It’s 10 am and the contours of Tora Prison, south of Cairo, are filling with families arriving on time to visit relatives. Old 504 Peugeots are offloading passengers, whose faces are marked by the fatigue of the trip. The scene feels like an invisible face of Cairo.
Vendors selling oranges and mandarins are part of the prison economy, with some families stopping and buying some on their way inside the prison complex. A girl who looks about 10 years old is carrying a colossal tray of konafa on her head. Her shorter brother is carrying a bag of cloth bigger than him. They entertain each other in the line waiting for police inspections to finish before they are let in.
An hour later, we are disbanded into a large hall where detainees are impatiently waiting for their families to arrive. Each takes their family into a corner where they can snatch a moment of privacy. A cacophony of family conversations and arguments makes for a temporary prison soundscape. Many of the prisoners are bearded and their female relatives fully veiled.
Usually three people can visit a prisoner, but if a family comes in with two visitors, another family can use their empty slot. Visiting rights are irregular, however; some are granted a visit every two weeks, others once a week, while the allotted time differs. Visiting and prisoners’ rights are generally better before sentencing than after.
Manal Hassan has some 45 minutes each week with her husband, Alaa Abd El Fattah, detained on November 28. She skillfully divides the time of the visit between passing on news, getting advice on family and work issues and relaying greetings from people outside, to which Abd El Fattah rhythmically responds. Hassan makes sure to take note of Abd El Fattah’s requests in her notepad: a pair of socks, sneakers, new bed sheets and a clean green towel from home. At the end, they are left with a moment for a hasty emotional exchange and brief play with their two-year-old Khaled, who is energetically running around the prison yard.
Outside, Abd El Fattah’s sister, Sanaa, is trying to convince a policeman to accept the entry of adhesive tape into his cell. Abd El Fattah receives pictures of his friends and their children and he likes to hang them on his cell wall — alongside letters he receives — in a desperate attempt to remain connected to the outside world.
A few weeks later, Abd El Fattah is released, while his case of breaking the protest law, is still being heard. Thousands of others remain behind bars, arrested on similar charges, their families desperately trying to ease their experience of imprisonment.
One of these is Hesham Abdel Monsef, arrested on January 25, from in front of the food shop he guards in downtown Cairo. Protests commemorating the third anniversary of the revolution and against the current pro-military regime were heating up in the area when masked men descended on him, tied him up and beat him before taking him to the Azbakiya police station. There, he was looking nervously at the clock on the wall, thinking that he would miss the metro if he was not let out soon. Little did he know that he wouldn’t be home for a long time — over two months so far — and that he would be sentenced to two years in prison in a case that he remains largely clueless about.
Abdel Monsef, now detained at Abu Zaabal Prison, told his family during one of their visits that in the police truck after his arrest, he heard a policeman telling his superior, “We only managed to arrest four,” to which the higher ranking policeman responded, “Not enough for a case of illegal assembly. Get me more.” A month later, Abdel Monsef was sentenced, alongside another 68, on charges of illegal assembly and protest, belonging to a terrorist group and possessing arms.
According to his account, Abdel Monsef is only a number for those who arrested him, and he may also be little more than a number for people outside of prison who sporadically hear about the thousands of arrests in recent months. As such, it is only his family who knows what it means for Abdel Monsef to be in prison.
“Every time I sit and eat, I see Hesham in front of me saying ‘you’re here eating and leaving me in prison?’” says a broken Ayman Hamed, Abdel Monsef’s brother-in-law and long-time friend.
Now that they know he is there to stay, Abdel Monsef’s family visits him with less hope but with all the goods that can render prison life a scratch closer to life outside.
They do so because no one else does. Reda Marei, a lawyer and researcher in the criminal justice unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that one of the main problems with Egypt’s prisons is that they fall under the control of the Ministry of Interior.
“In the 1930s and 1940s, prisons used to be part of the Ministry of Social Affairs. In other places, it is under the Ministry of Justice. So this leaves it to the Ministry of Interior to do what it wants with no one controlling them,” he says.
