‘Let me tell you about torture," says Ghazi Hussein, softly and matter of factly. Lifting his arms above his shoulders, palms upwards, he demonstrates how he was crucified while a political prisoner in the Middle East. "They would hang me up by my wrists, my feet not touching the floor, cover my naked body with jam; then hundreds of flies would descend and crawl all over me for six or seven hours.
"Eventually I would lose consciousness and only then would I be cut down and thrown back into my cell," says the 40-year-old Palestinian poet and playwright, whose work features in Scotland’s National Poetry Day celebrations today. His powerful poems testify to man’s inhumanity to man, for he has been an expert witness to the evil that men do.
Such obscene rituals as the "crucifixion" that the refugee, who is now based in Glasgow, so calmly and graphically describes were repeated daily by his pitiless captors. It was, though, only one of many forms of cruel torture that this proud, dignified man suffered at the hands of the repressive regime in his native land. Sleep deprivation was another of the government’s cowardly weapons for dealing with articulate, intellectual dissidents such as Hussein, who was arrested and imprisoned 21 times, from the age of 14, before he and his son, Hanin, 11, and daughter, Oudi, ten, finally managed to flee to the comparative safety of Scotland.
For months on end Hussein was not allowed to sleep. Placed in a tiny cell he would be kept awake by a series of flashing lights and a deafening cacophony of noise, sometimes a buzzing that would go on all night. He was beaten and his body stretched on something resembling the medieval rack, ironically known as the "magic chair," in which he would be strapped face down.
Unable to move a muscle, he would hear his bones snapping as his body was stretched and pulled to the limits of endurance, yet his spirit remained unbroken. The legacy of the "magic chair" is chronic back trouble, says Hussein, a compact, stocky man who holds himself like a tightly closed fist.
"Please, please do not print the name of my country, or the town where my family still lives. If you do, they will be arrested and tortured too," warns the former academic and Arabic scholar, who prefers to say only that he now "lives in exile from Palestine". We talk at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, where his first, autobiographical play, Jasmine Road, is in rehearsal. When his country was named in an innocent paragraph in a Glasgow newspaper earlier this year, mentioning that some of his poems had been set to music by Cappella Nova, his father was arrested, jailed and tortured a few weeks later.
"You are free, my son, but we have to go on living and suffering here, so please reveal nothing about us," his mother wept when Hussein called her. His dark brown eyes luminous with tears, Hussein adds that he doesn’t know whether he will see his beloved family again, although he calls his parents several times a week. "I miss my family very, very much," he says softly.
One of 18 children, Hussein’s troubles began a quarter of a century ago when he took a bus to Lebanon to visit an older sister for a week. No-one asked the boy for ID or papers, but on the return journey he was arrested and told that he was suspected of smuggling money and arms. Despite vigorous denials the 14-year-old was incarcerated in a one-metre square cell for six months. He was repeatedly beaten senseless and brutally tortured. "They showed me no mercy," he says, apologising for his halting English. "It was a tough time."
The legacy of his experience was a raised awareness of politics. "I studied hard," he says. "I read everything I could about what was happening in my country." At university he gained degrees in philosophy and Arabic grammar. While working as a college lecturer he began writing poetry and staging readings. But he was deemed "guilty of carrying thoughts" and a decade of persecution followed. Nevertheless, he would not stop writing or speaking out. "They wanted me to shut up; I refused. I would write a line of my poetry on a wall and they arrested me for that.
"They never mentioned my poetry - they would make wild accusations that I was in league with Israeli soldiers. I never carried arms. My brain and my words were my only weapons. If you admit that you did something, they kill you. If you refuse to say you did something, they torture you - and they know of many, many ways to do that."
Hussein was never charged, so his terms of imprisonment lasted for three or four months, then he would be released to return to teaching, only to be arrested again a few months later in a vicious circle that always centred on excruciating torture.
