The Burned Earth

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  • The Burned Earth

    The term “burned earth” finds its roots in an ancient military strategy of destroying your enemy’s crops by setting them ablaze, of torching their homes and food stores, defeating them not by direct warfare but by an ever tightening stranglehold—starving them out, breaking their will. In recent years in egypt, the age-old term was repurposed to describe the unfair—and often random—arrest and mistreatment of citizens by the military in an effort to instill fear in the populace. The technique was central to the emergency law campaign, enacted during the rule of ousted president, hosni mubarak. When president anwar sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of his own military, who opposed his signing of the israeli peace accord, vice president hosni mubarak was sworn into power. He immediately invoked a state of emergency— one that was never lifted during his thirty-year rule. Habib el-adly, mubarak’s minister of the interior beginning in 1997, masterminded the extension of the emergency law to include regular use of kidnappings, prolonged detainment without trial, rapes, torture, and execution, with the justification that such techniques produced intelligence about state enemies.

  • On January 29th, 2011, as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians massed the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere, burning police stations as a symbol of intolerance to the repressive Mubarak regime, the mood had changed drastically within the cement walls of Abu Za’bel Prison. Amr had become accustomed to the frequent beatings and electroshock wires hanging off of his genitals, fingers, toes, and ear lobes. Prison guards frequently extinguished their cigarettes out on their tongues yet nothing was more painful than the humiliation of singing “Zai ma 'al El Raye Montakhab Masr Koyes,” while being stripped naked, a song the Egyptians used to sing for the Egyptian National Football Team after each match they won. He gave names; he gave any names that would come to mind, only to make the pain stop. When the guards entered the prison that day their objective was no longer to persecute Amr for his faith or confiscate his Koran, but rather to open the door to his freedom, or more appropriately to force him to escape the past year of the hell that he was made to live along with hundreds of other political prisoners and their criminal neighbors. Later Amr would discover that he was in fact set free by the same government who had detained him for all of those months, without trial or for what he could see, any just reason. He was just a pawn in the larger picture of an attempt by the regime, gripping futilely to the last threads of its power, to create anarchy among the people of Egypt.
  • Sayana had arrived in Egypt just 4 days prior. It was the first time she and Ahmad had seen one another in 3 years, it almost seemed a dream, a moment rehearsed over and over again in her head yet a moment that she had resigned herself to never experience. Two plates of fried fish adorned the oversize dinner table in their new house, a house that she felt a stranger in. Ahmad’s father, took her frail arms in his as if she were his own daughter and although they did not even speak the same language, he begged her to eat. She carefully wiped her eyes, keeping the mascara in place as the tears absorbed into the synthetic material of her niqab. I would soon discover that this was a woman although she seemed merely a girl, who was no stranger to tears. At aged 13 she fled the war in Chechnya, seeking refuge with family in Mijan, a Russian town close to Siberia. She had been married to a man from Dagestan who like many other Muslims in Russia at that time had been rounded up and tortured, and so severely he had come close to death. His family sent him away to France to escape persecution and the threat of disappearance into unknown circumstances and so the marriage was annulled. She and Ahmad had met through a mutual friend and, although their engagement was long distance, mostly carried out in broken English through web chats, they eventually found themselves walking arm and arm along the Nile as husband and wife. Less than two months after they were together however State Security Police ransacked Ahmad’s father’s house and the couple were detained separately and both tortured. Ahmad’s detainment would last 3 years while Sayana soon found herself deported back to Russia. Because of her active campaign through human rights organizations for the release of her husband and her attempt to re-enter Egypt twice, the Russian secret police began searching for her in Mijan and it was no longer safe for her to stay there. With her eyes set on reaching a family member in Sweden she hired a human trafficker, and with a group of Russians in a mini-van, she traversed Russia, the Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. She was finally stopped in Germany with a false visa and was granted asylum. The news of the revolution in Egypt sparked a flame of hope within her that had almost died out and soon she would be reunited with Ahmad, yet the couple still face an uncertain future without legal residency for Sayana.
  • The burned out walls of the Sayeda Zeinab Police station lay swollen and distorted in ruins, much like the body of Ayman Zayed, just fresh from 15 of his 48 years in captivity. Tiny screams echoed in my head, as I recalled the sorrows of Ayman’s detainment. A bed of ashes covered the floors, like the pristine white of a first snow; so many tears running through this place. How many sleepless nights did the young boys of the neighborhood spend, haunted by those shrill screams, wondering if they grew their beard out like Ayman, they too would be next. He had been a quite successful architect, yet after he was released he was not welcomed back by his company and since then has struggled to support his family. He snaked me through the narrow streets of the Cairo slum where he now lives and invited me up for tea. The windows were stained glass and the furniture opulent yet there were too many chairs and sofas in relation to the space and there was a bed in the middle of the room. He pulled out the bottom and top parts of a coffee table, which were neatly laid to the side, assembled solely for the duration of the visit. Ayman was subdued and I couldn't’ help feeling that he wasn’t quite there, that all this furniture and this physical space meant nothing anymore.
