The Power of a Smile in Prison

How one of Sisi’s prisoners maintained his dignity while jailed

The Power of a Smile in Prison
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

He was no older than 7, straddling his father’s neck as he sat on his shoulders.

Every time he chanted, thousands roared after him: “A’ish, Hurreya, A’dala Igtima’eia!” — Bread, freedom, social justice.

His face was the epitome of joy. I realized I was part of a memory that will live on forever in that kid’s mind.

Flashes of white, red and black rippled wherever I turned my eyes around the square. The hairs on my arms were standing. I was on my toes too, witnessing this miracle.

It was a few days after Feb. 11, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. I had turned 15 two months earlier, and I had never set eyes on such collective euphoria in my young life until that moment in Tahrir Square.

I recalled my favorite series, Harry Potter, and thought of the Expecto Patronum spell, summoning a silver Patronus to shield you from dementors that suck away happiness and hope, a spell you can use only while engulfing yourself in your warmest memories.

Memories like this.

I was unaware of any political specifics, ignorant I would say, but just like millions of Egyptians that day, I shared the collective feeling that the January 25 revolution and the ousting of Mubarak was an overwhelmingly relieving exhalation after years of holding one’s breath. It was a day where dementors ruled no longer.

Little did we know how fleeting it would be.

It is a grievous spectacle to behold indeed, the quenching of a star. To hear the terrible sizzling announcing the advent of a darker era.

Stars are suppliers of warmth and light, metaphorical dissipators of loneliness and melancholy. When a star ceases to be, the orbiting planets go blue.

I was watching the unfolding scene in front of me in awe — the roaring chants, the banners, the waving fists. The car windows reverberated, mirroring my heartbeats, while I sneaked a look at my father’s grave face. My throat tightened, feeling guilt coarse through me. He did not want to be here.

I have to go! We need to speak up! Who is going to stand up for the oppressed and the murdered? Who is going to give voice to their stories and avenge their families? How do we sleep when they don’t know the taste of peace?

My raving went on and on, my parents’ fury at my impulsiveness rising at first, then turning into looks of pity, eventually giving way to reluctant acceptance of my genuineness. Their inner conflict was palpable about the entire situation.

My flushed face eased as I noticed their hesitation.

You can go, they said. But on one condition, my mum said raising her finger, your father goes along. “And no leaving the car.”

I protested, but in vain. They crossed their arms in firm resolve, and I shut my mouth; this was the best compromise I was getting, so I complied.

My father parked around a hundred meters away from the huge march. I lowered my window, took my phone out and started snapping pictures.

Put your hand back in, my father said. This is too risky.

I rolled my eyes. Stop exaggerating, I groaned. Isn’t it enough that I am sitting inside like a coward?

I ignored his continued chastisement and kept taking pictures. Smiling at the shots on the screen, my mind wandered: something about standing up to oppressors thrilled me. I could not quite put my finger on it. How can a seemingly messy, out-of-tune crowd, taste like a sweet golden melody? I zoomed in and observed the flapping banners, the chant leaders’ bulging neck veins, the gladiatorial roars and fist waves from the crowds in reciprocation.

This was all new to me — the pain, the rage and the desire to protest. It gnawed at me, every time I recalled my friend’s face. She had always been shining, blazing with energy, radiating hope.

A star.

Until her light was snuffed out after her father’s murder on Aug. 14, 2013, two months earlier, at the hands of the police forces. In a little over two years, everything crumpled, and after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in July, massacres and mass arrests were the new norm under the new military rule of fire and steel.

The roars grew louder and urgent, and I saw fingers pointing at the street behind us. I was stupefied by the sight: armored police vans and trucks flying toward us and the depthless black of the gun muzzles pointed in our direction.

The dementors were back.

My father’s repeated shouts snapped me out of my haze. The police are coming! We need to leave! Put your arm inside!

He floored the gas pedal, and I started shooting a video of the police forces approaching.

They are firing! They are firing actual live bullets at them!

Wanting to get a better view of the scene, I twisted my body in the seat and focused my phone’s camera.

The car slowed down to take the first right turn a few yards before the masses, into a side street and away from the entire area, and in a flash, the world as I knew it ended.

I felt the ringing in my ears and thumping inside my head first; the slap shook my entire body, and before I realized what was happening, an avalanche of kicks, fists and curses engulfed me.

The snapped-open car door was behind me, and I was splayed out on the ground.

I did not know it then, but this was the moment my life was going to change forever.

I trembled as they hit Hussein’s head against the concrete wall.

“What is this?!” roared the guard, holding a bottle of cooking oil.

“Z-z-zait” (oil), Hussein stuttered for the 10th time, and his head was smashed against the wall for the 10th time. The guards erupted again with laughter; they found this amusing.

