Ahdaf Soueif in al-Shorouk, 9 November 2011
Scene: Early in the morning in the capital. Two women in a room in a maternity hospital. It will become a sunny winter’s day, but now it’s early and the light that comes in from the window is cold and flat.
Two women slip silently out of the ward, they walk down the stairs instead of using the lift. One of them holds a baby wrapped in layers of wool, then flannel, then cotton; the other carries a bag with the baby’s things. Outside the hospital they climb into a small car; the mother carries the baby, her sister drives.
And when we came back, after about four hours, the world was in uproar. My mother and aunt – God have mercy on them both – tore strips off us: a woman who gave birth yesterday gets out of bed, takes the baby, gets into cars, and goes to Tora? To Tora? Takes the baby on a prison visit? They gave me a worse time naturally: So your sister’s crazy. Why do you go along with her? But we all knew they were just venting their anxiety, that all the talk was worth nothing, because when Laila Soueif decides on something, that something will happen; with you or without you, it will happen.
This visit to her husband, Ahmad Seif el-Islam, political prisoner in Tora, to show him “Mona”, born yesterday, was also a celebration of victory. The regime had kidnapped Seif and his friends in the autumn of 1983. Laila, who was in England, went home and and went looking for them, facing the violence and bureaucracy of the Dakhleyya (the Ministry of the Interior) police station by police station, prison by prison. She found them at last in the Citadel Jail where they were being tortured. And – to cut a long story short - she managed to free them. They were tried for “attempting to overturn the regime through armed insurrection” and Seif was sentenced to five years in prison. When the sentence was ratified, in spring 1985, Seif and Laila vanished – taking little Alaa with them of course. They hid outside Cairo for a month until they were sure that Laila was pregnant. Then they came back and, accompanied by his wife, Seif turned himself in. And so Laila defeated, to an extent, the regime’s effects on her personal life: she had the little girl she’d wanted; a daughter for her and Seif and a sister for Alaa – a sister who is now campaigning to free him and all the civilians held through military trials.
Scene: Laila confused and lost. 2006 and for the first time in history I see her confused and lost. Alaa had gone to visit his friends who’d been arrested against the background of the campaign for judiciary independence – and had been taken away and locked up. Then as now, pending trial. They renewed the 15 days’ detention three times. Laila was never able to go see him in court or to visit him in Tora. She was silent and uncertain. Our old nanny berated her: “You’ve lost the boy. Wasn’t it you who taught him? Every day protests, protests. Can anyone stand up to the government? Now you’ve made us lose him.” She never answered.
She’d stay up to set exams and go to college in the morning to hand them in only to find she’d left them at home and have to turn back. Laila the achiever, the loud, the challenging, the practical, the full of laughter - fell silent, slowed down, forgot things. Till he came back.
This time she’s different. She went to Bab el-Khalq jail, then to the Appeal Hearing in ‘Seen 28’ on Thursday. When they allowed us in we found Alaa in a courtroom with thirty other young men remanded in custody against the Maspero events. We sat Manal next to him. At his other side was the plainclothesman handcuffed to his left wrist. Alaa’s immediate and quick talk to us was about the other young men; who they were, their circumstances, what they might be framed for, what should be done for them and the need to have lawyers in touch with them. After a few moments we got instructions to move; they put us in a different – more spacious, airy – courtroom, on our own. They took the handcuffs off Alaa, the plainclothes and the soldiers retreated to the back of the room, so now it’s possible for Manal to sit on his right and Laila on his left. Sanaa and I face them. Ahmad Seif moves between us and the lawyers. Laila stays close to her son, her hand resting on him all the time. Sometimes she puts her head, just for an instant, on his shoulder. They’ve cut his hair – but tenderly; they allowed him to choose the barber and the cut – as long as it was short. He looks really good. He talks about everything, what he believes is happening, what he hears inside the jail. He asks for news. His sisters have prepared a brief for him on the essentials at home and abroad. He asks me to give a message to Dr Amr Helmy: “Dr Amr, the Appeals Prison in Bab el-Khalq has injured men in it. Medical care is very basic; painkillers and some antibiotics. So their injuries are going to become compounded, they will develop and have side-effects which will affect their entire lives. This is all avoidable if they can have good and urgent treatment.”
