A week in Los Angeles with Egypt’s 'young inventor'
“I would like to join the Faculty of Computer and Science Information in Assiut,” Abdallah Assem, the lanky teenager told me when I asked about his post-secondary plans. The two of us were seated alone in the hot backseat of a car parked on the Agouza side of July 26 street since I, a journalist and an American, would not be allowed to enter the grounds of the student union, housed in government facilities, where the interview was scheduled to occur.
I pressed Assem. His latest invention had recently won first prize at a science fair in Luxor and the 17-year-old was two days from traveling to Intel’s prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Los Angeles. "What about Stanford? MIT? Columbia?" Money is a major issue, he responded. Entry requirements have to be considered as well.
But there was a another issue Assem figured I didn’t get. “In Egypt, we like to be near our homes,” he told me.
Egypt’s “young inventor,” now demonized by Egypt’s media nationalists, wanted to spend his university years near his family.
Assem had developed a device that promises to improve the lives of persons with paraplegia for about US$80, a fraction of the cost of similar machines. His apparatus, attached to eyeglasses, tracks the user’s eye movement and transmits the information to a computer. Without speaking or moving limbs, users can play games and express their thoughts by moving a pointer over letters to spell words. Assem plans to further develop his invention to allow for the conversion of text to speech, to ultimately give a voice to the voiceless. For his innovation, Assem was selected to be one of only 15 Egyptian young scientists to represent Egypt at ISEF 2014. His project was one of eight.
And it was a crowd pleaser.
“Oh my God.” “Damn it’s cool.” Words of astonishment and praise were never far from Assem's station at the Computer Science section of the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 15, when thousands of Southern California students descended upon the fair.
When Assem was sharing his device with the public, he radiated. He even smiled. It was easy to imagine that the tall kid with an endearing geeky quality, who says he has no hobbies other than networking on IT platforms like Microsoft Developer Network and Stack Overflow, hadn’t just gone through a major traumatic experience.
When I first met Assem, it had been about a week since his release from jail in Assiut, his Upper Egyptian hometown. On April 24, he was arrested in Cairo’s Bab al-Louq district while shopping for electronics equipment. Authorities took his computer and eye-tracking device, and thus began the teenager’s nine days of personal hell.
On the evening of May 17, Assem recounted his experience from the safety of a small apartment in a well-trimmed LA suburb. At the home of a family friend, it was the first time Assem spoke to the press since making the life-changing decision not to return to Egypt.
Assem said that after his arrest, he spent the first 24 hours in state security detention in downtown Cairo’s Lazoghly. He was handcuffed, blindfolded, and assaulted. One official began to set the boy’s shirt on fire, while it was still covering his torso. Assem jumped up and down until another official doused the flames. He was made it sit in an awkward position on the floor for his interrogation.
Assem made his way from the sofa to the carpeted floor to show me the position he had to maintain. I had to imagine the blindfold and handcuffs.
Officials insulted him. “You are a kaza,” Assem retold, too modest to say the actual curses. One of Assem’s captors, the boy says, caressed his body with a knife, saying, “I can hurt you with this. Stab you here.” The knife’s blade kept moving. “Cut you here.”
Assem was called a terrorist, and told that he had stolen two tanks. The story changed slightly to two police cars. “They found it illogical to say that I stole tanks, so they changed it to cars,” Assem said. He had also been accused of carrying a weapon, perhaps his eye-tracking machine.
After his dark night in Cairo, officials from Assiut took the boy back to Upper Egypt. Still handcuffed, he was transported in the bed of a covered security vehicle, tumbling about like a ragdoll on the five-hour ride.
“I screamed. I cried,” he recalled.
After reaching Assiut, Abdullah spent eight more days in detention, first with common criminals, then among both common criminals and political prisoners. There were 50 men, perhaps 49 men and one boy, sharing a space the size of a small living room. “Moving was difficult.”
After a media campaign and his family’s payment of LE5,000, Assem was released and began to prepare for his trip across the Atlantic.
