Let Us Spell Out Life: Prison Writing by Ahmed Douma
It is something of a badge of honor that Egypt’s most renowned modern poet, the late Ahmed Fouad Negm, was arrested, detained, tried, and imprisoned so many times during his career. Given the deep ideological differences between Egypt’s first three presidents—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak—it is remarkable that all three agreed on this one point: Negm belonged in jail for the dangerous eloquence of his poetry. Of course, Negm’s case is not necessarily so uncommon: in countries ruled by dictators, we expect to find the just and the righteous languishing in jail, especially when they are eloquent.
Negm was not the only Egyptian poet to grace Egyptian jails, before him came many. And today, there are more. But few as compelling as Ahmed Douma, a young poet who, like Negm, has been arrested by every Egyptian president of his lifetime. Like Negm before him, Douma has been active in nearly every Egyptian social movement of his day. As with Negm, Douma has been arrested, detained, tried and imprisoned—twenty-two times thus far. As with Negm, prison has not stopped Douma from speaking of freedom.
Born in 1989 in the Beheira Governorate, Ahmed Douma was raised in a family milieu dominated by talk of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist movement. In 2004, Douma heard about the birth of a new pro-democracy movement, Kefaya. He promptly left for Cairo and joined the struggle. This caused tensions with his Brotherhood family and friends who were suspicious of the movement. Against the wishes of Brotherhood leaders, Douma supported the 2008 April 6 workers’ strike in Mahalla al-Kubra, one of the most significant expressions of dissent during Mubarak’s final years. Douma broke with the Brothers even further when, along with Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Maher, he founded the April 6 Youth Movement, which would later become one of the hallmark groups of the 2011 uprising. After a 2009 solidarity action with Gaza, Douma was arrested in Rafah, then tried by a military tribunal; he was tortured during his detention.
On 25 January 2011, Douma was one of the very first activists to arrive at Midan Tahrir. He didn’t leave until Mubarak was deposed. When Mubarak was replaced by another tier of generals (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF), he went back to work, taking part in a sit-in outside cabinet offices in protest of military rule. The sit-in was violently dispersed and Douma was detained on charges that he had attacked the military with Molotov cocktails.
Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi in 2012, but the choice did not impress many, including Douma. Protesting the violent behavior of Brotherhood activists, Douma called Morsi a criminal on television. He was quickly arrested and sentenced for insulting the president. The following year, Morsi was overthrown in a military coup d’état. The new junta secured their power by way the Rabaa and Nahda massacres in which hundreds of unarmed Egyptians were killed in cold blood by the Egyptian military. These unprecedented events rightfully terrified many who had previously participated in protests and effectively ended a decade of rolling street protests. Undaunted, Douma participated in a 2013 protest against new anti-protest laws. He was arrested, fined, and sentenced to three years in jail. While in prison, Douma was retried for the 2011 Cabinet sit-in. The judge leveled a $2.25 million fine and sentenced Douma to life imprisonment. Douma has remained in prison ever since, five of those years in solitary confinement.
Douma is merely one of the 65,000 political prisoners that inhabit Egypt’s gulag today. Though detained and abused, he has never stopped resisting and never stopped writing. In 2021, he published his second collection of poetry, Curly, with the Cairene publishing house, Dar Maraya. But on the eve of its publication state security officials confiscated copies of the book, in an effort to erase one of Egypt’s bravest, most crucial voices. But Douma remains as loud and eloquent as ever. The prison experience may have stripped him of some things, but his dignity and power remain intact. We have translated two poems from this collection, along with an excerpt from Blasphemy (Tajdīf), a prose work composed in total isolation.
Excerpt from Ahmed Douma, Blasphemy (Tajdīf).
Translated by Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla
Nothing is more precious than the opening of a new window onto the world… or onto freedom. This is true everywhere, but it is especially true here.
Our world is measured by the freedom we possess. We might spend our whole life boring a hole to squeeze through.
Here, the complex problem we face has to do with the thickness of the walls: they are impenetrable.
Yes, the window remains, one-sided as ever. But, as I tell my soul and its wishes, the window is merely the beginning of error. It is confusing that it looks at you while you cannot see. Very confusing.
But most important of all is this: the ability to see means that you are alive and that despite everything, you have agency. This fact explodes the the jailer’s intentions and the prison’s goals, which resemble stagnation, cruelty, and hostility to life!
