From prison: Stars and the world

Editor’s note: 22-year-old student Abdelrahman al-Gendy was arrested from a car in Ramsis Square, Cairo, with his father in October 2013, several months after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. They were charged, along with over 60 others, of murder, attempted murder, vandalism, possession of weapons and disturbing the public peace, and were sentenced to 15 years in prison, five years probation and a LE20,000 fine by the Cairo Criminal Court on Sept 30, 2014. In March 2016, their final appeal was rejected by the Court of Cassation. Gendy had won a scholarship to study engineering at the German University in Cairo and was not yet 18 years old when he was arrested. He lost his place at the university as a result of his imprisonment, and is currently enrolled at Ain Shams University and studying from Tora Prison.

This piece was written in English originally for the World Youth Essay Competition (2018), in which it reached the finals. We publish it as it was sent to us.


There’s a song called One More Light by Linkin Park that goes like this: “Who cares if one more light goes out, in a sky of a million stars? It flickers, flickers.” This is how I see myself: one star in a vast, pitch-black sky, embroidered with millions and millions of other stars. All suffering. All struggling. So who would notice if I — a single lonely star — flicker and die?

Who would really care?

I am in prison. A prisoner of conscience in Egypt.

Egypt, [a country] that has always been associated in the non-Egyptian imagination with pyramids and camels. Then, for us, with the Arab Spring. And, more recently, with less pleasant things.

But I’m not putting my pen to paper to talk about Egypt, or prison. Or even myself. Not specifically. I’m here to talk about stars, planets and our world.

In prison you tend to think. A lot. And lately I’ve been pondering my being a single star and my irrelevance to the rest of the world, which leads me to the question that has been haunting me for days and days: Can I change the world?

If you’d been privileged to behold our planet from afar, floating in space, I imagine you might describe it as a magnificent greenish-blue sphere with an iridescent brilliance that grants you the surreal experience of feeling as insignificant as if you were in the presence of God himself.

Which gives you a very strong lesson in not judging a book by its cover.

Our beloved planet is wrecked. It’s filled to the brim with darkness, hate and evil. The statistics are shocking, really. If you research the history of this planet and its inhabitants you’ll be rendered speechless by the results.

You can start with wars and their reasons, then read about their direct and indirect consequences on humanity. You can then move on to dictatorships and learn about oppression and torture all over the world; how many prisoners of conscience are locked up and how many killed for merely expressing their points of view. After that you can delve into the so-called democracies still infested with racism, poverty and social discrimination. And if you still have the heart, start looking up the numbers for rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence and mass shootings all over the world.

When you’re done with that, start reading about extremists and terrorists from all religions and beliefs, and how they justify what they do and sleep peacefully at night. And end that by reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007) and be stunned by the twisted minds ruling our planet, the worldwide system that nurtures disasters and thrives on misery, that sees human tragedy as a business opportunity and views catastrophic wars and conflicts as potential markets to exploit. Notice that I’ve said nothing about the crimes against the planet itself: the drilling, the extracting, the fracking, the clearing, the poisoning – I will stop.

That’s the kind of world we live in. A world of hypocrisy and judgment. A world that feeds on hate, anger and discrimination. A world that we got too used to and don’t notice anymore. And, as I reached that conclusion, I went back to my haunting question: Can I change the world?

I’ve devoted a considerable part of my nearly five-year imprisonment to reading the autobiographies of those human beings who are regarded as symbols of change or transformation. I’ve gone through Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Malala [Yousafzai] and some religious figures as well. And as I read, a pattern started showing itself to me.

But before I tell you the pattern, I want to share with you something else.

In his book Islam Between East And West (1980), Bosnian thinker and politician Alija Izetbegović gives us his own take on the distinction between “civilization” and “culture.” It’s different from the generally accepted definition that “culture” is – to borrow the words of [poet] Aimé Césaire “the way we dress, the way we carry our heads, the way we walk, the way we tie our ties,” while “civilization” is a complex system of human social development and organization which is considered advanced.

Izetbegović defines civilization as the material progress humanity makes on its journey, such as technology and science in all their forms. He defines culture as all the progress made by humanity in the spiritual and artistic spheres. Then he poses his question: Does being civilized necessarily mean you’re cultured? Does having a culture necessarily mean you have what we now call a “civilization?” And his response is, no. Being one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the other, and he drives his point home by giving the example of the destruction of the Native Americans by the new, white arrivals, and then the use of Africans as slaves and the establishment of the system of apartheid. His point is that, despite being civilized — according to his definition — the civilization of the founders of the United States did not prevent them from committing massacres and crimes against humanity.

