A portrait of the fugitive in his shelter
In this text, the pseudonym Jafaar looks back from his European life in exile on his and other dissidents' experiences of arrests and torture from Egyptian prisons. The notes are divided by colours and different parallel universes, where thoughts and reflections on shame, fear and exile are described. The colour sections contain emotions linked to the memories of the abuse and humiliation that follow, while the sections with the parallel universes have a more rational and reflective voice. The idea leads us easily to Edward Said's definition of exile as a state of parallel worlds.
How does Wednesday sound blue or light brown? What colour does the clay unite with the injustice in the country-of-origin Egypt, which has been ruled by General al-Sisi since 2014?
Dedicated for Sarah Hijazi and Shady Habash, and for the glamor between them
"Is Wednesday not blue?” Abdel Rahman al-Jundi pondered while imprisoned two years ago.
“It is light brown” I would have thought. Al-Jundi was talking about a phenomenon called synesthesia, which enables people to see concepts and ideas through more than one sense. Each word, when heard, would prompt a certain color. I had thought that it was only me who had this ability. Now I can see from al-Jundi’s blog that it has a name and a narrative, which I thought was part of everyone’s consciousness, not just mine.
When I first read al-Jundi’s blog, I was a fresh immigrant to Europe. Four months had passed since I arrived, I had not yet found a job, my language skills were limited, and my legal status did not entitle me to government support. I was enduring a jittery emotional relationship, and a separation loomed. I was about to be forcibly evicted from my apartment, and the little money I had in my purse was barely sufficient to purchase a one-way ticket to Egypt.
Abdul Rahman al-Jundi described the color of injustice as that of wet clay, and I, somehow, found myself painting Egypt the same color.
“Come on, you son of a bitch,” he tells me, pulling me by my belt, as one of his colleagues almost pokes his hand in my ass. I am blindfolded and I stumble on the stairs that he is forcing me to ascend. It’s July 2014. The General has just became President. It’s a hot day during Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting). My mouth is dry and the sweat is burning my closed eyes under the blindfold. An allergic reaction to the rubber band on my eyes must be turning my skin purple. I taste the sweat dripping onto my lips. It stinks and tastes of pee. For three hours the scene before me is veiled in blackness by the blindfold that covers my eyes. Suddenly, "Let there be light", it was said; electricity ran through my body; lightning, white at last.
Black and white are integrated in the picture and with their integration, they recall a memory that, I thought, had been lost. It’s a memory of a classmate's house in the late nineties; we left school early that day, so he and I had some time to play at his house before school finishes. Just the two of us. We chose to play hide-and-seek. I closed my eyes as he went to hide, then I started looking for him. He managed to lure me into a tiny pantry room that was filled with junk, garlic, and onion, and locked the door behind me. My screams and pounding on the door never worked. I began to move violently and throw objects to the floor trying to scare him and force him to open the door. Instead, a metal candlestick fell onto my head. I did not faint, but rather froze in my place. I became short of breath, and, for a moment, I surrendered, feeling as if it were death. I thought I had completely forgotten that memory, but here it is, recalled by a similar freezing moment, under waves and waves of torture.
Parallel Universe 1
Issam Atta. They inserted water hoses in both his mouth and anus, in search of a SIM card that his family managed into sneak in prison. He dies. Not very far away from Issam, in the women's prison, a female jailor covers her hand in a black plastic bag and nudges it into a woman’s vagina. A third scene: in the prison bathroom, Ahmad Nagui, a writer, was maneuvering a plastic bag to take it out of his anus, waiting for the birth of literature.
I was never tempted by the notion of heroism. I disavowed almost all the big ideas. I was not motivated by affiliation nor was I led by theory. I was satisfied to debate the ideas in my mind. I feared almost everything, but did not like to have fear of the power as a feature of mine.
