Here, There, Everywhere

In detention, Bakr found that it was difficult to undergo interrogation as a political prisoner when he had committed no act of protest, belonged to no political organization, and in fact held no strong political opinions. 

They also didn’t like Bakr’s responses to questions about his voting history. Since the revolution, he had gone to the polls three times, and in each case he had deliberately spoiled his ballot. In 2011 and 2012, this was a common act by young people who disliked all the electoral choices. But the practice confused the interrogators. “They don-lettssaid, ‘You’re weird, you’re strange, how are you so full of contradictions?’” Bakr recalled. They asked if he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, or if he had any relatives in the organization, and his denials seemed to disappoint them even more. Finally, they asked if he was a Muslim. When he said that he was, they brightened: “So why didn’t you vote for Morsi? Don’t you want Sharia law?”

On the evening after Bakr’s release, I met him at a café downtown. He looked tired and thin, but he said that he had been fortunate in prison. Others had been tortured, but he wasn’t. He said that some of the guards were young conscripts who wept when they saw their peers hauled in as prisoners.

In a non-state led by a non-politician, Bakr seemed like a kind of non-activist. He had never joined a political organization or issued a statement; in fact, he hadn’t spoken a single word on the day of his arrest. His interrogations had been a farce of suspicion, fear, and confusion. Every time he had entered a voting booth in Egypt’s fledgling democracy, he had spoiled his ballot. And yet he had spent six weeks as a political prisoner, an experience that seemed utterly senseless. But, when I asked what he had learned, his response was surprisingly coherent.

“I learned that even though I have a right, and it’s my basic right, there’s a price to be paid, and I have to pay it, just like other people have paid it,” he said. He took a deep drag on a Karelia cigarette and smiled—there’s no happier smoker than a young man who has just got out of prison, on the first night of Ramadan, after the fast has broken. He said, “I also learned that the oppressor is always afraid.”

Peter Hessler

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When I Worked

January 2017

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