I lived my first 25 years under one president: the one and only Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian president’s portrait hung in schools, in the street, and at police stations. Every year on his birthday, we sang songs about him, and TV shows praised his greatness, his genius. But he was more than just a portrait; his dark hand gripped the whole nation of Egypt. He kept us down and besieged the lives of 90 million people.
I haven’t forgotten any of this. It’s not a historical event, but a reality that we still endure. My friends are still in jail; others are in exile, scattered all over the planet. Most of them, like me, don’t have a long-term residence. And those who have the right visas are still caught between two worlds. They are slogging in circles, carrying their homes in their backpacks.
Ten years after Mubarak’s fall in the 2011 revolution, I don’t have any nostalgia for the freedom and euphoria of protests in the public square. Yes, for 18 days as the protests captured the world’s attention, the stars were in our grip.
At the age of 16, I moved out of my parents’ house. I moved to 6th October City, all by myself, to be closer to university. I lived in a distant, working-class neighborhood where rent was cheap. There was nothing there but a small grocery shop and a filthy local diner throughout my first year. There was nothing and no one there.
It was the year 2001. The 6th of October was literally a “desert.”
If I remember well, one could drive for kilometers on end with nothing there on the right side of the road except for sand and dying plants. They would call it the Eighth District, but all I could see was a solitary district with no sign of life.
There were even no taxis in October, only light trucks, and you had to negotiate with the boys from Al Fayoum and Beni Souif, driving them to take you wherever you wanted. If there were more than two of us, the rest had to ride in the trunk.
Each morning, I would walk for almost 1.5 kilometers before reaching a spot where I could use the mass transportation means available in the city: a light truck covered with metal sheets and benches on both sides. If I remember well, the fare was half a pound.
My first days were dominated by a sense of isolation and the eternal repetition of a poetic nature. I went to university, came back to my apartment, took the food out of the fridge, and heated it, sat in my room thinking of ways to kill time.
I gazed out of the window or the balcony for hours without a glimpse of a single soul or movement. There was nothing there but parked cars and dim buildings. Most of the buildings there were uninhabited.
At the time, I was also reading “The Brothers Karamazov,” an unintentional and unconscious choice that triggered an extended episode of depression and sent me to a very dark place. At some point, I started doubting everything around me, so much that I started putting rocks around the parked car tires just to make sure that those cars were actually used and had owners who lived there. I needed to be confident they were real and not merely parts of a set décor for a nightmarish experiment that I was being subjected by hidden forces from up above or way down below.
I look back to those days now, and I see a mixture of nightmares of a teenager journeying through life on his own for the first time. A teenager who thought he was coming to live in Cairo, only to find himself stuck in what resembled a fetal city in creation: the far-from-Cairo Sixth of October City.
After two years of roaming through the isolated emptiness of Sixth of October City, I finally dared to head to Cairo – the Cairo I knew through art and literature, with its center, the “Downtown.” I didn’t know anyone there. I had no specific destination in mind. So, I roamed the streets alone, but that time I was content to be alone amongst crowded streets amidst people; that never happened in October. Sometimes, I sat on the pavement or stood in a corner watching the circus and the Downtown passersby’s captivating diversity.
Five years later, I went to an exhibition in “Ard Al Lewa'” which lies between October and Downtown, right between the city and its margins. The “Black dots 2008” exhibition was held in a tiny shop on a residential building’s ground floor. The shop walls were covered with wooden planks, on those planks, drawings of people in a state of motion. They were crossing the street or leaving a building, but here they were stuck in a void.
That was the first exhibition by “Amr El Kafrawy” for me to attend. We met for a short interview. He told me about his work approach: sitting in some “internet café” overlooking Talaat Harb square in the Downtown area, getting out a small camera while watching people, and secretly taking photographs of them. Afterward, he drew on those photographs to put them back in a state of motion. He turned them into black shadows crossing the empty wooden planks covering the “Artellewa” gallery walls.
Those shadows Amr created formed an old man walking around with a backpack on his bent back, two lovers whispering, and a woman struggling for balance carrying a heavy plastic bag in her right hand. You’d also see the famous Cairo street cats and weasels grown in size in a manner that would make you think of dinosaurs. People were parting from loved ones, friends meeting, people lost in the crowd, and an old man staring under his feet in astonishment.
As we talked, we drifted from the exhibition to the Cairo we loved despite everything – Cairo as we saw it; loud, crowded, and alive. Amr saw Cairo as a tense city full of life, people, and movement, and that tension is what pressures people until they become nothing but ever-shrinking black dots.
