Language after brutality Is it enough to tell the stories of those who are more definitively silenced? Do we realize that their stories are also about us?

I have to start this piece by discarding an old one. I had written something, just a few days ago, in response to the news that Alaa Abdel Fattah was beaten in jail. I was trying, then, to pry open the wider meaning of the violence done to him, a high-profile, repeat political prisoner who had previously been spared the bodily abuse that so many suffer in prison.

Since then, news has broken of the torture of activist Esraa Abdel Fattah (no relation to Alaa), who was arrested at gunpoint. For hours, she was beaten. She lost consciousness. She was strangled, repeatedly, with the sleeves of her sweatshirt. 

Although they threatened her not to speak about it, the people who tortured Esraa knew she would appear before prosecutors afterwards, knew her bruises would be recorded, knew her lawyers would report the abuse to the outside world. The terror is not only meant for her.

You can think of it as an assault that began in response to the call for anti-government protests in September. Or you can think of it as a tightening of the long, stifling encirclement in which people have been trying to survive for years. 

For those of us who have anything to do with public life — journalists, for example — there is a constant recalculation of one’s own safety, and that of one’s family, one’s friends, and so on. We become mixologists of suppression, denial, and self-fortitude. When the bad news spikes, we look around us and try to figure out how to respond. We are constantly redefining what constitutes reasonable caution, what is self-censorship, what is denial, what is paranoia. 

There is no rest in this, although rarely has the octane been higher than it’s been this fall, with over 3,000 people arrested, multiple days of lockdown in central Cairo, midnight home raids and armed kidnappings.  

What do we do? What do we say?

After learning what happened to Esraa, I sat with my partner on our balcony and tried to find some still point inside myself from which to speak with him about what happened, without escalating panic in either of us. 

I thought, then, into the future — 50 or 100 years from now, when readers or researchers or even our grandchildren look back on our documents of this moment. When they look in books, or in whatever archive of ourselves companies like Facebook allow to survive, when they read projects like Mada. They’ll learn that there were revolutions and wars, mass arrests and media blackouts and travel bans. Will they be able to get a sense of what it felt like to live in this time? This social and individual psychology of anxiety and suppression and corporeal precarity, this struggle to speak when we do not know where we stand? What it means to frequently feel unsafe in your own home, and to continue to live in it? 

I remind myself that I am part of a community of people that continues to engage with the world around us, even if we have been atomized. It has become so very difficult to write freely, in a place that is so unfree. But what we say to each other matters still. 

Is it enough to tell the stories of those who are more definitively silenced? Do we realize that their stories are also about us?

I got to know Alaa over the last six months, after he was released in March from his five-year-imprisonment for organizing a protest which he did not organize. We built our friendship around taking our kids out, and on the work we did together editing his writing. In the six months he spent out of prison, Alaa wrote prolifically: a long essay about prison and the body, pieces on climate change, a short story. 

This is what he would do in the 12 hours a day he spent in a kiosk-turned-cell on the grounds of a police station, where he had to turn himself in for probation every day at 6pm. He would sit and read and work on whatever draft was in progress, with pen and paper, for three or four hours. Then he would turn off the light, and try to get a good night’s sleep on the bedding he had spread on the floor, so that he could make maximum use of his 12 hours of freedom the next day. He was under lock and key the whole time. 

In a final round of edits on the first piece I worked with him on, I asked him to insert some links, and he responded “I consider links to be the job of editors … I am writing on paper in a kiosk.” I looked for a foot-in-mouth emoji but did not find one. 

I know only glimpses of the size and weight of the effort that it took for him to be composed and self-possessed, thoughtful and unconsumed by anxiety, rage, or depression in those six months. I saw a shadow on his face, often — once 4 pm passed and he began having to think about using a clean bathroom, getting his stuff ready for the station, sending out the last messages and tweets and emails of the day. 

He took the government to court over the legality of his probation, both its terms and its conditions. He wrote about them online. This probation, a new kind of half-arrest that the state began adding on to political prisoners’ sentences, affects thousands of others released from jail over the last two years. Given his public profile, Alaa’s outspokenness propelled a national discussion as more half-detainees shared their stories, called what was happening to them illegal and unacceptable. It brought the half of their lives in which they were kept hidden into a little bit of light. 

It was a continuation of his consistent commitment, through periods of stasis and revolution, to writing and spreading accurate information towards justice. There is no doubt that while the state’s security agencies have feared his ability to move the street at times when the street was bold, their fundamental and evergreen problem with Alaa is the way that he thinks, writes, and speaks. 

His jailers tell him that they hate him and the revolution he represents, and Alaa slips into a kind of hologram iconography, onto which people can load their anger and their tiredness. But he is an individual who thinks in terms of structures, without abstracting them away from the people they affect — or from the fact that they can be changed.

