Omar Hazek Fourth Letter from Prison: 19-Year-Old Islam’s Story

This month, Omar Hazek will see his second novel published. Under other circumstances, Hazek’s short novel, set in the afterlife, would likely go unnoticed outside Egypt’s narrow literary circles. Yet this novel has captured attention – not because of its unusual setting, but because it was written inside Alexandria’s Borg al-Arab and al-Hadara prisons.

That’s where, for the last six months, the young Alexandrian writer has found himself at the centre of Egypt’s battles for free speech and the right to assembly:

Hazek’s letters from these prisons have captured public attention. You can read more on Hazek and his trials or, below, read his  fourth letter, translated by Zahraa Abd Al Aziz.


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I am sad, my friends.

Those who liked my previous letters, liked them because of what optimism and love of life was in them — or so I understood from their comments.

I tell you: I apologize to you my brothers who share with me the love of this country.

Am I only sad? No. Hurt in my heart? No, I am more than that. Some of my tears fell? Indeed. Desperate? No and a thousand nos!

Ever since I saw the police officer giving orders at the place where we demonstrated, standing between the informers and giving his orders to chase the demonstrators who were dispersed by beating, dragging, and tear gas — since going to tell him, “I oppose the dragging  and beating of Louai (I hadn’t known Louai then), and asking for his release, upon which the officer vowed that unless I left immediately he would arrest me…. Ever since I refused and was subsequently arrested with all the fabricated charges with which they tried to frame me — since then, I say: I’ve never regretted, despaired, nor became pessimistic.

So many poets and writers have sacrificed their lives in order to pay a genuine price for their freedom. Youth much better and nobler than I fell as martyrs from the time of the January 25 revolution of 2011 and until today, so that I can raise my head while imprisoned, and so that you may go to sleep with a much larger space for beautiful dreams, with great invincible hope.

Those are our real heroes. Every time a writer praises me or a journalist defends me, I feel a very painful embarrassment.

I am nothing compared to all the youth who paid the price of our dignity with their blood, their eyes, their orphanhood, and their torment.

As of now, brothers and sisters, don’t praise me.

Praise, instead, a real hero, unknown to the poets and intelligentsia who fight to defend the right of their friends to reach the position of Minister Of Culture.

Praise, instead, a real hero, unknown to the poets and intelligentsia who fight to defend the right of their friends to reach the position of Minister Of Culture.

Islam’s story

Praise the nineteen-year-old child Islam Mohamed Hassanein — my colleague in the same case — the villager who travelled to study in an institute which, by his destiny alone, was in the vicinity of our demonstration. When Islam was returning home from his institute, he fell in the way of the police, thereby receiving his due share of fabricated charges, until his father totally collapsed on the night of our appeal, which was rejected.

Haj  Hassanein, a simple peasant, could not understand how the future of his son could be smashed with a verdict of two years and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds simply because his son happened to study in an institute close to the spot of the demonstration.

Islam told me that his family spent a lot of money so that he could pass the final year of his secondary school and enter a private institute to become a graduate.

Islam’s father could not bear to see his firstborn — his first helper in farming the land, the one who ran their workshop during his study, the child who liked to buy chips and Cokes in Alexandria — be branded as a hooligan and criminal.

I wrote about Islam many times and don’t know if it’s been published. Look for what I have written to know the story of my friend Islam, because I feel pain every time I re-narrate it.

My luck has been such that Islam and I have been partners in all the cells where we stayed: in the police station, then al-Haddara prison, then in Borg al-Arab prison. At first, I felt repulsed by him. But, with time and sharing our meals, I grew to love him because of his simplicity, hope, and love of life.

Everyone treated Islam like a poor peasant — and that’s evident in all his actions. But those who understood him realize the extent of his misery and how brave he was in confronting such a misery.

 What he loves most is to breed little chicks on the top of their home, then sell some of them (after fattening them up), meanwhile leaving some for the family to breed and consume as chicken.

Friendship and trust grew between me and Islam. He began to tell me about his dreams. What he loves most is to breed little chicks on the top of their home, then sell some of them (after fattening them up), meanwhile leaving some for the family to breed and consume as chicken.

He jokingly and joyfully tells me about one chick that outgrew its partners. At the stage where its feathers begin to fall and change, he discovered that the new feathers were grey and not white like all the other chicks. Islam explains to me that this chicken is of a different breed. Such a discovery brought joy to his childish heart and consequently he refused to sell it.

My brothers and sisters: Think about this human being. My heart broke over Islam, whose family — for the past two months — have kept the news of his father’s collapsing health from him. I learned from my mother in her last visit to me that Islam’s family transferred the father from a private hospital to a public hospital after they ran out of money. Now I cannot sleep.


I am awake tonight, Tuesday night, waiting for my family to visit on Wednesday and terrified that my mother might tell me that Islam’s father has left Islam forever, as she had told me before that the man’s condition was deteriorating in an almost hopeless way.

What can I do if I learn that this man is now dead? How can I Iook Islam in the eye when I return to the cell hiding this secret most important to his life, because his family — afraid he may collapse — has asked me to do so?

Think about Islam, who secretly tells me that he is extremely worried because his father has stopped visiting him and that he has begun to doubt the numerous excuses his mother makes regarding this point.

Islam, who entered the cell after his arrest on the morning of December 2: beaten, crying, terrified, who does not know in his village — adjacent to the city of Rasheed — anything about the 6th of April Movement , nor even the name of President Adly Mansour. This is Islam, who knew El Sisi because he saw his picture in a café near his village center, but who doesn’t know anything about protests nor the Muslim Brotherhood, whose sole crime was that he left his institute while the police were chasing peaceful demonstrators.  If you talk to him for ten minutes, you will find out that he doesn’t even have anything to do with politics. But the police think differently.

How can a child like Islam tolerate the loss of his father — like this without one final “adieu,” while he’s in his cell facing his orphanhood, his failure in his exams (due to imprisonment), as well as the death of his provider and his poverty?

I am sad my friends — despite what you’ve been accustomed to see in me — the hope and optimism. So please forgive me.

Pray for Islam’s family and help them as much as you can (my family can help you via Facebook). Think about this boy-child whom I taught in al-Haddara prison how to beat Nescafe with sugar to make the froth, which amazed him. I still remember the innocent wonder in his eyes because of this froth, which he never knew in his faraway village.

But now he discovers that he is “a member of a dangerous criminal organization called 6th of April, which aims at the destruction of the country.” This is what the government says.

My few friends, my many brothers and sisters in loving this country: Life is beautiful, so don’t let them pollute it with hatred.

With all my love,

Omar Hazek – Borg Al Arab prison

At dawn- 9/4/2014

Postscript: Islam’s father died on Wednesday 2/4/2014 in a public hospital . He was informed of this in a visit on Wednesday  9/4/2014.

Also read:

Alexandria novelist’s battle for free speech

Another letter from prison: A speech for the signing ceremony of my novel “I Don’t Love This City”