On the contrary, I, the village boy, was still thirsty for all that noise, tension, and mayhem. I still wanted a taste of every pleasure and pain there was to experience.
On the next day, I went to Amr’s working spot – that internet café. I rented a computer and sat there staring out of the window for an hour, paying no attention to the computer screen. As I watched the passersby, I noticed that no one was smiling; everybody was wearing their fatigued masks, or they were, in fact, sick. Those were the people of the city, supposedly. But they were all heading somewhere, just like in Amr’s drawings. And that was when it hit me for the first time: If all those people were passing by, then where exactly was the city? Is the city that place we reside and sleep in? Or is it what we cross to survive?
I only got to know Cairo when it was on its deathbed. I’m talking about modern Cairo, which was redesigned and expanded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cairo, which summed up all the different controversies, deformities, and achievements born from the attempts to create modern Egypt.
Cairo’s neighborhoods stretching over in proximity reflect the urban sprawl that took over Cairo for 200 years. And at the same time, they reflect the beliefs and dreams of the Egyptians who passed away.
It was that Cairo, “the city of a thousand minarets,” “The East wonder,” the city that woke up one day to the sounds of the stallions and cannons of the French pointed at his heart: Al Azhar mosque. Later on, the urban sprawl continued, and Cairo stretched over the swamps, allowing Downtown’s space to emerge. It was an architectural replication of western modernity. Downtown was designed to resemble Paris. It was planned for as the residential destination for the European colonial elite that came to rule Egypt. It was designed to become the new capital of modern Egypt, while they left ancient Cairo to rot on its deathbed. “Downtown” was the result of those attempts that continued for years. And afterward, in the twentieth century, the Effendi class multiplied in numbers. So the middle class carved out new urban areas, which was when the districts of Manyal, Abbasiyah, and Dokki first appeared.
And with the establishment of the military republic, the districts of Nasr City and Imbaba exploded into being. This random urban explosion continued until the nineties when the city was surrounded by an asphalt belt: The Ring Road.
The Ring Road is a witness to that experiment that continued for almost 7 years and ended with new cities ever trying to escape from Cairo’s tight grip without avail. Ironically, one of them was even given the name of “New Cairo” as if nothing comes after Cairo.
After the first decade of the new millennium, the authorities unofficially announced the death of Khedivial Cairo. The modernization plans and projects openly addressed a need to move the ministries and governmental bodies to 6thof October City, which was no longer the desert it used to be. Sixth of October City was then destined to become the new capital, but not for long. After the January 25 revolution, the compass changed, pointing towards the far East, and the New Administrative Capital project appeared. The New Capital is almost ready to be fully operational; it’s in the final phase. Once it’s ready, the old Cairo we know will be turned into nothing but a network of roads and bridges, leading only to the New Capital.
While Amr El Kafrawy was born in Cairo, I come from another city: Al Mansoura. I migrated to the outskirts of Cairo from Mansoura. And for 15 years, I had lived my life torn between 6of October and the heart of Cairo. El Kafrawy’s experience was the complete opposite of mine.
Amr had spent his childhood in Nasr City – a neighborhood that symbolizes Egypt’s republic like no other. From there, he moved to Downtown, where he used to live for years, chasing after his artistic passion. Downtown is the beating heart of the tense city that has influenced his artwork. An after years of living in the Downtown area, El Kafrawy finally moved to 6th October. Nevertheless, he still owns a small studio dedicated to working in Downtown.
Geographically speaking, El Kafrawy opted to distance himself from the city. And the tension, energy, and movement in his drawings turned into substantial, still buildings and ghosts from the past. The magic fades away with time, and the true nature of the city reveals itself. As time passes by, you discover that the city’s image and history only exist in your imagination, while the grotesque reality hits you right between the eyes.
El Kafrawy is not a documentary artist, and his works cannot be considered mere observations and notes on the city’s tension. His artwork is an extension of his long relationship with the city he deeply loves and is seriously involved with.
In 2014, El Kafrawy held his exhibition “Like a Mirage.” There was no one passing by the city this time; only the city’s buildings and ruins, and a vast archive of photographs he bought from an antique photo seller and recycled. He mixed the portraits that go back to the fifties and sixties of the past century with modern buildings’ photographs. He created faces of the city’s past residents roaming the remains of its present.
