I lost track of time in every sense of the word * On coping with prison and its aftermath

How long has it been since our sudden release from prison? I have to concentrate to recall the date and calculate the difference. Four years. Do I not feel the passage of time, or am I still in the same place I was a year or two ago? To be able to write now, I read a text that I wrote more than two years ago. In March 2017, I wrote that I still had not recovered from my prison experience; now I feel a distance from the word ‘recovery,’ and no longer imagine a return to how I was before passing through that wooden gate [1]. I no longer want to go back to who I was before. It’s enough that I’ve come to know myself better in recent years and called up enough acceptance and maturity to understand and accept the changes in myself.

I am afraid of forgetting. I don’t remember many things from before prison, and I’ve lost the names of some of those I loved while inside. Upon my release, I remember many people advising me to write, even if I published nothing, but simply in order to document and not forget. But I was busy getting my life back: going back to work five weeks after my release, therapy sessions, switching therapists more than once, remembering to eat even if I was alone, and recovering the skills I’d abandoned for 15 months during my stay in Qanater. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word stay,’ which implies a kind of silent retreat punctuated by exercise, yoga and abstaining from unhealthy food. That was the joke between my friends and me in our letters during my incarceration, and also the subject of arguments with my mother after my release. 

This time, I will not write the text as it comes to me. I will write with intent, to remember.

Inside the police station

I don’t often speak of the two nights I spent at the police station. Silently, expectantly, I searched for a familiar face. I was somewhat reassured that I used to know someone among the group of women who were arrested, or used to know her when she was a child. It had been more than 10 years since I had last seen her, but just her presence among unfamiliar faces helped me to cope with the situation. I remember we lay down next to each other in the fetal position, hugging the garbage can in front of the door of the women’s holding cell. All night long we heard the same ringtone from one particular officer’s phone: Pharrell Williams’ “Because I’m happy.” 

The next day we were moved from the Heliopolis police station to the Heliopolis prosecutor’s office, where I sat in shock, smiling at the prosecutor as he read out the list of charges. Then, we were moved out through the back door to another police station in New Cairo. On the way, we tried to make out landmarks to figure out where we were going. I tried to remember the locations of prisons outside Cairo. We spent a night in police lockup with two other women. One didn’t want to be transferred to prison — although she could no officially longer stay at the station — because she was able to see her son more often than she would in prison. The other one was pregnant, a fact of which the police officers were wholly unaware. (How could they not notice something so obvious?) The first woman kept saying she was afraid the pregnant woman would give birth at any moment. I don’t know if there are safety regulations pertaining to the detention of pregnant women, but I am certain the police station is ill-equipped to deal with a birth. Perhaps they simply overlooked this woman entirely — or, more accurately, she was invisible to them — because of her dark complexion. Social status at the police station and in prison is based on class, race, and other intersecting variables. When we reached the station, they placed us all with the two other women in a small room, because the large room held two men with special privileges. But after a visit by a member of the National Human Rights Council, we exchanged rooms with the men. 

I cannot, under any circumstances, imagine choosing to spend the night in a police station over prison. During the two nights I spent at two different stations, I felt I was in a completely lawless space, in every sense of the word. There are no rules governing anything, no guarantees. It’s odd to see prison as the safer place, with its locks and logbooks and routine of treatment of prisoners as a line item in some official document, whose every movement must be recorded.

‘Prison literature didn’t prepare us for the tedium’ 

A close friend sent me a letter asking how I was coping with the tedium. He said that the prison literature he’d read spoke about torture and other things, but did not help him imagine a regular day inside. How could a person deal with all that “free” time? I wasn’t prepared for it either, despite my mother’s stories about my grandfather’s imprisonment in the Oasis prison in the New Valley governorate, where he went five years without visitors. While in prison I read Sonallah Ibrahim’s memoirs from that time, how they would organize literary competitions and occupy themselves with various activities. 

