When I came to Egypt in 2003 I lived with Upstairs Auntie for the first four months or so because my mother’s flat downstairs didn’t have any furniture in it apart from approximately 23 sofas.
While Upstairs Auntie is lovely, and welcoming, and put up with sharing her bedroom for four months, my sojourn chez her coincided with an unfortunate and overdue teenage rebellion. Which occurred in my mid-20s.
I was at this time walking out with a young man who was eminently unsuitable on numerous levels. That this was the case was plainly obvious to everyone but moi, and the family’s opposition had the inevitable and unfortunate result of bolstering my conviction that this is a man who is misunderstood by the world and is being denied his chance, and other nonsense. While the rest of the world saw lunatic and childish, I saw passionate and eccentric, because I had my love blinkers on.
(I saw this individual at the Cairo Book Fair last week. He had turned up his jeans in a Salafi manner, but I think this was probably because of the torrential rain – he was standing in the French section, after all.)
After days of tension caused by my coming back at ridiculously late hours – which was borne with incredible patience by Upstairs A – she finally made a remark which I interpreted as a huge slight. I declared that I would not tolerate such injustice and was LEAVING and began putting together my items of personal belonging in a dramatic and haphazard manner like they do in films, when they empty drawers of drawers into a suitcase and never take a toothbrush.
The dramatic effect was only slightly reduced by the fact that 1. I was LEAVING to the flat downstairs and, 2. Upstairs A kindly provided me with bedding and sandwiches.
The move was made possible by the acquisition of a mattress given by another auntie, but the flat was otherwise empty apart from the aforementioned sitting devices, which seem to breed when I’m not around.
I will never forget that first night as long as I live (said the old man of the sea). I inevitably chose the world’s windiest night to flounce out, and spent the night paralysed with terror in the big, empty, and unfamiliar flat listening to voices and footsteps and jinn opening and closing doors for no apparent reason while fear played squash with my palpating heart.
I have never believed in the supernatural but came super close to it that night, as I recalled Downstairs Auntie’s various accounts of hearing footsteps in the unoccupied flat above her. When I woke up after two hours of sleep I experienced Dorothy Wizard of Oz level-feelings of gratitude that I was still alive.
The jinn theory is of course stuff and nonsense. Like a tedious whining woman this flat just doesn’t ever shut the hell up, and creaks and rattles incessantly. I have slept soundly ever since – especially after I acquired a bed, though this is about the only progress I have made on the furniture front in four years.
All this is a painfully long-winded introduction to a visit I made recently to a prison where I confronted irrational fears of a claustrophobic nature.
I have always had an odd fascination with prison life but, at the same time, am terrified by the thought that being locked up (even for a visit) will bring out the lunatic claustrophobic tendencies in me. I had an opportunity to test when I visited two men in el-Qanater Prison.
The men (Nezar and Salah), who are from Sudan, have been in prison since April 2007 – a court had ordered their release but they are being held in administrative detention (without legal representation) on claims that they pose a threat to national security (but have not actually having been charged of any crimes) – think Guantanamo. Essentially it boils down to their (non-violent) involvement in the 2005 Mostafa Mahmoud protest, which has apparently been referred to on numerous occasions during interrogations; the events of December 30th remain a highly-sensitive source of embarrassment for the People Up Top.
A UNHCR officer visited them in el-Qanater in July, deportation to Chad or Kenya was discussed, and she then buggered off until last week, apparently reminded of their existence by their lawyer. An offer was made to resettle the two men in the States. They’re back to waiting to see what happens, again.
The lawyer who was acting on the men’s behalf in April was not actually aware that they were still being detained – he thought that everyone had gone home and lived happily ever after in April when the Court found them innocent (they were taken directly from the court to state security headquarters until an administrative order was issued) - which is bonkers and slightly scary, but hey hum now that it’s been brought to his attention that his clients are actually still doing porridge he seems to have launched into action. I went to see them in early January to find out why the bloody hell they were being held and why nobody was doing anything to get them out.
El-Qanater is in Qaloubeyya, which is roughly half an hour by bus outside Cairo and is spectacularly verdant after the capital’s industrial grime. The area is named after the aqueduct or weir or whatever that massive man-made thingie which does stuff with water is called. It was inevitably brought to my attention that the thing is British-built (the veracity of which statement I cannot vouch for) - continuing the theme began in Assiut of pointing out colonial water engineering feats to an individual whose interest in, and knowledge of, water dynamics begins and ends at turning on a tap.
