Home > Essays > On Sticks, Straws, and Lanterns: Reading Radwa Ashour in an Egyptian Prison
Published: Tue Jan 16 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
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On Sticks, Straws, and Lanterns: Reading Radwa Ashour in an Egyptian Prison

I stood before the cell’s heater clutching the shambara. I enjoyed slicing things with it, the initial puncture followed by the glide into and through created clean symmetrical lines, much like it did to the top of the empty juice carton I was cutting. The shambara we used in Tora Maximum Security Prison was a recently smuggled tuna can lid, sharpened using the bathroom’s brick step as a whetstone. It allowed us to discard the flimsy plastic knife that could barely slice a tomato.

After a thorough wash and several sniffs, I declared the juice box ready for coffee-making.

I followed the steps my best friend, Ayman Moussa, had taught me four years earlier at Wadi Al-Natroun Prison. We were crouched at midnight in a cramped spot at the edge of the cell when he instructed: “Fill a quarter of it with milk, add three spoonfuls of coffee, then stir stir stir until the mixture thickens. Add more milk while stirring, stopping an inch from the top.”

I smiled, thinking of how much I missed Ayman. We had both been arrested in October 2013 during a protest against Egypt’s military coup. Along with sixty-six other protesters, we were tried en masse, charged with ‘unlawful assembly,’ and collectively sentenced to fifteen years. When I was transferred to Tora Maximum Security Prison, he remained at Wadi Al-Natroun Prison. Our only communication was through letters our mothers snuck in during visitation.

In front of me, a smuggled heating coil zigzagged along the inside of a trench, its ends connected to two thick wires protruding from the wall where an electrical outlet should have been. I set the carton’s bottom on the red-hot heater. Earlier, a short prison visit had deepened my yearning for my family. Such visits often felt like teasing a parched desert traveler with droplets on their tongue, only to snatch the flask away. I remembered the words of my favorite author, Radwa Ashour, from her Granada Trilogy:

“In the desolation of your prison, you see your loved ones more, both because there’s ample time and they come to you. They lean over you in your distress, letting you study their faces for as long as you desire.”

While waiting for the coffee to boil, I closed my eyes and conjured the faces of Baba, Mama, and my siblings, and held them on my eyelids until their image faded.

Radwa Ashour was a distinguished Egyptian novelist, scholar, and translator. A prolific writer, her works delve deeply into themes of politics, history, exile, and personal identity. Both as an author and academic, Radwa not only influenced literary discourse but also nurtured a generation of thinkers with a passion for justice, the same one that ignited the January 25, 2011, Egyptian revolution. Her words shaped—even saved—my life in prison.

When the coffee bubbled in the carton, I poured it, tossed the box into the empty plastic bag beside the coil for reuse the next day, and tiptoed toward the farsha, my sleeping spot. It was half an hour past midnight and lights-out; spilling hot coffee and waking a cellmate up with a second-degree burn was the last thing I wanted.

I carefully set the cup on my third-level cantilevered bunk bed, then raised my foot to the edge of the middle bunk so I wouldn’t accidentally kick Lotfy in the face again, and hoisted myself up into my lair.

After six years of incarceration across seven different detention facilities, I found it hard to believe that despite the harrowing conditions, I now had this one luxury: a private space elevated from the ground, free from the constant touch of bodies that had nearly driven me to a mental breakdown in previous prisons.

Contraband books cluttered my sleeping strip, including a copy of Radwa Ashour’s Li Kulli Al Maqhurin Ajnih’a (All the Oppressed Have Wings), her posthumously published essay collection. I had it smuggled in during a previous visit and had been engrossed in its world ever since.

I first encountered Radwa’s work at the age of seventeen after spotting her novel, Al Tantouriah, in the hands of a cellmate at Al-Marg prison. Journeying alongside Ruqayyah, the novel’s main character, I experienced the Nakba through the eyes of this thirteen-year-old Palestinian girl as the Israeli occupation massacred her family and the people of her village, Al-Tantoura, sending Ruqayyah into a life of gutting loss and diaspora. Radwa’s narrative demonstrated that it’s one thing to read about history and quite another to be transported to its core—to intimately know its scents, tastes, the distinct feel of its dust kissing one’s bare feet.

More importantly, Radwa’s work prompted me to question: Where do untold stories go? If they never find an ear, do they cease to exist?

I pondered these questions when later my casemates and I stood before a “terrorism” court and received a fifteen-year sentence; I thought about language.

The state had designed a self-perpetuating cycle, where the severity of the sentence, and the language used to describe it, become their own justification. The state understood that when the punishment far exceeds the alleged crime, the public’s instinctive reaction is to rationalize. Most individuals would find it hard to stomach the reality that they live in a system in which life in prison is only one misstep away. Consequently, they cling to the official narrative because confronting the alternative is too distressing. They must have done something, people whisper to each other. The state must know something we don’t.

The state-enforced lexicon serves as a lubricant: protesters are labeled “enemies of the state”; extrajudicial killings are termed “the liquidation of terrorists”; systemic police brutality is dismissed as the actions of just a “rogue officer”; and theatrical trials are branded as “terrorism courts”. It’s easier to accept a fifteen-year sentence for a “terrorist” than for a protester. Once this language permeates the public sphere, any engagement with it, whether in denial or defense, reinforces the discourse. No one wants to be associated with subjects bearing such adjectives, even in negation.