Art is only present off the road. Only copycats and “Kitsch” producers settle for images that highlight the sleeping beauty by the sidewalk. But art precipitates at the bottom and undergoes a long filtration process and purification of its primary materials. Amr begins his process with a photograph of a generic scene – he considers photography to be a medium that intensifies reality and isolates it from all stimulants. Copycats would take a photograph and re-draw it, showing off all the professional techniques of drawing and coloring, to produce a “Kitsch” photographs that gain a massive number of “Likes” yet are quickly forgotten the next day. Like El Kafrawy, an artist magnifies the photograph, adjusts, divides, prints and colors it, using a series of refinement, reformation, and experimental techniques. He continues in his process until he captures what’s hidden, even the absent or non-existent that would have never been there if it were not for the artist.
We see here not a portrait of Cairo or its buildings; it’s a portrait of what has no shape. It’s a portrait of that wound, that sadness, that indifference, and that suppressed anger boiling deep inside. It’s a portrait of the impact of Cairo and its Ring Road on our souls.
Nothing represents Cairo in the last twenty years, better than the Ring Road.
The city that had expanded over hundreds of years with no restriction has been enclosed by the Ring Road. Its residents moved to new cities and found themselves in the diaspora. Meanwhile, similar in manner to El Kafrawy’s drawings, the remains, and ruins of the city and the Ring Road stood still, overlooking each other.
The artist left again, heading to a new destination. This time he headed to a new country: to icy-cold Canada in the North where he currently lives. With a new look, Amr returns to his city, with a project that seems like a final kiss goodbye. Not to Cairo, but to a long artistic experiment that he indulged himself in together with the city: to an experiment that started from photography and printing, then drawing on wood, and ended with creating huge mosaic drawings using shadows and colors.
While El Kafrawy continues to use the same techniques in his artwork, this time, contrary to the “Like a Mirage” exhibition, there are no portraits of people from the fifties of the past century; there are no shadows of life in the drawings of this exhibition. He deliberately hid all life signs while he processed the photographs, during printing, and while drawing.
It is notable how the windows and balconies are dark in most of the drawings. There is no sign of life in these buildings. We cannot even tell if these buildings are complete or still under construction.
A considerable number of photographs, mostly taken on the Ring Road, acts as the central pillar of this project. Overlooking the Ring Road, random buildings stand erect on both sides, with nothing but red bricks. In the trench between them roadway, small pyramids of garbage are piled up all over the place to create a reflection of the cultural and aesthetic depth of the area. Most of these buildings and apartments are uninhabited; they are left there for when the sons of their owners grow up to get married or were built in a rush when the building materials were cheap. They are an investment for the future, which no one knows when it will come.
Everyone knows it, but it’s always important to remember: Cairo is only beautiful if you manage to escape it, and in El Kafrawy’s drawings.
Nowadays, I remember my first days in October. Dull, lonely, and terrifying as they were, I now catch myself reminiscing about them. No matter how brutal the past is, yearning for the past is part of being human. We yearn for the past and laugh at ourselves ironically for doing so. It’s very similar to that spontaneous smile that popped on my face when I gazed at Amr’s last drawings and noticed how the buildings’ red and pink colors deviate into grey shades in some drawings. How the trees and green scenery come together in others to create vague abstracts. How the tiny leaves come close to each other creates a gigantic network that ties the scene dimensions to one another. How round frames were used to give the drawings an iconic effect.
El Kafrawy’s attempt to turn the grotesqueness of Cairo’s architecture and its canned buildings into symmetric drawings is undeniable; he takes everything into consideration: ratios, balance, perspective, the relation between shadow and light, the relation between heaviness and lightness, and accurately calculated shades. His work is a reminder of the Renaissance Era’s landscape paintings, with a significant difference in the approach. Perhaps it’s because now that he lives far away from the city, he can yearn for it or search for the beauty buried in its remains.
I don’t even like protests. I don’t like chanting, and within ten minutes I’m usually asking myself, what am I doing here. I walk with everybody else, but I observe what’s happening as if from a distance, even when I’m right in the middle of it.
Still, I went to the demonstration on Saturday, May 30. We went early to the park—my wife Yasmin, my daughter Sina and I. On our way we saw that there were already police cars out, lots of them. There were perhaps five hundred people already gathered, and the speeches and chants had begun. The park itself, we found, was closed, and we stood to one side, observing social distancing rules as we’ve done since the start of the pandemic. When the crowd continued to swell, we decided to go home, worried we’d be risking our health and that of our daughter.
We’d just got home when my friend Harrison called. He’d just arrived at the protest and wanted to know where I was. I’ll be there in fifteen, I said.
My roommate burst out of the bathroom clutching a thin piece of metal several feet long in one hand and a pair of wire cutters in the other. “I managed to get the pipe out,” he said. “It drives me crazy when I’m trying to pee.”
