In the freezing cold of Egypt’s winter in the middle of the desert, we huddled in our tiny cell in Wadi Al-Natroun prison to keep each other warm, and in the summer, we almost peeled our skins off from the suffocating heat, sweating rivers with only one bathroom to accommodate the twenty-five of us—one could take a five-minute shower a day if lucky enough.
Through six years and three months as a political prisoner in Egypt, I had undergone countless similar moments, cinematic scenes I thought only occurred on screens and theaters, never imagining them to be this real, let alone experience them.
The fury raging in my chest does not solely stem from this fact though, but rather the way I’m witnessing our stories distorted, rewritten and intentionally shrouded by state propaganda.
This Ramadan, as in the past two years, the Egyptian media is flooded by the third season of the state-propaganda show Al Ikhtiyar (The Choice). The show epitomizes the state’s vigorous attempt at re-writing the chain of events since the January 25 revolution, a perennial cycle of instilling the version of history wanted, and needed, by the Egyptian authorities to be established and perpetuated.
Through the state’s lens, we watch the turning points of Egyptian history meticulously re-crafted as police and army officers are turned into righteous duty-bound heroes on every occasion, and state security officers interrogate political prisoners with top-notch standards of human rights. This is followed by a dive into their touching romances and family relationships that leave the audience unquestioning that they are not capable of hurting a soul.
On the other hand, revolutionaries are portrayed as having foreign agendas, and funded to bring the downfall of the country. When an opposer of the regime is murdered in the show, they must have been armed to the teeth—their death is always justified, unavoidable and deserved.
This version typically whitewashes the crimes of the system, erases all evidence that a revolution ever happened, and portrays anyone who dared dream of freedom as a terrorist and an enemy of the state.
I surf the Egyptian social media watching the sarcastic responses to the show from our generation, the ones who are still licking the unhealed wounds from the tragic revolution era; and the contrastingly zealous endorsement of the state’s narrative by its worshippers. I observe as my chest tightens: None of us is their true target audience—it is those who are yet to come.
Ten years from now, people will hear about my case as one of the fifty-nine new “terrorists” admitted to Wadi Al-Natroun prison in November 2014 to serve a fifteen-year sentence for their grievous crimes against the country. They’ll hear about the new prison complex built according to the highest standards of international human rights. They’ll watch the testimonials of joyful prisoners having the times of their lives in the resort-like detention facilities of Egypt.
Our stories will remain shackled: The heads smashed, the tears shed, the heart-wrenching cries as punches and kicks landed on our bodies, and the warm hugs of solidarity and helpless support as we spent the first night in incarceration stuffed in our cells; heart, mind, and body broken. No one will see the state security summons threatening prisoners to stick to ready-made scripts during visits of human rights committees, or the same committees fabricating the reports and complying with such a theatrical farce.
They’ll hear about prisoners given their rights of defense and proper trials, yet won’t witness the gruesome mass sentences treating tens—and sometimes hundreds—of detainees as a package to make an example out of them.
They won’t hear about my journey: The first slap announcing my arrest at seventeen years old in 2013; the officer snatching the phone I used to photograph the protest, yet adding me in a case with the typical charges of using violence, disrupting the public peace, carrying weapons, and the rest of the template most political prisoners receive. No one will tell them I was wrongfully tried as an adult when I was a minor, sentenced to fifteen years instead of three like the other minors in our case. They won’t know that I rotted in prison for six years and three months before one of the endless appeals submitted by my family was finally looked into, leading to my miraculous release in 2020.
Where do those stories go, then?
Ever since my release, I became obsessed with the untold stories, the lost narratives concealed behind the walls, the suffering and torture deprived of representation. Hence my infatuation with counter-narratives as a mode of resistance emerged.
Ubiquitous narratives and stories have been proven time and again to be dictated by dominant parties; how widely-accepted a story is has always had little to do with its authenticity.
As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted talk: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
And when I think of stories that repair and heal, the work of Mohsen and Yassin always come to mind.
I am a writer, Mohsen a poet, and Yassin a painter. We shared the same experience of political imprisonment in Egypt, and each of us nurtured his art like a candle barely alight, but on which our survival depended.
I go back to the day, several months after my release in 2020, at the signing of Mohsen’s published poem collection, “No One is Picking Up,” as I listen to Mohsen recite:
Farewell to the wire-mesh windows that curtail hands from passing through—
while morning dew seeps in to seek your smile
Farewell to a stranger whom you will long for
Farewell to one you loved and missed—even before you left.
Mohsen, Yassin, and I met at that event, and throughout the night as we discussed our works with attendees and cheered for Mohsen, I couldn’t help but think back on our days in prison and how art was nothing but our indispensable lifeline.
In prison, I called my writing “vomiting on paper.” A purely therapeutic process through which I unleashed the cacophony of thoughts and emotions bustling in my head. On smuggled papers I scribbled my swirling thoughts and laid out the scenes that surrounded me, hid those pieces in dirty laundry and sent them to the outside world during visitation, to be published online. These writings channeled warm correspondence of love and support that sustained me through the years. It’s an experience I know Mohsen and Yassin shared behind the bars, even though Mohsen is now an award-winning poet, and Yassin an internationally-exhibited professional painter.
I watch our prison survival attempts metamorphose into something more significant: Readers identify with my personal essays that resonate with them and touch their souls; Yassin’s visceral paintings mesmerize them; and Mohsen’s poetry of incarceration present the same melancholy rhythm and melody prison comprised. The world is vicariously experiencing our version of the story. Our art and documentation are not merely a form of entertainment; this is resistance.
Our counter-stories act as a final line of defense against utter dominion of tyrants; they’re the only thing denying tyrants from conquering the indisputable truth.
Counter-narratives enable us to turn from being on the receiving side of history, one written by victors, into an active creator of our own version of it: We were there, this is what happened, and you cannot rob us of our words.
Abdelrahman ElGendy is a writer and former Egyptian political prisoner who spent six years and three months behind bars.