When I Spent Six Years Behind Bars, a Smuggled T-shirt Took on Deeper Meaning

Abdelrahman ElGendy had been in Torah prison in Egypt for 3 years when he finally managed to smuggle one relic from his past: an Adidas T-shirt. He reflects on his political imprisonment

When I Spent Six Years Behind Bars, a Smuggled T-shirt Took on Deeper Meaning
Abdelrahman ElGendy’s navy blue T-shirt

A rare fuzzy warmth spreads through me as I lower my gaze to the navy blue Adidas T-shirt I have just worn. I marvel at the design: not the prettiest, nor as fancy as others I owned, and definitely not that expensive.

But it’s mine.

It was a piece of clothing I held dear back in my basketball days before my arrest. I used to wear it while jogging or shooting hoops.

Civilian clothes are not allowed in prison. They permit us to have only undergarments brought in during our visits, and only white or navy blue — prison colors. On top of them, we put on our prison-issued outfit. It takes a long time to form an adequate network of corrupt prison guards through sweet-talking and bribes, until you excavate a smuggling channel for trivial contraband. They don’t easily trust prisoners, political ones in particular. But eventually, one can have access to extra luxuries: a small mirror, a fingernail clipper, a radio and maybe even some pens and paper.

Today, after countless failed attempts, the guard I’ve been trying to bribe has finally budged and let this T-shirt pass through the visitation search, hidden between my blue undergarments, turned inside out so that the design did not show. It was my third year in Torah maximum security prison 2 and my sixth year of incarceration. It took that long to recruit this guard and gain his trust.

Why does a simple T-shirt fill me with this ardent warmth?

It always mystified me, the systematic dehumanization applied in prisons, how the moment prisoners pass the threshold, they instantly drown in deliberate acts of degradation, in a nondepletable river.

I hadn’t grasped how much value I, as a human being, drew from my individuality. It was shocking to witness how those personal traits and belongings that distinguish and define me are closely linked to my dignity and self-esteem, an association I started to note after years of observations and readings on the essence of what humanity is, and how individuality and freedom define it.

In prison, one is not just broken by torture, beatings and violent treatment. It is the continuous, systemic and unrelenting dehumanization that wrecks you in the end.

You lose a portion of your humanity each time they forcibly shave your head. You ache as you watch your hair float through the air and land on the filthy ground by your toes. You break a little when you realize you are not your name anymore; you are merely “inmate.” And when they strip you of your garments and hand you the navy blue prison uniform that will accompany you for the rest of your stay, you dig your fingers into it and stand hushed, naked and shaken, and you watch them burn your civilian clothes before your eyes.

This is the process designed to produce identical prisoners, humans deprived of their humanity, individuals no longer unique, for without your hair, your name and your clothes, who are you really?

No one. Just a clone of the faceless inmate.

But now, this T-shirt breaks the cycle. This is my T-shirt. Mine. It belonged to me back in a world where I was a human being. An individual. I ponder this in my reverie. My T-shirt is here, touching my skin, its soft fabric caressing my chest and back, its rough label scratching my neck, irritating the skin, and it is a miracle.

I am overwhelmed by this symbol of a long-missed humanity. I relish the memories living in the folds of this T-shirt: the long track runs, the smell of freshly cut grass, the walk back from practice with a loved friend, the hours spent kicking back at home.

In prison there is a never-ending war within you, a desperation to keep the slightest semblances of humanity, the bare shreds of it. To win this war you must devise methods that carry you through the night, because physical artifacts like my T-shirt are hard to come by.

In prison, is there no element more abundant than pain?

I could never adapt to prison or conform to its norms. I could not worry about the hours of recess or cell privileges. These matters of daily life of the incarcerated made me feel contained, tamed and effectively conditioned, which is what jailers want. They set the bar so low that we learn to be grateful for the tiniest improvement of our condition of confinement, so that we forget that we don’t belong here in the first place.

But I could never reach that point of forgetting. For the past six years I have been keenly aware of my being in prison, like a thought or a thing that lingers in the back of my head, echoing to me softly: You are in prison. You are in prison. You are …

Like a whisper that haunts me with every move, a bitter aftertaste to a smile I dare to attempt, reminding me that all is temporary; that I own nothing here, and I must prepare to let go at a moment’s notice.

It is for this that I, perhaps, have relocated everything from within my heart and into my hands, holding on to the pain.

Pain is the only logical reaction to this tragic farce. I shouldn’t be here, yet I am, so therefore this must hurt. The moment I’m accustomed to prison is the moment they win. Holding on to this pain is like clenching hot coal, yet without it I cannot retain my humanity. Every second I am here I must remember that this is not my place. This is an error, an unnatural reality, something to twist the insides and force the stomach to roil.

For me, adapting is weakness. Joy and happiness are by nature alien to this abhorrent plane of existence.

Six full years, and I have decided to accompany pain like an old friend, one you cannot — and don’t want to — get rid of. One that never lessens. You just learn with time how to maneuver yourself around it, to coexist with it and to eventually survive together.

I close my eyes, raise the fabric of my T-shirt and inhale deeply a nostalgia for home, allowing it to fill my lungs. Faded tinges of freedom color my eyelids as I exhale, and the deep breath leaves a soothing buzz in its wake.

There’s suddenly peace in my soul, flowing through my veins side by side with pain.

Beauty recoils from ugliness and rejects it, I think. My soul must always be repulsed by prison, always alienated by it, never acquainted with it. The more it is so, the more beauty it can hold.

I hurt, but this warms my insides. And the meaning behind the pain tastes a little sweeter.

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