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The Crime of Writing

Zouhair Ghazzal

Chapter 4. Auto‑biographies: Self and Other in Confessional Criminal Narratives

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  • 1 Talal Asad, “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism,” in Asad et al., Is Critique Secular?, (...)

1In Arabic “avowal” stands both for iqrār and iʿtirāf. But while iqrār implies admitting something—for instance, a witness admits seeing someone at a particular place and time—iʿtirāf carries a more confessional tone: the fragile “I” constructs in a confessional tone the web of relations that led to the crime under investigation. Thus while in iqrār the “admission” comes in the context of a line of questioning by the judicial authorities, the iʿtirāf is typically more diffuse, is not necessarily subject to the constraints of the judiciary, and more importantly, would not be limited to the case in question. There are confessions which are an outcome of the interviewing process, either by the police or investigating judge: the scribe would simply note that the suspect/accused/witness did “confess” that such and such a thing happened, hence this was not iqrār per se (an act of acknowledgment which was interpreted as such by the interviewer), but a full confession where the tone is more on the side of an “I admit.” In classical Islamic law, apostasy, confession, and expressing a belief can be established “only on the basis of the functioning of external signs (including public speech or writing, publicly visible behavior), never on the basis of inferred or forcibly extracted internal belief.”1 The externality of signs may also be a prime requirement of secular judicial testimony, in that no statement would be acknowledged in a court record unless publicly admitted by the subject to a judge or in a court hearing. Herein lies the ambiguity of statements that, at face value, were produced without any solicitation of a judicial authority, yet publicized in the context of a written document for the personal use of their inmate‑authors.

  • 2 We have encountered such “confessions” before, either in the format of letters (C3–1), or else as c (...)

2Confessions could be either set within the framework of interviews conducted by police, the investigating judge, or the court hearings, or else would pose themselves in the form of self‑confessions: letters addressed by inmates to their counsels, judges, family, or friends. It is this second aspect of confession, namely, the letter format, with or without clear addressee, that we will consider in this chapter from the workings of two cases.2 The mind of the confessor seems to drift from one monologue to another, unconstrained by the facticities of the case at hand, and unrestrained by the social norms that would pose limits to an investigation. It is as if the confessor is attempting to understand what happened in her own terms, her own language, at the margins of all juridical constraints, irrespective of whether her anonymous “audience” would be effectively convinced or not. The courts would therefore normally shun away from such auto‑biographical statements: either there is too much in them that would be irrelevant for the case, or else there is not enough relevant material that would fall within the boundaries imposed by the judiciary. In either case, they represent an embarrassment of the riches: what to do with such details that we are not accustomed to? Auto‑biographical statements would come in several varieties. Memos and letters addressed by the defendants to their lawyers, judges, friends, or family members is one such genre. Another would be interviews granted to the local press by the defendants themselves, even though in Syria such possibility is under normal circumstances only slim. We are therefore left, albeit only occasionally, with what defendants reveal to their lawyers, and sometimes to close friends or family members. But, considering that the courts would seldom take such auto‑biographical statements under consideration, what are we supposed to do with them? What purpose should they serve for the researcher?

3There seems to be something paradoxical about auto‑biographical documents, be it memos or letters. On the one hand, they tend for the most part to be addressed by defendants to their lawyers in the hope that the counsel would sympathize with his or her client’s viewpoint. Lawyers would thus tend to classify such documents as “valuable” to their case, and then submit facsimiles to the court, in hope to have them classified in the case‑file, which courts often do (the document below was found in the dossier of a murder case). On the other hand, there is little to suggest that such documents are taken seriously, either by lawyers or judges, and if direct reference means anything, the final rulings typically shun from any direct or indirect reference to such documents. Which begs the question: why are they included in the file if no one seems to make any use of them? What purpose do they serve? Should the researcher do justice to documents that the courts disregard?

4To grasp the significance of such questions, one must first appreciate the kind of statements that would normally be incorporated within a case‑file’s compendium. Whether a statement originated from a police interrogation of a suspect or witness, or from an investigating judge’s interview, or a court hearing, or a doctor’s memo to the court, in all such instances, the statements would be contained within the set of normative values imposed by the judiciary. In other words, the judiciary imposes a discursive framework through which statements are filtered and approved. A policeman who therefore interrogates a witness right after the occurrence of a crime would know what to expect: he would know, for instance, what judges and courts expect from a police deposition, which questions ought to be addressed, which ones should be avoided, and above all, he would know the limits of an interview, meaning the power of social norms at indicating permissible behavior.

  • 3 In Chapter  3 on reason and insanity, I conducted a similar line of inquiry with another case: the (...)

5The importance of auto‑biographical documents lies precisely in that such normative juridical boundaries do shift, giving more room to the subject‑confessor. Hence their importance for the researcher, as the rigid boundaries of the typical interview and courtroom talk have all of a sudden shifted in less predictable ways. But the subject‑confessor is also tangled, however, within all kinds of normative values, which reflect in personal anxieties, repressions, and depressions. For the researcher, such documents ought to represent, on the one hand, valuable source for the study of social norms, how they are interiorized by actors, and, on the other, they constitute an opportunity to look at “what lies outside” the case‑file. In many ways, such an attitude constitutes the breaking of a ground rule that we have set thus far, namely, that we ought to constrain ourselves to the case itself, rather than incorporate “outside” data (in particular interviews that the researcher may have conducted with participants in the case), in order to fully understand the modus operandi of the dossier. But then an outstanding characteristic of auto‑biographical documents is that they are simultaneously situated on the inside and outside, since they tend to be included among other documents in the case‑file, and at the same time neglected and abandoned. In other words, they are in the strange situation of being included and classified, without, however, serving as evidence. Our purpose here is to precisely question such an ambivalent attitude: What is the exact status of auto‑biographical documents? What purpose do they serve? What do their drafters hope to achieve? What is their internal construction, and how do they compare to other documents in the dossier?3

6The two cases in this chapter involve “confessions” of a different nature. In the first one, a woman was accused of murdering her husband in order to conceal an affair she was allegedly having with another man. Once in prison, as murderess, the accused wife drafted a long letter of apology with no clear recipient—a letter that does not bear a clear addressee in mind. What is of interest to us is how such statements, delivered at the margins of other statements to official authorities for the sake of the ongoing investigation, achieve a status of their own: did the author‑accused‑murderess regain her own “voice”? Did she have anything to say that was not stated before to police, prosecution, and judges? Or is it that the Other speaks through her, as a woman who is now incarcerated and who could not possibly think outside the shared values of society? Considering that my speech acts are totally regulated by the symbolic order in which I dwell, there are therefore no statements situated outside the symbolic power of the big Other. In sum, what we observe here was a woman who documented at great length the power of the socio‑symbolic order which made sense to her. The accused‑murderess personified in her missive what she thought of the society around her.

7In a similar vein, the second case deals with a father who was imprisoned for abusing his teenage daughter by locking her in his home’s bathroom for a couple of years. Once in prison, he drafted two letters, one to the chief judge who was in charge of his case, and another one to Aleppo’s attorney general. The addressees were therefore in this instance not only identified and named, but more importantly, revered characters of the Law. Here the author‑father was placing his trust in the grand symbolizations of justice, hence addressing the Other as a trusted figure from within the logic of the juridical discourse: You darn well know the bad things that I did to my daughter, but do I deserve that kind of treatment? Do I deserve that my daughter, now set free, looks at me while humiliated in my prison cell, begging for your pardon? The subject’s discourse was therefore situated within that of justice itself, as if deconstructing it through its own internal syllogisms: is justice capable of understanding a debilitating suffering like mine?

Matters of fact

  • 4 Because in highly publicized murder cases, defendants and their lawyers become “public persona,” I (...)
  • 5 For the purposes of the present Chapter, and to be as brief as possible, I limited myself to the fo (...)

8[C4–1] Rashīd Nāṣir4 (b. 1931), known as a “dédouaneur public” (or transitaire, takhlīṣ gumrukī, forwarding agent), was found dead in the morning of Friday, 28 August 1987, in his Aleppo apartment at the middle‑class neighborhood of Sabīl, shot by a nine‑millimeter gun that he himself owned and kept in his safe at home.5 His young wife Buthayna Khaṭṭāb (b. 1950; notice the age difference with the husband) was interrogated, arrested, and accused a year later of murdering her husband. The alleged murder—or suicide?— created in Syria’s largest but conservative city an unusual court attendance and gossip, and a “public interest” in a society where most news outlets are controlled by the state. In a way similar to the O.J. Simpson trial in the U.S., the “public interest” could be a sign that the “general public” acting as a big Other finally found the soap opera it was looking for: a combination of middle‑class wealth, sex, adultery, and murder. The trial, and the networks of gossip, created narratives that focused on anything from martial betrayal to age difference and wealth status among spouses, as well as gender differences and the status of women in Syrian society.

9One of the defendant’s counsels, ʿAbdul‑Ghaffār al‑Sammānī, noted on page one of his thirty‑four‑page report on January 1989, in which he appealed (ṭaʿana) the first ruling of the Jināʾiyyāt Court of December 1988, which found the accused guilty of premeditatedly murdering her husband, that,

  • 6 Report by the defendant’s lawyer, ʿAbdul‑Ghaffār al‑Sammānī, in response to the first criminal cour (...) is worth noting that this case has very much preoccupied the public of the city of Aleppo to a degree unknown to us in the legal profession in any memorable period. The courtroom, the source of the appealed ruling, and the rooms of the Palace of Justice were filled with people, men and women, including the majority of lawyers and the Palace’s employees, and at times judges and professors of [Aleppo’s] University attended with students from both sexes. They used to follow the long court hearings without ever getting bored or losing interest, until the appealed ruling [by us, defense lawyers] came through at about one in the afternoon [19 December 1988], an hour after all the other trials were over, in front of the small public which was stunned (mashdūh) at this surprising conclusion. That same public which saw the weeping and screaming of the accused who was hitting her face and cut a curl (khuṣla) from her hair, throwing herself on the floor, while screaming loudly: “Where is justice (ayna al‑ʿadl)? I want justice! (uridu al‑ʿadl)” And she repeated a similar utterance asking help from God so that he would protect her from the wickedness of her enemies, Al Nāṣir, who were able to baffle justice (taḍlīl al‑ʿadāla) in order to tie her up with this false accusation.6

  • 7 In the wake of the violent and deadly crisis that erupted in mid‑March 2011 between the authorities (...)

10Notice how the counsel used here the vaporous notion of the sitting “public,” which was “stunned,” as argument in favor of the unfairness of the verdict. Even though the state‑controlled Syrian press generally refrains from reporting homicides, a note was dropped in one of the three state‑owned newspapers, Tishrīne, on 22 September 1987, and signed by Walīd Ikhlāṣī, a well‑known and appreciated novelist, based in Aleppo, and who was at the time editorialist to the Damascus‑based newspaper.7 Interestingly, the editorial was drafted in broad terms, refraining not only from naming suspects, but even the city itself was kept anonymous.

An ugly crime occurred in the city. The story manifests two different attitudes. The first is from a male’s perspective, while the second is that of the female. The first view focuses on the cheating of the woman and her lack of fidelity to her husband, while the second concentrates on the age difference and on the action of a man buying a much younger woman, after having had all the sex and women in his youth.

11Ikhlāsī was presumably referring to an alleged affair that the defendant had with a certain Hamīd al‑Sayyid, also known as Abū ʿAbdo, an affair that her husband had allegedly discovered back in 1981 (at the time, they already had seven children), and which led to their divorce that same year, only to reunite in a second marriage in 1984. Buthayna’s brother, Salīm Khaṭṭāb, worked in the ice‑cream factory of al‑Sayyid; and one of Buthayna’s daughters, Hadīl, was married to a certain Ṭālāl Shihābī. The latter allegedly came to know that fifteen days prior to the murder, Buthayna paid with her daughters a visit to the farm of Hamīd al‑Sayyid, stayed there all day long, while al‑Sayyid was allegedly for a while “on his own” with Buthayna. Shihābī had allegedly reported the incident to his father‑in‑law, Rashīd Nāṣir, requesting from him personally an “authorization” for an abortion to his wife Hadīl, on the basis that Shihābī could not trust his wife anymore, since he had doubts as to who the “real father” of the fetus was. (A claim was made by the Nāṣir family—the plaintiffs—that Buthayna used to routinely “pass” her daughters around.)

12Even though the criminal court verdict was issued at light speed roughly a year after the crime, the appeal procedures, however, took their toll, sending the file back and forth between the Damascus Naqḍ and Aleppo, until the criminal court reissued its third and final revised ruling in 1994. The ruling was less severe than previous ones in 1988 and 1989, as Buthayna was this time only accused of being a deliberate accomplice in the murder of her husband (jināyat al‑tadakhkhul bi‑l‑qatl al‑qaṣd), based on sections 533 and 218 of the criminal code. The defendant’s claim, that her husband had committed suicide, was rejected as unlikely (based on the autopsy report that detailed the bullet’s trajectory in the victim’s brain). She was summoned to pay her in‑laws S.P. 200,000 ($4,000) as compensation for their loss. Notice that the crime was labeled as deliberate (qaṣd) rather than premeditated (ʿamd), which saved the defendant the death penalty or at best life‑imprisonment.

Auto‑biographical confessions

13By the standards of the Syrian criminal courts, the file was rather voluminous, approaching over 500 pages in toto, including, among others, all the rulings of the Aleppo and Damascus courts, the lawyers memos, transcriptions of the court hearings (as dictated by the chief judge), a postmortem, photographs, police depositions, and the interviews of the investigating judge to plaintiffs, defendant, and witnesses.

14The document under consideration here consists of a handwritten seven‑page legal‑size memo, presumably drafted by the defendant herself. The text and margins have several words, statements and passages marked in red and blue ink, indicating that at least one of the counsels must have taken it seriously enough for a careful reading (it may have also been read and marked by judges). But considering that none of the rulings and memos quoted it directly, what purpose did it serve exactly?

15Let us first have a close look at the first couple pages of the document, prior to analyzing it carefully.

  • 8 Original page number.
  • 9 For a second marriage in 1984, following the 1981 divorce.
  • 10 Ellipses stand for omitted passages which were redundant and repetitive.

[1]8 I came back9 to my husband precisely during the eighth month [August] of 1984; …10 I found that my husband had stopped working because of a disagreement with his partners. On several occasions he went to Damascus to seek protection for himself (yusattir) in order to receive guarantees from the customs authorities (jamārik), but they rejected his request. Because of this, his material status (aḥwāl māddiyya) was weak and his health was close to very poor; from what he and my kids told me he was experiencing a stiffness in his brain arteries, which happened prior to my coming back home; his parents used to take him to the doctor and the latter’s recommendations (ithbātāt: “evidence”) are still in my possession.

  • 11 Quotations marks have been added to the translation.
  • 12 The court records reveal otherwise: Buthayna had allegedly an affair with Hamīd al‑Sayyid, which wa (...)

