Self-Mortification and Identity Transcendence in The Shell, by Mustafa Khalifa[1]

Psychoanalysis and Writing

Prison narratives prevail as a dominant genre in modern Arabic literature, and texts that have been produced by the experience of politically influenced imprisonment are particularly conducive to translation as Western readers continue to be fascinated by politically-fueled violence, particularly torture and sexual violence, in the Arab world. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and the mythical Guantanamo Bay prison exists in the American imaginary as a symbol of the War on Terror and American exceptionalism and as a type outlaw state whose global interests supersede its own laws. In what follows I study the prison memoir The Shell (2006) by Syrian author Mustafa Khalifa, which is based on his story of imprisonment following his return to Syria after a stay in France.

Writing is an activity that conjures and expresses the divine creativity of the imagination. Unlike Freud, for whom the phantasy always has a sexual significance, Jung conceived of a creative imagination, a mediating faculty between man and the sense-world (the divine world of the Hermetic tradition). He developed the therapeutic method of “active imagination”, which posits that the patient, through creative work on the symbols brought up by his unconscious, can work the transmutation of the latter’s contents, thus increasing his consciousness and arriving at a cure.[2]

Literary writing is interesting to the psychoanalyst because it is something like a mirror into the reasoning of another person. In analyzing literature, the questions attached to genre, and to confession and memory may be combined under the opposition between the truth and fabrication. So caution must be taken in considering the affect of genre on the text, for example, the form and function of truth-stories told by elders versus the anesthetic data of official records. Also the circumstance and Manner of Production, publication, and translation can be fruitful for analysis.


Producing the Text

An important aspect of the text is that it is said to have been written from memory: the author describes his method of memorization during his stay in the prison as a coping mechanism. Memorization has an important role in Islamic culture, with great honor and prestige bestowed upon those who have the entire Holy Text memorized. Inside the prison, Islamist inmates defy the police guards by praying in secret, and a ritual of memorization is instituted:

There was no one in the dormitory who hadn’t memorized the Qur’an from beginning to end. With each new intake a new cycle began.[3]

One of the younger prisoners was tasked with keeping the prison “register” memorizing each new Islamist inmate’s name and details, and was said to have memorized over 30,000 names.[4] As for the narrator, he writes:

I liked this [memorization] procedure and started to train myself to do it. After I’d acquired the necessary proficiency, I decided to write this diary. I would write a sentence in my mind, then repeat it, memorize it, then write it out again, and memorize it. By the end of the day I would have written and memorized the main events of the day. I discovered that this was a good way to keep the mind sharp and pass the long time in prison.[5]

An intellectual type without access to the luxuries of the world outside prison bars, he takes to memorizing the day’s events in hopes of one day writing it down. This method in the writing process has an overall effect on style and mood of the writing. The revelatory style of communication is reminiscent of the revelation, as an oral event, not like the textual or legal which assumes a closed system of belief. [6] Sayings and speech (oral/aural) must be different from the hand-written text which which utilizes a (not totally closed) alphabetical system and grammar.  All that is is needed to speak is given at birth. As for what is needed to write, that is cultivated and contextual. The two forms of expression differ in origin and motivation.

On the separation between word and meaning, between the heart of a speaker and the language he uses to express himself, Rumi writes:

I am not made holy by their praise.

Is it they who turn pure and pearl-scattering.

I look not to tongue and speech,

rather to the inward state.

I look not to tongue and speech,

rather to the inward state,

I look into the heart, whether it is humble, no matter if the words be un-humble.

For the heart is the essence, speech an accident.

Well then, the accident is secondary,

The essence is the point.[7]

Here, it is suggested that through words and writing, the loss of identity/sense of self, is made possible through artifice. The essence is at odds, or takes priority to the secondary speech acts and the embodied emotional state, for at the essence we speak of the divine. The title of the novel, The Shell offers to the analyst a few different related images. In English, the shell almost sounds like self, or cell. In Arabic and English, the metaphor of clamming up or retreating into oneself is described using the shell symbol. Also it occurs to me that there might be some relation to the ear and hearing, with shells sometimes formed in spirals and the inner ear also containing a spiral or helix of sorts.