As soon as we entered Qanater Women’s Prison, we began negotiating ground rules with the prison administration. You must manage the balance of power from the first moment: to refuse to wear a headscarf, to set the terms of negotiation, whether to allow the search of your person and to what extent. One of our fellow prisoners, who had already served another sentence in connection with a 2011 revolution case, said to the prison officials, “You don’t need to do that, Kawthar, they’re girls.” Just girls — meaning none of us had any sexual experience. Since we were not there for crimes connected to the sex trade, in practice, it meant that we had never been married. As a result, we were saved from the more humiliating searches: the vaginal search, carried out every time one reenters the prison gate after any legal proceeding, and the extensive pat-down, which is not so different from sexual harassment. I did not comment on our fellow prisoner’s attempt to spare us these violations, for I had decided at the outset that I would not be exhausted by details. So I remained an unmarried “girl” for the entire duration of my imprisonment. With time, the searches became less degrading and more routine, thanks to the “trust” built with the prison administration. 

You are only given a light, semi-transparent galabeya to wear. We had to pester the prison administration for pants to wear under it. We later learned that pants are not normally issued to female prisoners, and are primarily for men. So women who cannot afford to buy something to wear under the galabeya must move among the prison administration personnel and officers in revealing clothing.

We entered the so-called military ward at night: a room with a bathroom, closed off by a wooden door, and five sets of three-level bunk beds. As I recall — and my memory has been dulled — some instructions came down that resulted in a readymade dinner from the cafeteria. We made the acquaintance of the head of the ward, the tante (auntie), named Um Yehya, and we chose our beds, which we stuck with until our release. I wonder now how I was able to sleep that day. After my release, I couldn’t sleep those first nights. Perhaps my mind and body had not yet absorbed the sudden release, or I feared a mirror image of the first nightmare I had in prison. The worst morning was the first one; I clearly remember waking up after a dream in which all my friends were gathered in my apartment in Garden City — the nightmare of waking up to a reality that your mind has not yet absorbed.

We were seven women who had been charged in the Ettehadiya case, along with the tante in the ward with us, who functioned as the link between the prison administration and the goings-on inside. Initially, I did not understand how I would share this small space with seven other people. I had been living alone for quite some time. I remember once having a discussion with family and friends about the pros and cons of solitary confinement. “It’s a form of torture and you of all people should understand that,” they said. I did not. I was obsessed with the lack of personal space. In one room for 22 hours a day — barring visits, negotiations with the prison administration or hospital visits — and the only space where no one could see me was the bathroom. From my bed, I could see the blue door that Um Yehya would slowly open when exercise time began and then quickly shut when it was over. At the time, I thought: “hell is other people.” I wanted to be alone. I think I only understood the importance of being in a group later after all the hullabaloo died down and we settled into prison after our appeal was rejected. The daily bickering, the schedule of menial tasks, the engagement with stories other than your own — all of this was important to help pass the time and shake off despair and depression. 

From the time we were moved from the police station to Qanater Prison, I knew we would be staying for a while. But the state of waiting, of not knowing how much time I would spend in that place, made me more anxious. I hated the investigation period and I wished someone would give me a document with a definite number of months or years so I could finally come to terms with the situation. I am not good at waiting or dealing with uncertainties. A fellow prisoner told me she preferred the investigation period because there were more visits, and court hearings break up the monotony. Maybe we would be lucky and see friends. Time passes more quickly at that faster tempo. Her view seems perfectly reasonable to me now, but I hated the prisoner-transport vehicles. I hated the charade of the trial. I hated seeing the helplessness in the eyes of our loved ones during hearings. I hated the court holding cell and the cage made of unending layers of iron. Everything during that period was surreal to me. I had attended many hearings for cases associated with the revolution before then, but no matter how engaged and sympathetic I was with the people I met, nothing comes close to the feeling of being inside an iron cage and hearing a voice decree your fate without a moment’s hesitation. I looked forward to getting back to the prison ward — as if I were going home — to relax after the exhaustion of the transport truck, the tense dealings with police officers, the expectation that accompanied every hearing, and being told by the prison guards and wardens on our way to the court: “You’re getting out, it’s over.”

