American University in Cairo CAASIC fellow Anny Gaul is currently translating a section from Omar Hazek’s novel I Don’t Love This City. Meanwhile, the author — whose case has been taken up by PEN International — remains in prison, and has recently been officially dismissed from his job at the Alexandria Library:
As PEN said in its action appeal on Hazek’s behalf: “PEN International believes that the poet Omar Hazek is imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly, and therefore calls for his immediate and unconditional release.” You can read more on his case in a recent piece by Egyptian novelist Hamdy al-Gazzar, on the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, or on this report on Mada Masr.
In response to his recent dismissal, many Egyptian authors have declared a boycott of all activities, events, and conventions organized by the Library of Alexandria.
Hazek has written several notes from prison, including one on the occasion of the release of his novel, translated below.
As background: The events of I Don’t Love This City are set at the end of the second century A.D., in the Egyptians cities of Fayoum and Alexandria. The protagonist, Horas, grows up in a village near Fayoum never having seen his father, who was killed during one of the protests against the Romans’ injustice.
Young Horas travels to Alexandria with the idea of studying portraiture, but here he suffers again from poverty and the injustice of the Romans. He learns to draw, is introduced to a burgeoning Christianity, and is exiled from Alexandria, leaving behind all that has been hard-won, including his best artistic work. When he finds his mother and sister dead, he dedicates himself to Christian iconography, but the Romans again catch up with him.
Supporter Zahraa Abd Al Aziz translated this letter.
A letter from Omar Hazek
A speech for the signing ceremony of my novel “I Don’t Love This City”
Dear friends and colleagues,
May your evening be full of love and happiness.
At five p.m. on December 2, 2013, I had an appointment to call the owner of the printing house that was printing my novel at my expense in Mansoura, in order to arrange how I was to pay him the rest of the money and how he was to deliver the novel to me. On the same day, but earlier, at 10:15 a.m., I was arrested and the delivery of the novel was postponed for almost two months.
In the same issue of al-Gomhurria, two stories were published about me: The first was that my appeal of the two-year prison sentence and 50,000 LE fine was rejected, and that I had to serve both, and the other was an advertisement about the outlets where you could find my novel. This is life, which does love to play games and tricks.
The first thing I did was to hide it from people. I don’t know why I did that — perhaps I wanted to hold onto a private moment, to keep it personal, as in a fully packed cell nothing is ever personal.
At the beginning of February, a lawyer visited me in al-Hadarra prison to give me the first copy of my novel. In the cell, I opened the bag he gave me to find it between my clothes. The first thing I did was to hide it from people. I don’t know why I did that — perhaps I wanted to hold onto a private moment, to keep it personal, as in a fully packed cell nothing is ever personal. Then I showed the novel to my dearest friend Sherif Farrag, and he hugged me, and that’s when others in the cell knew that something happy had happened to me, so I showed the novel to everyone.
It’s strange that I forgot many parts of my novel because of the utter change that happened to my life. I read part of it and of course I liked it.
The colors of the cover were not like the ones I would’ve chosen, but it’s okay — I contemplated the cover for a while. I was captured by the gaze of the woman coming at me from 2000 years ago, perhaps because in prison we are totally deprived of women and what concerns them, deprived of their voices, pictures, and perfumes. Nothing here is from the feminine world except the hair-removal cream with its pink cover that some of the detainees use instead of the razors that are banned because of their blades.
This woman is my partner now, so please dear friends don’t look at her for long.
Since February 12, 2014, I received my novel and I am to finish another one in El Hadarra prison, and I agreed to publish a third one that I sent back in November to my sensitive, humane friend and publisher, the great lady Karam Youssef. And when my mother was visiting me, she told me that a “man” with the name Karam had sent me an e-mail telling me that “he” liked my short story and that he agreed to publish it, and “he” has been trying to call me but my phone was switched off (because it had been confiscated).
Then, in the course of three months, I received my novel, wrote a second one, and agreed to write the third: This is life, which never stops playing beautiful tricks.
My sister contacted Karam and she told her about my suggested terms and she agreed. In the last message from my sister, I promised Karam that we could publish my novel in April or May. The last thing I had released was my poems, under the title I believe the winter’s sun in 2009. Then, in the course of three months, I received my novel, wrote a second one, and agreed to write the third: This is life, which never stops playing beautiful tricks.
The beginning of my novel was a report on the art of portraiture, which I came across on Facebook and by which I was enchanted. I read about it and the history of the Egyptian art in addition to the history of religions and myths, for around a year and three months during the rule of the ousted Mohamed Morsi, when I was having severe depression and an endless series of disappointments. He made me feel that he was erasing my identity, and that the Egyptians would end up as the North American Indians, though now our conditions are degrading and the levels of freedom are dropping in a frightening way.
This fear at the time of Morsi led me to a path of discovery, an attempt to discover my identity as an Egyptian, as a human, as a poor man who made a great revolution to feed his children and to raise them in better conditions — only to discover that the homeland had taken the wrong road.
What I liked most in my novel is that I dedicated it to my mother. Nothing is hurting me in prison as much as I suffer for my mother and father.
I loved my father and mother and I wished to compensate them for all that they suffered for me, so I dedicated the novel to my mother to read the dedication and taste my freedom here.
All my life, I made many decisions and took many stands, and I understood that they would have consequences, one of which was losing my job in Bibliotheca Alexandrina for criticizing its head. But I expected nothing like prison — it is the highest price I have paid, and I don’t know how I can solely bare the consequences of my own actions. I loved my father and mother and I wished to compensate them for all that they suffered for me, so I dedicated the novel to my mother to read the dedication and taste my freedom here.
I thank you all, my freedom friends, and I deeply thank my role models and fellow writers that I won’t be able to count their names because here I know only a few. Life is beautiful friends so rejoice.
German PEN action request
PEN suggests sending appeals to:
Interim president Adly Mansour
Supreme Constitutional Court
Kournish El-Nile El-Maddi
Arab Republic of Egypt
Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Egypt
Colonel General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi
23 July Street.,
Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: + 20-22916227