Migratory Bird: From Abu Ghraib to Exile


“Prison” and “exile” are synonymous, especially when a host country seems alien and the refugee feels marginalized and unfairly treated. A political prisoner is separated in his home country from his loved ones and subjected to scorn and derision because of his political or ideological positions vis-à-vis the oppressive state writ large. He seeks asylum, when he can, in distant lands, searching for a safer, more equitable world that will respect his self-image, which he has attempted to protect from being twisted out of shape in his fatherland. The refugee typically searches for safety and a decent life in other countries after being forced to burn all his boats to reach distant harbors. Once he has reached them, they are his sole alternative. When refugees, no matter who they are, are not genuinely welcomed by their host country, they must withdraw into themselves in search of some type of return or find a warm spot in the icy chill of the new society where they live in an emotional alienation as grievous as any they experienced in their homeland, which rejected, imprisoned, and oppressed them politically or socially, or both.

In my book, I try to recreate alienating moments of my life both in my fatherland and in my land of exile, the country to which I emigrated in search of a better world. I attempt to sketch and share things that have happened to me and to many others. These are precious moments, some captivating and others hideous, insane, and even incredible; my memory has acted as a whip at times and at others is imbued with a delightful fragrance like spring’s.

Some characters in this book are real people and some are products of my imagination. Others existed and were part of my life during my lifetime—or in an alternative time created from the experiences of others in distant eras.

I dedicate this book to anyone who has stood or currently stands strong in the face of oppression and deprivation, clinging to beliefs forged under duress or of his own free will. I also dedicate it to the spirits of my mother Mamdooha, Fadila, and my Aunt Hajer. I gained enormously from their love, which I could only reward with the pain of separation. Finally, I dedicate it to all my loved ones including my two brothers, my sister, my wife, and every fine person I’ve known.

Manhal Sirat, Sweden, October 2019




“Autumn stretches out sleepily;

You and I and a glass of wine:

Do you remember?”

How you clung to my naked humanity,

Devoid of touch-ups and heroics,

When I leaned against your neck, a tear in my eye,

As your hand reached out to caress my wounds

And we sank into the body’s fever

We made love and whispered lustfully,

While autumn passed by jauntily

And we ignored all existence . . . and our pain.

My bloody humanity departed, and I

Persisted as a dreamer, freighted with hope.

Manhal Sirat, Sweden, Autumn 1991, an homage to Marina Tsvetaeva [1]


Our Air Baltic plane landed in the Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. We, five adults and one child, had fled from Sofia to Sweden via Helsinki in hopes of being allowed to enjoy an honorable life. Before that I had spent four months in Amman looking for work and collecting only promises that just left me waiting longer. I was also expecting a decision by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regarding my refugee status. I had been interviewed and had furnished copies of the Revolutionary Court’s ruling that sentenced me to life imprisonment, the decision to demote me in rank from conscripted lieutenant to infantryman, the decision to expel me from the Iraqi Union of Geologists, and my university degree—in fact all the documents I had been asked to provide—but to no avail!

I absolutely needed to find a solution, especially since I only had enough money left for another month in Amman. So, I arranged things with a friend in Sofia, Bulgaria; he promised to get me wherever I wanted once I made my way to Sofia. Then I was obliged to book a tourist trip for two weeks in Albina, a tourist resort of Bulgaria, in order to receive a visa, since the “Free” World had closed its doors to us Iraqis, who were only allowed to travel without a visa to Libya, Yemen, and Malaysia. The entire world agreed on its resistance to us.

A bus took us one autumn night from the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm to Carlslund Refugee Centre after an initial interrogation at the airport. A challenging period ended then, and I felt I was advancing with tremendous energy, because my thirst for a free life was intense and till then my route toward the future had been impeded by torment and death. This was my moment; this was my time to soar into a sky without borders.

During my exploration of the Refugee Centre and the surrounding area that September, I walked as the cold challenged me. My eyes were dazzled both by the beauty of the trees and their astonishing colors beside pedestrian walkways paved with asphalt and equipped with refuse containers that resembled colorful spaceships. The air I breathed took me back to past centuries of flaring torches, oxcarts, and roads damp with dew. I returned to the Centre’s buildings and inquired about the Swedish language and its vocabulary. I was keen to learn Swedish quickly, because I had lost much of my life. It had been wasted while I obeyed the commands and whims of  “The Unique Leader” of Iraq, where death came free of charge—until I met Kristina, a beautiful, gracious young woman approximately two years my senior. She volunteered in the Centre, helping the refugees, who were becoming more numerous as a result of the devastation and misery of their forgotten third world. I would write sentences in English and hand them to Kristina for her to write out the Swedish equivalents, so I could form sentences that would make her and the other Swedes who worked at the Centre laugh.