You can live a pampered existence in the Qanater Women’s Prison, spending LE4,000 a month to have your clothes washed, have hot meals brought to your bed in the ward, and buying other services such as having your bedding changed and having a bath prepared. In that small space, you can determine a prisoner’s class from her galabeya and the things she brings back from her visits. And class determines the degree of respect you receive from the prison administration and others. The prison warden took care to demonstrate his own social class at the earliest opportunity. “I go to Heliopolis Club,” he said. I didn’t understand the relevance of this, but later during a tour they gave me of the hospital, he told me that we had gone to the same school, just a few years apart. 

Half of us woke up early while the rest went to bed at sunrise. This remained a source of constant conflicts. I was one of the early risers. Night is not my favorite time of the day. I would wake up and drink tea, talk with whoever else was awake and watch the door until Um Yehya opened it at 8 am. Except for a very few days when the depression got the better of me, I would leave the ward to walk for an hour, back and forth in the L-shaped pathways we were permitted to walk along so that Um Yehya could keep a constant eye on us. Then the hour would be over and I would enter the main prison block to start my day.

A close friend sent me advice and guidance from former prisoners in the US on how to pass the time and overcome depression. The key is routine, and stretching out your day as much as possible. I kept a running list of pleasurable things that happened each day, and the things I had accomplished. It was my attempt to parcel out the day and extract anything positive from it. On the most miserable days, getting out of bed and walking was itself an accomplishment, and reading Al-Ahram was a pleasure. 

We divided up the tasks to keep the ward clean. We managed to do this fairly, based on each person’s preferred (or least hated) job. Mopping out the ward three times a week, washing the dinner dishes, preparing food (whether cooking or heating it) and laying out the table. Anything a person can imagine was parceled out and divided among us, for it helps to pass the time and maintain a routine. Some of us washed our clothes ourselves and others paid another prisoner working in the laundry a carton of Cleopatra cigarettes to do it. As I recall, in the beginning, in the summer, I washed my own clothes as a way to occupy the time, but when winter came, I decided to rely on another prisoner named Dawia. Once, when Dawia saw me in the prison yard during exercise time wearing the prison-issue galabeya, she ran up to me and asked me not to wear it again, giving me one of her own. The poorest people in prison wear the prison-issue galabeya. They usually get no visitors, so there is no one to buy them a more suitable gown than the one-handed out by the prison. But I liked the prison-issue galabeya because it was roomy and comfortable. “Inmate” was printed on the back of it and “investigation” was printed on the pants from the prison. 

One particular galabeya remained fixed in my mind throughout my incarceration. It may have been more elegant than the dresses I would wear outside prison. It was worn by a high-level bank employee who, it was said, funneled money abroad for Gamal Mubarak. It may have only been a rumor, but the galabeya certainly suggested that she was part of the upper class. She didn’t stay in prison for long; another mid-level employee who wore a middle-class galabeya and allegedly worked at the same bank and was involved in the same case, did stay. Before entering prison, I must have imagined that everyone would be equal when denied their liberty, but what happens in prison is a carbon copy of what happens outside of it, albeit on a smaller scale. When you are free, you can live in a class bubble that reflects your own choices in clothing and lifestyle, but there is no escaping class in prison and no choice but to come face to face with social and material privileges.

The daily routine changed after our sentencing. Time revolves around visitations — days when you have a visit, and the days between them. Prisoners who are still on trial are permitted one visit per week, whereas convicted prisoners are allowed a visit every 15 days, in addition to exceptional visits on official holidays. Women on death row are only permitted one visit per month, although no legal provision specifies different treatment for them; it only distinguishes convicted prisoners from prisoners still standing trial. It seems to me that death-row prisoners are punished twice over: they are denied rightful visits and are housed in a ward where conditions are more inhumane than in others. 

Following our conviction, the rhythm slowed down and we began coordinating our visiting days, so that we would not all use up our visits the same week and then spend the second week without home-cooked food or stories to hear. Exercise was followed by breakfast, followed by reading and writing letters, followed by thinking, followed by reading again, followed by exercise, followed by dinner, followed by the radio — the rhythm of an unvarying routine, broken only by a visit, a needed visit to the hospital, or negotiations with the prison administration on matters that would seem trivial, but which in those circumstances become most vital. I remember an article by Ahmed Douma on what remains of a person’s life inside prison, and the need to cling to those things that connect us to the lives we knew. 

