Letter from Alaa

free alaa

This is an informal translation of the letter that Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote to his sisters Mona and Sanaa on December 24, 2013. The original letter is in Arabic and can be accessed here. Although there is no doubt that the power and impact of aspects of the letter may get lost in translation, I find it absolutely necessary for everyone to read the letter, if only to get a sliver of what Alaa is currently experiencing.

To Mona & Sanaa:

I miss you a lot, although I see you more when I'm in jail than when I'm free. Maybe because when I'm out of jail, I'm able to check up on you at any time and I'm able to follow and understand your news. When I'm in jail, we have to determine how we spend the limited time of your short visits, which news we talk about. We split up the time carefully and of course, I don’t end up having time to hear all the little things that make you Mona and Sanaa. Mona's fights on Twitter or the romantic phases she goes through, whether Sanaa watched  the latest Ahly match or her amusing stories that she inadvertently finds herself in.

This may be the hardest thing about being imprisoned, that someone else is controlling your time to this degree. To the point at which you are even deprived of the basic right to worry because I’m not going to know if Khaled came down with a cold until he gets better. That someone else is controlling the coinciding of our feelings. For example, the winter storm…I only heard about its extent after it ended. The whole country was talking about the snow for four days, but by the time you were able to see me, I was only able to tell you that we dealt with it and that we’re fine now; we weren’t able to even excitedly talk about how cold it had been.

While I wear all my clothes at the same time and lay my blankets on top of each other, I remember the people who live in dens or in the streets and how they have less clothes and less blankets than I do. After the coldest night, I decided that I had to block the windows in my cell [to prevent the cold from seeping in]. I realized that even the homeless can get up at any time they choose to and try to deal with the cold. They may find a solution to the cold or they may not. However, the feeling that the authorities can just bureaucratically decide when to open my door or when I will find a piece of carton to block my window or when the warden will get permission to locate a ladder and block the windows [to stop the cold] is oppressing.

I imagine that you are dealing with a similar feeling while you look for ways to meet my needs within the confines of the jail’s rules. Heavy white-colored clothing without markings. I heard that Maha Maamoun had to re-sew and put together some of the jackets so that they were allowed in and by the time that happened, it was 20 degrees again :-)

And I don’t know who walked all over Downtown to find a store that still sells a radio that transmits a single frequency and why trouble yourselves?

But all of these are little things that confirm the reality of imprisonment, that your willpower is completely taken away from you and someone else is controlling your time and body. The problem is that someone else is controlling my soul and limiting when I can see Manal and Khaled and when and how much I can kiss and hug them.

What is scary is that there is a possibility that they decrease visits from weekly to every two weeks. Newspapers are discussing implementing jail visits through a glass cell and telephone. If such visits are implemented, I won’t be able to touch you. How will I be able to connect with Khaled?

What is truly oppressing is that the day before yesterday, some were writing in the newspaper how the visits of wives and children should be barred to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from giving out orders and assignments! As if the jailee is not a human being [who deserves rights]!

And those who are pretending to be logical and writing about how the Maher, Douma, and Adel verdicts are a result of the incorrect political decisions taken by April 6th and the loss of their popularity, as if Ahmed Maher is just an idea or as if the man arrested is just a theoretical notion named April 6 and not a human being who has a 5-year old daughter to whom he is having difficulty explaining where he is and why he is away from her and when he can return to her.

Reading newspapers in general is frustrating unlike previous times I have been in jail, however it does pass the time. The result of having someone other than yourself control your time is that you have a lot of time you don’t know what to do with.

Don’t be taken aback at my words, our conditions are fine and as compared to previous imprisonments, we are in comfortable positions. During exercise time, we are together. Half the day, we spend yelling to each other through the jail cells, and the time passes as we read.

With negotiations, the conditions improve. We negotiated for a week with regards to newspapers and radio, and now we are negotiating about letters. They promised to deliver this letter and we have been negotiating for weeks regarding the right to publish articles and have television voice appearances. Maybe one day they will allow the delivery of friends’ letters and the receipt of telegraphs. I feel that I’m Saeb Erekat, life is negotiating. Life goes on, but the oppression of the soul is difficult.

The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept. And what is adding to the oppression that I feel is that I find that this imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution. The people that are in ongoing negotiations despite the fact that they are not in jail aren’t worth the reality that I am deprived from spending even one hour with my son. The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for a positive gain. Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.

It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt. To be honest, one hour with Khaled is more beneficial. I don’t even understand how I can live without him and I don’t understand how I can live without Manal. When I got the order to appear before the Prosecutor, Manal began to pragmatically prepare so that our work would not be delayed and I became so unsettled at her and a visit I had with Maysara to delegate some of my work and determine who will take on the rest of the responsibilities. I knew that I would be imprisoned, but I didn’t want to think about how our lives would go on while we are no longer together. At the end, life goes on. Just because my willpower and control on time has stopped, does not mean that time itself has stopped.

The thought is scary, I am facing two felonies and it is clear that they have decided that we must be handed down sentences. It is clear that the revolution is in poor shape. We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.

Or maybe I will be released after a month or two, or maybe I will be released upon completion of their wretched transition plan. It is up to their will and up to the time that is under their control.

I am sorry for the depressing thoughts…You know that I hate the whole “You are free and imprisonment will not be able to break you” tone. Every time I am jailed, a piece of me breaks, just like every time someone else is imprisoned, a piece of us breaks. Just like when every martyr dies, we all bleed. It is true that his family and loved ones bleed more, but all of us bleed and all of us pay the price.

I am fine. You know that this sense of oppression is something that I have lived with even outside of jail, just like you all live with it. Every day when there is news that strains our hearts or weakens them, our souls are constrained. But here, I just have more time that I don’t know what to do with, so I end up focusing more on this sense of oppression.

I am worn and exhausted, but this will pass just like the times before it passed and I will go back to seeing you less and I will miss you less because Mona will be busy with her fights and her romantic stories and with the challenge of balancing her multiple roles and Sanaa will be busy with her many projects and her many adventures that she inadvertently finds herself in. And I will be busy with Manal and Khaled and with whatever new reasons we have to be angry and to resist.

I love you,


Tora Prison


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