A Letter to Alaa in Prison, Where he is Free

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Dear Alaa,

“To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.” Gandhi. And so I will start my letter again,

My dear, honest friend, Alaa

I am writing this letter to thank you and to apologise to you.

I attended a workshop in Bristol last year. One of the professors speaking referred to you as a “problem” for new regimes that came into power in Egypt. They used you as an example of a “new type of youth”, one the repressive governments could not buy nor silence with power or promises of personal gain. I felt so proud at that moment. You were never one that trod on blood that was not given time to dry. You lived the expression of your understanding and conviction that innocent blood would not dry except with accountability, quick justice and with plans on how more blood would not be shed in the name of any flag or any religious book. It is with pride that you should know that this stand you take is not unnoticed, that it resonates in many consciousness’s as a reference point and that you have constructed in your own fight, a truth about what freedom and justice should be by taking this position. Rare are the opportunities to meet someone who is that brave, I do not take that for granted.

I am holding on to the image of you walking around in large groups during Tweet Nadwa giving the microphone to those who had gathered for a chance to have their dreams aired and heard and respected. You handed them in that microphone a tool of expression; literally and practically giving a voice to those who are often ridiculed for what others may call utopian dreams or naïve solutions to life’s complex problems. I hold that image of you because only when I saw how scared of you they were did I realise the power of what you were doing was. The value of that walking around in public spaces celebrating the agency and potential of your equals was a threat to the fragility of those who rule by terror and manipulation. It only made sense that they would try and find any way they could to put you in their cages, believing – foolishly – that those metal bars could keep in the value, the importance, the power, the affect of what you were trying to do. They thought, foolishly that they could imprison the ideas in your head that spread to us like dandelion heads every time they so much as walked past you or your cell.

Often, those who support my work, will attack me if I show discontent at a violation of the rights of someone with whom they, or indeed I, do not sympathise, as if rights were or should be reserved only for those with whom we associate. This often demoralized me and made me feel I was lucky to have an option not to be in Egypt, that I had the option to call another land “home”. But the idea that you represented, the philosophy that’s embodied in what you fight for, is part of what bought me back. The possibility of “fair”, or a collaborative “I”, that had to come together, gave me hope. I needed that the determination to work with the most vulnerable at home, my street kids. The justice and equal opportunity that I felt would come if everyone really heard, really understood, really lived what you were saying, was worth returning for. You made me feel that people at “home” understood the underlying values of equality, access to opportunity, freedom, dignity, integrity, they were free and so were asking for their freedom. It is people like you who gave people like me, with something to offer, no matter how big or small, the chance of coming back and offering it despite it not being profitable, not being progressive in a capitalist way.

I am incredibly humbled by your strength, by your determination and by the honour with which you live to remain true too your fundamental principles. I see how you are never compromising, never meeting an oppressor half way, never being silenced in the guise of neutrality. I admire that you are always taking sides – always – with the oppressed; no matter who that was because it was – always – the principle, not the idea, not the person, not the situation, that mattered to you. The abstract notions of justice and integrity that many construct in ways that suit them, were clearly well grounded and defined as far as you were concerned and I write now to reassure you that all those lessons are in my and many other hearts and continue to inspire us and give us hope. Hope is not a gift that is to be taken for granted in the world in which we live. It is the idea that is embodied in all those things that you do; which bought me back to my “home” country, it’s principles and potential like yours that kept me going was I worked with the street children.

Your family are incredibly lucky that they have you to support the remarkable work they have done, both in and out of prison. I was not surprised when I first found out that Ahdaf Sueif was your auntie. She had been my role model since I first picked up her book in 1992. I was only 12 at the time, and her message of merging the public and private, making the private political, has stayed with me 20 years on. I wanted to grow up and be like her. Then, one day, in a march for Michael Nabil, a lost cause in Egypt at the time, I found myself walking next to her, chanting for the freedom of someone whose ideology we both were not only unsympathetic towards, but fundamentally opposed to; both of us taking sides against the oppressor despite having nothing in common with the victim. I cannot begin to describe my euphoria in that moment. Mona and Sana are also incredible in what they do and when anyone compares my passion for street children with Mona’s work for her civilians tried in military courts, I am humbled beyond words. Your parents must be so proud of you all. It is true in your case that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Thank you for fighting the battle long before people had an avenue to express their opinions. Years before the squares and streets welcomed this generations protests you were out there fighting for freedom and getting punished for it. Thank you for the times you grew up without the presence of your own father because he was doing the same thing. Thank you for not being silenced, for being more than you had to be and making it like that was the only way to be. Thank you for not giving up and reminding me that abandoning the cause was an option, but one we did not have to take and one; which you refused even though you had so much to lose. Thank you for being and living the thing that you believed in.

And as I have said right at the beginning of this letter, I am also writing to apologise. I apologise, not only for not being in that cell with you since I share almost all of the ideas that you are in there for. I do not just apologise because you are missing out on so many “first times” your only son is performing without you cheering him on. I do not only apologise for every morning you are not waking up with Manal in your arms. But I am apologising because so many cathartic moments I have lived, have come as a result of all that has made you physically behind bars. My only consolation is that you are truly free, freer than the wildest birds could ever hope to be. And those things you say break inside you every time you are in prison, they are nothing more than the shell that reveals the next layer, the shiner, more refined spirit that brings about hope as soon as it is let go.

I watched a video of you saying that your greatest fear is to grow old one day and look back and see that the results of what you have done would bring sorrow and not joy. Fear not ya Alaa, because that will never be. What is happening now should not dishearten you, or me or anyone else. The truth is, the closer we get to justice, the clearer and purer the concept of justice is, and because of that, our struggle for it increases and the harder our fight becomes.

I am humbly your inspired, grateful and hopeful friend,

Nelly

10 Comments

  1. Alaa is a pillar for everyone who truly believes in human rights for everyone who has defied his fear of the unknown to side up with what’s fair and true. I don’t really know alaa buy his entire family inspires me, how much one whole family can put at stake to fight for people they don’t know, even when most people have given up on them, eventhough these same vulnerable people they are asking for the rights of would have given up on them if they were out and free.

    Not all people are idealistic and not all people will see the good of all in the face of their own good, but history has taught us that everything is intertwined and what affects one eventually affects all, the amount of fairness and freedom people will fight for in this coming phase will reflect on all of them, and sooner or later each on his own will realise that alaa and his entire family were right, because the little rights they let go of now as a nation will be rights taken from them later on a personal level when no one else is looking or even cares enough and only then will each one of them realize the importance of generalising fairness, instead of specifying who unfairness could be acceptable on.

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