A journalist explores the physical and ideological cages that confine us, beginning with his own in an Egyptian court.
In the third installment of Chronicle of a caged journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem explores the physical and psychological cages that imprison us. Read the first part – A trial without a case – and the second – Crocodiles in a courtroom.
Just before the judge arrived to start the first hearing in our trial, the television cameras and photographers rushed towards us.
We were blinded by the flash of their cameras as they competed to capture the images of the caged defendants that would lead the prime-time news bulletins and illustrate the front-page news stories.
I felt one of the young women defendants press her shoulder against mine as she leant against the wall. Her whole body was shaking with fear – fear of the cameras, fear of the angry, baying crowd.
Crying, she asked me if I could step forward so that she might hide behind me.
“Did you do anything that you ought to be ashamed of?” I whispered to her.
“God be my witness if I did anything of what they accuse me,” she replied.
“Then,” I told her, “they are the ones who should be ashamed. Don’t hide, let’s step forward and show ourselves.”
She held my hand and together we stepped towards the cage window and the flashing cameras.
From time to time she looked at me, tears welling in her eyes but a smile on her lips.
As the trial progressed, I was seldom able to hear my defence, the prosecutor or the judge. All I could hear were the shouts of the crowd calling for my death.
So, with little else to focus on, my attention was drawn to the graffiti on the walls of the cage. The messages scrawled there offered a telling insight into the multiple injustices that had been endured between these walls.
“When I pass away, I will place my complaint against all of you to Allah,” declared one.
To myself I thought: “I need not to wait until I pass away, I place it now before you, God.”
“We were here and so will others be,” said another. As I read and re-read this, it dawned on me that its author must have understood that for oppressors, injustice is like salty water – it makes them thirst for more.
But there was one that really struck me. “What have I done to deserve all this?” it asked.
I asked myself the same question.
But, years later, exiled from my country, separated from my children and deprived of my career – and sometimes, I think, of my humanity – I realised that what I was accused of was not an act of wrongdoing but one of right.
The investigative judge’s offer had been clear – and blunt: Either give evidence against the Americans or face trial yourself.
I was dismissed and given a chance to consider the offer. But my response came without hesitation. No, I would not sell out innocent people.
My reasoning was simple: Taking the offer might have meant saving my own skin. But it would also have meant losing myself.
After the trial was over, I realised that my physical cage had merely led me to a much larger cage – the cage of exile.
I came to understand something I’d been unable to see before my trial: so many of us live in cages. There are the physical cages imposed by courtrooms devoid of any real justice. There are the mental cages of those living under dictatorships. There are the endless cages of social inequality and oppression.
As I reflected on my 30-year career as a journalist and war correspondent, remembering the people I had met along the way – the mujahedeen who had left Egypt and other Arab countries to fight in Afghanistan during the 1980s, moving on to Bosnia in the 1990s and to parts of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s – I realised that those cages have become more numerous and evident.
For there is a sobering reality we must face: the cages constructed by oppressive dictators and those who condone their actions nurture “terrorism”. And by this I mean “terrorism” in the linguistic sense of the term in Western culture.
Most of those people whose stories I told had been caged in the prisons of dictators, subjected to torture and psychological violence that left them as mentally caged as they were physically.
The few who made it out alive often resorted to the methods they had themselves endured – the extremes of violence – in their search for the freedom and dignity that had been so brutally taken from them. And that was when the world began to hear of something the West chose to call “Islamic terrorism” – a by-product of the brutality of Western-backed Arab dictators.
Perhaps the story of K. L., a neighbourhood friend I grew up with, will help to illuminate the lives of so many others just like him. But that’s a story for another time …
Chronicle of a caged journalist is a series of excerpts from a forthcoming book.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.