The Court enters and we all stand-up. Three judges and the prosecutor. They sit, so we sit. Alaa is asked to step forward; he stands in front of the judges’ bench, to one side. The prosecutor reads out the charges – which appear even more preposterous as we listen to them in this official setting with Alaa, in innocent person, in front of us. The head judge asks Alaa’s lawer to identify himself and twenty people step forward. I counted them: twenty lawyers, men and women, from across the political spectrum. Five lawyers speak; the last of them is Ahmad Seif. Then Alaa says that he has something to say. He addresses the court; he speaks with confidence and courtesy. He says he’s been detained before – in 2006 when he was visiting friends being tried for their solidarity with the judiciary – and the charges against him were as loose as the charges he’s facing now. In 2006 he was detained for forty-five days, and there’s no doubt that the imprisonment was meant as a form of punishment, of abuse. He feels that his situation today is similar, and that his detention now is a deliberate abuse. For besides the loose nature of the charges, and the evidence presented by the lawyers to show that he had chosen to confront, not to flee, and that there is, therefore, no need to keep him pending trial - besides those, there is the fact that his wife, who is in this hall, is pregnant and due to give birth within days and he would never choose not to be beside her. He repeats that his imprisonment pending trial is an abuse of the law to punish him.
Personally, I imagine that the judge - who seemed really decent and was taking notes – I imagine that he’ll lay his gavel down on the desk, look into Alaa’s eyes, and say go, my son; you are a free man, do what you think best and may God increase the likes of you. He doesn’t of course; he adjourns the court and the judges retire to confer and we go back to sitting surrounding Alaa. A young officer comes in and accuses Sanaa politely of having smuggled a mobile phone into the court room and of tweeting from within Seen 28. Sanaa tells him she doesn’t tweet and that he’s confusing her with her sister who is now at a press conference on the Maspero events. He’s convinced, but the question remains: who’s sending information from here to Mona? We can’t help him. We sit together in an almost-normal family gathering except for Laila’s total adhesion to her son’s side. The lawyers bring us tea and biscuits and suddenly it’s as though the whole scene breaks apart in front of your eyes: a surprise scattering and loud voices and in the instant it takes to recollect your senses you see Alaa being led away fast, the handcuffs back on his wrists, the cries “come on – come quickly – this way! This way!” and us unsure of what we should do then making up our minds – his mother and his sister and his wife and I – so racing after him and it seems essential to give him back the book he was reading so we toss it to each other “Alaa’s book! Alaa’s book!” till it reaches him. We run after him and the plain-clothes and the soldiers who are hurrying with him, we run down the stairs and out into the courtyard and they put him into the big blue police truck and pull the bolt on the outside so we stand around it calling “Alaa Alaa can you hear us? We’re here. We’re not leaving. And the shabab are outside in the street try to look out at them-” Then they bring out the other young men, in handcuffs, and their detention has been renewed 15 days. They stand in the courtyard and we snatch a few words with them: “I basically don’t know what I’m accused of”, “Don’t forget us”, “We have no-one to stand up for us except the shabab of No to Military Trials”, “Do you have any stickers?” And then again suddenly: “It’s over, the building will close – empty the building – this way – out please – out – out!” From inside the truck Alaa calls to us to find a way to let him know the military’s decision.
When we’re in the street, and after the truck leaves, the lawyers receive word the appeal has been rejected.
The truck never gets to Bab el-Khalq prison; we don’t now where it’ gone, throughout the night we don’t know, and it’s Friday afternoon that we ascertain he’s been moved to Tora prison – at his request.
In the evening Laila tells us that she will go on hunger strike from Sunday morning; there can be no Eid for her without Alaa.
Laila made her decision and took the initiative. She embarked on a course whose seriousness befits the momentousness of events and the weight of her feelings. Her feelings are centred on Alaa but are not confined to him, they embrace all the imprisoned, abused, murdered shabab, they embrace the revolution, and the country.
Some of us tried to talk to her about timings and strategies, about what the heart demands and what the mind counsels – but this ‘heart versus mind’ story has never been Laila’s; her heart and mind are one; like our ancient ancestors she is constantly tuning her “attentive heart”.
A friend says “when the sky’s about to fall down on us, Laila Soueif comes and holds it up.” Laila Soueif is now in a struggle to hold an evil away from her son – from us – holding up the sky that it might not collapse onto the earth. The time is no longer a time for debate, but a time to help and empower and support her great effort.