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Outside Tora prison
Outside Tora prison
Abdelrahman al-Gendy

CAIRO — "Take care and hopefully see you soon. :)"

I end the short letter to my family with a few requests for items to bring on their next visit, then hand it to one of my cellmates to give to his wife, who will pass it on to my mother the day after her visit. In the letter, I try to be comforting about the disappointing news that, contrary to expectations, there is to be no holiday amnesty this Eid. We wait hopefully in the runup to every major holiday, only for our hopes to be swiftly crushed. They still spring back to life despite our best efforts.

The lights go out as they do every day at this hour, just after dawn prayers. As I switch on my small flashlight, I realize I've forgotten to wish my family a happy Eid. Not even "best wishes." Eid no longer holds any meaning except the possibility of a pardon or an extra visit, I think sadly.

I pick up a book and start to read, a small cup of coffee in my other hand. The hours after dawn are my favorite time of day. It's dark and everyone else is still asleep, and I can sit and read, write, or think until seven, when I put my headphones in, leave everything else to one side, and listen to a full hour of Fairouz on the radio. Since discovering this little treasure, I wait impatiently for it every day. Few people appreciate what it's like being able to listen to what you want, when you want.

I smile as Fairouz sings, "Visit me once each year… Shame on you if you ever forget me." I laugh to myself. It's like she knows.

Every time hurts as much as the first time.

People think you get used to pain if it goes on for long enough. They're wrong. You might find ways to live with it, to work around it, to avoid it — but you never get used to it. Every time hurts as much as the first time.

Today is the first day of my 11th Eid in prison. The number shocks me. Such numbers, the metrics of my life in prison, have started to fill me with terror. I'm accosted by an unusually forceful homesickness for Eid: prayers in the main square in Rehab, the atmosphere afterward, gatherings at my grandmother's house in Abbaseya with relatives we only see once a year.

My grandmother died while I've been in prison, and now there won't be any more gatherings at her house. How many more memories will life in prison kill off?

I contemplate the theory that I've developed from observation over the last few years: that every phenomenon passes through three stages, rather like a bell curve. It begins at zero, ascends to a peak, then reverts to its previous state. At first glance this might seem self-evident; human beings, for example, are born weak, grow and become strong, then once again become weaker and weaker until they die. But it seems to me that all human experiences follow a similar trajectory. We once lived in close proximity to nature and sought healing in its remedies; later, the advancement of knowledge and science led to an apex of industrialization. Now, the chemical and industrial have lost their shine, and humans are once again seeking wellbeing through contact with nature and its resources. And so on and so forth.

The same thing has happened with me. Early on in my time in prison, I pulsed with emotion, and was gripped by depression on every significant occasion. As time went by and my feelings settled, I learned to avoid painful thoughts, and holidays came to feel like any other day. Now, once again, I am filled with pain and homesickness. Having mastered indifference I now find myself battered by shock and pain.

I still haven't registered that five years have gone by.

In less than a month's time, I will begin my sixth year in prison. Another terrifying number. I try to chase away the unpleasant suspicion that it will be another five before I'm out. I grind my teeth at the horror of that possibility. Once upon a time, the prospect of those first five years was even more horrible, which is how I know, deep down, that everything is bearable. This knowledge does not loosen fear's grip on me, nor does it prepare me to better bear the pain. I still haven't registered that five years have gone by.

Eid holiday street party in Cairo — Photo: fiatluxury

In three months' time, I will begin my 23rd year. The most terrifying number of all. In the plans I once made, I'd have been somewhere else entirely at this age, doing something completely different and clutching a CV bursting with achievements and skills. I'm giving up dreams and ambitions at an alarming rate: it used to be measurable in years, then in months, but now another dream dies with every day that goes by. I can't stop myself from wondering which dream — or person — will die next.

The pain has become unbearable. At the beginning of my time in prison, I was in constant pain and filled with fear of the unknown. As time went by, I learned to make the most of every second by absorbing like a sponge all the knowledge and experience around me, and enthusiasm gradually took the place of fear. But now pain and fear have returned like old friends who never leave my side. Those three stages once again.

Is there any hope that this nightmare will suddenly come to an end? Is there any hope the sun will break through the clouds, against all expectations?

Fairouz's answer is, "There is hope. Yes, there's hope. Sometimes it appears out of the boredom."

I nod. It's true. And how about this for boredom.

I hope you're right, Fairouz.


*Editor's note: 22-year-old student Abdelrahman al-Gendy was arrested from a car in Ramses Square, Cairo, with his father in October 2013, several months after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. They were charged, along with over 60 others, of murder, attempted murder, vandalism, possession of weapons and disturbing the public peace, and were sentenced to 15 years in prison, five years probation and a LE20,000 fine ($1,200) by the Cairo Criminal Court on September 30, 2014. In March 2016, their final appeal was rejected by the Court of Cassation.

Gendy had won a scholarship to study engineering at the German University in Cairo and was not yet 18 years old when he was arrested. He lost his place at the university as a result of his imprisonment, and is currently enrolled at Ain Shams University and studying from Tora Prison.

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