‘500 Tomorrows’: On Jailed Egyptian Poet Galal El-Behairy

Egyptian lyricist and poet Galal El-Behairy has been in prison 500 days:

By Romaissaa Benzizoune

It seems fitting that Galal El-Behairy’s latest prison poem imagines freedom as a woman. The woman in question is difficult, beautiful, and she is — to be exact — a brunette. In the stirring poem, titled “I have a date with tomorrow,” El-Behairy implores to meet this woman “if only for a second.”

El-Behairy’s words reach us from Cairo’s Tora prison, where he was condemned on account of his writing. This is where he was held arbitrarily since March of 2018, and where his sentence was postponed for endless tomorrows. After being detained and reportedly tortured for 150 days,[1] El-Behairy was finally sentenced to three years in jail and fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds. Charges included “terrorist affiliation, dissemination of false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military.” This was on 31 July 2018.

500 days have passed since El-Behairy was free.

If Tora sounds familiar, you may remember that it is the same maximum-security prison complex where Mohammed Morsi was held before he collapsed and died during a court appearance weeks ago. Nicknamed ‘Scorpion’ Prison, Tora has been flagged by various human rights organisations for its serious abuses. These include denying inmates access to lawyers, their families, life-saving healthcare treatment, and the most basic of hygiene products. Instead of beds, cells at Scorpion Prison often offer “low concrete platforms.” The prison’s “discipline wing” lacks “electricity, running water, or a toilet.” Its infamous solitary confinement cells — which El-Behairy was subject to — are cramped and airless. (For more information on the humiliating tactics used in Tora, read Human Rights Watch’s extensive 2016 report, titled We Are in Tombs.)

In Tora, books, newspapers, and writing materials are often confiscated. Still, somehow, El-Behairy continues to write. In ‘I have a date with tomorrow’ he describes, albeit vaguely, his imprisonment: ‘Always standing in line/ Living and dying in line/ We’re the people who are born and die/ Waiting…/O Freedom!’

When El-Behairy was last free — five hundred tomorrows and three prison poems ago — he was still writing about women. One of the reasons behind his arrest is an unpublished book of poetry titled The Finest Women on Earth. During his trial, prosecutors argued that the title of his collection was a double entendre meant to insult the Egyptian army. Egypt’s Minister of Culture Enas Abdel Dayem publicly denounced El-Behairy on live national TV.

In a public statement, El-Behairy denied that the title sought to insult Egyptian soldiers, writing that it was meant to be “a recognition of the value of women and of their good deeds in this world…” When the Egyptian government began its targeted persecution of El-Behairy, the book’s publisher terminated their contract with him. Before then, the finished work was on track to be released, and the first edition had been printed. When I speak to El-Behairy’s friend Ramy Essam later, asking if he owns any of the copies in existence, he tells me that he doesn’t: ‘the government, I think, put their hands on the rest of the copies.’ The Finest Women on Earth was supposed to be El-Behairy’s third published collection.

What appears to be the primary reason behind El-Behairy’s arrest, a song titled Balaha, was supposed to be included in the collection. The song came out on February 26, 2018, and went viral. El-Behairy was arrested five days later. In a chilling Youtube upload, El-Behairy mentions the song by name: ‘If you are watching this video right now, it means that I was arrested…because of the song that I wrote for Ramy Essam, ‘Balaha.’ Don’t forget me. I’m waiting for your support.’ Notably, he addresses the world in English. Only the blurry contours of El-Behairy’s face are visible in the dark; the camera pans upwards. The video rests at 227 views.

Balaha, on the other hand, has 4.9 million views. In the video, Essam, a singer who seamlessly weds traditional music and rock influences, walks through unmarked streets. I later learn that he is somewhere in Arkansas. The short white cape that Essam wears contrasts starkly with his all black outfit, his trademark head of curls, and the relatively colourless back streets. (When he was arrested during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, these long curls were forcibly cut off).

