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Egypt dissidents revive rich prison writing tradition

By Farid Farid
Egypt Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, seen here with family in 2019, has spent the better part of a decade behind bars.  By Khaled DESOUKI (AFP/File)
OCT 21, 2021 LISTEN
Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, seen here with family in 2019, has spent the better part of a decade behind bars. By Khaled DESOUKI (AFP/File)

Having spent the better part of a decade behind bars, Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah is reaching beyond his cell with a new book.

Egypt has a long history of political prisoners turning to writing to capture their experiences in confinement.

An icon of the 2011 revolt that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Fattah wrote prolifically over the years, becoming one of the best-known voices of the protest movement.

His writings have now been anthologised into a book published this week, titled: "You Have Not Yet Been Defeated".

With a foreword by Canadian author Naomi Klein, the title of the nearly 450-page book released by a British publisher is a nod to Abdel Fattah's continued public engagement, even while in solitary confinement.

"He has different voices with his writing, from the technical to the passionate and poetic," his mother, veteran activist Laila Soueif, told AFP.

"The form of expression may differ but at its fundamental core, his writing is attached to justice," she added.

On Monday, Abdel Fattah was brought before a security court yet again on charges of "broadcasting false news" for a tweet.

He was last arrested in September 2019, having been released just months earlier on probation, in the wake of rare protests calling for the removal of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Laila Soueif says her son has been excited about the publication of his work in English translation.  By MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (AFP/File) Laila Soueif says her son has been excited about the publication of his work in English translation. By MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (AFP/File)

Soueif said her son, 39, had been excited about the publication of his work, despite knowing that he cannot celebrate his latest literary achievement.

"For me his letters from jail were just letters mimicking our conversations. We've always talked about everything together, from science fiction to capitalism," the award-winning mathematics professor said.

'Understanding Egypt through its prisons'

"You can't understand Egypt without understanding what's happening in its prisons," said Elliott Colla, an Arabic literature professor at Georgetown University.

He noted that jail conditions have worsened compared to decades ago under the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, based on his reading of prominent writers such as Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani.

"As scary as Nasser's prisons were, people felt like they could organise solidarity openly with prisoners in terms of book, food and clothing campaigns... That's a big difference between Sisi and Nasser," he said.

Colla has also translated the poems of another prominent activist, Ahmed Douma, 36, who has been in jail since 2013. He has spent six of those years in solitary confinement.

He published a book of poetry, "Curly", that was displayed at this year's Cairo International Book Fair in July but was quickly pulled for "security reasons".

Douma's brother Mohamed sent him a physical copy but does not know if prison authorities allowed him to receive it.

"We were happy because he was happy and was focused on it as a project. But he was quickly saddened because it got pulled from the Cairo book fair," he told AFP.

The poetry of Egyptian activist Ahmed Douma, seen here during a trial hearing in January 2019, was briefly exhibited at this year's Cairo book fair before being pulled.  By - (AFP/File) The poetry of Egyptian activist Ahmed Douma, seen here during a trial hearing in January 2019, was briefly exhibited at this year's Cairo book fair before being pulled. By - (AFP/File)

"From the start of his jail sentence, Ahmed would give his lawyers a poem here or there each time he'd see them in court for trial."

Douma asked the lawyers to collate the poems to be published in a book, his brother added.

'Smiling behind glass'

Mohamed Douma said his brother was eligible for conditional release earlier this month after serving half of his sentence.

The family was informed that they would have to pay a fine of six million Egyptian pounds ($380,000) for the prison authority to consider his release.

But for the jailed activist, who has contracted Covid-19 twice since the start of the pandemic, his joyful spirit has not been dampened.

"During court sessions, we're the only ones smiling and laughing to each other from behind the thick glass and everyone else is crying. We're very similar in personality," his brother recounted.

In one of his poems composed in solitary confinement, Ahmed Douma writes: "There's no time for depression, no opportunity for sadness, the flood is raging."

Colla situates Abdel Fattah's and Douma's words within the tradition of Egyptian writers coming of age in jail.

"Prison literature is not a minor genre in modern Arabic literature. In fact, you can say in some places (in the Arab world) it's the dominant genre of the best literary production," he said.

Soueif says she hopes her son's book "will give a complete picture of Alaa".

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