Thursday, December 9, 2010

Letters of a Political Prisoner to his Beloved

I look at the night through the bars,
and despite the weight on my chest
my heart still beats with the most distant stars.
                                                 Nazim Hekmat
These words written by Turkish poet Nazim Hekmat who spent a third of his life in prison for his leftist political views, is an expression of how man or woman can defy the most challenging and oppressive circumstances as long as their hearts "beat with the most distant stars".
The memoirs "Letters of a Political Prisoner to his Beloved" (1977) by Mostafa Tiba are written by a man whose heart never lost touch of the stars, never lost faith in his fellow man and never lost his ability to love despite having spent 12 years of his youth (1952-1964) in Egyptian prisons. His story is that of many Egyptian intellectuals, activists and revolutionaries of the left who spent years in prison during the 1950s and 1960s.
His story begins with his arrest in 1952 for his activities in communist groups, just a week before the July revolution when Egypt was still a monarchy and he was only 27. In 1954 he was sentenced by a military court to 10 years of hard labour. After completing his term in 1962 he was detained in prison together with many others until his release in 1964.
He recounts his journey from one prison to another: Misr Prison, Abou Za'bal, Tora, and finally to the distant desert prisons "Genah" and "Mahareek" in the Kharga Oasis. This "inner exile" into the desert is the most striking part of his memoir. Tiba and his fellow inmates, many of whom were doctors, engineers, lawyers, artists, writers, poets, students and workers, never let prison, or exile break their will or their belief in their cause. Rather, they created through sheer will power, creativity and team spirit a throbbing and lively oasis in the middle of the desert.

 لقد حسبوا أننا سنستسلم لقسوة الصحراء فتدفنا رمالها و نحن أحياء أو على شفى الموت عطشا أو جوعا.  و قررنا أن نخوض معركة استمرار حياتنا. قررنا أن نبني في قلب الصحراء واحة، ليس فقط لنأكل فيها و نشرب، و إنما كي نقرأ و نكتب و نتعلم و نرقص و نغني و نمارس كل نشاطات الحياة.
They believed that we would succumb to the harshness of the desert, that it would bury us alive with its sand or leave us on the brink of death from thirst and hunger. But we decided to continue fighting for our lives. We decided to build an oasis in the heart of the desert, not only to eat and drink, but also to read, write and learn, to sing and dance and exercise all the activities of life.

And indeed they defied the jailor's chains and whip with culture, art and free thought.   They organized an egalitarian community where all had duties and rights, where all worked with their hands without any special privileges, where lectures and plays were organized, newspapers published, where artists painted, sculptured and made pottery, and where the literate taught the illiterate and many learnt knew languages such as English, French, and Russian. At Genah, where they spent 3 years, there was nothing but a tent prison surrounded by barbed wire. It was the prisoners themselves who, through ingenuity and the will to survive, built a water supply system from a nearby well, constructed an oven and kitchen, prepared an atelier for painting and planted flowers, roses, trees and vegetables. In the Mahareek prison they built an actual Roman theatre and a swimming pool, and reclaimed 100 feddans of land planting them with vegetables and fruit.
Many of these prisoners of thought came out to become renowned intellectuals and artists: Fouad Haddad wrote many of his poems in Genah prison; author Khalil Kassem wrote his famous "Shamandoura" and writer and journalist Salah Hafez wrote his play "Al Khabar", Mohamed Hamam became a well known singer, and Ismail Sabry Abdallah became a prominent economist, while many others wrote plays, political analysis, and historical essays while in prison.
There is no sign of bitterness or revenge when reading through Mostafa Tiba's 66 letters to his beloved. Despite the loss of 12 years of his life behind bars, despite the beatings and torture, the hunger strikes, the death of friends and colleagues, despite the moments of despair…it is love and hope that one can sense throughout his memoires…love for Egypt, for his friends and comrades, for humanity, for freedom, and even for his jailors who eventually came to respect and sympathize with these political prisoners, turning a blind eye to all the cultural activities they held in prison, the books they read, newspapers they produced…activities that were officially not permitted.
Although he deals with many political issues of the time, his main focus is on the human side of incarceration, on the ability to find hope amidst despair, to find strength in adversity, to create beauty and life amidst a barren desert and with the simplest means possible, and the will to uphold each and everyone's right to a decent life, freedom and love.  And it is with love that he wrote his memoires, and with love that he lived and shared his hopes and dreams with those who came to know and admire him.

و تخرج من أعماقي و أعماق كل الزملاء ضحكات تحكي نغماتها سيمفونية معاناتنا و آلامنا و أحلامنا و حبنا....سيمفونية الحياة.
From the depths of my heart and those of my colleagues flowed laughter, a laughter whose tunes tell the  symphony of our suffering and  our pain, of our dreams and our love .... a symphony of life.

Mostafa Tiba died in 1996 at the age of 71. He worked as a journalist in Al Ahram news paper and wrote a number of political books as well as one novel "A Yellow Car Without Numbers".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful Review. I am really inspired.