  • Helwan, located on the periphery of Cairo seemed like the end of the earth, the last stop on the metro and another 20 minutes by taxi to reach the slum where Mohamed Attiah disappeared. As I entered the home I was led to his mother, bed-ridden by grief with kidney disease and psychological problems. “Mohamed, Mohamed, Mohamed,” the words escaped just slightly under her breath as the tears began rolling down her face. For 18 years, since Mohamed was beaten and taken in by police from the mosque which lies just across the street from their house, she has never stopped saying his name, or giving up hope that he will one day walk through her door and brace them all with his presence. The family had searched for years to find him, only to be sent on a fruitless chase among Cairo’s most notorious prisons.
  • I wondered as his various employees ushered me into his impressive showroom, how such a successful interior designer had ended up in prison these past two years. “Gaza” his fiancé and business partner had explained. The couple had sent aid money to the victims of the 2009 Israeli incursion, which had killed over 1,000 innocent civilians. Hamed was arrested in the Cairo International Airport as he flew between Sudan and Dubai on a business trip to buy fabrics. When I met him I felt the distance between us, yet I could tell it wasn’t personal, Hamed seemed incapable of intimacy on any level with anyone…. Drying the upstream…a poem I am not of this body This body must be of another I cannot live within these fragile walls This sac of bones, once so sacred Flesh freshly pierced by the exigencies of men disguised as machines Or machines disguised as men This body is no longer suitable Raped of its dignity Wires attached to my genitals ignite On fire I will tell you I am ready to tell you What do you want me to say I will say it What do you want to hear I will make you hear it Images of tiny men with smirks across their face Dancing on my brain Relentless in their quest Who is me Who is she How can we be we if I am not me I wait Lick these wounds of blood and crust I will rebuild this man
  • He was the son of a poor farmer in the fertile lands of Upper Egypt surrounding the Nile. On June 28th, 1992 he rode his donkey to the farm as he always did, when police opened fire, sending 18 bullets ricocheting into his frail 13 year old body; 15 of them into his abdomen and the other three in the back as he tried to escape. Hours later his body lay lifeless and bleeding on a metal tray in the hospital morgue freezer. Had it not been for the doctor who noticed the slight rise and fall in his chest, the sure sign of a beating heart, he would have become one of the many casualties of the Egyptian Security Police of the past 30 years. Under severe threat to his father, medical and police reports were altered to reflect no wrong doing by the state and his family was made to sell off many of their possessions in order to pay for the ensuing medical bills that Gamal would incur for the indefinite future. For two years he was paralyzed, unable to walk as, the familiar walls of the operating theatre would become his second home.
  • “When I was in prison I wouldn't let them break me,” Mohammad told me in an impeccable American accent, “but when I got out I was broken.” He and his wife had welcomed me with two huge plates of food and drinks in their apartment in Nasr city as Mohammad unfolded to me the history of his life. Before coming I hadn’t known that John Ashcroft had listed him in 2004 under America’s 500 most wanted terror list as well as a suspect in the Rumsfeld vs. Jose Padilla Case. I felt somehow as if I was in the presence of someone famous, although Mohammad quickly brought me back down to reality as he recounted the sobering past years of his life. He had first gone to live in New York in the 1980’s working as a gate agent for American Eagle, later moving to Miami where he worked in a car dealership and became an American citizen. He was involved in the Islamic community in Dade County, and began to feel the eyes of the U.S. government watching him yet it was for economic reasons that he came back to live in Egypt in 1996. “Did you know we were coming?” the police asked him when they came to his house with heavy machine guns. “Yes I knew you were coming.” He answered. After 9/11 if you were bearded and had any history with airline companies you were done. He was severely tortured, his wife coerced to divorce him and ostracized within her community. Until his recent release his sons grew up without a father, the family faces economic hardship and work is hard to come by. Mohammad was selling wicker furniture for some time to make ends meet but when that didn't’ quite work out he went in to the halal chicken business, selling meat wholesale. I asked him what exactly Halal means and he explained to me the difference as seen in Islam between Halal and Haram. I understand that Halal is the term used for what is legal or in simpler terms what is right or just and Haram well for example he chides, “All men are born dignified, until they are suppressed and that is Haram.”