When I got back home, his health had improved. He used to complain a lot about his parents because they abused so much of his children by beating them up and by dropping them out of school. Due to their excessive abuse, he used to say to his parents that “I will take [my kids] to the railway station and slaughter them so that you get a rest and I get a rest from you.”11 And with all the sufferings they had inflicted on the children, they also attempted to dishonor me (yaṭʿanūn bi‑karāmati) by saying things that no one could possibly accept; so how could my husband accept this [kind of talk] especially that I had lived with him for twenty years. But despite all those things and matters whose only aim was to infuriate my husband, he used to give me full protection and say to them: “She is my wife and the mother of my children; if what you are saying is right, I would not have felt anything for her when she was present with me.” And whenever they would come to him with disturbing sayings, he would try and send me people who would convince me to go back home. My divorce at that time [in 1981] was caused by a car problem.12 The car was registered under my name and he wanted to transfer (farāgh; faragha) [the ownership] to him, but I refused. Had the desire been his, I would have transferred [the ownership] of the car to him, but he was coached by his parents who were against me all the time, in particular his brother, the medical doctor who told him: “Had your wife wanted to transfer the car to you, she would have already done so. Divorce her and send her back to her parents.” He listened to his brother and divorced me [...].

  • 13 In the original: This is what God has written (for your destiny), which is a common popular saying (...)
  • 14 It seems that two of the kids were left with the mother, while the remaining five were at their fat (...)

During my divorce, I stayed with my parents for three years, and in the last period, my brothers intervened and said: “Sister, we all got married and our mother stayed with you at home, and you are young; we cannot accept that you stay like that; you should live with a man who protects you so you get along with him for the rest of your life. This is what God wishes13 and that is your destiny for having lived with your husband. As long as your husband’s sister and mother are at home with him, you cannot go back, whatever the conditions.” A month after my divorce, I went to the Tanfīdh [execution bureau] and requested to attach (ḥajz) my clothing, furniture, and car, but in the meantime the car had vanished and doctor Nadīm, my husband’s brother, accused me of having stolen the car and hidden it somewhere with five kilograms of gold [which were also missing]. They urged the Police to search my home but they did not find anything. Despite the fact that I had taken with me my jewelry which I got [2] in the last twenty years, only to sell it, my brothers suggested that I sell the gold too and buy a house. My jewelry is properly mine, but separate to what my husband [offered] me in gold. But I rejected the whole idea and told them that I do not feel like getting into problems of renting and [apartment] rents. My brother Salīm used to work in the [ice‑cream] factory of Abū ʿAbdo [al‑Sayyid] and he proposed selling the jewelry whilst placing the amount with the factory’s owner so that I could live from its revenues in order to let my children who were nine and ten years old14 benefit. …

16Considering that the judiciary works within its own framework for accessing the truth, which in most instances consists of question‑and‑answer sessions where the interviewee is limited to each question’s framing, what is then the status of personal statements, which were not even solicited by any legal authority, and which would be typically omitted from the decision‑making process? Even if for the researcher such auto‑biographical statements would eventually lead to invaluable examination of sociological analysis, the problem of their integration or non‑integration with the dossier at large is in itself a problem which cannot be ignored. In other words, even if judges and other legal authorities routinely dismiss “irrelevant” statements that they deem unnecessary for the proceedings, the researcher should recontextualize all missing documents, in order to re‑integrate them within the totality of the documentation that the actors contribute to the dossier. Such an undertaking should normally follow a double take. First, the auto‑biographical document ought to be studied for its own sake—that is, as a narrative, with no concern for its juridical implications. Second, the narrative ought to be valued in relation to its legal content, if applicable: Why were the bulk of the accused’s auto‑biographical statements not incorporated within the decision‑making process? What would have happened had they been integrated?

17What strikes in Buthayna’s narrative was its obsession with “material conditions” (aḥwāl māddiyya) of husband and family. Such conditions would map the tangled relationships between herself, husband, children, in‑laws, and her own family, in particular her brothers. Staging herself at the center, she proceeds at excruciating her husband (or, pre‑1984, her ex‑husband) of any wrongdoing. The husband was thus within her reach whenever he gave her and the children protection, that is, assumed his full duties as husband and father, even if his material condition proved to be vulnerable at the time. But whenever he seemed skeptical of his wife’s endeavors, listening at times to his parents’ guidance, which were unflattering to the wife, he was portrayed as a stranger, in need of his wife’s help.

18The coming back was amid the 1981 divorce and a remarriage. Never mind that the causes of the divorce would be elucidated later. Suffice it to say that the introductory passage, in all its abruptness, seems to be aiming at placing the “origins” of the “crime” (or “suicide” from Buthayna’s perspective) into a post‑1984 perspective, leaving the meshed episode of the divorce, to which the prosecution gave so much weight, lurking surreptitiously in the background. We are thus told that the husband, even though he opted for a remarriage, was in constant financial and emotional strains, whilst doing poorly with his business partners, parents, children, and wife. The wife’s strategy was therefore to portray her husband as a failure, someone with many soft spots, who was unable to get along and do well with anyone. His health deteriorated, as portrayed in the doctor’s recommendations. In similar vein, reference to the husband’s financial woes occurred right at the beginning, as his aḥwāl māddiyya was poor enough and his health was close to very poor to merit attention. Aḥwāl māddiyya, “material conditions,” was used, as is common in colloquial Arabic, in its plural form, associated with “very poor health.” The poor material conditions in association with the very poor health will therefore be related to one another, as if one led de facto to the other, for instance, the implicit suggestion that the poor material conditions had a direct effect on the husband’s health, and eventually led to his alleged suicide.

19Assuming that the wife’s going back home in 1984 did improve her husband’s health, it nevertheless contributed at deteriorating her relationship with her in‑laws. Such relations are indeed portrayed in very harsh terms, to the point that the husband allegedly threatened his parents to “finish off” his own kids. Even though the alleged husband’s statements look harsh on paper, for one thing, they tend to be common ground in Aleppo’s colloquial, and for another, they were meant to accentuate the devilishness of the in‑laws over that of the husband himself. Thus, the husband, while vindicated by his wife for his good deeds, was nevertheless portrayed as victim of his parental abusiveness. It was that kind of abuse that possibly led to the first divorce in 1981, prior to a second rocky marriage from 1984 to 1987.

20However, the dossier portrays differently the 1981 divorce: a husband betrayed by his young wife, who was then allegedly having an affair, which eventually pushed the husband to plea for divorce. In Buthayna’s version, however, the divorce was fostered by her in‑laws over a problem regarding the ownership of her car. Whatever the circumstances, in Buthayna’s account what stands as marriage was the relationship between persons and things, or how a relationship—in particular if the woman was nineteen years beneath her husband—was a trade‑off between its spiritual and sexual components, on one hand, in exchange for monetary compensation and services on the other. In other words, even though Buthayna’s youth and good looks were only alluded to, from the woman’s perspective, being young was what she would bring to the marriage as dowry, to which the husband would be entitled to materially compensate for. Moreover, the fact that the wife was anathema to her in‑laws was only another indication of the exchange—between the spiritual, sexual, and material—going awry at some point. If the wife over‑emphasizes in her statement her material wellbeing, and in accordance that of her husband and children, it was presumably because she strongly perceived that, as a young woman sacrificing herself for a much older man, she had such an entitlement. Consequently, the in‑laws enmity was a visible manifestation of dislike for a woman that the they thought was abusing her status: you cannot ask more and play the bitch at the same time.

21Marriage was portrayed as a patriarchal institution that “protects” women. That such statements originated from the males in the family is not that surprising, but what is perhaps more telling is the fact that Buthayna was reminded by her brothers of her being young, and that, having missed her first marriage, she would be perfectly eligible for a second one. Being young, and presumably attractive, is looked upon as part of the symbolic capital that a woman would deploy in a patriarchal society.

22The husband therefore offered his wife, in their twenty‑year marriage, many gifts, the core of the counter‑gift per se, and which lumped together the movable capital at the wife’s disposal: the car, the jewelry, and possibly five kilograms of gold. The above claims suggest, however, that the husband’s family attempted, in light of the divorce, to hold some of that capital, in particular the car and jewelry. On the side of the wife’s family, the endeavor was to convert the movable capital into immovable property, on the assumption that it was safer as an investment and that Buthayna would eventually need a home of her own. The whole episode was therefore portrayed like an exchange between two extended families.

23On either side, the brothers seem to have played a crucial role, either at suggesting other (marital) partners, or else at proposing alternative investments for the exchanged goods. Buthayna’s brother Salīm was the link between his sister and his boss Hamīd al‑Sayyid. Moreover, the brother in this case seems to have played the double role of courtier and counselor, first by introducing his sister to Hamīd, then by offering that she invests in his ice‑cream factory, even though only the latter episode was frankly admitted by Buthayna. She also disclosed that all investments were good enough to have had awarded her an estimated SP70,000 in cash and jewelry. The fact that she did not go to her second wedding empty handed, that she relied on herself and her own investments, are all indications of a desire for autonomy, namely, that outside the angular exchanges of marriage, a woman is basically free to trade on her own.

24Such episode was supposed to portray a competitive wife in demand by other men. The idea that she disengaged from her fiancé, went back to her ex‑husband for a second marriage, only to kill him, does not make much sense: Why would she do it? The picture that Buthayna managed of herself was one of a “successful” woman: she invested and managed her portfolio wisely, and other men wanted her as spouse. Her going back to her ex‑husband should therefore be thought in terms of a return “home”—mainly as an act of “servitude” to her children.

  • 15 At that time, the Syrian Pound was strong vis‑à‑vis the US dollar, and was exchanged between three (...)

25From now on the narrative would shift almost exclusively to the financial plight of the husband, paving the way to his eventual collapse and suicide. The husband is portrayed as mercilessly caught between three women: his mother, divorced sister, and his wife, whom he divorced, only to wed for a second time. But the triadic relationship was essentially a financial one, where the husband acted like a poor manager of capital circulating among three women. Buthayna naturally attempted to portray herself, in the three years of her divorce, as a successful investor, someone who finally performed better than her husband. It was no surprise, therefore, that once she got back to him in 1984, she attempted to save him with SP20,000 in cash, then by mortgaging her jewelry for another SP20,000.15 It is typical of households, in the absence of genuine bank facilities and credit and loan institutions, to place their capital in the form of apartments, cars, and jewelry, then mortgage and sell them whenever necessary; the flow of capital never reaches the abstraction of banking transactions, as every object—apartment, car, jewelry or gold—maintains an emotional value. In fact, as each object is attached to one or more legal owners, as set within the dowry system, it was purchased and owned at a particular moment of the marriage relationship, hence belongs to the history of the couple. Each object is engraved with its own history, and accordingly, that of the successes and failures of the marriage relationship. The remaining five pages of the document will do precisely that: to associate each object‑of‑negotiation with its own history, as seen in the eyes of a Buthayna now in jail, charged with the dubious crime of killing her husband. Since each object is also valuable for exchange, its history is reenacted to shed some light on the complexities of gender and family relations. The jewelry, for instance, is typically for women, and offered by men in a gesture of admiration, and at the same time, as a safeguard for capital investment. The car, by contrast, is not gender specific, hence its sale would not afflict the woman’s sense of honor specifically. Finally, the apartment, which unlike the car or jewelry, is not an item of luxury, but one of necessity, is what reunites the family—and more so the restricted family rather than the extended one :

  • 16 At the time, it was so difficult to receive individual plaque numbers for private cars, that the la (...)

When I transferred the car ownership to him, I told him that I am transferring it to my children, and not to you, so that if I get married the kids will not accuse me of punishing their father. I took the car from him and had it used by others. But my husband and his brother kept bugging me about the car, claiming that I had it hidden in a military casern, while others were recommending that I sell the plaque’s number,16 which was worth SP50,000, but I refused, because the car’s price is to my husband, and it is his right and my children’s right. I therefore rejected [selling the car], transferred its property to him without any stipulation or condition, which he eventually sold then bought a Peugeot 505. He then agreed to sell the jewelry, requesting from a buddy of his to sell it, who came to our home with SP50,000 for the jewelry, and told me: “I gave back SP20,000 to Hajj Husayn [for mortgaging the jewelry], but I have got SP30,000 left, so please count them.” I said: “Give it to my husband,” to which he replied: “I’ll only give it to you personally, because that’s your jewelry.” So I took the money from him and gave it to my husband, who counted it and placed it in his pocket.

26The contrast between the car and jewelry is quite revealing. Thus, while the jewelry is in its essence a female commodity with many symbolic values attached to it, the car is not gender specific, and only its ownership serves as a criteria for differentiation. As new and old cars tend to be very expensive in Syria, with prices two to four times those of neighboring countries, the husband’s gesture to have his wife’s name in solo associated with the car’s ownership, was undeniably a gesture of trust on his part. But over the years the relationship deteriorated, so did the trust that the husband (and his family) placed in his wife. During the three divorce years, as the car’s ownership turned into a contentious matter, Buthayna’s attitude—to have the car’s ownership transferred to her ex‑husband for the sake of the children—was meant to show that her kids were indeed her top priority. Moreover, as cars are still looked upon as luxury items in Syria, they often reach a symbolic value close to immovable properties, such as lands and apartments. In whose name a car is could therefore be more than a mere question of ownership, as the car denotes at the same time, in parallel to trust, a private space of one’s own, and a freedom to move around. That is why, when divorce knocks at the door, the car’s ownership becomes the prime issue, even before the status of the apartment is settled (in case of a joint ownership), even before the value of the jewelry is raised. As to the latter, honor codes make it improper for a man to request from his (ex‑)wife to surrender her jewelry, as the act of giving‑back must come on a voluntary basis. In this case, based on Buthayna’s account, the gold she had at her disposal was sold and its value invested in the capital of al‑Sayyid’s ice‑cream factory, which amounted to a net cash value of SP20,000, while the jewelry was in the order of SP50,000. Again, based on Buthayna’s account, the SP70,000, representing gold‑cash and jewelry, were returned to the husband during the second marriage. As the wife’s counter‑gift reestablishes therefore a situation of financial equilibrium within the marriage, the husband now owed something to his wife: it was as if, indeed, she came to her second marriage with her own dowry, which, ironically, was originally her husband’s investments for the sake of their being together.

27Trust and reputation come right in between the selling of the jewelry and the car. Even though such flow in the narrative might have been purely coincidental, it nevertheless detects major concerns in such patriarchal societies, one where the flow of goods and persons is regulated by trust and reputation. As reputation is gender oriented, the trust that a man places in his wife is different from the trust that he receives from his family and friends. Thus, in the case of Buthayna, having, by her own account, developed a reputation for promiscuous behavior, her in‑laws distrusted her, disapproved of her remarriage, pregnancy, and her ownership of the car and jewelry. Faced by a much younger and flirtatious wife, Rashīd for his part developed a reputation of an old and weak man, an immature character who in business and at home was indecisive. Such a state of general impotence was only underscored more vividly by his parents’ claim regarding his alleged sexual impotence, namely that “he is unable to conceive children.” As soon as they have remarried, Buthayna and Rashīd were therefore confronted with a host of problems, all of which underscoring the society’s honor codes and the intransigence of its norms. The value of things mixes with that of persons, to the point where the two become indistinguishable, honoring each “commodity” both for its exchange value and the trust that it carries.

  • 17 The association seems to have been a company that clears custom duties for commodities either comin (...)

