Letter from the wife of Khaled al-Sayed: A prison visit


Thursday, February 6, 2014, was the first time I experienced a prison visit, an experience shared by thousands of Egyptian families, an experience we know nothing of, nor of the suffering of those involved. After Khaled al-Sayed and Nagi Kamel and the rest of the youth imprisoned with them were transferred two days ago, and after long attempts to ascertain their whereabouts, we found out they were being held in Abu Zaabal prison. We got visitation permits for myself, Nagi’s wife, and their lawyer Yasmin Hossam.

We arrived at the prison at 9.30 am and found long queues and hundreds of family members of detainees and convicts waiting. The women’s queue of course was the longest and there were so many children. The women looked miserable and many of them came from outside Cairo, arriving since dawn and carrying food for their sons and husbands. I imagined how costly such a trip must have been for them. I saw with my own eyes their exhausted bodies and their dire psychological state.

I also saw the soldiers at the gate and the demeaning manner with which they treated the families. I could see the joy in their eyes as they imposed their authority. Every now and then, a woman would break from the queue and pass those waiting in front of her.  When the other women protested, the soldiers would begin a round of insults and abuse.

An “elegantly” dressed woman even said, “I could not possibly stand in your midst. You are low-class,” and of course the soldiers would let the likes of her enter first.

After the torment of waiting, having witnessed all these insults and the pain of the people that I shared the queue with, we finally reached the inspection gate at 12 noon. Women entered a private inspection room, and the way they inspected us was humiliating to our dignity and our bodies.

We asked, “where are the political prisoners?”

They told us, “with the students and the high security prisoners.”

Then we asked for Khaled and Nagi and they told us they were there and took our names. An hour later a soldier came and called out the names of the prisoners who were allowed a visit. He stood on a table and all the family members’ eyes clung to the piece of paper he was holding in his hand. But the cup of tea he was holding in the other hand was apparently much more important. Families gathered around him trying to be patient in this last stage of waiting and humiliation. With every sip of tea, he would call out a name or two, then slowly take another sip and so on. When the families got impatient and requested that he hurry up with calling out the names, “the lord of the prison” would say, “Ok, no visits today.” And then we waited.

I looked around the waiting area, and it was obvious that those were families of detainees arrested after 30 June. To be honest, by their appearance, they seemed to belong to those generally classified as affiliates of political Islam. But my eyes could only see heartbroken mothers, wives and daughters.

A father went to ask about his son. The officer asked him, “Political or criminal?”

The father answered, “What do you mean political or criminal, my son is a student at Al-Azhar.” Another father said the officer told him, “We brought your son here for a short time to teach him a lesson then we’ll release him.” The father replied, “Do you think that I, or anybody else, will know how to control the boy after what he has lived through in here?”

It was 4 pm when we tried to look for the names of Khaled and Nagi in the registry, only to discover that they were in a different prison altogether (Liman 1).

We ran out to make it in time before visitation was over. At Liman 1, we asked the officer, “Who is here from the ‘political group’?”

Nagi came out first and his wife and lawyer went in to see him. From afar, he looked very tired; it was not the Nagi I know. His head was completely shaven, unlike the criminal detainees. They refused to let them enter the visiting room. They had to stand outside, accompanied by an officer and two informers. They took the food from them and refused to let Nagi stand with his wife or lawyer, with whom he is legally entitled to a private meeting.

Then Khaled came out and I entered. I walked towards him to shake hands, but the officer stopped me. “Come back here, have you been searched?”

 I said, “Yes, they searched me on my way in.”

 He said, “No, you will be searched again.”

And I was searched again, the exact same humiliating inspection. Then I saw Khaled, and I wish I hadn’t. He looked tired and could not talk. He did not utter a single word.

I asked him, “Did they do anything to you? Do you want to complain about something?”

He did not reply.

I asked him, “Do you need anything? Do you want me to bring you anything?”

And again he did not reply.

The look in his eyes made me feel certain that he had been through a terrible ordeal those past 48 hours. I could not see any signs of beating or obvious injury in his face, but his condition made me certain they were being subjected to pressure and violations.

The officer said, “That is enough, goodbye.”

I had hardly been there for two minutes. I looked into the bag where I had put his food. Everything was open and torn apart and was not even edible anymore.  On my way out, I heard a wife of one of the criminal detainees say, “I have never seen such a crowded day. It is like three quarters of Egypt are in prison!”

I went out and could not breathe and it became clear to me what kind of era we are living in. All our lives we have seen injustice surrounding us. We have often heard about, and sympathized with, those who have been treated unjustly, whether it was the prisoner himself or his family. But to see this happen to somebody close to you is totally different. The torturing techniques that I heard about from the families who were there is a type of torture that does not leave any marks; stripping them and drenching them in water, leaving them to sleep in the cold at night. Those beaten up were photographed —their bruised appearances to be used as “evidence” that they are thugs.

Khaled and Nagi were subjected to psychological torture; they were blindfolded and forced to be present at torture “parties” and to listen while other prisoners were being tortured. This was to make them feel guilty. “Those people are suffering because of you ‘revolutionaries’,” they were told, as if torture is justifiable, and not a crime. It is as if we had a revolution so that people would get tortured when they protest injustices and not in order to liberate ourselves from injustice.

I got to know Khaled in the square. I loved him and bonded with him when I saw his work. I know his priorities very well. Two months ago, we got married and began a life that we are building together. I know all this. I love Khaled and I am proud of him, his stances, and his words and my trust in him has no limits.  Khaled is my lover and husband and he is a freedom fighter who I respect and from whom I learn.

Khaled is the source of my strength and he is the source of my hope when I despair.

The Interior Ministry’s arrest of Khaled is a source of pride for me before being a source of pride for him. Whatever they will do to him, he will never stop his struggle, nor will I ever stop loving and supporting him. I will join his struggle to the best of my ability.

Freedom for all detained unjustly, and especially those we know nothing about.

May God give patience to every father and mother, every husband and wife, every daughter and son, every friend, every lover and loved ones, and may he give us the strength to continue our path. 

This letter has been translated from Arabic. You can read the original here.


Hoda Mahmoud 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism