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".

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Human and Intimate in Maguid Tobia's Short Stories

Maguid Tobia  (1938- ) is an Egyptian novelist, short story writer and journalist, born in Menya in Upper Egypt . His passion for writing began with a passion for reading which started at the age of 14. Coming to Cairo for his university education, he fell in love with cinema and theatre and began his first attempts at writing in the form of radio dramas. This was followed by his first short stories appearing in the 1960s where his first collection "Fustuk Arrives to the Moon" was published in 1967, followed by "Five Unread Newspapers" in 1970 "Khamas Gara'ed lam Tuqra'" and "The Following Days" "Al Ayam Al Talya" in 1972 with other collections to follow over the years. He also published a number of novels among which was Taghrebet Bani Hathout which has been listed by the Union of Arab Writers as one of  the 100 best Arabic novels of all time. Moreover, a number of his short stories have been turned into film such as Sons of Silence (Abna' al-Samt).

Many of his short stories focus on the social and political issues of the time, touching on Egypt 's wars with Israel , corruption and oppression as well as the changes and transformations that swept Egypt after the open door policy in the 1970s. Other stories are of a more intimate and universal nature, depicting childhood, parenthood, aging, and love in all its forms and diversity.

One of his very moving stories is "His Handkerchief " or "Mandeluh" a story about a soldier returning home and agonizing on how to tell his best friend's mother that her son had died at the front. This agony is embodied in his own handkerchief which he uses in a attempt to hide his tears, and which the mother, believing that he is using it to wipe his sweat from the road,  takes it to wash, giving him instead her son's handkerchief, which in turn causes the soldier even more distress. As the young soldier attempts to hide the dreaded news from the mother, she finally realizes what she has been sensing and  fearing in her heart - but trying to deny- in the eyes and behavior of her son's friend as she stands in the balcony pressing and hanging his handkerchief to dry.

In his story "If You Love Me" or "Law Kunt Tuhebeni" he touches on how love –and life - feed on the imagination and our attitude towards life. The ability to "feel" the warmth of spring in the cold of winter, to "see" the magnificent in the mundane, to find great pleasure in simple endeavors and to create and re-create the extraordinary from the ordinary…is what  the fire of life – and love – is all about.

Tobia often uses fantasy and animals in his stories to depict moral and social issues. In his story "The Incident that Took Place" "Al Hadetha Alati Garat" he tells us a story of a young bird, angered by how corrupt human officials put the blame on birds for the wheat they steal, decides to bravely confront the truck carrying the stolen wheat, only to be killed in his attempt. His heroic act is sung by the birds like the story of Adham El Sharkawy, the Egyptian Robin Hood-like hero, symbolizing how the small and weak…but free and proud…can always challenge and resist injustice and wrongdoing and be an inspiration to others.

Finally I leave you with a quote from one of his stories "Those Small Gestures""Telka al- Lamasat al-Saghera" where a man celebrating his 40th birthday is overwhelmed with negative thoughts and regrets of how life has passed him by without much to show for, only to be inspired and rejuvenated by the smile of a little girl, showing that happiness and satisfaction can often be found in the little moments and details of life and that regardless of everything, life is worth living. 

"He walked briskly towards his home, feeling refreshed and happy by the girl's welcoming gaze and her waving at him. He entered the apartment, still struck by the girl's sweetness and innocence. He found himself wishing her and her parents happiness and health. He undressed and wore his pajamas and got into bed feeling relaxed and at peace with himself. He turned off the light and quickly fell asleep without the aid of a sleeping pill... but he dreamt of a child that looked just like him, a child who sneaked from behind his mother in Upper Egypt, and headed towards the ruins of the ancient temple. There he saw the goats of the gypsies and began playing with them. Whenever they pushed him down he quickly got up again, and went on playing and jumping."   