All he did was ask to use a bathroom. The horrors we’ve been living since we stepped on this cursed soil made all of our stomachs rumble with fear.

Crouching there, all my hope was sucked, memories of happiness dissipated, and my insides were freezing. Almost hallucinating, I could imagine the bony dark hands and tattered dementor ropes floating around the yard.

They call it a “welcome party.” It’s when prison guards torture newly convicted prisoners, with the main aim of breaking and taming, of making the prisoners aware of their new place in the food chain.

We were getting the full experience of Wadi Al-Natroun prison’s welcome party. Our group, 59 adults, were all sentenced to 15 years in a theatrical mass trial. Wadi Al-Natroun was our new home.

When they got bored, the guard gave Hussein a final slap that rang through the yard we all crouched in like war prisoners, and he moved back to his spot, shirtless frail body shaking and with eyes to the ground. My tears fell silently, mirroring the ones on my friend’s face.

I am a coward.

The guilt of this cold November day in 2014 will never leave me.

In the midst of the emotions storming and swirling inside of me, I pinpointed one and spontaneously decided to use it as a shield.


I took this pure loathing and let it quench all other feelings. I allowed it to run through my veins and dampen my sensations: I now hate. And only hate.

Like a ghost, I went through the motions. I let the curses and punches slide over me, channeling my despisal and contempt through my body as if it could physically hurt them. I held my hate close to my heart, wrapped them around each other, and the blend became my newest Patronus. As long as I hated them with all my heart, I won.

They pushed me in a cell crammed with other prisoners, and I squatted down, glassy-eyed.

I lost everything, but I had this infinitesimal act of resistance left.

With a broken body, broken heart, and broken mind, I have not yet loved Big Brother.

We were jolted awake in a panic to loud banging on the cell door.

Several years later, and I still could not fathom my new reality.

How did my life explode into this apocalyptic universe in a blink of an eye?

Boy meets girl.
Boy likes girl.
Girl’s father is murdered.
Boy wants to become man.
Boy is incarcerated with a 15-year sentence in a maximum-security prison.

Fifteen years, a sentence as old as I was when they took me.

Boy is lost.

Guards poured into the cell, screaming and kicking us out, then left us with one guard holding a digital camera.

It was file-photos update time.

Standing in a long line in the hallway, one by one, we held the black sign with our inmate numbers on it in white chalk.

The guard stared us down with veined eyes bulging above his nose, which rested on an unsettlingly thick moustache, a look that all Egyptian prison guards adopt for some reason. His worn khaki suit was a size or more too big for him, his epaulettes empty, indicating a lack of a rank. A model Egyptian dementor.

I felt suffocated. These urges attack me every once in a while, a whirlpool of existential questions: why does he control us? Why can’t we just walk out of here, cross the steel threshold that separates us from our normal place in a free life? Can this get any more nonsensical? Why are we here? Why!

I was no hero. I could not take any more beating, and I wouldn’t dare fight the guards.

I decided to do something meaningless, a tiny act of resistance.

When I held my sign, I stared at the camera and smiled as wide as I could.

The sight was infuriating for the menacing guard. He yelled at me to shut my mouth. I did not. He shoved me in the chest and threatened to throw me in solitary confinement. He went back and pointed the camera, and I again smiled, as wide as I could. My braces gave my smile a childish look that further provoked him. It was reckless and risky, but I had acted without thinking, so I decided to follow through.

Suddenly, there were snickers in the hallway, and my fellow inmates started laughing. I could instantly see the guard unsettled. The guard who controlled our fates and could do anything to us, was suddenly not in control. I could sense the shift in the power dynamics in the place. It was subtle; nothing has changed, but we were somehow more enabled.

The guard snapped at me that he will shoot the picture and take it to the chief intelligence officer, and then I’ll regret not having shut my mouth.

I kept my mouth stretched in the widest smile.

The flash blinded my eyes, and I put down the sign and walked away to stand against the wall.

It was a trivial, nonverbal act of resistance, worthless and powerless in all logical estimations. How did it feel so powerful then?

I observed how once this warm connection was created, all those standing in that hallway could sense the shift in the power dynamics too. This was the moment where our hidden true stories suddenly switched to take the place of the publicly imposed ones: the guard a coward, us rebellious. There was hope narrated; today we might still beat them somehow. In our own way, we were suddenly hopeful for this round of the battle, that the outcome today might end up in us literally smiling.

The next prisoner moved in my place, held up his sign, faced the camera—
and smiled as wide as he could.

Then the one after him.

And everyone else until the end of the line.

The guard ended up letting the whole situation slide, probably out of fear of looking like he lost control in front of his superiors. The daunting dementor backed down before our smiles.

