Abdelrahman ElGendy, an Egyptian writer and former political prisoner, is a Dietrich fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s nonfiction writing graduate program.
OpinionMy friend kept me human in prison. Please don’t forget him.
A little after midnight on that October night, a cell door opened and a guard flung shriveled bread and halva bars in our direction. The sight of prison food on the dirty floor unlocked something in me, and anguish gushed out, the knees of my sweatpants soaking up my tears like a tender shoulder. My cellmates tried to console me — I had told them I was supposed to be starting college that day, and I guess it had finally sunk in. I couldn’t stop shaking.
In the background, I heard grunts of annoyance as someone walked over, failing to avoid stepping on other prisoners’ hands and toes in the small cell. It took a few pokes from this someone for me to realize he had walked over to me. I raised my eyes. He was about 20, with a fresh goatee, chestnut-colored eyes and a wide, bright smile that creased the corners of his face.
“I hear you’re going to the German University?”
I stared at his squatting figure, perplexed.
“I’m supposed to start my first day in a few hours,” I said.
“No way! I studied engineering there for a couple semesters, but I failed computer science and transferred to the British University.” He smiled. “You in engineering as well?”
He punched my shoulder. “You’re lucky, man. This place is a piece of cake by comparison. Way easier.”
And then it happened. I smiled.
“Look, the first week is lecture week,” he said. “No sections. No one goes to class. Hopefully we’ll be out of here by tomorrow anyways,” he said and winked, running his fingers through his dark brown hair. “I’m Ayman Moussa.” He stretched his hand toward mine.
And so it began.
We couldn’t have been more different, Ayman and me. I was 17; he was 19. Ayman radiated charisma, narrating wild stories of parties and dates. I stammered and confessed that I’d only ever had one girlfriend. (I didn’t dare mention that she and I had been all of a chaste 10 years old.) Ayman could break-dance and had been on the national youth diving team; I spent my time devouring poetry and literature, hovering in the shadows.
And yet, for the next six years, Ayman and I were soulmates. Long after the other prisoners had gone to sleep, we’d stay up talking until the first sign of dawn, dreaming of what we’d do when we got out: He’d start his own gym, where I’d train with him for free. I’d write a memoir and dedicate a whole section to him in the acknowledgments. When he made it to the Olympics, I’d be there with him, cheering in the stands, and when I won a Pulitzer Prize, he’d give a speech at my award ceremony.
When we ended up separated from each other, we wrote letters that our family members would slip in with the mail from outside.
We remembered each other, always.
Sometime in 2015, we were moved to our fourth prison. To this day, I recall the sight of two lines of guards stretching from the back of the police truck to the prison gate. Handcuffed, clutching our plastic bags, we tangoed through the maze of men: dodging their punches, flitting to evade their whips, ducking to protect our faces.
Inside the prison, Ayman stood 10 feet away as we peeled off our clothes for the guards’ inspection, every touch implying: “We own you.” Razor blades zipped across our heads, ringing our shoeless feet with tufts of cut hair and humanity.
I watched as it was Ayman’s turn to step forward for the search. A guard’s Swiss Army knife sliced his plastic bag, and Ayman’s life tumbled to the ground.
“What’s this?” the guard barked, holding a purplish item up for inspection.
“An avocado,” Ayman replied.
The guard dropped the fruit and stomped on it until its guts splattered beneath his boot. Ayman bent over, gathering the pieces of his existence inside a prison-issued blanket, tying its corners into a bundle.
“Emshy ya kossomak,” the guard growled. Move, motherf-----. Ayman froze, clenching his jaw at the insult. I wanted to walk over and tell him that they were trying to break us, that they loathed us because they knew that we could sing through the pain, drown them out. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him they could never fathom the way our laughter turned the stars behind the window bars to caramel, the way our tears coppered the morning sun.
I wanted to tell him, but I was too scared.
Instead, I blinked, my eyelids capturing the wretched scene like camera shutters.
One morning during our third year of incarceration, I shuffled back and forth along the one-meter-wide cell corridor of Wadi Al-Natroun prison, unable to bear the heat in the yard where Ayman worked out. I rolled up my undershirt in hopes of a breeze, then strode to the door and called to him.
“One more set and I’ll be done!” Ayman yelled back as he hopped off the pull-up beam.
We ran to our cells and picked up the letters our families had smuggled in during our brief visits. We had a little ritual: We would crouch in the corridor, backs to the wall, and sift through the words together. We learned a lot about each other’s lives — weddings, deaths, births. The news filled us with nostalgia, yearning: His brother had become a certified kite surfer; my introverted sister had been promoted in her student organization. Some letters inquired about our studies.
Back in 2013, the prison administration announced that we could benefit from a preexisting law for incarcerated students and sit for our final exams if our families provided proof of enrollment. Each semester, they’d bus all of us to Tora prison in Cairo, and teaching assistants would arrive to supervise the tests. I received study materials from supporters and learned what I had missed. I complained to Ayman about my frayed nerves as the new semester approached. I really couldn’t imagine teaching myself engineering in prison for another year.
