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Book Review: Letters of love and prison by Abdel-Azim Anis

A collection of letters by the Marxist intellectual Abdel-Azim Anis sheds light on the terrible conditions inside Gamal Abdel-Nasser's torture camps after the 1952 Free Officers' Coup

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Tuesday 10 Jul 2012
Letters by Abdel-Azim Anis

Rasa’il Al-Hubb wal Huzn wal Thawra (Letters of Love, Melancholy and Revolution), Abdel-Azim Anis, Cairo: GEBO, 192pp. 2012

It has been three decades since the first edition of Abdel-Azim Anis's prison letters were published, yet they still give invaluable insights, warmly conveyed, into such topics as prison and the possibility of a communist revolution. They shed unique light on otherwise documented crimes against leftist intellectuals and activists in the wake of Nasser’s rise to power in July 1952.

Letters of Love contains 51 letters that the late mathematician and political activist exchanged with his wife, Aida Thabet, while in prison for a period of four years (1959-1964), from several of country's detention facilities.

Nasser’s regime, which ruled Egypt between 1954 and 1970, had launched a wave of arrests in January 1959 – just two months after Anis married Thabet – taking in leaders of the workers movement and sympathetic figures.

Ironically, most Egyptian communist leaders were had supported Nasser and his regime because he led the anti-imperialist movement in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in addition to his popular domestic policies. Yet Nasser suppressed independent political organisations together with all forms of opposition.

Anis’s letters make fascinating reading, partly because they are published unedited—retaining all the immediacy and rawness of the time of their composition, the man’s tenderness for his newlywed wife as much as his commitment to Marxist principles.

“The source of the warm feelings expressed in these letters," Anis says in the preface, "is not only that they were written by a 35-year-old man to his 25-year-old wife; more importantly, they draw their warmth from the leftist intellectual bond that had brought my wife and me together. Our humane and intellectual relationship sprung from the deep shared conviction that we could never leave each other.”

On the other hand, the letters reveal the terrible suffering experienced by communist prisoners in the Western Desert, where the regime tortured them in the attempt to destroy their human dignity – how they were forced out barefoot during the worst of the winter to break stones, for example.

They show how the likes of Anis were able to endure such circumstances and turn the inhumane detention camp into a humane space, reclaiming part of the surrounding desert to grow vegetables and building a theatre in which they performed Shakespeare.

“I want to tell you about my interesting experience in teaching advanced mathematics to my friend, Mohammed Abbas,” Anis writes, particularly memorably. “He insisted that I should give him the lectures I used to teach at London University in 1955-1956, inside our cell. There were no boards or pens and it had been a long time since I last delivered those lectures so I'd forgotten many of the theorems. But thanks to his insistence I began to remember them again.”


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