I never signified any threat to the political system, and I do not think that I will, even if this regime remained in power for a hundred years. Still, it has enough stupidity not to see the difference between those who pose a threat to it and those who do not. I was detained twice. First in November 2010, and again in July 2014. The first time, I was collecting signatures for a petition to change constitutional articles that everyone knew they will not change. The second time, I was arrested because I edited and wrote for a student newspaper. My first experience passed peacefully, but the second one was humiliating. In both cases, I was not kept for longer than 12 hours, but on the second occasion I envisioned the ghost of prison. I was scared of torture the first time. I feared for my family and my friends lest they get hurt because of me. And that was it: I stopped being interested in politics. I realized my humility, and finally accepted fear as one of my fine tastes. The color of withdrawal – cool grey.
Parallel universe 2
“All human experiences are driven by the search for happiness and end with the search for forgetfulness,” Ahmed Abdel-Latif, Egyptian novelist.
When I was arrested for the first time, I surrendered myself to the policeman, trying to remember every detail of the event, to later report any abuses I might be subjected to. Then when I was thrown out on the road, I was too scared to remember any detail of what happened. Fear and shock prevented me from reporting the incident, fully aware that was wrong, but more aware of the futility of any reporting, knowing that the consequences would be greater. I told few people about the incident. A year after I started dating my ex-girlfriend, I told her. She was speechless. I didn’t know why I hadn't told her earlier. I did not believe that my experience was really worth telling, or even recalled in my memory. I attributed my deep feeling of nothingness to a conscious philosophical choice and to the intense tendency to live in loneliness since that incident, which is quite contrary to the social life I had led before. I attributed that to everything, except to the incident itself. When I got home, I had the same feeling I had all those years ago, when I managed to escape from the pantry room. I was trapped again and the same feeling came back with all the childhood battles and teenage bullying, when my greatest fear was how my father would scold me because I was not masculine enough.
Parallel Universe 3
I have read most of what has been recorded by prisoners and kept track of their news. Jalal al-Buhairi’s prison is in color; Alaa Abdel-Fattah's articles are not without irony despite their seriousness. Ahmed Nagy snores as usual, and images of Mahinour, Douma and Sanaa Abdel Fattah always appear with a smile. In an interview, months after I travelled, the interviewer asked me why I laughed when I spoke about tragic situations in Egypt. Whenever I read my writings at a literary event, always somebody smiles while I am reading, and approaches me after the event to shake my hand, describing my texts as fun. In another cosmos, people do not find dictatorship as funny, nor is the laughter of pain bitter.
After a few months, my girlfriend and I broke up, but I had secured a job at an international press organization, a time-limited project, but it enabled me to move and live in some peace. I hoped that the project would extend until I could renew my residency permit, based on having a job, but it ironically ended just three months before the renewal date. I was lost again and returned to the pantry room, banging on the door nervously and damaging everything around me: fear drives me to look for exit, while things fall on my head. But this time my exit was based on the grievance of repression, identities that I did not want to fall on my head.
Once again, Egypt is the color of wet clay. There was no other way, amid my fears, except to apply for a grant for writers at risk. The weight of my memories stand on my chest as I recall the whole experience and put it in the hands of the application board. The same feeling of anxiety I had when I was confined washes over me. I was frightened to death that my application would be rejected and then I would have had to return to the wet clay; and worried if it is accepted by other countries, other colors that were not like me.
I got used to being asked if my fears of returning to Egypt were valid. Even I started to condemn myself: the security officials have harassed me since 2014. It is true that I stopped everything that might provoke them, but it is also true that when I tried after four years to return to political writing, I was met with censorship from the very website I was writing for. It is also true that my other job at the Egyptian Ministry of Health was affected by what I write and discuss. It is true that the Mabaheth (intelligence) paid me a visit once to look for a man in my bed. It is true that my work for the aforementioned press institution may make me suspicious to them if I returned, and it is true that the jailers in Egypt do not work from the office at all. But all this is just the norm in Egypt; how But how bad is this repression when we compare it to the repression of other regimes?
Years later, I accumulated a feeling that I had been overstating the importance of the experience I had to suffer, and that my obsession about my writing was being constantly watched should be my own problem, not others. I thought of myself as a spoiled person who believes that he is tyrannized, but who did not truly suffer the scourge of persecution. I felt guilty when my application was approved, because I was given a refuge that many others deserve to have more than I do.