“Well, I have good news, bro,” Ayman said, shrugging. “First week is lecture week.”
We slapped our thighs and roared with laughter, even though we knew that the joke wasn’t all that funny. We relished happy tears for a change, forgetting for a moment the itchy prison-issue blankets, the vomit-colored lentils, the claustrophobia of those cramped cells. “Lecture week” was our private joke, guaranteed to get a laugh, until one day five years on, I finished my degree.
I had Ayman to thank for that. He kept me laughing, which is to say, he kept me human.
Who makes him laugh now, I wonder?
Whenever we were moved to a new prison, Ayman and I would stand side by side, gawking though the chain-link fence at the sulky-faced old-timers with the hollow stares. Our pulses would spike as we imagined ourselves meeting the same fate.
But I wasn’t there with him the day life maimed Ayman beyond repair. He’d been transferred to another prison when word arrived through the grapevine that Ayman’s father had died of a heart attack, his heart condition made worse by his son’s ordeal.
After Egyptian activists launched a social media campaign on his behalf, Ayman was given an hour-long furlough. He didn’t know why until they dragged him out of a transport vehicle and into his family’s apartment. Months later, he told me he’d heard nothing but a long, deafening whistle in his ears for the rest of that day. That was his only memory.
The break-dancing boy who had done backflips that could make your jaw drop, who tickled and teased our casemates when our 15-year sentence was announced, who joked as we put on our new convict uniforms, “At least navy-blue is more fashionable than pre-trial detention white!” — that boy ceased to exist.
How can he ever heal, when he hadn’t been able to embrace his Baba a final time, wave him into the ground?
But he didn’t cry the day his father died.
One of the few times I saw him shed a tear was in 2016, when he saw photos his mother had smuggled in from what would have been his graduation day. We looked at them together, mouths agape. His entire class, every last student, wore T-shirts with Ayman’s face printed on them over their gowns. Ayman’s mum told him how they had stomped on the stage, chanting his name, and thunder-clapped.
When I saw Ayman’s eyes caressing the pictures, seeing in his frozen features a self who had long since slipped through the cracks of his memory, I understood the way remembering re-members — for a moment, at least, it can make one whole again.
Prison is designed to obliterate this sense of self. When one cannot blink without the threat of abuse breathing down one’s neck, rebellion becomes a luxury; a person too broken to remember himself ceases to be a threat. Ayman’s tears that day cemented my perception of revolution as an act of remembrance: of the world, by the world and, of course, of oneself.
In December 2019, suddenly and almost without warning, I was released. The public prosecution office had finally investigated my family’s appeal — I had been a minor at the time of my arrest, so the argument was that my trial as an adult was invalid — and the office agreed. My 15-year sentence was summarily terminated. And so, as absurdly as I had walked in, I walked out. Ayman found out in a letter; he had been in another prison at the time.
Today, Ayman’s breaths remain filtered through wrought-iron bars and chain-link fences, while I breathe freely. A technicality had gotten me out of prison, allowed me to become a graduate student on the other side of the world, while Ayman withers away, a whisper shy of his 30th birthday.
I grapple with the longing, the guilt I feel for the comrade I left behind.
2013 to 2023: 10 years and how much longer?
“Does the world even remember us, brother?” Ayman had asked.
Where do untold stories go? If no one remembers us, do the stories cease to exist? Do we cease to exist?
In the letters we exchange today, Ayman tells me that since my departure, he feels like an alien: no longer seen, no longer able to see. I tell him about the online campaign I launched for his release, calling on the authorities to grant him a presidential pardon. He responded ecstatically when he found out that his favorite singer, Wegz, shared a story about him on social media. Ayman is moved to know that complete strangers have heard his story, know his name.
I understand his joy: Over the years, our faces faded from the reminiscences of loved ones. The world moved on. But we prisoners remembered everything. Like frantic children, we clung to each memory.
I try to explain to people on the outside how being able to lean on someone widens the handcuffs, offers a lifeline, when you’re in prison. Tucked away from the world, Ayman and I blew out matchsticks instead of candles on our birthdays, roasted illicit marshmallows on contraband lighters on holidays, and used humor as a shield when the prison walls loomed too close. We sobbed and laughed the night away.
That’s why when Ayman handed me his notebook one day and asked me to write something for him to have as a keepsake for the day we would finally leave that place, I flipped to a blank page and wrote:
I don’t know what to say, except: If I could go back to October 6, 2013, and redo my life, I would have to think about it. If I didn’t get arrested, I’d never have met you.
At the start of the semester, when the phrase “lecture week” hangs in the air, other students think about squeaking chairs, rival syllabi and monotonous rambling of one or another professor. But not I. I will always recall the smile that defrosted the heart of a petrified 17-year-old who was destined never to see a lecture week. When I was curled in the corner of a cold cell, sobbing, when trepidation drained the air of hope, Ayman offered me friendship.
I hold my memories tight. I understand that when the powers that be seek to rewrite our stories and stomp on our souls, only one act of resistance remains.
When the world forgets, I’ll remember.