I was twenty-one, and it was the first time I’d lived with a Western roommate. This was in Cairo, in a small apartment downtown. “But that’s the shattafa,” I objected, using the Arabic word. “How are we going to use the toilet now?”
It was there and then that I became aware of the most significant cultural difference between East and West: this metal pipe, the shattafa.
We went into the bathroom together, and I explained to him the process, step by step. In most Arab countries, and indeed many Eastern countries from Japan to India, a shattafa—or bidet shower—is an integral part of a toilet. The people of these parts of the world use water to wash after urinating or defecating, reserving toilet paper for drying afterward.
There are two kinds of shattafa. With the kind installed inside the toilet, when you turn the faucet on, water sluices out of the pipe to rinse your undercarriage. The wall-mounted variety is a bit more complicated. You grasp the showerhead and direct the nozzle; with your other hand, you turn on the faucet. Then you can dry off with toilet paper.
It wasn’t until 2008 that I traveled to a Western country—the United States. My digestion and bowel movements were out of whack for days, which was especially keenly felt sans shattafas
On July 25, 2019, ARC in collaboration with apexart hosted Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who was the 2016 winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award, for a lecture entitled “Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison.” Naji was formerly sentenced to two years in prison when a literary magazine published a chapter of his novel. Naji discussed the growth and trajectory of his career as a novelist, what life was like in an Egyptian prison, the power of literature, his new project, and more. He is now a Shearing/City of Asylum Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.
When I first saw this picture, it was in 1995. I was sitting with my grandfather and we were watching the news and TV. And when this picture appeared he felt annoyed and sad. I was very young at that age and I asked him, “What’s going on,” and, “What is this story?” And he said it like, “Some kids tried to kill this guy.” And I asked him, “Why did they try to kill him?” And he said, “Because he writes.” At that age I was ten years old. I was reading mainly comics or books for kids and teenagers. And of course while reading I started to imitate what I was reading–I started writing. So suddenly my grandfather was telling me that someone tried to kill this guy cause he was writing. It stayed in back in my mind.
And I continue writing but I know writing is dangerous. So it goes on, I published my first novel in 2007, called Rogers, and then after a while I publish my second novel Using Life. When I published the novel I knew it was dangerous in Egypt and the Arab world. I knew also what is a red line. From an early age I knew that there are [three main] red lines that as a writer you cannot cross. The first red line is the religious mythology. You can’t come close to the Islamic mythology. [The second red line] the national identity imagination. You could talk about politics but you can’t talk about the imagination and the mythologies that created the national identity. The third red line is sex. When you are talking about sex there is a set of words assigned for you.
But I was seeing myself as birthing another Egyptian writer generation who are trying to use different language. So [my new novel] was published in 2014 and after it was published, I was in the south of Sinai on the beach and suddenly I received a phone call from my editor-in-chief (I used to work as a journalist back in Mansoura). He called and he said, “We just received an announcement from a prosecutor and they are summoning you to come do an investigation.” So we discovered what happened: a chapter of the novel had been published in the newspaper and a guy read the chapter and he went to the police station and said, “I read this chapter and it hurt my feelings. It affected my blood pressure and made me faint and it made me throw up.”
So the case was basically this: the prosecutor was saying, “This is pornography.” And we could say, “No, this is not pornography, this is literature.” We thought the worst scenario was they will fine us or something like that. But it ended up the court sentenced me to for two years. I was sent to Tora prison.
Because there is nothing to do inside this prison everyone is reading. Even people who never opened a book before, they start to read inside the prison because it’s the only way to make the time pass. And the collection of books they have in the prison is very interesting, because of course they have a big amount of religious books, but [surprisingly] there was a large amount of books that were banned outside the prison.
But when I was searching inside the prison I found this amazing novel … That Smell. So this novel was published by Sonallah Ibrahim. When he tried to publish it in 1969 … it was banned because of the sex. So I was shocked. It was impossible to find this edition back outside of the prison but suddenly I found it inside the prison library.
It’s interesting to see that people in prison after reading will start to write. Because usually prisoners feel, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s kind of sorrow and pain, and they use writing to document this pain. For example, when I entered the prison I found this guy who’s always writing. He had been in prison for five or six years and he had, like, several notebooks. I called him the Marcel Proust of the prison. He said, “I’m wiring my diaries because I don’t want to forget the pain and the suffering that I [felt] here.” And he showed it to me and basically what he’s writing is, “Today is Sunday. I woke up at 10. I walk toward the bathroom. I eat two eggs.” So at the end when Marcel Proust was released from prison, on his way out the guard searched the bags and found the diaries and he read them and they had details about the prison and he said, “I can’t allow you to go out with this because it has details about the prison. So I’m not gonna sign your release paper until you burn it.” So this alerted me because back then I started to write in the notebooks that he allowed me. So in my notebooks I tried to not write any details about the prison. But I wanted to document my days, to not forget the days. So I used it to write my dreams.