My husband proposed to sell our Peugeot 505, but I refused. He said that, “I am going to sell it so that we can live properly without embarrassment from society and people. I will pay the guarantee (kafāla) to the company, so that I can start working again.” One day he proposed his car to the sons of al‑Tahhān in street X, at a time when the director general of customs, Zakī Abū Dān, had just retired. The latter urged him not to sell the car, so that the two would unite as [business] partners. But my husband insisted to sell the car, which he did for SP325,000, and at the end of 1985 Zakī Abū Dān became my husband’s associate, and was provided with a general mandate over the company. They opened a branch in Tartūs, another one in Latakia, and a third in Bāb al‑Hawa17 through al‑Jazāʾirlī. This partnership lasted for a year, and after a long struggle and lots of pain, during the tenth month of 1986, the disagreements began between Abū Dān and my husband, the former had misappropriated my husband’s money. He told my husband that he had to pay the custom’s fund the sums of SP200,000 and SP300,000 from the profits of the company—claiming that is his right to do so. The disagreements are still there until today, prompting my husband to give mandate to the attorney Husām Shaʿbān to handle the case. My husband used to tell me, “What did I do so that life treats me that way? I feel tired and lost patience, and people look down on me.”

28Rashīd Nāṣir was probably grossly disappointed at his wife’s reputation and marriage, but, in the final analysis, it was his business that brought him down. Now that both jewelry and car were sold, the rest of the document laments on Rashīd’s gradual loss of his business. By the time we reach the partnership problems, Buthayna’s narrative becomes less ambivalent, as it shifts from the domestic to the business sphere, preparing for her husband’s downfall, which, by her own account, would lead to his eventual suicide. The problems that Rashīd experienced with his partners, however, were not unique to that adventurous group only, as they need to be contextualized within what Syria was going through back in the 1970s and 1980s, that is, the Baath’s second phase, “the corrective movement” as inaugurated by Hāfiz al‑Asad in 1970. Apparently the partnership group, nominally headed by Rashīd, used to clear for merchants commodities imported to Syria across the ports of Tartūs and Latakia, and the Turkish border point of Bāb al‑Hawa. Clearing commodities in this context implies paying all customs dues, doing all the necessary paperwork, while ensuing that the commodities are well kept in safe warehouses until their status is cleared. All such actions might seem perfectly routine, so as not to require much confusion among partners. But the whimsical nature of Syrian bureaucracy, its corrupt and slow moving pace, and the lack of a proper legal framework to handle partnerships and conflicts that individuals may encounter with state agencies, not to mention the state‑controlled economy, could transform a partnership of that kind into an adventurous ordeal, as it finally did.

29Rashīd’s choice of Abū Dān as partner was obviously not accidental. The retired ex‑customs director knew all too well the vicissitudes of the Syrian customs, and as someone who served long enough in the state bureaucracy, he was probably well aware that what mattered under such circumstances was less the company itself, its partners, and capital, than the networks that one would establish across the territory to satisfy the customers. For one thing, connections were needed with locals at the three points of Tartūs, Latakia, and Bāb al‑Hawa. For another, other connections were needed with state employees across the Syrian territory to facilitate bureaucratic labor. Abū Dān traded therefore his experience with a general mandate over the newly established company, which, based on the above account, allegedly pushed him to “borrow” more money than needed from the firm’s capital, leading to its downright bankruptcy.

30But the original connection to the Abū Dāns might have been Buthayna herself, as she mentioned earlier that, three months prior to returning to her husband, she got engaged to one from the Abū Dān family. Buthayna thus appears as the one with a web of connections, a combination of emotional and business links, for instance, to al‑Sayyid and Abū Dān, which in both instances led to investments, either on her own behalf, or on behalf of her husband. As a woman she therefore perceived herself as immersed in a hub of emotional and business relationships, the man in this case was paralyzed at home, surviving from his wife’s investments and affections—and motherly protection.

[5] He incessantly complained about his company: “I have got no work and no merchant customers.” I would respond to him with my customary patience, and I would listen to him with affection, the same affection that a mother would manifest towards her child, or an ideal wife to her husband. He gave me the freedom I needed at home, saying: “I do not have any mind and thoughts left in me. Solve on your own the problems with the kids and take care of them. I am fed up with life. It has been a year since our partnership with Zakī Abū Dān, and they authorized him to work during the happy Fitr feast.” My husband received an official notification from Damascus summoning him to close the company, unless he paid a new guarantee, or else he should pay all his dues for the previous company. He asked me to read the notification, and as soon as I read it, my nerves broke down and lost hope. So I proposed to him to sell the house, but he refused; I begged him to sell the furniture, but he refused. He said that “my home is broke.”

Crime or suicide?

31Even though the 21‑page referral report on April 1988 recommended that the suspect Buthayna Khaṭṭāb be released from jail for lack of evidence in the killing of her husband, the totality of the report was not in her favor and rather harsh on her.

32We will consider court documents, such as the one drafted by the referral judge, within the two general categories of documenting and indexing. Briefly stated, social actors are able to document what they did, or what they are doing, through linguistic communication. In so doing, they create a method aimed at describing and narrating their actions, which de facto implies indexing such actions in order to render them more palpable. The process of indexation could thus be looked upon as one of associating broad linguistic categorizations upon speech acts, whereby actors “know what they are talking about” within a particular context without the pain of explicitly stating what they are doing and talking about. From such perspective, the bulk of daily action and communication is based upon the taken for granted as expressed in speech acts. If, for instance, the researcher requests from his interviewee to clarify a particular term—say, what do you mean by “infidelity”?—the latter would in all probability find it strange that the researcher is pressing her on the meaning of such an obvious word. But to the researcher, however, it is precisely the taken for granted in the process of indexing that merits particular attention. Figuring out, therefore, what actors “mean” when they say or do something ought to be sociology’s most dignified task—but how to proceed from there? Obviously, in a direct interview, the researcher might ask his interlocutor to clarify a word, a particular statement, or a specific behavior, which is what judges normally do in a closed interview or a public hearing. But does pressing the actor for more thorough contextualizations absolve the researcher from the task of understanding? And what ought to be a researcher’s method when the interviewee is either unavailable or only available in the traces of a document, an audio or video file? For our purposes we believe that a researcher’s task does not alter significantly whether she is constructing her material from observations, interviews, videos and photographs, and field notes, or whether, as in court files, the documentation is the work of others.

  • 18 Anselm L. Strauss, Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 20 (...)

33But while approving the practices of documenting, indexing, and contextualizing as important sociological tools for the construction of social reality, we need to supplement them with additional analytical tools for our analysis of court documents. In what follows, I will borrow some of the categories proposed by Anselm L. Strauss for “qualitative analysis”18 for the sake of adapting them to criminal court documents.

34Data collection. The finding and gathering—or generating—of materials that the researcher would then analyze. As the dossier already contains what is needed, that is, all what served for the final verdict, hence no “outside” material would be necessary (personal interviews or extra documents): we are proceeding with exactly the same material that lawyers and judges had at their disposal. Even though I have extensively conducted interviews with judges, lawyers, and staff from the Palace of Justice, they will only provide insights into the general procedural matters as the interviews did not for the most part cover specific cases.

35Experiential data. Data “in the head,” drawn from the researcher’s personal, research, and literature‑reading experiences.

36Coding. The general term for conceptualizing data; thus, coding includes raising questions and giving provisional answers (hypotheses) about categories and about their relations. A code is the term for any product of this analysis (whether a category or a relation among two or more categories).

37Dimensionalizing. A basic operation of making distinctions, whose products are dimensions and subdimensions.

38Category. Since any distinction comes from dimensionalizing, those distinctions would lead to categories. For example, the difference between a premeditated (ʿamd) and deliberate killing (qaṣd) is one of those categorizations that is explicitly stated in the Syrian penal code (articles 533 and 535). The guilt or innocence of a suspect notwithstanding, what actors normally do is a full documentation of the crime, so as to narrate what they would consider as premeditation or deliberate killing. Categories such as premeditated and deliberate killing are empty signifiers unless they are properly documented by the actors. Obviously, the process of documentation varies from one actor to another, and a criminal dossier would typically look like a Faulknerian tale documented from myriad perspectives. However, the categories themselves are simply words that do not mean much per se, until someone bothers to attach the abstract category to a concrete event (e.g. a homicide). Moreover, since both the involved actors and the researcher proceed by categories (even though they are neither necessarily identical nor even similar), which in themselves are levels of coding and differentiation between events, the researcher’s prime task, however, consists at categorizing the categories of the actors through a relational questioning of their pertinence to the case in question. For example, in our case here, the frequently recurring categories of fidelity‑infidelity are of prime importance, but they are neither documented in the same way by actors, nor do they receive the same degree of pertinence, in particular among judicial instances (judges, lawyers, police, plaintiffs, defendants and suspects). One should therefore relate (or associate) each document with its authorial source, only to see whether the process of categorizing and documenting shifts from one source to another.

39Consider how the referral judge described the relationship between Buthayna and her husband, on one hand, and alleged lover on the other. Referring, for instance, to the 1981 divorce episode, he notes that,

  • 19 Initially, the brother was a suspect with his sister, presumably for being an accomplice to the cri (...)

The causes of divorce were the outcome of the defendant’s [Buthayna] bad behavior, and what the tongues said about her. The victim had for his part, prior to divorcing his wife, treated her extremely well, offering her all what she needed, with overwhelming affection. But despite all the affection and care, she used to receive all that with complete denial and disavowal, until the divorce materialized and they separated. During that time, and more precisely on 24 October 1981, when all people knew of her bad reputation and immoral behavior, once she became free in her behavior and movements, thanks to her brother the defendant Muhammad Salīm Khaṭṭāb who used to work at the ice cream factory of Hamīd al‑Sayyid for some time,19 she did pay visits to her brother’s workplace, where she finally met the witness Hamīd al‑Sayyid. Their acquaintance (maʿrifa) with one another has evolved in a long enough time… The acquaintance did develop into a solid relationship (ʿalāqa waṭīda), which eventually encouraged her to deposit a sum of money with Hamīd al‑Sayyid, so that he would invest it and reap some benefits. During the three‑year divorce, the relationship between her and al‑Sayyid persevered, prompting people’s tongues to gossip about it.

40The key issue at stake was the nature of the alleged “relationship” between the defendant Buthayna and Hamīd al‑Sayyid. Since both had denied under oath, on more than one occasion (when interrogated by an investigating judge, and then at the court hearings), that they were ever involved in any “love relationship” (ʿalāqa gharāmiyya), the judge’s allegations for “bad reputation” and innuendos of a “solid relationship” between the two was only based on hearsay and the statements of some witnesses, which for the most part were left without substantiation. Thus, even though the judge did not explicitly suggest that the relationship was of a “sexual” nature, he nevertheless paved the way for such an assertion; his report would become meaningless without such unproved allegations. In sum, if evidence is a claim that must be substantiated by a judicial authority, then a great deal of the judge’s claims would not count as evidence. Consider, for instance, how Buthayna’s “reputation” turned into a direct target in the first few lines of the report. By simply going over the labeling categories in the judge’s narrative, one can see that by shifting from one undefined category to another, the judge leaves much that is taken for granted:

  1. bad behavior
  2. bad reputation
  3. immoral behavior
  4. gossip (referred to as “people talking with their tongues”)
  5. denial and disavowal
  6. acquaintance (maʿrifa)
  7. solid relationship (ʿalāqa waṭīda)

41The key point here was the concluding assertion of a “solid relationship” between Buthayna and Hamīd, considering that claims of “bad behavior,” “bad reputation,” and “immoral behavior,” were all dropped in the narrative without anything to substantiate them—except for the anonymous “gossip” of all those “people” that were knowledgeable of the situation. Then, all of a sudden, and in the three‑year divorce period, a date is set—24 October 1981—which provides the narrative with the false self‑assurance it badly needs. But this date apparently only refers to Buthayna’s first‑time visit to al‑Sayyid’s factory; hence there was no evidence of anything else—in particular regarding the nature of the relationship between the two. In short, the judge in his 1–7 categorizations was as biased as his witnesses, providing no references on the origins of his speculations. Indeed, the lack of referencing places the narrative at the mercy of the judge, while the success of its survival is solely in his hands.

  • 20 It remains unclear why it took close to three years for the marriage to be confirmed by a sharīʿa c (...)

Due to the growing up of the children and their becoming conscious, and their father’s desire to prepare them for the future, he made the decision to bring his wife back to him, remarrying her on 14 July 1984, an act that was certified in a sharīʿa court on 1 February 1987.20 Happiness resettled at the marital home. But after a while the defendant went back to her bad behavior. She went back to visit the farm of the witness Hamīd al‑Sayyid, with which she was accused of being in a relationship, with her children, and with the approval of her husband and her sons‑in‑law who were married to her daughters Hind and Hadīl. The defendant kept visiting that witness with her daughters, which led the witness Ahmad Ṭālāl Shihābī, Hadīl’s husband, to become suspicious. He was suspicious of his mother‑in‑law, the defendant Buthayna, and her daughters, including his wife Hadīl. He thought that the relationship of his mother‑in‑law and his wife with the witness Hamīd al‑Sayyid was not natural (ghayr ṭabīʿiyya). With all his doubts and suspicions, [Shihābī] started to accompany his brother‑in‑law, the witness Muhammad Haytham, who used to go with his friends to al‑Sayyid’s farm.

  • 21 The Syrian penal code, in conjunction with other codes on the eastern Mediterranean, penalizes all (...)

42The narrative maintained the motto of the victimization of the victim, prior to his effectively becoming a victim. Actually, since the victim was gone, the reasons that pushed him towards divorce and, three years later, for a remarriage, remain a matter of speculation. The “suspicious” visits of Buthayna—now in the company of her daughters and other children—to Hamīd’s farm are documented based on the son‑in‑law’s testimony. The latter described the “relationship” that his mother‑in‑law and wife were having with al‑Sayyid as “not natural.”21 But we remain in the dark, however, as to what such an assertion effectively implies, and more importantly, how the witness did find out about the alleged “sexual” nature of the relationship—or how the allegation materialized into fact. In sum, the judge’s narrative goes hand‑in‑hand with the common “street speculation” regarding Buthayna’s and her daughters’ undisclosed “affairs” at the al‑Sayyid’s farm. The only missing link here was that of the possibility of a “sexual relationship,” and the euphemisms that were used in the testimonies and reports—such as “an unnatural relationship,” or “a close (solid) relationship”—only add to the speculation. When the unusually big file was made available to me in the summer of 1994, just after the criminal court had issued its third revised ruling, I was told by the court’s scribe that “this is a case of a woman who was prostituting herself and letting her daughters work for money.” It all amounted to whether the court, faced with an emotionally charged case, could effectively delineate the juridical from street speculation. Note that even if the nature of the “relationships” that Buthayna and her daughters were going through at the farm were of a “sexual” nature, it would still have been a long stretch, from a legal point of view, to be able to causally link them directly to the suicide‑cum‑murder.

  • 22 Notice the use of “behavior” or “path” (maslak) rather than “reputation” (sumʿa), even though it wa (...)

