Egypt: PEN publishes new work by imprisoned poet Galal El Behairy

Ahead of the expected verdict on 27 June, PEN centres are coming together to share a poem  has written in prison

Poet Galal El-Behairy was arrested in Egypt on 3 March 2018. He was held incommunicado for a week before appearing before the High State Security on 10 March, showing signs of severe torture. The High State Security Prosecution subsequently ordered for him to undergo a forensic medical examination: the findings of the examination have not been made public, nor shared with his lawyer.

More than three months later, El-Behairy remains in detention, facing charges in both the Military Court and the High State Security Court. The charges are believed to relate to his latest book of poetry ‘The Finest Women on Earth’, published earlier this year. El-Behairy is also under investigation in relation to lyrics he wrote for artist Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’, which criticises Egyptian government policies. Following the release of the song and music video on 26 February and prior to El-Behairy’s arrest, both he and Essam became victims of a smear campaign led by pro-government media.

On 6 May, El-Behairy attended a trial in the Military Court where he was informed that the verdict in relation to his book of poetry would be handed down three days later, on 9 May. The verdict was later postponed until 16 May, and is now expected on 27 June, El-Behairy’s birthday.

PEN believes that El-Behairy is being held in violation of his right to freedom of expression and urges the Egyptian authorities to release him and the many other writers and activists unlawfully detained in Egypt immediately and unconditionally.

To draw further international attention to his case ahead of the expected verdict, PEN centres – Danish PEN, English PEN, Finnish PEN, French PEN, German PEN, Norwegian PEN, PEN America, Swedish PEN – and our colleagues at ArabLit, Artists at Risk and FreeMuse are coming together to publish a new poem that El-Behairy has written while in detention, and to continue calls for his release.


Galal El-Behairy

From the Tora Prison in Cairo

May 2018

Translated from Egyptian Colloquial Arabic.[i]

 

A Letter from Tora Prison

 

Opening:

You, something

in the heart, unspoken,

something

in the throat, the last wish

of a man on the gallows

when the hour of hanging comes,

the great need

for oblivion; you, prison

and death, free of charge;

you, the truest meaning of man,

the word “no”—

I kiss your hand

and, preparing for the trial,

put on a suit and pray

for your Eid to come.

I’m the one

who escaped from the Mamluks,

I’m the child

whose father’s name is Zahran,

and I swim in your name, addiction.

I’m the companion of outlawed poets.

O my oblivion, I’m the clay

that precedes the law of concrete.

 

In the heart of this night

I own nothing

but my smile.

I take my country in my arms

and talk to her

about all the prisoners’ lives… out there

beyond the prison’s borders,

beyond the jailer’s grasp,

and about man’s need… for his fellow man,

about a dream

that was licit

and possible,

about a burden

that could be borne

if everyone took part in it.

 

I laugh at a song

they call “criminal,”

which provoked them

to erect a hundred barricades.

On our account, they block out the sun

and the thoughts in the head.

They want to hide the past

behind locks and bolts,

preventing him from whispering

about how things once were.

They want to hide him

by appointing guards—

weak-minded foreigners

estranged from the people.

But what wonder is this?

His fate is written

in all the prison cells.

His cell has neither bricks

nor steel,

and he was not defeated

within it.

Outside… a squadron of slaves.

Inside… a crucified messiah.

The thorns above his brow

are witnesses: You betrayed his revolution

with your own hands.

With shame in your eyes, you

are the Judases of the past,

whatever your religion, whatever

miniscule vision you have.

We’ve come back

and we see you.

 

You who imprisoned

the light, that naked groaning.

The light doesn’t care

how tall the fence is;

it’s not hemmed in

by steel bars

or officers’ uniforms.

It cannot be forgotten.

You can take a public square away from us,

but there are thousands and thousands of others,

and I’ll be there, waiting for you.

Our land will not betray us.

With each olive branch

we’re weaving your shrouds.

And the young man you killed

has come back, awake now

and angry.

He’s got a bone to pick

with his killer.

He’s got a bone to pick

with the one who betrayed him,

the one who, on that night of hope,

acquiesced, fell silent, and slept.

His wound has healed; he’s come back,

a knight

without a bridle;

he’s setting up the trial

while an imam prays among us

and illumines the one who was blind;

he’s rolling up his sleeves, preparing

for a fight;

he was killed—yes, it’s true—and yet

he has his role in this epic;

he stands there now

and holds his ground.

 

We’ve returned

to call on God

and proclaim it: “We’ve come back,

come back

hand in hand.”

Again we proclaim it: “We’ve come back,

and we vow

to spread the light,

the new dawn,

the keen-sighted conscience.”

We’ve come back, and we can smell

the fear in in your veins;

and our cheers tonight

are the sweetest of all:

“We are not afraid.

We are not afraid.”

 

We saw a country

rise from sleep

to trample a pharaoh

and cleanse the age

of the cane and cudgel.

We saw a country sing:

those were no slave songs,

no harbingers of doom, rather

songs fitting

for a new kind of steel.

We saw it.

We saw a country

where no one is oppressed.

[i] Due to the potential for political repercussions against himself and his family, the translator of this poem has chosen to remain anonymous.

The poem is also available in Arabic: https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/Arabic-Galal-El-Behairy-June-2018-web-piece-June-18.pdf


TAKE ACTION

Spread the word
Join us in sharing Galal’s piece, details of his case and calls to action on social media. If possible, please join the Twitterstorm from 15 pm on Saturday 9 June. #FreeGalal

Sign the petition
Add your support to the petition for Galal’s release https://www.change.org/p/egyptian-regime-torture-beatings-and-prison-for-galal-el-behairy-for-ramy-essam-s-balaha-freegalal

For further background information, please see PEN’s open letter to the Egyptian authorities
https://pen-international.org/news/open-letter-egypts-grim-blow-on-freedom-of-expression-and-human-rights-the-tortured-poet-galal-el-behairy-must-be-freed