On Alaa and cross-border solidarity

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reflections on Alaa Abd El Fattah from his friends and colleagues. Within the next month there will be two court hearings that will determine Alaa’s near future. On September 30, Alaa will appear before the court on charges of “insulting the judiciary.” If he is convicted, this could add years to his five-year sentence, of which he has already served three and a half years. On October 19, there will be an appeal hearing before the Court of Cassation regarding his five-year sentence. Alaa’s family, friends and supporters have launched a campaign #FreeAlaa, counting down 25 days to build support in light of these hearings.

We like to believe that we arrive at our beliefs, our politics, organically; that we are both sculptor and muse of our own ideas. In truth, everything we know is shaped by those around us, and if we are lucky, we have the privilege of learning from someone exceptional.

I met Alaa for the first time when we were both just 26. I was a young wannabe writer who had just returned home from a few years of teaching English in Morocco, and he was a well-known blogger and activist who had already faced prison time. We met in a conference room in a European hotel; he was the loudest person in the room, and I was definitely the quietest, struck by his bold presence.

I don’t remember how it happened, but we became fast friends, chatting mostly using OTR, a means of encrypting messages over XMPP. As a result, the vast majority of our chats are not logged. I have no record of most of our conversations, only metadata that proves they once occurred.

Instead, I must piece together a handful of clues from emails or unencrypted chat logs, together with my memories, to understand Alaa’s influence on my political development. And what I know is this: That in our three years of friendship leading up to 2011 — the year in which everything changed — our conversations helped lead me to a solid foundation for my own activism, built on a cross-border solidarity of people with like minds.

He would send me things to read, on digital issues and technology, and on politics and empire. Sometimes it was his own writing, at other times the writing of giants. It was never boring, and within a week without fail, he would follow up for my thoughts.

3alaa2: heh? don’t I always send u things to read?

me: yes, I love it

3alaa2: oh good 🙂

I was working at the time for a renowned institution that sometimes got a little too close to the US government. Alaa would gently prod me, not for information, but to think about my own complicity. I admit that, at the time, I wasn’t always able to see it, but his gentle manner led me not to push back but to sleep on my thoughts, and his words. In time, and through conversations (both with Alaa and others), my understanding of my place in the universe grew.

Many of these conversations, as I begin to recall them, feel too personal for me to share. But there were plenty of light moments too — him staying at my San Francisco flat, then tweeting to the world about my peppermint shampoo; he and Manal shipping a tricycle and other items from Amazon to my house for me to carry to Cairo, and the looks on the faces of Egyptian customs officials when I arrived with all the wares.

On that trip, he came to pick me up from my hotel in Heliopolis for dinner, and we got stuck in traffic for three hours. We hadn’t spoken much; he’d been in and out of prison those past couple of years, and any extra time he had was spent with his new son and other family members. We caught up, talked about new books, with a little Cairo gossip on the side. Despite how heavy things had become in Egypt and in his own life (he would be re-arrested later that year), there was a lightness and an optimism to his voice, our conversation. I felt somehow closer to him and farther away from his struggle than I ever had.

It’s been almost three years since we last spoke. He was briefly out of prison, and his father had just passed away. His familiar handle popped up as a chat window and, not knowing the right thing to say, I didn’t respond right away. But his tone — which, unlike with many other friends, I was always sure I could see straight through the tubes — was so normal, so casual, that I realized that despite the weight of his life right then, at least between us nothing had changed.

I often think about the pain that his family and his friends in Cairo must feel. But I also just miss him — there is an Alaa-shaped hole in my life, no one quite like him with whom I can admit to my shortcomings, whose political knowledge I can tap into.

For a long time I worried about him, his mind. Prison — with which I have absolutely no personal experience, but where several of my friends have languished for different reasons — can do strange things to a person. But this spring, through one of his public letters, I was reassured.

The letter, every word of it, was brilliant.

We reach out to you not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the power of solidarity,” he wrote, referring to international activists like me.

It is this advice that I most cherish,  for it’s the same advice he gave me so long ago, and the advice I’ve tried to live by ever since.

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Jillian C. York