On freedom

Would we come out to find the lives we once knew? Are the pictures I taped above my bed still fixed there? A few weeks before our sudden release, we started talking about what it would be like when we were freed. We assumed we would serve our full two-year sentence, but it turns out the timing of our release was important for the UN General Assembly. We were released on a presidential pardon — among 100 prisoners released in connection with various cases — before we could finish our discussion. It was the beginning of a confusing moment, four years ago now. 

Finally, our state of emergency was over and everyone returned safely to their home base. Except me. I remember I couldn’t sleep the first night. I remember my confusion the next morning when I was taken out for breakfast with friends and family at a Maadi restaurant. Everything was surreal, the same way it was when I was inside the courtroom cage. I couldn’t stand being in large groups, but such groups had been my former life and at that moment, I could not see how much my view of life had changed. 

I spent the first month at my sister’s apartment, and then I returned to my own apartment and went back to the office. I rebuffed all suggestions that I leave Egypt. I had been denied my family and my life for 15 months and I did not want to feel that denial one day longer. I decided, based on some theoretical calculation, to maintain routine by returning to work (I spent months trying to recover basic skills that eluded me), looking for a therapist so I could understand what I was experiencing (I tried three of them!), and planning a trip to visit a friend in Southeast Asia for several weeks to get some distance from Egypt. 

Some scenes from those first months following release remain fixed in my mind: the first time I felt the sea; the first time I entered a packed conference room at work,  only to run all the way out to the street, accompanied by a burst of incomprehensible tears; the alienation I felt from people I was close to before prison. I lost some skills during the months of incarceration because they were unimportant in prison, like selecting an outfit to wear, packing for a trip, or remembering to eat when I was alone. In prison, we wore the same thing every day — you have only what is required for each season. There is no space for anything extra or inessential on the bed where you sleep. In prison, we eat together, but in freedom, life is lonelier and its quick pace disorients me, especially after relying on my family to take care of all my affairs for some time. Remembering to pay bills and rent, do the laundry, eat, work — none of this was easy after 15 months in which all my efforts were focused on parceling out a handful of tasks over a long day to make it pass. 

Unlike most of my fellow prisoners, I had no close friends who had had the same experience. On the contrary, many of those around me expected me to come out the same person I was before prison, and all signs to the contrary were cause for astonishment. I sent despairing letters to my fellow inmates to find they were in a similar state, or at least what I was experiencing was understandable to them and their friends who had been released before us. I often thought about the need for a support system for released prisoners, something like Narcotics Anonymous, but I didn’t try to work on it seriously. 

In the beginning, I was obsessed with understanding what prison had changed in me. That was the starting point for therapy, after which we moved on to dealing with others’ expectations of me after release and the importance of setting boundaries. After attending parties for a month or two, I started to feel they were more like the prison visiting room. They reminded me of the lack of privacy and intimacy and filling time with ultimately meaningless things. I had 60 minutes to check up on my family and friends, and they on me, in a packed and noisy room. A few months later, I decided to leave Facebook, where I would get invited to parties and events simply because my name was on the friend list, and not because my presence was important.

What about my expectations of others? Was it rational to expect the same degree of interest and presence? Of course not, but I couldn’t rationalize away the sudden sense of loneliness after my release. Or maybe my loneliness was linked to the alienation that I felt. It’s like I was living a fictional life. This disorientation was exacerbated by a series of health problems that lasted more than a year — which were only natural after months of my body holding itself together because of the emergency situation I was in. At the time, I heard stories of health problems after release from prison, how the body copes after coming out to “safety,” but understanding this did not allay my exasperation at my inability to heal physically. A friend said to me as we were getting out, “Expect to spend the same amount of time recovering outside as you did inside.” I think I only recovered after more than double that time, after a lot of love, time to process, and understanding from my family and those close to me — the same things that gave me the strength to cope with the months I spent inside Qanater Women’s Prison. 


*From “Even the Finest Warriors” by Rana Gaber, Mada Masr

[1] Yara Sallam, “Passing through the Wooden Gate,” in If Not for That Wall, Contemporary Image Collective, 2018.


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