Ahmed Naji, 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.
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.
By Ahmed Naji