Friday, October 15, 2010


I came across them as I was walking in the garden, heading towards my favorite spot by the sea. A young couple, totally absorbed in themselves, taking pictures of each other with a mobile phone camera. The girl was maybe in her mid twenties, a bit on the plumb side, with a beautiful rounded face and a flowing mane of blonde hair. Given her dark olive complexion I assumed her hair colour wasn’t natural. The young man was probably the same age, very thin and much taller than the girl. There was something about them…about the girl that caught the eye. Her face was lit up with an aura of excitement, of ecstasy as she tossed her hair left and right to pose for the pictures. Then I watched as she held the boy's arm and stood on her tip toes, bringing her cheek right close to his as her outstretched arm clicked a picture of their smiling faces, with the sea in the distance behind them. Then she turned the boy around, and again, cheek to cheek, clicked another picture of the both of them, this time with the trees and flowers of the garden in the background. Again they moved and floated from one position to another, with the girl, radiant with emotion, always leading the way.  A keen observer would make no mistake in guessing who the active partner and who the passive one in this dance of love was. When they had finished, I watched as the girl gave the boy an impassioned look, then, taking his face in both her hands, kissed him…on the lips…in full view of everyone.

I was taken aback by the audacity of the girl, by her boldness and daring in a country where such a public display of affection is strictly frowned upon, considered an act of indecency punishable by law.  I looked away and continued my walk towards the sea, leaving them behind in their amorous embrace. But I couldn't help feeling a pang of envy. When I was their age such an act in public would have been scandalous and unthinkable. Had things changed that much while I wasn't looking?! Had young women become this assertive and liberated?! As I approached the sea, I welcomed the sense of freedom it always gave me. The lingering picture of the enamored couple made me think how wonderful it would be to live freely and openly, with nothing to hide…to feel and express ones emotions without fear or shame…without secrets to conceal or inhibitions that cripple.

As I headed back some time later, I saw the couple still where they had been. This time the young man was standing up, smiling at the girl as she sat on a bench in front of him.  I looked at her as she tied her thick hair in a golden bun. Then from somewhere she pulled out what looked like a long black scarf. In a blink of an eye, and with quick and experienced hands, her hair was totally hidden under a black veil. Then she stood up and in another second she had all but disappeared behind a black 'abayia, with nothing of her left visible except her hands and face …still flushed and beaming with love. She gave a long passionate look at her partner then turned and walked away, with the young man following her at a distance.

I watched them in amazement and wonder as they disappeared into the horizon…a small black figure followed by a tall shadow…and all I could think about was those pictures…those many…many pictures.

Monday, August 16, 2010

In the Name of Allah

"In the Name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful…."

The boy's beautiful voice filled the room with the recitation of Surat Mariam. His mother sat listening with reverence, totally absorbed in the young voice chanting the words of God. How proud she was .that her own son had been blessed with such an angelic voice. How often had he made grown men cry with his impassioned recitation? How many times had he softened hard hearts while praising the beloved Prophet (PBU)?

"O Yahya, hold fast the Book.’ And We gave him wisdom while yet a child…"

She remembered when her father had discovered the gift that God had blessed his grandson with and had made sure to give him proper training with one of the famous Chanters in their town. She recalled how her boy sat in this very same room, day after day reciting and chanting over and over again the many verses of the Holy Quran. How she had fretted and worried about him when his grandfather had taken him from village to village, town to town, so that others would be blessed to hear the purity of his voice in praise and supplication to God.

"And tenderness of heart from Ourself, and purity. And he was pious…"

How proud she had felt when visitors had flocked to their home just to listen to her boy. She recalled the shy smile on her son's face when hearing the words of praise and adoration from his audience and admirers. What a future he had ahead of him as a great chanter.

"And dutiful toward his parents. And he was not haughty and rebellious…"

She closed her eyes as his sweet voice floated through the room, giving her a sense of peace, tranquility and deep love…of acceptance and resignation to the will of the Almighty.

"And peace was on him the day he was born, and the day he died, and peace there will be on him the day he will be raised up to life again."

Suddenly the recitation stopped. She opened her eyes feeling a pang of anxiety as her heart skipped a beat. She stared with apprehension at the silent tape recorder. Her shaking hand slowly and cautiously removed the tape.  Thank God…it didn't seem to be damaged. She placed a soft kiss on it with her lips, then pressed it close to her heart. This is all she had left of her son …a small tape that carried his voice…and her soul. 

"In the name of Alllah…" she whispered as she carefully reinserted the tape and  pressed the "rewind" button. Yes, it was working properly. Then she pressed "Play". She sighed with relief, holding back a tear.  A quiet sadness echoed in the room as once again the soft captivating recitation of the beloved voice flowed gently from the old tape recorder…..

