Nurturing Love in Prison

Part 1 of 2

/ by Ahmed Naji

When thrown into prison, you realize that the hustle and bustle, the friends, all the pomp and fanfare, everything that has ever surrounded you, all disappear into thin air. Nothing remains. The beloveds, the mothers, and the wives are the only ones who continue to linger, persistent. Diligently visiting, preparing food, bringing clothes and socks, and snatching a quick hug at the end of every visit as they bid you farewell.

 

In 2016, I was sentenced to a two year prison sentence because I simply wrote a novel. A civilian had filed the case against me, and the prosecutor had gladly found me guilty of ‘violating public morals’, an affront to Egyptian families’ sense of propriety, dangerously poisoning children’s minds. The court concurred, found me guilty and sentenced me to two years in prison, locking me up, ridding society of my imminent corrupting influence. I was reeling from a deep shock. It had never for a moment crossed my mind that I could be imprisoned for writing a novel. It was a precedent in the whole history of the Egyptian legal system. And here I am, trapped in the dark heart of the system.

 

In the prison visiting areas, I have witnessed the strongest and most ferocious of men break down in front of their mothers and wives. Luckily, our visiting area was a little more humane in comparison to other prisons, as there was no wall separating the prisoners from the visitors. We would all sit in one room on marble benches protruding from the walls, harbouring scurrying ants and cockroaches, their thirst quenched by the prisoners’ and families’ tears.

 

When I was first sent to prison, I wasn’t allowed any visitors for thirty days. As the first visit edged closer, one of my more seasoned cellmates explained to me the necessity of shaving my beard and properly combing my hair. One of the inmates lent me some hair cream to give my hair a less unkempt appearance, while another allowed me a few sprays from cologne that he kept in a plastic bottle. When your loved ones see you, you have to look shipshape, in tip-top condition, according to most of the other prisoners. You don’t want to give your family reason to be alarmed, to increase their misery or anxiety, especially since in coming all the way out there to visit you, they too have endured hardship and have been waiting since the crack of dawn for hours at the gates, in the scorching sun, until they are allowed to enter.

 

With the nearing approach of every visit, rituals had been established: The ‘ironing’ of my navy prisoner’s uniform by placing it under the mattress, getting my hair cut by the prisoner’s barber in return for a pack of cigarettes, waking up early to shave my beard and take a shower; the preparations for a romantic date. These were the only moments of love available to us. Through perseverance and a focused attention on all the preparations leading up to the visit, you guard that love, water it and nourish it.

 

After the second visit, the investigations officer called me into his office. He told me that my fiancée had asked about the procedures and paperwork required to marry an inmate on prison grounds. With a smirk on his face, he said he wanted to make sure that I approved and wanted to marry her, and that she wasn’t putting the squeeze on me.

 

This particular officer, along with a bunch of others, seemed to admire my love for Yasmine, so they temporarily looked the other way regarding the rules that state only first-degree relatives are allowed visiting rights. Although no official legal status bound us, they let her see me, pretending she was my relative.

 

Yasmine and I weren’t even engaged back then. We had met a few months earlier, in the desert of south Sinai, close to the area where the children of Israel had wandered for forty years. Until then, our budding relationship had witnessed no disagreements or tribulations; we would look at each other, incredulous, astounded by how all this time had passed with no problems or misunderstandings to speak of. When the time came to go to court, Yasmine accompanied me to the hearing as a concerned human rights lawyer, and because never, in our wildest dreams, had we anticipated all that was about to happen, she had hurriedly left me to attend to another case, while I awaited my sentence. When my mother came to visit me at the police station prior to my transfer to prison, Yasmine was there as ‘just a concerned lawyer’. By the first visit, a month later, my mother began to suspect that Yasmine was not just my lawyer. Egyptian laws do not acknowledge any kind of relationship or social commitment between a man and a woman, save marriage; it’s rarer still for society to accept non-marital romantic commitments. Strangely enough, however, the police officer accepted Yasmine’s prison visits and our claims that we were engaged, though we were not even wearing engagement rings.

 

Our misgivings remained, however, and continued to worry us. What if a sudden change in the Basha’s or Bashas’ mood led them to call off Yasmine’s visits? It was then that Yasmine thought of marriage, since it would allow her the official legal rights to visit me. But we were apprehensive. We knew that my time in prison, however long that would last, was a temporary situation and we didn’t want our wedding day memories to be saddled with the prison guards’ loathsome grins, be weighed down by metal handcuffs and blue prison uniforms with crawling cockroaches.

 

After the 2016 April Tiran and Sanafir island protests, a fair number of youth and political detainees were arrested and sent to the prison where I was, which led to a visible increase of the patrols and security level. With the increase of inmates, officers, plain-clothes detectives and police guards all became more edgy and short-tempered. It was during that period that I went down to the visiting area during a scheduled visit and was terrified when I saw that my mother was there alone, without my brother or Yasmine. A thousand and one thoughts raced through my mind. What could have possibly happened? A few minutes later, my brother came from the chief of the prison investigation’s office. My brother told me, ‘They aren’t going to allow Yasmine to see you’. The detainees’ families had been waiting at the prison gate, and the prison’s administration had arbitrarily decided not to acknowledge the validity of the visiting permits they carried. Being a lawyer, Yasmine had intervened to help the families and put pressure on the prison administration to allow them to see their loved ones inside. The prison’s administration was angry and, to spite her, predictably decided to enforce the visiting regulations so that she couldn't visit me.

 

After my brother had talked to me, the officer called me in to see him. A long lecture ensued about how he had broken the rules and allowed Yasmine to visit me, due to his magnanimity, forbearance, and out of regard for our love for one another. However, he continued, Yasmine’s causing a commotion and raising a ruckus, and interfering in matters that are none of her business will force him to deal with her according to the rules. I stood there silently. It was a silly exercise and display of power; a game that the authority had played with thousands of Egyptians and political activists. He very well knew that if he talked to Yasmine directly, she would hold fast to the law, to her role as a lawyer and to the families’ right to visit their detained sons and daughters. However, he also knew that if used his authority as a jailor to address me as a prisoner, I would in turn ultimately end up using his language, logic and words when addressing Yasmine, because I wanted to continue to see her during visits. I would emotionally pressure her into compromising and doing what he wanted. I felt totally powerless and helpless. The quiet futility of it all slowly swept over me. Holding my head up high for the first time when addressing him I said, ‘do whatever you want in the future, but I do want to see Yasmine today’. He allowed Yasmine to see me for a few minutes at the end of the visit.

 

In the coming weeks, the chief of investigations and I reached an unspoken agreement. He had come to understand that three things were important to me: Books, Yasmine’s visits and the letters that we sent each other. Everyone in the prison’s administration took pleasure in reading those letters, which reached me days later, after they had been examined and shown to the different security apparatuses. In turn, he took care that these three things remained, so that he could use them to make me comply to what he wanted, either by allowing or by denying them. Every time he allowed me one of the books that were sent to me, he always used the telling phrase, ‘here’s your opium’.

 

Translated by: Radwa El Barouni

....
Ahmed Naji

is a writer from Egypt. Born 1985, currently living in Cairo banned from traveling because the Egyptian government believes he is a threat to the world modesty. He published 2 novels (Rogers and Using life) and one collection of short stories. His work has been translated into Italian, French, and English. More about him and his case at: https://ahmednaji.net/


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