This prison has a sky without bars

I pull my face away from the window glass. There is an incredible mix of emotions, or a lack of them. I don’t know how I feel, or if I feel, which makes me wildly confused.

I look once more at the parking lot below our building. I gaze at the group of people going in circles around it, walking and chatting, stretching their bodies before the obligatory time spent at home approaches, checking their watches every now and then, seemingly wishing that the curfew weren’t here yet. 

I am pulled into a whirlpool of memories, merging into the present moment. Iron bars start to emerge, horizontal and vertical ones, all across the lot, four meters high. The neighbors keep walking, not noticing the closure of their sky. Bit by bit, their clothes start turning into the faded, navy blue color of prison cloth. The cars begin to disappear from the edges of the scene, and in their stead, clotheslines unfold through the length and width of the space, with cloth hung on them, a miserable sight. Blue. White. Blue. White.

Then I see someone amid it all, lying on the ground as though he comes from another world. Prisoners are moving around him, chatting loudly, checking their watches repeatedly, fearing the end of the precious hours of recess. He looks like he’s refusing to accept that he’s there, among them, as one of them. He contemplates the bars closely, deeply immersed in his thoughts.

Suddenly, our eyes meet. He stares incredulously, then smiles sadly and shakes his head.

In a second, we switch places. I’m the boy lying on his back on the ground now, wearing faded navy-blue, sentenced to 15 years maximum-security imprisonment, studying the bars limiting my ceiling, wondering if I’ll ever see a sky without bars again. I imagine a day when it all comes true. I imagine and I force my brain to envision. And for a moment, another version of me materializes. There, behind a window, face glued to the glass, watching me. Our eyes meet and I’m struck by the power of imagination. I smile and scoff, shaking my head. Hope is dangerous. 

I shake the vision out of my head and come to my senses. I sit on my bed, then lie down. Today is the first day of the third week of the home quarantine which we imposed upon ourselves, in the spirit of holding onto life.

I think about these visions that have been appearing to me every day with the gradual, stunning metamorphosis of our planet into an enormous prison. It’s as though my life inside prison spotted me trying to ignore it. It’s now determined to follow me around.


The memory yesterday was stronger, with a touch of beauty. I was standing on the balcony of our house, watching the sky without bars, when a young man on another balcony started singing. His voice was strong, beautiful. In a few minutes, all the balconies of the other apartments were filled, with residents both curious and admiring. A few minutes later, some started joining the chorus with the young man, singing along the words they know by heart. They were swaying, connected by some invisible energy.

I watched the armored door smack the ground in front of the young man loudly, and the walls materialize, until only his face could be seen behind the iron mesh of the cell door window. He is standing on the tips of his toes so that his mouth can reach the middle of the window and his voice remains audible to his audience. The audience too is on the tips of their toes, gluing their ears to the mesh rather than their lips. I too stand on the tips of my toes, surrounded by my fellow inmates, all of us stuck together so we can fit all our ears on the small window.

The young man is Yassin. He sings his heart out, elevating our souls with words from Sheikh Imam. His voice shook the prison ward, our voices mixing with his in the background:

“Let your hunting dogs roam the streets … 

And lock us up within your cells …”

We sway in rapture, knocking rhythmically on the doors. Every year, they bring us together here, students from different prisons, for the two months of exams. It always feels like a vacation.

We prepare for our favorite part, the one Yassin knows very well, so he raised his voice and repeated it over and over:

“Worker, farmers and STUDENTS! Our time has come and we’ve begun!”

The whole ward shakes with the screams of the word “students” in unison, with the collective knock on the cell doors in a single moment, our hands falling upon the doors, smacking its cold iron, screaming the word with Yassin at the top of our lungs. Adrenaline runs in our veins in that moment when misery and beauty coexisted, a moment when we believed — even for the mere duration of it — that there might still be hope.


I move my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop, scrolling down and down, watching the screen fill with diverse home quarantine parties. Families gather and decide to break the boring routine, groups of friends invent strange new games to kill time.

I can see us on the screen, trying to escape our cells and enter the one where we’d decided to party that night. Sometimes we sneak behind the jailer’s back, and sometimes we bribe him so he doesn’t rat us out. We gather before recess ends, and the doors get shut behind us. We laugh and exchange stories of how we sneaked and evaded jailers until we made it to the cell where the party is held. We start preparing for the night; we get the plastic containers and flip them over to use as makeshift drums.

We sit in a wide circle, the size of the cell, trying to force it to accommodate us. The talented guys start first, one by one. One time, we sway with the melody of a classic; another time, we sing along to a song we all love, and feel the goosebumps listening to poetry, whether of famous poets or of one of us. We feel love filling the place. We embrace it, and it embraces us.

A few hours later, the beat and rhythm start getting quicker, until everyone ends up laughing out loud, dancing, and breaking the plastic containers.

Ayman, Yassin, Ali, Aref, and I gather for a game of Estimation, using the card set that miraculously came through the last visit after being caught and banned twice before. We laugh and play. We live the day to the last moment. It’s just a day. We have no idea when it might happen again. We have no idea if it might happen again. We don’t know which of us won’t be here in the coming days, months or years. We don’t have a clue. So, we seize the moment, and live it to the fullest.


I don’t know if this is all funny or painful. I don’t know how to feel. I don’t know whom to share my thoughts with, as no one sees things the way I do. Everyone thinks they invented new ideas or came up with new wonders to kill their time in isolation, while we had exhausted these ideas inside, until most of us were gone and those left got sick of them, and everything became tasteless with the passing of time.

I watch the world around me turn into a prison, and I remember the words of all who got released before us, sending us thoughts in consolation, saying that life outside is but another big prison, maybe a much more comfortable, wider and distracting prison, and most importantly, one that has your loved ones beside you. But it remains a form of prison, nonetheless, at least in its outer frame, if not the details. They might have just been trying to make us feel better. But now, for the first time, life actually is turning into a big prison.

Should I feel pain from the fact that I seem destined to always get locked up? Or relief that the entire world will finally get a taste of what those inside go through?

I poke my head outside the window, look up and sigh.

At least this prison has a sky without bars.

Abdelrahman ElGendy 

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