November arrived, and the celebration of colors abandoned the trees. Night fell at three-thirty in the afternoon. Snow poured down savagely and influenced the darkness as the flakes’ glittering sparks became silver paths that allowed us to find our way between the naked trees to our warm rooms. Amid all this extreme cold and darkness, Kristina lit a candle each evening to light my space and to make the future seem more radiant and beautiful. She opened the doors of her stylish home for me to visit her whenever I wished. She introduced me to some of her friends and made the problem of cultural assimilation seem a fiction that wouldn’t last, so long as love prevailed, despite differences of affiliations and upbringing. Through my embrace of this congenial dream, though, I discovered new types of estrangement. Her fingers touched the deep furrows of the scars on my back sympathetically, as she wondered aloud what sort of person would carve diagrams of domination and torment on other men’s backs. Tears would come to her eyes when I told her, briefly, how nasty curses had trailed me while blows fell on my body even as I came and went to answer nature’s calls in places of detention and in various intelligence facilities in Baghdad. Kristina could not imagine living as one of thirty people in a cell six meters square. When I sank too deep into memories of my slow death there, Kristina would change the troubling subject by playing Elton John’s music and whispering loving words in my ear till I recovered. Kristina made me feel that I was in another Mosul, merely with different geographical features, but with the familiar atmosphere of love and belonging. Kristina learned the name and appearance of each member of my splendid family, one at a time, and insisted I call them from the phone in her house. Her mother asked about my mother and Fadila, who was like a member of our family. My wings sprouted, and Sweden seemed a welcoming and affectionate place where I could soar. Despite the winter hibernation and cold, I began to “feel as comfortable as a tree’s leaves when summer comes.” [2]

Like a Damask rose, this beautiful situation did not endure long, because I was moved with others to the Refugee Centre in the city of Sundsvall to await the decision by the Immigration Service whether to grant me permanent immigrant status. Kristina told me that Sundsvall was a beautiful city and that I would love it. She also promised to visit me there frequently. As the train started to carry us north to Sundsvall, I remembered Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North. Then I smiled and asked myself, “Why not?” I had continued traveling north whether to Mosul or Kurdistan, because I’m a migratory bird, always on the wing somewhere. I will ride the wind to the ends of the earth, so long as I survive.



It’s called the twentieth century

And the year is said to be the 85th

But I won’t mention the month.

I won’t even mention the day.

I don’t know the hour.

Then, here,

In the belly of the cell

Out of sight of the sun,

Gestapo time prevails.

. . .

The Gestapo went crazy,

And wells of blood exploded on my face.

I spat out the blood that filled my mouth.

Naguib Surur [3]


Hasan al-Fajr, a thin youth, was reciting humbly and sweetly, in a touching voice, the “Kumayl” prayer of Ali ibn Abi Talib. How could I be hearing it for the first time at the age of twenty-six, even though my life had been spent in Mosul, where our house was located and where I went to school, and in Baghdad and Kirkuk during my military service, and then in Baghdad studying for my master’s degree? Where had this prayer been all that time? Why hadn’t I heard it before? What beautiful humility and sad clarity settled over us thirty prisoners confined in Cell 16, which was only six square meters and too small for everyone to sit at the same time! I was not at all religious, nor was I an atheist. Indeed, I was always searching for the meaning of life and the point of existence, neither of which I had discovered. Now, at precisely this moment, I felt a tremor inside me, I got goose bumps, and my eyes couldn’t hold back their tears as Hasan al-Fajr’s melodious voice resounded, and he struggled with his own tears. My hot tears slipped out all at once. What was this elegy that had such an effect in a prison cell that stank of urine, shit, and sweat? We struggled to breathe air that barely sufficed us as it slipped beneath the door of this cell, which was crammed full of people and pain but began to weep, sob, and pray privately about our pathetic situation, borrowing the words of Imam Ali, to a Lord who witnessed what had happened to him. Our feeling of impotence and humiliation began to evaporate and dissolve in a celestial sphere far greater than our mortal limitations. That supplication and self-deprecation to an all-powerful and compassionate Lord matched our human envelope, which is laden with tyranny, humiliation, and a slow death. Then our sole redemption depended on our response to this compassionate Lord, whose existence is required to grant this harsh life the justice we hope for, even if only in the distant future. My struggling intellect surrendered to the total feeling of this noble grief and pity for the self that dissolves into this nonexistence. As our swollen selves dissipated and we joined each other to plead for His justice, our tears began to cleanse our putrefying wounds in cells of endless death!