But wait! I may have been selfish in saying that. Part of my concern about being accepted as an asylum seeker, was the fear of being an oppressed writer, somebody who is judged by what he has suffered, and not for the quality of his or her writing. Yet, the oppressed writers are ranked, and I will not occupy a high rank.
Parallel Universe 4
In the Old Testament people were punished by God for trying to build a tower that “reaches to the heavens,” eliminating the one language all the people on earth spoke and making them lost in the diaspora. Every person became locked into his or her own language. Walter Benjamin says that a language of a higher caliber, which can only be created by translation and serves as a bridge between our languages, is another step towards our unified language. Benjamin did not realize however, that this transcendence was going to conquer him. The Lord, too, did not know that many languages would mean ... more gods.
For the rescuers, all those who survive from drowning are stories to be told. Therefore, it is best for you to be the survivor, whose leg was nibbled by a shark not the one who managed to float safely on the wreckage of the boat.
Everyone tells me that I am lucky. The coronavirus crisis has forced Europe to stop accepting refugees from outside Europe. I was lucky because when Covid spread, I was already in a European country, and thus I was accepted in the city that is now hosting me.
Others ask me why they cannot find my story when they look my name up on search engines. When I tell them that I have not been imprisoned for long, I see the heartbreak in some of their eyes.
Thus, the freezing moment that established your tragedy is not enough because while it has taken you to ski in the Northern countries, you find yourself unable to do so because you have not spent enough time in prison, even though you did not choose to go there ever in the first place.
I feel like a fugitive from the army at a moment of war. He is on the edge of refusing to kill, on the edge of being disgraced for cowardice, while everyone looks upon him with suspicion, though it was never his war.
I stood on the walls of the prison, but I did not enter. I read Ahmed Nagui's account of his time in prison. He talks about the Ketch paintings that were on the prison wall. I saw myself locked in one of the paintings that have been packed up and sent off to be displayed in Europe galleries, where I will point to one of the gallery visitors and shout “how dull!”
Parallel Universe 5
My memory developed what I thought was a quote, and I later discover that it was just a misunderstanding. It was a mere comment about the crisis of the stranger in exile, who loses not only internal intimacy, but also external intimacy. How I spend my days here is no different from there. I feel my longing is not for the things I left there, but for the things that I did not possess.
I think about that while I read about a prisoner who was shocked to discover Instagram and Twitter when he was released from prison. His story afflicted me with sadness, I who never cared to open an account with either platform, without the slightest feeling of missing anything.
I do not want this to be understood as ruminating over grievances, but as a criticism of a discourse that does not concern immigrants alone, and which tries to use anything and anybody as a good for sale. In fact I have every appreciation for the people behind the grant and cannot imagine what would have happened without it. I am truly grateful to them and willing to contribute to their efforts to help others. But this has nothing to do with the complexity of the experience, the intensity of its feelings, the contradiction of its struggles, and the inability to draw it in two dimensions on a piece of paper. I need to reconcile the fearful part of me along with the resentful part. The two parts are in a constant argument about what I did. The first has the right to dread; the other has the right to feel publicly ashamed, hoping to avoid all of that, wanting to sincerely understand how the roads ended up here.
Parallel Universe 6
I wonder how I managed to let go of the experience while in Egypt, and how when I’m here I dread. Why did I come back to stand on the fence again? I read an article by Alaa Abdel-Fattah, in which he speaks about bullets fired at prisoners who tried to escape. I feel that the marks left by those bullets on the prison walls, have left a bleaker memory than all the entire event.
I wrote once that soldiers do not become depressed in wars. They spare their depression until after, in their soft warm beds. Only then, the fractures in the ankle and the wounds in the abdomen will hurt.
Sitting in my warm home, watching the news, I contemplate an injury caused by a pistol shot, and how a doctor fixed that with a scalpel. I think about how that injury (issabah) and fixing it (sawab) have the same linguistic root in Arabic, while the bullet and the scalpel – in every language – have the same blood.