Dreams are very important to the prisoner because dreams are the only window you have with the outside world. So you go to sleep and each time you go to sleep you hope you see your friends or family or the places that you are missing. Sometimes after a while you will start to play with your dreams. You will think all day of someone or something so when I go to sleep maybe it will visit me in dreams.
Dreams also bring a big role into most of Muslim and Arabic prisoners because in Islam and, I believe, in Christanity, we had this story about Yusef-Joseph the Prophet. So in the story of Yusef, he was sent to the Egyptian prison and he stayed in the Egyptian prison for seven years. So Yusef is in the prison and he was in his cell with two other prisoners. The prisoners have a dream and they told him a dream. After they had the dream he started to predict what was going to happen to them. He told one of them, “Well, your dream means you are going to get out of the prison and you will become a very important guy and you will become close to the king. And when this happens please don’t forget me and tell the king about me.” And the story goes on when the king had a dream, he was puzzled by this dream and so he told his adviser and suddenly his adviser remembered Yusef, so they summon him and he comes and he told the king what his dream was about: “In seven years you will not have food or the water will be low in the Nile.”
So as a Muslim prisoner, even as a Christian or Arabic prisoner, one of the hopes you have to get out of the prison is dreams. So I started to offer a prediction, and explain for others. People would wake up in the morning and come and tell me their dreams. Everyone in the prison started to trust me. So I became a holy figure within the prison.
Until I was in prison, I wasn’t looking at myself as a writer. I used to look at myself as a journalist, as a filmmaker. I was writing but I didn’t see myself as a writer, it wasn’t the main purpose of my life–until a small accident happened in the prison. So we had this guy and we are going to name him Mr. X. He was terrible and awful guy. So one day I woke up to go to the bathroom and I found Mr. X crying, crying like a baby. So I was worried, I went to him and asked him, “What happened? Are you OK? Something with the case?” He said, “No, no, everything’s fine. I was just reading this novel. I left it on my bed because even when I look at the cover, I start to cry again.” Suddenly I started to say, “What is the hidden power behind the literature and behind the writing that could reach and affect a guy like this?”
[My next book is called] Rotten Evidence. It’s about reading and writing in an Egyptian prison. I got out of the prison in December 2016. I married my wife Yasmine and she got a scholarship in Syracuse, New York. The plan was to join her after that and then I tried to leave the country and I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country as a free man. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a year and a half. And this year and a half was harder than being in prison.
So it took me a year and a half [but] finally I was able to get a short window for one week, so I was able to join my wife and we moved to DC. Then with help from PEN America and many music friends from this sphere in the state I was able to get [a] fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV in Vegas.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Olivia Salama, September 2019.
Yasmeen cried because she could not breastfeed our daughter, Sina, on her first day in this world. Sina cried as well. As I was held captive with both of them in the hospital room, I had no idea what should be done. I called for the nurses’ help. A nurse came and offered to help Yasmeen breastfeed. It was in vain. The milk did not come, and the crying persisted. The nurse suggested using formula, made especially for new-borns. That made Yasmeen cry even more, feeling the failure.
In her first day as a mother, Yasmeen detected the essence of it: An everlasting feeling of guilt.
The nurse asked me to sign some legal and executive papers to confirm our consent to give formula to our hungry baby daughter. For the hospital to get involved in the bond between a mother and an infant, they need the mother’s informed consent or else this interference would be considered a crime. By all powers of biology and modern law, only the mother is responsible for feeding the infant.
A few days later, Yasmeen’s breasts supplied milk. Each time she breastfed the new-born, despite all the physical pain, her face lit up with a smile. She tried to explain how she felt, but words failed her. She spoke of energy, of something that runs through the inside of her, along with milk, to the inside of Sina. It is believed that this is the maternal bond.
We come into life incapable of consuming solid foods. We can only suck our mother’s milk. The first sign of a human infant’s growth is their ability to keep their heads upright, so that they can swallow. Only then some sustenance can be offered. The second sign of growth is weaning. When babies are not breastfed anymore, they shift from being infants to becoming toddlers.
The older we get, the more distant we are from her. We are weaned off the mother’s milk only to eat what her hands offer us. Our palate is shaped by our mother’s food, and we spend years believing that the best food is that cooked by mom.
