Novelist and Poet Omar Hazek: An Open Letter After a Year in Prison

Novelist and poet Omar Hazek was jailed on December 2, 2013, charged with violating Egypt’s anti-protest law, a “crime” for which he is serving two years in prison. Yet he maintains more hope than most:

This letter initially ran in Al-Masry al-Youm. Hazek’s family gave permission for an English translation.

By Omar Hazek

Elephant. Photo credit Zahraa Hazek.

I think of you, brothers and sisters, out of love for this country. I think of you at the approach of this dawn which is so dear to my heart, the dawn of Dec. 2, completing an entire year in prison.

On a dawn like this, I was lost in sleep, waiting for the ring of my mobile phone. Then a light breakfast before heading out to the protest site in front of the Menshiyya courthouse. There, where the trial of Khaled Saeed’s killers was being held, we were to protest against the repressive turn of the new authority, which had snubbed its earlier promises and worked to revive the Mubarak regime until it actually surpassed it.

In those days, I was deeply troubled by what we had come to. As I told to a then-friend, I was plagued by the feeling that I was incapable of remaining silent over what was happening, and so expected some undefinable harm would befall me if I were to participate in demonstrations.

On that morning, the police cracked down on us. I saw them beating a young man I didn’t know, dragging him and stomping him with their boots before detaining him. We kept demanding his release until they rained tear-gas canisters down on us, and we were forced to fall back. I went forward again and found nobody but the Central Security forces in front of the courthouse, so I thought to leave for the Biblioteca Alexandria, where I worked, yet I was ashamed of what I had seen — them hitting and dragging that poor young man.

Then I saw the officer who was issuing orders, and so I went straight to him. Before I could say anything, he said, “You still haven’t gone away?” I asked him about the fate of our friend, and he said that the young man would be taken to the prosecutor’s office to begin legal proceedings against him. I told the officer that the man had been hit and stomped on, so how could there be any legal proceedings against him, as a victim? He got angry and told me exactly as follows: “OK, if you don’t go away right now, I’ll arrest you too.”

In this one year, I have lived an age more valuable and diverse than all the rest of my years, with the exception of those great days in January and those few days of our revolt against [Ismail] Serageldin...

I responded calmly that I had spoken to him in accordance with my conscience, and that I had only told him the truth. I insisted that our colleague had been brutally beaten for no reason. Then the intelligence officers around the officer ordered him to arrest me, and a squad of central security came running towards me with their sticks, since their tradition was to deal us a hefty beating whether in the street or the armored car. Yet the leader of this squad took me from the intelligence officers and made sure that nobody hit me, then handed me over to the Menshiyya courthouse checkpoint. There, I met that poor young man, who I later discovered was one of the bravest people I have yet met in my life. I had met my cellmate, Luay the qahwaji, or coffee-maker.

In this one year, I have lived an age more valuable and diverse than all the rest of my years, with the exception of those great days in January and those few days of our revolt against [Ismail] Serageldin, who rushed to fire me a few months back because I was “a danger to internal national security.” If you have read my previous messages, you would know what I mean of this beautiful age of contemplation and liberation, of understanding people and life.

I told you that I think of you, brothers and sisters, in the calm of night when I withdraw into myself. I gather for you all the works of origami that I have made to give to you at the soonest signing of my new book, The First Novelist of the City.

Bird. Photo credit Zahraa Hazek.

There’s a story behind this, one of the many stories of prison. In al-Hadhra prison, I was happy to have the companionship of my fellow artist Sarif Farag, and he had a manual for making numerous origami pieces as well as colored paper, which he turned into birds, according to the model in the manual. One day, I asked him to teach me how to make this bird, but I couldn’t understand how. I thought that there were some barriers between me and anything beyond appreciating visual art, and so I didn’t try to learn how to make the bird even though there were only nine steps to make it.

By the time I saw those colored pieces of paper, though, I had spent enough time in prison to know that much of what we thought impossible becomes easy if we just believe in ourselves a little. The capabilities of a person, any person, are boundless.

Then last September, after I was transferred to Borg al-Arab prison, Amm Muhammad, a man as simple as a child, asked me if I could give him some colored paper to write letters to his wife. I asked my family, and they took it upon themselves to bring the plain colored paper Sharif Farag used to make birds. That old dream rose up from when I’d seen a Facebook announcement for a workshop to learn origami. I had wanted to participate, yet the imaginary barriers in my mind dissuaded me in the end. By the time I saw those colored pieces of paper, though, I had spent enough time in prison to know that much of what we thought impossible becomes easy if we just believe in ourselves a little. The capabilities of a person, any person, are boundless.

In that moment, I decided to learn the art of origami. We were drawing near to Eid al-Adha and just leaving behind Eid al-Fitr. It is the hardest stretch of time for any prisoner, and only those who have experienced prison know what it means to spend the holidays far from family and loved ones in those filthy cells filled with insects, stifling humidity, and impoverished prisoners. It occurred to me that this was the time for colored birds. I recalled form al-Hadhra prison the joy of our colleagues going to the visiting room with colored birds to give to their children and spouses.

Fish. Photo credit Zahraa Hazek.

I asked my family for a photocopy of Sharif’s manual, as he had thankfully been released already. They were good enough to hand over a photocopy, and I struggled to learn the forms of the bird at first despite how easy it was, since the manual was in English and I’m only so-so at understanding that language. I made the bird and began passing copies around, then I began making other forms of animals. Some of them reached 30 steps, ones that I had never dreamed I would see myself mastering or even coming close to doing so.

Two weeks ago, I learned of the suicide of the young woman Zaynab al-Mahdi, exceptional in protests and bravery, overwhelmed by the security assault on young women. I feel utterly helpless with regards to a human condition like this, and so I tried to think of a way to honor her. The eye sees further than the hand can reach, as the saying goes, so I found no good way to honor her — her humanity and her noble weakness before the neglect of human dignity — honoring the requests of many of my friends here to hold workshops to teach them the art of origami during our daily exercise period in the ward.

Who would have thought on Dec. 2 of last year that I’d be teaching the art of origami to many of my friends today so that we can make even more pieces, so that more children can find joy in their colors. All to honor Zaynab, who helped me greatly in moving past the “innocent” verdict that the criminal Mubarak achieved. I pray to God that he lives long enough to encourage yet more revolutions and uprisings in the path of liberty.

Ah, here comes the sun, drawing near to the cells. I’m thinking of you, brothers and sisters, out of love for this country. I gather for you the pieces of origami and warm them up with the heart of Zaynab. I’m optimistic that young men and women like you all will not allow tyrants and oppressors to wound the heart of this nation.

Translation by Andrew Leber.

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