Allow me, then, to breathe this space with you. To take merely a breath without purpose or aim. As I might smoke a cigarette on the balcony of my house (now ruined by absence). As I might kiss my beloved (I look around now but do not find her—has she, too, gone away?). Or even as I might pray (not out of duty, but out of an abundance of longing).
Only this: I close my eyes, spread my wings, and take my time sniffing around this empty space.
And then perhaps from you I will learn to speak and write again.
When for many years you are deprived of everything that your instinct inclines you to put into action, you are lead back to the beginning of things, to their pristine state.
You possess nothing but what you will learn. Or what circumstance compels you to learn.
Come here, Child! Take baby steps toward the doorway. One after the other.
Together, let us spell out LIFE, which is like nothing else. Let us keep spelling until it is time for our appointment with freedom.
Ahmed Douma, poem # 10 from Curly.
Translated by Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla
This throng of questions wounds
Especially when the situation is ‘silent.’
Loneliness eats at my mind
And so I begin to fume and babble.
With no one around, I find
That my resurrection has come.
This swarm of questions is a kind of madness
That begins with Why was I created?
It drags me down a road
That ends with Whose side
Was the Lord on?
With those living who seek
To avenge Hussein’s death?
Or with street dogs?
Put differently, At this very moment
Where was the Lord’s heart?
In Lazoghly or Tahrir Square?
I am not referring to who won and who lost,
It’s just that I can’t understand
The wisdom behind everything that’s happened
While He – All Respect to His Almighty Power –
Still insists on silence.
Alienation is a kind of death.
The fray called to us.
Before the appointed moment
We wore no caution
We were stripped of experience
And dreams alone cannot challenge
Especially when we are held in treachery’s embrace.
Then, what if Hope itself
Is what betrayed us,
Giving up the Game to despair?
At that moment, you will live in no homeland
But that of your alienation, your exile.
At that moment, Faith cannot survive
Except in the impossible.
Glory belongs to the alienated, the foreigners, the strangers of every age and era.
And power belongs to the bastards and street dogs.
Ahmed Douma, poem # 11 from Curly.
Translation Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla
You, who believe the dream,
Who choose light
Despite the black nights
And the darkness of nightmares.
You, planted in fields:
Prison is wheat and hope
Staving off the homeland’s hunger until tomorrow
And freeing the prisoners
From your prison
You who know what is to come,
You who are loyal to the righteousness,
You who doubt Yes,
You who believe in No,
As you perform your duties
Together in bed.
You, companions of funerals
And sleeping on the pavement,
Laughing when death comes
As if it were a trip
Right and proper
Under fire, to a bride
As if there were a bridegroom among you.
You, generation of prophets
Whose message is ink and blood:
No matter how proud the flood
Your ship knows the way.
The only mountain protected
From despair is the dream.
Keep to its tracks,
No matter how mad it appears.
Touch its light
In the darkness of nightmares.
(Tora Penitentiary, 2014)
Ahmed Douma, poem #12 from Curly
Translated Ahmed Hassan & Elliott Colla
Your image has been memorized by those who believe
In dreams. Your letters are a loud cheer.
Where is your laughter, my Sweet? Where?
Without it, my heart begins to fear again.
Gate #7 asks the jailer
About you each day.
“Is she late?”
“She’s probably never coming back.”
Then slams its door in everyone’s faces.
After your soul taught the gate to smile
Before allowing people to pass through
I see you, standing still on the pavement,
Breaking the bones of boredom
You fly the banner of day
Despite the bats and eagles.
You still stubbornly fight against hope
Keeping the last promise
By way of a promise whose letters are a light.
Most beautiful pain, you are still
More beautiful than me
And the struggle’s noblest cause
You are still a sun that stops
The creeping shadows
And an impossibility
That destroys every wall
My cell sings you a song
Whose melody opposes return
Whose lyrics grant me
A little song that, in hope, resembles
A homeland’s embrace
An embrace wide enough for all
That is not merely a collection of graves.
My sweet, lively companion
You are still in the shell
You are still the sword of my stubbornness.
Amidst this sea of turmoil
In the melancholy darkness of prison
You are still a light.
Ahmed Douma, poem #13 from Curly
Trans. Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla
The first time
I see the door shut closed,
I feel the universe contract
And the faces of people troubled by something
Blurred by so many tears.
The first time
The sun blots out the light
And fear comes and won’t leave,
I see myself in a picture
But don’t recognize myself.
My features are
Not my own.
The first time I feel as if I were
That your absence is my jailer,
And the word weighing heavy on my tongue.
So I stop singing
And ask myself:
When will you stop forgetting me?