An English professor, El-Behairy translated the video’s subtitles himself. The song is a not-so-veiled jab at the Egyptian regime, which took power in 2014: ‘four years have passed without a trace/ the people were waiting for your turtle race.’ No one is directly named in the video. The song is instead addressed to ‘Balaha,’ which literally means ‘date’ but can be used as a derogatory nickname.

In my interview with the Egyptian singer — his voice on the line is instantly recognizable — Essam says the goal of the video was to be “annoying enough to deliver the message.” It worked, and the song was a raucous hit. The song’s taunt of a chorus — ya balaha (eh!) ya balaha ya balaha ya balaha ya balaha! — rings in the ears. ‘Balaha’ is not on streaming services, but it remains on YouTube. According to Essam, the song initially streamed more than 30 million views on Facebook and other viewing platforms before censorship took its toll: “Everybody that uploaded the video on Facebook…all of them had to take down the video so as not to be in trouble.”

Essam is no stranger to this kind of backlash — nicknamed “the singer of Tahrir Square,” he rose to fame with a song that demanded the ousting of Mubarak — but the extent of the “Balaha” backlash came as a grave shock even to him. He describes the timeline: “Just 48 hours after the song we saw a crazy, well-planned, organized media campaign against the song, against Galal, and against me. Saying crazy brutal things like we have to arrest them and torture them and put them in military camps, we have to take down their nationalities.” That was when he knew it was time for El-Behairy to go low profile. It was also when El-Behairy filmed his video plea.

Essam and El-Behairy met in Tahrir Square, during the early days of the revolution, and it is not their first politically charged collaboration. Both El-Behairy and Essam knew the high risks involved — in Essam’s words it was an “unspoken conversation” — but neither expected the consequences to spiral out of control the way that they did. “I didn’t know that…nobody knew that they would go that crazy with this song. But they did,” said Essam. “They were arresting people that had a relation[ship] with me.” The “Balaha”-related arrests include Shady Habash, who helped with post-production, and Mustafa Gamal, who helped Essam verify his social media pages three years before the song even came out. Both are in Tora. (According to Essam: “Everybody is in Tora.”) Neither are receiving attention, despite Essam’s attempts to bolster a twitter campaign.

Multiple times throughout the interview, Essam insists that if he had known the extent of the persecution that would follow “Balaha,” he would not have put out the song. “Hundred percent if I knew that people would be hurt and that people would be arrested because of the song…I would think twice, and I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

At the same time, when it comes to the song, he is fiercely proud. Of “Balaha” he says: “This song came out in a time when…it broke the silence. At that time the regime managed to press down and push down all the voices, especially artistic voices. And then this song came.” El-Behairy’s first prison poem reflects this unapologetic triumph. In the poem, titled “A Letter from Tora Prison,” El-Behairy directly addresses “Balaha”: “I laugh at a song/ they call ‘criminal,’/ which provoked them/ to erect a hundred barricades.” The rest of the poem combines vivid messiah imagery with patriotic fervour. It promises retribution — “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” — and imagines liberation.

Near the end of the interview, Essam reminds me that “Egyptian jail is not a place for humans to stay.” That is to say nothing about the specifics of Tora. El-Behairy’s productivity as a poet behind bars, and above all his life as a human being, should not be romanticized. By and large, it seems like the international community has allowed him to slip through the cracks, as well as the other Egyptian prisoners condemned by a word, a rumor, a song, a work of art. Despite El-Behairy’s video plea, it seems we have forgotten. The support he has asked for has been half-hearted.

It doesn’t take a literature degree to notice that El-Behairy’s latest poem, ‘I have a date with tomorrow,’ is notably more mellow than the previous ones. It ends without an ending, with a familiar stagnation: “distress leaves/ making room for more distress/ and I wait for tomorrow’s date/ to come tomorrow, late.”

Read: I have a date with tomorrow.

[1] May 9, 2018 to to July 31, 2018

Romaissaa Benzizoune is a junior at NYU, and she is working as an intern with English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme this summer. A freelance writer herself, Romaissaa focuses on Muslim-American issues, and her writing has appeared in outlets including Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue, and The New York Times.

This essay originally appeared at the English PEN website and is here with permission.