Poet Galal El-Behairy’s ‘Letter from Tora Prison’

Ahead of the expected verdict for imprisoned Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy, ArabLit — like PEN centers around the world — is sharing a work El-Behairy wrote in prison:

El-Behairy was arrested more than three months ago, on March 3, 2018, on charges related to his most recent book of poems, خير نسوان الأرض, The Finest Women on Earth (2018) and lyrics he wrote for Ramy Essam’s song “Balaha.” A campaign against him called him a spy, and called for his citizenship to be revoked.

In a statement, El-Behairy responded to the charges against his poems.

El-Behairy was held for a week without family or friends knowing his whereabouts before he appeared on March 10, reportedly showing signs of torture. While Egyptian prosecution did order a medical examination, according to PEN, the results have neither been made public nor shared with El-Behairy’s lawyer.

El-Behairy’s first court appearance was May 6, and he faced charges of being a member of a terrorist group, spreading false news, abuse of social-media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military. The verdict was initially to be handed down May 9. It was postponed to May 16, and is now expected June 27.

English PEN has urged “the Egyptian authorities to release him and the many other writers and activists unlawfully detained in Egypt immediately and unconditionally.” PEN International has also written an open letter to the Egyptian government, signed by PEN directors around the world.

To draw international attention to the case, several PEN centers, as well as Artists at Risk an ArabLit, are publishing a new poem El-Behairy wrote in detention. The translator wishes to remain unnamed, due to potential repercussions against himself and his family. 

A Letter from Tora Prison

By Galal El-Behairy

From the Tora Prison in Cairo

May 2018

 

 You, something

in the heart, unspoken,

something

in the throat, the last wish

of a man on the gallows

when the hour of hanging comes,

the great need

for oblivion; you, prison

and death, free of charge;

you, the truest meaning of man,

the word “no”—

I kiss your hand

and, preparing for the trial,

put on a suit and pray

for your Eid to come.

I’m the one

who escaped from the Mamluks,

I’m the child

whose father’s name is Zahran,

and I swim in your name, addiction.

I’m the companion of outlawed poets.

O my oblivion, I’m the clay

that precedes the law of concrete.

 

In the heart of this night

I own nothing

but my smile.

I take my country in my arms

and talk to her

about all the prisoners’ lives… out there

beyond the prison’s borders,

beyond the jailer’s grasp,

and about man’s need… for his fellow man,

about a dream

that was licit

and possible,

about a burden

that could be borne

if everyone took part in it.

 

I laugh at a song

they call “criminal,”

which provoked them

to erect a hundred barricades.

On our account, they block out the sun

and the thoughts in the head.

They want to hide the past

behind locks and bolts,

preventing him from whispering

about how things once were.

They want to hide him

by appointing guards—

weak-minded foreigners

estranged from the people.

But what wonder is this?

His fate is written

in all the prison cells.

His cell has neither bricks

nor steel,

and he was not defeated

within it.

Outside… a squadron of slaves.

Inside… a crucified messiah.

The thorns above his brow

are witnesses: You betrayed his revolution

with your own hands.

With shame in your eyes, you

are the Judases of the past,

whatever your religion, whatever

miniscule vision you have.

We’ve come back

and we see you.

 

You who imprisoned

the light, that naked groaning.

The light doesn’t care

how tall the fence is;

it’s not hemmed in

by steel bars

or officers’ uniforms.

It cannot be forgotten.

You can take a public square away from us,

but there are thousands and thousands of others,

and I’ll be there, waiting for you.

Our land will not betray us.

With each olive branch

we’re weaving your shrouds.

And the young man you killed

has come back, awake now

and angry.

He’s got a bone to pick

with his killer.

He’s got a bone to pick

with the one who betrayed him,

the one who, on that night of hope,

acquiesced, fell silent, and slept.

His wound has healed; he’s come back,

a knight

without a bridle;

he’s setting up the trial

while an imam prays among us

and illumines the one who was blind;

he’s rolling up his sleeves, preparing

for a fight;

he was killed—yes, it’s true—and yet

he has his role in this epic;

he stands there now

and holds his ground.

 

We’ve returned

to call on God

and proclaim it: “We’ve come back,

come back

hand in hand.”

Again we proclaim it: “We’ve come back,

and we vow

to spread the light,

the new dawn,

the keen-sighted conscience.”

We’ve come back, and we can smell

the fear in in your veins;

and our cheers tonight

are the sweetest of all:

“We are not afraid.

We are not afraid.”

 

We saw a country

rise from sleep

to trample a pharaoh

and cleanse the age

of the cane and cudgel.

We saw a country sing:

those were no slave songs,

no harbingers of doom, rather

songs fitting

for a new kind of steel.

We saw it.

We saw a country

where no one is oppressed.

Suggested actions:

Readers can add their support to the petition for Galal’s release.

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