Fifteen days before the crime, the victim Rashīd traveled on his own for business. The defendant profited from the occasion, and went with her daughters, with the knowledge of her son‑in‑law and witness Ahmad Ṭālāl al‑Shihābī, to the farm of Abū ʿAbdo al‑Sayyid. It also seems that the aforementioned witness regretted granting permission to his wife Hadīl to accompany her mother to the farm. He went to the farm, loudly arguing with them, urging his wife Hadīl to return home and cut her relationship with her mother, because she has been following her mother’s path.22 But Hadīl went against his advice and stood by her mother. Things eventually got complicated between Hadīl and Buthayna, and by the time the victim was back home, the witness al‑Shihābī had informed him of the incident…and of his mother‑in‑law’s reputation, apropos behaviors (taṣarrufāt) and acts (afʿāl) that are immoral, that she had encouraged her daughters, including Hadīl, to follow the same rotten path. He even unsuccessfully pushed his wife for an abortion, fearing that she was pregnant from someone else.

43Statements regarding Buthayna’s “immoral” behavior fell short of explicitly accusing her of a liaison of a sexual nature with al‑Sayyid or someone else. Such alleged liaisons, however, regarding not only Buthayna, but also at least one of her daughters, were based for the most part on the account of a single witness, who happened to be the defendant’s son‑in‑law. Notwithstanding the conflict of interests among family members, the judge looked at the pre‑crime confusing period with a great deal of self‑indulgence, posing as fact what was at best an assertion, and looking at the defendant’s alleged “infidelities” as the motif du crime. In effect, the judge’s indulgence to trash the defendant would be incomprehensible were it not for the three pages that describe, in some detail, the night and morning of the crime: the wife’s “infidelities” pushed her to possibly conspire with both her “lover” and his employee (the defendant’s brother), or at least with one of them, to kill her husband in order to free herself from her marital duties. As the victim was in a dire financial situation, an argument that would have focused on his inheritance would not have paid off, so the judge hammered the infidelity thesis instead, hoping to pin down on “motive.” Notice how the defendant, in her auto‑biographical document, furnished evidence of a suicidal behavior based on her husband’s poor financial record and his insecure personality. One can see that between the court and the defendant it was, indeed, a story of two diverging tales: one that focused on infidelity versus one that sought for the material conditions of a marriage relationship.

44The lingering issue was, of course, that of suicide. Consider, for example, the referral judge’s conclusion on the suicide‑murder issue.

  • 23 There was an unsubstantiated claim by one of the witnesses that Salīm had worked as a sniper to the (...)

The investigation was unable to disclose how the 9‑mm gun, which was legally owned by the husband with a permit, ended in the defendant’s hands. What is certain is that, as an outcome to the strong dispute between them, one shot was fired when they were both in the living room, and when all doors and windows were closed. The bullet hit the victim on the middle of his forehead, left the skull on the rear side, and finally hit the wall behind, leaving a small hole. The victim died at once. The victim was therefore either killed by his wife Buthayna or by her brother Salīm Khaṭṭāb, the latter is known for his bad behavior and temper, and poor reputation, having been a sniper,23 with a criminal past, but there is still no final evidence against him…

I am convinced that it was not a suicide. Considering that the bullet entered the forefront right in its middle, the victim, had he committed suicide, should have held his gun with a great deal of mastery in the situation he was into…We should note that the coroner indicated in his autopsy that it was a suicide and not a murder, based on his own assumptions. Then there was the three‑panel expertise, which in its report found evidence, which was not fully certain, that the victim might have committed suicide, for reasons that were discussed in the report, but there is nothing final in their findings. But with all due respect to medical opinion, we were not convinced that what was stated in either reports [was correct], considering that it would be impossible for someone to commit suicide while pulling the trigger in the middle of his forehead…

Moreover, what is most puzzling is the defendant’s behavior in pulling the gun from below the victim’s body, washing it, and then placing it back where it was. Having erased all fingerprints, it is now impossible to see who was holding the gun. Had they been only the victim’s fingerprints, we would have known that he committed suicide…

Evidence is therefore sufficient to accuse the defendant of deliberately killing (qatl qaṣd) her husband based on article 533 of the penal code. …

45Rebuffing medical uncertainties, opting for his own personal evaluation, the judge recommended a long sentence, but not the death penalty. Needless to say, in its first ruling on December 1988, the criminal court would follow suit. The typed sixteen‑page report, however, was much shorter than the referral report at narrating the case from its beginnings, avoiding details of the defendant’s alleged infidelities. Thus, the section on “facts” contained very little beyond the alleged crime itself and its aftermath, which could be looked upon as progress, as it focuses more on the legal and less on social innuendos. But that did not prevent the court from ascribing to the same referral views.

It seems that the husband remained in the living room, to which he would enter from the dining room. The wife came to him with his own gun, and shot him once in the forefront, damaging his brain, and leaving him dead on the floor. The bullet left a mark on the wall. She then left the gun on the left side of the body.

When the accused woke up in the morning, she requested from her daughters to prepare the coffee, and then went in the direction of the living room to bring cigarettes. As soon as she opened the door, she said, while pretending not to know, O Rashīd, what did you do to yourself? The girls came in, and the wife picked up the gun from the left side of the body, gave it to her daughter Hāzār to wash it from the blood, prior to placing it on the right side. She then called the police and family members. She also called Hamīd al‑Sayyid who urged her to leave everything as it was.

When interrogated by the police, she claimed that her husband Rashīd pulled the gun at her, threatening to kill her. While she held his hand and pushed it towards the ceiling, a bullet was shot, which hit him right on the front. Later on, she denied such scenario, claiming that her husband committed suicide…

46The criminal court did not therefore budge from the set of premises that the referral judge had already inaugurated. In the meantime, in the few months that separated the two reports, some evidence came up in favor of the court’s thesis. A quintuple medical committee, the second of its kind, argued in July 1988 that there were no signs of suicide on the body, and even though one doctor refused to endorse the report, hence blocking unanimity, the court looked favorably at its findings.

47In the final section entitled “discussion and legal practice,” the court described the crux of the case’s main argument as the ability to determine whether the husband committed suicide or was killed. Having listed in the previous pages 25 factual items, consisting mostly of contradictory and unsubstantiated witnesses’ accounts, the court nevertheless manifested a special interest in the three medical reports: by narrowing evidence to its medical, that is, scientific, aspect, the court was hoping to be more persuasive. But was it?

48The quintuple medical report was obviously now the main focus, and the court argued that

it did not find that the findings of the quintuple committee were in any way contradictory to that of the previous tripartite committee or to that of the coroner for that matter, considering that there were similarities in their findings. Thus, the tripartite committee was uncertain about suicide, because it considered that suicide, under the conditions in which the body was found, would have been, indeed, unusual and rare. The committee noted that someone committing suicide would normally point the gun towards his temple, whereas the bullet entered the victim’s forefront right in its middle, making it difficult for the person to hold the gun properly.

49The report then begins to quote manuals in forensic medicine. From the varieties of Arabic medical sources that the report extensively quotes, the court concluded that the position of the hand proves as the key element in suicide:

The forensic doctors and scientific authorities describe that in a state of suicide the nervous actor tends to hold the gun in a contracted way, so that the gun remains in his hand, while in our case the gun was near the body. Medical XE "Index:evidence" evidence to establish suicide is, therefore, clearly lacking, and all the material facts [claiming suicide] are in effect contrary to medical evidence and expertise, whether those of the aforementioned committees or the scientific sources. We therefore establish that the incident was a crime rather than a suicide…

50Now the court has to find out who did it. Going through the facts of the case, the court argued that the washing of the gun the morning of the incident was perhaps the main indication that the defendant wanted to erase once and for all traces of her crime. The defendant, according to the court, only faked the morning after in the presence of her daughters, claiming that she had just discovered the body. She then changed repeatedly the substance of her statements, and even though the court admitted that the defendant seems to have been beaten up at the police station when she was first arrested (more on that below), “that would not change anything, because the defendant did not confess to the policemen of killing her husband.”

51The court concluded that it was fully convinced that the defendant did kill her husband, and that it was a deliberate killing (qaṣd) based on article 533 of the penal code, but the punishment, which in principle should have been 15 to 20 years with hard labor, was mitigated to take into consideration the special situation of the family and the general pardon law number 11 of 1988. The court also summoned the defendant that she should refund SP150,000 of damages to the victim’s family, and that she herself would not count among the heirs because she was implicated in the killing.

52As the defendant and her lawyers appealed the ruling, it was revoked on April 1989 by the Damascus Naqḍ on the following grounds:

  1. “The court’s majority, which drafted the ruling, had serious doubts on the veracity of the appellant’s claims, inferring that the contradictory statements are a source of suspicion in her behavior, because she was attempting to divert all accusations from her.” The court then added that “all such evidence points with certainty that the defendant was the one who killed her husband.”
  2. “When a crime of this kind is condemned, it has implications for an entire family, and could have serious repercussions, which means that the conviction should not be based on doubts and presuppositions, but only on decisiveness and certainty.”
  3. “The [erratic] behavior [of the appellant] could be a way to hide the true criminal, in particular if the crime was of a deliberate nature.”
  4. The court’s ruling should be revoked because it was not grounded on hard evidence.”

53Notice how the Damascus Naqḍ endorsed the view in the first point that there was “certainty” that the defendant did kill her husband, while simultaneously revoking the Jināyāt ruling in the fourth. The “certainty” here alludes to a set of evidentiary facts which suggest that the defendant did, if (and only if) such facts were taken for granted, murder her husband; but, looking at all evidence in toto, the court judged that all evidence is “soft.” A year after the murder, it boiled down to whether the victim did commit suicide, or else he was murdered; in case he was murdered, either the wife did it on her own, or else she managed it with an accomplice. Both scenarios question the trajectory of the bullet: since the wife was shorter than the husband, could she have fired a bullet in the middle of her husband’s forefront, while the husband was standing in front of her? What if he was sitting on a chair? The question then amounts to: What is it that judges consider as enough evidence? How is evidence constructed, transmitted from one report to another? How is it approved by lawyers, judges, and the upper courts? It essentially gets down to strategy, the ability to construct evidence, rebuff claims, convince, and even to manipulate. In sum, the Damascus Naqḍ claimed that the facts, as presented by the Aleppo Jināyāt, did not stand up for scrutiny. It therefore reduced that urge to find the defendant guilty of murder with the (insufficient) evidence against her.

54Consider, for example, how the Jināyāt handled allegations of torture and abuse, which as a rule and under the law are forbidden. Thus, even though the Naqḍ has over the years reiterated, in various rulings, that acknowledgments (iqrār) accumulated under torture and duress do not per se constitute evidence unless actors reiterate their statements in the publicity of a court, the Jināyāt by contrast were never trenchant on the issue, opting for a textual approach: do allegations of torture make sense when we read the contradictory statements on paper? As allegations of torture, intimidation, duress, and psychological abuse by the police surface in the defense memos, the Jināyāt would typically go for a hands‑off approach.

55On October 1988, one of the defense counsels forwarded to the criminal court what he described as scenes of abuse perpetrated by the police towards his client and her children.

  • 24 Report by Khalid al‑Khatib to the criminal court, October 3, 1988, p. 1.

The accused was driven to the police station and her freedom was put on hold for four consecutive days at the station’s jail with her daughters and sons, the adults and the very young. She was denied any legal help, and the judge who should have investigated the matter instead of doing the investigation by himself, left it to the police to examine [the accused] and her children. They were all beaten up and the children were tortured in front of their mother. When she was finally interrogated by the investigating judge, she was given no opportunity to seek legal help from any lawyer because the interrogation took place at the police station, right in front of the policemen who tortured her with her children. It should be noted that what was done with the accused and her children goes back to old practices from the Middle Ages when the suspect was driven to torture before the trial.24

56The lawyer in question even found it useful to provide a brief survey of the history of torture in medieval and early modern Europe, hoping in his comparative analysis to point out that the whole rationale behind torture is already dépassé.

  • 25 Georges Lamoine, “Une procédure criminelle en Angleterre au xviiie siècle,” IAHCCJ Bulletin, 20 (Sp (...)

57History points to the fact that torture was a means to extract a confession in ancient times. Torture was used in the Middle Ages as a means to extract a confession, and this was true in both the “accusatorial system,” common in England and America, and the French “inquisitorial and investigative system.”25 Confessions used to be extracted through torture, but that notwithstanding, they used to be accepted by the justice system. In what became a common method of torture, the accused used to be transferred from his prison cell to a dark underground cave and thrown half naked over his back; a heavy metal was placed over his body, and he was fed with only rotten bread and stinking water until he confessed or lost all resistance.

58It was only in the court’s third and final 1994 ruling, however, that the question of torture was mentioned on two separate occasions:

It came out from the [defendant’s] interview [by the investigating judge] on 11 October 1987, that her statements to the police were the result of physical torture (section 9, p. 4).

It was reported by the witness of the defense, Muhammad Saʿid al‑Farra, that he saw the accused at the police station, during the incident [of physical torture], lying on the floor, while the policemen were hitting her with a stick. He then heard voices of women screaming and weeping, only to discover that one of them was the voice of the accused Buthayna who was screaming and weeping. He also saw a policeman hitting her on the face (section 21, pp. 8–9).

59As we pointed out earlier, even though the court acknowledged the witness’ statements as evidence, it quickly rebuffed them as “irrelevant” to the outcome of the case, namely in terms of its framing of the crime as a murder rather than suicide. What is of interest is how torture is constructed solely for evidentiary purposes: either it serves at getting the “truth” out of the tortured person’s mouth, or else it is irrelevant; more importantly, and from the perspective of the criminal court, even if what a suspect had delivered under torture turns out to be “true,” its validity is only relevant to the particular context of the final ruling. In sum, the court does not have to worry much about police torture because most of what suspects and witnesses deliver under torture might be anyhow irrelevant for the purposes of drafting a verdict.

60A defense counsel, having made his point on the historical uses of torture, now muses on the validity of statements under torture: “even the claim that the defendant’s statements at the police station are genuine confessions (iʿtirāf) seems superfluous and untrue,” considering that “the fact that these statements were delivered under torture, duress, physical, mental, and emotional abuse, makes them invalid.” And in conclusion: “The accused has never delivered any confession (iʿtirāf) to justice (al‑qaḍāʾ) at any point.” What the defense lawyer is clearly alluding to is the opinions of the cassation court which have clearly stated that statements delivered to the police, whether under duress or not, unless are reiterated verbatim in the presence of a court of law have absolutely no legal validity. But the lawyer’s pleas, however, bring some confusion, at least when he assumes that “confession” is a legally accepted category, which clearly it is not. In the same way that statements delivered to the police have no legal validity per se unless reverberated under a court of law, the same applies to a confession, which, to wit, is different from admission (the latter is in principle an outcome of an interview). The lawyer then exemplifies his position in alleged statements by the accused regarding who was holding the gun, and in which position it was when the shot was fired. Various cassation court rulings are quoted and interpreted:

  • 26 The numbers and cassation rulings are based on the encyclopedic compilation of Anas Kilani.

[886] “A confession is interpreted only from what it provides, in particular if the investigation does not encourage a wider interpretation contrary to what the confessor had stated [1952 ruling].”26 In other words, a confession (or an admission) should only be interpreted within its own context of the moment, unless the investigation has widened enough, so as to invalidate (infirm) the suspect‑witness based on contradictory statements from other sources.

