Book Review: Ezz El-Din Naguib's Prison Cell Drawings

Mahmoud El-Wardani , Thursday 14 Aug 2014

In his new book, the artist and writer recalls the melancholy of three short jail terms, focusing on his cell mates, prison life and the images that kept him company

Book Cover

Rusum Al-Zinzana (Prison Cell Drawings) by Ezz El-Din Naguib, General Organisation of Cultural Palaces, The Revolution Writings Series, Cairo, 2014, 132 p.

In early 1972, the artist and writer Ezz El-Din Naguib had just returned from a visit to the Cairo International Book Fair when he found three men waiting for him inside his office in Al-Musafir Khana Palace, which the culture ministry had allocated to a number of artists to use as a painting studio. He was immediately surrounded. One man introduced himself as a state security officer. They then took Naguib to a waiting car.

So began the first of three detention spells that would shape Naguib's career and which are the focus of his new book, Prison Cell Drawings, a collection of written reflections and 30 paintings, sketches and black-and-white portraits that span over 25 years.

The book is revealing in that Naguib doesn't so much reflect on incidents and events, some of which occurred almost half a century ago, but instead focuses on the drawings and paintings that he smuggled behind prison walls and which accompanied him all those years.

Take, for example, the book's first section, which deals with his first spell in jail. He had been arrested for publicly supporting a student uprising in late 1971 to demand the liberation of Palestine. But it's the details of prison life that Naguib dwells on here. Blindfolded in a solitary cell inside the medieval-era Citadel and being led to the bathroom by a jailer. Stealing a wood chip from the bathroom and then using it, and a piece of cement he picked from a hole in the cell, to draw.

After a few days, he hears knocks on the walls of his cell and recognises them as coming from a number of other detained writers and poets, which eases the difficulty of his solitary confinement. They soon form a committee to manage daily life in prison – equally distributing the food, drinks and cigarettes brought from their relatives, handling affairs with the prison administration and holding political and poetry seminars.

Nabuib also accurately records the unofficial interrogations carried out by state security officers and then the prosecutor's investigations. The account of a 14-day hunger strike is included as well.

Taken together, these details, seen through the eyes of an artist, become more important than the detention itself, which we see was handed out merely as punishment and without judicial evidence.

He takes the same approach with his next two jail terms – one in 1975, the next in 1997, neither of which lasted for more than three months – but instead channels his experience into drawings, sketches and portraits that he eventually smuggles out of prison, which gives them a special artistic and historical value.

Nabuib is a well-known, prize-winning artist, with 32 exhibitions in Cairo, Alexandria and London and the author of eight books of art criticism and four short story collections.

But it's this book from his days in various jail cells that seems to stand out – drawing with stolen pencils, the lines both radiant and melancholic. 

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