Jailed in Egypt at 17, He Wrote to Survive and to Share His Long Ordeal

Abdelrahman ElGendy imagined that the end of his book would be inspiring, despite all the horrors it would have to tell.

Starting at age 17, ElGendy spent six years and three months in miserable prisons in Egypt, and one way to survive, he said, was to imagine the memoirs he would publish if he were ever released.

She knew that the harrowing abuses she witnessed and endured while in detention, including guards whipping prisoners and beating them with batons and wooden chair legs, would make a powerful story, if hard to read and even harder to share. But the thought of the book also gave him an existential purpose at a time when his life was little more than suffering.

She knew she didn’t want her memories to be just about pain and degradation. The idea that it could, in some way, also be about hope helped soothe her despair, allowing her to dream that everything she was going through could have a positive meaning in the end.

“This is how I want readers to receive my work one day: what you have in your hands, this is it. That’s how I survived,” said Mr. ElGendy, now 27 years old and studying for a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Pittsburgh. His autobiography is his thesis project.

Mr. ElGendy was arrested at the age of 17 in Cairo in October 2013 while sitting in a car with his father while taking pictures and filming a protest.

His previous activism was short-lived: he had attended only a few protests, starting after his friend’s father was one of hundreds of people killed by Egyptian security forces in August of that year amid a brutal crackdown on supporters of the recently ousted president. , Mohamed Morsi.

Earlier, on the day of his arrest, he had quarreled with his parents, who were not politically active and did not want him to take any further risks. But a teacher she loved had recently been arrested and she wanted to do something about it.

They made a commitment: his father would take him to the protest and they would not leave the car.

But plainclothes officers were standing nearby. The teen was dragged out of the car, grabbed his phone and beaten, he said. His father, pleading to let his son go, was also arrested.

Father and son spent days waiting to be questioned, crammed into a small cell with dozens of people sleeping on top of each other. The teenager was standing in the corner, fanning his frail father with a piece of cardboard.

Ultimately, they were tried as a group of 68, all in the same cage in court, and sentenced to 15 years in a maximum security prison for the crime of “unlawful assembly.”

After his conviction, the teenager was transferred to prison, where he was stripped and groped, he said, and his head was shaved. He said the inmates referred to the ritual as a “welcoming party” and that it was designed to “tame and break” the inmates.

His fear of suddenly becoming a teenage recluse in a country with a notoriously brutal penal system was compounded by guilt that his father, the owner of a marketing research firm, was behind bars with him.

The first time he wrote while in custody was after a court hearing in May 2014.

Standing inside a police transport vehicle, he saw his reflection in the metal, fueling an urge to put into words the cruelty and absurdity of the events that had brought him there. He returned to his cell and scribbled down his first essay, in Arabic.

“Remnants of a lost dream and withered hope: I see them looming from my reflection in the wife crushing my wrist,” he wrote.

His cellmates cried when he read it to them, so he decided to sneak the newspaper to his sister, who posted it on facebook. On his next visit, she shared the readers’ reactions: shock, sadness, and compassion. That encouraged him to continue, and writing became the way he would occupy much of his time while he sat in his cell.

Mr. ElGendy’s case was not publicized like that of some high-profile prisoners. Protesters around the world did not chant his name, columns were not written in international newspapers calling for his release and editorial boards they were not aware of their situation.

His situation, after all, was not extraordinary; in fact, it was common in Egypt. He was just one of more than 60,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails, including pretrial detainees, according to estimates by human rights groups last year. A New York Times investigation revealed the extent of abuse suffered by prisoners, including many who were accused solely of holding maverick political views.

While in prison, Mr. ElGendy enrolled at Ain Shams University, eventually graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering. Egyptian law allows prisoners to sit university exams.

As a student, it was permitted having books in English that his jailers thought were for class. He said he read more than 300 books, studying and writing mainly at night next to the cell bathroom, where dim light shone and when the prison was quieter.

Her determination to finish her degree, she said, was fueled in part by the role she imagined her graduation would play in her memoirs.

“I would be in the middle of a mental breakdown studying to finish my degree, and what keeps me going is thinking about how disappointing it would be in the book when the protagonist doesn’t graduate after all this backlog,” he explained. What pushed him, she added, was “this notion that whatever I experienced was not at all in vain.”

Mr. ElGendy hid his writing in dirty clothes that he gave to his family during his monthly visits. His father was pardoned after three years in jail.

His writing began to receive attention, and in 2018, the Egyptian publication mada masrone of the only remaining independent voices in Egypt, he published his essays as a multi-part series, “Anatomy of an Imprisonment.”

In one piecehe wrote about the anticipation of a family visit and the careful choreography required to break out of his cell, where each inmate was given a 12-inch gap:

“We tiptoe and jump across the cell, not wanting to step on anyone’s head or stomach by mistake; Those two were the ones that hurt the most. We aim only at hands and feet. I yelled that we were ready as we approached the cell door, and it banged open to let us out for the first time in a week: an entire week spent rotting with 64 other prisoners in a tiny 4 by 5 meter. cell.”

With his sentence upheld after an appeal, his only hope for early release was a presidential pardon. But he never received one. He was transferred between seven prisons in his more than six years.

Ultimately, it was determined that a clerical error had led to his being improperly tried as an adult.

He was tried again as a minor. and released in January 2020. A prison guard woke him up to break the news. He left the prison as suddenly as he had entered it.

Mr. ElGendy now lives in Pittsburgh, drawn to a strong creative nonfiction program. He spends his days writing his master’s thesis, working to free other prisoners, and giving talks on human rights.

In prison, he said, reading resistance works by contemporary Egyptian authors, such as the poetry of Mostafa Ibrahim and Tamim Al-Barghouthi and the novels of Ahdaf Soueif — shook him and inspired him. “I’ve absorbed this idea of ​​resistance through storytelling,” she said.

“I dream that my book will play the same role for generations to come,” he added. “The stories exist, because I told them. I was there, this is what happened and you can’t steal my words.”