I went to sleep that night, in the same bleak crammed cell, hugging a small ball of ecstasy, the newest addition to my Patronus collection, intoxicated by imprisoned smiles, angrily dancing moustaches, and symbolism.

My blood boiled as the guard’s fists thudded against my chest. In a flash, I grabbed him by the shirt with both hands. Curses poured from my mouth, hateful and violent, spittle flying in his face. He was startled; the reaction was unexpected. I saw him raise his fists and I said:

“I swear to God, Wakeel, lay your hands on me again and I’ll punch you right back. I have nothing more to lose.”

It was true. I’ve been paying no heed for any consequences of resistance this entire year. Over six years in prison now, final appeal rejected, college abandoned, life destroyed, looking at eight more years serving my 15-year sentence with no way out in sight, I had finally let go of all trepidation and unleashed the entirety of my recklessness. I did not fear solitary confinement; I wanted it.

I could not feel any longer, I did not want to deal with people, and I had no capacity to let insults or degradation pass. What more can they do to me?

As it turned out, losing everything, absolutely everything, was another incredibly effective Patronus.

Though harsh, it was the only one that did not depend on warmth, but rather on the inability to get any colder.

Today was my 24th birthday, Dec. 12, 2019. I was coming back from the visit where this particular guard singled out my family, again as he had done for years, and returned the small cake they brought to celebrate with me. Now, he was trying to pick on me by breaking a small plastic flashlight I took from my family to read at night.

After three and a half years in Tora Maximum Security Prison 2, I have formed a strong network of corrupt guards through sweet talk and bribery as well as enmity with the ones who enjoyed making our lives a living hell.

Mohamed ElWakeel was the one I most despised with all my heart after an accumulation of confrontations, a loathing that he reciprocated.

And here I was, seconds away from finally punching him in the face after years of fantasizing about it.

Unfortunately, the other guards jumped in to separate us, and the ones who count on me as a source of extra income took me aside and started whisper-shouting that I should shut up and not make the situation worse than I already had.

I eventually moved back to my cell with a one-month visitation ban, a sharp pang in my heart for losing my warm family visits for that long, and equally thrilling relief and giddiness; I resisted, and the look on his face was worth all the sacrifice.

How is that for a Patronus?

I smiled.

I raise the poem collection in my hand and contemplate the cover: “No one is picking up: poems by Mohsen Mohamed.”

I look at the beautiful cover drawing of a filthy prison toilet, with roses and flowers sprouting from it, with the name on the bottom left corner of the cover: Illustration by Yassin Muhammad.

Raising my gaze to the stage before us, I see Mohsen sitting next to great poets in a tuxedo jacket, discussing his first poetry collection with the audience and reciting some of his poems. I look back at Yassin, who sits behind me, having a chat with admirers of his art and paintings and taking pictures. Our fellow former prisoners fill the place. The moment is like a dream, because it is a dream. We are living a fantasy that had always lain in a future that never came.

A future that is now very much present.

I close my eyes for a moment and swim in the past:

Mohsen sits in the recess area in Wadi Al-Natroun prison, surrounded by some of our friends, reciting his poetry.

I slow down, listen, smile and clap with them when the poem ends. Wishes of a published collection one day fly around, and we all smile skeptically, including him.

Wishes are for the future, and the future has no place here.

I return to my cell and sit down to continue the piece I was writing to smuggle out during the next visit. Writing has become my addictive therapeutic outlet, and I could not help but dream of a professional writing career one day. I smile like an idiot, and continue pouring my thoughts on paper.

Hundreds of kilometers away, in Tora prison, Yassin lies in a cell among dozens of prisoners, your eyes would probably glide right over him. He holds smuggled pencils and paints. He draws anything and everything, paints on all surfaces and materials. He draws on paper if it is available, on walls if paper is taken away and on his eyelids with colorful dreams when deprived of both.

He hurts and paints, cries and paints, rejoices and paints, laughs and paints, loves and paints, and hates and paints.

Time and time again, I am fascinated by the tinge of beauty present through all that tragedy as we shuffle around the miserable exercise yard, listening to Mohsen’s sad poems and seeing Yassin’s weeping paintings, whether inside or outside.

There remains amidst all the layers of pain a spectacular beauty.

Every brushstroke from Yassin, every rhyme thrown from Mohsen, every line I jotted down and smuggled, every smile and laugh we plucked from the middle of the tears — sorrow and misery enveloped by resistance.

Counternarratives of art and storytelling were our final scream against tyranny: We were there. This is what happened. We get to tell our story.

Our small resistances may be trivial. From hate to smiles to wrath to storytelling.

They might not change anything, but their beauty shines through.

Our small resistances may be trivial, but they are all we have left: a very final Patronus to hold on to.

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