Regardless of how bad a mother’s cooking might be, children do not realise it. On the contrary, they genuinely believe this is how normal, even excellent, food tastes!
This is known as Mother Culture. It extends not only to include the taste of the mother’s cooking, but also the customs of cuisine taught to us by our mothers. Some mothers raise their children with a must finish your plate rule; others are raised encouraged by mothers to leave a bite or two on their plate. In Egypt, this is known as “the Cat’s Share,”the idea being to help out cats and dogs that live off of garbage.
The mother instructs us as to what we should and should not eat. As such, ever since I was a little boy my mother declared all types of sausages (Egyptian-style street food sausages/ frankfurters/ hotdogs) FORBIDDEN at home. Throughout my childhood we were warned not to eat them outside behind her back.
We listened to Mother because she, definitely, knew our stomachs better than we did. Over time, we grew, left the house more often, we rebelled against Mother’s culture and we began to explore the world…and the hotdog.
I fell in love with all types and shapes of sausages at first bite, when I was nineteen. I went back to my mother asking her, ‘Why did you forbid us from eating hotdogs’? She answered that, as a kid, she stopped once in front of a shop that sells sausage sandwiches and, for some reason, the smell of sausages on the grill upset her so much that she passed out. Ever since that day, she’d hated sausages and everything related to them. So, the ban in this case was never for health reasons. It was merely our mother’s own palate.
Our bodies are a record book signed by time. On the surface it’s all flesh, blood and bones which are the result of what we eat. Our bodies, and what we eat, reflect all that shapes our identity.
We take control of our own selves and reshape our identity when we rebel against the cuisine of Mother Culture. I come from a world where pork is defiled, Haram. I had to travel at the age of twenty-three to know what pork tastes like. I loved the juicy taste of the pink meat. However, when I go back to Cairo, it’s hard for me to find restaurants or shops that serve pork. This made the joy of eating this pink flesh feel like forbidden fruit. I had to wait until I travelled to keep eating it in all its possibilities.
We rebel against Mother Culture.We drift away from Mom’s cuisine only to explore the facts of life.
Some cannot take the taste of truth. They refuse to eat food which they cannot recognise and hold onto the palate shaped by the mother’s cuisine. Others take in everything with mouths wide open, realising that Mom’s food is not necessarily the best there is. However, the taste of nostalgia in Mom’s cooking cannot be found any place else.
One’s palate is similar to one’s identity. It is not a frozen image, but one that changes as a result of what time does to our physical forms. Until the age of twenty-eight, I could not stand eating salad or fruit. I still have a memory of many full years having past in my life without me eating a piece of fruit. All of a sudden, with the age of thirty approaching, my palate changed as a result of my body’s needs and abilities having changed. Today, I seek out salads, in fact some of my meals are all salad and vegetables.
It had started as a call from a secret place in my body. Eating meats and carbohydrates gives me a heavy body and a lazy, slow capability of moving and thinking. After the age of thirty, health problems in my digestive system just blew up in my face.
I went to see a doctor, complaining from difficulty in urination and rectal pain. He asked me to sleep on the bed with my knees held tight against my chest, then he inserted two fingers into my rectum.
‘Anal fracture’, announced the doctor, as he was prescribing some analgesic ointment and telling me that the best remedy for me is to change my diet: Stay away from pastries, pizza, pasta… etc. and to eat more vegetables and fruits.
It was only then that I realised that a new phase of maturing and growing old has started, one where you choose your food not based on your Mother Culture, or your personal palate, but based on medical recommendations and the needs of your digestive system that is starting to go downhill.
I moved, a few months ago, to live in the States, carrying on a digestive system that cannot take in pink meat and other indulgences of American cuisine on a daily basis. Only a small amount of these are now allowed to me.
I feel guilty every time I cheat on my diet. I eat pizza, enjoying the taste, but simultaneously thinking of the pain I go through as I defecate. If, by any means, I managed to silence my conscience, the way food is shown and marketed here in America is basically designed to make you feel guilty.
When you go to any restaurant, whether fast food one or fine dining, you will find the name of the plate, a brief description of the ingredients, pri ce and the number of calories. So, while you are choosing your food, you will not only be thinking of the aroma of the main dish, or the taste of the food, but rather about the number of calories entering your body and coming out of it. If the food was good and you could not resist eating more, you will keep eating as the calorie counter in your head keeps adding.
You finish your meal trying to get over your feeling of guilt and enjoy the warmth of a full stomach, only to find yourself surrounded by articles of nutritional education and posts of friends who promote different diets to target weight loss and health.
Food is now tasteless. It is more of a medicine that has to be taken to stay alive in a fatless, sugarless, flavourless, and odourless existence.
