Just another day in Cairo

In this first person narrative, MENASSAT's Cairo correspondent tells an ordinary story of being a journalist – or maybe just an Egyptian – in Egypt. You never know where you'll end up but prison is always a safe bet.

Leaving home that day, I was expecting my afternoon to be an ordinary one. Searching my pockets, I realized that I had forgotten my ID. But not wanting to waste more time, I went on my way regardless.

I had reserved that Thursday to work on research for a future article. Egyptian Jews were my interest. I had done some reading on the topic. I had taken some notes. I had contacted a chief editor about the issue – a lucky thing, I would discover later. Now, I was going to pay a visit to the synagogue on Adly Street, in central Cairo.

It was ten minutes to two when I arrived at the synagogue. As I arrived, somebody was leaving. I asked him for someone to talk to. He told me, "You are lucky. There is someone over here," pointing at the door. I was able to make out an old man inside; I never would get to meet him. 

I went through the door and up the stairs. Four steps before I reached the top, I heard somebody calling me from downstairs. I tried to tell him that I would talk to the soldier at the top but this failed to calm him down; as it turned out he was the boss of the soldier upstairs and he must have felt insulted over by my casual brush-off.

He took me to see the officer in charge. After some questions about why I was there, the officer discovered I carried no identification. He called the nearest police station and started writing a report. A police vehicle came. I sat in the back for my first journey that day to Abdeen Police Station. The soldiers in the vehicle were very nice. The most cheerful of them was G’edy. "My military service ends in just a couple days," he volunteered.

'You will be jailed tonight
to make you give up
your wrong foreign ideas
and change the subjects
you write about,'
the big man said

Arriving at the police station, an officer received me, read the report, asked me the same questions and started writing another report. Then I was told the sheriff himself wanted to see me.

"See the sheriff for just an I.D.?"

"The problem is not your identification," the officer said as he took me to the sheriff's office. He was laughing.

"Here is the sheriff's office."

Two or three cigars were sitting in his ashtray, exactly like in the movies. The sheriff was a mysterious old man, who looked as if only part of him was awake. He asked me some questions like, "Why were you there at the synagogue?" and I answered him truthfully. He then asked the officer to take me to the head investigator.

I was getting worried now, so he calmed me by saying, "No problem, just routine."

So I was taken to the office of the head investigator. When the door opened I was surprised that an office with such atmosphere could exist in the old and exhausted building of the Abdeen Police Station. The room was a large one with six comfortable chairs in front of the investigator's desk.

The chief investigator asked me for my name. As soon as I answered, he shouted, "Who do you think you are? Hosni Mubarak? Give your third name!"

Then he asked me the same list of questions plus some additional ones.  "What were you doing? For whom? Your address? Your work address?"

Then he called the magazine to check the information. Thankfully, my editor was indignant. Once the investigator discovered I was not too dangerous, he permitted me to sit in one of his six comfortable chairs, and he went on to check my other information.

It was decided that I would be transferred to the State Security Building in Lazoghuli. My story was taking a serious turn now. I was handcuffed to a policeman while we waited for transportation to the State Security Building.

When we got to there, I was asked to cover my eyes with my shirt. It seemed a strange request but I didn't argue and pulled my shirt collar over my head. The policeman led me through the building like a headless man.

After a while, we stopped and I opened my eyes to find myself staring at three fearful faces. An Islamist entered the room with his eyes hidden too. The policeman asked me to sit on the floor, so I figured it was going to be another waiting exercise.

After some time, the policeman took me around the building again, with my shirt over my eyes. But somebody shouted for him to bring me back so, this time, it was a needless headless man walk. Then the right call came, so I put my shirt up for yet another headless trip. It seemed to be the right one because after a while I heard a voice saying, "You can open your eyes now."

"Thank you," I replied as I readjusted my shirt.

This man asked me the very same questions, and wrote yet another report. It was getting quite late now so I asked when I would be able to leave. He told me, "You should thank God that we even allowed you to uncover your eyes!"

Another man entered – this one huge and muscular. After he looked at my report, he asked me the same questions plus some new ones.

– "Do you work for a foreign entity?"

– "No."

– "Who chose this topic?"

– "It was me."

– "Are you Egyptian?"

– "Yes."

– "No other nationality?"

– "No, sir."

This, of course, meant only that he would be able to trample my human rights with even more impunity. There is nothing good about being Egyptian in an Egyptian jail.

'This is your chance,
Mr. Journalist.
You’re here
with your notebook
so why don't you write?
I have an idea:
make this day
into a story'

They asked me to leave the room while they discussed my destiny. Then the big man called me back inside, announcing, "You will be jailed tonight to make you give up your wrong, foreign ideas and change the subjects you write about."

"But it was my idea. Nobody asked me to do it," I objected.

"Ha, so you persist!" he answered.

I was taken back to the Abdeen Police Station. It was 6 pm by now, and I was getting really upset. They asked me to sit until they could take me to the police jail. I looked out the window. The sun was setting and the sky was red, which somehow calmed me down.

When the night shift came on duty, I became acquainted with Naguib, a middle-rank examiner of prisoners like myself. He explained and interpreted a lot of what went on for the rest of my stay.

Naguib sat nearby. He asked me if I would like tea. I thanked him, refusing. He started trying to entertain me with light conversation.

"This is your chance, Mr. Journalist. You’re here with your notebook so why don't you write? I have an idea: make this day into a story and call it Ghost Adventures."