The prison itself lies on a river, and if it wasn’t for the locks, high fences and frisking on entry, it could pass for a health spa, such is the picturesque-ness of its surroundings. A woman in the visitors’ queue seemed to share this opinion; while we were all waiting to be admitted she uttered to her companion the immortal and unforgettable words, “wallah el-3azeem a7la ayaam fe 7ayaaty kaanet gowa el segn dah” [“I swear to God the best days of my life were inside this prison”].
Having been lightly scanned and frisked separately according to gender, Umm Nakad and I joined Nezar’s brother and his friends on the other side of the security check. An obese and somewhat truculent woman who brought to mind Jabba the Hut was sat on a chair arguing with one of our party, Spring, who was himself shouting something about “el toc-toc beta3ek dah” [that toc-toc of yours”] at high volume. Now a toc-toc is a small three-wheeled taxi vehicle which is what you get if you cross-breed a vespa with a dustbin. A whole fleet of them arrived in Egypt a couple of years ago and now they charge around Egypt’s backstreets at alarmingly high volume and speed.
Spring was denigrating the noble taf-taf, which is a vehicle composed of a tractor pulling people in a carriage of the type seen in public leisure spaces where people are too lazy or too knackered to walk. It is also used in el-Qanater prison. It transpired subsequently (after we had all been herded into a huge waiting room where we vegetated for days) that visitors are not allowed to walk the 600 metres from the waiting area to the prison wing, possibly lest this result in the chaotic frenzy of everyone descending on the wing at once and for example, forming a large crowd outside the huge and impossible-to-breach fortress-like doors. Instead, when summoned, visitors must mount the bloody taf-taf at twenty minute intervals, and pay for the pleasure of doing so. Jabba the Hut was selling tickets for it, and had inspired the wrath of Spring with both the insistence that he purchase a ticket, and the surly prison cell warden manner with which she did so.
I whiled away the time in the waiting area with tea-drinking and people-watching. El-Qanater holds women, foreigners and (I think) male prisoners serving short sentences. The big cheeses – members of political Islamic organisations being held in administrative detention, leading political opposition figures locked up on spurious charges after presidential elections – are held elsewhere. The majority of the visitors with me at el-Qanater were women and children and, if the demographics of the visitors is anything to go by, el-Qanater’s prison population conforms to the international rule that it is mostly a State’s very poorest, most uneducated citizens who resort to crime – or who get locked up for it.
A woman next to Umm Nakad accompanied by three children under eight told her that the kids were her grandchildren, and that her daughters were both inside serving sentences for “powder”. She swore that they had been stitched up, and that the reason they had been imprisoned was because they had been involved in a fracas with a police officer during which one of the sisters had punched him in the face.
Most of the women were tough-looking, weathered women in black dragging behind them or on their heads huge bundles of food and uncooperative children at whom they screamed obscenities at regular intervals. They in their turn were shouted at by prison guards whenever they attempted to wait outside for the taf-taf.
Riding the blessed taf-taf was bizarre because the squeal of excited children and people sitting on each others’ laps, and the surrealism of it all while the tractor trundled along against the spectacular backdrop of the river turned everything slightly festive, and again proved the general rule that Egyptians will find the fun in any situation, no matter how bleak.
Ten seconds later, having arrived and disembarked from the taf-taf we waited to be let into the prison wing before being admitted into a big rectangular cage bordered on all sides by benches on which inmates and their visitors sit. Opposite me was sat a family of three; a prisoner, his wife and their daughter, who looked roughly 8 years old. I have never seen anyone listen to anything as intently as the prisoner listened to his wife, who talked uninterrupted for ten minutes while her husband leaned forward and absent-mindedly stroked the hair of his daughter, who was sitting between them, eating.
Visit completed, Umm Nakad and I left and had a fight with a man in a kiosk outside the prison gates who sells Chipsy and fags and makes money on the side by holding mobiles for prison visitors who cannot of course take them inside. Nezar’s brother had deposited all our mobiles and taken a receipt from kiosk man; he was still inside, visiting, and Umm Nakad and I didn’t have a receipt and would be stuck until Nezar’s brother emerged. I described my mobile (which is distinctive because of its lamentable state of disrepair) in detail, offering to list for him my contacts and last calls made but he staunchly refused to surrender our mobiles to us even when we offered him our national ID cards - which in Egypt is akin to offering someone your kidney. He possibly had right on his side, but was so smug in his refusal that both Umm Nakad and I had to remove ourselves from him and his kiosk in case we committed an act which necessitated our conveyance to el-Qanater prison, and this time not by taf-taf.