Home … finally

“The pain still echoes in Ghazi Falah’s voice when he speaks about the ordeal. Each time he recounts the detainment, his eyes deaden – they become distant. He knows his life will never be the same. For 22 days this summer, Falah, a University of Akron geography professor, was held prisoner in Israel, interrogated and tortured under suspicion of illegal espionage.”

The pain still echoes in Ghazi Falah’s voice when he speaks about the ordeal. Each time he recounts the detainment, his eyes deaden – they become distant.

He knows his life will never be the same. For 22 days this summer, Falah, a University of Akron geography professor, was held prisoner in Israel, interrogated and tortured under suspicion of illegal espionage.

Although Falah doesn’t like to discuss specifics, he said the Israelis tied him to a chair and kept him awake for 60 hours straight on one occasion, for 40 hours on another.

More than a week after his return to the United States, he sat in his modestly luxurious Wadsworth home and told his story through a raspy voice, still troubled and hoarse from weeks of stress.

I’m still in the process of healing, Falah said between coughs. In fact, I have had a headache for some time now, I’m under constant stress and I’m not sleeping very well. I’m still not over with this.

The professor, who was released on July 30, said his return has not been the rejuvenating homecoming that he had hoped for. Still fielding constant questions from media, strangers and friends, Falah has had little time to rest. During an hour-long interview with the Buchtelite, Falah was even interrupted by a phone call from the FBI – just another afternoon for the still-troubled professor. Falah, 53, was arrested on July 8 after taking what he described as geographic landscape pictures near the Israel-Lebanon border.

However, an Israeli military antenna appeared in a few of his pictures, which, according to Israeli authorities, prompted the arrest.

Falah was in Israel visiting his mother who was having a benign tumor removed. He said he was simply taking pictures for research purposes. He didn’t anticipate the turmoil that would follow.

I didn’t think it should have taken more than a few hours to prove my innocence, Falah said. I am a geographer, a researcher – not a spy.

Each day Falah was blindfolded and led from his cell to an interrogation room, he said. Guards worked to break Falah’s spirit for about 16 hours a day.

Each time, they commanded me to sit and then tied my hands behind the chair and forced me to keep my legs bent, he said. If I was ever tired they would shout for me to sit up and open my eyes and threaten me.

Amid constant swearing, shouting, blindfolding and occasional sexual and violent threats, Falah said he became very disoriented. He never knew when it was night or day.

During the session of 60 hours I was allowed only sporadic breaks to eat, Falah said. I told them, ‘Look, humans need food, oxygen and to move, but they also need to sleep,’ he said. This was the hardest punishment in my life.

Back home
For the entirety of his imprisonment, Falah was completely cut off from contact with his wife and three children. They said it was a period of torture for them as well.

We could not speak to him, Falah’s wife Jamila said. We had no idea what he was doing or how he was being treated. It was a nightmare.

There were a lot of sleepless nights at the Falah home during the imprisonment. The family’s stress was complicated by the media.

My mom, Suhaib, and I were doing between 40 and 50 interviews a day for a while, said Falah’s oldest son Naail. I speak a few languages so I was answering questions from all over the world. The phone never stopped ringing. It was so frustrating.

Family is important to the Falahs. Pictures of the children growing up are scattered throughout their home. A brief interruption by his 12-year-old son Muhammad seemed to bring life to Falah’s stricken face. His passion for family is what caused the most heartache, Falah said.

I was not worried about myself. I knew I had done nothing wrong. I was more worried about my family, my wife, my kids and my mother. They dominated my thoughts.

Denial of rights
Falah, who holds dual Israeli-Canadian citizenship, said several of his rights as an Israeli and as an academic researcher were violated. He said his cell was atrocious.

They kept me in very, very bad conditions, Falah said. The cell was underground, no windows, like a refrigerator with very thick double doors. I had a thin two-inch pad to sleep on and they gave me five or six blankets, but I had to roll the blankets to use as a pillow.
I was freezing all the time.

Inside the cell, next to the mat where he slept, Falah said there was a hole, which served as his restroom. It stunk all the time, he said, disgusted by memory. You had to wait for the circulation system to take it away, which took a couple hours. They left it up to the prisoner to clean it themselves. No one cleaned it.

Along with human rights violations, Falah was distressed by Israel’s disregard for academic freedom.

They knew I wasn’t a spy, Falah said.

He believes his arrest was strictly political.

The Akron geography professor is well known in academic circles for his critical research and writing about Israeli policy and accepted Middle East borders. Falah, who was stopped once prior to his official arrest, said officials ran the plates on his car and knew who he was when they stopped him and took him into custody.

Falah met with a lawyer only three times during the ordeal. No charges were ever brought against him, but the Israeli judge extended his imprisonment four times, citing that more time was needed for questioning.

I was very strong during the time of interrogation, Falah said. I don’t know how this power came to me, but it was probably because I had nothing to hide. It turned out to be negative for me. I did so well under pressure they began to accuse me of not only being a professional spy, but a well-trained spy. They thought I was trained to withstand stress.

Return to freedom
After his release, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld declined to comment on the details of Falah’s imprisonment, saying only that based on the investigation and the evidence we had, he was released.

Immediately after being let go, Falah went to be with his mother, who had recovered well from surgery. To keep her from becoming stressed, she was told her son had spent the past month on a business trip in Jordan. She still doesn’t know about the detainment.
After three days, Falah left for home.

Seeing my family again was a great moment, he said. The nightmare was over.

After spending weeks in isolated confinement, Falah said the reception from his community has renewed his faith in human kindness.

Since returning, I’ve started to feel like I belong to this American society for the first time, especially this Wadsworth area and Akron, he said. I go to the bank, the pharmacy, even yesterday at McDonald’s – people approach me and ask me, ‘Are you that professor?’

All these people I don’t know wanted to welcome me back. That’s a great feeling.

Reuniting with his colleague Colin Flint was another happy moment for Falah. Flint, a geographer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spearheaded an international campaign to bring the Akron professor home. He organized petitions signed by thousands of professors across the globe, which were sent to several world leaders.

This hit close to home, Flint said. In a lot of discussions at conferences in recent years, we have all wrestled with the notion of self-censorship, about what we decide to d
o and say in class and in our research. Something like this turns that up a few degrees. But we must maintain the notion that, in a free society, critical voices should be allowed to speak.

Falah said he feels that despite weeks of deception and pain, justice has finally been served.

One morning I told the guard, the one who put me in the cell when I was arrested, ‘Look, guy, I am innocent and today I’m going to be released, I’m going to America, I’m going to the land of freedom, I’m going to the American Dream, and you, sir, you are going to stay here.’

A couple hours later I was released. I am happy to