Popula Editor’s note: Mada Masr is an Egyptian publication that is close in spirit to ours, covering news and culture in a raw and honest way. They also run gorgeous comics! Mada Masr co-founder Maha ElNabawi writes, “We’re still operating and publishing, but the site is again blocked in Egypt. We’ve also been under a lot of pressure with the upcoming cyber law that is meant to pass soon, as yet another measure to obliterate press freedoms.”
We are publishing pieces from Mada Masr, beginning with this series of letters from 22-year-old Abdelrahman al-Gendy, a political prisoner at Tora Prison.
The following letter was translated by Katharine Halls and edited by Laura Bird at Mada Masr.
I struggle back to the prison wing, my arms protesting under the weight of the visit bags I’m carrying, one in each hand. I can feel the sweat streaming from underneath my hair, which has been left to grow for months and is now the longest it’s ever been.
Inside me is a glowing particle of joy. My sister has brought me a present. Having found a website that sells Harry Potter merchandise for obsessive fans, she turned up to today’s visit with a long rectangular package of the kind you might find at Ollivander’s. From inside it, she produced a magic wand with round knots along its length.
The Elder Wand.
I grin, thinking about how we played with it in the visiting room as I explained the story to my mum.
I approach the guard who sits at the entrance to the wing, ready for the second visit-day search and pat down. I place the bags in front of him and he checks their contents one by one. Food, clothes, sweets, soap. When he gets to the rectangular box, he peers at it, then opens it. He takes out the wand, turns it over several times in bemusement, then looks up at me.
I hesitate awkwardly, then venture, “Ever heard of Harry Potter?”
He stares me as if I’m speaking Chinese, then turns his attention back to the wand and starts trying to bend it in half. I decide I’d better tell him the truth before he breaks it.
“It’s a magic wand.”
He raises his gaze slowly and looks me straight in the eye. I return his gaze with total seriousness.
“God protect us, whatever next?” he scoffs, slapping his hands together and shaking his head, having tossed the wand and its box back into the bag and waved me through. As I pass, he is muttering to himself about the sights he sees in prison these days. I act innocent. He doesn’t know that the wand he was holding in his hands just a few seconds ago was created by Death himself.
Later, after everyone else is asleep, I sit cross-legged in the far corner of the cell. It’s one in the morning. The cell is cramped but intimate. It’s slightly damp, thanks to the bathroom next door, and only a dim bulb lights the nighttime darkness. We call it “the kitchen” because it’s festooned with tupperware containing vegetables, onion, garlic, spices and all manner of other bits and pieces for cooking.
I take a sip of coffee from my paper cup, then pick up the wand and contemplate it. I could do with a bit of magic to relieve this stifling loneliness. To lift, for a few moments, the cloak of alienation that I’ve worn so long and hard it’s grown tattered.
I raise the wand and point it at a tomato.
“Wingardium leviosa!” I cry — a levitation charm from the novels — moving my wrist according to the instructions I remember. Swish and flick. After a few failed attempts, I abandon the tomato and aim at my coffee in the hope of warming it up.
Nothing. Then I realize that had that spell succeeded, I’d have set the paper cup on fire rather than warming up the coffee, and thank the Lord for my limited magical talents. The five years since I read the series have obviously affected my memory.
I take pleasure in thinking about the similarities between me and Harry. Before my 19th birthday, I lay among the bodies in the cell and traced out the words “Happy Birthday” on the floor, just like Harry did on the stone floor of the shack where the door suddenly burst open and he learned he was a wizard. In my case, the door slammed open to reveal a gang of intelligence officers, yelling and kicking and punching as they dragged us out for a shake down.
I think, too, how many people love Harry and consider him a hero, while others hate him and plot his destruction, all because of a scar he didn’t ask for and loathes with all his heart. He never wanted to be anything other than a normal human being. This prison will scar me, too, and I can already see the signs of being shown immense love from some, and bitter hatred from others because of it. I no more asked for it than Harry did his scar.
I see a faint movement in an open tub of dates before me. I squint in the dim light. A worm. A tiny worm wriggling comically in half a date. I grab an empty jar from beside me, drop the date into it and close the lid. I watch the worm shuffle out of the date and extend itself along the bottom of the jar. It surprises me by embarking on rapid laps of the jar on its tiny legs. Round and round it goes, not stopping once. It reminds me of the thoughts going round and round in my head.
I point the wand at it. “Engorgio!” — the growing charm. The worm ignores me and continues its energetic circuits of the jar.
I feel a strange camaraderie watching the worm in the dark like this. Darkness is meant to be frightening, but these days I rarely feel at ease other than in the dark.
I remember Dumbledore’s words. “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” Perhaps that’s why I fear the future.
I decide to name the worm Hedwig, after Harry’s owl. I give up trying to enlarge it with the wand. It doesn’t look like there’s any room for magic in this wretched place. I sing to Hedwig instead.
Watching the scene from above, I see a young man with wild hair sitting cross-legged on a wet floor, in darkness save for the dim glow of a light somewhere. He clutches a magic wand as if it’s his only hope. He sings, while next to him on the floor a worm shuffles in endless circles, searching for meaning inside her jar, just as he too searches for meaning.
Another saying of Dumbledore’s comes to mind: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
I turn to Hedwig with a smile.
“Lumos,” I whisper.
Mada Masr Editor’s note: 22-year-old student Abdelrahman al-Gendy was arrested from a car in Ramsis Square, Cairo, with his father in October 2013, several months after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. They were charged, along with more than 60 others, with murder, attempted murder, vandalism, possession of weapons and disturbing the public peace, and were sentenced to 15 years in prison, five years probation and a LE20,000 fine by the Cairo Criminal Court on Sept 30, 2014. In March 2016, their final appeal was rejected by the Court of Cassation. Gendy had won a scholarship to study engineering at the German University in Cairo and was not yet 18 years old when he was arrested. He lost his place at the university as a result of his imprisonment, and is currently enrolled at Ain Shams University and studying from Tora Prison.