Friday, November 05, 2004

Ahmed Zaoui

Ciano’s Café, Boston Rd, Mt Eden
2.50 pm, 29 October 2004

I’ve just driven away from the Auckland Remand Centre carpark – a free man. I’ve ordered coffee and cake and embarked on writing my memo to myself about my first conversation with Ahmed Zaoui.

The most poignant memory of the visit involves the last moments in the visitors’ room, after Ahmed had disappeared behind the doors leading to the cells. Most of the other inmates, though visiting-time was over, lingered to kiss and hug their wives or girlfriends, their sons and daughters. They were mostly young men, and the guard waited patiently to shepherd them back inside. The inmates quietly said goodbye, while we – the visitors who were about to be released to the world again – mustered by the locked, electronically-controlled door. Only after all the inmates were safely returned to their concrete pen could we, their beloved visitors, make our way out.

On the outside, I enjoy one of the common pleasures of urban life. It’s a grey, humid Spring day. There are pink blossoms on a nearby tree. But the sweetest thing is my freedom to get up and go when I please. The intermittent rain that bothers us so much at this time of year would be like something from heaven for Ahmed if he could stand in it right now and feel it moistening his face.

It is upon the very nature of such liberty that our political culture and our law base their self-esteem and their sense of justice. Those who are deprived of it are held only with good reason, in humane conditions, and the reasons for their detention must be tested in court.

And yet, in Ahmed Zaoui’s case, this reasonableness and scrutiny seem to be absent.

But, what were my first impressions of Ahmed Zaoui as a man? Clive and I were waiting at table number 18 when he came in. He approached me, offering his hand to me, with a warm smile and with the pleasure of greeting beaming in his eyes. Here was a man of warmth and humanity. I could see that straight away. He said he expected me to be older than I am. Ahmed and I were born in the same year.

Clive inquired how he was feeling. It was Ramadan, he had been fasting during the day, and he was looking quite lean beneath his graying beard and his cotton prison clothes. He refused an offer of chocolate from one of the vending machines. He said he was well, though admitted to some ups and downs.


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