[879] “A direct confession (iʿtirāf fawrī), which has been later denied, cannot be taken into consideration unless it has been supported by other evidence [1977 ruling].” Quite often suspects and witnesses deny in toto, in the presence of an investigating judge, what they had stated earlier to the police, which was the case of Buthayna’s statements.

[867] “The court should widen its investigation in order to document the veracity of a confession [1953 ruling].” It is not enough that, for instance, a suspect‑witness repeats his statements under various circumstances (police interrogation or a court hearing), because such an attitude could be a way to conceal the true nature of the crime, or it could be the outcome of duress.

[877] “Statements should be disregarded if made under duress or fear, when the person interrogated was watching a friend tortured or intimidated, because it is considered as an act of personal humiliation [1976 ruling].”

61Notice how the issue of confession comes at the forefront mainly in relation to physical and mental (emotional) abuse. There are undeniably plenty of provisions in the penal code that discuss the nature of evidence, but when confession serves as evidence, and when admission becomes an element of truth, and when both are an outcome of torture, then they indeed have a particular salience to them. As the construction of evidence implies patience and hard work, why not perform some of that work on the body itself—in a direct brutal way? Truth is supposed to emerge through labor, and through a disciplinary violence that one exercises over one’s body.

62In the seven‑page auto‑biographical document, which was our original point of inquiry, each statement is supposed to carry Buthayna’s own “voice.” Written in a first‑person singular, and mixing colloquial (in its Aleppo brand) with official Arabic, the document sounds like a woman in her forties, worried about her seven kids, material properties (car, jewelry, gold, and some cash), and obviously worried about being the major suspect in a criminal case. But the court did not seem to have vested much interest in the document. Instead, the third‑person narration of the court attributes to suspects and witnesses voices, motivations, and statements, which they may or may not have uttered, all interpreted in such a way to fit well within the court’s ruling. In the Syrian system, voices of suspects and witnesses are hard to come through, in particular that they are neither taped, nor recorded verbatim on paper. The third‑person narration is therefore there from the beginning, from the moment the police begins to transcribe, paraphrase, and summarize in official Arabic; or when the investigating judge interviews his witnesses, only to write depositions where the original statements have been transformed into formalized questions‑and‑answers; or when the chief judge, in his court hearings, has every once and a while to interrupt his interview, in order to dictate his scribe a summary of what he is doing. Worse still, and what probably adds to the ventriloquism of all those depositions, memos, and reports, is the absence of cross‑examination within the system, as the investigating judge and the courts reign supreme when it comes to constructing evidence and telling us what happened. In short, what the system lacks is that free indirect style, where the judge attempts, like a novelist, to find an authorial voice for his protagonists.

Anatomy of a confession: the unwritten law of abuse

  • 27 Royal S. Brown, “Anatomy of a Murder,” Cineaste, XXXVII(3), Summer 2012, 52–3.

63In Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) retorts in court when the subject of “unwritten law” was brought up by his client, a soldier who murdered a man who had allegedly raped his wife, that “there is no such thing as the unwritten law.”27 That may be, but the written law, as presented in Anatomy of a Murder, is open to such miniscule points of interpretation that it might just as well be unwritten. In the case analyzed in this chapter, for example, we know for sure that the father had locked in a bathroom his teenage daughter for a couple of years, with allegations of having tied her up for that period, but beyond such factualities, is it possible to root for conviction simply on the basis of “restricting another person’s freedom,” pursuant to specific articles in the penal code? Is conviction—or acquittal—possible without an interpretation of the father’s obstinate behavior towards his daughter? Essentially, if the law comes down on one area, then it comes up completely short in one or more other areas. That is why in our triadic approach between the logic of narration, juridical sociology, and psychoanalysis, readers may be left unsatisfied that justice has been done, one way or the other, or that we are doing justice to the cases at hand.

64How for a single event narrated over time and in different contexts, would the narrative shift from a speaker–author to an alternate subject of enunciation? In a police deposition, for instance, the suspect is generally placed in an unpleasant situation of being accused of crime, while evidence is not fully there yet. More importantly, however, is that the subjects of enunciation are not free to narrate whatever they please, as they would be typically constrained within a question‑answer format, which are then paraphrased and summarized, prior to their transcription in a report. Moreover, as suspects and witnesses routinely accuse police of brutality, it goes without saying that a suspect, during his or her police interrogation, may have uttered things not on their minds. The situation would change when that same suspect is, only few days later, in the sanctity of the palace of justice, facing a judge in his or her office: once the exchange turns over from person to person, without physical duress, utterances may take a different route from the ones delivered earlier at a police station. Imagine now a situation in which that same suspect finds himself in prison, while his case has been dragging on for over a year with no end in sight. In the solitude of his prison cell he drafts a letter to the chief judge asking him for mercy, that same judge which had been mercilessly interviewing him repeatedly in open public hearings in the presence of other judges, lawyers, and the public at large. Each one of those settings constitutes in itself a situated encounter in which the user interacts with one or more users, and in which his cognitive faculties are deployed to tackle the specific situation at hand. In our case here, for instance, our suspect may be claiming his “innocence” from day one, but as there is no such thing as “innocence” per se, decontextualized of any encounter, we, as researchers, need to see how the notion of “innocence” develops from one situated encounter to another. Speech‑act theory has taught us not to look at utterances simply in terms of their content—what they have to say—but also in terms of their performative side—how was it said, and under which circumstances. In similar vein, we cannot simply look at a legal case in terms of the content of arguments that were furnished by all parties, but also, if not mainly, based on the situated encounter through which such contents came into existence. In other words, there is no content without the situated encounter that made it possible.

I admit that I was abusive towards my teenage daughter, but does that make me look like a criminal worthy of incarceration?

65 [C4–2] In our second case from Aleppo, our suspect was a mid‑aged dad who, upon his second marriage, had locked his teenage daughter from his first marriage, continuously for a couple of years in the bathroom of his apartment. One day, while the family was out, the girl burned the bathroom door and managed to escape. One of the neighbors found the girl in a nearby lobby in a terrible condition, as she looked sick and unable to walk properly. She took her to a doctor who examined her, then to a hospital, finally reported her to the police a couple of weeks later. The father was then arrested amid the police’s visit to the hospital, and upon receiving the first testimony from the girl herself. Because the facts are simple enough, we can focus on their contents and modes of delivery, beginning with the father’s statements, as delivered under various constraints. It is the mode of delivery that is crucial for our purposes here.

66The date of the arrest goes back to December 1996, a couple of weeks after the girl had burned the bathroom door and managed to escape. As is customary, the arrest was followed that same evening by various depositions from witnesses and the suspect himself, which led to the police report—the very beginnings of a newly established case‑file. The police noted in its introductory remarks that the suspect Mahmud Hallaq was arrested that day “for having locked his fifteen‑year old daughter in the bathroom of his home for three years, which led to a damage in her bones and a deterioration in her health.” As is customary in police memos, the suspect’s deposition came at the very end, amid those delivered and signed by other witnesses.

My name is Mahmud b. ʿAbdullah Hallaq, born in 1954, an inhabitant of Aleppo, and currently a resident of the Sayf al‑Dawla neighborhood, Zanubiya Street, close to the mosque…I am in the clothing retail business…Ten years ago I divorced my wife with whom I have two children, Sahar and Wasim. I then married Mayyadah, who took care of the children as if they were her own. Soon after that their divorced mum started to create an atmosphere of hatred between my two kids and my second wife. My son Wasim, however, managed not to get affected. But my daughter Sahar used to run away from home repeatedly, then from school on several occasions. At times I used to search for her in police stations, and on occasions that is where I did find her. Even when our door was locked, she managed to escape from the balcony. At one point she was arrested and placed in a prison for minors. I panicked and locked her in the bathroom roughly three years ago, in fear of my XE "Index:honor" honor (ʿirḍ) and my reputation (sumʿa), as I travel a lot. I used to free her as soon as I would come back from my travels, only to place her in a separate room. I used to bring her food in person, several meals a day, the same food that the rest of us ate. My [second] wife Mayyadah never interfered in all this, as I was the one who locked her up in the bathroom. 25 days before I was arrested, I came back home and saw smoke inside the apartment. I realized that the bathroom door had a hole into it, and that my daughter had escaped. I started a search and inquired with the neighbors, to no avail. I was not aware that her health was deteriorating. The only thing that I recall was that she did not like to sit at home. On one occasion she had left to her mother’s home, stole money there, prior to coming back on her own. I only locked her up out of safety, not knowing that her health would deteriorate in such manner. I regret what I had done, and I am ready to take care of her and get her back to me. I guarantee you I will not repeat my previous mistakes.

67The woman who claimed she picked up Sahar 25 days earlier in her own building lobby, said she found her in a filthy condition, was unable to walk, and was crawling on the floor. She took her up to her apartment, gave her a bath, kept her and fed her for 20 days. Her brother‑in‑law then informed the police, and in the meantime they had managed to get the father’s phone number: “When we called him and told him that your daughter is here with us, he swiftly replied, ‘Leave her there!,’ prior to hanging up.” She was transferred to the Kindi hospital where the police picked her up and summoned the father for an interview.

68The 15‑year old daughter stated to the police the day they came to pick her up from her hospital bed:

For the last three years my dad has been locking me up in the bathroom of our apartment located in the neighborhood of Sayf al‑Dawla, because I used to run away often from home. I have been maltreated both by my father and his wife Mayyadah. They used to throw at me what was left of their food, and at times they locked me up in the toilet. 25 days ago, when no one was at home, I placed a cloth damped with oil underneath the bathroom door and set it on fire. Part of the door burned, I broke it with a mop stick, and ran away, hoping that I would go to my grandmother’s home. But a lady found me in the lobby of a nearby building, took me to her home, offered me food and sheltered me for 20 days. I place myself as a personal plaintiff against my father Mahmud Hallaq who has locked me up.

69On two different occasions, both left undated, the father, from his prison cell, addressed himself first to the chief judge, then to Aleppo’s attorney general. Even though both letters were handwritten, hence pointing to a personalized mode of communication, the differences in handwriting are nevertheless visible enough to suggest at least that he got some help either from inside or outside the prison, but the type of help remains uncertain: Were the letters dictated and polished in the process, or did they receive more substantial revisions? But whether the defendant received substantial coaching or very little, the two documents were nevertheless included in the case‑file, hence part of that organic whole which is the totality of the “file,” and upon which the final verdict rested. A final point before we go further: auto‑biographical statements, which are usually stated in personal memos addressed to judges, lawyers, friends and relatives, and which make it to the dossier, maintain an ambiguous relation to the totality of the case. As such, they do not in principle constitute any “evidence” per se: that is, factual evidence that the court would deem relevant. Written in a personal style, and addressed to a big Other authority figure, they tend to surreptitiously offer plea bargains of some kind.

Your honor, the wise chief judge, which I humbly seek your generous spirit and forbearance.

  • 28 All ellipses are in the original Arabic handwritten text.

Is it possible that a grand judge gets affected by the narrow ethos of a prisoner crucified in his mind and body, waiting for a court session in the hope that the case will advance and that his fate would be determined…28 But then when the session was due, it turned up sterile, simply because the witnesses were not present, and the one responsible for bringing the girl did not do so. But, if the judge’s spirit and forbearance have no place for me, who would then listen to me? The counsel neither discusses nor does anything, and does not even feel what is going on with a prisoner who is like dead in his prison exile, and separated from his kids, home, and humanity.

  • 29 In the main courtroom of the Aleppo Jināyāt, the accused are driven by the police from their prison (...)
  • 30 The first “I beg you” seems to have been added to the margin either later, or as a form of emphasis
  • 31 The reference here is to the woman who has seen the daughter crawling in the lobby of her apartment (...)

Your honor, the judge: I have been arrested for nine months now…What is the big crime that I did really commit… My daughter is from my flesh and blood, and no one would protect the reputation of a minor but me. Is it that I failed as a father? I have tried all kinds of solutions for nine years of suffering and gave up, but all my attempts of giving advice, education, and understanding have failed…What crime did I commit that now puts me in jail with other criminals, standing in the caged box of the criminal court,29 for the simple reason that I have prevented my daughter from running free in the streets. Would it have been better had my case been handled in a civil court, while placed under the supervision of a social worker who would have helped me go through all this…But putting me behind bars in a criminal court with my daughter’s knowledge [amām ibnatī: in front (in the presence) of my daughter] was certainly not the right decision!!! Which daughter would then respect her dad after that, amid standing in front of him, while in a position of a criminal behind bars, but which home would bring her back to me, with all the needed love and affection, after the humiliations that I have been through. I beg you, I beg you30 to consider my human condition, you the wise great judge, one who has absorbed the case of a suffering inmate, whose condition has betrayed him in his role of father. Were not you the one who said, why is this case here with me…If it were not for me, then it should be for the sake of my small kids…Your honor, the judge, the impact of the accusation now in your hands is far greater than its facts…That is the interest of those strangers (ghurabāʾ) who have imposed themselves on me and my daughter who [accidentally] came in their way. It is that woman who made it clear that she would marry [my daughter] to her nephew (her sister’s son), an impotent divorcé, without revealing that she would use her for house work, and then she received help from a doctor who was a friend of her, drafting a medical report on her behalf, and pushing my daughter away from me.31 There is, however, another report in your hands from Dr. Hamidah, clarifying that [my daughter] is fully recovering—a month after I was arrested. You advise me to appeal the report, but is not the official report of Dr. Hamidah enough…And now the girl is in the hands of the observation section, and the committee of the prisoners, and is being trained to become a nurse in the Badrakhan hospital. That is what they do now with a girl to make her independent, so that she does what she pleases. The father is for his part destroyed and imprisoned, his home and work have been damaged…What should I say to God, considering that you are the one who orders, and you are the wise person. I beg you to release me from prison, so I can take care of my kids, get them back to school, having spent an entire year away from them, and I am ready to stand on bail for any sum that you would decide. I would come back to you whenever the court would need me. I am someone who submits to justice and God…Please accept all my sincere respects. From the arrested, Mahmud Hallaq b. ʿAbdullah.

70Considering that Mahmud was arrested in early December 1996, nine months of incarceration would indicate that he may have drafted his letter by August–September 1997. The crux of the argument is in the question, Why am I here?, which leads to that other lingering question, Should a case like mine be tried in a criminal court? Why am I criminal? There is even a suggestion that all what was needed was some form of “social counseling,” and that counseling would have been a better and more “comprehensive” alternative. The notion of counseling by a “specialist” may also hint at the possibility of an expertise of a “medical” or “psychiatric” type.

71The question raised by the defendant leads therefore to the following: What is the borderline between a civil and a criminal case? Which leads to another question: What is the borderline between normality and abnormality? Was the father insane? Should the court and its judges have taken the issue of “sanity” firsthand and examined it from the beginning? Had the father’s “sanity” been an issue, the problem would have been delegated to the medical field, so why did Hallaq’s “criminality” not step outside the boundaries of the judiciary?