"But I could not be silent and see the wrongs, the awful mess around me," sighs Hussein. "I don’t write about politics and governments; I write about my people and their pain and suffering.
"The government wanted me to be blind, deaf and dumb. I refused silence - and that’s my problem. If you don’t speak up, it means you agree with what is happening and that makes me angry." Hussein lost his first wife, the mother of his children, in a road traffic accident. He remarried and in 2000, after paying 10,000 for a visa, he managed to escape with his children.
"It was a miracle," he says, although his second wife, Syham had to stay behind and joined him and the children only two weeks ago in the high-rise flat they now occupy in Glasgow’s Sighthill.
"I feel that by leaving I have failed. But my dad said, ‘You have no life, your wife has no husband, your children have no father, and we have no son when you are in prison’."
Friends warned Hussein he was mad to try to leave, but he told them: "If I die in the sea, the fish will eat me and they will survive longer. If I die on land, birds will eat me and live longer. If I die in prison, it will cause nothing but pain and unhappiness for my family and my children, and I will have achieved nothing."
It took Hussein and his children almost five months to travel to Britain. They were imprisoned in Ceylon, Hungary and Romania for up to one month in each country while his visa was scrutinised. The thought that his children have been in jail brings tears. On arrival in Britain, his asylum case was "certificated" as "unfounded" by the Home Office and a two-year legal battle ensued. However, the medical evidence of the torture he has endured enabled him and his family to gain indefinite leave and refugee status.
Hussein was delighted when he heard they were to live in Glasgow. "I knew that the Scots were good people," he says. Immediately, he sat down and wrote a poem because he was so happy, but within a week he found that he had only succeeded in exchanging one terrible prison for another.
In Sighthill, the Husseins have been terrorised daily and subjected to repeated racial abuse, both verbal and physical. They have been stoned. His children have been beaten up. His daughter is taunted by bullies and is thumped every day by children on the school bus for the colour of her skin. "Our lives have got harder and harder," says Hussein. "And our lives are no different from the way they were. Believe me, Sighthill is worse than the Middle East. I have made my flat a prison for myself and my children. We are scared of everything in the neighbourhood. We are even frightened of small children. They look at me with hatred and say, ‘F*** off, black bastard!’. I am still not free, but I won’t give up. Somehow, we’ll survive."
When I tell Hussein, a devout Muslim, that I believe his story shames us all, he shrugs his shoulders and says: "No, no. I know all Scots are not like these people, who have made us afraid to leave the house. You should not feel ashamed. I accept this, it is my fate.
"Poetry saved my sanity," he says. "It has enabled me to express my deepest feelings. Every poem begins with tears. I cry before I write, but when I write I set the record straight. I’ve written a new poem only this week. It’s called Just Wishes and it about what I feel in my heart, which is still full of hope."
Hussein’s poetry is moving, but never sentimental. His poems examine what it means to be jailed for seeking freedom and tortured for railing against injustice. He writes about being human, about his love for his mother, and about the birth of his son Hanin, while Hussein was in prison. In his poem Letter From Prison, he writes:
My son Forgive this yearning
And my absence
Sadly, you came when I was away
And stole the joy of your arrival
If you were to ask about me
Don’t ask the sun
Ask the prison and its cell
For the answer is etched
In lashes that cover my body
He goes on to write that the wounds on his body smiled when he heard of his son’s birth. "Sometimes," he says, "I feel my children are becoming like wild animals. They are always in the house. They can’t play. We look out of the window and watch children playing, but if my two go outside they are kicked and my daughter’s hair is pulled out. We are alone. No-one speaks to us. We’re on a waiting list to move, but I’ve been told it will take years and years. My wife has no English, so is trapped, and my daughter cries and cries, but I feel I have no tears left to shed, only words to write my poems."
• Ghazi Hussein reads his poetry at Dundee Contemporary Arts today, National Poetry Day, at 2pm. His play Jasmine Road is at Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh, from today until 25 October.