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From prison: Trying to live in the present

Editor’s note: 22-year-old student Abdelrahman al-Gendy was arrested from a car in Ramses 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 September 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.

State universities have generally permitted imprisoned students to sit exams in their chosen subjects from prison. This has typically worked for those studying humanities, but there has been an increase in the number of engineering students imprisoned in recent years. While these students often pass with good grades, despite being restricted to non-technological methods of study, they often graduate without having touched a piece of equipment or hardware throughout their studies.

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The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece believed in a doctrine of living in the present. Even though the past is over and done with, and the future as yet unknown, the weight of the past and the phantoms of the future are nevertheless, say the Stoics, the bane of human life. It is wisest to disregard both fear of the future and regret over past troubles, neither of which matter, for between lost happiness and latent opportunity lies a present which is fast slipping away, even while it constitutes the only tangible dimension of our existence.

I’m not a Stoic or a fan of Greek philosophy, but I have to admit that it is this principle, after God, which has kept me sane up until this point. (At least, I think I’m sane, because the insane are the last to find out they are insane — if they ever do).

Since coming to terms with the fact that I’m not going to be released any time soon, and that the immediate future has nothing better in store for me than the recent past, I’ve tried to think no more than is absolutely necessary about either the past or the future. The future is only the next visit, and the past is only the last book I read. This isn’t easy for someone who, like me, is plagued by the compulsion to think and overthink absolutely everything that was, is, will be, and might have otherwise been. But as the years have gone by, my self-control has improved. I can spend days on end with no idea what is happening beyond the pages of the book I’m reading, the curriculum of the subject I’m studying, or the minutes of my family’s visit. I kick away the thoughts that prick at the back my mind like the points of swords.

But sometimes I get distracted, and make the mistake of letting my mind wander after a thought. All it takes is one thought for a dark hail of swords to come rushing in behind it, assaulting my mind from every direction, until I’m ready to bang my head against the bars of the window to destroy them.

The cure has remained constant since I first entered prison: writing.

I hurry to find pen and paper, and vomit up everything that’s in my head, without order, forethought or revision.

Just now, I slipped up and thought about the future. I thought about university, about studying. Since the beginning, I’ve taken each day at a time. Each term at a time. Each year at a time. Telling myself there’s no way I’ll still be in here by the time I finish my degree. The academic years have gone by one after the other, and I’ve battled to get the best possible grades wherever I can, so I have some hope of coming out with a decent degree. Then came the moment I never thought would come: time to start thinking about my graduation project. Now that the thought has caught hold of me, I can’t shake it off, a thought so pitiful it’s funny: how can I graduate from a university I’ve never set foot in?

My class are graduating now, while I prepare to graduate next year. But what’s the point of a graduation project if I’ve never even touched a nut and bolt? I know that it doesn’t necessarily make a difference; it won’t stop me understanding my subject fully and discussing it like I know what I’m talking about. But who am I fooling but myself? How will I change the world with engineering, like I once dreamed of doing, if I have no experience of its fundamental elements? How can I pursue graduate studies, train, make discoveries, or feel ecstatic about the success I’ve dreamed of for so long, when I haven’t even mastered the basics? But what’s the alternative — to not study, and waste years of my life, because on principle I don’t want to hold a degree in a subject I’ve never actually encountered in real life? How does a person choose between two evils? How does a person choose between letting their life go to waste or letting their dreams go to waste?

Where does a person go with all these fettered dreams? Has anyone ever felt as I do now, my mind sour with frustrated ambitions? Do others, too, struggle to swallow down the bitter taste of a crippled spirit writhing to get out? I search the present to bring me back. My mind squirms and screams. It won’t let me return to a pallid, depressing present that makes me sick. I try to convince it that it’s the only way. It refuses, like a spoilt child running wild in a shop full of black thoughts. What hope is there of bringing it to heel, making it understand?

Stoicism can go to hell.

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Abdelrahman al-Gendy