Last month, Alaa published a rich piece of memoir in which he used his embodied experience of prison to explain the machinery of a system that has no intention of rehabilitating anyone. He undertakes the difficult challenge of demonstrating how what happens to prisoners has direct consequences for us as a wider society:

“If prisons existed to protect society, attention to prisoners’ health would be paramount. Their bodies, after all, will come into contact with those of their families and loved ones, and the consequences of their injuries will not be contained inside the prison walls.”

— “A personal introduction to viciousness in enmity”

Alaa also wrote about the tashreefa, or  “parade,” a routine, group beating of new prisoners intended to break and humiliate them on their arrival to prison. Alaa was spared this in previous arrests, but he had witnessed many of them, and saw an old man die as a result of one.

He wrote about the death with a minimalism that reflects the brutal lack of attention it receives in prison:

“No one had inquired about his health. The prisoners were grim for two nights and a gloom settled over us, but the prison routine remained unchanged in any respect, and we saw no brass making inquiries. A prisoner’s death generally requires only the simplest procedures.”

— “A personal introduction to viciousness in enmity”

As Alaa himself has said, he has traditionally been spared much of the abuse and mistreatment that is common in prison. The usual analysis is that class as well as having an international profile offer protection from the worst bodily harm. Alaa is from a prominent intellectual family, and is probably Egypt’s most high-profile political activist. But more widely, it is commonly thought that secular political prisoners are protected in this. The people most at risk are those accused of Islamist militancy, and it is to our shame that so few of us on the secular left have engaged with their plight, although many have.

Alaa didn’t go to any of the recent protests, and he didn’t tell anyone else to. Like all of us, he tried to make sense of what was happening, and he was interested in how we were all feeling and thinking throughout. On the Friday following the breakout protests, the day that Mohamed Ali had called for a “million-(wo)man march”, he texted me early in the morning: “Describe feeling?” 

I didn’t know Alaa before his five-year imprisonment. During that time, I was (and still am) in a relationship with his cousin, and in the first few years of getting to know that family, what I knew most of Alaa was the shape of his absence. The pile of bags in his mother’s apartment, with the clothes and books and magazines that his family would try to get in to Tora Prison for him. I learned about his food preferences, listened as his relatives organized cooking rotas with the families of other prisoners in his ward. They spent hundreds of hours waiting outside prison in heat and cold for visits, had moments of fear when they would suddenly be prevented from seeing him. Where was he? Was he ok? 

Alaa’s sister Mona says she has a quarter of the energy, and double the anger of his previous arrest in 2013. The burden that lays ahead of her and the rest of his family is vast. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Egypt in this swollen network, the families of those on the inside, who have to directly agitate the state for their every basic right as prisoners, as human beings. They and the lawyers, some of whom have been beaten and arrested while doing their jobs these past few weeks, are frontline advocates. 

I feel strange about having written about him like this, about subjectifying someone I was just having lunch with. There is a violence in the abruptness with which people are taken from us. For days after his arrest, I kept expecting him to appear in a text message, or on the playground. I think of him, still, as 6pm nears every day. 

Egypt’s justice system and security apparatus — the police, the prosecution, the courts, state security, and national security and intelligence services — have long acted outside the law. We have internalized this so deeply that when prosecutors go ahead and order the detention on remand of people who have been brutalized during their arrests, their wounds still fresh on their bodies, we expect nothing different. People wonder what the point is of trying to engage with and hold them to account when the corruption and brutality is so blatant and so unchecked. 

Some of us have a choice in how engaged we become. We think that we might play it safe. Stay away from politics, as they say, as though politics is a food item, as though we are not already political agents simply by living in society and having needs and possessions. But in the last few years, hundreds of young people have been caught in the net, spent years of their lives in prison for making a joke or walking down the street. The size of the arrests of the last few weeks means, by default, that hundreds were taken who had nothing to do with anything that was going on. This might make more people wonder if there is any safety to play with in the first place, and this, as a colleague pointed out, could be a fundamental shift in our sociopolitical arrangement. What, exactly, is the deal that a person can make with the authorities that will ensure their freedom and bodily safety? 

For Alaa’s family and the thousands like them, there is no choice but to speak and to fight, and not just for our loved ones. We learned long ago that when a life is broken, is stolen from someone else, a part of our own safety is gone. 

On the day before Alaa’s arrest, in a conversation about attitudes towards traditional therapy, he told me that he didn’t believe, fundamentally, that individuals could really heal on their own. It had to be collective. “Of course I also just don’t think we can do any really significant work, even on ourselves as individuals, except collectively,” he said, before running after his son on the playground. 

Yasmin El-Rifae 

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