The Shape of Dust: A human window into Egypt’s grim political prisons
Over the last decade, the extensive tangled web of the prison system in Egypt has trapped tens of thousands of political prisoners and countless more criminals in a position of extreme vulnerability.
It's reached a point that one cannot fully understand what Egypt is – or how it functions – without attending to this murky and often out-of-sight place that is its jails.
The book The Shape of Dust, published by Pantera Press, is a haunting and intimate memoir of a father and a daughter of Egyptian-Australian nationality who had to endure this ordeal, each from their perspective after he disappeared and was thrown into jail on bogus charges in early 2018.
It represents a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on this critical side of Egypt, and on how Australia treats its citizens.
"The process of getting out of prison in Egypt is never straightforward; never guaranteed until it is over. Numerous actors are involved, which multiplies the chances of something going wrong"
From Australia to Egypt: A torturous journey
The memoir opens with Hazem Hamouda’s arrival at an almost empty Cairo airport on 25 January 2018, where things quickly go awry at passport control.
Before long, and with no explanation given, he finds himself locked in a small, stinking cell in what appears to be the basement of the terminal, along with several other men from all around the world.
Lamisse Hamouda learns that his father is missing from his cousin, who drove to the airport to pick up Hazem only to find out that he had been taken by officers of the feared National Security.
The Australian embassy informs Lamisse that, by law, they must wait 48 hours before they can act, and tells her that Hazem will most likely be deported soon.
Anxiety — fuelled by everything Lamisse had read about torture, extraordinary rendition and enforced disappearances in Egypt — begins to kick in and take hold. Abuses that had once felt relatively distant suddenly became a concrete, tangible reality.
Blindfolded and handcuffed, Hazem is taken to a National Security detention centre where insults, screams and the smell of blood, urine and faeces mingle.
He is stripped, searched, and interrogated. They accuse him of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organisation in Egypt. He is forced to sign a statement, helpless and fearful.
Hazem ends up reappearing soon after inside the infamous Tora prison in Cairo, with his will to fight already subsumed and turned into submission, shock and docility. From here, the book describes with crushing rawness all the details that such an experience entails.
In the cell, Hazem forms a small group of friends with whom food and family are the main topics of conversation – hungry and lonely as they are. There he can also observe the stark division, especially of class, between political and criminal prisoners.
Conditions inside the prison, while people are being processed, are dire: the personal space they are assigned is tiny, there is no time outdoors, the feeling of being dirty is permanent, most prisoners have scabies, and the on-site clinic looks like a wartime field hospital.
Their whole experience will be marked by the lack of any reliable process the Hamouda family can draw on to guide their action.
The practical and emotional effects are deep.
When one knows nothing, everything - including the worst-case assumptions - becomes a permanent prospect. When one does not even know what the problem is, finding a solution becomes a constant gamble. When there is no process, all that is left is endless speculation and clinging to the blind hope that what is being done is doing any good.
In this labyrinth, the support of the Australian embassy in Egypt proves to be, at best, of little help. At first, Lamisse wants to find in the embassy a paternal figure who can tell her what to do and how to do it. But she soon finds herself puzzled by their limited and discretionary support, which leaves them at the mercy of their contacts and actions.
Courts are just a bureaucratic procedure; paperwork to be done. Groups of people see their pre-trial detention renewed at once with no word or evidence to refute: first, 15 days, then 45, and so on for up to two years – if lucky. Court sessions are also often rescheduled, making it difficult for inmates to keep in touch with their lawyers and with their families.
Prison visits are another reality of their own. They are a crucial moment, often used and abused by authorities as a form of punishment, emotional and material: this is when families deliver much-needed food and clothing to their loved ones, and when treasures that are banned in jail, including letters, are smuggled in, at times with the help of a bribe.
Inevitably, the father-daughter relationship is radically transformed by the experience of imprisonment. Lamisse describes it as a shift in their power dynamic: now she is the person his father must rely on. The frustration and harshness of the whole experience are such that they choose to put emotions aside and be as cold as possible, just to get through.
The perversity of the whole process also triggers mutual distrust at times, pushed by the seemingly implausible possibility that the authorities would be so cruel for no reason. The psychological and material toll on the rest of the family back in Australia is equally heavy.
"The joint memoir also hints at the tremendous toll the family has to carry once Hazem is released. From the trauma of the experience, including PTSD, to the survivor’s guilt. Also finding themselves in a place where very few understand what they have been through"
Knowing how to use and navigate the media and political landscape to press for Hazem’s release is another hard lesson that the family, especially Lamisse, is forced to learn as they go along. And it comes with its own price: the nagging doubt of whether their advocacy will pay off or it will backfire and the Egyptian authorities will make them pay for it.
When the family learns that the charges against Hazem have been finally dropped and he will be released, in February 2019, the euphoria quickly gives way to renewed despair.
The process of getting out of prison in Egypt is never straightforward; and never guaranteed until it is over. Numerous actors are involved, which multiplies the chances of something going wrong. And it is precisely in the midst of this maze that Hazem disappeared again.
Even once he is back on the asphalt, out of prison, soon after, the pressure from the authorities is felt inside the mind and behind the neck.
Upon release, Hazem tries to leave Egypt as soon as possible, but he is denied boarding a flight. First, because he overstayed his visa; then for not having a military exemption certificate. Many Egyptians are just left trapped in this situation, turning their country into a large-scale prison of sorts.
Although difficult to grasp, because of the severity of the process, Lamisse and Hazem’s story is all the more moving because they are in a far more privileged position than the vast majority in Egypt, which gives a sense of what this experience may be like for most.
After all, Lamisse can articulate a support network in Egypt, and they have lawyers in London and Sydney. They also have parliamentary support in Australia, where so many are involved in advocacy and where the family gets financial support from the community around them. Ultimately also from the Australian embassy, as anecdotal as it may seem.
The joint memoir also hints at the tremendous toll the family has to carry once Hazem is released. From the trauma of the experience, including PTSD, to the survivor’s guilt. Also finding themselves in a place where very few understand what they have been through.
The personal and family costs can be just as great — or worse — than during the process itself.
Lamisse describes the oddity of how this feels in the best possible way. “It was wholly surreal: here’s your dad, returned – no fanfare, no compensation and no further support. Just drive home and put the dishwasher on. Wake up in the morning and share a coffee with him. Hello, Dad, it’s been a while since we saw you at the dining table.”