During a 15-minute encounter every two weeks, Abdel Monsef’s family fills a gap and their worlds become closer for a moment. But it’s a difficult mission.
“We rent a car to go to Abu Zaabal at 4 in the morning with bags of food and drinks. We reach there around 6.30. We stand in a line with other families for an hour. Then we are inspected and wait inside for another three hours. And then we get our 15 minutes. Before we begin getting into a conversation, the policemen whistle to indicate the end of the visit. This is the hard moment when we have to say good bye,” Hamed says.
“Inside, we sound like parrots,” says Mervat Abdel Wahab, mother of Mohamed Salah, also arrested on January 25 this year and now detained in Abu Zaabal Prison. “No one hears anyone.”
Abdel Wahab visits Salah once a week and spends the day before the visit cooking for him. Not all that she cooks makes it inside, since the police arbitrarily confiscate some of it during inspection. “It’s extremely humiliating what they do with us in prison.”
But Abdel Wahab and her family’s experience with humiliation has not been confined to the prison visits. They only discovered Salah’s whereabouts after four days of relentless searching in police stations. “I was told that mothers have a better chance of learning from the police where their kids are, so I went to a Central Security Forces camp and sat on the floor in front of a policeman and said to him, ‘Where is my son? I won’t leave unless I know.’”
She wrote his name on a tissue and handed it to the policeman. And then she found out.
Salah, 18, was arrested near a protest in downtown Cairo. He is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but was angered by the death of three of his friends in protests.
Ten days after his arrest, his mother was able to see him. “He was mostly silent and spoke briefly to tell us he was beaten. A policeman threatened them with electric shocks if they didn’t say they were part of the Brotherhood. Mohamed got scared and told the policeman to write down anything and he will sign it,” Abdel Wahab recalls.
This confession would send him to the notorious Abu Zaabal Prison where he shares a cell, three meters by three meters, with another 60 men. It would send his mother pleading for his innocence left and right, from the office of the prosecutor general to that of the dean of his school to prove that he is a good student with no record of belonging to the Brotherhood.
On the eve of mother’s day, Abdel Wahab came home with a letter from her son.
“My beloved mother, today I should have been with you and should have got you a present. Instead, I am in prison. Forgive me. And pray for me,” he wrote.
It is with the privacy of letters that they can become a site for more intimate communication. In a letter Abdel Monsef recently sent to his wife with one of his visitors, he wrote, “Dear wife, I hope you forgive me for my mistakes. I see Baraa with my heart even if I can’t see him with my eyes.”
Abdel Monsef’s wife had just given birth to their son and decided to call him “Baraa”, Arabic for “innocent”, in the hope that he would be the good omen of his father’s release.
Some of the letters are an entry point into the invisible worlds of prison, a demystification of the common triumphant saying in Arabic that “prison is for the brave.”
“I can only live here as a prisoner. To write regularly in my cell and claim this way I am free would be a crime. I’d be adding bricks and barbed wire to my prison with my own hands,” Abd El Fattah wrote to this reporter during his imprisonment.
“I’d be complicit in making prison harsher for the thousands of kids who get arrested in protests and go in thinking they will have a good experience and achieve insight like all the famous heroes of the struggle, then get crushed by prison. No, I can only live the broken life of a prisoner and in admitting that and never accepting it. I will seek a way to resist.”
For Alaa Bekheet, 19, letters are also a site of expressing and nurturing hope. She has just written a letter to her 51-year old father, telling him that she remains hopeful despite the three-year sentence handed down to him.
Bekheet’s father was arrested from his car with his two sons after leaving a protest last December. She says he is bearded but not a Brotherhood member. The two sons have been released pending the case. Their old sister, Alaa, is left with most of the work surrounding her father’s incarceration.
In one of her most recent visits to Abu Zaabal, another lengthy day of waiting and inspections, she overheard the screaming of inmates. “I saw mothers crying next to me because they knew their sons were being tortured inside. It was so painful.”