A few days earlier a security officer had led me blindfolded with my hands in cuffs to this room, which wasn’t far from the interrogation room. On the way, the sun of the middle of September burned my bare feet as my faltering steps crossed the asphalt at noon. When he shoved me inside the cell after removing my blindfold and handcuffs, I couldn’t believe what I saw! Naked men, clad only in underpants, were sweating profusely, as they stared at the new arrival! Men of different ages began to scrutinize the new detainee—me—while I was stunned by the bizarre, even hideous situation. They were all forced to stand, when the cell door opened, to make room for me to enter fearfully as my eyes gazed at their naked bodies, some of which had pot bellies while others had taut abs. Two other men were stretched out on the concrete floor, and one of them gazed into the void, his mouth hanging open. I crept into a narrow space as the door was closed to lock us in. Then I asked in a loud voice, “What do human rights organizations have to say about this violation of human dignity?”

We sat cross-legged or squatting, one man leaning against another man’s back, for a time, before we took four shifts sleeping. Then twelve detainees would sleep on their sides, one man’s feet opposite another man’s face, while the other men stood upright, leaning against the wall, their legs slightly spread, while they gazed glumly at our bodies, which were packed together like cheap sardines in a can. The rest of the prisoners squatted in one square meter in front of the toilet. What did we discuss in such an impossible layout? In a time that was imbued with cruelty and violence? A question about one’s name and birthplace introduced a conversation in this place. I volunteered my name and said I was born in Mosul, but my info was met with a frightening silence. I hadn’t imagined I was the only guy from Mosul in this cell, but most of the prisoners were from areas in southern Iraq, and some others hailed from al-Kazimiya, al-Shu‘la, and al-Thawra, in Baghdad. I learned this eventually, after days of fear, suspicion, and terse replies to my questions—until the recitation of the Kumayl Prayer and our reactions to the ancient prayer. Then we proclaimed our united humanity in moments of weakness and trials, and I began to see signs of affection and respect for me even as my eyes flooded with tears. I had never realized before how such tears can unite men!

Man is this legendary creature that adapts and adjusts in an amazing way to hardships and trials, in various circumstances, even when the sleeping shifts became so difficult as to be impossible. We were thirsty and had to stand till our feet and legs became swollen. We squatted for short periods, which were interrupted by prayers and supplications or when we were using the toilet and shitting in the front of all the other people. Then we washed with less than a glass of water. All that became routine and horribly customary, especially for those detainees who had spent more than two years in a space where there was barely room for their body! Time was totally static, like the cell’s air, which never circulated or changed! The same smell, the same rotten stink, and humidity so thick you could almost cut it! The extreme case, though, was represented by the creature who had lain stretched out on the floor since I’d strolled into the cell a week earlier. He seemed to have given up hope of ever being released from this putrid cell. Yasir had been dying for some time. His eyes were trained on an expanse beyond this cell, his breathing was so labored that he seemed to be strangling, his body was always feverish, and he was so scrawny that his bones protruded. Eventually his saliva had blood mixed with it! When Yasir asked to rise from his supine position, Hatim, who had looked after him all this time, lifted him gently and placed him in a corner of the wall opposite the door. When Yasir cast his tired eyes around the cell, he seemed to be seeing us for the first time since I’d entered. He mumbled in a low voice, asking us to forgive him for inconveniencing us by lying down like that. Then he gazed at Hatim for a long time with a broad, grateful smile marred only by the blood on his lips. He held out a hand, with his lean index finger pointing into the distance. He sighed and exhaled through his open mouth. Then his eyes grew cloudy, his neck inclined backward till his head rested against the wall, and his gaze, which had stared into the void, was extinguished forever.



The North Wind blows, and autumn brings departure.

Manhal Sirat, Abu Ghraib, 1985


The vehicle from the Refugee Centre, which housed asylum seekers from different nationalities in Sundsvall, Sweden, climbed a series of hills over snow-covered roads, speeding and occasionally losing traction and then slowing down, while I lay on the rear seat having trouble breathing. I didn’t understand why I had been placed in this vehicle in the first place, since I had asked the woman working the reception desk to help me get to a physician because I was having difficulty breathing. Only moments later I found myself in this speeding, rocking vehicle as the sharp words of the attorney leapt out and lodged like a sharp arrow in my flank: “Your request for political asylum has been rejected and your papers have been sent to the Swedish Security Service, to SȀPO.”

“Oh Fiery God!” I screamed like a madman as tears streamed from my eyes, which were exhausted from lack of sleep. When I began twisting around on the seat, Johan turned to try to keep me from hurting myself. He yelled to the driver to drive faster, but I no longer heard anything but screams from the interrogation room of al-Huta [4] (“The Whale”) at Military Intelligence in the Kazimiya area of Baghdad. I’d been summoned one October night. My hands were shackled behind my back, and I was blindfolded. Then one of them led me to the interrogation room. I don’t know how long I stood there waiting for my interrogation, which I hoped would never occur. A kind of numbness makes it impossible for the mind to think when anticipation, the premonition of being surprised, and fear constitute the present, sticky, interminable situation. I stood rigid, motionless. My mind was completely blank, almost as if I were asleep, when something like a bee stung my ear. I shuddered at the surprise and was unable to determine the source of the second attack, when a resounding blow fell on my bare neck.