72What is therefore at stake are borderlines between law, medicine, and expert social services. The accused himself was puzzled in his missive as to why he was classified as a “criminal” in the first place. Looked upon from judicial protocol the question becomes one of identifying what would fit within a strict jurisdiction of the legal, and one that would fall outside its scope. That is to say, the question that the defendant posed regarding his own status would in principle be posed by the judge: Is such a case, where the offender harmed his minor daughter intentionally, in such a way that could point to a disturbed mind, within my field of jurisdiction, or should it be passed to another jurisdiction, be it medical or social? But whether the accused would be “fit” to stand trial—on the basis that he is not insane, or mentally or emotionally handicapped—the other parallel issue is whether the case ought to be stricto sensu only within the jurisdiction of the “civil” courts, considering that the harm done was an outcome of pure “incompetence”: that is, the father, faced as he was with difficulties to control his daughter and have her respect his second marriage and be loyal to him, incarcerates her for three years, oblivious as he was to psychological and physical damages that this might incite. Would it not make more sense therefore to simply separate him from his daughter, subject him to counseling from a social expert, and even have him go trough a rigorous psychiatric exam?

  • 32 See, Chapter 1.

73The borderline between the judicial and medical has for the last two centuries encountered a troubling issue: Why would the judiciary seek medical expertise? Why would judges be willing—and at times happy to do so—to handover a case to medical authorities?32

74At some point, therefore, there is no explanation: there is nothing to understand, as what the suspect has committed has no explanation in common language or in the specialized language of the law for that matter. Therein lies the reason for seeking medical expertise: as a factor that would liberate the judge from a purely juristic justification; such an expertise, however, was never at stake.

75Power individualizes, and the correspondence that the offender initiated with his chief judge and attorney general manifests that individualizing power. The “speaking I”—the subject of enunciation—creates its own shared values while evolving into something else—an enunciating subject—which posits itself as object worth of examination for its own sake, to the point that it may be incapable of being “contained” by the norms that made it possible in the first place.

76Let us look at the second letter, this time drafted by Hallaq to Aleppo’s attorney general. If we are right about the first undated letter, that it was drafted nine months after his arrest, then it must have been completed by August–September 1997. Hallaq did not date his letter to the attorney general either, but, like most documents in the dossier, it had to be formally acknowledged, stamped and signed, hence integrated within the corpus of documents. The date of 14 June 1997 was therefore appended by the attorney general’s office, which pushes it a couple of months ahead of the previous. I nevertheless think it makes more sense to read it “as if” drafted in the aftermath of the letter to the judge, as it was slightly longer, more detailed and more balanced at the same time. Upon the reception of the two‑page document a court clerk added on the top left margin: “explanation of a situation” (sharḥ waḍʿ), which broadly defines the text as one of “pleading for one’s own condition,” if not sanity.

77The defendant first reminded the attorney general that his case was one of “restricting freedom” (ḥajz ḥurriya) of a minor. But the truth, he says, “is that I am protecting my minor daughter from loss, deviancy, and the road to debauchery and deviancy (inḥirāf).” The notion of deviancy comes once more for a third time: “This girl has deviated into the path of evil and error.”

I was previously married to a rebellious and independent person. She had her own perverse manners, looking down at marital rights. Our marriage would only last for eight years—with three separations—and she left behind two kids, a boy and a girl. When all became impossible between us, I sheltered myself in marriage, wedding to a person who knows about values and principles, has all the good manners, while respecting and sanctifying marriage. She played the affectionate mum for my two kids. But my previous wife only knows resentment, vowed for revenge, as she has now finally seen her wishes come true—by making my daughter homeless—while having me in prison—throwing off four kids and their mother, which are suffering and needy.

78Thus far, contrary to the letter to the judge, there was no strategy for arguing about differences between “civil” and “criminal” matters, and more importantly, the crucial question of “Why I am a criminal?,” was not even professed. The strategy here is quite different, as the focus is on family values. Dressing himself as a family man, he painted his ex‑wife as someone so perverse to have dismantled family values while transmitting her perversity to her daughter. The father ended up in his second marriage with a daughter who neither wants him nor his second wife, and is always running away. Overall, Hallaq was hoping that his focus on “restricting freedom” would be beneficial and play well with the attorney general.

79The charge of “restricting freedom” carries several meanings. At one level it simply implies that person A restricted the freedom of person B by imposing, for instance, physical prohibitions on the movements of B. At another level, it could go much deeper, as the prohibitions would have resulted in serious mental, psychological, or physical harm. Moreover, the offender could be charged for being mentally or psychologically unfit for taking care of children. In itself, however, “freedom” is a basic civil‑law right, which is per se an “empty signifier” whose meaning achieves consistency only in relation to other signifiers. The defendant was playing on the notion that kids are unruly and difficult by nature to contain: What happens when an adult is responsible for the safety of a kid who seems to take everything with a vengeance?

[My ex‑wife] was able to dominate my daughter in the very words that she whispered to her. ‘Run away from home.’ She would provoke the kids against us, telling them that your dad and his wife hate you and do not love you. ‘Let the neighbors know—tell them that we are hungry and naked.’ She openly stated with a promise: ‘I will transform the girl into a thief…so that people say that is how the father and his wife educate.’ That is what my divorcée wishes, even though God has compensated me with a good [second] wife who managed well her relation to the kids, and gave them all the affection and love that they need.

My daughter managed, however, to run away from home to the streets, only to come back. She then started to go to her mother’s parents, who left her in the street. The police knew about our home, and every week they would visit us with the girl in hand. It happened so many times that I got into the habit of calling the police immediately whenever my girl was missing. Each day became like a nightmare. I began locking the home’s main door, thanks to an advice from the police. The judge who handles minors once told me, ‘Are you certain that she will always come back once she had left?’ She soon got into the habit of running away from the balcony. When my divorcée reprimanded that she would take the boy into custody, I retorted that the girl would go too, so that we do not separate the two, as an attempt from my part to take away this whole episode of my girl running away on her own. But nothing worked out. She had repeatedly run away from her mother, they have followed her and brought her back. The last time she had stolen her mother’s salary. She run away…reached the ʿAziziyyeh police, who delivered her to me in the presence of her mother. But she kept running away.

80“My dear sir,” continues Hallaq in his plea to the attorney general (we’re into the second page):

I’ve been accused of “restricting freedom.” Did I limit the freedom of a foreigner, or was it my own minor daughter? After giving up to the point that my life has become real misery—that’s my reality and that’s my story—I have suffered enough. Was I expected to leave my daughter in the street, so that she is picked up by barbarians who have no mercy towards their targets? What should I do to solve this problem?

As a father I have got feelings and emotions, and I have got great responsibilities that need to be addressed on a daily basis. How should I then compensate between my daily duties and my present grim situation? I wished that my daughter would grow up fast, so that she would get married and live her life as she wishes in peace. But all of a sudden I find myself handcuffed with other criminals. What did I do besides attempting to place my daughter away from perversity and its dangers?

My dear Sir,

I plea your respected wisdom, the symbol of right, justice, and law, to take my situation into consideration, and to agree for bailing me out, so that I can get back to my family and kids, who are in the worst of all conditions, and who need me more than I need freedom, and to rectify the damages that this situation has brought to my life and to that of my family, kids, and their mother. (No signature, but only a fingerprint.)

81We have discussed earlier what we have labeled as auto‑biographical elements. Those were mostly texts where the alleged offender would create a self‑reflexive gaze: actions are looked upon with the hindsight of time, the aftermath of the trial, and above all, the solitude of jail experience. The trial, its aftermath, and incarceration, take their toll particularly on members of the middle class, who see all of a sudden their status and reputation crumbling. But then why were they appended to the dossier, and for what purpose exactly? Do they matter? The question is further complicated in other ways: even if such texts matter, it would be only indirectly, as judges typically do not quote them in their verdicts, even if they took some of their contents at heart.

82What is noticeable in the two letters is that movement from what is “personal” (letter to attorney general, which chronologically was presumably the first) to what is “legal” or “legalistic” (letter to the judge). Consider for instance how the letter to the attorney general is structured around the personalities of two women: one who is reckless and without moral principles (first wife), while the other is affectionate and family oriented (second wife). Such a structure gives the possibility of portraying one’s life as cut in two, with the first uncanny half still interfering with the second. Hallaq therefore sees his current miseries as an outcome of that miserable first half—that “other” woman—which he feels he is unable to get rid of, in the same way that he is unable to get rid of his daughter, whose erratic behavior he associates with his first wife: telle mère, telle fille. The past, however, would not have haunted him were it not for the two kids, in particular the daughter. It is as if the defendant is arguing that the daughter has inherited all her mother’s curses, brought them to his second marriage, creating havoc all over. The girl’s problems are therefore rationalized not only as an outcome of failures of a previous marriage, but of an insane woman whose insistence not to let anything go has worked very well in her favor. Cherchez la femme is therefore the general motto that runs throughout the letter to the attorney general. By addressing the problem to an evil‑woman he is unable to control—his first wife—Hallaq clears himself of any wrongdoing. It is as if, conducting his trial on his own, the subject–defendant found himself not guilty by reason of his first wife’s guilt. He could have pleaded for insanity, or for poor social skills, or guilty for having locked his teenage daughter for a couple of years, with all the physical and psychological (and sexual) abuse she has been through, but he did not. The daughter’s abuse was rationalized to the attorney general as an episode that would not have occurred were it not for his ex‑wife’s uncontrollable appetites at destruction. The daughter thus became uncontrollable like her mother, so there was no alternative but to lock her up—even the police recommended it. The reader may already have the right question in mind: considering that the girl found herself repeatedly in police custody, why was she—and her dad—not recommended for social rehabilitation?

Figure 4-1. Letter addressed by the defendant Hallaq to Aleppo’sattorney general in June 1997 while he was incarcerated.

Figure 4-1. Letter addressed by the defendant Hallaq to Aleppo’sattorney general in June 1997 while he was incarcerated.

83Even though the text itself would not tackle the issue of social help, it nevertheless seems willing to assume that it is not the question to ask for the attorney general, as Hallaq’s plea was more into a reasoning of harm inflicted from the Other—through the ex‑wife. The general theme is therefore that of lost family values—and what the prison incarceration does is precisely more damage. It is as if the defendant is questioning incarceration for failing to provide the deterrent it claims, having already damaged the well being of an entire family. Hallaq therefore implicitly questions the discourse of discipline and punish, on the basis that to get him right on track his family had to be wrecked apart. A parallel issue was raised: that of the daughter who was placed on rehab, her learning experience and new skills, and the father’s fears of her becoming too independent. What is therefore at issue here is that broad power relation that the state engages into with its citizens, where both penitentiary and rehab institutions are evolving towards social control. Yet, social control is impossible without that individualizing power relation with the subject: that same individual who is subjected to medical, legal, and moral discourses.

84In the second letter, Hallaq admits his “misbehaviors” to the chief judge, and he does it with the same kind of virtuoso arguments against his ex‑wife, propounds over the difficulties he encountered while attempting to control an uncontrollable teenage daughter, while going over his daughter’s runaway habits. But then something new emerges, which was not there in the first letter. Hallaq seems to be questioning the chief judge over the very notion of what is a criminal: I admit that I was abusive towards my daughter, but does that make me a criminal to be humiliated in a criminal court? By asking, Why am I a criminal?, the offender is not so much looking at the wisdom of incarceration, but rather questioning the very notion of criminality. At the heart of the western penal system of the modern age (since the 19th century), which the Syrian system only attempts to mimic, lies the endeavor to construct “criminality” from a myriad of legal, medical, and societal perspectives. In this ongoing debate “the personality of the criminal” is at the core of the tangle between the legal and medical. As the legal field itself has its own normative values, which it regulates through its own rules of law, why would it need endorsement from the medical field? Precisely because it is unable to determine what this presumed “personality of the criminal mind” is all about.

85More importantly, are the complimentary issues raised by the two letters regarding social control in general. On one hand, there are institutions of social control which come in parallel to what the family is supposed to do: the school, social work, counseling and rehabilitation, and psychiatric and social institutions. Those all constitute parallel spaces of control—in the same way that the prison itself is the quintessential space for control. When the family fails, control is taken over by other institutions, usually public state institutions, and the latter may involve confinement of some sort: for instance, medical and psychiatric institutions would normally require individuals to be locked away for limited or unlimited periods. In the two letters the question that the defendant seems to be asking is, why me and not my daughter? Why was I treated like a criminal, tried, and then incarcerated, for my daughter’s mental disturbances? In other words, the daughter’s alleged disturbances should not have remained within the family’s confines, and should in principle have migrated elsewhere—towards social institutions run by state agencies. When the state failed to take notice—in spite of repeated police intrusions in the defendant’s and daughter’s lives—the defendant crudely mishandled his daughter, opting for a cruel incarceration instead of the incarcération douce that would have been provided by a professional social institution. Accused of “restricting the freedom” (ḥajz ḥurriya) of another person, the defendant is reversing the accusation: I am now the person whose freedom has been restricted, for the social aid that the state never provided me nor my daughter with.

All those silent observers

86Consider what in this respect the defendant’s sister had to reveal to the investigating judge; a prototype of a silent observer who knew all along that her brother was locking up his daughter, but never bothered to do anything about it. She even seemed on the defensive when speaking of “reputation”—that of father and daughter. What is staggering is all those “ideal” observers who knew about the lock‑in, yet never bothered to report it to the police or other authorities. What such an unwillingness points to is that inability to act outside the community’s shared values, for instance, by accepting state law as an external imposition.

  • 33 15 December 1996.

The defendant is my brother, he has divorced his wife, the mother of the girl Sahar, roughly 12 years ago. From that time on this girl has been repeatedly running away from her dad’s home, causing him all kinds of problems. At one point she was arrested and placed in a center for the care of girls (markaz mulāḥaẓat al‑banāt). In the last two years her father tied her up and placed her in one of the rooms in his home. He tied her up for probably two months, then locked her in a room for two years until she ran away. He used to feed her either in the bathroom or toilet, because the rooms all give on balconies, and he was always afraid that she would run away. I do not know if the defendant’s wife used to push him to do what he did with the girl. My brother only started to lock up his daughter once she had left the care center, as he was afraid of his girl’s reputation and his own reputation as well. My brother’s daughter used to excessively run away from home.33

87A neighbor (b. 1954, male) stated that,

  • 34 18 February 1997.

I am the defendant’s neighbor in the same building. On many occasions the defendant asked me to go with him and look for his daughter, as she used to run away all the time. At one point we got her back from the Jamiliyyeh police station, and on another occasion from the Bāb al‑Faraj station. I knew from the defendant that in order to avoid such pitfalls in the future he began locking her up in one of the rooms. I do not know for sure whether he tied her up or not.34

88Another neighbor (b. 1958, male):

  • 35 18 February 1997.

I am the defendant’s neighbor, and I know that his daughter Sahar runs away all the time from home. On one occasion the police came to my home and had Sahar with them. They have asked me whether I would be willing to receive her as a third person, but I could not, as it was 2 am after midnight. The day of the incident I was going up the stairs to my home when I noticed our neighbors in front of the defendant’s home, with the smell of smoke all over. I went home to pray, then went back, and noticed that the bathroom door had burned out. There was like an opening in the door of a 50‑cm diameter, but did not see the girl. I have heard from our neighbors that the defendant used to lock his daughter in one of the rooms, but cannot ascertain that he tied her up. I have seen the defendant’s daughter run away twice from the balcony.35

89The daughter herself was interviewed by the police at her hospital bed:

  • 36 22 February 1997.