He also told me that this was the "number one" police station. Yes, it was true. All foreign cases were processed through that office. It was the most important one in Cairo.
As time passed, many new people entered the police station. Khaled, a young man was caught in an ID check campaign. A pair of old men were picked up fighting each other; they were regulars. A man showed up complaining that he had been unofficially jailed a week before for a two-week period. He got out to find his employer accusing him of stealing during that time. How could he have done that while in jail? So he asked the police station to give him written proof  that he had been there, which they denied him. Now, that man was in real trouble!

This man had been jailed but unofficially. It was not even recorded. As I learned from Naguib, sometimes when a crime like a murder happened, the police would simply lock up all the usual suspects until they found the real criminal. Since there was no legal basis for jailing these people, they were locked up unofficially.

Two young men came in, charged with stealing. They were talking quietly to each other. Naguib approached them, asking their names. As they answered, he asked the first one, "So, you're the one?" and he answered "No." Then he asked the other one the same question and got the same answer. When they both denied their guilt, Naguib shouted,  "If it's not you or your friend, then it must be him!" He was pointing at me, and we all laughed.

My name was called, and an officer came to take me to the jail downstairs – it was about 7pm. I checked my stuff; a notebook and some money. It was my first experience and the officer could tell I was worried. So when he opened the cell door he called out, "Moza, take care of him."

Moza has been locked up for the past seventeen and a half years and was currently between prisons. It was his 49th day at Abdeen Police Station. Bearded, wearing only a vest and shorts, he was jailed for drugs dealing. In a week, he'll be set free. 

The jail has one middle room which is where we stayed. To the right is the main room for men. To the left is the women’s section, which is naturally closed off. The men's part is left open to the middle room.

I went to stand beside Khaled. He had been caught at 12 midnight. They were suspicious of him because he had no ID so they decided to keep him for a while.

When he suggested that they really needed to get computers so we could all go home earlier, the policemen were not pleased. Khaled was quick to take the hint: it is impolite to make suggestions. He was an innocent-looking young man in his 20's. He works in a simple coffee shop at Hurghada, a Red Sea resort. I told him not to worry. They might set us free by midnight.

Next to him, I could see Abu al-Souod, a rather old man. I felt I wanted to talk to him. It was the time for prayers. Prayer time is well-respected in jail. Most of the other prisoners stood in rows in the men's room. After the prayers, they would ask their lord to grant their wishes. "God, accept our repentance, and have mercy on us." It all sounded passionate and sincere. I lifted up my eyes to heaven in my own way. When the prayers were finished, they all came to the middle room where I was staying.

'Don't ever oppose
the ruler!'
the detective said.
He meant that
we should always
be polite when
dealing with people
in authority

Abou al-Souod, a man in his 50's. His good manners moved my curiosity to ask him about why he was in prison. "It's a check problem, and I've been here for two weeks." He asked me about my story. It's the type of question asked between prisoners. He knew I was a writer, so he suggested that I seek out the other prisoners' stories.

One of them was Lam'i, a simple family man with one child who worked in the jewelry trade. When I asked him the key question,he answered that he was caught in Opera Square drinking beer. "I wasn't drunk or anything, but they counted the bottles." Speaking of his life, he said, "I'm ashamed of being ignorant, but I'm teaching myself. I got myself some children's books and made a start. Soon my kid will start school, and I want to be there for him. I can read now, but I'm still a bit slow."

It was tea time. Moza got me one which I accepted. It was hot and pretty nice, especially the way it is served. Tea flowed through a plastic tube through the steel door. The other side of the tube was put into the tea pot.

"Order, order," all shouted as the officer was passing. We all sat in order with everyone's hand on the shoulder of the one before. The officer was about to call out the names of those who were going to meet the head detective to be set free. Number 8 was me. We had to be called by numbers. When we all left, Khaled's number still hadn’t been called and he was frustrated.

It was about 10 pm when they took us for the last and hardest wait. It was a room on the second floor. A detective was recording some important information. Looking a lot like Adel Emam [a famous Egyptian actor, Ed.], the detective was both humorous and very alert. Actually, we were even more alert because we didn’t want to miss any of his rough comments.

It was quite a painful penalty, standing in a tight row with our faces to the window for more than an hour and half. The window looked out on the street so that prisoners could talk to their relatives.

Ramadan was worried. "Did you call my uncle? Did you call Mr—? Did you call Mr—?" Ramadan was very afraid of being sent to the dungeon. Abu Sherif, the Adel Emam-like detective, assured him more than eight times that he would be released the next day.

The detective had some wise things to say. "Don't ever oppose the ruler!" He meant that we should always be polite when dealing with people in authority.

Khaled finally joined our group with two other guys in tow. One of them was the one I had seen some hours before, the one Naguib had accused of stealing.

Abu Sherif is now working hard on questioning some guys. One is accused of stealing a tape deck from a car, another was arrested for having a knife, a switchblade. The switchblade guy had been hit so hard that he was barely able to stand. He told me, "The officer upstairs beat me really hard. I'm afraid of what might happen."

After a perfect waiting period, with everybody already having heard enough insulting words, we were finally able to leave. The head detective was to give us a last looking over. But Abu Sherif singled me, Khaled and another guy out, telling us we needn't meet the head detective and we were free to go.

Well, almost. First, we would have to clean up the kitchen. We did it quickly and honestly. "At your service!" we said to the policeman walking us out afterwards.
It is 1:20 am and Khaled and I decide to have some cane juice just outside the police station. "A very nice drink," Khaled comments. Later, sitting in the taxi beside me, he announces,

"I'm not going to leave my home tomorrow."