  • Aisha was just a baby when Gamal was imprisoned. The whole family was detained for months, his wife beaten and tortured and the children made to live in inhumane conditions. When I spoke to Gamal from prison about his children, his voice waned yet the words spit out like bullets; fast, furious, yet very purposeful. I asked him if he feared his son’s may be persecuted for their religion as he had. Yes he did, however he feared more that revenge may consume them and that without the active guidance of a father figure in their lives that they may turn to jihad as an answer for their misfortunes.
  • “Do you know the way” Mohamed had asked me as we made our way back to his childhood home in Cairo after I accompanied him to his doctor's appointment. I chuckled inside at the absurdity of a 63 year old Egyptian native asking me if I knew the way to his house, yet it was a logical question after having spent the last 17 years of his life in a 3 meters squared box in the middle of the Egyptian desert, boarding Libya and Sudan. Both Mohamed and his son Abdel Rahman had serendipitously been brought back to the house of Mohamed’s grandmother and although they had lost years of their lives together, it was obvious that they shared a special bond, that of an experience that only they could understand. Abdel Rahman was 14 when his father was first imprisoned in Pakistan in 1994. The family had moved there when he was 8 and his father had taken a second wife from Lahore. After a year in Pakistani prison Mohamed was extradited to Egypt and Abdel Rahman found himself the man of the house, taking care of 6 brothers and sisters, 2 mothers and his father’s engineering business, as well as continuing his studies. Although difficult the situation was manageable until 2001 when the Taliban fell and the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The family was forced to flee Peshawar 250 kilometers away in Rowel Bindi as many Arabs were being targeted in the area by the authorities and in 2004 Abdel Rahman was kidnapped from a bus station coming back from Peshawar. Beaten and blindfolded, he was severely tortured by Pakistani authorities as well as questioned by the Americans, who threatened to send he and his family all to Guantanamo if he did not find members of “his cell” for them. After 4 months in which no one knew where he was he was blindfolded, handcuffed so tight he was bleeding from his wrists and ankles, and realized he was being handed over to Egyptian authorities. He then heard the drone of the plane engines. He recounted to me that “When I entered the plane I prayed that it would crash because of what I knew from my father about his treatment in Egyptian prisons.” Subject to his father’s same fait, Abdel Rahman was brought to Egypt illegally by way of extraordinary rendition, tortured by the Egyptian State Security police until he was released for medical reasons, only to be imprisoned again in 2008 after speaking out to human rights organizations about his father’s condition. To this day the two have never been charged with a crime. “When I think about what happened to me,” Mohamed told me “I am not so much upset about the torture, I’m most sad about all the time that has passed. They stole years of my life from me. I don’t even know my children anymore.”
  • The lawyers and the psychologists led me to the victims. Both had been fighting the emergency law and it’s effects for years. Susan Fayad first began her work as a psychologist in the infamous “Palestine Hospital” which was set up in Egypt during the first Intifadah to treat Palestinians who had been detained in Israeli prisons. The most severe psychological trauma resulting from torture are those that live in a dream, they are not living within reality because living within reality would be too difficult, they would have to face the pain of what happened to them, the loss of their dignity and sometimes that is just too intense, they cannot go there, so they can live the rest of their life almost in a dream-like state.
  • A small town in Upper Egypt, Dairout has been appropriately coined as “the route to death.” Known as the hotbed of Islamist Egypt it is home to the core foundation of Gamaa Islamya and known for the infamous battle of Senabo. 1n 1992 a small farmer dispute in a wheat field between a Muslim and Christian, inflamed into sectarian violence and was incited by local and State Security Police as they backed the Christians who had taken the initiative to kill a Muslim. In turn the Muslims responded by killing 13 Christians which sent the region into flames and sparked a huge crackdown on Islamists all over the area. Many men were shot, their houses burned, or went missing, while whole families were persecuted. Widespread abuses by the State Security Police under the guise of the Emergency Law have continued in Dairout throughout these years and were only recently halted after the Mubarak regime was overthrown by the revolution.
  • It was hard to tell how pregnant Zeinab was under her niqab although I had no idea she was to give birth in just a week or two. There could be complications as she suffers from Epilepsy, a condition, which has gotten worse under the stress of her husband, Akram being in jail. He was first imprisoned in 1988 at 17 years old for showing solidarity with political prisoners, persecuted for their Islamic faith. Since that time he was in and out of prison and in 2005 after the Al Azhar terror attacks he was re-arrested and tortured so heavily by electroshocks that Zinab says when she would touch him his body buzzed with an electrical current. As she told me the story of her husband she looked pensively at his photo and then mockingly held it up to her swollen belly as if to introduce her unborn baby to it’s father. We all laughed, yet the air was thick with melancholy.