hisham Matar. I thought I will tell something from this book to The Island readers that would perhaps help translate the abstract concept of a dictatorship into something concrete.I reckon there are many eventsalready taking place in Lanka that is doing the translation. Yet, what I am going to say is powerful in impact.

The narrative is set in the mid 1970s when Colonel Gaddafi was at the helm. The character narrating the story is Slooma Suleiman, a teenager. Slooma and his Mum are unfortunately and innocently caught up in the vortex of Gaddafi’s oppressive rule. Suleiman’s father, Faraj, is an underground rebel and Gaddafi’s policemen keep following him, eventually getting him. The family is always being watched by persons in a white car parked in close proximity. Rebels are busy preparing and distributing pamphlets that expose Gaddafi’s numerous misdeeds. They are planning and waiting for the day when the Colonel is thrown out.

A vigilant secret police is at work and they grab anybody suspected of being critical to the government. Even malicious gossip by vindictive neighbors would be meat to the secret police. The novel describes Libya as "the realm of the Absolute Star.’ The following shows how a poorly paid university professor, Ustath Rashid is "taken": "The car pulled in front of Kareem’s (Rashid’s teenage son and Suleiman’s playmate) house.Kareem froze, as if his heart had dropped into his shoes.Four men got out, leaving the doors open.The car was like a giant dead moth in the sun.Three of the men ran inside the house, the fourth,who was the driver and seemed to be their leader,waited on the pavement…..He had a horrible face,pockmarked like pumice stone. His men reappeared, holding Ustath Rashid between them. He didn’t struggle. Auntie Salma trailed behind as if an invisible string connected her to her husband.The man with the pockmarked faceslapped Ustath Rashid,suddenly and ferociously. It sounded like fabric tearing, it stopped Aunty Salma. Another one kicked Ustath Rashid in the behind. He anticipated it because he jerked forward before it came. The force of it made himjump, but he didn’t make a sound……Ustath Rashid looked towards us, and when his eyes met Kareem’s, his face changed. It looked like he was about to cry or vomit…The men looked at each other, then at Auntie Salma, who had one hand over her mouth…they grabbed Ustath Rashid, threw him into the car, slammed the doors shut and sped between us, crushing our goal posts….."

This incident is typical of the happenings under a dictatorship and in a country where no rule of law exists for aggrieved or accused individuals to go to for justice. Only the political law of the jungle prevails and the hapless victim has to seek redress under a political agency. Under a political agency the judicial process cannot take place. The dignity and the safety of the person vanishes like salt in water.

Shyamon Jayasinghe


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