So, back to the pattern that was beginning to emerge: it consisted of two parts. The first one was that most of those people whose autobiographies I was reading were — by Izetbegović’s definition — cultured. If you look at their intents and motives, you’ll find most of them far from materialistic desire; their motivations are almost purely spiritual and humane in nature. Even Che Guevara, who did not shy away from what he regarded as necessary violence, said that the blood of rebels becomes frozen in their veins when they reach the ruling chairs.

The second part of the pattern was this: most of them were assassinated. Moving from the assassination of Dr. King, to Malcolm X, to Che Guevara, to the attempt on the teenage Malala and more and more, so many questions started popping up in my mind. Why does this world hate reformers that much? What’s the source of this stubborn defense mechanism against all kinds of good change? Is this planet evil in nature? Does it require a minimum amount of soul darkness to be able to enforce change? And, in that case, when you give up your morals, would it still be counted as change, or have you basically conformed to evil norms? Will you conform? Or be branded a heretic? Has anything actually changed over time, or have we only gotten better at masking our lowly drives, sugar-coating our venomous actions with fake slogans, and obediently playing our assigned roles?

Can we change the world?

In his novel, The City Always Wins (2017), Omar Robert Hamilton presents the reader with the intimidating existential question: “Would you rather find meaning in endless struggle, or struggle endlessly with meaning?”

I stopped for a long while at this question, working out its implications. It basically asks you if you’d prefer living an ugly truth, or a beautiful lie. Do you choose to find purpose in a futile goal because you’re too scared to search endlessly for the real purpose?

I had personally had enough with all the beautiful lies and decided to dive into the sea of ugliness in search of something that’s real. In my search, I’ve been disappointed so many times, exposed to so much hurt. I’ve had my perfectionist dreams crushed mercilessly.

I was 17 when they put me in prison. And now, at 22, my entire mentality has been reshaped. Everything that mattered does not matter anymore, and I have finally realized that the only things that matter are the small things. I’ve finally discovered that after you wake up from the beautiful lies and dive into the ugly truth, just when you can’t take it anymore, you’ll finally fall upon the beautiful truth: the small pleasures, the things that do matter, and the secret that has always inspired poets and artists.

Love. Unconditional love in all its forms. Parental love, the love of siblings, of friends, romantic love, and the peaceful love of God’s presence in your heart. The small acts of kindness, the huge acts of sacrifice, the beautiful demonstrations of selflessness, the moment that brings tears to your eyes when you realize that your hope in humanity is not lost after all, that we are greater than the sum of our parts and that one plus one, sometimes, equals more than two.

And with a new fire in my heart, I addressed the question again: Can I change the world?

Remember when I mentioned stars, planets and the world?

In primary school science, we were taught that stars are massive bodies that combust internally and so produce great amounts of light and heat, while planets are but dark bodies that sometimes reflect the light of stars — which causes them to look temporarily bright.

That’s us. Some of us are stars. Some of us are planets. And we make up the world. The problem was that I had thought of the world as a separate entity, when it’s actually nothing but us. And the key, the one and only key, to change the world for better, is to change enough people’s lives for better.

And now I’ve found this beautiful truth, I can’t help but strive to try and make as many people as possible embrace it.

The only way to give meaning to this life is to transform the lives of others. To think of the world in terms of individuals and take a slowly-but-surely approach with each and every one of them sincerely.

One person at a time.

The only way is to be a star.

To radiate light and warmth everywhere you step, to watch the faces of planets light up when they’re exposed to you, and if you’re lucky enough — if you’re the luckiest person ever — you’ll witness some of them metamorphose into their own shining stars, and all because of your presence in their orbit.

Have you ever been to a concert, with the spotlight focused on the pianist, pouring their soul out through their fingers, moving madly with passion, being one with their music, and everyone is staring in awe, feeling something that’s bigger than all of them in the air, no one can quite put their finger on it, but everyone senses it. And in the moment, goosebumps start tingling on their skin and you can see the light reflected on their faces from that blazing sun onstage.

It’s that particular moment when lives change. It’s in that specific instant that love, change, transformation and humanity all blend together.

It can be witnessed in acts ranging from the biggest to the smallest.

In a line of song. A page of a book. A speech on a podium. A smile and a kind touch. In a word or a deed. And it’s your responsibility to absorb enough light to be a star, radiating that moment back into as many lives as possible.

The path of transformation is a long and difficult path. But it does not really matter whether or not you reach the finish. The only thing that matters is to walk the path till the end of your days.

I used to play basketball, and my favorite quote from the movie Coach Carter (2005) [originally by Marianne Williamson] sums it all up:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Can I change the world? Maybe not directly. But I can change the world of one person for one minute at a time.

At least I hope I can. Then when “one more light goes out,” it will have done the work it was meant to do.

Abdelrahman ElGendy 

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