London-based novelist and video artist Guy Gunaratne on imprisoned Egyptian poet and lyricist Galal El-Behairy:
By Guy Gunaratne
It feels a little strange to write about a man I have never met. I have only ever spoken of Galal El-Behairy. I have talked with his friends, shared email conversations with his fellow artists, as well as those fighting for his release. I have never heard his voice. Nothing beyond a snippet online where Galal is heard speaking about his impending arrest. I do not know Galal. But I have read his poetry. And it is in my reading of his work that I feel that I know him intimately.
When a writer reads a fellow writer’s work, there is a register to the reading that I have always found difficult to describe. It is similar to how anyone reads anything really, especially when we recognise our own experience in someone else’s expression. The one difference being, since we are both artists, that there is always a compulsion to reach out to the other. I would always want to implore them to keep writing, and would usually pick out a single line from their work to show my appreciation.
I would say: look, this one thing here. I loved that.
If Galal were here with me today, I would tell him that I loved his poem The Tartan Shirt. I would tell him that I read it with sadness, but also fascination. I would try to think past the circumstances of his writing. I would try to forget that he wrote it in prison, that he had to smuggle it out of a shirt pocket for someone like me to read. Instead I would ask him about his art. How he came up with the lines: ‘you, songs carved on walls / you, the caravan of ports’and how he imagined that line would be translated. I would ask him if he was happy with the translation. And as his friend Ramy tells me, we share an appreciation for that other Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. I think I would enjoy talking about these things with Galal.
But then again, to read a writer who is detained, we can never fully separate their art from their circumstances. The cold facts of his case obscure the light. This week, Galal El-Behairy served his 500th day in prison. He was sentenced just over a year ago by a military court in Cairo. He had been conditionally released by a civilian court but will remain in Tora prison for 3 years. It all comes down to this: Galal has been imprisoned for writing poetry.
The flatness of these facts do not make his writing more vivid. They do not make his work all the more sobering to read. It entraps his poetry, conceals it behind dreary bureaucratic language. It makes it difficult to see his art for what it is. We cannot think of him solely for his words, only in terms of his prison sentence.
Reading about his case works to dim my own imagination. I can no longer picture him here with me, or imagine the possibility of us sharing work over email, or enthusing about Arab poetics. We lose our artists to oppression and then obscurity. And as artists ourselves we lose our community.
My own reaction whenever I hear stories like Galal’s is to do what I can. And yes, Galal’s poetry inspires me. He makes me want to sit at my desk with a stronger spine, be brave with my own writing. But as a human being I know that inspiration is not enough. It is next to nothing when there are lawyers to be paid, families to be cared for, and funds to help raise. I would like instead to call on everyone to show solidarity, and to act today. There have been many campaigns in the past when raising our voices on behalf of writers at risk have accomplished their freedom. We must do the same to free Galal.
More on Galal El-Behairy’s case and planned actions from English PEN. This essay also appears on the English PEN website.
Guy Gunaratne lives between the UK and Sweden and has worked as a documentary filmmaker and human rights journalist. His first novel IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY was the winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award for 2019. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and was also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize in 2018. He is the Visiting Fellow Commoner of Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge for 2019 – 2021.