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."