Omar Hazek: ‘This is the Bond I Have With Prison’

Hazek’s December 2014 message from prison, “A Christmas tree in my cell,” has been newly translated by his sister, Zahraa Abd Al Aziz:

Omar Hazek
Omar Hazek

Hazek, a novelist and poet, has written numerous letters from prison since being sentenced by an Alexandria court to a two-year term and a 50,000EGP fine, ostensibly for protesting “without a permit.”

Louisa Loveluck wrote a profile of Hazek last December, around the time Hazek was writing this:

A Christmas Tree in My Cell

It suddenly dawned upon me that we have become friends: prison and me. Those who have not been jailed might laugh at this idea. Those who have not spent the broiling heat of August or the freezing cold of January in prison will never understand how one could establish a relationship with a place where I have almost died of heat and humidity; squeezed in a crammed cell packed with the poor and the oppressed, fighting off scabies for a long while — which I ultimately contracted because infection is inevitable in such a place — and was saved, thank goodness, by intensive treatment.

People who have not experienced imprisonment can’t imagine how they could face the fact that they have scabies. It is as simple as watching the rates of incidence and itching in prison, and reading about the rates of outbursts in other prisons, while doing all one could to take precautions. I survived for a long time — up to midsummer. Then infection invaded all my defenses. No one here wants to die, which is why we resist and support one another to overcome the hard times.

My comrade Luay al-Qahwajy has extended extraordinary help. He supported me by mocking the whole situation until I would burst out laughing at myself and at him. I remember one time he took me by surprise and said, “When we’re out of here, I’ll tell Mahienour [El-Massry] that I knew she was arrested [in May 2014] while I was scratching with both my hands like this.” He said this while scratching in a funny way, until we both would be in stitches.

Life defends itself, my brothers and sisters in the love of this nation. This is why I would never have been able to survive this painful month if I hadn’t convinced myself that I am a clean person, because I have a clean heart and that is enough; because I love life, freedom, and the poor and this is enough; and because I have done everything to escape scabies and this is enough.

I have come to know our fragility as humans.

Nowadays, whenever I see the picture of an elegant man in the company of his charming wife, I’m not taken with awe as I was prior to imprisonment. I have come to know our fragility as humans. I have experienced firsthand the many and very simple possibilities for destroying our elegant and shining appearances no matter how we try to fend them off. I have known this a long time ago, but I had never lived it nor understood it except here.

This is the bond I have with prison. I feel content now whenever I think about all that I’ve faced and survived. I have never despaired for a moment, nor have I regretted my detention. How have I faced all of this while consoling myself that I belong to a generation that will pay a costly price, for our homeland to become — after so many years — more beautiful and freer.

Like any two buddies, I share with prison many memories. I am writing on the night of 29 December approaching the dawn of the 30th. At this time last year, I was battling cold and showering with cold water in al-Hadarah prison. On New Year’s Eve, with the dawn of Jan 1 2014, I had started my first paragraphs of my novel Life in White, which I had completed after having written a short story titled “The Heart of the Fish,” which will soon be published (and available in the Cairo Book Fair, I was told by my family). These two works are preceded by two earlier novels written before my imprisonment — I Do Not Like This City and The First Novelist of the City.

I remember the cold, dismal pitch-dark nights, where there is neither quiet nor isolation except in one’s heart. My inmates sleep while I sit in a square of dim lighting sneaking through a lantern lit by the guards outside of the cell. Sometimes, they would light two lanterns, one of which would be a strong torch, to my heart’s joy, because this light would make writing a bit easier.

As I write, I remember a cold morning when we were taken outdoors to exercise. I noticed that the sergeant on duty is a kind-looking old man. I approached him and asked who puts on the night lights, and he responded that it was him. I asked him to light the lantern and the torch, because I need the light. I was at a point in writing the novel where I needed much contemplation to decide on the major developments of the plot. The man smiled, promised, and delivered his promise.

The artist Sherif Farag finally invented a primitive oil candle using oil, tissue paper, orange peel, and the bottom side of a mineral water bottle.

I am deeply grateful for all who helped me find light at night. Islam Hassanein would grant me space on his bedding, sleeping squeezed, to let me sit in this dimly lit square. Dr. Mohammad Hindawy who would grant me his chair — allowed in with great difficulty, because he had some back injury. The artist Sherif Farag finally invented a primitive oil candle using oil, tissue paper, orange peel, and the bottom side of a mineral water bottle. Hindawy also negotiated with the prison commissioner to allow us a small lamp in our cell in al Hadarah prison. I know for sure that my eyesight has become weaker, but I am in a much better position now; and I have my own small lamp — which I protect like a dear daughter of mine.

Nowadays, I shower at daybreak with the icy-cold water of the Borg al-Arab desert. I laugh at my old horror of the coldness of the gentle, kind water in al-Hadara prison. I would usually come to shower after having spent most of the night up, in dire need of a strong dose of piercing freshness. The shower would finally be available after my cellmates went to sleep. I emerged, awakened, ready to go on for another 24 hours. I finished my reading and then prepared my origami artwork, which I made or was given by my dear students. I made more pieces, and fixed any defects in the pieces made by new students, while drinking my coffee.

I have also been contemplating a new poem. I am waiting for it to mature, while owed by this amazing friend of mine  — named prison. My last poem was titled “Should I die, don’t bury me,” written in early 2012. I lost inspiration for three years, only to recover it in my small frigid box — cell 5, ward 23.

These days, also, something great is happening to me. I have told you before that I suffered much before imprisonment, because my friends would let me down and cause my suffering. When I won important poetry awards, many men and women followed me at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, whose director fired me after my conviction, and because I had a clear role in the library unrest. When there was a storming revolt, I was surrounded by many. I have never yearned except for true selfless friendliness, but was dealt shocking blows all around. Now, I am showered with the cherished friendliness that I have craved from men and women who do not know me.

My family carry me messages they have learnt by heart. I have also started to receive permissible gifts from friends I didn’t know prior to my imprisonment. I receive books, cards, pens, and colored paper for my origami work. During the latest visit, I received a Christmas tree! A beautiful tree made of paper, which was only allowed because it was made of paper and could have been folded and carried in an envelope. I set it up on a small paper base. With the tree came a message from a lovely Egyptian living in Denmark who told me that she reads my letters and draws hope from them. Thus, she wanted to wish me a happy new year.

I almost wept when I saw this small tree. But I held my tears. This was not the time to cry. I have always yearned for this moment, only to live it here. See how life toys with me, and how this wonderful friend named prison takes me by surprise!

When I set my tree up on my desk (an empty wooden tomato crate covered by a clean plastic bag) my poorer friends looked at it in amazement. They’d heard about Christmas trees only from TV. Some of them approached in bewilderment, as the tree had come “to their door.” Some didn’t recognize the Danish flag painted on the tree, thinking it was a red depiction of the cross. So they asked me about the many crosses on the tree. I explained that these are the flag of the country where I got my tree. So whenever they would pass by, they would say “habby new year” in their kind, rural dialect — laughing their hearts out.

Okay, then! I love you, but leave you and adieu for now, because the bathroom is vacant. Dawn is almost here, and I am enticed to take a dose of freshness you would never dream of. Please, keep me in your loving thoughts, prayers, and sweet dreams.

Merry prison to — oh! Sorry, I meant happy New Year to you my brothers and sisters in the love of this homeland.

Omar Hazek,

Al-Gharabaniyat Prison Dec. 30, 2014