The defendant Mahmud Hallaq is my dad. He had separated a long time ago from my mom and married Mayyadah Mayo who gave him several children. My mother had for her part married another person, and I myself live under my father’s authority. As an outcome of the poor treatment that I have received from my stepmother, she forced me to run away from home on several occasions. My father used to beat me up a lot, and in the last three years he locked me up in the bathroom, with my feet tied. That lasted for several months until he untied me, leaving me locked in the bathroom for two years. I have run away on several occasions because of the poor treatment and beating I was subjected to. One day when my dad was on travel, and my stepmother and her kids were visiting her parents, I managed to damage the bathroom door, creating a small hole in it, then went to the front door, opened it and crawled down the stairs. I then entered the lobby of a neighboring building, where some residents noticed me. One of them took me to the home of Um ʿAsim who fed and sheltered me for a while. As I had problems walking properly, I was taken to the Kindi hospital where I am at present. My mother never encouraged me to run away; I leave the right for a personal lawsuit to my mother.”36

90Thus far, in spite the diversity of witnesses in the sample that we have selected, their statements have been pretty much been consistent. In effect, the eerie consistency seems so much paranormal that one wonders whether it is the act of writing and the editing itself—not to mention the question and answer format—that produce that kind of perversity. In themselves, therefore, the above statements, either individually or in their totality, are much poorer than the defendant’s two letters, a poverty mostly attributable to the limitations imposed by the question‑and‑answer format, and to the self‑intransigence of the questioners: not only did they impose limitations on the witnesses, but also to the limitations imposed on themselves. Thus, the line of questioning was limited to (a) the father’s divorce; (b) the stepmother that was the problem; (c) the daughter that could not stand staying home, because she was beaten up and abused; (d) her repeated runaways; (e) the father’s decision to lock his daughter up, and for a while, she presumably had her feet tied; (f) the final episode where the girl manages to run away for good and is picked up by residents in the neighborhood; (g) the father’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment.

91Topoi (a) to (g) constitute the “narrative thread” for the totality of the case, which manages to connect documents as diverse as police memos, interviews, and rulings. The narrative thread therefore brings together a multitude of texts, in essence structured differently (some adopt the question‑and‑answer format, while others validate evidence and push for recommendations), around a set of tropes. The downside of it all is that one feels there is very little experimentation in the process, which implies that the file from its very beginnings has already settled for a narrative that would later be adopted up to the final verdict. Even the father–daughter police depositions look oddly similar, and it is only the role of wife–stepmother that is reversed, from a faithful loving wife to an evil stepmother.

92The wife–stepmother recounted the event as follows:

  • 37 18 March 1997.

I’ve been married to the defendant Mahmud Hallaq for close to 11 years, his daughter Sahar lives with us at home, and we have fours kids in common. Sahar used to always run away from home. She had been arrested in prison on several occasions. Her father neither locked nor tied her up—and certainly not in the bathroom or toilet. She had run away from the front door which was not locked. I have no idea why she burned the bathroom door.37

93Such statement—even though it formally reverses all evidence—nonetheless follows the same narrative script, as the richness of the episode is being reduced to its most basic components: Was the girl locked up? Was she ever tied? Was she beaten up?

94Even medical expertise of the girl’s state when she was rushed to the hospital did not deviate from such rules, blurring “scientific” discourse with the emotional. The doctor gave the following statement in his interview with the prosecution:

  • 38 1st of March 1997.

The day of the event, as I came to my clinic some acquaintances of mine contacted me and told me that there is a girl in their home that cannot walk, wishing that I come over to examine her. When I went there and did so, her weight did not make more than a five‑year old kid. She looked extremely thin, with apparently lots of calcium on the edges of the bones, with an inflated stomach. She was unable to move normally, as she was incessantly crawling on the floor. The reason for such symptoms was malnutrition and squatting for prolonged periods (qurfuṣāʾ) without any exposure to sunlight. I was told that her father had locked her in the bathroom for long periods, had her eat from the trash. I decided to rush her to the Kindi hospital, where I came to realize that she had tuberculosis [sill] around the intestines as an outcome of malnutrition and humidity. We were able to open a portion of the stomach and take a sample for analysis. We then subjected her to physical therapy, giving her calcium for the bones, and her condition is at present improving, in particular when it comes to the bones structures.38

95We finally come to the testimony of the lady that took care of her and had her stay in her apartment.

Some time ago I heard from the inhabitants of our building that they had spotted a girl at the entrance in poor condition, with worn out clothes, unable to walk, and squatting on the floor. I went down to the lobby and met the girl. My kids carried her to our apartment, we gave her food, and she ate a lot, which indicates that she has not been eating for some time. I then washed her, gave her new clothes, and summoned Dr. Muhammad ʿAbdul‑Baqi to examine her, who later transferred her to the Kindi hospital. She had stayed with me for 20 days, and was told that her father and stepmother brutalized her, and was tied in the bathroom and toilet for three years, and was not fed properly. … I did call her dad at some point, and summoned him to come and see her, but he replied that he does not want her, and that I could keep her as long as I wanted.

96The expression of “crime blocking the freedom (jurm ḥajz ḥurriya)” of a minor, in reference to penal article 552, was first articulated by the investigating judge in his report on March 1997, which went unusually fast, a couple of months amid the arrest. Rebuffing claims by the accused that he never tied up his daughter, considering them as cheap attempts “to extirpate himself from penal responsibility (masʾūliyya jazāʾiyya),” the judge centered his hostility towards the defendant on the girl’s deteriorating health conditions:

Statements by witnesses, beginning with the defendant’s own sister, confirm that he used to tie up his daughter. The doctor who examined the girl confirms such a possibility: by the time the girl had been transferred to the hospital she was suffering from bone and muscle pains on the upper and lower edges, an outcome of poor malnutrition and of sitting on the floor motionless days in a row without sunlight. She is also suffering from a swollen stomach due to malnutrition and humidity.

97Tying the girl up for prolonged periods seems to have made it for the judge. In other words, the three‑year bathroom lock up was bad enough, but maybe just not enough to meet the demands of a criminal ruling. The tying up indicates not only a premeditated attempt to restrict the girl’s freedom, but also a desire to inflict physical harm. It is as if the pervasive lock up would not by itself incriminate, while “bondage” (with its sexual innuendos) was more juridically persuasive, since it was at the root of the physical damage that the girl had suffered. But considering that most witnesses had denied knowledge of the tying up (rabṭ), limiting themselves to hear‑say, namely, that the father used to lock up his daughter in the bathroom, the judge was moving on thin evidence: in the final resort, it was the doctor’s report that saved him, because it strongly argued for physical (if not psychic) damage.

98The defendant’s counsel mused how his client had been disparaged as “a savage disguised in the image of a human being, tying up his daughter with chains, incarcerating her inside the walls of the bathroom and toilet for over two years, throwing at her what is left of the family food, forbidding any contact with sunlight, etcetera.” The defense then ponders, Who said such things? Where do such allegations come from? How did they circulate from the judge’s report, to the medical report, up to the upper court?

99The defense alleged that his client’s daughter “is affected by a mental and emotional problem,” a consequence of her parents divorcing over a decade ago.

Because she makes her father responsible for what happened, for preventing her a normal life with a happy family, she gave him a hard time, fabricating stories and lies from her rich imagination, alleging that she had been abused and tortured, simply to damage her father’s reputation.

100Moreover, only one thing pushed the father to behave as he did towards his daughter, namely, “the obsession (hājis) to safeguard his female daughter’s honor, by not letting her go out.” Adding the redundant adjective “female” before daughter was meant to underscore the protection of female honor (sharaf), which in the last resort is the protection of family honor. Considering that some honor cases receive a special treatment in Syrian courts, bringing honor in this context was probably meant to mitigate the circumstances under which the defendant had operated.

101Having glossed over the main episodes—the burning of the bathroom door, the girl’s escape, the woman who took care of her, and her transfer to the hospital for treatment—as pure “works of fiction” with a “romantic” bent to them, good only for newspapers, the defense managed to tie up its case thanks to allegations regarding the daughter’s fragile “mental health” and her honor:

At times, due to the constant attempts of his daughter to run away, all of which have been documented in the police records, and due to his excessive fears at protecting her XE "Index:honor" honor, because she is a female, my client used to discipline (taʾdīb) her within the well‑known and approved norms in society (mā huwa maʾlūf wa mutaʿāraf ʿalayhi ijtimāʿiyyan), as permitted (mubāḥ) in custom and law (ʿurf‑an wa‑qānūn‑an).

102The physical abuse—or discipline, for the defense—receives, therefore, its benediction from the norms of society, on one hand, and the honor étiquette, a supplementary norm, on the other. The defense locks therefore its case within the normative triad of honor, discipline, and insubordination, arguing that there is no evidence of physical abuse of any kind, but only a coercive process within the recognized norms, as any father would do.

103By the time the Jināyāt publicized its verdict in March 1998, penalizing the defendant for three years with hard labor, whilst reducing it to one year for mitigating circumstances, it blatantly retorted apropos the girl’s so‑called “mental and emotional problems,” arguing that this is an issue to be decided “only through medical expertise and science, otherwise the defense’ statements would remain what they stand for without any valid foundations.” The court added:

  • 39 The assumption here, from the court’s perspective, is that he did not do so.

The girl clearly stated that she used to run away repeatedly from home due to excessive maltreatment by the husband’s wife, which should not have constituted an excuse for locking her up for three years, until she got all those diseases which have been well documented in the various medical reports. The accused had to treat his daughter well,39 in order not to let her escape from home repeatedly.

104Articles 555 and 556 of the penal code inaugurate the second chapter on “crimes that affect freedom and honor,” and are bundled under the same heading, “forbidding freedom (ḥurmān al‑ḥurriya).” Article 555–1 states that “a person who bans another of his personal freedom in whatever way would be punished in prison for six months to two years.” The second section of the same article states that “the punishment on the criminal would be reduced, as stated in article 241 section 3, in case there is voluntary release of the kidnapped person within 48 hours, without having any other crime being perpetrated, be it a crime or a felony.” On the other hand, the criminal would be punished for incarceration with hard labor in case: “(a) the period of forbidding [freedom] went for more than a month; (b) the person who has been forbidden freedom has been subjected to physical or mental torture; (c) the crime has been committed on an employee when performing his duty.” In our case here the court has criminalized the defendant based on article 555 and sections (a) and (b) of article 556. The court did not therefore make much of the special relationship between father and daughter, placing both under a more abstract and generic relationship as if they were strangers.

The father’s gaze and the daughter’s guilt

  • 40 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990; an (...)

105Feminist theory has incessantly theorized the overlap between the male gaze (le regard) and its production of a power structure that becomes hegemonic.40 By metamorphosing into a hegemonic male gaze, the female is the subject of the male’s eye, that is, power. The male gaze objectifies itself therefore as a hegemonic power. What such an analysis confuses, however, is first the difference between the subjectivity of the eye and the objectivity of the gaze, and second, the fact that, rather than establishing itself as a hegemonic totalizing power, the male gaze (or eye) could be helpless and impotent, torn between incestuous libidinal desires, and lack of sexual satisfaction. As in crime, there is a triangle that establishes itself between the male gaze and the presumed female victim. Rather than limit the gaze to a duality between the male that observes and the female that is the subject of observation—both sides acting as subjects of volition and desire—we should rather conceive the operation as a triangle involving two subjects and an object: that is, to differentiate the gazing eye and its subjectivity from the objectivity of the gaze. The woman who is gazed at cannot in return see the location of power of the eye that gazes: what she sees is the gaze as a totalizing object, but she is unable to see what the eye sees. It is, indeed, such a gap that is at the basis of the lack in the triad between the subject’s eye, the gazed at subject (victim), and the gaze as object, which is the only thing that the subject‑victim can apprehend, because the victim cannot place herself in the same position as the (hegemonic) male’s eye. The triangle (triad) is therefore between:

  • the male’s subjective eye of a torturer
  • the female’s body as the object of the gaze
  • the objectivity of the ignorant, clueless and impotent gaze

106The question to be posed here is that of the addressee, considering that a crime is structured on a triangle between offender, victim, and a third‑party addressee which by definition remains an unspecified and posthumous audience, including in the final instance the court itself. The addressee could well be Hallaq’s first wife, with whom he had a troubled relation, and which in his letter he describes as “liberal”: their daughter’s incarceration was aimed at a wife who wanted to be outside her husband’s gaze; or, to be more precise, she wanted a space outside the male’s gaze, which for her implied spending long hours of the day outside the marital household.

107Let us return one more time to the letter to the judge, even though chronologically it may have come as second, because of its simplicity in that it obeys to a binary structure where the mother‑addressee is absent.

108The emphasis in this missive is on reputation and honor: the daughter kept escaping to the streets, which was dishonorable to the family, and to the father in particular. The father therefore locked his daughter to recapture his honor. The daughter was willing to escape her father’s gaze, which meant leaving home and finding refuge in the streets, but the father soon reversed the situation, not only by bringing her back home, but by locking her in the bathroom like an animal, even feeding her personally rather than letting her eat on her own, subjecting her to a damaging gaze. However, as will become more evident in the (first) letter to the attorney general, this gaze has nothing hegemonic into it, as it was riddled with anxieties and fears (including incestuous traumas and sexual lust towards the daughter). In other words, it neither dominates its object of desire, nor does it achieve satisfaction in incarceration; the jouissance comes as the supplement in the pain inflicted on the object of lust, the incarcerated daughter. On the other hand, there is the precariousness of the daughter‑victim which no documentation could possibly account for—the unspoken, unaccounted for, and un‑said. She was brutalized and treated like an animal, and had her health irreversibly damaged; but what remains unsaid is the feeling of guilt that she shares with the source of the gaze—her father. In fact, perpetrator (criminal) and victim share the guilt that traverses both of them, like two sides of the same coin. For that very reason, the power relation which is supposed to conflate the omnipotent gaze with a power in a spatial relationship that should remind us of Bentham’s panopticon, cannot possibly bring satisfaction to either party, as both are traversed with guilt and sexual lust that cannot be consummated. In her role as victim, the daughter receives her father’s full obsessive attention, an outcome of an incestuous desire that has no space of its own for consummation, but only as jouissance in pain. She therefore shares the guilt of enjoying that unique male attention, which happens to be that of the father—the enjoyment of suffering.

109Which leads us to the key statement in the letter to the judge: “But putting me behind bars in a criminal court with my daughter’s knowledge [amām ibnatī: in front (in the presence) of my daughter] was certainly not the right decision!!!” The Arabic text literally says that “I’m in jail in front of my daughter,” which could be translated either as “I’m in jail with my daughter’s knowledge,” or “in the presence of my daughter.” However we translate it, what is at stake in such assertion is that what gets the father apprehensive is precisely the reversal of the XE "Index:gaze (the)" gaze: the daughter is now the one gazing at her father in a prison cell, that is, incarcerated the way she herself was only a few weeks earlier. The whole episode concerns what sets the father’s perceived humiliation. The gaze towards the incarcerated daughter‑woman should in principle (following all feminist conventions) come from the male‑father, but here we have an uncanny reversal of that classic situation: it is the father who is behind bars, and the daughter is set free, gazing at him (assuming she wants to). Even though the father (now behind bars) seems to be looking at this as a poor moral lesson for his daughter, the truth is that his new condition as inmate reverses the pristine gaze of the male‑father. What will the daughter do now that the gaze has been reversed in her favor? Would that constitute the road to freedom for her? Of course, the network of symbolic representations would portray the daughter in a safe heaven, away from her father’s gaze, in the safety of social services. But in the illusion of absence of all prohibitions, this may not be the case.