Two or three days a week, I let go my food cravings. I eat pastries, pizza and/or pasta. I enjoy marinating beef myself and eat it medium rare, delighting in the red colour of the meat. The sound of boiling oil frying potatoes and chicken breaded with flour and that secret recipe is music to my ears. For the rest of the week, I eat leaves and vegetables, just like rabbits. I watch my weight and examine my urine, trying to keep a minimum level of fitness and maintenance of my digestive system, not because I want to be slim or to live a long healthy life, but because I want to still be able to enjoy all types of delicious unhealthy food, forever.
Our family has a long history of disposing of books in various ways.
As a boy in Egypt, I remember the regular routine when, every so often, my father would open the cupboards and drawers and arrange his books, magazines, and notebooks. Most dear to him were the notebooks which contained his commentary and notes on dozens of books, most of them concerning Sufism, Islamic exigency, and political Islam, in addition to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and various other Islamist leaders.
He arranged the books into bundles and then distributed them in various secret hiding places. Some were concealed in boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop. Others were left in the care of close relatives who did not take part in any political activities. Other books, the presence of which he believed jeopardized his and his family’s security, were burned. Assured he could attain other copies, these books would be thoroughly burned and their ashes discretely disposed of.
As a boy I did not take notice of this practice nor did I understand it, yet the ritual of collecting books and papers and setting them ablaze on the roof was seared into my memory forever. When I would ask my mother about it, she would fumble for the right words to explain to her child the politics at play, saying: “These books contain verses from the Qur’an and passages of our Lord and cannot be dumped in the waste, so it is best they are burned.”
My grandfather, who had been a security guard at a local factory, also had a huge library to his name. My father told me that there had been a time when my grandfather could not afford to buy a bed, so he piled together astronomy textbooks and poems of Ahmed Shawki—which he had memorized by heart—and made beds of them for his children sleep to on. However in the beginning of the 1980s, he slipped into a depression and gave away most of the contents of his library. Thereafter he contented himself with reading newspapers, poems of Al-Maʿarri, and books on astronomy. The latter of these was his greatest passion, and was what prompted him to name his eldest son Galileo. Yet after some convincing and admonishing based on the pretense that this was an un-Islamic name, he settled for Nagy, contenting himself by writing “Nagy Galileo” in huge letters on the wall of the house.
Unlike his own father, my father did not dispose of his books because of a sudden depression or deterioration in his capacity to read. Rather he did this so because these books could be used as evidence against him in the event he was arrested, and the house was raided. Directives to dispose of these books came down from senior Brotherhood leaders to protect its members. The letters of al-Banna or of Al-Manhaj Al-Haraki Lissira Al-Nabawiya could have been used as irrefutable evidence that my father was a member of a ‘banned organization.’
Thus during slow summer nights in Mansoura, back from our stays in Kuwait, there was nothing to do but read the books of Anis Mansour and Khalid Muhammad Khalid and the plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim. If ever state security forces were to have raided our home and found these books, they would in no way incriminate my father, and thus they were spared from being used as kindling in his ritual campfires. I personally had no need for al-Banna’s writings in order to understand the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, for I lived and breathed it every day of my life.
In Kuwait, just as in Egypt and more than a hundred other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood runs a social welfare network which not only provides for individuals, but entire families. I would attend weekly sessions with other boys who themselves were also from Egyptian families with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Kuwait.
At that time, the usual program for children my age, aside from reading the Qur’an and becoming acquainted with the Prophetic biography, consisted of regular recreational activities organized over weekends. As a boy suddenly transported from a village on the outskirts of Mansoura to a new environment such as Kuwait, these outings with the Brotherhood youth (or ‘cubs’ as they are known) were filled with adventure and new experiences that helped allay any feelings of homesickness.
Life in Egypt moved to a slightly different rhythm. In our village I was regarded as somewhat special because of my father’s prominent position as a doctor in the Brotherhood. He was a role model for many of the other ‘cubs’, something of which I had not been aware.
Reserved and taciturn by nature, my father spoke little of his past and never spoke at all about anything regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.
He recently told me of his colleagues’ surprise at the hospital, at which he has worked for the past eight years, when they learned only a few months ago that he is a Brother. They only became aware of this after he began attending union conferences held by the Brotherhood Doctors.
My mother was never comfortable with the “Sisters” and felt no urge to take part in Brotherhood activities. Before the revolution, some members of the Brotherhood leadership would coincidentally appear on the news, and she would utter a brief comment, such as, “He was a good friend of your father. They would come to visit and have dinner at your grandmother’s.”
