Jailed in Egypt at 17, he wrote to survive and to share his long ordeal

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Jailed in Egypt at 17, he wrote to survive and to share his long ordeal
Abdelrahman ElGendy, center, at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree, in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Nov. 1, 2022. He spent six years and three months in an Egyptian jail. (Ross Mantle/The New York Times)

by Aida Alami

NEW YORK, NY.- Abdelrahman ElGendy envisioned the ending of his book would be inspiring, despite all the horrors he would have to recount.

Starting at age 17, ElGendy spent six years and three months in squalid prisons in Egypt, and one way he survived, he said, was to imagine the memoir he would publish if he were ever freed.

He knew the harrowing abuses he witnessed and endured during his detention — including guards whipping prisoners and beating them with batons and wooden chair legs — would make for a powerful story, if hard to read and even harder to share. But the thought of the book also gave him an existential purpose at a time when his life was little more than suffering.

He knew he didn’t want his memoir to be about only pain and degradation. The idea that, somehow, it could also be about hope helped ease his despair, letting him dream that all he was going through could have a positive meaning in the end.

“This is how I want readers to receive my work one day: What you’re holding between your hands, this is it. This is how I survived,” said ElGendy, now 27 and studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Pittsburgh. His autobiography is his thesis project.

ElGendy was arrested at 17 in Cairo in October 2013 as he sat in a car with his father while taking pictures and filming a protest.

His prior activism had been short-lived: He had attended only a few protests, starting after his friend’s father was one of hundreds of people killed by Egyptian security forces in August of that year amid a brutal crackdown on the supporters of the recently ousted president, Mohammed Morsi.

Earlier on the day of his arrest, he had fought with his parents, who were not politically active and didn’t want him to take any more risks. But a teacher he loved had recently been arrested, and he wanted to do something about it.

They made a compromise: His father would take him to the protest, and they would not leave the car.

But plainclothes officers were standing nearby. They pulled the teenager out of the car, snatched his phone and beat him, he said. His father, pleading that they let his son go, was arrested, too.

Father and son spent days awaiting interrogation, crammed in a small cell with dozens of other people sleeping on top of one another. The teenager stood in a corner, fanning his frail father with a piece of cardboard.

They were eventually tried as a group of 68, all in the same cage in a courtroom, and sentenced to 15 years in a maximum-security prison for the crime of “unlawful assembly.”

After his conviction, the teenager was transferred to prison, where he was stripped naked and groped, he said, and had his head shaved. He said prisoners referred to the ritual as a “welcome party” and that it was designed to “tame and break” prisoners.

His fear at suddenly being a teenage inmate in a country with a notoriously brutal penal system was compounded by guilt that his father, who owned a marketing research firm, was with him behind bars.

The first time he wrote while in custody was after a court hearing in May 2014.

While standing inside a police transport vehicle, he saw his reflection in the metal, which fed an urge to put down in words the cruelty and absurdity of the events that had led him there. He went back to his cell and scribbled his first essay, in Arabic.

“Remnants of a lost dream and withering hope: I see them peeking from my reflection on the handcuff crushing my wrist,” he wrote.

His cellmates cried when he read it to them, so he decided to smuggle the paper to his sister, who published it on Facebook. On her next visit, she shared readers’ reactions: shock, sadness and compassion. That encouraged him to continue, and writing became the way he would fill much of his time as he sat in his cell.

ElGendy’s case wasn’t publicized like that of some high-profile prisoners. Protesters around the world did not chant his name, columns in international papers were not written asking for his release, and editorial boards were not aware of his plight.

His situation, after all, was not extraordinary; in fact, it was common in Egypt. He was just one of more than 60,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails, including pretrial detainees, according to estimates by human rights groups last year. A New York Times investigation revealed the extent of the abuses suffered by the prisoners, including many who were accused only of having noncompliant political views.

While in prison, ElGendy enrolled at Ain Shams University and eventually graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Egyptian law permits prisoners to sit for university exams.

As a student, he was allowed to have books in English that his jailers thought were for class. He said he read more than 300 books, studying and writing mostly at night beside the cells’ bathroom, where a dim light shone and when the prison was quieter.

His determination to finish his degree, he said, was driven in part by the role he imagined his graduation would play in his memoir.

“I’d be in the middle of a mental breakdown studying to finish my degree, and what keeps me going is thinking how anticlimactic it would be in the book when the protagonist doesn’t graduate after all this buildup,” he explained. Pushing him on, he added, was “this notion that whatever I experienced was not in absolute vain.”

ElGendy hid his writing in the dirty laundry he gave his family during their monthly visits. His father was pardoned after three years in jail.

His writing started receiving attention, and in 2018, the Egyptian publication Mada Masr, one of the only remaining independent voices in Egypt, ran his essays as a multipart series, “Anatomy of an Incarceration.”

In one piece, he wrote about the anticipation of a family visit and the careful choreography required to leave his cell, where each inmate was given a bare 12 inches of space: “We tiptoed and hopped across the cell, not wanting to step on anyone’s head or stomach by mistake — those two hurt the most. We aimed for hands and feet only. I yelled that we were ready as we approached the cell door, and it opened with a bang to let us out for the first time in a week — an entire week spent rotting with 64 other prisoners in a tiny 4-by-5-meter cell.”

With his sentencing upheld after an appeal, his only hope for early release was a presidential pardon. But he never received one. He was moved between seven jails in his six-plus years.

Finally, it was determined that a clerical error had led to his being improperly tried as an adult.

He was retried as a minor and released in January 2020. A prison guard woke him up to tell him the news. He left the prison as suddenly as he had entered it.

ElGendy now lives in Pittsburgh, drawn by a strong creative nonfiction program. He spends his days writing his master’s thesis, working to release other prisoners and giving talks about human rights.

In prison, he said, reading works of resistance by contemporary Egyptian authors — like the poetry of Mostafa Ibrahim and Tamim Al-Barghouthi and the novels of Ahdaf Soueif — shook and inspired him. “I’ve absorbed this idea of resistance through storytelling,” he said.

“I dream that my book plays the same role for generations to come,” he added. “The stories exist because I told them. I was there, this is what happened, and you cannot rob me of my words.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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