"In the Name of Allah… the Compassionate … the Merciful…."

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Scent of Rose Water

He clung to his mother as they walked towards the Moulid, smelling the soft scent of rose water that floated from her head scarf as the evening wind blew refreshing ripples of cool air against their faces. He was the happiest little boy in the world. At last he was going to theMoulid. How he had pleaded and cried to be taken there. Many in his family, even those younger than him, had gone before. They came back with amazing stories: of parades of chanting men in flowing white robes; of storytellers chanting tales; of puppet shows; of brightly coloured swings; of games they played and little trophies they won; of magicians, toys and delicious sweets. How he longed for that world! But he had never gone. Every year the Moulid came and went to their town but he was left at home, never allowed to go.
“There’s nothing for you to see there” his mother always told him. “You’ll only get lost or hurt my sweetest”.
And when he cried in anger and desperation she told him that he was her special little boy, that she would bring him beautiful gifts, that she would bake him his favorite cookies…she promised him so many things. But he never calmed down until she took him in her arms and hugged him tenderly, holding him until he fell quietly asleep amidst the soft scent of rose water.
But this year he was adamant. He was already ten years old, he wasn’t a baby anymore. He had a right to go just like everybody else! She finally acquiesced after his incessant pleading. They would go…but on one condition…he would stick to her no matter what. He would make sure to always hold her hand and never wander off on his own. She warned him it would be crowded and easy for a little boy like him to be lost.
Yes…yes… yes…he had agreed to every word she said…he was in seventh heaven…at last he would go!
As they approached the Moulid grounds, he shivered with excitement as his body vibrated with the multitude of sounds, voices and music that met his ears. The air was thick with all sorts of smells: incense, tobacco, spices, dust, endless aroma of familiar and unfamiliar scents. He was in utter awe and rapture to what his senses were capturing as he clung to his mother, feeling safe in her presence as they both slowly navigated their way deeper and deeper into the crowds, slowly discovering this magic world he had always dreamed of.
He was overwhelmed by the mesmerizing devotional chanting emanating from the many tents that were erected around the Moulid, at times finding his body swaying back and forth to its rhythmic beat; he giggled with delight as he listened intently to every word of the puppet show; he was thrilled by the ride he took on the swings, feeling as if a hand was lifting him up into the heavens; he ate and tasted a multitude of delicious sweets, savoring new and unfamiliar flavours.

Music filled the air, but it is one particular sound that caught his attention …it was the melancholy singing of a rababa…how he loved it. It must be a storyteller chanting his tales. He followed the sound…slowly slipping away from his mother’s side…moving in the direction from where the music came. Before he got too far the rababa stopped. He stood there for a moment, hoping the music would resume, but it never did. He suddenly realized that he was standing all alone…not knowing in which direction to turn. He called out to his mother but she was nowhere near him. For the first time since he came to the Moulid he began feeling a deep sense of fear…people were bumping against him…he fell several times…he was all alone…not knowing where to go or how to reach his mother…was this what she had meant by being lost??? He stood there in horror and began crying…yelling out for her.
“What’s wrong little boy?” he heard a man asking him. “Are you lost?”
“He seems to be blind”, came a woman’s voice. “How could anyone leave a blind child all on his own like that??” she added with indignation.
Just as more people were gathering…just as he was reaching the pit of despair, he felt two strong hands holding him by his armpits, lifting him up in the air and in a fraction of a second he found himself in his mother’s arms.
“Didn’t I tell you not to leave my side” he heard her shouting in a panicked voice. “You scared me to death”, she yelled as she held him tighter.
“Sorry mother”, he sobbed with relief as he began feeling safe again in her comforting arms and the familiar scent he adored.
“Don’t I always tell you to be extra careful," she said in a more tender voice. “You’re special…your eyes can’t see like the rest of us…you can’t wander off on your own like that”.
“Yes mother”, he said in a weak voice as he buried his face in her bosom. He knew she was right…but he had just wanted to listen to the storyteller and the music of the rababa.
Despite this scare, coming to the Moulid was a dream come true. It was a world that had aroused every sense in his body and would forever remain etched in his memory. But fornow, he was happy heading back home…wrapped in the safety of his mother’s embrace…and the soft scent of rose water.