The first thing Brothers in Mansoura and in our village would say upon meeting me was always, “So you are the son of Dr. Nagy Hegazy. You must be proud, God is good!”
Both in Kuwait and Egypt, I always attended private schools, the names of which always included the all-important words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Languages .’
The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’
Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.
Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.
Transitioning from the sheltered Brotherhood schools to the Taha Hussein Public High School was tantamount to setting foot on another planet. For the first time there were Christians in school, and the library contained books other than the standard morning and evening Islamic prayers.
The utopia free of insults and cursing in which Brothers moved about nibbling on siwak and smiling warmly seemed far away. With the second intifada I became more active, and despite the fact that I was still in high school, I would attend meetings with the Brothers at university. I crafted the chants which were shouted in unison during the demonstrations following the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah. I had become an integral member of the Brotherhood group at al-Azhar University. Then Haidar Haidar happened.
A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.
He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned!
Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.
To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.
I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elshaab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”
I left the room, and never went back.
 A small twig (the tip of which is softened by chewing) from the Salvadora persica tree used for cleaning teeth. It is widely held that the Prophet Mohammed recommended its use.
This letter is at least three years overdue, but it’s better late than never.
On this day, the 7th of March, Three years ago, I was sentenced to two years in prison because of a novel I wrote. I was taken from the court to the police station where I spent three nights. During that time, my friends brought me some books to read in my imposed loneliness. Unfortunately, I was transported to prison and they took all the books, my clothes, and my pen.
In my first day in prison, the time passed so slowly. And time in prison is the ever-present executioner. But, I discovered that the only weapon inmates have to face time with, is reading.
Some of the prisoners I met with never opened a book in their lives but surrounded by boredom in prison, and the endless time, books are their only way to survive.
My reading material, however, was ever so scarce; I only found the memoirs of Jihan el Sadat, the wife of the ex-Egyptian president Anwar el- Sadat. I read the book in one night and had to endure its lack of depth and its triviality. I tried re-reading it, but reading it for a second time was more painful than boring.
I walked up and down my cell looking for something to do. A fellow inmate asked me whether I was fine. I told him that I am just looking for something to read because I can’t sleep. Another inmate heard me and said: “Someone I know has a really beautiful translated book with him.” So, I went to that person who had a book with a yellow and orange cover. It was the Arabic edition of your novel, Elling. He promised to give it to me the next day because he was still reading it. But, boredom almost killed me, so I kept on walking up and down the cell in front of him while looking at him persistently. I was convinced that I would be able to have him give it to me without saying a single word. In the end, he surrendered with a frown and gave me the novel.
I tore through your beautiful work in one night, and because we weren’t allowed to go out of the cell for two consecutive days, I reread it, and the second time, I read it slowly. I was surprised to discover later on, that a lot of my inmates had read it and liked it. Some of them, for some reason, imagined that the two protagonists of the novel were inmates as well, and because there are no prisons in Norway, both of them were put in that special house.
Personally, I was entranced with the poets in your novel and in my isolation among the other inmates, I found myself back to writing poetry after I stopped writing it for years.
Thank you for this exquisite novel, and for the smile, you put on my face and regards from me and from my fellow inmates in cell number 2/4, Zeraa’ ward, Torra prison Cairo.
Editor’s note: 25 days to #FreeAlaa is a campaign led by friends, family and supporters of political prisoner and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, highlighting two outstanding cases against him: One, which was adjourned on October 19 to November 8, concerning the five-year sentence that Abd El Fattah has already served three-and-a-half years of, in relation to a protest outside the Shura Council building in November 2013 against military trials for civilians. The second is a case against him for “insulting the judiciary,” which was adjourned from September 24 until December, in which Abd El Fattah could face a fine and more years in prison.
They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.
Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.
We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.
The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.
Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?
Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.
After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?
A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.
It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”
Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.
The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?
There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.
Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.
And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.
Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.
I was honored to be a guest speaker at Pen America New Year New BOOKS party, celebrating with them our love for books and writing. And also remembering other writers who are jailed because of their writing.
we live in the times where a dark ghost hovering over the world, spreading desperate making people losing faith in human rights values and, distributing fear and ruling by Ignorance.
And in times like this, we need to get together, to insist on the power of words, literature, and human rights values.
We are not politicians. We don’t have an army. But we resist by keeping Writing, by keeping our imagination wild. We may win some bottles, we will lose others but at least we will enjoy it.
Thank you, Pen, for what you did to me, for other writers, and for giving me the opportunity to meet and take pictures with one of my favorite writers @jennifer Egan