Egyptian poet and novelist Omar Hazek — who was in jail for nearly two years for protesting before being “pardoned” last September — has been prevented from leaving Egypt to receive the 2016 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression:
Hazek was scheduled to appear at the opening night of the Writers Unlimited Festival, where he was to accept his award. However, British-Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif reported that Hazek was first detained and his passport taken, and then released but prevented from traveling.
According to PEN International, the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award, “is given annually to honour writers who have fought courageously for freedom of expression in the face of great adversity and despite the risk to their own lives.”
PEN reports that the novelist Alaa Al-Aswany will be accepting the award on Hazek’s behalf at today’s ceremony.
It has been a long journey for Hazek. Back in 2009, he was a poet and librarian at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He’d published his first collection of poems, I Believe the Winter’s Sun, and, in May of that year, he travelled to San Giovanni, Italy with the encouragement of his employer. There, he attended the “Love, Justice, and Peace in the World” poetry festival and was given an award for his verse.
Then, in the summer of 2010, Khaled Saeed died in police custody. This led to a movement, which helped organise the street protests of January and February of 2011. In the fall of 2013, Saeed’s family was still looking for justice. Although the government had recently passed a law restricting public protest, Hazek joined others outside the Alexandria Criminal Court in late November. That’s where the officers accused of killing Saeed were getting their retrial.
The arrest also might have had political dimensions. The library’s Independent Workers’ Union said, in a recent public statement, that “it’s not too far-fetched” to believe that Hazek’s imprisonment is related to his outspoken attitude about corruption charges against Ismail Serageldin, who has been the library’s director since its opening in 2002.
Hazek was arrested on December 2, 2013, just as his first novel was almost ready. Indeed, he had a 5 p.m. phone appointment with the owner of a print shop to discuss a few final details. But he was unable to make that appointment, as he was arrested just after 10 am.
He captured attention in Egypt and beyond with his moving letters from prison and the novels and poetry he continued to write in grim conditions.