On the morning of Sunday, May 11, Assem was not permitted to fly out of Cairo’s international airport with his peers from across Egypt. He was on a “no fly” list. Airport officials ultimately released the boy when discovering there was no warrant for his arrest. When a reporter asked the interior minister at a press conference that evening if Assem would be allowed to travel to Los Angeles, Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim replied in the affirmative, on the condition that the boy returned.
The following morning, after his family paid to change his ticket, Assem began to make his way to L.A.
At the fair, when Assem was not at his booth, he was generally lethargic and detached from the group of smiling, joking Egyptian teenagers. When 1,800 of the world’s best and brightest young scientists set off for Universal Studios Hollywood, Assem found a seat on one of the buses. Surrounded by dozens of excited teenagers, he rested his head on the window next to his seat and fell asleep. He was sometimes late to gatherings, and in group photos, frequently stood apart from his colleagues. “I’m scared,” he told me when I pressed him about his state.
While Assem was at ISEF, a mysterious email was sent to the event’s organizers, said the family friend, who requested to go unnamed. The email, electronically signed by an Egyptian professor, said that the young inventor was not safe at the event. Los Angeles Convention Center security and LAPD met with the boy and assessed the situation, ultimately determining that Assem would be fine.
“ISEF told me that if I needed police, they would provide them,” Assem later said. He did not opt for police protection.
Neither the convention center security nor the LAPD responded to requests for comment on the email. A media representative from Intel said she had not heard about the note. But on the last day of the fair, when Assem, the family friend, and a convention center security official met to discuss his predicament and access to his passport, which was being held by a leader of the Egyptian delegation, the security official asked that I make myself disappear. Something was up.
“If he’s not safe in America, what will happen to him in Egypt?” the family friend told me.
The following afternoon, after a scuffle at the airport over Assem’s passport, which he still does not have, Assem may have begun, assuming he is granted the asylum he seeks, a new life. He did not board the plane with the Egyptian delegation, and went to his new home, a small apartment on a neat, tree-lined street in a suburb of the US’ second largest city.
We met shortly after, giving Assem the chance to talk about his decision to trade his dream of living near his family for his physical and emotional well-being. During our conversation, Assem would sometimes look away, stare into space, and smile at the air. He would hold the smile until being called by name.
“How do you feel?” I asked the boy. “Safe.” He said that in a country whose government kills university students, spending years in jail for no reason is more than plausible. He said he doesn’t want to lose his potentially bright future, which can occur if he returns to Egypt.
If Assem is merely a high school senior at the door of graduation, whose hobby “is to follow the news of the geeks,” why is he being persecuted by Egypt’s security apparatus? He said it is because of his Facebook posts against the bloody clearing of Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins that occurred about a month after Egypt’s military removed Mohamed Morsi from power and the ensuing campaign from Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers.
Assem said he is not connected to violence in any way. “On the contrary,” he said, “I was writing against the use of violence.” When he was first arrested, officials accessed his Internet accounts. They found nothing incriminating.
“If I would have done something, they wouldn’t have let me leave the country,” Assem reasons.
One day after Assem refused to return to Egypt, Egyptian television personality Lamis al-Hadidi decried the teenager’s decision. In a sometimes-disconnected rant, the popular television host called Assem “someone who turned out to be without principle,” among “traitors [who] work with foreign governments.” Hadidi admonished the boy: “Stay where you are or just go to Qatar [associated with the Muslim Brotherhood]. This will always be your fate as well as your whole family.”
Indeed, Assem is concerned for his family’s safety. A cousin was just sentenced to 10 years in prison for intending to get into a conflict with a police officer, the family friend says. On one occasion during the initial ordeal, police and military officers surrounded the home of Assem’s family, throwing things and scaring the boy’s parents and younger brother.
Assem wanted to defend himself against the likes of Hadidi. The family friend offered advice. “To some extent, you’ll have to live with it,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
The man tells Assem that Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist originally from Egypt, doesn’t live too far from our meeting place. Assem’s face lights up. He wants to meet the scientist.
“Whatever you want to do,” the family friend said. “You are free. You can do whatever you want to do.”