Something to Resist With

Translate into English by: Ahdaf Soueif. published on 1st April at LRB (London Review of Books) 

On my first day in prison, trying to make me feel better, my fellow inmates listed the advantages of our particular prison, and our particular ward: most of the inmates were senior civil servants, businessmen, judges, police and army officers. Each ward can take sixty prisoners and the prison has nine wards. ‘We’re all respectable people,’ my colleague said, ‘and the administration here is respectable too.’ I said nothing. ‘And even Alaa Seif is here,’ he said, ‘in the ward across the corridor.’

After years apart, Alaa and I were neighbours again. In 2006 I lived on Faysal Road, two streets away from him and his wife, Manal. Their house was a base for artists passing through Egypt, programmers, adventurers, bloggers and political activists. I used to visit all the time. A friendship grew that opened many doors for me. But eventually I left Faysal Road and Alaa left the country.

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Alaa & Manla @ 2016

On my second day in prison, a colleague came in carrying a white bag. He put it on my bunk and whispered: ‘This bag’s from Alaa … and if you need anything, tell me.’ In the bag were a white T-shirt, a carton of Cleopatra cigarettes (prison currency) and other essentials.

On my third day, I stood in front of Alaa’s door and called out to him. The ‘canaries’ who inform on their fellow prisoners stood around puzzled, listening to Alaa and me trade jokes and insults through the door. He told me there was a library in the prison and the books there were reasonable; I could depend on it for the thirty days till my first visit, when I’d presumably get some books. ‘There are also some novels by Bahaa Taher,’ he said, ‘but I can’t take that nation-state rubbish any more.’

Suddenly the air rang with whistles. Guards, in uniform and plainclothes, rushed at me and pulled me away from the ward door, yelling that it was ‘forbidden’. Thirty minutes later I was taken to the duty officer and told that what had happened was forbidden and any communication between me and Alaa was forbidden.

Five months passed like this: only a wall between us, but we weren’t allowed to talk or exchange messages. The prison schedule was changed so we couldn’t bump into each other by accident. My family once waited outside for five hours so that Alaa and I wouldn’t have our visits at the same time. I never understood what was behind this. In prison it’s no use trying to understand.

One morning, all the men in my ward were asked to collect our belongings and move to Alaa’s ward. I stood in the middle of the room till one of the guards came and said that mine would be the bunk above Alaa’s; these were instructions from ‘high up’.

At first Alaa and I went back to our old quarrels, shouting at each other because he’d accepted the Constitutional Amendments in 2011. After a while we found better topics to talk about in Scientific American and Wired, which came in for an American colleague.

We knew there were canaries dedicated to us, listening out for our conversations, our plots, our plans for a takeover. At odd moments I felt sorry for them. Alaa and I once spent a whole day talking about the future of manual labour and craftsmanship in the age of three-dimensional printing.

Since my release I’ve faced the question in many forms: ‘How’s Alaa?’And though I lived with him for five months, each time it takes me some hesitant seconds before I give the answer I always give: ‘He’s … resisting.’

I think of his anxiety, how he couldn’t sleep as the date for the decision of the Constitutional Court on the Protest Law approached. He had a lot of hope. Hope is the daily torment of the prisoner. If hope gets hold of you in prison there’s no sleep, no food, no comfort.

I think of his disappointment when the judgment was issued. The disappointment after each visit when they told him that the Court of Cassation had not yet set a date to hear his final appeal – even though others in the same case had been given court dates, and some had even had their verdicts overturned.

In our last four months together, exercise was banned throughout the prison. No one was allowed to leave their ward or see the sun. I gave in to my fate. But Alaa put his headphones in his ears and paced the ward for hours each night. At half past two every morning, there was an hour of BBC news on the radio. It was our main source of information. Alaa would listen, then come and tell me what he’d heard. Then we would read the state-sanctioned newspapers and talk, trying to find material for comedy, something to resist with.

I miss Alaa now more than ever. I don’t know if our next meeting will be outside, or if I’ll be going back to him. Sometimes, as I read alone at night, I think I hear the fall of his footsteps.

A Lesson in the Dangers of Book Burning

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.”

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جرافيى لكيزر 2013 تصوير: أحمد

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 Doctors Syndicate meetings as one of the Brotherhood’s representative.

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 siwak1 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 Elsh aab. 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.

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1 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.