At intervals after that, successive blows, slaps, and kicks struck me, and reverberating yells rose from many throats. These were odious voices, filled with hatred and bestial enjoyment. I felt naked and nonexistent. My humanity was violated and humiliated, and all I could feel was shame at this insanity and barbarity. Those moments lasted a long time while I searched futilely for some refuge to shield myself. They questioned me with hysterical yells, but I seemed to have no power to respond or even to scream with pain when the cable and the hose fell on my back, which was burning.

I opened my eyes as heavy tears blurred my vision of the face that looked at me compassionately from nearby. Soft fingers began to lift damp strands of hair from my brow, which was coated with perspiration.

“I am Anna-Karin, the duty nurse.”

Then she added, “Your heart is healthy, and I have given you a muscle relaxant. Tomorrow you will be seen by the physician on call. I will see you again after you have supper. You have had a busy day. Try to sleep now. If you need anything, press this bell.”

Sundsvall, city of snow and hills, what has brought me to you? That sad evening, the sight of snow-covered hills and pine trees was depressing. I wasn’t so much sad, though, as boiling with anger. I felt forsaken and had a terrible sense of being treated unfairly and unjustly, as well as a general emptiness.

Anna-Karin returned after I ate a light supper. She asked me innocently and in simple English if I wanted to talk about what had upset me today. I looked at her green eyes, which were surrounded by the wrinkles of more than fifty years. I replied that the assassination of a dream is intolerable, especially for a person with wings that can soar far. I told her I had dreamt of traveling for ten whole years and had only arrived in Sweden after a dramatic smuggling adventure, wanting to begin a new life as a man who deserved to live, because he believed in the possibility of a better life with honor, dignity, and security—something we Iraqis had lost for many years. I spoke of my projects, which had not gotten off the ground in Sweden yet. I mentioned the exchange of ideas and integration between cultures and my dream of belonging somewhere again. I became almost delirious when I mentioned al-Huta and Abu Ghraib Prison, and the daily violation of our humanity at every moment during those years of misery and slow death. When I mentioned my mother and family, back there in my violated homeland, I was choked by tears and could not continue. Anna-Karin rose and embraced my head, which was feverish with despair and pain, as the tears returned to run down my cheeks. She stroked my back and caressed my head. For a moment . . . I felt that my mother was still near me, and that my humanity was no longer naked; that it had found a place of refuge.



[1] Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892 –1941) was a major Russian poet.

[2] Rainer Maria Rilke.

[3] Part of a poem by the Egyptian Marxist poet, playwright, and actor (1932-1978).

[4] The name used by prisoners for the Headquarters of Military Intelligence, because people who entered it would never come out again. It was built in the gardens of Kazimiya. Saddam Hussein was hanged there December 30, 2006.


Manhal Sirat

Dr. Manhal Sirat was born in Mosul, Iraq, and has lived in Sweden since 1991. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Mosul in 1977 and his M.S. in Geology from Baghdad University in 1982, graduating first in his class. He was then arrested and sentenced to life in prison by a Revolutionary Court. He was imprisoned in a special section of Abu Ghraib prison, one reserved for political prisoners. He was released under a general amnesty proclaimed in 1986, after serving forty-five months in prison. He left Iraq after the Desert Storm (aka Gulf) War and sought political asylum in Sweden. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences by the renowned Uppsala University in 1999. Since then he has worked in numerous universities in Sweden, the US, Jordan, Germany, and finally in the United Arab Emirates. He has also served as a petroleum expert for the international firm Schlumberger in the UAE, and as a Geomechanics and Alternative Energy Specialist for the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Operations and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Currently he is a geological and renewable energy consultant in Sweden. He has published three scientific books and more than forty articles in scientific journals.

The Migratory Bird is Manhal Sirat’s first literary work. A book of his poetry is awaiting publication. He has exhibited works of art in several shows, and one of these was purchased for the Public Library in Uppsala.

William Hutchins

William Maynard Hutchins has translated many works of Arabic literature into English including Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim, The Cairo Trilogy by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and The Fetishists by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translation of New Waw by al-Koni won the ALTA National Prose Translation Award for 2015. A three-time National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Hutchins' translations from the Arabic have appeared in Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, Words Without Borders, and InTranslation/The Brooklyn Rail, among others. He holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Chicago and has taught subjects ranging from English and Arabic to philosophy and religious studies at the Gerard School in Sidon, Lebanon, the University of Ghana, the American University in Cairo, and Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Copyright (c) Manhal Sirat, 2019. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2020.