Egyptian detainees seek to defy prison walls

Reem Gehad , Saturday 17 Jan 2015

Some young detainees are turning to creative activities to bear witness to what they perceive as their unjust imprisonment

An origami bird made by detained activist Yara Sallam in Qanater women's prison (Photo courtesy of her mother Rawia Sadek)

As many young Egyptian people - Islamists, students, revolutionary activists - languishing in prison cells, some have chosen to travel beyond the rigid walls with activities symbolic of an uncontained freedom.

Asmaa Hamdy, a dentistry student at Al-Azhar University, is one such young woman who sends her family and friends woolen garments from behind bars bearing the label “made in prison”.

She was sentenced to five years for attacking a security officer and torching a cafeteria on campus, among other charges. In December, an appeals court upheld the charge.

While in prison, she started knitting clothes for her close family members. Her fiancé Ibrahim Ragab says she improved her knitting with help from fellow detainees and started producing more complicated items like bags, bracelets and pencil cases.

Ragab, 21-year-old media student, who speaks of his fiancée - with whom - he has been in love since 2012 - with tenderness, said the couple used to meet at a public library and exchange books. When she was arrested, he decided to ask her family for permission to propose, and despite the prison bars separating them, they got engaged. He visits her regularly since then, exchanging wool bundles for bags this time.

Her family sell her bags to her colleagues and relatives or to people who send special requests to a Facebook page created in her name.

“She wanted to say that [the authorities] can’t imprison our ideas. Our souls are free,” Ragab told Ahram Online.

Similarly, in a different prison, 23 activists, including seven women, are serving two years in prison for protesting against the controversial law that forbids unauthorised protests, and like Hamdy, the prisoners are trying to find ways to make their voices heard outside.

Rawia Sadek, mother of prisoner and human rights activist Yara Sallam, spoke to Ahram Online on the ideas she and daughter have been taking trials to help her fight the isolation.

Rawia Sadek, the mother of prisoner and human rights activist Yara Sallam, said that her daughter has been making colourful bookmarks for her mother and her friends.

In her prison cell, the 28-year-old lawyer, who works for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has made her mother and some friends colourful bookmarks. She used the English version of the book “Forty Rules of Love” to select the right quote for the personality of the person receiving the bookmark.

On her Facebook page, Sadek shared a photo of one such bookmark which bears the words: “Patience does not mean to passively endure. It means to be foresighted enough to trust the end result of a process.”

Her bookmarks also bear the slogan “Qanater Women’s collection”, in reference to the prison on the outskirts of Cairo where she is serving her sentence.

After much trial and error, Sallam has also finally succeeded in making an origami bird, her mother says. The girls, Sadek says, also try to exchange the skills they have.

However, activists and families maintain that their imprisoned loved ones, though defiant, should be outside prison bars pursuing their lives freely. The activities they do in prison, though symbolic, are not a substitute nor a compromise for freedom, they say.

Basma Abd El-Aziz, a psychiatrist and columnist, believes that these kind of activities offer prisoners a chance to communicate with the outside world and are “important means to break the isolation.”

The attempts, however, come at a cost. Hamdy has faced difficulties for her “made in prison” label.

She used the Arabic term “motaqal” for prison, which gives a stronger meaning than the more commonly used “segn” and usually implies that the detainee has been imprisoned unjustly, particularly for their political affiliation.

Ragab says Hamdy has received threats that prison officials would prevent her from getting the materials to knit and would halt her activities if she continued to use the term.  

Like the other detainees, Rawda Gamal, a 19-year-old student who has been detained for over a year pending trial for “illegally protesting and attacking security”, was not allowed to knit when she moved from Qanater to Banha prison where conditions were harsher and rules more strict.

Her friend Salma Abd El-Aal, who visits her regularly, told Ahram Online, that even though she was later allowed to resume work, when she did not comply with orders, those in charge threatened to take her wool away.

The prison authorities have also stopped her knitting items featuring the words “free” and “paradise”, and the flags of Syria and Palestine.

“It’s forbidden,” Abd El-Aal said. “She does normal stuff now.”

Psychiatrist Abd El-Aziz sees these limitations as a way for authorities to  deny any accusations of unfairness.

“It seems that there is a feeling that these people are somehow unjustly detained - whether pending trial or after a final sentence. And all the time there is an attempt from the authorities to deny this injustice,” she says, “and so they want to remove any sign of it.”

Items bearing political slogans and vocabulary like those produced by Hamdy and Gamal could be a reminder in the future that those behind bars may have faced injustice.

“It’s a witness to their cause,” she says.

Meanwhile, many detainees across Egyptian prisons continue to fight against the limits of their prison cells.

“One has to think beyond lamenting themselves,” Sadek says after she recounts how she told her daughter to think as though she went off to one of the camps she attended as a younger girl - where she learned new things and grew more.

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