Radwa Ashour’s exploration of this conundrum fueled my own writing. “To challenge the dominant discourse and bring to the forefront all that has been overlooked, forgotten, vanished, or marginalized in our present and past has always been my objective,” Radwa writes. “It’s an attempt to reclaim a banished power. Through writing, I carve out my own space. I transition from being a mere subject of history to becoming an architect of narrative."

In Tora Maximum Security, I had secured a third-level farsha. This allowed me to attach a bedsheet to the ceiling, and I draped it around my spot like a curtain, creating the illusion of a room. Inside, I made a sanctuary for writing and reading—my own narrative-making haven. But there was something even better about my farsha: a window.

The window was a rectangle in the wall, overlaid with a hard wire mesh. A set of thick, vertical bars followed, then a third layer of mesh identical to the first. The diamond-shaped mesh stretched across the wall of my quasi-room, and it was the closest thing to magic I’d experienced in my six years behind bars. Every time I sat cross-legged before the window, I was reminded of Radwa Ashour’s words: “What’s the crime in a drowning person clinging to a piece of wood, or a stick, or straw? What’s the crime in them crafting a colored lantern to bear the darkness?”

My lantern: If I pressed my face hard enough against the window—digging in so deep that swollen diamond patterns adorned my forehead for hours afterward—and positioned my entire eye within one opening of the mesh, shifting until I found the precise angle between the mesh, the bars, and the moldy fence of the block, something otherworldly would happen: I could see the sky.

I felt a familiar buzz of anticipation as I approached my makeshift pillow., which was really a folded duvet—obtained during a visit after I bribed a guard with a few packs of cigarettes to let it through—wrapped around a pair of flip-flops. Sitting cross-legged, I reached above, grabbed my toy flashlight, hooked it in the plastic bag carrying my life, and turned it on. Soft light bathed my nook, and I set the carton cup on a bare strip.

I edged closer to the wall and began my nightly ritual of pressing my forehead against the mesh to watch airplanes fly by. The sky stretched out, vast and momentarily barless. Just as my forehead began to tingle, the first airplane appeared on the horizon. It shone, a ball of light as big as my thumb, gleaming like a line of poetry across the jet-black canvas.

I watched one plane after another, squinting at each as if I could discern the tiny windows and glimpse the faces of the travelers behind them. “To where?” I asked them. “Departing or returning home? Are you eager for the warm embraces awaiting below, or are you venturing toward the unknown?”

Could you tell that several thousand meters below you, enclosed within a fortified fence, barbed wire, mesh, bars, and another layer of mesh, a young man gazes at you, fantasizing about the day when that same sky would take him away to a distant land where clouds, stars, and birds are no longer filtered through steel and wire?

I eased away, wincing as my skin parted from steel. I massaged the diamond-shaped imprints on my forehead and leaned my back against the wall. I pulled the duvet over my head, placed Radwa’s book in my lap, sipped my coffee, and resumed reading where I had left off the night before.

In prison, I had often reflected on the idea of radical hope—a hope that drives us to believe in a future that’s yet to materialize. But what preoccupied me lately was how to navigate a life that had turned into a series of infinite, tomorrowless todays. Under smearing discourses and fifteen-year sentences, how does one grapple with the weight of radical hopelessness?

In her memoir, Athqal Min Radwa, Radwa Ashour intertwines her battle with cancer with the broader struggle for liberation during the January 2011 revolution. She writes “There’s always a chance to crown our efforts with an outcome other than defeat, so long as we resolve not to die before we’ve sought to live.”

Hopelessness—in Radwa’s lens of a ceaseless pursuit of life, untethered to results—liberates. To survive prison, I had to kill enough of myself, but just enough. I shoved the last remnants of softness deep inside me, and guarded them like embers barely alight in the wind. Every day, I woke up and went through the motions, quiet and conscientious, cupping the brittle fire when it flickered and blowing softly when it over-blazed, but keeping it alight, always. For as long as it survived, I won, and my oppressors lost.

Inexplicable bliss washed over me as I sipped my coffee and read. A semblance of privacy, the poignant lines of Radwa Ashour, the curling steam of my coffee, a tiny LED casting a butterscotch hue, and an entire night to lose myself in wonder. In that moment, what more could I have desired?

I held that flame close and read the night away.

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Abdelrahman ElGendy is an Egyptian writer and journalist. For six years—between 2013 and 2020—he was a political prisoner in Egypt. ElGendy’s writing engages with creative counter-narratives of history as a form of resistance to erasure and cultural genocide. His work appears in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, AGNI, TruthoutNew Lines Magazine, Mada Masr, and elsewhere. ElGendy is a Dietrich fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Nonfiction Writing MFA, a 2021 Logan Nonfiction fellow, a 2023 Tin House scholar, an awardee of the 2023 Katharine Bakeless Nason Award in Nonfiction by Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a finalist for the 2021 and 2023 Margolis Award for Social Justice Journalism. (updated 01/2024)

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