Zahraa Abdel Aziz has translated Egyptian poet and novelist Omar Hazek’s most recent, moving letter from prison, dated May 1. More about his case here.
A poet tames the world but nobody can tame him.
This title is not me being a pessimist or trying to “jinx” my life. It’s a small part and the title of a poem that I wrote in 2012 before I took a short break from poetry and indulged myself in writing novels and short stories.
I don’t remember the whole poem now — hopefully my family will paste it in the end of this letter. The spirit of the poem is optimistic and strong, because even if I die, my body will escape the earth and play football with the children because I will still be in love with life. I remember that poem being published in al-Masry al-Youm; you can look it up by the title. I remembered the spirit of this poem which I wrote in a dark painful moment after the events of Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud, Magles al-Wizara, and the Port Said stadium massacre. I recalled it these days because of the horrific death of Islam’s father. Islam is much better now.
I remember the first time Islam got in my prison cell in al-Mansheya court on December 2, 2013: shocked, terrified, bleeding, and falling apart. I compare that to Islam’s tough attitude now. I see Islam now, and watch with great admiration and respect at how strong and resilient he is. I see him trying to comfort his family each time they visit him even though he is just a big child.
When I compare that to the Islamists, I feel astonished and very proud to be imprisoned with a guy like Islam.
I say I remembered this poem after my family informed me of the impact that my being laid off from my work [as a librarian] had on my brothers and sisters who are free. The reason they mention my sacking is my crimes against the internal security of the motherland! I seem to be a great criminal! Anyway, I was sure the administration of Bibliotheca Alexandrina would go for that as I have a history with them, thank God for that.
But what made me write to you, my fellows in the love of this country, was the sad sympathetic comments I received from you. After reading them, I wanted to thank you with all my heart, because before my imprisonment, I couldn’t find a friendship so true as yours.
I wanted to talk to you about things that amazed me when I thought about them. At the end of the month of Ramadan in 2011, the [Biblioteca Alexandrina] Human Resources Department insisted on informing me that they would not be renewing my contract. That night I was extremely sad and scared because, in the midst of an economic depression and the rare status of my speciality, I would never be able to find another job. Then I reconsidered my position and decided that this would be a small price to pay for my stand against the corrupt management, which I felt was my duty.
I took official measures to reconcile the situation, which were rejected, and I replied with an email that I still have till this very minute. It said: “I talk to you while I am out of work and you can’t harm or benefit me. But I give you honest advice: Do not try to tame a poet, the poet tames the world but can not be tamed.” I remember my advice now and laugh, because the next day my work colleagues protested and I was reappointed in my job.
I don’t know how prison has changed me so much. When I was informed that I had been fired, and the reason behind it, I was not sad at all. I also was not worried or afraid for my future. Moreover, I didn’t even feel angry or hate for anyone at the Bibliotheca even though I will still fight for my right in all legally possible ways. Nobody will ever tame me (unless I cross a line Godforbids), but I have a belief that has been settling inside me for years.
Suddenly, prison magnified and imprinted this belief inside me: In the life of each of us is an awareness device. This device defines what is good and what is bad, what’s important and what’s secondary, what’s real and what’s fake. Philosophers call that a “system of values.” In our lives, society imposes a faulty system of values on us. The herd forces wrong priorities and makes us run after them without asking ourselves who we are or what we really want. This is about our free will and our choices in life.
I will live in this life for a predetermined time. Millions of people have lived before me, and their running after dreams painted for them by others did not do them any good. I saw many people in the Bibliotheca fight very hard to get a promotion or for a salary raise. I saw others say the most vicious things about their colleagues and manager behind their backs, yet smile to their faces. I was mostly painfully disappointed by the very few I considered my close friends. If I, too, will live for a while and then my body will perish, all that will be left of me is all that is beautiful andhonest, and all my defense of this country that confiscates the headquarters of those who have no headquarters, such as the April 6 movement.
If you think like me, you will feel no depression or disappointment. Because in these dark times, we have the chance to live by our own light, to live with what we have of love for freedom. In the darkest hours toward which we seem to be heading, a small beam of light still glitters calmly in the darkness. There are young men and women whom I do not know, yet they wrote the most wonderful things to me. Some even suggested alternatives to my work in the Bibliotheca and what I can do after I am freed from prison. To those people I say: You are the true friends I lacked, and so I lived alone and isolated. But prison has led me to you, so thanks to the prison and to all of you and thank to God always.
The minute Mubarak stepped down in 2011, we all went out to celebrate. Then I noticed a young man sitting on the seashore, alone and crying. We asked him what was wrong, and he answered that a friend of his was martyred in the revolution and that at that moment he felt that his dream has come true. I know that the only true value of our lives is moments like this one. And this is why I would like to dedicate my poem to you: If I die, they shall not bury my dream, my freedom, or the justice I have stood for. I love you my comrades in loving this country we call home.
Al Gharbaneyat prison. May 1, 2014.
Hazek’s family has added the poem:
If I die, do not bury me
If I die, do not bury me here.
Bring the sky to me
to play there with the departed boys,
we shall make a cloud into a ball
and we shall play till our dreams fall down on earth.
If I die, do not bury me
because I will climb out of any grave I like
and play in your sleep
and scatter your dreams between yelling and singing
let me be, lost squirrels will come
and hide their babies in my branches
and eat from the nuts of words a blessed food.
The sea with its fish will come
looking for a wave that it lost
and became a friend to my heart
and sleep on its lap for some time.
If I die, do not bury me
because I will stay still under the ground, waiting for seasonal rain
to get my seed out — bright and charming —
and open the flowers of my heart if lovers passed by me
so that a man in love, with a heavy heart, shall pick me
and take me as a home.
If I die do not bury me
Because I shall run in the body of the earth
and tie your trees to the roots of my words
so it feeds you of my fruits, heart-moving poems.
I shall puncture your rivers
and take from your waters to the deserts
to a cactus that loved itself
and settled for a quiet night to release her dream ships.
If I die, do not bury me
because I will still be me.
I will still be me.
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”
A letter from prison: Omar Hazek Fourth Letter from Prison: 19-Year-Old Islam’s Story