Body and Identity: Prisoners of Conscious as Ascetic Hermits

What interests me most about the book, The Shell, is the beautiful way in which the author illustrates the dynamic relationship between the identity and the body. It is mentioned in the novel that it is not easy to peg the protagonist into one religious sect because his last name doesn’t denominate a specific religious background. This point is exaggerated because he is taken to be a Muslim Brother in the beginning of his time in prison. The Shell follows a Christian Syrian man charged with being a member of the rebellious Muslim Brotherhood. Upon his arrival to prison, and admitting his atheism, he is then ostracized by the rest of the inmates, some of them actual Muslim Brothers, and thought of as a state spy. Valuable for its vivid descriptions and equally for its social critique, the narrator of The Shell experiences isolation and an inversion of identity is induced as the logics and meanings of the outside world are erased in the absolute prison. Through his mortification experience in the desert prison, the protagonist experiences a transformation. His former sophistication and individuality is diminished just as the suit he wears turns threadbare.

Christian mystic practices have included monasticism and asceticism, practices of self-denial which are meant to facilitate divine communion and purification of the soul in preparation for communion. In many ways, the original purpose of the prison, or penitentiary was based on the same model from religion. Criminals held in prisons were to be corrected before their release back into society. In the modern nation state, bureaucracy and hegemonic capitalism have affected the function of prisons and the apparatus of punishment (see Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Prison, YEAR). The prison industry involves much more than punishment of the criminal, as an institution it is maintained by economic practices, its employees, and other beneficiaries. It is a socio-political institution in charge of public hygiene.

In both cases, a normalization of suffering initiates a mental flourishing — physical duress encourages psychological strength and bonding between inmates. The relationship between Pain and literary production, asceticism and aesthetics, is made abundantly clear in this case. The beauty of suffering, joy of suffering … these are mythical truths for the mystic poet. Ego death from personal suffering engenders a mystical experience and hermeticism.


The detachment encouraged by the conditions of the prison life encourage mystic identifications. Over time, religious calendars and traditional significations are lost, holidays lose their meaning. The author criticizes his home country’s ethnic divisions as well as Western science and its brutal inventions.[8] More, prisoners’ very humanity is contested as they are beaten and humiliated: it is unclear whether they are bodies or simply the locus of violence. Through episodes of torture and humiliation, we observe the manner in which the mortification of the self renders sectarian and ideological identifications, concrete as differentiators in the social realm, meaningless in the moment of pain.


Bibliography & References


Asad, Talal. “On Discipline and Humility in Medieval Christian Monasticism.” Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1993. Print.

Darity Jr., William A., Ed. “Prison Industry.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd ed., vol. 6, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 468-469. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

Elhadj, E., “Why Syria’s Regime is Likely to Survive.” Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), 15(1), 77-89. 2011.

Esmail, Aziz. The Poetics of Religious Experience. London: I.B. Taurus. 1998. Print.

Fortier, Ted. “Monasticism.” Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by H. James Birx, vol. 4, SAGE Reference, 2006, pp. 1608-1611. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

Khalifa, Mustafa. The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer. Translated by Paul Starkey. Northamption, Mass.: Interlink Books. 2017. Print.

Mulhern, P. F. “Self-Denial.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 12, Gale, 2003, p. 886. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

—.       “Mortification.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Gale, 2003, p. 904. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

Peli, Pinchas H., et al. “Asceticism.” Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 545-550. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

Sabbatucci, Dario. “Mortification.” Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 6196-6199. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

Ross, Jeffrey I., Ed. The Globalization of Supermax Prisons. Rutgers University Press, 2013. .

Wacquant, Loic. “Foreword: Probing the Meta-Prison.”  The Globalization of Supermax Prisons. edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross, Rutgers University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, ix-xiv.



[1] Originally, al-Qawqaa (Published in 2006 in Arabic)

[2] [2] Dictionary of Gnosis and Esotericism, “Jung” acticle explains the significance of the creative imagination in psychoanalytic thought and writing to heal neurosis

[3] Mustafa Khalifa, The Shell, 51

[4] Mustafa Khalifa, The Shell, 51

[5] Mustafa Khalifa, The Shell, 52

[6] Aziz Esmail, The Poetics of Religious Experience, 41

[7] Translated in The Poetics of Religious Experience, by Aziz Esmail

[8] Khalifa, The Shell, 56