110It is at this stage that the father, in his own words, fully “humiliated,” returns as defendant towards the judge, claiming that he cannot understand why is his case sitting in a criminal court. He even quotes the judge who is perplexed at how the Hallaq case came to his criminal court: the judge was allegedly the first to question, “What is this case doing here?”, either implying that there is no criminal behavior on the part of the defendant, or else that this kind of criminal behavior would first need some kind of psychiatric assistance; hence the whole charge of “ḥajz ḥurriya” stands only formally as true: the father did restrain his daughter’s freedom, which is against the law (only the state has such hegemonic right), but there is something else to it, a moral problem, for example. However, in light of our above analysis, the desperate appeal to the judge could also be read in a different logic: there is nothing criminal per se about a father gazing at his daughter, even if it was conducted under inappropriate inhuman conditions—that is part of the family–sexuality predicament. The assumption behind such scandalous remarks is that he stands at the same time as the representative of authority and the big Other; as such he is the bearer of morality and values—and Law. Now in jail, the father is exposed in his utter impotence and guilt; while the daughter is in turn guilty for causing her father’s humiliation. Taken in toto, the narrative is one of the disintegration of the familial socio‑symbolic network, which, to be sure, took place before the father’s incarceration. In fact, even though the father was in a position of power, and the one who triggered the omnipotent male gaze, he was at a loss vis‑à‑vis “his” two females sharing the same household: his first wife and their daughter. Having had troubled relationships with both, the father ends his relationship with the wife, then locks the daughter into a triangle where torturer, impotent gaze, and victim all share the same space. It was the father who was lamenting the “decline” of the moral values of the big Other and its familial socio‑symbolic network. His solution to such disintegration was to literally place his daughter on hold, himself becoming a criminally handicapped and clueless torturer. Crime is here understood as a transgressive act which sublates law as such, making its very abstract condition possible through a tangible transgressive act, while reinstituting moral values. The father’s incarceration by the official authorities only formally reverses a situation that was already there in the first place, namely, the triangle between torturer, victim, and clueless impotent gaze. Even though the torturer stands now handcuffed, while the victim stands “free” on her own, the objectified gaze is still there; hence the reversal is only physical but not mental, as both guilt and gaze are still there on the two sides. When the father bemoans to the judge that “That’s what they do now with a girl to make her independent, so that she does what she pleases. The father is for his part destroyed and imprisoned, his home and work have been damaged…What should I say to God, considering that you’re the one who orders, and you’re the wise person,” he seems not to realize that he was already “destroyed and imprisoned” before he got to jail. Indeed, it was that incessant obsession with woman’s “independence,” one who “does what she pleases,” as exemplified by mother and daughter, which triggered that path towards destruction and imprisonment. Deep down into himself, the father was already into a process of ego disintegration, with that uncanny feeling that the traditional values of family and sexuality, which his parents may have cherished, are nowhere to be found with the modern woman who “does what she pleases.” With the big Other, the agent of social authority not fulfilling its role as pacemaker to the individual superego, the latter launches itself into a process of crime and punishment. It is revealing that in the above passage, the defendant is precisely addressing himself to no other person but a judge, the very person who symbolizes moral authority—and Law; God comes as a super‑judge who oversees the sufferings of humanity—the supreme gaze. Both judge and God are, like the defendant himself, clueless and impotent, wondering on their own what will happen next once social barriers have broken down.

111Such elements constituting the core of the triangle of crime as transgression—torturer, victim, and objectified gaze (the anonymous “audience”)—achieve their visibility even further in the letter to the attorney general. Complaining first that the legal notion of “restricting freedom” would not fit with his own case, the truth, says Hallaq, “is that I am protecting my minor daughter from loss, deviancy, and the road to debauchery and deviancy (inḥirāf).” The notion of deviancy comes once more for a third time: “This girl has deviated into the path of evil and error.” Even though the lock‑in process was perceived as an enterprise of “protection” towards the daughter, it was the father that needed protection—from his own perceived disintegration of social mores in his family and society in general. It is at this stage that the ex‑wife comes through as “a rebellious and independent person. She had her own perverse manners, looking down at marital rights,” all of which reinforce that perception, in the father’s mindset, of the disintegration of the familial socio‑symbolic network. By the time, therefore, the father reveals at the end of his missive that “I wished that my daughter would grow up fast, so that she would get married and live her life as she wishes in peace,” he was probably fearful of his daughter’s proximity—that she was too close as an incestuous object of desire, which could not be confined to any particular space.

112To be sure, the most perplexing role in all this comes to the second wife (and also the sister and some of the neighbors)—those external and silent observers who had seen it all, from the husband’s guilt and sufferings, to the stepdaughter’s incarceration, up to the husband’s arrest and imprisonment. By describing his second wife as “a person who knows about values and principles, has all the good manners, while respecting and sanctifying marriage,” the tortured father idealizes a person who had seen it all, yet remained silent; but was that dreadful silence a sign of acquiescence? What she symbolizes is that position of an immobilized witness who cannot but observe what goes on—another devoted regard.

113What therefore brings the two cases in this chapter together is the very symptom of crime, as both protagonists did challenge in their own language the aura of justice: the unconscious turns into the discourse that registers the gaps and failures of the big Other. The truth that articulates itself in those solitary messages, which are not even meant to be read by anyone, or taken seriously for that matter, is the truth about the failures, gaps, and inconsistencies of the big Other, which is in this instance is the moral side of the justice system. Against the will of both authors‑defendants the justice system was brought on trial for not being able to properly handle “their” case. But on which ground exactly? Where did the justice system fail, if at all?

114Every crime is a symptom of Law. While the Law posits itself as an empty abstract system of rules and norms, the criminal act in its very magical nature transgresses such socio‑symbolic comprehensiveness of the norms. Crime challenges the order that it transgresses: the criminal is telling society at large that I fully agree with your justice, on the proviso that I eliminate first all those who do not fit into that order, all those who are masquerading in the name of justice, order and Law. Justice reacts to such murderous claims by enacting due process and the rule of law, which through just punishment bring the criminal back to society, as elucidated in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. But what if criminals, instead of simply acknowledging their role as instigators of public disorder, only to repent once the verdict is spelled, pursue further their transgression by writing their crime. Criminal transgression therefore doubles in the very act of writing as further transgression, or more precisely, the crime of writing parallels the criminal act itself. Both Buthayna and Hallaq did just that in their own way: they have reordered what society accused them of doing—a criminal act that either one failed to acknowledge—in their own language, which in spite of borrowing heavily from the socio‑symbolic order, nonetheless reconstructed each crime from its own authorial perspective. In other words, in what seems like an ironic twist, all the judicial procedures that we have gone through in the first two chapters have been transgressed in practices of writing which reordered events not from a multitude of interviews (as prosecutors and judges normally do), but from the vulnerability of the subjective self. Flawed as it may seem, such writing comes at the heart of criminality, as it reminds us that the fragmented aspects of the self the subject is unable to sublate are finally “sublated” in the criminal act itself, which the alleged criminal leaves behind unacknowledged.


1 Talal Asad, “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism,” in Asad et al., Is Critique Secular?, New York: Fordham University Press, 2013, 37.

2 We have encountered such “confessions” before, either in the format of letters (C3–1), or else as courtroom confessions, not to mention honor killings, where the assailant’s prime duty would be to “confess” his crime firsthand without the need for any police investigation.

3 In Chapter  3 on reason and insanity, I conducted a similar line of inquiry with another case: the shepherd‑who‑writes (C3–1).

4 Because in highly publicized murder cases, defendants and their lawyers become “public persona,” I kept all names as they fully appear in the file.

5 For the purposes of the present Chapter, and to be as brief as possible, I limited myself to the following: (1) The typed drafts of all court rulings; (2) handwritten and typed drafts of reports prepared by the lawyers involved in the case and submitted to the various courts; (3) a seven‑page handwritten statement submitted by the defendant in which she gave her own interpretation of the events that led to her husband’s “suicide.” On the other hand, I have omitted the following: (4) transcripts of the hearings; (5) medical reports discussing the trajectory of the bullet in the brain of the deceased, and the possibility of suicide from a “medical” point of view; (6) the original police report of the Shahbā neighborhood section after a four‑day interrogation of the defendant and her daughters, prior to the transfer of the case to the public prosecution at the Palace of Justice; (7) photographs of the murder scene and of the body of the deceased, plus a set of miscellaneous papers on various matters (newspapers clips, such as a Tishrīne article, were included in the file). (A year later, in June 1995, when I came back to inspect the file for a second time, I was told that it was put away in “another room,” and, for the moment, it would be hard to relocate. The ability to locate “older files,” whose verdict has been issued, turns out to be a fundamental problem for researchers.) As it turned out, many passages in (4–6) are quoted verbatim in (1) and (2).

6 Report by the defendant’s lawyer, ʿAbdul‑Ghaffār al‑Sammānī, in response to the first criminal court ruling (December 19, 1988), January 17, 1989, pp. 1–2.

7 In the wake of the violent and deadly crisis that erupted in mid‑March 2011 between the authorities and street opponents in various cities and provinces, Ikhlāṣī served as a “mediator” between the state and “figures of the opposition,” which in the final analysis were the ones acknowledged as such by the state, heading a debate with Faruq al‑Sharʿ in June 2011 in Damascus on “national entente.”

8 Original page number.

9 For a second marriage in 1984, following the 1981 divorce.

10 Ellipses stand for omitted passages which were redundant and repetitive.

11 Quotations marks have been added to the translation.

12 The court records reveal otherwise: Buthayna had allegedly an affair with Hamīd al‑Sayyid, which was known to her husband, and which eventually led that same year, in 1981, to their divorce.

13 In the original: This is what God has written (for your destiny), which is a common popular saying (hādha ma katabahu Allah) on the basis that God writes and is the “author” of the Qurʾan.

14 It seems that two of the kids were left with the mother, while the remaining five were at their father’s custody.

15 At that time, the Syrian Pound was strong vis‑à‑vis the US dollar, and was exchanged between three to four Pounds for the dollar. The rapid loss of the Pound to the dollar began in the mid‑1980s, at the time of the Perestroika movement, when the ex‑USSR charged the Syrians in cash for every military or civil transaction. By the early 1990s, the exchange rate of the dollar to the Pound had stabilized at 50, prior to its renewed destabilization since the 2011 internal wars.

16 At the time, it was so difficult to receive individual plaque numbers for private cars, that the latter were sold independently from old cars.

17 The association seems to have been a company that clears custom duties for commodities either coming by sea through the ports of Tartūs or Latakia, or through the Turkish border at Bāb al‑Hawa. The person named as al‑Jazāʾirlī seems to have been someone who contributed in opening the Bāb al‑Hawa branch, and may have been a third associate.

18 Anselm L. Strauss, Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 20–22.

19 Initially, the brother was a suspect with his sister, presumably for being an accomplice to the crime, but then all charges were dropped after the first court’s ruling in December 1988.

20 It remains unclear why it took close to three years for the marriage to be confirmed by a sharīʿa court.

21 The Syrian penal code, in conjunction with other codes on the eastern Mediterranean, penalizes all sexual relations labeled as “against nature” as not in conformity with the law and subject to punishment (art. 520). What is “against nature” could vary tremendously, from homosexuality, to infidelity, incest, promiscuousness, and sex with children or with animals, all of which are not named as such by the law.

22 Notice the use of “behavior” or “path” (maslak) rather than “reputation” (sumʿa), even though it was, indeed, the latter that was intended.

23 There was an unsubstantiated claim by one of the witnesses that Salīm had worked as a sniper to the Phalanges Party during the Lebanese civil war in the early 1980s.

24 Report by Khalid al‑Khatib to the criminal court, October 3, 1988, p. 1.

25 Georges Lamoine, “Une procédure criminelle en Angleterre au xviiie siècle,” IAHCCJ Bulletin, 20 (Spring 1995), 61–79, p. 61: “La procédure est dite accusatoire (accusatorial/accusatory) par opposition à la procédure inquisitoriale (inquisitorial) lorsqu’une personne ou un groupe de personnes accuse une autre personne, et qu’un magistrat ou un groupe d’individus tirés au sort décident du bien‑fondé de l’accusation. Elle s’oppose à l’initiative d’un juge d’instruction qui a pratiquement tous les pouvoirs.” The author quotes a footnote from The Quarterly Review, 381 (January 1900), 198: “to discover crime, to collect evidence concerning crime sufficient to discover the criminal, to ensure the due punishment of the criminal...”: “The civilized world is divided into two camps as to the best way of securing these ends. There is the French school, which is more or less followed by the other Continental nations, excepting Turkey; and there is the Anglo‑Saxon school, which is adopted by English‑speaking peoples... The one is traditionally known as the Inquisitorial system, the other as the Accusatorial system.”

26 The numbers and cassation rulings are based on the encyclopedic compilation of Anas Kilani.

27 Royal S. Brown, “Anatomy of a Murder,” Cineaste, XXXVII(3), Summer 2012, 52–3.

28 All ellipses are in the original Arabic handwritten text.

29 In the main courtroom of the Aleppo Jināyāt, the accused are driven by the police from their prison cell at the Muslimiyyah prison north of Aleppo, to the palace of justice early in the morning, then brought in small numbers to the courtroom by 11:00 am and placed behind bars on the left side of the bench; then, every once in a while the prisoners are replaced by another group. The large number of cases that are handled in a typical two‑ to three‑hour session makes it impossible to concentrate on a single suspect at a time, and, indeed, one gets the impression that everything is rotating fast in the space of the courtroom. The above suspect notes to the judge how disappointed he was in the last hearing, when witnesses did not show up, and when his teenage daughter did not show up either, because the person who was supposed to accompany her to court did not do it, situations which are fairly typical, and which considerably slow down the process, bringing it to a crawl at times.

30 The first “I beg you” seems to have been added to the margin either later, or as a form of emphasis.

31 The reference here is to the woman who has seen the daughter crawling in the lobby of her apartment building. As she reported 25 days later to the police upon the father’s arrest (see supra), she claimed that she took care of the girl and kept her in her apartment for a couple of weeks, prior to her son‑in‑law calling the police, and transferring the girl to the hospital. Even though there is no reference to what the father is alleging above, the delay to report the girl to the police makes her in the very least suspicious. We need to check what she declared to the investigative judge and then to the court, prior to deciding on her case.

32 See, Chapter 1.

33 15 December 1996.

34 18 February 1997.

35 18 February 1997.

36 22 February 1997.

37 18 March 1997.

38 1st of March 1997.

39 The assumption here, from the court’s perspective, is that he did not do so.

40 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990; and Joan Copjec’s critique, “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason,” in Read My Desire: XE "Index:Lacan, Jacques" Lacan Against the Historicists, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994, 201–236; and infra, Chapter 6 on honor killings and the deadlocks of the “male gaze” theory.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 4-1. Letter addressed by the defendant Hallaq to Aleppo’sattorney general in June 1997 while he was incarcerated.
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